Masonry and Mormonism
Freemasonry or Masonry is a fraternity which came to the Americas via England and is rumored to have roots in the Medieval Stone Mason's Guilds, the Templar Knights, Gnostic Christianity, or in the builders of Solomon's temple. New research claims that the association with Solomon's temple is a myth created to lend prestige to Freemasonry during the 15th century. Apart from secretiveness, the Freemasons are also known for their heavy use of symbolism and common association with temples.
Due to the secretiveness of the Freemasons, they have been attacked, as an organization, by many individuals who have been either suspicious of their doings or desirous to take advantage of the opportunity to create suspicion.
More generally, many important historical figures are known to have been Freemasons, including George Washington and many other prominent founders of the United States of America. This fact both garners respect for the organization and feeds the imagination of conspiracy theorists, some of whom believe Freemasons have acted as a kind of shadow government.
Freemasonry is also connected to Scouting since the Boy Scouts of America was started by a freemason. There are many similarities between Scouting and Freemasonry, including the Scout Oath, Promise, Sign, and "Handshake" or "token." These similarities are even more marked in Scouting side orders such as "The Order of the Arrow" and earlier versions of the scout handshake which was recently changed to be less "Masonic."
Freemasonry is of interest to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since Joseph Smith and other prominent figures in early Church history were members of the Masonic fraternity. Freemasonry is also of interest since many of its initiation rituals are similar to those of the Latter-day Saint Temple endowment. The most common explanation for this similarity is that the Masonic fraternity preserved some ancient elements of true temple worship. Another common explanation is that God speaks according to our own language and understanding (See D&C 1:24). Symbolism is a language, and the symbolism of Freemasonry had become part of the culture of Joseph Smith's day. However, the accusation that Latter-day Saint temple symbolism was taken from the rites of Freemasonry is false. The Lord began revealing the patterns of temple ritual to prophet Joseph Smith long before he became a freemason.
The most likely explanation for the similarities is that both use symbols that were common in the early Christian church, and even those symbols may have been of even more ancient origin. However, the symbols used in Freemasonry are for fraternal covenants of brotherhood. The symbolism used in Latter-day Saint temples represent eternal covenants with God.
Masonry in Joseph Smith's Day
In Colonial America the Masons were seen as a group that could help members improve their financial and social status and as opening many doors in society and business. Many of the founding fathers were Masons, including George Washington and a number of United States Presidents as well as presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ up until about 1900.
In 1826 a man named Morgan sought to join a Masonic lodge in New York and was declined. In anger he threatened to expose and publish Masonic traditions and secrets and was promptly kidnapped and disappeared. It was largely believed that the Masons were responsible for his murder, although no body was ever found.
This episode started quite a furor and gave rise to several anti-Mason movements, which even inspired a new political party embraced and endorsed by John Quincy Adams, a former president of the United States of America. The party failed to get sufficient votes to really make a difference; however, they did gain seven electoral votes in the general election. After a few years, the scandal faded and Masonry rebounded.
The Church of Jesus Christ was organized six years after the Masonic scandal. Joseph Smith became a first degree Mason in the Nauvoo Lodge in March 1842 (see History of the Church, period #4 pg 550). Smith followed his brother Hyrum who had been a Mason in Palmyra, New York, and transferred his membership to Nauvoo. Smith and many of the leading Latter-day Saint establishment were Masons, particularly in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Anti-Masonic prejudice, a remnant from negative sentiment of the early 1800s, has subjected the whole masonic fraternity to inflammatory and derogatory perceptions and myths which are wholly unfounded, including the notion that Masons are Satanic. Again, anyone who has investigated the Masons seriously is well aware of this, but there is a fair amount of literature that is anti-Masonic and is twisted and distorted. Opponents of the Church of Jesus Christ seem to have seized on this negativity to bolster both anti-Mason sentiments, as well as denigrate the Church for its early association with Masons. Satanic assertion for Masons flies in the face of reason.
The Masons are the guild of ancient temple builders, and they had to be worthy to build temples, in the degree of talent they manifested in masonry, but also in their personal worthiness. They were familiar with ancient temple covenants and symbolism and continued to use them as fraternal covenants later on, even after people of other vocations than masonry were allowed into the guild. Joseph Smith received the temple symbolism from God, and then recognized the remnants in the masonic fraternal rituals. He freely offered corrections and adjustments to the Masons based on his enlightenment and knowledge.
Today there are few Latter-day Saints who are also Masons. A member of the Church is not doctrinally prevented from being a Mason, if he so wishes.