Joseph Smith Latter-day Saint History Theology

How Did Freemasonry Influence Joseph Smith?

The story of Freemasonry in the church did not begin in Nauvoo.

The relationship between Joseph Smith’s ministry and Freemasonry and the temple endowment has long been a topic of interest. In this interview, Cheryl Bruno discusses some of the ways in which the Prophet may have been influenced by Freembookasonry throughout his life, from Palmyra to Nauvoo.

This post includes an Amazon Affiliate link for the book by Cheryl L. Bruno, Joe Steve Swick III, and Nicholas S. Literski, Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Table of Contents

How did Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration come about?

This book has been about 20 years in the making! Nick Literski began doing research into Freemasonry and Mormonism in 2002, traveling to many states, gathering Lodge records and early Masonic writings.

In 2007, due to a change in life circumstances, he passed his research on to Joe Swick, another Latter-day Saint Mason who had a great interest in the subject. Joe continued to expand the collection and delve into the question of exactly what Joseph Smith was doing with Freemasonry.

Joseph Smith was connected to Masonry “from the cradle to the grave.”

I came into the project in 2012, originally to help organize the research materials. As soon as I started, I knew that we needed to just write, write, write! I tried to get down as much as I could from the amazing work Nick and Joe had done, and contributed a lot of my own knowledge of nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint history and esoterica. We ended up with over 900 pages of material, which then had to be edited down, a process that in itself took several years.

Cheryl Bruno and Nick Literski discuss their book about Joseph Smith and freemasonry at Benchmark Books.

What sets this book apart from other studies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Freemasonry?

Method Infinite is not merely a collection of facts, but contains a great deal of analysis. The story of Freemasonry in the church did not begin in Nauvoo, where many writers have started their investigation. We like to say that Joseph Smith was connected to Masonry “from the cradle to the grave.”

In our introduction to the book, we discuss other book-length treatments of this subject—and there are not many. Ours is different in that it expands the time period in which Masonry had a bearing upon Mormonism, beginning with Joseph Smith Senior and continuing with Joseph Smith and his brothers as youth, influences in the Book of Mormon, the Missouri Danites, and so forth.

We also spend some time near the end of the book showing how Masonry continued in restoration groups after Joseph’s death. In analyzing these things, we try to arrive at a conclusion about what Joseph Smith was doing with Freemasonry, which is a fascinating mystery to investigate.

How did Joseph Smith learn about Masonry prior to becoming a Freemason 1842?

In modern times, we just don’t realize what a cultural influence Freemasonry had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Virtually everyone would have had some experience with Masonry, whether it was through having a close relative or friend who was a Freemason, reading the newspapers, or attending public lectures.

Many of the important men in town—doctors, lawyers, clergymen, and political figures—were Masons. Joseph Smith’s uncles, cousin, brothers, most likely his father, and many associates were Masons.

Joseph Smith's Masonic Apron.
Joseph Smith’s Freemasonry apron, shown here, was made of silk. Courtesy Community of Christ Library-Archives, Independence, MO, and the Joseph Smith Papers. Photograph by Val Brinkerhoff.

What are some possible examples of Masonic influence on Joseph Smith prior to 1830?

One noteworthy example of Masonic influence on Joseph Smith is the Reverend Hosea Ballou. Ballou was born in 1771, the same year as Joseph Smith Sr. As both a reverend and a Mason, Ballou promoted Universalism and Freemasonry among the inhabitants of central Vermont, having what appears to have been a direct and significant impact on the extended Smith family.

A local publisher, Sereno Wright, was instrumental in publishing several sermons reflecting Ballou’s Universalist and Masonic teachings. These contained numerous ideas that foreshadow the later teachings of Joseph Smith Jr.

It’s quite fascinating to see so many Masonic ideas within our familiar religious texts.

Speaking six months before the birth of young Joseph Smith, Reverend Ballou repudiated creation ex nihilo and affirmed that mankind were literally the children of Deity, both of which later became familiar themes of Mormonism. Rick Grunder noted the many parallels between Ballou’s “Treatise on Atonement” and the teachings and writings of Joseph Smith, including a rejection of idea that “eternal punishment” is endless in duration, a belief in dualistic (spiritual vs. physical) creation, and the concept of an “infinite” Atonement.

Another of Ballou’s published Masonic sermons, given just four days after the birth of Joseph Smith Jr., reveals similarities to the latter’s 1834–35 Lectures on Faith. Speaking to the members of Vermont’s Aurora Lodge on December 27, 1805, Ballou cited seven characteristics of deity, which he believed mankind must adopt in order to be prepared for salvation.

Twenty-nine years later, Joseph Smith Jr. detailed six characteristics of deity, which he believed mankind must understand in order to exercise sufficient faith for salvation.

What amounted to an early-1800s Masonic “media blitz” by Sereno Wright and others had a cultural effect on the surrounding population. One might say that young Joseph had been providentially placed to absorb ideas that were current in Masonry and that would later contribute to the vitality of Mormonism.

Why are Joseph Smith’s writings and translations referred to as “Mormon Masonic Midrash” in Method Infinite?

Midrash is a Jewish form of Biblical interpretation that explains or fills in gaps in the scriptural record. Often, Joseph Smith used this technique, adding Masonic legend and ideas to expand the Bible and to create new texts.

Our book comments on each form of Latter-day Saint scripture (Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Egyptian papers) and gives examples of Masonic midrash found therein. It’s quite fascinating to see so many Masonic ideas within our familiar religious texts.

How did the idea of a spurious Masonry and pure Masonry seem to influence Joseph Smith?

This is a key idea in our book. Some authors have portrayed Joseph Smith as anti-Masonic early in his life, while changing his mind later when he joined the Lodge in the 1840s. We reject the idea that Joseph was ever anti-Masonic. Rather, he spoke against what he considered “apostate” or “spurious” Masonry.

He believed Masonry had degenerated and he had been called to restore it to its pure form. Joseph Smith as a Masonic restorer provides astonishing insights into what Joseph was trying to accomplish with Latter-day Saint institutions such as the Danites, the Relief Society, the Anointed Quorum, and the Council of Fifty, as well as non-Mormon institutions such as the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge.

It also shows that Joseph’s remarks, behaviors, and perspective on Masonry were consistent and fundamentally unchanged throughout his prophetic ministry.

What do you consider to be the relationship between Freemasonry, the Egyptian alphabets and grammars, and the Book of Abraham?

The Joseph Smith Egyptian papers are unfathomable to many who study them. Brian Hauglid, for example, has said that it’s very clear that Joseph Smith and his associates took this project very seriously, but that it remains unclear as to what exactly they were doing.

I believe this can be explained by the idea that Joseph was experimenting with creating Masonic-like ritual. We can see what this might look like because right at the time and place where Joseph lived, Masons were still developing ritual.

First, they would construct a Biblical midrash, or backstory, upon which to base the ritual. In the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith develops just such a legend: Abraham’s escape from the idolatrous priests of Egypt.

Next, a series of degrees were formulated. Joseph’s alphabet and grammar expands on ideas using a series of five degrees in two parts. In Joseph’s hands, the characters are translated with a progressive transformation of meaning. Additionally, the Abraham facsimiles are analogous to tracing boards used in Masonic ritual. In his work with the “pure language,” Joseph utilized the “catechism,” a particularly Masonic method of reinforcement during the ritual.

It’s so exciting to view the Kirtland Egyptian Papers this way! It puts these seemingly scattered and disconnected documents together into a purposeful whole. It gives us an idea of what the project was all about that no other researcher has been able to explain.

In what ways could Nauvoo be considered a utopian experiment upon Masonic lines?

In one of our chapters, we compare the ritual of Royal Arch Masonry, where Freemasons enact the Biblical story of the rebuilding of the city of God and the House of the Lord in Jerusalem after returning from Babylonian exile with the establishment of the city of Nauvoo.

Here, in this city, Joseph was building a Christian utopian society with four strong Masonic elements: social, spiritual, economic, and political. We expand upon all of these in the book.

Politics and Freemasonry in American history

But let me touch upon the political aspect, because it is quite interesting.

Freemasonry, of course, has been involved in the politics of the United States since the founding of the nation. Many of the first leaders were Masons, which resulted in numerous Masonic concepts being introduced into the American government.

Political involvement by Freemasons was common in the United States until the advent of the anti-Masonic movement when many Americans began to fear the power and influence exerted by the Fraternity. The anti-Masonic political party was the first third party in the U.S.

Part of Joseph Smith’s utopian community in Nauvoo was the blending of church and state. Latter-day Saints increasingly moved to consolidate political power in order to establish “the government of the Almighty.” This would be administered by his mouthpiece, Joseph Smith, and the Council of Fifty, “the ultimate governing body for all mankind.”

This theocratic government contained recognizable Masonic elements. Local citizens felt threatened by this. Led by Thomas Sharp, they formed a political party based on the Anti-Masonic Party, named the Anti-Mormon Party, to oppose the political power held by the early members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In what ways did the Nauvoo Relief Society resemble a Masonic lodge?

I wouldn’t say that the Relief Society resembled a Masonic lodge, but rather, the way we put it in the book is:

As with many of the other early auxiliaries of the Church, Joseph Smith experimented with Masonic forms in many aspects of this new Society.

The organizational structure was Masonic, for example. Also, throughout 1842 and 1843, Latter-day Saint women of the community were recommended for membership and then investigated to see if they were of good moral character. Next, a vote was taken to assure that all were in agreement that the proposed members of the Society were respectable, virtuous, and trustworthy. In essence, the Relief Society was petitioning and balloting for membership, as is done in a Masonic lodge.

One misconception I have heard go around is that Illinois Freemasons objected to Joseph Smith bringing women into the lodge. Joseph established a Masonically-based organization for women, and he also included women in Latter-day Saint ritual in the Anointed Quorum. But as far as my research has shown, Illinois Masons never objected to this aspect of Joseph’s work.

How did Joseph Smith use Masonic ideas and imagery in the King Follett discourse?

The dedication of the Nauvoo Masonic Hall was Friday, April 5, 1844. Joseph Smith intended to give a speech at this event, which was attended by hundreds of Latter-day Saints and other Freemasons, who had gathered for the ceremony. Joseph used the circumstances of the tragic death of a prominent member of the Church and of the Masonic Fraternity, Brother King Follett, to speak on the eternities and the status of the dead.

However, Joseph was sick that day, so he postponed his speech and presented it at Sunday’s Conference, bringing Masonic elements to a sympathetic and specifically Latter-day Saint congregation.

In this, one of the best attested of all of the Prophet’s sermons, Smith engaged the central Masonic theme of human mortality and perfectibility in his own unique way, utilizing language that would have been familiar to the hundreds of Latter-day Saint Freemasons in his audience.

Brigham Young feared that Masons of other faiths were plotting against the pioneer Saints.

Joseph used a Masonic framing in his discourse, speaking of how humans could move from degree to degree, as in Masonic ritual, until they arrived at the “station” of a God.

Why did Latter-day Saints in Utah turn away from Freemasonry?

Lodge work continued to be done in Nauvoo after the death of Joseph Smith. But many leaders—including Brigham Young—believed that Freemasons in Illinois and nationwide had conspired to kill Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and that non-Latter-day Saint Freemasonry operated contrary to the interests of the Church.

After the exodus from Nauvoo, there were many Freemasons in the church who hoped for the formation of a Latter-day Saint-controlled Grand Lodge within the State of Deseret. However, Brigham feared that Masons of other faiths moving into the territory were plotting against the pioneer Saints. He thought that the establishment of such a Grand Lodge would in the end be used to destroy the Church and its work. Brigham ultimately decided the Saints should put their energies into building the kingdom of God.

In what ways can understanding Masonic influences on the Prophet Joseph Smith enrich and energize faith?

Masonic ritual was created very purposefully to illuminate Christian ideas and to symbolically bring a human being into the presence of God. Joseph Smith used many of these same techniques in both the Latter-day Saint priesthood structure and in our most sacred rituals.

The knowledge of Masonic use of symbol and ritual gives Latter-day Saints a key to understanding what is happening in our most sacred ordinances. Members of the church often don’t have the same kind of preparation that Latter-day Saint Masons had before they experienced the endowment, and thus it can be very disorienting. I found that learning the Masonic meanings behind certain symbols or rituals made my temple experience more understandable and enjoyable.

But even further than this, a more complete understanding of Masonry’s effect on Mormonism can help us comprehend an early version of our history that may seem strange and foreign to the modern Latter-day Saint. I find the beauty of the esoteric side of Mormonism shines strongly when illuminated by the light of its Masonic antecedent.

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About the author

Cheryl L. Bruno is a writer, poet, and independent researcher with special interest in the connection between early Latter-day Saint history and Masonry. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Recreation Management from Greensboro College and pursued graduate studies in Educational Psychology at Brigham Young University. In addition to Method Infinite, Bruno has published related articles in the Journal of Mormon History, Journal of Religion and Society, and John Whitmer Historical Association Journal.

Further reading

Joseph Smith freemason resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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