Book Review: Michael Homer, Joseph’s Temples: The Dynamic Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism”

By September 24, 2014

josephs-temples-198x300Michael 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.[1] 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).

Another mild frustration was the common Quinn-length footnotes. Look, I like footnotes that engage historiographical debate, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

Another mild frustration was the common Quinn-length footnotes. Look, I like footnotes that engage historiographical debate, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

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.[2] 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”[3]—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.


[1] 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).

[2] Seriously, I feel that all historians should take an oath to never use those books again. Oh wait, I’ve already argued that.

[3] 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).

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Thanks for this. I’ve got it on my shelf to add/read as background for my temple chapter.

    Comment by Ben S — September 24, 2014 @ 7:38 am

  2. Very nice, thanks Ben.

    Comment by Ryan — September 24, 2014 @ 7:55 am

  3. Wish I’d had this book & review in hand a couple of weeks ago when my missionary son wrote home asking for the real scoop as he was getting questions about Freemasonry and Mormonism from people he was meeting with.

    And although I haven’t read the book I applaud your observation that the issues here are not just narrow, confined to the relationship between these two things alone, but need to expand into and draw on larger cultural history & theory of the time. We all must fight “the tendency to present [X] and Mormonism as if they existed in a vacuum,” well said. Thank you for reminding us all to turn our scholarly gaze in more expansive, inclusive directions, and for calling it when you don’t see that happening.

    Comment by Tona H — September 24, 2014 @ 9:12 am

  4. Thanks for the review, Ben. I look forward to reading it, although I’m disappointed he didn’t engage with Brown.

    Comment by J Stuart — September 24, 2014 @ 10:17 am

  5. Thanks for this Ben. Excellent.

    Comment by wvs — September 24, 2014 @ 11:26 am

  6. Excellent. Thanks, Ben.

    Comment by Christopher — September 24, 2014 @ 12:29 pm

  7. Thanks, all.

    Comment by Ben P — September 24, 2014 @ 1:34 pm

  8. Thanks, Ben, also for the warning to rein in my footnote habit, which at times does rival Quinn’s.

    Comment by Saskia — September 24, 2014 @ 1:38 pm

  9. I looked forward to this book for years (having read the Dialogue article it expanded from many times). I have been very disappointed in the book. Most of the reasons will be presented elsewhere, but along with J. Stuart, I would have liked to see engagement with Brown(s), both Matt and Samuel, he also ignored Hales and Bradshaw in their areas. I also have to confess the first few chapters on Masonry alone were painful to read through (although I now have MUCH more sympathy for those who feel the same way about reading Mormon history, which I lap up). Overall, this is a solid addition, but it could have been more.

    Comment by Terry H — September 24, 2014 @ 7:57 pm

  10. Solid write-up. Thanks Ben.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 25, 2014 @ 3:44 am

  11. Glad you mentioned Bullock. It’s one of a handful of books that I think should be necessary background material for anyone who wants to discuss the intersection of Masonry and Mormonism.

    Comment by Jacob H. — September 25, 2014 @ 8:12 am

  12. This is a very discerning review and shows a careful reading of the book. I found much to praise in Homer’s work, especially his treatment of the Relief Society as a masonically influenced institution.

    I thought that the biggest contribution that Homer makes to the oeuvre is his chapter on masonic influence on the Priesthood ban. While I disagree in some small ways on how he sees this, he is breaking new ground here.

    That said, your criticisms are extremely cogent, and future writers on the topic will do well to study them before publishing further on Mormonism and Masonry.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — September 25, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

  13. […] the Juvenile Instructor blog, Ben Park has a largely complimentary review of Michael W. Homer’s, Joseph’s Temples, a book that explores the relationship between […]

    Pingback by Signature Books » Mormon News, September 22–26 — September 26, 2014 @ 6:20 pm

  14. Nice work, Ben.

    Comment by Ryan T. — September 27, 2014 @ 10:31 am

  15. Hello, Ben:

    Overall, this is an outstanding review — the first detailed published critique of Homer’s book that I have seen. I believe you strike just the right tone, and many of your criticisms are ones that I have made in private when asked to characterize Homer’s book.

    For instance, in one review (which comprises part of my proposal for Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration), I also bring up methodological concerns:

    Homer refrains from the usual polemic, preferring instead to simply lay out factual information…. However, while it provides a sense of objectivity, this approach can be problematic. The work of the historian is more than a mere recounting of facts or a cataloging of the opinions of others. Rather, it also involves rigorous analysis, careful synthesis and thoughtful interpretation. Historians weigh evidence and responsibly guide non-specialists to what they believe is the best understanding of that evidence from a range of possibilities (i.e., they provide ‘argument to the best explanation’). This kind of guidance is sometimes lacking in Joseph’s Temples, in favor of simply presenting opposing theories with little or no further comment. In fact, Homer frequently enumerates related facts or events without proposing why the same might be important for the reader…. [who is] left to wonder if Homer himself understands the likely significance of [those] facts.

    And sometimes, Joseph’s Temples outright omits important discussion. For instance, note the lack of any treatment at all of Masonry-related developments in Missouri (e.g., Daniteism). Homer passes over this topic in brief paragraphs without mention of the significant Masonic borrowing in the creation of that institution. The use of Freemasonry in Daniteism has huge implications for our understanding of later Nauvoo-era developments; it also contributes to the ongoing discussion of the level of Smith’s involvement in the creation of this vigilante group, and provides powerful evidence for early Masonic influence in Mormon institutions prior to 1841.

    FWIW, our own book engages the arguments of both Brown(s) and Bradshaw, and makes use of the important work of Steve Bullock, David Hackett, John Hamill, Margaret Jacob and others in our exploration of the complex social context for the use of Masonry in Mormonism. While perhaps understandable given the history leading to the publication of works such as those of Anthony Ivins and Cecil McGavin, we absolutely agree that narrowly focusing one’s gaze on ritual similarities (what you call “low-hanging fruit”) begs the much larger discussion yet waiting in the wings.

    One of the values of Joseph’s Temples work is that he does lay out the groundwork for that larger argument. Even on the DJ of the book, he states:

    There are indications that Freemasonry was a pervasive foundational element in Mormonism and that its rituals and origin legends influenced not just the secret ceremonies of the LDS temples but also such important matters as the organization of the Mormon priesthood, the foundation of the women’s Relief Society, the introduction and concealment of polygamy, and the church’s position on African American’s full membership. Freemasonry was also an important facet of Mormons’ relations with broader American society.

    This is all good, but it is somewhat puzzling why Homer avoids personally engaging this larger discussion in favor of a reporting of the secondhand opinions of others. This tendency is particularly evident in his chapter on Freemasonry in Nauvoo. Here, Homer shows reliance on the research of the late Mervin B. Hogan, whose unpublished work on this topic was unpublished for a reason. 🙂

    At the very least, it would have been helpful for Homer to disabuse his readers of several common myths — including the rather late invention that:

    freemasonry enabled [Nauvoo Mormons] the opportunity to gain social capital in a time when they were part of a beleaguered sect found on the periphery of respectability.

    For reasons much too lengthy to lay out in my comment, this is simply untrue. You are correct in pointing out that Homer’s book would have been an excellent place for such discussion.

    Its various concerns notwithstanding, the significant achievement Joseph’s Temples represents is obvious. At the very least, it provides a “sketch of the territory,” leaving it for future scholars to fill in the details — i.e., it is a “nice compendium of facts, figures, and ideas related to the topic,” as you say.

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    Comment by Joe Steve Swick III — September 29, 2014 @ 4:51 pm


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