On March 16th, 1842, both Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon were initiated into the newly-chartered Nauvoo Masonic Lodge (held in the upper room of Smith’s mercantile store); and both were raised to the rank of Master Mason the following day. Freemasonry had been prevalent in the eighteenth-century, but its popularity began to wane during the Jacksonian period. Americans looked at secretive societies such as the Freemasons as anti-democratic. Despite its decline, many loyalists still believed that Freemasonry was a repository of arcane truths, including Smith. Large numbers of Nauvoo’s citizens joined the fraternity and the Mormons quickly became Freemasonry’s largest representative body in Illinois.
Although no records indicate Smith being inducted into Freemasonry prior to 1842, some scholars argue that he may have been influenced by Masonic ideas since childhood, pointing to lodge participation by the Smith family in Vermont and New York as evidence. Freemasonry, they contend, may have informed Smith’s conception of the Kingdom of God as well as the Melchizedek priesthood, an important figure within the Scottish Rite. Others respond that similarities between Mormonism and Freemasonry largely emerged from a shared cultural milieu, stating that both Mormons and Freemasons were looking towards the same sources of inspiration, particularly the Old and New Testaments, for their framing.
Some scholars analyze the Book of Mormon as evidence of Masonic influence on Smith, including even the means by which the records were reportedly obtained, which shares elements with Masonic lore of Enoch’s buried tablets. Some claim that language regarding “secret combinations” found in the Book of Mormon is evidence of anti-Masonic sentiment that was rising in New York during the nineteenth-century. Still, other scholars of Freemasonry and Mormonism claim that these internal references within the Book of Mormon denote the differences between “operative” and “speculative” Masonry, which were two contending Masonic branches during the nineteenth century. Scholars who defend the Book of Mormon’s ancient authorship tend to maintain that its language regarding secret combinations are not directly related to Freemasonry, and that any similarities are coincidental or, at most, a product of Smith’s worldview coloring his translation.
There is little doubt that Smith’s conception of the Mormon temple endowment ceremonies were influenced by Masonic ceremonies in both style and substance (see more in the section titled “The Endowment”). Early church leaders noted the connection openly and applauded what they saw as Smith’s expansion of truths contained within what they believed to be an ancient order. Still, the Illinois Grand Lodge was nonplussed by Smith’s liberties with lodge rules and ceremonies and revoked the Nauvoo charter in October, 1843. Despite the revocation, a Masonic Hall was completed in Nauvoo and lodge activities continued up through the Mormon expulsion from Illinois. Free Masonry rebounded in the United States during the 1870s, and those who settled the West found affiliation with Freemasonry through lodges established throughout Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. However, the practice of polygamy, by this time well-known nationally, led to a ban on Mormons from joining the lodges. As the twentieth-century dawned, Latter-day Saints were discouraged by church leaders from affiliating with Masonic Lodges, a prohibition that remained intact until the later part of the century.
Michael W. Homer, “‘Similarity of Priesthood in Masonry:’ The Relationship between Freemasonry and Mormonism,” Dialogue 27, No. 3; and Michael W. Homer, Joseph’s Temples: The Dynamic Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism. Salt Lake City. University of Utah Press. 2014.