Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Masonic Royal Arch ritual and Oliver Cowdery's gift of translation

 Rod of Aaron used in the
Royal Arch ritual

Later, William Cowdery and his brother Warren became members of a Royal Arch Mark Masters lodge. William was the lodge's Master Overseer in 1805, and a Junior Warden in 1807 and 1809. Oliver's brother Stephen was involved in the lodge before 1816. Given William Cowdery's draw to the esoteric, he may have taken the opportunity to involve himself in the Council of the Cryptic Rite when Jeremy Cross established it in Poultney around 1817.

Oliver Cowdery was born in 1806 and eventually became a Mason.  His use of a rod was likely influenced by his family's ritualistic use of a rod in Royal Arch Masonic ceremonies, his own involvement in Masonry, as well as his father's use of a rod to receive revelations as one of the New Israelites.

Ark of Covenant containing
lost scripture and a rod
The previously mentioned parallel tying "sprout" to the Rod of Aaron in the  Royal Arch ritual has additional parallels to the discussion of Oliver's gift, as well as to Joseph Smith's recovery and translation of gold plates. Aspects of the ritual specifically related to topics in D&C 6 and 8 include Masons discovering Enoch's underground temple buried under the rubble of Solomon's temple where they locate the Ark of the Covenant. The ark contains a pot of manna, the rod of Aaron, a lost book of scripture, and a "key." The ark's lid is inscribed with three undecipherable characters from the gold plate of Enoch.  Using the key, the hieroglyphs are deciphered revealing the sacred written name of God.35

Parallels between the Royal Arch ritual, Joseph Smith's recovery and translation of plates, and revelations telling Oliver he will translate are as follows:

1. Sacred Objects. The Royal Arch ritual includes the Book of the Law, Manna and the Rod of Aaron in an underground temple.  Joseph Smith reported a Sword, Breastplate, spectacles (Urim and Thummim), compass, and gold plates in a cave in a stone box.36 We don't know about the origin of Oliver Cowdery's rod, but God tells him is gift is sacred and "cometh from above."

2. Restoration of lost scripture
.  In the Royal Arch ritual "The Book of the Law" and the lost name of God are restored.37  Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon and later also reveals the name of God from the pure Adamic language. Oliver Cowdery was to "translate all those ancient Records which have been hid up which are Sacred.

3. Keys to unreadable text.  The Royal Arch ritual has a "key to the ineffable characters" found in the ark allowing the sacred name of God to be deciphered.  Joseph Smith referred to the the spectacles a "key" which were to be used to translate the gold plates.38 Regarding translation, God tells Oliver "I give unto you, and also unto my servant Joseph, the keys of this gift..." Since the priesthood had not yet been restored, a possible reading of "keys" is to consider there were two keys, one given to each man, Joseph's key being a seerstone, and Oliver's being the rod.

Joseph Smith as a Seer
"Light Shineth in darkness"
4. Light Shineth in Darkness.  Regarding the restoration of the name of God, the text of the Royal Arch ritual quotes, "the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not." In the translated text of the Book of Mormon, every phrase related to light shining in darkness has to do with either seerstones or predictions of Joseph Smith recovering the gold plates. D&C 6 states the Son of God (I.E. "The Word" [John 1:1-5]) is "the light which shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not."39[D&C 6:21]

5. Revelation and Translation.
The Royal Arch ritual describes the restoration of two forms of the name of God, the deciphered hieroglyphs in written form, and the spoken name of God.40  A possible parallel to this may be the distinction between Oliver's two gifts in D&C 6 and 8; translation and revelation through his rod, or the "written" and "spoken" words of God.  Joseph Smith also used his seerstone for both revelations and translations.41

Brigham Young diary entry
using Royal Arch cipher
6. Mosaic Authority. The Royal Arch ritual refers to a number of events in the life of Moses, including a reenactment of Aaron's rod changing to a snake by the initiate casting a rod painted like a snake on the floor and taking it up again.

Joseph Smith translated a Book of Mormon prophecy that infers he was a latter-day Moses-like prophet with a spokesman in the role of Aaron (I.E. Oliver Cowdery).  The text of the prophecy, translated within 3 months of D&C 8 points out that Moses had "power unto him in a rod." [2nd Nephi 3:17]  Joseph Smith later translated a similar prophecy when translating the bible. [JST Gen:50:24]42

D&C 8:3 appeals to Mosaic authority when it refers to Moses leading the children of Israel through the Red Sea (implying the use of his rod when parting the Red Sea).


Multiple factors related to D&C 8 came into play before and after it was revealed.

Joseph Smith's family had been involved in the use of folk magic to search for hidden treasure using both rods and seerstones. Oliver Cowdery was likely influenced by his father's involvement with the New Israelites, who used rods to both search for treasure and to receive revelations. His family's involvement in Royal Arch Masonry and its ritual involving the Rod of Aaron may have also influenced Cowdery who had already been receiving revelations through the rod before meeting Joseph Smith.  When they met, they shared a common belief in the powerful potential of the rod.

Upon inquiry through his seerstone, Joseph Smith received a series of revelations related to Oliver's rod.  Oliver was assured that his rod was from God and he would do "marvelous" things with it.  Similar to Royal Arch Masonry and Joseph Smith, Cowdery was to translate unreadable texts revealing the mysteries of God through "keys" with the rod. Revelations and translations by Joseph Smith related to rods, coupled with magic and Masonic parallels, suggested they considered Cowdery's rod to be the Rod of Aaron, that Oliver was a spokesman in the role of Aaron, and that Joseph Smith occupied a Moses-like role. These foreshadowed future developments related to the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods.

Parallels with the Royal Arch Masonic ritual suggest a relationship between it and Joseph Smith's restoration of ancient scripture.
The revelation went through a series of modifications, eventually disguising the original topic of D&C 8. Rods continued to have occasional use among some members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve into the Utah period.  Today, knowledge of the rod is unknown to most Mormons.  Reflections on its use in the early days of the church provide insight into the origins of Mormonism.

-Clair Barrus

Note: the various texts of the "Rod of Nature" revelation can be compared here.

35 Parallels between Mormonism and Royal Arch Masonry beyond the scope of this paper are discussed in Homer 17-18,34-38. Originally inscribed on a plate of gold by Enoch, this is the lost Master's word, or ineffable word that was lost when Hiram Abiff refused to reveal it and was murdered.  Compare PoGP, facsimile #2.
36 The High Priest of Royal Arch masonry wears "a breastplate of cut glass" (Bernard, 141) while Lucy Mac Smith said the spectacles "consisted of two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass."  Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853), 101. These descriptions resemble the Old Testament description the high priest wearing a sacred breastplate containing the Urim and Thummim (Ex 28:13-30). Note also the Compass (I.E. Liahona) resembles the two balls with maps of the world an Universe in Masonic Lore, Homer 16.
37 Joseph Smith's titled his 1841-43 Nauvoo journal "The Book of the Law of the Lord"
'Joseph saw this, and said, "Do not be uneasy mother, all is right—see here, I have got a key."  I knew not what he meant, but took the article of which he spoke into my hands, and, upon examination, found that it consisted of two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows, which were connected with each other in much the same way as old fashioned spectacles. He took them again and left me, but said nothing respecting the Record.' Smith, Lucy. Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations. Lamoni, Ia.: Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1908, 101. 
39 This phrase occurs four verses before the discussion of translation occurs.  It also occurs when discussing Hyrum's gift (D&C 11:11).  Hyrum had also sought treasure.  The phrase occurs five other times in the D&C.
40 See also D&C 130:11.
41 The original heading of JSP was "Revelation & Translation."  Cowdery is to "ask that ye may know the mysteries of God & that ye may Translate all those ancient Records."
42 For Oliver as spokesman, see for example D&C 28:1-8.  Joseph Smith Translation, Joseph Smith's "New Translation" of the Bible, Herald Publishing House, 1970 (JST).

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