Occultic and Masonic Influence in Early Mormonism
The evidence of Joseph Smith's close connection to occultism and Freemasonry, and how this influenced the origin and development of the LDS Church is not well known outside of scholarly circles. This article summarizes the evidence for Joseph's personal involvement in both Freemasonry and occultism, and their influence on the Mormon religion.
— Dr. Reed Durham, LDS Historian
Mormonism's Link to Occultism
Both Joseph Smith and his father were involved in the occult practice known as "money digging." This involved special rituals and ceremonies which were performed for the purpose of obtaining buried treasure thought to be guarded by evil spirits. Accounts of money digging during the late 1700s and early 1800s are documented in Alan Taylor's article "Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830", published in American Quarterly, 38 [Spring 1986], pp. 6-34. This article specifically mentions Joseph Smith, Sr., and Jr., on pages 10-12, giving examples of their money digging activities. LDS seminary teacher Grant Palmer also documents the Smith family's occult beliefs and practices, as well as those of their close associates, in his book An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, (SLC, Signature Books, 2002, pp. 175-195).
Joseph's Involvement in Occultism. Joseph Smith, Jr.'s role in the quest for treasure was especially important since he had a seer stone. Joseph would place this small, special rock in his hat then pull the hat up to his face to block out all light. By doing this he claimed he could see supernaturally, and would help those who were digging by locating the place where the treasure was buried and observing the spirits that were guarding it. Joseph Jr., himself admitted to being a money digger, though he said it was never very profitable for him (History of the Church, V. 3, p. 29). He and his father's money digging continued until at least 1826. On March 20th of that year Joseph was arrested, brought before a judge, and charged with being a "glass-looker" and a disorderly person. The laws at that time had what was known as the "Vagrant Act." It defined a disorderly person as one who pretended to have skill in the areas of palmistry, telling fortunes or discovering where lost goods might be found. According to court records Justice Neely determined that Joseph was guilty, though no penalty was administered, quite possibly because this was a first offense (Inventing Mormonism, Marquardt and Walters, SLC: Signature Books, 1994, pp. 74-75).
Occultism and the Start of Mormonism. Shortly after this Joseph discontinued money digging but kept his seer stone. It was with the seer stone that he claimed to both find the plates and later produce the Book of Mormon. This was known by early converts but has since been replaced with later accounts of an angelic visitor. This transition was aided by downplaying the fact that Moroni was a dead Indian warrior, and by referring to him as an angel. Former BYU professor and historian D. Michael Quinn writes:
During this period from 1827 to 1830, Joseph Smith abandoned the company of his former money-digging associates, but continued to use for religious purposes the brown seer stone he had previously employed in the treasure quest. His most intensive and productive use of the seer stone was in the translation of the Book of Mormon. But he also dictated several revelations to his associates through the stone (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, D. Michael Quinn, Signature Books, SLC, 1987, p. 143.
This fact is supported by LDS author Richard S. Van Wagoner who found,
This stone, still retained by the First Presidency of the LDS Church, was the vehicle through which the golden plates were discovered and the medium through which their interpretation came (Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess, Signature Books, SLC, 1994, p. 57).
Thus we see that historians have documented a continuity between Joseph's early occultic practices and the origins of Mormonism. This link extends to the development of the LDS Temple ceremony.
Occultic Parallels in the LDS Temple Ceremony. Historian D. Michael Quinn has done extensive research on rites and ancient mysteries related to occultism. He states,
By drawing only on authorized descriptions of the endowment by LDS leaders, I believe it is possible to see within historical context how the Mormon endowment reflected the ancient and occult mysteries far closer than Freemasonry (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p. 186).
Quinn then outlines the following ten essential characteristics common to both occult rituals and the Mormon Temple ceremonies:
- They are revealed by God from the beginning, but distorted through apostasy.
- They place an emphasis on the worthiness of initiates.
- They include washings and anointings, a new name and garments
- They emphasize vows of non-disclosure.
- There are both "lesser" and "greater" rituals.
- They feature presentation of the ritual through drama.
- They contain an oath of chastity requiring strict purity and virtue of the participants.
- They feature prominent use of the sun, moon and stars as key symbols.
- The purpose of the ritual is to assist mortals to attain to godhood.
- They employ titles and offices of prophets, priests and kings to those in leadership.
After presenting this material Quinn comments,
To be sure Masonic rituals also shared some similarities with the ancient mysteries, but these were not linked to any concept of heavenly ascent, which was fundamental to both the occult mysteries and to the Mormon endowment. Therefore, what similarities may exist between Freemasonry and Mormonism seem more appropriately to be regarded as superficial, whereas the ancient occult mysteries and the Mormon endowment manifest both philosophical and structural kinship. (Ibid., p. 190).
Mormonism and Masonry
Masonry's influence on Mormonism and Joseph Smith has been noted by a number of historians. Some of the areas impacted by Masonic lore and ritual include the Book of Mormon, Joseph's personal life, and the LDS temple ceremony.
Masonic Themes Related to the Book of Mormon. John L. Brooke in his book The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844, noted the following in reference to the story of the discovery of the gold plates and the narrative structure of the Book of Mormon:
Freemasonry provides a point of entry into this very complex story. As it had been in Vermont, Masonic fraternity was a dominant feature of the cultural landscape in Joseph Smith's Ontario County .... The dense network of lodges and chapters helps explain the Masonic symbolism that runs through the story of the discovery of the Golden Plates. Most obviously, the story of their discovery in a stone vault on a hilltop echoed the Enoch myth of Royal Arch Freemasonry, in which the prophet Enoch, instructed by a vision, preserved the Masonic mysteries by carving them on a golden plate that he placed in an arched stone vault marked with pillars, to be rediscovered by Solomon. In the years to come the prophet Enoch would play a central role in Smith's emerging cosmology. Smith's stories of his discoveries got more elaborate with time, and in June 1829 he promised Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris that they would see not only the plates but other marvelous artifacts: the Urim and Thummim attached to a priestly breastplate, the 'sword of Laban,' and 'miraculous directors.' Oliver Cowdery and Lucy Mack Smith later described three or four small pillars holding up the plates. All of these artifacts had Masonic analogues.
... Smith's sources for these Masonic symbols were close at hand. Most obviously, Oliver Cowdery would have been a source, given that his father and brother were Royal Arch initiates; one Palmyra resident remembered Oliver Cowdery as 'no church member and a Mason.' ... A comment by Lucy Mack Smith in her manuscript written in the 1840s, protesting that the family did not abandon all household labor to try 'to win the faculty of Abrac, drawing magic circles, or sooth-saying,' suggests a familiarity with Masonic manuals: the 'faculty of Abrac' was among the supposed Masonic mysteries (Refiner's Fire, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 157-158).
However, it wasn't until later in life that Joseph's involvement became more personal.
Joseph's Personal Involvement in Freemasonry. Mormon Apostle John A. Widtsoe stated:
Many of the Saints were Masons, such as Joseph's brother Hyrum, Heber C. Kimball, Elijah Fordham, Newel K. Whitney, James Adams, and John C. Bennett .... With the acquiescence of the Prophet, members of the Church already Masons petitioned the Grand Master of Illinois for permission to set up a lodge in Nauvoo .... it was March 15, 1842, before authority was given to set up a lodge in Nauvoo and to induct new members. Joseph Smith became a member (Evidences and Reconciliations, 1 volume, pp. 357-358).
Joseph Smith admitted to being a Mason in his History of the Church, volume 4, page 551. Under the date of March 15, 1842 it reads: "In the evening I received the first degree in Free Masonry in the Nauvoo Lodge, assembled in my general business office." The record for the next day reads, "I was with the Masonic Lodge and rose to the sublime degree" (page 552).
How did Joseph's Masonic membership affect the development of the Mormon Church? The most significant area appears to be in the development of the Mormon temple ceremonies. As noted above, Joseph became a Mason on March 15, 1842 and "rose to the sublime degree" the following day. Less than two months later, on May 4, 1842, Joseph introduced the temple endowment ceremony (History of the Church, Vol. 5, pp. 1-2).
Masonry and Mormon Temple Ceremonies. The pervasive influence of Freemasonry in Mormon Temples is expressed well by LDS historian Dr. Reed Durham. Dr. Durham, who has served as president of the Mormon History Association, provides a number of interesting parallels between the two. He gives these as evidence for Masonry's clear influence on Mormonism.
I am convinced that in the study of Masonry lies a pivotal key to further understanding Joseph Smith and the Church. . . . Masonry in the Church had its origin prior to the time Joseph Smith became a Mason .... It commenced in Joseph's home when his older brother became a Mason. Hyrum received the first three degrees of Masonry in Mount Moriah Lodge No. 112 of Palmyra, New York, at about the same time that Joseph was being initiated into the presence of God . . The many parallels found between early Mormonism and the Masonry of that day are substantial...
I have attempted thus far to demonstrate that Masonic influences upon Joseph in the early Church history, preceding his formal membership in Masonry, were significant. However, these same Masonic influences exerted a more dominant character as reflected in the further expansion of the Church subsequent to the Prophet's Masonic membership. In fact, I believe that there are few significant developments in the Church, that occurred after March 15 1842, which did not have some Masonic interdependence. Let me comment on a few of these developments. There is absolutely no question in my mind that the Mormon ceremony which came to be known as the Endowment, introduced by Joseph Smith to Mormon Masons, had an immediate inspiration from Masonry. This is not to suggest that no other source of inspiration could have been involved, but the similarities between the two ceremonies are so apparent and overwhelming that some dependent relationship cannot be denied. They are so similar, in fact, that one writer was led to refer to the Endowment as Celestial Masonry.
It is also obvious that the Nauvoo Temple architecture was in part, at least, Masonically influenced. Indeed, it appears that there was an intentional attempt to utilize Masonic symbols and motifs ...
Another development in the Nauvoo Church, which has not been so obviously considered as Masonically inspired, was the establishment of the Female Relief Society. This organization was the Prophet's intentional attempt to expand Masonry to include the women of the Church. That the Relief Society was organized in the Masonic Lodge room, and only one day after Masonry was given to the men, was not happenstance .... included in the actual vocabulary of Joseph Smith's counsel and instructions to the sisters were such words as: ancient orders, examinations, degrees, candidates, secrets, lodges, rules, signs, tokens, order of the priesthood, and keys; all indicating that the Society's orientation possessed Masonic overtones.
.... I suggest that enough evidence presently exists to declare that the entire institution of the political kingdom of God, including the Council of Fifty, the living constitution, the proposed flag of the kingdom, and the anointing and coronation of the king, had its genesis in connection with Masonic thoughts and ceremonies .... it appears that the Prophet first embraced Masonry, and, then in the process, he modified, expanded, amplified, or glorified it .... The Prophet believed that his mission was to restore all truth, and then to unify and weld it all together into one. This truth was referred to as 'the Mysteries,' and these Mysteries were inseparably connected with the Priesthood .... Can anyone deny that Masonic influence on Joseph Smith and the Church, either before or after his personal Masonic membership? The evidence demands comments ...
There are many questions which still demand the answers .... if we, as Mormon historians, respond to these questions and myriads like them relative to Masonry in an ostrich-like fashion, with our heads buried in the traditional sand, then I submit: there never will be 'any help for the widow's son' (Mormon Miscellaneous, October 1975, pp. 11-16, as cited in Changing World of Mormonism, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, 1981, pp. 546-547).
These statements demonstrate that much of the religious ritual within Mormonism finds its origin in both occultism and Freemasonry. It is not surprising that there is an overlap between occultism and Freemasonry within Mormonism since Masonry itself draws from occult lore and ritual. What becomes obvious is that Joseph neglected the Bible's clear prohibition regarding occult involvement. This is found in Deuteronomy 18:9-12 which states in part,
... thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shalt not be found among you any one that ... useth divination, or is an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits [demons], or a wizard, or a necromancer [one who communicates with the dead]. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD.
The following resources contain a more extensive treatment of Joseph Smith's magical and occultic practices and worldview:
John L. Brooke, The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844, Cambridge University Press, NY, 1994, 421 pages. This non-Mormon author is an associate professor in the Department of History at Tufts University.
Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, (Signature Books, SLC, 2002, 281 pages). Palmer is an LDS seminary teacher and three-time director of LDS Institutes of Religion in California and Utah.
D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Signature Books, SLC, revised and enlarged edition 1998, 646 pages. This work is comprehensive and thoroughly documented. The author is a former BYU professor and one of the most respected historians of Mormonism.
Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism, Magic and Masonry, Utah Lighthouse Ministry, SLC, 1983, 97 pages. This former Mormon husband and wife research/publishing team are well-known for their carefully documented critiques of Mormonism.