by Kenneth W. Godfrey
The introduction of Freemasonry in Nauvoo had both political and religious implications. When Illinois Grand Master Abraham Jonas visited Nauvoo on March 15, 1842, to install the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge, he inaugurated an era of difficulty with other Illinois Masons and introduced to Nauvoo ancient ritual bearing some similarity to the LDS temple ordinances (see Freemasonry and the Temple).
Regular Masonic procedure calls for an existing lodge to sponsor each new proposed lodge. Early in the summer of 1841, several Latter-day Saints who were Masons, including Lucius N. Scovil, a key figure in Nauvoo Freemasonry, asked Bodley Lodge No. 1, in Quincy, Illinois, to request that the Illinois Grand Lodge appoint certain individuals as officers of a Nauvoo lodge. Indicating that the persons named were unknown in Quincy as Masons, the lodge returned the letter with instructions for further action.
Less than a year later, Nauvoo had a lodge without the normal sponsorship. Grand Master Jonas apparently waived the rule and granted Nauvoo a "special dispensation" to organize. He also made Joseph Smith and his counselor, Sidney Rigdon, "Masons at sight." Some believe that Jonas was willing to follow this course because he envisioned the growing Mormon vote supporting his own political ambitions (see Nauvoo Politics). Although the action may have endeared him to some Latter-day Saints, it antagonized other Masons. Joseph Smith had reason to expect that the Saints might benefit from the network of friendship and support normally associated with the fraternal organization, but instead, the Nauvoo Lodge only produced friction.
Jonas published an account of the March 15 installation of the Nauvoo Lodge in his newspaper, Columbia Advocate. "Never in my life did I witness a better dressed or more orderly and well-behaved assemblage," he wrote (HC 4:565-66). During the installation ceremonies, held in the grove near the temple site, Joseph Smith officiated as Grand Chaplain. That evening, with the Masons assembled in his office, the Prophet received the first degree of Freemasonry. Nauvoo Masons then commenced weekly early morning meetings.
In August 1842, Bodley Lodge No. 1 protested the granting of a dispensation to the Nauvoo Lodge, resulting in a temporary suspension of activities. An investigation found that approximately three hundred Latter-day Saints had become Masons during the brief existence of the lodge, but found no irregularities warranting dissolution. The Grand Lodge not only authorized reinstatement of the Nauvoo Lodge but subsequently granted dispensations for other lodges nearby made up principally of Latter-day Saints. Eventually nearly 1,500 LDS men became associated with Illinois Freemasonry, including many members of the Church's governing priesthood bodies—this at a time when the total number of non-LDS Masons in Illinois lodges barely reached 150.
As long-time rivals of Nauvoo for political and economic ascendancy, neighboring Masons feared and resisted Mormon domination of Freemasonry. Charging the Nauvoo Lodge with balloting for more than one applicant at a time, receiving applicants into the fraternity on the basis that they reform in the future, and making Joseph Smith a Master Mason on sight, enemies forced an investigation in October 1843. The Grand Lodge summoned Nauvoo officials to Jacksonville, Illinois. Armed with pertinent books and papers, Lucius Scovil and Henry G. Sherwood answered the allegations. Though the examining committee reported that everything appeared to be in order, it expressed fear that there might be something wrong, and recommended a year's suspension. At this point, Grand Master Jonas, in an impassioned speech, declared that the books of the Nauvoo Lodge were the best-kept he had seen and stated his conviction that but for the fact that the Nauvoo Lodge was composed of Mormons, it would stand as the highest lodge in the state. A committee was appointed to make a thorough investigation in Nauvoo. Though the committee reported no wrongdoing, the Nauvoo Lodge was again suspended. The injunction was later removed, but the Nauvoo Lodge continued to lack the support of its fellow Masons.
In April 1844, the Nauvoo Lodge dedicated a new Masonic hall. By this time, the lodge had been severed from the Grand Lodge and one Illinois Mason had been expelled from his lodge for attending the dedication. The Nauvoo Lodge continued its activities in the newly built hall until April 10, 1845, when Brigham Young advised Lucius Scovil to suspend the work of the Masons in Nauvoo. Only a few additional meetings were held prior to the Latter-day Saints' departure for the Great Basin in 1846.
Joseph Smith participated minimally in Freemasonry and, as far as is known, attended the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge on only three occasions. Nonetheless, LDS Masons commented on his mastery of its orders, tenets, and principles and of his understanding of the allegorical symbolism of its instructions.
Most scholars who have looked carefully at the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge agree that it was more victim than villain. All agree that widespread anti-Mormon feelings and the extensive hatred of Latter-day Saints by local rivals, and not irregularities or misconduct, caused the controversy with regard to the Masonic Lodge in Nauvoo.
Hogan, Mervin B. "Mormonism and Freemasonry: The Illinois Episode." In Little Masonic Library, ed. Silas H. Shepherd, Lionel Vibert, and Roscoe Pound, Vol. 2, pp. 267-326. Richmond, Va., 1977.
Ivins, Anthony W. The Relationship of "Mormonism" and Freemasonry. Salt Lake City, 1934.
McGavin, E. Cecil. Mormonism and Masonry. Salt Lake City, 1954.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Freemasonry in Nauvoo