Equal Rites: The Book of Mormon, Masonry, Gender, and American Culture

Equal Rites: The Book of Mormon, Masonry, Gender, and American Culture

Equal Rites: The Book of Mormon, Masonry, Gender, and American Culture

Equal Rites: The Book of Mormon, Masonry, Gender, and American Culture


Both the Prophet Joseph Smith and his Book of Mormon have been characterized as ardently, indeed evangelically, anti-Masonic. Yet in this sweeping social, cultural, and religious history of nineteenth-century Mormonism and its milieu, Clyde Forsberg argues that masonry, like evangelical Christianity, was an essential component of Smith's vision. Smith's ability to imaginatively conjoin the two into a powerful and evocative defense of Christian, or Primitive, Freemasonry was, Forsberg shows, more than anything else responsible for the meteoric rise of Mormonism in the nineteenth century.

This was to have significant repercussions for the development of Mormonism, particularly in the articulation of specifically Mormon gender roles. Mormonism's unique contribution to the Masonic tradition was its inclusion of women as active and equal participants in Masonic rituals. Early Mormon dreams of empire in the Book of Mormon were motivated by a strong desire to end social and racial discord, lest the country fall into the grips of civil war. Forsberg demonstrates that by seeking to bring women into previously male-exclusive ceremonies, Mormonism offered an alternative to the male-dominated sphere of the Master Mason. By taking a median and mediating position between Masonry and Evangelicism, Mormonism positioned itself as a religion of the people, going on to become a world religion.

But the original intent of the Book of Mormon gave way as Mormonism moved west, and the temple and polygamy (indeed, the quest for empire) became more prevalent. The murder of Smith by Masonic vigilantes and the move to Utah coincided with a new imperialism -- and a new polygamy. Forsberg argues that Masonic artifacts from Smith's life reveal important clues to the precise nature of his early Masonic thought that include no less than a vision of redemption and racial concord.


It is clearly evident to anyone who acquaints himself with th[e Mormon] creed
that there are no conflicts between the teachings, theology, and dogma of Mor
monism and the philosophy and tenets of universal Freemasonry.… It must be
readily acknowledged that Mormonism and Freemasonry are so intimately and
inextricably interwoven and interrelated that the two can never be dissociated.

—Brother Marvin B. Hogan, Mormonism and Freemasonry

AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT, I defended my doctoral dissertation on the Book of Mormon and American culture only a month or two before John Brooke's award-winning The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644–1844 arrived at bookstores and university libraries. In hindsight, it was a good thing it came out after my defense, or I might not have graduated until now. Jan Shipps (the external on my committee) was no doubt right to suggest that perhaps I should have availed myself of a manuscript copy of Refiner's Fire before coming forward with a final draft that seemed to come straight out of it, apparently focusing on early Mormonism as a defense of pristine Masonry. In truth, it was a primitive Masonic argument that I brought to the committee in 1994. That said, Masonry was more of a sidebar, the issue of an alleged Mormon-Evangelical nexus—which I hotly dispute—the focus. Having decided against that commanding interpretation of early Mormonism as coming out of Evangelical America rather than coming out against it (no small feat), I would be in a position to turn my attention to Masonry and thus render a final verdict. A direct result of the expert guidance at the MA. and Ph.D. levels under Roman Catholic philosopher of religion Hugo A. Meynell and American cultural historian Klaus J. Hansen, my postdoctoral foray into the fascinating world of American fraternalism has not forced me to contradict my earlier findings for the Book of Mormon as a dialectical synthesis and early Mormonism as an anti-Evangelical movement. In some important respects, looking at Mormonism through the Book of Mormon . . .

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