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Prince’s Research Excerpts: Temples & Mormonism – Supplement to Endowment

Below you will find Prince’s research excerpts titled, “Temples: Supplement to Endowment.” You can view other years here.

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I would like now to turn my attention to a topic which has fascinated outsiders and frustrated insiders for a century and a half:  the relationship of the Nauvoo endowment to Freemasonry.  In order to make sense of this subject–and it is a subject about which unending amounts of nonsense have been written–I make three assertions:

1. First, Smith embraced Freemasonry as a direct result of John C. Bennett’s defection and betrayal.  Exposed and vulnerable, Smith needed to reconstitute an inner circle which would be absolutely loyal to him, and which would not divulge the secrets–which meant primarily plural marriage–which might destroy both Smith and the church.  The Masonic reputation of loyalty and secrecy provided the reassurance he sought, and it was no accident that all nine recipients of the new endowment were Masons.

2. Second, having embraced Freemasonry for practical reasons, Smith soon saw in it deep religious significance.  He accepted Freemasonry’s portrayal of itself as an ancient brotherhood dating to the construction of Solomon’s temple.  In the same way that he viewed 19th century Christianity as a corrupted version of its pure predecessor, he saw the Masonic ritual as a corruption of a pure and ancient endowment.  Even as he had “restored” what he envisioned to be primitive Christianity, so he “restored” what he saw as an ancient endowment.  In doing so he borrowed freely from the richness of Masonic lore, in some cases appropriating both symbol and symbolism, while in others transferring the symbol while infusing into it a distinctly Latter-day Saint meaning.

3. Third, his basic assumption about Freemasonry was wrong.  In accepting the traditional story of Masonic origins he was in good company, for at that time the “mythical” or “imaginative” school of Masonic history, which traced the fraternity’s origins to Solomon’s temple, was universally accepted.  The first scholar to challenge that school was a German doctor, George Kloss.  His landmark work, Geschichte der Freimaurerei in England, Irland und Schottland, published in 1847, established the “authentic” or “verified” school of Masonic history, demonstrating that the movement began in the Middle Ages as a trade union, and not anciently.  Smith was not able to benefit from this knowledge, for the book was published five years after the introduction of the Nauvoo endowment, and three years after Smith’s death.  Furthermore, the first “authentic” school history in the English language was not published until 1865.

While there is a consensus among Masonic scholars that Freemasonry began in the Middle Ages and not anciently, Utah Latter-day Saints are not likely to take their word on the subject.  Indeed, even in the face of solid Masonic scholarship, many sincere Mormon scholars have persisted in the allegation that Freemasonry is of ancient origin and bears vestiges of a pure and ancient endowment.  One may test this allegation by examining the texts of Masonic rituals spanning over two centuries.  If the standard Mormon explanation is true, then the earlier the Masonic ritual, the more similar it will be to the Nauvoo endowment.  In other words, if the ancient endowment began pure, but became gradually corrupted with time, then the earlier the version, the less corrupt and, hence, the closer to the Nauvoo endowment.  In fact, just the opposite is true.  If one examines key points of Masonic ritual, one sees that they become more similar to the endowment as one moves forward in time, and that a point of concordance in key areas is not reached until the early 18th century.

What does this say about Joseph Smith and the endowment he introduced in 1842?  It is easy for the outsider to examine the data and see it as proof that Smith was a false prophet; it is equally easy for the insider to ignore the data, declare victory and go home.  Neither reaction moves in the direction of intellectual integrity.  Without dwelling on the weaknesses of either, for I leave that to the listener, I propose the following paradigm to explain the relationship between the Nauvoo endowment and Freemasonry.  Perhaps the paradigm even speaks to the generic issue of revelation within the Latter-day Saint tradition.

A primary function of any religious tradition is to provide its community of believers with symbols which bridge the chasm separating the finite from the infinite–which make God accessible.  As founder of the Latter-day Saint tradition Joseph Smith proved to be extraordinarily adept at formulating symbols which accomplished this for his followers.  For example, symbolic of God’s new revelation and of Smith’s prophetic calling was The Book of Mormon.  Symbolic of religious authority was a quasi-democratic male priesthood which, while claiming structural continuity with a New Testament antecedent, was far more Latter-day Saint than biblical.  Symbolic of the importance of family was a unique doctrine which proclaimed that families could be reunited beyond the grave, and backed its claims through ordinances–themselves symbols–for living and dead.  And symbolic of Mormonism’s self-proclaimed superiority to all other traditions was a soteriology which promised its adherents an eternal status unavailable to others, then guaranteed it through the symbolism of ordinances.  Chief among these was the endowment.

In tracing the evolution of the endowment one sees a compelling model of Latter-day Saint revelation as practiced by Smith.  It began as a literal emulation of a biblical precedent– the day of Pentecost–then moved along an evolutionary path which gave it an increasingly distinct flavor while never completely severing its biblical ties.  The sole human force directing its evolution was the extraordinary religious intuition of Smith, which not only formulated abstract doctrines, but added to them the tangible symbols which vitalized the doctrines for his community.

In appropriating symbols, Smith sometimes borrowed from other Christian traditions without change.  For instance, both the form and purpose of Latter-day Saint baptisms were common among other traditions.  At other times, he maintained the symbol but added new meaning, as in baptism for the dead, with its use of a proxy recipient acting in behalf of a deceased relative.  In the case of the endowment, he recognized within Freemasonry a treasure-trove of rich symbols, some of which he borrowed without change in order to ensure secrecy and loyalty within his new inner circle; while others he changed completely–from secular to sacred, from means of identification among Medieval stonemasons to representation of entry into exalted existence.

The power of Smith’s intuition, and of the symbols which made it accessible to his followers has been witnessed by hundreds of thousands of those followers for a century and a half.  The symbols of the endowment long ago took their departure from Masonic lore and, like a child leaving home, gained a unique identity in a new world.  Smith borrowed the symbols thinking they were ancient, and gave them what he thought was their ancient meaning.  However, those symbols have maintained their relevance and thus their power, not because of their supposed ancient-ness, but because the spiritual essence which Smith made them represent continues through those symbols to resonate among his Mormon followers.  To understand that is to begin to understand Joseph Smith.