Michael W. Homer, Joseph’s Temples: The Dynamic Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2014).
There are few topics in Mormon history more fraught than the relationship between Mormonism and masonry. From the Mormon apologetic folklore that Joseph Smith only attended three masonic meetings to the anti-Mormon accusation that the temple rituals were merely plagiarized masonic rites, this is a topic that enlivens discussion in academic classrooms and missionary companionship study alike. Michael Homer’s Joseph’s Temples is the most recent contribution to this discussion, as it is a vastly expanded version of his previous work on the topic. And though it may not be up to addressing the deeper and more complex issues involved with the topic that are demanded by today’s Mormon studies field, it is the culmination of four decades of Mormon scholarship on the religion’s contested history with the contested fraternity.
Unlike most work on Mormonism and masonry, this book is not dedicated to the two years between Joseph Smith’s introduction of temple endowments, which came months after his induction to the Nauvoo Lodge, and his death in Carthage Jail, when his last words were the masonic call for distress. Rather, this book has a very broad chronological and geographic sweep, detailing freemasonry’s development in Renaissance Europe to masonry’s demise and resurgence in Utah. Half of the book does, though, detail with the Nauvoo period, which chapters dedicated to race, gender, ritual, and succession. Though this framework for chapters made it somewhat redundant at times—and certainly did not help with the book’s length—it did add to the book’s exhaustive nature, which is indeed its best strength. If you are looking for a detailed comparison between masonic and Mormon temple rituals, this is not the book for you. And the way that academic discourse works, such a book shouldn’t be written. Homer’s book is responsible and sympathetic in being sensitive to the rituals of both organizations, and only gives broad strokes over the controversial and contested overlap in sacred space. Indeed, much of the book relies primarily on the public discourse concerning the institutions, and does not venture much further than what the practitioners said themselves. While this might frustrate the casual reader who is seeking a definitive laundry list of similarities in order to decide how dependent the Mormon endowment is on its contemporary culture, the book follows acceptable scholarly practice by knowing when silences matter.
Homer’s book would be a generous contribution to the Mormon history community even if his sole accomplishment was to present us with such a rich and exhaustive overview of the secondary literature on freemasonry in Europe and America during the two centuries leading up to Joseph Smith. Indeed, much of the book can be safely categorized as a useful condensation of broad swaths of historiographical literature—both masonic and Mormonism. Though there are few new arguments or interpretations—other than the coverage of post-Joseph Smith, Utah-era masonic practices, which is both original and extensive—the book serves as a testament and faithful reproduction of historical work that has taken place in the past four decades. Though there are downsides of such an approach, including lots of block quotes from secondary literature and the habit of merely relying on the interpretive argument of other historians, the benefits include serving as a nice compendium of facts, figures, and ideas related to the topic.
One of the most interesting nuggets found in the book is how masonic lore played into Joseph Smith’s martyrdom narratives. Besides the well-known fact that Smith appeared to be exclaiming the masonic call for help as he was killed by the mob, Homer documents how many other elements of masonic legend, like the murder of Hiram Abiff, also found their way into how Mormons told the story of their prophet being killed. This helps explain several puzzling details that don’t square with the historical narrative—like the few accounts that claim Smith was positioned up against a well and avoided mutilation only through a pillar of light appearing to ward off the mob—because they make more sense as masonic embellishments added to the Mormon story in order to gain masonic sympathy (171-173).
There were a handful of moments in the book that left me frustrated. Homer rarely found a tangent he didn’t wish to pursue, and the book’s length is more due to a desire to recount as many facets of Mormonism as possible even if they don’t strictly pertain to the story. (See, for instance, the extended discussion on Emma Smith’s knowledge of polygamy on pages 210-214.) Homer often relied uncritically on later reminiscences without analyzing their integrity, and he utilized the very problematic History of the Church series that really should not ever by used by historians other than those understanding historical consciousness in 1850s Mormonism. Further, he is more successful in finding masonic influence in some places (like the production of the latter chapters of Book of Abraham, on pages 202-204) than in others (like when he tries to argue Joseph Smith was not anti-masonic in 1830, on pages 78-81). A bigger issue with the book was the tendency to present masonry and Mormonism as if they existed in a vacuum, disregarding the cultural tensions that influenced both movements; rather than one merely dependent on the other, it was more likely that American masons and Mormons were two expressions of broader cultural movements. This is especially the case with chapter five, which deals with race and mostly ignores the cultural context in which antebellum figures like Joseph Smith constructed their racial theologies and restrictive practices.
But my most persistent desire while reading the book was for Homer to apply more interpretive rigor. These are complex topics, and it is rarely enough to solely give an overview and the bare details; rather, these documents, these words, these individuals need analysis. There were several times when Joseph’s Temples offered tantalizing details and brought up crucial questions only to quickly move on to the next point, and I was left wishing that Homer, obviously a foremost expert on the topic, would slow down and piece together what is obviously absolutely clear in his mind. History is more than just facts and dates, ore even an impressive conglomeration of secondary materials, but an argument told with incision and deduced through interpretation.
The key example of where Joseph’s Temples could have used more interpretive exploration was in a phrase found in the book’s very title: “dynamic relationship”. On the one hand, the latter word, “relationship,” is seemingly clear enough—there were certainly enough interaction between the two interactions to judge a close reciprocal cultural partnership. But what kind of relationship was it? Homer’s adjective of “dynamic” is a common phrase in scholarship, but is often nebulous enough to fit a variety of interpretive agendas. Does it merely imply an influential role of one entity to the other? Such is the argument—sometimes outright, sometimes subtle, yet sometimes puzzlingly avoided—found in the book, but influence can be a nebulous term by itself. Did Masonry serve as a determinative influence that was then carbon-copied into a Mormon setting? (Such is the jejune analysis sometimes offered in Mormon historical literature, but fortunately not present in Joseph’s Temples.) Did Masonry merely provide a worldview through which many Mormons understood religious and cultural practices? (Such is the most common, but never the sole or even consistent, approach by Homer.) Or did Mormons just use Masonry to fit other purposes, “translating” it to address issues it was never originally meant to handle? (Such is the recently popular argument by historians like Samuel Brown.) Joseph’s Temples most often veered toward the second, but transgressed into other hermeneutical methods often enough that the overall framework faltered at times. (Even in the final chapter, titled “The Dynamic Relationship,” more time is spent overviewing what others have said about the relationship rather than what Homer himself believes the relationship to be.) Indeed, Homer might proffer from the very type of painful discussion that is prevalent at BYU and other sectors of Mormon dating culture—the “DTR,” or “Define the Relationship.” (Did I include enough parenthetical sentences in this paragraph?)
Homer is not alone in his interpretive obscurity or methodological inconsistency. Given that his book is largely an exhaustive condensation of historiographical work, it is to be expected that it is reflective of broader Mormon historiographical issues. Most especially, the lack of cultural theory necessary to engage these complex historical issues has led historians who study the intersection between Mormonism and masonry to focus on the low-hanging fruit of the complex relationship: ritual similarities, shared discourses, and the bare facts of participation. These topics, and these topics only, have been the tools through which we have understood Mormonism’s experimentation with, and lasting influence from, freemasonry. These are important enough, but they are the tip of the iceberg for understanding convoluted cultural expressions like masonry and, indeed, Mormonism; intellectual history can only go so far. (And yes, I see the biting irony of me saying that.)
What I find so striking about the literature on Mormonism and masonry, including Michael Homer’s exhaustive book, is the limited and narrow nature of our gaze. Antebellum masonry (and Mormonism) was more than mere words, texts, or signs—both were, rather, deep expressions of social anxieties and cultural unrest during a moment of epochal tumult. In Homer’s useful overview of freemasonry’s history, he is more focused with debates over esoteric notions of antiquity than the social appeal that allowed the quixotic organization to appear and flourish in a number of different contexts; how freemasonry dealt with speculative rites is the spotlight, not the class relations that fueled its growth. Recent academic scholarship has rightly pointed out this potent field of questions—from Steven Bullock’s exploration of fraternal transformation during the revolutionary period to David Hackett’s demonstration of the development of the “public sphere”—yet scholars of Mormonism have yet to take the example.
Several examples of unexamined questions are readily apparent in Joseph’s Temples. Homer rightly notes how freemasons were worried with the rapid growth of membership in Mormon lodges during the Nauvoo period. Yet why was that the case—why did Masons fear uncontrolled expansion, and why did Mormons crave participation? The common answers—that Masons didn’t want just anyone in their fraternity, and that Joseph Smith used it as preparation for the temple—is basically assumed by Homer, but that is only half the story. For many Americans, especially the demographics who made up masonic leadership, the Age of Jackson introduced civil unrest and democratic excess; strict standards for participation thus served as a form of social control. For common Mormons, participation in an esteemed organization like freemasonry enabled the opportunity to gain social capital in a time when they were part of a beleaguered sect found on the periphery of respectability. Topics like this are obviously outside the purview of Homer’s otherwise exhaustive study—but that is, in part, the point.
In total, though, Homer’s book is a welcome contribution to an energetic field that will be continually debated for decades to come. Indeed, it can be seen as a kind of climax for a particular methodological approach within New Mormon History, and a synthesis for a broad field of academic labor. As a result, it is a tremendously useful tool for any historian interested in the historical intersections between two fraught institutions. This is the most comprehensive and judicious historical account that traces the historiographical interactions between Mormonism and masonry to yet appear, and I don’t see another book challenging for that title anytime soon.
 Though, it should be noted, Homer mostly engages historical work from the 1980s and 1990s, and fails to even engage Samuel Brown’s In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Mormon Conquest of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
 Seriously, I feel that all historians should take an oath to never use those books again. Oh wait, I’ve already argued that.
 Steven C. Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). David G. Hackett, That Religion in Which All Men Agree: Freemasonry in American Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).