Equal Rites

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

Clyde R. Forsberg
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 352
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/fors12640
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Equal Rites
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50746-2
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. PREFACE: MORMON MASONRY?
    (pp. xiii-xxii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xxiii-xxvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION: THE WAX AND WANE OF MASONRY IN AMERICAN CULTURE
    (pp. 1-22)

    Who are the masons? In some respects, the question is not so much who they are but who they were. How many Masons are there worldwide? Depending on whom one asks, anywhere from one to five million. In the United States and Canada, for example, most towns and villages—and certainly larger metropolitan centers—have a Masonic temple to their credit, such inauspicious insignia as carpenter square, engineering compass, and capital G (a testament to Masonic reverence for the Deity) perhaps the only clues to what goes on (or perhaps went on) behind closed doors and boarded windows. And although...

  6. I THE MORMON-MASONIC NEXUS
    • one READING A SEALED BOOK
      (pp. 25-42)

      In 1830 an upstate New Yorker published his own English translation of a lost history of the forefathers of the American Indians, written on golden tablets, that he called the Book of Mormon. Five thousand leather-bound copies were circulated by friends and family, but sales in New York proved disappointing, indeed something of a shock. The Book of Mormon has been dismissed by most nineteenth-century social and cultural historians as simply a poorly written, eccentric religious text of little or no importance to anyone but Mormons. How it came to be (purportedly through an angelic dictation, like the Qur’an), however,...

    • two WAS JOSEPH SMITH A MASON?
      (pp. 43-56)

      Historians tend to locate Mormonism in the first decade of its development (the 1830s) on the side of Evangelical Antimasonry. (Apologists reject this, but for the wrong reasons—their rejoinder is a desperate attempt to buttress the book against reductionism of any kind.¹ Anthony W. Ivins is a case in point.)² Book of Mormon critic Dan Vogel quotes the financier of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris, who described it as an “Anti-masonick Bible.”³ (Harris served on the local Palmyra anti-Masonic vigilance committee before gravitating to Mormonism. His wife, Lucy, took umbrage to his shift in...

    • three DREAMING MASONRY: GETTING THE STORY PLUMB
      (pp. 57-78)

      In her seminal Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, Jan Shipps argues that the story of Mormonism “began with the discovery of a book whose contents told Saints in the nineteenth century what had happened to the people of God who came to America before them in much the same way that the priests’ discovery in the recesses of the temple of a book said to have been written by Moses told the people in King Josiah’s reign about those who came to Israel before them.”¹ She goes on to show how all the major events in the...

    • four AS THE WORDS OF A BOOK THAT IS SEALED: THE BOOK OF MORMON AS ESOTERIC MALE (HI)STORY
      (pp. 79-88)

      No antebellum prophet of Smith’s social standing gave us a book quite like the Book of Mormon: a comprehensive literary, theological, social, and cultural mission statement and missionary tool that spoke with considerable force to a restive faction in American and European society, becoming the basis for a world religion. In the midst of the Morgan affair, Smith, as I will attempt to show, used romance as the flagship for his Masonic ideas. Ironically, the Book of Mormon spoke rather profoundly to unsuspecting women of Evangelical sensibility. Fanny Stenhouse is a case in point. In her memoir Tell It All:...

    • five FLEEING BABEL WITH MOTHER AND CHILD IN TOW
      (pp. 89-98)

      Mormonism grew up in the midst of a protracted battle—most pronounced, of course, in the North—over the proper sphere of men and women within the new economic realities of an emerging industrial nation-state. It made more sense to more and more of antebellum America’s middling sort for women to exercise absolute moral authority over children, giving men more time and energy to pursue their professional vocations and pecuniary responsibilities. Wives continued to monitor expenditures, ensuring that husbands did not fritter away the family’s hard-earned money. Early Mormonism utterly rejected this arrangement, propounding a less unequal distribution of parental...

  7. II THE QUEST WITHIN THE QUEST
    • six A BIBLE! A BIBLE! WE HAVE GOT A BIBLE
      (pp. 101-112)

      A microscopic, source-critical analysis of the Book of Mormon reveals a nuanced biblical subtext. Importantly, the Book of Mormon quotes extensively and directly from the King James Version: Exodus 20:2–4, 3–17; Isaiah 2–14; 48:1–49:26; 52:7–15; 53:1–12; 54:1–17; Micah 4:12–13; 5:8–11; Malachi 3, 4; and Matthew 5–7. In some cases, the wording has been altered slightly. Many such emendations are of the italicized words in the Authorized Version. As Wesley P. Walters shows, the Old Testament passages quoted in the Book of Mormon support Smith’s eschatological views.¹ The books of Nephi...

    • seven THE SEARCH FOR THE LONG LOST BOOK IN THE BOOK OF MORMON
      (pp. 113-126)

      The books of nephi, the first of fifteen books in the Book of Mormon, pick up where the Book of Ether leaves off. Another exodus. Another beheading. Yet another Noachian sojourn and protracted fall from grace. Another Masonic battle to the death, too. The Jaredites destroy each other, and the Nephites are wiped off the face of the earth by their brothers, the Lamanites. The journey begins with a Hebrew prophet named Lehi who flees Jerusalem before the Babylonian incursion, taking his family with him. Lehi is a visionary. I have already discussed how his dream of the Tree of...

    • eight WHAT MANNER OF (MASONIC) MEN?
      (pp. 127-136)

      In the protracted account of the quest for the long-lost book and all that search entails, the books of Alma and Helaman pick up where Mosiah leaves off. They contain much vital information of a social and cultural (even theological) kind but are not nearly as important as what precedes and what follows. In excess of two hundred pages, these two books do a masterful job of killing time (five hundred years or more) as we await the advent of something entirely different. In the meantime, Nephites and Lamanites duke it out. What began as a sibling rivalry engulfs an...

  8. III THE ANTI-EVANGELICAL MIND OF JOSEPH SMITH JR.
    • nine WHETHER A MAN CAN ENTER A SECOND TIME INTO HIS MOTHER’S WOMB
      (pp. 139-152)

      The early nineteenth century was a time of radical social, political, economic, and religious upheaval and transformation. Widespread concern about the future well-being of the new republic in the new economic reality gave rise to yet another Great Awakening and Protestant reform strategy. Calvinist-Arminian debate heated up, with Arminians winning the day. A theology of works suited the unshakable belief of most Americans in the essential righteousness of the human thirst for greater self-determination—waters springing unto everlasting life.¹ How this generation of postrevolutionary Americans should be reared—with loving kindness and even considerable reverence, given their unclouded recollections of...

    • ten HEAVEN AND HELL: DIVINING THE GHOST OF EMMANUEL SWEDENBORG
      (pp. 153-166)

      The book of mormon is almost Dantean, its discussion of hell ostensibly the stuff of Jonathan Edwards. The souls of men seem to hang in the balance. A third of the book has something to say about hell in particular. What it means, exactly, and whether the orthodox Protestant understanding is praised or criticized, is the question. Nothing in Masonry is more akin to Protestant eschatology than the lessons it draws from the brutal slaying of Hiram Abiff, the inevitability of death, and the final judgment to follow. Masons obsessed about death, locking themselves in dark rooms and sometimes even...

    • eleven Father-Son and Holy Ghost–Mother? The Mormon-God Question
      (pp. 167-182)

      The mormon concept of God, Mormon philosopher Sterling McMurrin writes, is a radical departure from the position of traditional theism, whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic, and the failure to recognize the far-reaching implications of this idea is a failure to come to grips with the somewhat distinctive quality of Mormon theology, its essential non-absolutistic character. . . . The naturalistic disposition of Mormonism is found in the denial of the traditional conception of the supernatural. . . . Reality is described qualitatively as a single continuum. . . . Mormonism conceives of God as being in both time and space....

  9. IV THE MILLENNIAL, RACIAL, ECONOMIC, AND POLITICAL CONFEDERACY
    • twelve THY KINGDOM COME: ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN
      (pp. 185-196)

      The history of the Christian Church, its remarkable rise from the ashes of Roman intolerance and growth in the years before and after Constantine’s conversion, may have much to do with what one scholar calls “The Apocalyptic Vision and Its Transformation.”¹ Primitive Christians chanted maranatha, “Come Lord, come!” Jesus repeatedly said, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” and his miracles signaled the nearness of that kingdom. Ascending into heaven, he promised to return in glory before the present generation should pass away.

      The Parousia, or Second Coming, did not occur when or how early Christians imagined. An eschatological adjustment...

    • thirteen MORMONS AND JEWS
      (pp. 197-202)

      The book of mormon defends the literal return of Israel to its homeland in Palestine in preparation for the long-awaited millennium and alleged Hebraic hegemony. Nephi says, “The Father shall commence, in preparing the way for the fulfilling of his covenants, which he hath made to his people, which are of the House of Israel.”¹ The prophecies of Isaiah have yet to be fulfilled. “And behold, according to the words of the prophet, the Messiah will set himself again the second time, to recover them” (p. 75). The “Gentiles” are the primary agents in the literal return of the Jews...

    • fourteen THE CURSE AND REDEMPTION OF THE LAMANITES: SALVATION BI-RACE ALONE
      (pp. 203-224)

      Until very recently (1978), the LDS Church refused to ordain men of African lineage to the Mormon priesthood. The priesthood includes the offices (degrees, in effect) of deacon, teacher, and priest (the lesser, or Aaronic, priesthood) and elder, seventy, and high priest (the higher, or Melchizedek, priesthood). These standard-issue and exclusively male appointments are essentially administrative. More problematic by far is the fact that the priesthood ban kept African men and women from going through the temple and being sealed as husband and wife for time and all eternity (the highest and most solemn of the LDS liturgical requirements). Temple...

    • fifteen THE ECONOMIC KINGDOM OF GOD: MASONIC UTOPIANISM UNVEILED
      (pp. 225-238)

      The mormon prophet had deep waistcoat pockets, indeed. None of his “new communities,” however, not even those founded on the Law of Consecration and Stewardship (also known as the United Order and/or the Order of Enoch), was truly radical: they were neither early Marxist collectives nor had much in common with the systems favored by contemporary socialists such as the Shakers and the Oneidan Perfectionists. In fact, Smith’s economics, every step along the way, toed the Jacksonian line of rugged self-reliance and dogged determination, as well adhering to the essentially conservative theorizing of contemporaries such as John L. O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan...

  10. postscript: THE “AMERICANNESS” OF MORMONISM
    (pp. 239-246)

    Mormon history is as much a battle over America as the religion was.¹ Critics accused the church of un-American activities. Alexander Campbell, E. D. Howe, John C. Bennett, Pomeroy Tucker, and Orasmus Turner all emphasize the heterodox nature of Mormon beliefs and practices in relation to the Republican, Evangelical mainstream.² The Mormon response, spearheaded by Parley P. Pratt and John Corrill and even the Prophet’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, defended the faith as both Republican and biblical in the main.³ Smith’s official account of his early religious experiences, The History of the Church, walked a fine line, seeming to locate...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 247-290)
  12. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 291-310)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 311-326)