Sandra Tanner’s “Masonic Symbols and the LDS Temple”

While I try to be fair, I often find it very easy to be critical of the works cranked out by Utah Lighthouse Ministries.  I say this because, while Sandra and the late Jerald Tanner are reasonably good at citing their sources, not all of their sources are necessarily of high quality, and in quoting they have a tendency to leave out pertinent information. More often than not, that information is frequently material that undermines their argument. Such is the case with Sandra Tanner’s “Masonic Symbols and the LDS Temple.”

Sandra Tanner begins her essay innocently enough, with remarks concerning the rebuilding of the Nauvoo Temple in 2002 and questions about the symbols on the building. She then launches into the topic by telling her audience:

“To understand the symbols one must first know something of Joseph Smith’s involvement with Freemasonry. Joseph’s brother, Hyrum, had been a Mason since the 1820’s. Many other members of the LDS church, like Brigham Young, were Masons before they joined Mormonism.”[1]

At a time in American history when many men were Masons, and when Freemasonry had been enjoying rapid growth in the United States and especially in New York,[2] one must wonder why she thought this important. After all, by this time two Masons – George Washington and James Monroe – had been Presidents of the United States. Freemasonry ran deep among the heroes of the American Revolution, and included such men as Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and a number of other signatories to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The worst that can be said about the fact a number of early LDS leaders being Freemasons is that they were in good company.

Writing on this same subject, LDS scholar Armand Mauss tells us:

“Given the involvement of the Smith family and friends in the Masonic Order prior to 1842 and the similarities between portions of the Mormon and Masonic rituals after 1842, the question of some degree of Mormon borrowing from the Masons obviously arises. That the Masonic ceremony itself changed and evolved even in recent centuries does not necessarily invalidate Joseph Smith’s claim that he was restoring, by revelation, an even more ancient temple ceremony to which the Masonic one bore certain resemblances. On the other hand, neither does that claim constitute a declaration of the total independence of the Mormon temple ceremony from any external cultural influences, including Masonry. Frankly, I have some difficulty understanding why this should be such a big issue, except to those with a fairly limited understanding of how a prophet gets ideas. Since prophets and religions always arise and are nurtured within a given cultural context, itself evolving, it should not be difficult to understand why even the most original revelations have to be expressed in the idioms of the culture and biography of the revelator.”[3]

Many arguments raised against Mormonism are presentist in nature and fail to consider the actions and words of early LDS leaders in cultural and historical context, and it would seem that the article in question makes the same error. In the 21st century, Freemasonry is not as common nor as popular as it was in Joseph Smith’s time. This fact, and that there is a tradition of anti-Masonic literature going back at least 200 years, has left many in our time badly misinformed as to what Freemasonry actually is, and what its symbols mean. During much of the same time period Mormonism has also been the subject of literature every bit as bad as anti-Masonic screed. Sandra Tanner has as her target audience those who know little about Freemasonry and Mormonism.

Her article displays a rather peculiar usage of quotes, especially quotes modified by ellipses. Normally, the writer uses ellipses only to shorten a citation in order to make a better fit into the text, but the writer must be very careful in using ellipses: Improper use can alter the original author’s intent. The first few quotes she uses are from a paper Reed C. Durham presented in 1974. I show the quote below with the portions in brackets:

“By 1840, John Cook Bennett, a former active leader in Masonry [in Ohio, where he was expelled. M. B. H.], had arrived in Commerce and rapidly exerted his persuasive leadership in all facets of the Church, including Mormon Masonry. [I do not believe he was its sole instigator, nor do I believe him guilty of all which the Mormon print then, or now have accused him. However, at the instigation of John C. Bennett, George W. Harris, John Parker, Lucius Scovil, as well as other Mormon Masons residing at Nauvoo, and certainly with the approval of the hierarchy of the Church, the institution of Masonry commenced.]

“Joseph and Sidney (Rigdon) were inducted into formal Masonry [at Sight,] on the same day [upon which the Illinois Grand Master Mason – and politically ambitious – Abraham Jonas officially installed the Nauvoo Lodge. It was on March 15, 1842. On the next day, both Sidney and Joseph advanced to the Master Mason Degree. In only a few years, five Mormon Lodges were established, several others in planning, a Masonic Temple constructed, and the total membership of Mormon fraternal brethren was over 1, 366.”][4]

Another source (better, in fact, than Durham’s unpublished paper  Tanner quotes) she employs tells us that eighteen LDS men met in late December 1841 to organize the Nauvoo Lodge, which was not installed until three months later, at which time Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were installed as members of the Lodge.[5] Smith and Rigdon were by no means the first LDS to become Masons. They were merely two more joining in on something of a rebound Freemasonry was enjoying several years after the Morgan Affair.[6]

A curious use of source material and ellipses occurs in the portion borrowed from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. In her article, we see the quote thus:

“The introduction of Freemasonry in NAUVOO had both political and religious implications….Eventually nearly 1,500 LDS men became associated with Illinois Freemasonry, including many members of the Church’s governing priesthood bodies—this at a time when the total number of non-LDS Masons in Illinois lodges barely reached 150.” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol.2, p.527)[7]

When perusing the article itself, we find the first sentence in the above quote in the first paragraph of the article, and then the author drops to the last sentence of the fourth paragraph to finish the quote. This use of ellipses combines two different thoughts, and in this case, the author leaves the reader wondering what the “political and religious implications” were. Rather than informing the reader that the politically ambitious Grand Master Abraham Jonas pulled some strings to install the Nauvoo Lodge (and thus creating friction with non-LDS Masons in the area), we are suddenly told that LDS activity in Freemasonry grew very quickly. Certainly, the author could have paraphrased or summarized the missing information and included it for the reader’s benefit. It is also notable that the Encyclopedia of Mormonism is cited improperly, and as a result, it is unclear which edition of the Encyclopedia the reference comes from. This type of information is useful to the reader who wished to more deeply research the subject, and is de rigueur in academic publications.

Further on, she commits probably her most egregious misuse of her source material, quoting again from Reed Durham’s unpublished paper. As before, I bracket portions that she left out:

“[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 initially, just a little over one month after he became a Mason, 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.”[8]

Take note of the omissions: Durham left room for other inspiration, which many an LDS reader would see as revelation. However, that portion of the quote undermines Tanner’s intent, which is to connect the Endowment ceremony and other Temple symbols with Freemasonry. What is more, she later quotes from Michael Homer’s Dialogue article, “Similarity of Priesthood in Masonry: The Relationship between Freemasonry and Mormonism,” but ignores an important part of his thesis, as we see on page three of the article:

“To those believing in continuing revelation, the divine origin of the LDS temple endowment does not depend on proving there is no relationship between it and Masonic rites or that Joseph Smith received his endowment before his initiation into Freemasonry. In what follows I do not address the divine origin of the temple ceremony. It seems reasonable to believe, and for my purposes to assume, that Joseph Smith was inspired in introducing the endowment. While there is room for this belief, there is also room to accept the candor of Smith and others that there was a close connection between Freemasonry and Mormonism. Within this context, I discuss and analyze the thesis that the rituals of Freemasonry had some impact on the origin and development of the LDS temple endowment, and hopefully demonstrate that this is not only factually tenable but that early LDS leaders recognized this connection and did not consider it too sacred or controversial to discuss. In fact, Nauvoo Masons who took part in both rituals were much more comfortable discussing the relationship between the two than twentieth-century Mormons who are not familiar with the Craft.”[9]

Again, we see that an LDS scholar who believes that inspiration was behind the endowment ceremony. Durham returns to the theme of inspiration later in his presentation:

“The second concept I wish to reiterate is that the Masonry as practiced in the Church under the Prophet’s direction was daily becoming increasingly unorthodox as contrasted with Illinois traditional Masonry. Therefore, it appears that the Prophet first embraced Masonry and, then in the process, he modified, expanded, amplified, or glorified it. His alterations being done by the authority of constant revelation received by him, or by sheer whims and the intelligence of an egocentric genius, or at the insistence of strong personalities who surrounded him, giving advice and counsel; depending on how one views Joseph Smith.”[10]

It would seem that Durham C. Reed and Michael W. Homer – both of whom she quotes – and Armand L. Mauss, who Homer quotes, all allow room for revelation in respect to the Endowment ceremony and other aspects of LDS symbols and ceremonies which she wishes to connect directly to Freemasonry.

Much of the rest of the article is given over to pictures of some of the symbols seen on LDS Temples and various other buildings, but no explanation of the symbols are given, save this: “While the upside-down star is used in Masonry, it is also used by Satanists.” While true enough, the inverted pentagram has had a long history in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and was likely borrowed by early European Masons into the Masonic tradition. Its connection to Satanism extends back no farther than the middle of the 20th century, as the Church of Satan was not founded until 1966, long after the Nauvoo Temple was built and destroyed, and long after the Salt Lake City Temple was built.

We are told near the beginning of the article “To understand the symbols one must first know something of Joseph Smith’s involvement with Freemasonry,” and yet all we actually learn is that there is a connection between Mason and LDS symbology. She never actually explains anything. The reader comes away with no knowledge of what the symbols mean to each organization, where there are similarities, or where there are differences (For instance, the compass used by the Masons is that used for drawing arcs and circles, whereas the compass used by the LDS is that used for navigation). What we end up with is nothing more than a presentist argument, and a muddled one at that, aimed at an audience who knows little or nothing about Mormonism and/or Freemasonry.

What is more, Reed C. Durham’s paper, “Is There No Help for the Widow’s Son,” was never published. The only copies of his paper that exist in public are transcripts from tape recordings made by audience members when he presented his paper. I have not found any evidence that Reed Durham has ever given permission for his speech to be published by anyone. Moreover, he became concerned his presentation would be misconstrued, as we see in a letter that he wrote shortly after he presented his research:

“On Saturday, April 20, 1974, at the Mormon History Association Annual Meeting at Nauvoo, Illinois, I delivered the Presidential Address entitled, “Is There No Help for the Widow’s Son?” At that time I was gravely concerned that the presentation of my findings and conclusions, as a result of long months of research, would not be properly interpreted; and that regardless of what I attempted to say, misunderstandings would occur. My concerns were justified. I have been informed of instances where even my own colleagues in the Mormon History Association, and also some close friends within the Church misinterpreted what I said, and more important to me, in some cases even questioned my faith in Joseph Smith and the Church. (Emphasis mine.)

“Of course, I assume the full responsibility for creating those questions, concerns, and misunderstandings. It was because I was not skillful enough, erudite enough, nor perhaps prayerful enough to make my personal position and feelings clearly known.”[11]

Sandra Tanner’s article simply does not live up to its billing. Her use of unpublished material is ethically questionable, she misuses quotes from the material, and she ignores information within her source material that undermines her thesis. Lastly, she ignores a letter written by Reed C. Durham himself in which he essentially admits that he really did not know enough about the subject at the time he wrote the paper. This admission alone makes his paper a questionable source, leaving one to wonder why she employed it at all.

 – D. E. Neighbors


[1] Tanner, Sandra. “Masonic Symbols and the LDS Temple.” Utah Lighthouse Ministry. Utah Lighthouse Ministry, n.d. Web. 21 Sep 2011. <;.

[2] Homer, Michael W. “Similarity of Priesthood in Masonry: The Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 27.3 (1994): 9-10. Print. <;.

[3] Mauss, Armand L. “Culture, Charisma, and Change: Reflections on Mormon Temple Worship.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 20.4 (1987): 79-80. Print. <;.

[4] Durham, Reed C. Jr. “Is There No Help For The Widow’s Son?”. Mormonismi. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sep 2011. <;.

[5] Homer, 28-29

[6] Captain William Morgan had planned to publish an “exposé” of Freemasonry in 1826. He was jailed on apparently trumped-up charges, removed from jail by men purported to be Masons, and never heard from again.

[7] Tanner

[8] Durham

[9] Homer, 3

[10] Durham

[11] Durham, Reed C. Jr. “Primary sources/Reed C. Durham on 1974 talk.” The FAIR Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Sep 2011. <;.

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