Mason-Mormon ties: What’s fact, what’s fiction
Dan Brown clearly enjoys playing with legends, history, symbols and secrets. And readers’ minds. In his best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, Brown wove all these – real and imagined – into a breathless mystery about Christianity, Mary Magdalene and the Divine Feminine that has spawned an industry of de-coders eager to separate fact from fiction.
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But rather than announce the Da Vinci sequel in a news release, Brown embedded tantalizing clues to its subject on the book’s jacket. Written in typeface that is slightly larger and bolder than the rest (it requires a magnifying glass to find them all) are the words: is there no help for the widows son.
“O Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow’s son?” was used historically as a Masonic distress call, but when journalist David Shugarts plugged it into Google, the first hit was a 1974 speech given by an LDS Institute of Religion teacher, Reed C. Durham, at the University of Utah.
Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reportedly began to utter the call as he fell from a second story window after being fatally shot by a mob in a Carthage, Ill., jail in 1844, Durham said.
In an electrifying presidential address to the Mormon History Association meeting in Nauvoo, Ill., he traced close parallels between Smith’s account of digging gold plates out of a New York hillside and Masonic tales of Enoch and buried treasure. Smith wore a “Jupiter talisman,” or what his wife called “his Masonic jewel,” and LDS temple ceremonies bear a striking resemblance to Masonic rituals, he said.
The speech was so controversial that Durham’s superiors in the LDS Educational System forced him to issue a public apology.
The speech was never published but was surreptitiously taped and has floated around on the Internet for years.
It may have also caught Brown’s attention, Shugarts speculates, and may provide one plot twist in Brown’s next book, tentatively titled The Solomon Key. Brown confirmed in a speech last year that the book’s mystery will be set in Washington, D.C., where many architectural features were drawn from Masonry, and will feature the same lead character, Harvard-professor-turned-detective Robert Langdom.
Getting a jump on the novel’s historical context, Shugarts has written Secrets of the Widow’s Son: The Mysteries Surrounding the Sequel to The Da Vinci Code.
He provides a broad history of Mormonism, including its brush with Masonry in the 19th century. It also offers nuggets about Masonic history such as these: At least eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, as were 13 U.S. presidents including George Washington. A Freemason released Paul Revere from British custody on the night of his famous ride, after he determined that Revere was a Mason. Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King were written as Masonic allegories.
The Washington Monument and a similar monument on Bunker Hill in Boston, were not just coincidentally shaped like an Egyptian obelisks, but intentionally designed to honor Masonic allusions to ancient Egyptian mystical wisdom.
Much of the symbolism is mathematical, even geometrical, which could explain why the fraternity has attracted rationalists such as Voltaire, Goethe, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain.
“We’ve heard from Masons that they feel that [Brown is] going to do them justice,” says Dan Burstein, who wrote the introduction to Shugarts’ book. “He seems to be favorably disposed to thinking of Masons as an important historical underground movement, pushing the world towards democracy and enlightenment.”
Today there are nearly 2 million Masons in the United States, with 2,250 members in 29 Utah lodges.
“We have a lot of Mormons who are Masons in this state, but we don’t know exactly how many,” says Ridgley Gilmour, Grand Master of Utah Masonic Lodge. “Anyone with a belief in God can petition to join but we don’t ask what religion they are.”
Gilmour was adamant the Masonry is not a “secret society,” but a fraternal order with large-scale charitable giving built on deeply held American values of family, God and country.
“The only secrets we have are little signs and passwords which we use because it’s an ancient custom, and, frankly, it’s fun,” Gilmour says.
It remains to be seen how much Mormon history will feature in the novel, (Brown’s wife reportedly was raised in the LDS Church) but if the reaction to Durham’s 1974 speech is any indication, any link between the two could be controversial in Utah.
For his part, Nicholas S. Literski, an active Mormon and Mason living in Nauvoo, thinks Latter-day Saints misunderstand the similarities. But they are significant.
“Everybody wants to obsess over supposed similarities in ritual,” he says. “But that’s just one aspect. Everything about Joseph and his family was tied into Masonic legends.”
The Mormon connection
Smith’s father, Joseph Smith Sr. joined a Masonic lodge when the family moved to Palmyra, N.Y., in 1816. Later, Smith’s brother Hyrum also joined. From them, Smith heard the story of a lost sacred word that was engraved upon a triangular plate of pure gold. The word was the name of God.
It makes sense that he would go searching for such treasure in the large American Indian burial mounds near his home, says Literski, author of the forthcoming book, Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration.
And when Smith reported finding an ancient record written on plates of gold, he used “distinctively Masonic language to describe the experience,” Literski says.
The church, which claimed to restore ancient truths of Christianity lost through the ages, attracted many members of the Masonic fraternity who traced their own roots back centuries and had similar esoteric teachings.
By the 1840s, many Mormon leaders in Nauvoo, including Smith and apostles Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, became Masons and organized a lodge there under the auspices of the Grand Lodge of Illinois. It wasn’t long before nearly every male member of the church in the area had joined. At the same time, Smith introduced LDS temple rituals that included secret handshakes, signs and symbols like the all-seeing eye, the compass and square (tools of the mason’s trade) and the sun, moon and stars that echoed Masonry.
Soon, though, other Masons felt that the Mormons were dominating the fraternity. In 1842, the Nauvoo Lodge was suspended. Many Mormons believed that Masons contributed to the murder of their prophet.
Antagonisms built up between the two groups. In Utah in 1860, Masonic lodges were established but they prohibited Mormons from joining. At the same time, Young forbade Mormons from joining and refused to allow any Mason to hold priesthood leadership positions in the church, Literski says.
It wasn’t until 1984 that LDS President Spencer W. Kimball removed the prohibition against Latter-day Saints becoming Freemasons. Later that year, the Grand Lodge of Utah removed its own ban on Mormon membership so that, in the ensuing years, many Latter-day Saint men have returned to this part of their heritage.
In the novelist’s mind
Shugarts says it was not his intention to be a plot spoiler for Brown’s sequel. He couldn’t do that if he wanted. But he did offer a primer on Masonry and Mormonism for those who will want to explore, as they did with Da Vinci, just how much of what Brown writes is really history.
“I had to push out in every direction possible,” Shugarts said in a phone interview from his Connecticut home. “I read five books about Mormon history and thousands of Internet Web sites. I tried to be thorough and fair.”
Though he only dedicated four or five pages to Mormons in a 200-page book, he’s already heard from unhappy Latter-day Saints who accuse him of misreading or a biased approach to LDS history, a charge he rejects.
“Prior to embarking on my research, I had no particular opinion of Joseph Smith or the details of the founding of the [LDS ]Church,” he wrote to one critic. “But I had met a few Mormons and they always impressed me as fine people. After delving into the story of Joseph Smith, I understood a lot more about LDS. I remain impressed that Mormons are fine people.”
It will be interesting to see if Brown sees them that way as well. Literski isn’t worried.
“He’ll weave a good conspiracy,” Literski says, “but no matter how inventive Dan Brown gets in terms of the connection, he will fall short of just how deep that story does go.”
Even in Smith’s day, there were Masons who believed the legends were historical truth and saw Freemasonry as a deeply spiritual, mystical quest. Other, more sophisticated members, discounted the old stories, wanting to refocus it along the lines of a charitable and benevolent institution.
The Smiths were about as far into mysticism as you can get, Literski says. “Joseph was rebuilding Solomon’s temple with all the legendary baggage that came along with that.”
Seeing the relationship between the two groups forces Mormons like Literski to revise his ideas about how God interacts with a prophet.
“You cannot understand what is going on in Joseph’s mind unless you can know what he is seeing, hearing, feeling and touching,” he says. “That gives me a stronger position of faith than would this idea that revelation is ex nihilo. Joseph was not a puppet.”