On Mormon Stories and Widow’s Sons

The weather vane of the Nauvoo temple as drawn by William Weeks showing the square and compass

When it comes to the deeply problematic Mormon Stories essay on the Temple Ceremony / Masonry you are not getting much of the the truth on either.

Instead of providing a responsible look at the important and fascinating connections between the endowment ceremony and Freemasonry (and their differences) it appears that the author would much rather present you with things like long-discredited, sinister theories about Masonic thirst for power or stuff like Mormon psychological control because of their shock value. The author creates fear and casts shadows wherever possible, sacrificing any sort of nuance and accuracy in order to do so. This does not serve to foster open dialogue and honest inquiry, and the story it tells is definitely not “accurate and robust.” 

The author of the essay also mixes and matches historical and theological criticisms, yet treats both as equally valid for the purposes of their argument. They are rather different beasts, and we will treat these issues in depth through a series of separate responses. We will look at the history of Freemasonry and the temple, at biblical and other ancient precedents, and at the theological value of temple attendance. We will then respond to the series of questions appended to the essay because those are likely to be used extensively as talking points in order to discredit the temple ceremony.  

There are two points at the heart of all these responses:

  • 1. Masonry and masonic influence on the temple rituals are not to be feared.
  • 2. Masonry is far from being the entire story.

Here is a little case study which illustrates many of the ways in which the essay is problematic. None of the quotes I will use are obscure or hard to find. A good many actually come from a source with which the author is very familiar.

“For generations, the Church vigorously denied Masonry’s influence while declaring its own ceremonies to be different, more pure, even chastising historians who accurately documented the striking similarities.” 

Screenshot of “ TEMPLE CEREMONY / MASONRY ” as accessed on February 14, 2019.  

Further down the essay, the identity of the chastised historian is made clear.

“The Church’s sensitivity to its Masonic roots eased little over the decades. In 1974, Reed Durham, President of Mormon History Association and Director of Institute at University of Utah, delivered a speech on Masonry at their annual gathering. The Church reacted strongly, forcing him to write an apology before demoting him, effectively ending his career (Writing of Mormon History, 259).” 

Screenshot of “ TEMPLE CEREMONY / MASONRY ” as accessed on February 14, 2019.

This narrative simply is not true. 

In 1989 Gilbert W. Scharffs responded to Ed Decker’s claim that the 1974 talk had nearly cost Durham his membership.

My appointment as director came prior to Dr. Durham’s Nauvoo speech, and was to have been for one year only, to allow him time to do research for a volume of LDS history that he had been commissioned to write by the historical department of the LDS Church. After my year as director came to an end (during which time Dr. Durham presented his Nauvoo paper) I was told he was given the option of returning as institute director or to the higher assignment of area director of LDS educational programs. Dr. Durham declined both positions wanting to be free to spend more time in research and full-time teaching, as part of the LDS Institute of Religion faculty, which he does to this day with distinction and a strong testimony.1

Reed C. Durham, Jr., pictured with other Institute of Religion faculty in Salt Lake City, 1970. Durham is seated third from the right

Not only did this not end Durham’s career – he retired from CES teaching sometime in the 1990s – Durham was actually part of the projected multi-volume sesquicentennial history project some years later.2 Durham’s volume was not singled out like Bushman’s was,3 it was simply never completed once the project died. He did publish some of it in the form of a journal article in BYU Studies,4 and also authored some entries in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

The List of contributors to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992), showing Durham employed by the CES

If Durham was neither demoted nor had his career effectively ended, then what actually happened? 

It is hard to believe that the author of the essay did not know that there was more to the story, especially given the following from Prince’s Arrington biography.

Durham began his speech on a flippant note that, given the nature of his topic, would have the effect of exacerbating any negative reactions from the church hierarchy: “Regardless of the possible incriminations and stigma that might ensue, I should like, in this paper, to interpose some unorthodox findings and fancies upon the more traditional and canonical propaganda of the faith.”5

Reed Durham took a sensitive topic relating to some of the holiest rites and ordinances in the church, and ran it over roughshod by a flippant tone and irresponsible generalizations which easily created the impression that the endowment was not a divinely inspired restoration. Durham himself conceded as much in his written apology.

I have been informed of instances where even my own colleagues in the Mormon History Association, and also some close friends within the Church misinterpreted what I said, and more important to me, in some cases even questioned my faith in Joseph Smith and the Church. Of course, I assume the full responsibility for creating those questions, concerns, and misunderstandings. It was because I was not skillful enough, erudite enough, nor perhaps prayerful enough to make my personal position and feelings clearly known.6

Mervin B. Hogan – whom the author mentions approvingly – offered the following caution when he circulated an unauthorized yet accurate transcript of the talk to fellow masons. “Dr. Durham’s unfolding of his strange thesis has numerous potholes and several – somewhat inconspicuous – booby traps which can ensnare the unsuspecting inquirer.”7

Prince documents that Arrington’s department knew of the masonic connections well before Durham’s talk, but also that in answer to the question of whether or not it was “sound historically,” Arrington said that “we had serious reservations.”8

When Scharffs asked Durham many years later, “How do you feel about your Nauvoo speech now?” Durham responded that,

I now wish I had presented some of my material differently… For instance, at the present time, after rechecking my data, I find no primary evidence that Joseph Smith ever possessed a Jupiter talisman. The source for my comment was a second-hand, late source. It came from Wilford Wood, who was told it by Charlie Bidamon, who was told it by his father, Lewis Bidamon, who was Emma’s second husband and a non-Mormon not too friendly to the LDS Church. So, the idea that the Prophet had such a talisman is highly questionable!9

The Jupiter talisman, an item that Durham originally believed belong to Joseph, but later realised that this was not supported by any of the evidence

 The only personal fallout for Reed Durham was that he was required by his superior in the CES to write a letter of apology in which he affirmed his testimony of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and of the divine inspiration of temple work, a copy of which was sent to all who attended the talk. Granted, Arrington did feel that writing the letter was “unnecessary and rather silly,”and told Fielding Anderson so, but that was the extent of the discipline against Durham. Arrington did go on to say that “Reed has never been an effective Church history researcher since that date,”10 but that is a curious statement to give in 1981, considering that Durham had been hired by Arrington to write the sesquicentennial volume on the crossing of the plains.

Given all this you could argue that the church overreacted, but it is obvious that the issues with Durham’s talk were not with accurate documentation, and that is what Mormon Stories will not tell you.