Is the LDS / Mormon Temple Ceremony Derived from Free Masonry?
There are some parallels between the Mormon temple and some masonic rituals and symbols. For example, the symbols of the square and the compass play a role in both, though these are ancient symbols with religious meaning dating back to biblical times. Handclasps and other concepts are common with Masonry. This has led some critics to content that the Mormon temple ceremony was simply plagiarized from Masonry. But the use of some borrowed elements hardly explains the temple and its ancient roots. The differences between the ceremonies are dramatic, including their purpose, the content of the teachings, the covenants that are made, etc.
Joseph Smith's brief exposure to Masonry over the course of three days may have helped him in giving structure to some aspects of the LDS Endowment, but other Latter-day Saints who were experienced Masons did not see the LDS temple ceremony as plagiarism from Masonry, but as something vastly superior. Many of early Mormons were familiar with Masonry, and I know of no evidence from any of them that they struggled with the parallels between the Temple and Masonry, even those who later turned against Joseph Smith and left the Church. Heber C. Kimball, an experienced Mason with far more knowledge of Masonry than Joseph Smith ever had in his brief exposure, was impressed with the LDS temple ceremony. In 1858, writing to Parley P. Pratt, he said, "We have the true Masonry. The Masonry of today is received from the apostasy which took place in the days of Solomon and David. They have now and then a thing that is correct, but we have the real thing" (Kimball, p. 85). Clearly he didn't see the Endowment as a crude knock-off of Masonry.
In our day, there are some Mormons who are Masons. In general, they affirm that the relationships do not explain the LDS temple ceremony. Some think Joseph Smith borrowed various elements, but there is not consensus on how much was borrowed. Here, for example, is one comment from D. Charles Ylem, an LDS member with extensive expertise in Masonry, from correspondence in Jan. 2005:
Whether Masonry formed the impetus of revelation concerning the origins of the temple ceremony is open to question, in my view. I know that there is a tendency on the part of some to look for similarities in places where they may not be. For instance, one "high-ranking" Mormon Mason I know is of the opinion that Joseph Smith got the idea of prayer circles from the Most Excellent Master Degree and that the use of a veil came from Royal Arch Masonry. But, not only was Joseph Smith NEVER a Royal Arch Mason and he NEVER actually saw or participated either Chapter Degree, Royal Arch Masonry in America uses four veils, blue, purple, scarlet, and white, and none of these ever existed in the form and usage of Mormon temple veils, so far as I could tell.
The "prayer circle" of the Most Excellent Master Degree is nothing like that found in the temple, and is not referred to as the true order of prayer. [He then refers to details of the prayer circle that are profoundly absent in Masonry.] In addition, those who adhere to such a theory of origins are hard pressed to show where Joseph Smith would have adapted such an idea or where Joseph Smith would have had his brother, Hyrum, or his father, betray their obligations as Royal Arch Masons to tell Joseph Smith anything relative to these Degrees. And, if he had been aware of these, why did not he use this information much earlier, such as in Kirtland or Far West? Even if he had went on open exposures of the ritual that were published by his time, such as Morgan, these were not enough of use to him to formulate these portions of the temple ceremony.
LDS people familiar with Masonry in Joseph's day and ours don't see how Masonry could account for the LDS Temple. An accurate knowledge of Masonry will not devastate a Latter-day Saint's belief in Joseph Smith as a true prophet of God.
The LDS (Mormon) Temple is, in my opinion, a sacred institution that came through modern revelation as part of the "Restoration" of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is based on ancient covenant making concepts. While there are some common elements with Masonry, some of them may better be explained in terms of common ancient Jewish and Christian practices rather than modern plagiarism in the LDS temple. However, some masonic elements or elements other modern sources may have been borrowed as teaching tools to help carry out the teaching of revealed principles. Just as prophets convey their visions and revelations using the language tools and metaphors that they have available, so too the implementation of revealed teachings may draw upon modern elements in practical implementation. In any case, the elements common to Masonry and the Mormon Temple represent only a small part of the LDS temple ceremony. The temple itself contains a variety of ancient elements, many of which were not known even to scholars in Joseph Smith's day (e.g., the ancient covenant formulary, discussed below). See, for example, "Early Christian and Jewish Rituals Related to Temple Practices" by John A. Tvedtnes. (In fact, one could almost ask the question, "Was Freemasonry derived from Mormonism?") Revelation rather than plagiarism may be the primary source for the LDS Temple concept.
The Temple is a place of covenant making, and follows ancient patterns far older than the origins of modern Masonry. And the covenant making patterns in the LDS temple provide striking evidence for those ancient biblical roots. The noted Jewish scholar, Jon Levenson of Harvard University, dealt with ancient temple themes in his outstanding book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985). While the book is filled with rich material that may be of interest to Latter-day Saints, one of the most exciting discoveries I made when reading Levenson was that the typical ancient form of covenant making can be found in the LDS temple. The ancient pattern for making a covenant between God and man or a king and his subjects is known as the "covenant formulary" and includes six major steps, though many ancient examples may only have a subset of the six:
- The preamble
- Historical prologue (description of what the king has done for the subjects)
- Stipulations (to secure fidelity of the subjects to the king)
- Deposition of the text of the treaty or covenant (special writings and other means to ensure that the covenants aren't forgotten and are recorded and reviewed)
- List of witnesses
- Statement of curses and blessings (the results of disobedience or obedience)
This ancient pattern is becoming relatively well known now, and has even made its way into some mainstream Christian sermons, such as a recent sermon by Reverend Neil Bramble-Chapman (amazingly, he even mentions the ancient Christian doctrine of theosis in his sermon).
While I do not desire to discuss details of the Temple, each element of the ancient covenant formulary is clearly present in the LDS Temple, and it is difficult to see how the covenant formulary could have been derived from Joseph Smith's contact with Masonry or any other source available in his day. Modern recognition of the ancient covenant formulary dates back to the 1950s, when George Mendenhall and Klaus Baltzer began comparing biblical literature with other ancient treaties (see discussion in Levenson, p. 26; see also George Mendenhall, "Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition," Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1954, pp. 50-76, as cited by Stephen Ricks in a related essay that I also highly recommend, "Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6," in King Benjamin's Speech, ed. John Welch and Stephen Ricks, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998, pp. 233-275, with references pertaining to Mendenhall and other related sources cited on p. 274). Though these elements can be found scattered in the Bible, their significance and their relationship to each other was not appreciated in Joseph Smith's day. (Actually, there is still vigorous debate on these elements: see Covenant, Treaty, and Prophecy by E. C. Lucas, originally printed in Themelios, Vol. 8, No. 1, Sept. 1982, pp. 19-23. This article discusses the ancient six-part treaty concept proposed by Mendenhall and reviews some recent criticisms of Mendenhall's views.)
There is much more in Levenson and other modern writings of ancient practices which puts the LDS Temple squarely into the realm of ancient practice. Some of the elements which deeply impressed me were the relationship between the Temple and the Sabbath day (sacred space and sacred time), the symbolism of the baptismal font (and subterranean waters in general) in the Temple, the relationship between mountains and Temples (also found strongly in the Bible and the Book of Mormon), the significance of covenant making, the link between Zion and the Temple, the things one does to show reverence for sacred ground, the significance of the Creation story, and so on. Levenson probably knows nothing of LDS Temples, yet his writings about the ancient Jewish experience did more for my understanding of LDS Temples than any modern LDS writer had.
Levenson's book is out of print, sadly, but a related summary of information about the ancient Middle Eastern temple concept is available online in John M. Lundquist's scholarly article, "What Is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology," originally printed in H. B. Huffman, F. A. Spina, and A. R. W. Green, eds., The Quest for the Kingdom of God: Studies in Honor of George E. Mendenhall (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1983), which was republished in Temples of the Ancient World, ed. by Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994, pp. 83-118), and made available online with permission on Ben Spackman's site, "Resources for Understanding the History and Symbolism of LDS Temples." While Lundquist's article is not explicitly about the LDS Temple, those familiar with LDS temples will find strong evidence for its ancient roots.
There are two books by LDS scholar Hugh Nibley that I would recommend to students of the Temple. Mormonism and Early Christianity, Vol. 4 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), and Temple and Cosmos, Vol. 12 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992) are well worth your time. Just reading the direct quotes from ancient Christian documents - many of which were not even discovered in Joseph Smith's day - will truly surprise you. To me, there is little room for doubt that the LDS Temple is largely a restoration of ancient revealed concept. The "40-day literature," documents discussing the sacred things that Christ taught his disciples during his 40-day ministry after His Resurrection, are especially interesting. These things were sacred and were not intended to be passed on to the world or put into public texts. Also of great value are Nibley's discussion of ancient writings about baptism for the dead, the early Christian prayer circle, sacred vestments, apocryphal writings, geometrical symbols, and more.
LDS people may be interested in the works of St. Cyril of Jerusalem at the Early Church Fathers Site at Wheaton College. I especially recommend Cyril's discourses on the mysteries (lectures 19 to 23) found at the end of Book 1), including the lecture on "chrism." Cyril mentions some interesting rituals that correlate to a few specific details in the Temple. Some things are close enough to startle.
Many early Christian documents help us better appreciate the authenticity of LDS temple concepts. One example is the early Christian document, The Gospel of Nicodemus, available in The Lost Books of the Bible, Alpha House, Inc., Newfoundland, 1926, reprinted by World Publishing, New York, 1972, pp. 63-91. According to the printed introduction, this document is of uncertain origin but clearly appears to have been composed by an early Christian. It claims to have been written by Nicodemus but was possibly a "pious fraud" written in the end of the third century (others have said it comes from the fifth century). "Whether it be canonical or not, it is of very great antiquity, and it is appealed to by several of the ancient Christians" (p. 63). This document teaches of Christ's descent into hell to free Adam and the prophets, patriarchs, and other saints, bringing them to Paradise (Chapters 17-20). Between His death and Resurrection, The Gospel of Nicodemus, in accordance with modern LDS revelation, teaches that Christ visited Adam and other dead saints in hell (instead, we would say it was the "spirit world"), where he used a handclasp to deliver Adam: "taking hold of Adam by his right hand, he ascended from hell, and all the saints of God followed him" (19:12). Just as Adam's journey in the Temple symbolizes the journey and covenants that each Saint must make, so Adam is the first whom other delivered saints follow in The Gospel of Nicodemus. We also read in Chapter 14 that Adam knew of the future baptism and mission of Christ and taught it to the patriarchs and prophets, who rejoiced - providing strong support for what others have seen as peculiar LDS views. Chapter 14 also speaks of Christ anointing the faithful with oil ("the oil of his mercy"), also stating that this "oil of mercy will continue to future generations, for those who shall be born of the water and the Holy Ghost unto eternal life" (14:7). In 20:11-12, we also read of the thief who dies with Christ. He approaches the angel who guards the gates of Paradise, explaining that Christ has given him a sign (the "sign of the cross") to show to the angel to prove that Adam should be admitted. (It also affirms another LDS view in Chapter 20, verses 3-4, stating that Enoch, like Elijah, was "translated" by God and has not yet tasted death.)
The role of handclasps in the Temple is not a modern innovation borrowed from Masonry, but was known to ancient Christians. Further information on the significance of the handclasp in early Christianity is given by Todd Comptom, "The Handclasp and Embrace as Tokens of Recognition," in By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, 27 March 1990, John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., 2 vols. (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990), 1: 620 - 631.). Here is a excerpt (pp. 620-621):
The handclasp continued in early Christian ritual, both gnostic and "orthodox." According to Galatians 2:9, "the right hand of fellowship" (dexias koinoas didonai tini) is given "as a sign of friendship and trust," though this does not necessarily suggest ritual practice, such as we found in the Sabazian and Mithraic mysteries. The handclasp as marriage rite, however, continued in Christian surroundings. The salvific handclasp is nearly the trademark of the iconography of Christ's postcrucifixion descent into Hades. One of the most frequent scenes in this tradition is that of Christ grasping the hands of Adam and Eve to lift them up out of hell and to resurrect them. While sometimes he grasps their wrists, . . . in other depictions he lifts them with a true dextrarum iunctio. The fifth-century Gospel of Nicodemus describes a true handclasp: "And the Lord . . . took the right hand of Adam and went up out of hell (tenens dexteram Adae ascendit ab inferis), and all the saints followed him. . . . He went therefore into paradise holding our forefather by the hand, and delivered him, and all the righteous, unto Michael the archangel." Here the [handclasp] starts the ascent, continues it, and ends it on the threshold of paradise. A similar handclasp is used in the apocalyptic 1 Enoch: "And the angel Michael, . . . seizing me by my right hand and lifting me up, led me out into all the secrets of mercy; and he showed me all the secrets of righteousness."