A Freemason’s Critique of Sam Brown
by Guest Poster Joe Steve Swick III
Joe Swick is a longtime student of the history and dogmas of Mormonism and Freemasonry. He received his Endowment in 1982 and was raised a Master Mason in 1995. He is twice Past Master of his local lodge, and twice Past High Priest of his Royal Arch Chapter, receiving the Masonic Order of High Priesthood in 2004.
I recently attended a lecture by Samuel M. Brown on the subject of Mormon Masonry, which was a brief summary of chapters from his new book, In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death,[i] particularly the chapter, “Negotiating Death and Afterlife in Nauvoo.”[ii] As a Freemason who has also received the LDS Temple Endowment, this topic is of particular interest to me. Unfortunately, there were several significant problems with the presentation of the subject of Mormonism and Freemasonry in Nauvoo, particularly as it touches the central themes of his book. Due to space constraints, I’d like to briefly look at just one of these troubling areas.
Almost unbelievably, Sam fails to anywhere significantly engage the funerary rites or traditions of Freemasons, as the same were known and practiced in Nauvoo. He never once mentions a single Latter-day Saint who was buried with “Masonic honors,” – such as Don Carlos Smith—even when there is significant contemporaneous recording of that fact (for instance, see Woman’s Exponent, vol. 10, no. 6, 15 August 1881, page 42 as quoted, Holzapfel, A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History, Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1997. Pages 121-123). He fails to breathe even a word of recognition that what is arguably Joseph Smith’s greatest recorded discourse – i.e., the funeral sermon of King Follett—contained several clear Masonic references relevant to the topic of his book. These Masonic references likely exist because King Follett was the Prophet’s Masonic Brother, and the funeral itself was Masonic.
In this connection, Sam also fails to anywhere note that supreme Masonic symbol of death and its overcoming, or the place of that symbol in either LDS or Masonic funerary traditions. I am speaking, of course, of the apron. Now, the apron is not a secret: anyone who has attended an LDS funeral or viewing has seen it; anyone who has attended a Masonic funeral or viewing has not only seen a Mason or two publically attired in aprons, but has heard the Master of the Lodge deliver remarks which expressly refer to the apron of the deceased. Furthermore, the lecture delivered to a Mason when he is first presented with his apron (the “twin,” as it were, of the funeral remarks) is monitorial, and therefore may be mentioned without offending Masonic sensibilities. The Masonic apron lecture contains significant comments pertaining to the fundamental theme of Sam’s book, and I was most astonished to find that these monitorial ritual portions are never mentioned; it seems that Sam is unwilling to directly state that Masons –or Mormons– even wear aprons.
Similarly, Sam fails to mention the ring ceremony associated with a Lodge of Perfection in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. While not practiced in Illinois at the time, the ring and its ceremony was associated with Masonry at least since 1783, and it was well-known by Masons in the days of Joseph Smith. The ring was presented to every 14th degree candidate. A plain band, it was inscribed with the motto, “Virtus Junxit Mors Non Separabit,” or “Virtue Unites What Death Cannot Separate.”[iii]
During the ceremony of reception, the candidate was specifically instructed:
“Receive this ring as a token of alliance, and that you have made a contract with Virtue and the virtuous. Promise me dear brother, that this ring shall never depart from you until death; and you never will give it to anybody but your wife, eldest son, or your dearest friend.” [iv]
This is significant, because it demonstrates a Masonic faith –related to their belief in the immortality of the soul — that our tenderest ties of kinship and fraternity extend beyond the grave. The 14th Degree ring was a reminder to the friends and loved ones of the departed that what virtue had joined, not even death had the power to separate. To use the words of William Penn:
They that love beyond the World cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies. Nor can Spirits ever be divided that love and live in the same Divine Principle; the Root and Record of their friendship. . . .This is the Comfort of Friends, that though they may be said to Die, yet their Friendship and Society are, in the best Sense, ever present, because Immortal . [v]
Again, this idea is central to Sam’s thesis, and yet somehow it is overlooked in his presentation. I wish to stress that these are not minor errors (of which there are, unfortunately, not a few in his book). Rather, these issues suggest a fundamental lack of appreciation of the content of Masonic ritual and tradition as the same relate to Sam Brown’s own chosen theme.
Numerous other similar objections to equally troubling factual and interpretive errors could be raised. For instance, Sam clearly misses the significance of the Hiramic Legend in Freemasonry, failing to appreciate that for Joseph Smith and his contemporaries, Hiram Abiff was an allegorical figure intended to represent Jesus Christ in both his death and resurrection. In my own opinion, this is a particularly egregious oversight, for it has direct bearing on the concept of the conquest of death in Freemasonry. Sam’s misreading and mishandling of Masonry on this issue strongly affects his assumptions, so that even where his arguments may otherwise have merit, it is difficult for me to have confidence in his conclusions.
Sam is well-known for his beautiful language and for his even-handed and non-polemical writing. However, while his language here is indeed beautiful, the polemic which has characterized the Mormon- Mason dialogue for the last century and a half seems to have negatively influenced his presentation. While overall his book is quite excellent, his treatment of Freemasonry savors more of Mormon apologia than of the sound, even analysis and keen insight which characterizes so much else of his writing.
[i] Samuel Morris Brown. In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
[ii] Ibid, chapter 7, pages 170-202.
[iii] Henry Andrew Francken. The Francken Manuscript, [of] 1783, typescript. Kila, MT: Kessinger, 141.
[iv] Francken, 153.
[v] William Penn. Fruits of Solitude. Vol. I, Part 3. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14.