FairMormon is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of the doctrine, practice, and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormonism and Freemasonry/The use of ritual in gospel ordinances
The use of ritual in gospel ordinances
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: Why would Joseph Smith use a non-religious vehicle for presenting a temple ordinance?
- Question: What is the value of a ritual presentation?
- Question: Why do we continue to use such a participatory style of teaching in the 21st century?
- Question: Will God really deny us eternal salvation simply because we do not practice a set of, as some critics put it, "archaic medieval Masonic rituals" in Mormon temples?
Question: Why would Joseph Smith use a non-religious vehicle for presenting a temple ordinance?
The Endowment is not a Masonic ritual
First off, the endowment is not a Masonic ritual. Freemasonry has no actual relationship to Solomon's temple, and has no actual religious elements. No one ever became a Mason in an LDS Temple and no one has ever been endowed in a Masonic Lodge. However, rituals have proven pedagogical value. Some critics of the temple ceremony would seem to want to paint the LDS Church and the faith as some sort of restorationist version of Calvinism where an unflinching and unforgiving God metes out eternal separation of families. This ignores the reality of the universalist nature of LDS theology and its view of a supremely loving Father providing a plan where ALL of His children can continue to advance and make themselves better both as individuals and as wider families through the atoning sacrifice of Christ..
Question: What is the value of a ritual presentation?
Ritual forms are a useful teaching tool in a semi-literate society
Nothing is divine about Freemasonry and indeed Freemasonry has rejected any and all attempts to portray it as a religion. However, masonic ritual forms are very useful as a teaching tool, particularly in situations such as were found in Nauvoo in the 1840's where many members could not read. The 1850 Illinois census was the first to gather data on literacy. According to the aggregate data taken from the census, in 1850 almost 11% of all white adults 20 and older in Illinois couldn't read or write. 
Literacy was higher in the East. However, the literacy of the populous areas to the east is a poor marker for what it would have been on the western frontier. Women in particular often had markedly lower literacy rates than men. This lower literacy rate for women was also true of the western frontier, with some affidavits from women in Nauvoo signed with an X: they couldn't even write their own names. Even in 1870, 24 years after the exodus from Nauvoo, 11.5% of the total white population of the United States over age 14 was functionally illiterate.  Consider also the introduction of immigrant groups among the Saints from Scandinavia and other countries.
Thus, a participatory form of teaching the temple concepts makes perfect sense. Using ritual forms found in masonry as instructive tools to teach a divine message is what we are dealing with here.
Question: Why do we continue to use such a participatory style of teaching in the 21st century?
Participatory teaching mechanisms are far superior to simple reading
Temple teaching mechanisms through participation are far superior to simple reading regardless of whether one is literate or not. In addition, layered meanings through enactment and participation enable multiple levels of understanding that is much harder to achieve from simple written texts. The temple is more symbolic than literal by design: even to the extent that early 19th century Illinois was "literate," that might not have meant much by present day standards. Many of those on the frontier who were literate had no schooling beyond early teen years; the majority definitely weren't what we would call "bookish."
What were they instead? The culture of folklore, memorization and recitation, oral transmission of tradition and mores was very much in place. Reading and writing was not necessarily their primary mode of learning and navigating through society and the world. How many books did most households even have? Typically a family Bible, and not much else. A lot of Bible exposure was memorization and recitation, not poring over the pages. As an Illinois frontier resident in 1840, one would not have spent most evenings curled up by candlelight with a book. Much more likely, one would be gathered around a fireside with family and friends, talking and sharing stories. Or, one would just go to bed after working hard all day and because one couldn't afford to keep lamps and candles lit for long.
So why continue to use the participatory teaching style today if one of the reasons for it may have been to compensate for literacy and lack of "bookishness" of early 19th century pioneers? The fact is that even today we learn more and deeper truths through participatory symbolism and the layered meanings we find in the temple dramas. We are a people of stories. We gain more from stories than theological arguments. Indeed, our theology is framed in terms of stories, and the participatory teaching play is another form of teaching theology through story.
Question: Will God really deny us eternal salvation simply because we do not practice a set of, as some critics put it, "archaic medieval Masonic rituals" in Mormon temples?
Purpose of ritual and tokens and their role in salvation
The ritual and tokens are to show our fidelity to covenants, a central point of both the endowment and the masonic rituals. God does not need them, we need them. Or, more precisely, we need the covenants that they represent. They help us learn to be faithful to what we want to be. It is the keeping of covenants that leads to salvation, not the ritual or tokens themselves.
- Illinois Census 1850: A) Total population: 851,470. This is made up of 1) Total white males: 445,544 2) Total white females: 400,490 3) Total free colored (male and female): 5,436. White adult males unable to read and write: 16,633. White adult females unable to read and write: 23,421. off-site
- "Literacy from 1870 to 1979," National Center for Education Statistics.