Just yesterday, Mary Ann posted about the new “Now You Know” video series produced by the Church and available at LDS.org. They are also available at the Church’s YouTube channel. You really have to view a few of these to grasp how directly these short videos engage with and respond to the many issues that are troubling so many members of the Church these days. It’s as if some committee of senior leaders, history staffers, and technical folks got together in a meeting and said, “The Gospel Topics Essays are nice, but no one is reading them. What else can we do?” Then some twentyish techno guy pipes up and says, “I know, we can make some short animated videos and put them on YouTube.” Then some eightyish apostle responds with a flash of inspiration, “Hmm, that sounds like it might work. Yes, that’s what we’ll do. Make it so.” And it came to pass that a whole series of Now You Know videos appeared in the land.
I haven’t watched all 27 of them yet, just “Did Joseph Smith Use A Seer Stone?”, “Where Did the Book of Mormon Come From,” and “Joseph Smith and Masonry” (which I’ll look at more closely below). I think you will be surprised how edgy these videos are, in the sense of talking about issues (masonry, seer stones, translation in a hat) that, just a few years ago, were in the “things we don’t talk about” category in official LDS discourse. Granted, the tough issues are framed by more familiar faith-promoting material and given an apologetic gloss, but that is hardly unexpected. Go ahead and watch a few, then share your response in the comments.
Joseph Smith and Masonry
Let’s look at the “Joseph Smith and Masonry” video, which is the most recent video posted on YouTube and doesn’t yet appear at the LDS.org site (the other 26 do). It starts out with the straightforward questions: “Was Joseph Smith a Mason? And if so, what connections does it have to [LDS] temple worship?” The video does acknowledge that Freemasonry goes back only a few hundred years, but doesn’t spell out that early Mormons who were Masons believed it went back to Solomon’s Temple (as Masonic lore at the time held) and based their acceptance of Joseph Smith’s endowment ceremony as an authentic divine ritual with ancient roots in part on its resemblance (albeit repurposed) to Masonic rites.
The video also notes that while Joseph became a Mason only in Nauvoo (on March 15, 1842), his brother Hyrum joined a Masonic lodge in Palmyra, New York, and that Joseph Smith, Sr., was a Master Mason with a lodge in Canandaigua, New York, as early as 1818. So Freemasonry ran in the family, so to speak. The video poses another relevant question: “Does the [LDS] temple endowment borrow from Masonic ritual?” The video acknowledges some “common characteristics,” noting “common methods of presentation” and “clothing of the participants.” The video then attempts to distinguish the two rituals, stressing “the covenants and truths introduced by Joseph Smith,” claiming these were “revealed to him prior to his encounter with Masonry.”
Joseph first presented his LDS endowment in May of 1842 to a small group of LDS elders only six weeks after his formal initiation into Masonry. One of these first participants was James Adams, who happened to be Deputy Masonic Grand Master for Illinois at the time. Hinting at “common methods of presentation,” as the video does, doesn’t really capture the extent of the similarities, particularly if one considers the original LDS endowment ritual, as opposed to the current version which has been modified a number of times, often removing some of the Masonic material. Consider the Masonic Five Point of Fellowship as discussed at masonicdictionary.com, symbolized by “hand, foot, knee, breast and back. After 1842, the hand was omitted, and the mouth and ear tacked on as the fifth.” Or the ubiquitous compass and square (see the image at the top of this post), to this day featured prominently in the Masonic logo.
None of this is new information. Indeed, the earliest participants in Joseph’s LDS endowment were very aware of the common characteristics. Here is some commentary provided by Fawn Brodie (p. 281-82 of No Man Knows My History, the 1995 paperback reissue of the revised 1971 edition of the 1945 original published by Alfred A. Knopf):
It may seem surprising that Joseph should have incorporated so much Masonry into the endowment ceremony in the very weeks when all his leading men were being inducted into the Masonic lodge. They would have been blind indeed not to see the parallelism between the costuming, grips, passwords, keys, and oaths. Joseph made free use of other Masonic symbols — the beehive, the all-seeing eye, the two clasped hands, and the point within the circle. The miracle play performed in the Mormon ceremony differed only in subject matter from the Masonic drama of Hiram Abiff, and both used many of the same sonorous phrases from the Old Testament. Joseph taught his men simply that the Masonic ritual was a corruption of the ancient ritual of Solomon, and that his own was a restoration of the true Hebraic endowment.
If you want more details, there is an additional essay posted at LDS.org which provides even more information. Go read item “Masonry” under the Church History Topics section. The essay notes, for example, that all nine of the men who participated in the first presentation of Joseph’s LDS endowment were Masons, and that it was performed in the same location (above Joseph’s Red Brick Store) where the Masons in Nauvoo met. The notes to the essay include reference to an article by Stephen C. Harper, “Freemasonry and the Latter-day Saint Endowment Ceremony,” in Laura Harris Hales, ed., A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2016).
So Now You Know
There is something ironic about that title. It suggests “We the leadership have known about this stuff for a long time, and now you know, too.” As with the Gospel Topics Essays, I can see some people responding not just with surprise, but with frustration, even anger, that this sort of information was so carefully excluded from the LDS curriculum and LDS discourse, despite being so relevant and (at the very least) interesting to the average Latter-day Saint. On the other hand, if you think transparency, candor, and simple honesty are praiseworthy practices for the Church (or for any large institution that takes your money and asks for your loyalty), then progress is progress. I think we have to temper the natural response of “Why didn’t you tell us this stuff sooner?” with a more reflective “It’s nice they are now addressing this stuff with Church-sponsored material directed to the membership.”
So what do you think of this video? Or the entire series? Have you watched other videos in the series and what do you think? Wouldn’t a couple of these make a great addition to your next Ward Council meeting or your next youth fireside?