A very distinct connection between Mormonism and Masonry exists although many Mormon apologists would disagree. The evidence, to me, is quite clear that Joseph Smith not only borrowed from the Masonic initiation rites he even incorporated anti-Masonic sentiment in the Book of Mormon. This will take some explaining. The underlying theme of the Book of Mormon is the falling away of the Nephites, the clean and blessed people of the American continent. This group of people were supposedly annihilated by the Lamanites. Their remnant being the indigenous people of the American continent. Joseph Smith believed that many of the American Indians were decsendants of these Lamanites. The Lamanites completely destroyed the Nephites, but a force underwent the Nephites to weaken them before their destruction. This force was an organization that dealt with secret combinations. The net result was that the Nephites that dealt in secret combinations destroyed the government, thus preparing and dividing it for utter destruction (Book of Mormon; 3 Nephi 6). What were the "secret combinations" in the Book of Mormon?
Joseph Smith leaves us some distinct hints of what he meant by "secret combinations". The secret organization had "... their signs, yea, their secret words; and this that they might distiguish a brother who had entered into the covenant ..." (Book of Mormon; Helaman 6:22). The purpose of these secrets were to "...protect and preserve one another in whatsoever difficult circumstances they should be placed ...", in particular " ... their murders, and their plundering, and their stealings." (Book of Mormon; Helaman 6:21). The secret combinations were labeled evil with the devil as its source (Book of Mormon; 2 Nephi 9:9).
What can explain Joseph Smith's preoccupation with secret combinations? An answer to this question originates in the history at the time. In 1827, which just happens to be right before the publishing of the Book of Mormon in 1830, anti-Masonic sentiment in the area was strong. Within just a few weeks of Joseph's return with his new wife to his father's house in Manchester, conventions denouncing Freemasonry were held in town and nearby Farmington (Robert N. Hullinger, 1980:105). The conventions were provoked by the Morgan trials, trials against Masons charged with the murder of Captain William Morgan of Batvia, New York. Morgan strongly opposed Masonry and denounced the group publicly. He was paying for the publishing of a book that exposed the secret signs, grips, and rituals of Freemasonry. When he disappeared soon after his public opposition against the elite order, the explanation was clear to many: the Masons silenced him through death. (Lucinda Pendelton, the widow of William Morgan married George Washington Harris. Some evidence even indicates that Joseph Smith married Lucinda in 1838 when he was living at the Harris home.) The courts, thought corrupted by the Masons, would not prosecute fellow Masons for the crime of murder.
Who killed Morgan? We still do not know for sure, but we do know that at the time Freemasonry was getting bad press, and a lot of press at that. Talk about the Morgan trials permeated the newly enjoyed American printing press with an air of conspiracy and intrigue. For the first time in American history an Anti-Masonic party was organized as a third political party in the United States. John Quincy Adams, who had already served as the sixth President of the United States, became one of the outspoken leaders against Masonry. William Wirt was placed as the Anti-Masonic Party Presidential candidate in 1832, but easily lost with only seven electoral votes. Wirt's defeat was an indication that anti-Masonic sentiment had decreased drastically by then.
Although one can pick up on the anti-Masonic sentiment in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith was not directly hostile to the fraternity. In fact he joined the organization on March 14, 1842 (History of the Church, vol. 4, pg. 550-551). Six weeks after his initiation into Masonry he called his most trusted church leaders together to instruct them on the endowment. I will quote directly from the LDS Church historical records:
Joseph Smith's own temple records indicate that he received his endowment in Nauvoo on May 4, 1842, weeks after his Masonic initiation. The Nauvoo endowment had many new elements eventhough an "endowment" was first introduced in Kirtland, Ohio, many years previously. The Kirtland endowment did not contain the many Masonic elements as did the Nauvoo endowment. The Nauvoo Temple, which began construction prior to Joseph Smith's initiation into Masonry, was not specifically designed for the endowment. Brigham Young had canvas walls hang from the ceiling to divide the upper attic into the different rooms. Willford Woodruff later admitted that the Nauvoo Masonic Temple was used for LDS ordinances (Lot Case, pg. 299). Not surprisingly, in 1844 all of the Nauvoo Masonic lodges were declared clandestine and their dispensation revoked by the Grand Lodge in Springfield, Illinois. Up until recently many of these Masonic elements have remained in the LDS endowment. In 1990, the LDS Church abondoned the five points of fellowship and the Masonic penal oaths and signs. However, many Masonic similarities still exist and the others will not soon be forgotten.