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Ancient, Earnest, Secret and Fraternal

by Richard Brookhiser,
Civilization - 1 Aug 1996

Since the founding of the first American lodges in the 1730s, Freemasons have attracted prominent members, done good deeds and sometimes sparked open hostility.

IN JUST ABOUT EVERY AMERICAN town or city stands a building, about the same vintage as the oldest church and the courthouse, and built in much the same style, except with fewer windows. Only men go there--fewer and fewer as the years pass, but still almost 1 percent of the population. These men seem like everybody else, and they do a lot of good works, from raising money for hospitals to sponsoring charitable flea markets. What makes them unusual is that they believe they are heirs to a tradition going back at least to the time of Solomon. Some of their fellows in Europe have sat on the English throne, connived in Italian political scandals or suffered in Nazi concentration camps. And even in the milder climate of America, they have sparked controversy: They have been embraced by George Washington and assailed by John Quincy Adams; they have figured in the strange numerology of Louis Farrakhan and been demonized in Pat Robertson's New World Order. They are Freemasons.

There were 2.4 million members of the Free and Accepted Masons in America in 1993. They have numbered 14 presidents among their ranks, including Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and Gerald Ford, and their imagery is pervasive: On every dollar bill, the unfinished pyramid and unwinking eye are recognizable Masonic symbols. In recent years, as their numbers have declined, they have undertaken modest ad campaigns to increase their ranks, a radical change for a group that has traditionally required prospective members to approach them. Throughout their history, Freemasons have made a point of being egalitarian -- "the distant Chinese, the wild Arab, and the American savage, will embrace a brother Briton," wrote one 18th-century member--but they have never admitted women, who, in America, belong to auxiliary organizations. Since the 19th century, Freemasonry has spawned a host of imitators--the Moose, the Fraternal Order of the Eagle, the Odd Fellows--and has itself diversified into an array of groups with different rituals and rites (the best-known suborder being the Shriners). The changing fortunes of Freemasonry, and of its enemies, reflect the interplay of diversity and conformity, of elitism and equality in America--as well as the rough and tumble of politics.

Modern Freemasonry in the English-speaking world began in London in 1717 with the formation of the English Grand Lodge. Fraternal organizations of stonemasons, like other medieval craft guilds, had existed for centuries before that. But in the early 18th century, a new generation of "speculative" masons (that is, "masons" who were not in the building trades) moved into the old groups, modified their rituals and took them in a new direction.

The intellectual interests of the new Freemasons were a grab bag of science, religion and antiquarianism. Among the members were James Anderson, a Presbyterian minister and a genealogist; John Desaguliers, a scientist and an Anglican minister; and William Stukeley, a physician who studied the ruins at Stonehenge and built a "Temple of the Druids" in his backyard. All three were fellows of the Royal Society, the oldest organization of scientists in Britain. They became prominent at a time when science was bidding farewell to its fascination with Renaissance magic. (Sir Isaac Newton, their older contemporary, studied alchemy, as well as calculus and gravity.

The new ideas these men generated, and the new interpretations they gave to old practices, formalized Freemasonry, which presented itself as ancient, earnest, secret and fraternal. Freemasons believed that building and geometry, the arts of stonemasons, symbolized the moral foundations of the universe. The architect of Solomon's temple, Hiram of Abiff (mentioned in II Chronicles 2:13-14), was thought to be a prototype for Freemasons. Later in the century, Freemasonry took on pseudo-Egyptian trappings, as reflected in Mozart's Masonic opera, The Magic Flute.

To proclaim their seriousness, the early British Freemasons devised a system of hierarchies and secret rituals. Every local group of Masons, or lodge, adopted three ranks or degrees: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason. According to Steven C. Bullock, author of Revolutionary Brotherhood, the initiation of an Entered Apprentice "began with the partially undressed initiate entering the lodge after three knocks on the door. Taken to the lodge master (the presiding officer) and made to kneel within a square, the candidate suddenly felt the point of a drafter's compass against his exposed left breast. He then took an elaborate oath promising not to reveal the laws of Masonry... 'under no less Penalty than to have my Throat cut, my Tongue taken from the Roof of my Mouth, my Heart pluck'd from under my Left Breast, then to be buried in the Sands of the Sea ... my Body to be burnt to Ashes... So help me God.' Only then was the new Mason taught the arrangement and contents of the lodge. The ritual ended with the degree's secret sign, token (handgrip), and word." Freemasons also agreed to recognize and help each other, no matter what their nationality or class.

Speculative Freemasonry spoke to the social turmoil of a metropolis that was suffering from early urban sprawl. A band of brothers that was both up to the minute and old as the hills offered a point of stability in debut de siecle London. Freemasonry quickly spread throughout the nascent British Empire and among Continental Anglophiles. By the 1730s, there were lodges in Bengal, the West Indies and Nova Scotia. The thirteen colonies also provided a hospitable environment.

Masonry in America served as a connection to the home country. It also gave people something to do at a time when there wasn't much besides work and churchgoing. In 1737 the Freemasons of Boston, whose lodge had been founded four years earlier, held an elaborate procession to the house of Gov. Jonathan Belcher (himself a Mason). There was a band and a banquet, and a ship (flying a ceremonial Masonic apron among its flags) fired its guns from the harbor. "A New Show amongst us," wrote one diarist about the Boston event. By 1776 there were 100 American lodges with as many as 5,000 members, out of a population of 2.5 million.

The Revolutionary War put a strain on a fraternal society whose roots lay in England. In Boston, patriotic Masons like Paul Revere and Joseph Warren (who died at Bunker Hill) belonged to one lodge, while loyalist Masons gravitated to another. Freemasonry made the transition to independence with the help of its most famous 18th-century recruit, George Washington.

Washington became a Freemason in his twenties largely because he was, in the words of Samuel Eliot Morison, a "good joiner." But Freemasonry had other attractions for him. When he laid the cornerstone of the Capitol in 1793, it was done in the form of a Masonic ceremony, "in the thirteenth year of American independence . . . and in the year of Masonry, 5793." He wore an apron knitted for him by Adrienne de Lafayette, wife of another Freemason. This went beyond the requirements of mere joining. Masonry's moral earnestness may have appealed to Washington, who was not a frivolous sort. Its rituals and regalia probably also impressed a man who attended plays and circuses all his life. Washington's need for fellowship, uplift and a measure of pomp and circumstance was all very American--and helps explain why Freemasonry attracted him and his countrymen.

ANY GROUP THAT EXCLUDES MAY PROVOKE THE hostility of the excluded. Anti-Masonry is as old as Freemasonry. Mostly a free-floating sentiment of distrust or resentment, it occasionally emerged as an organized political force, which found a home in the United States because of a salient aspect of American character--its paranoid political style. America may have won its independence, but the fear of enemies and the need for constant vigilance remained.

The Reverend Jedidiah Morse Jr., a Congregationalist minister in Charlestown, Massachusetts, identified the new enemy in a sermon he preached in 1798. Morse was a scholarly geographer, but, as even a friend of his admitted, "by steady contemplation of an object, he would sometimes gain an exaggerated estimate of its importance." Morse had been contemplating Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All Religions and Governments of Europe, a book by John Robison, a professor at the University of Edinburgh. Robison attributed the turmoil of the French Revolution to the Bavarian Illuminati, a secret society, distinct from the Masons, whose supposed motto was "Havoc and Spoil and Ruin Are Our Gain." Illuminati, Robison warned, had infiltrated Freemasonry, and Morse sounded the alarm in America. Other clerics took up the cry.

Politically, Morse and other Congregationalist ministers in New England were Federalists, opposed to Thomas Jefferson's Republicans. In Morse's mind, Jefferson, infidelity and the French Revolution all marched in lockstep. But this complicated his polemics against Illuminated Freemasonry, for many Federalists were Freemasons (presumably un-illuminated ones), although Jefferson, the liberal Francophile, was not. In a letter to President John Adams, Massachusetts Masons complained of "attacks of a foreign enthusiast, aided by the unfounded prejudices of [Morse's] followers." Adams replied that Freemasonry was "favorable to the support of civil authority."

Morse's polemics were lost in the wreck of Federalism, which never recovered from Jefferson's victory in the election of 1800. But in the 1820s Anti-Masonry broke out again, not because of foreign enthusiasts, but because of a crime in New York state.

At the time, western New York was a hotbed of strong opinion and idiosyncratic beliefs--Mormonism, sexual communalism, expectations of the end of the world-- the California of the 1820s and '30s. In such an atmosphere, people took Masonry very seriously. In 1826, William Morgan, a hard-drinking, debt-ridden stonemason, announced that he would publish an expose of Freemasonry in the small town of Batavia.

Bad things immediately began happening to him. Someone tried to torch the print shop of Morgan's publisher. Morgan was arrested for theft, released for lack of evidence, then rearrested for debt and thrown in jail in Canandaigua, another small town. The following night, three Masons appeared at the jail, paid Morgan's debt and thrust him, struggling, into a carriage. They held him captive in an abandoned fort on the Niagara River, apparently planning to pay him hush money and send him over the border to Canada. That plan fell through, however, and Morgan disappeared--allegedly loaded with weights and thrown in the water.

After the crime came the cover-up. Three of Morgan's abductors were convicted of kidnapping (then a misdemeanor) and sentenced to no more than two years in jail. In meetings, enraged locals accused Masons on the jury and in the judicial system of protecting their own, and demanded a special counsel. Over the next four years, the state appointed three. Governor DeWitt Clinton, who was a Mason, offered rewards for information. When a special committee of the legislature called for the rewards to be more than doubled, and the full legislature refused to do so, more Masonic skulduggery was suspected.

Then, in 1828, a decomposed body washed up on the shore of Lake Ontario. One coroner's inquest ruled that the corpse was not Morgan's; a second (supported by Morgan's widow, Lucinda) ruled that it was. A Mrs. Timothy Munroe from Canada complicated matters still further by arguing that the body was that of her missing husband. A third inquest decided that the dead man was indeed Munroe.

By then, the crime had fallen into the hands of political operatives, eager to derail the Democratic presidential candidacy of Andrew Jackson, who was also a Mason. Thurlow Weed, an anti-Jacksonian editor from Rochester, New York, supposedly said that the Morgan-Munroe corpse would be a "good enough Morgan" until after the fall elections. It wasn't good enough to stop Jackson, but the Anti-Masons, as they began calling themselves, simply began planning for the next election.

Victory Birdseye, the last of the special counsels to examine the Morgan case, concluded that Morgan had been murdered by Masons who panicked when the Canadian deal fell apart, though he could never prove it. Even if local Freemasons had not killed Morgan, they had certainly kidnapped him. One reason for this desperate act rests in the evolution of Freemasonry itself. In the early 19th century, there had been a proliferation of higher degrees and mysterious rituals. (Governor Clinton, the Mason, complained of "frivolous pageantry and fantastic mummery.") The Masons of Batavia and Canandaigua thought they had even more important secrets to protect. Another reason for their paranoia was naivete. Elaborate and hostile accounts of Masonry's secrets had been published in England throughout the 18th century. But, as the modern scholar William Preston Vaughn notes, these accounts were bought "primarily by Masons as a memory aid" to their own rituals. The Freemasons of western New York mistook something old hat for a new threat.

Their criminal conspiracy made for excellent politics. Jedidiah Morse had been leading an elite campaign against nebulous evils. The reaction to Morgan's murder developed into a populist movement. The elite campaign denounced Freemasonry as atheistic; the populist movement attacked it as both atheistic and undemocratic.

Weed and his fellow operators considered a variety of presidential candidates for the 1832 election. Henry Clay, who was likely to be the nominee of the National Republican Party, looked promising, except that he was a Mason, and would not turn on the order. Vice President John C. Calhoun sent out feelers. The Anti-Masons even approached 76-year-old Chief Justice John Marshall, who had been a Mason since the Revolution but was convinced by the Morgan affair that "the institution ought to be abandoned." Meanwhile, pamphleteers kept up a drumbeat of propaganda. Lebbeus Armstrong, author of Masonry Proved to Be a Work of Darkness, argued, fantastically, that the Masons aimed at setting up a monarchy.

To get a candidate, the Anti-Masons held the first presidential nominating convention in American history--in Baltimore, in September 1831--and formed the Anti-Masonic Party, the earliest national third political party. When the more prominent politicians proved unavailable or unacceptable to the party's managers, they settled on a former attorney general, William Wirt, who, like Marshall, was a Mason shocked by the fate of Morgan. The committee that notified Wirt of his selection assured him that there was nothing "disreputable" about the new party. Wirt felt "as if a thunderbolt had dropped at my feet in a clear day." He was a notably inept candidate, unwilling to address issues of the day, or even to write private letters in his own behalf. When the votes were tallied, he had carried only Vermont.

Weed moved on to the Whig Party, and ultimately to the Republicans. Meanwhile, changes in America took the edge off Anti-Masonic sentiment. Tocqueville, who visited America in the decade after Morgan's disappearance, noted the "great number of small private associations" --the patchwork of institutions, societies and clubs. Masonic lodges proliferated in such an atmosphere, as did competitors and imitators. "Ten iron-molders meet in the back-room of a near-beer saloon," wrote H.L. Mencken in the next century, "organize a lodge of the Noble and Mystic Order of American Rosicruclans, and elect a wheelwright Supreme Worthy Whimwham." Freemasons took their place alongside groups like Ralph Kramden's Raccoons. If everybody was a Mason, or something like it, how could Freemasonry be an atheistic or monarchist plot?

Such opposition as remained was primarily theological. Roman Catholics, and many evangelicals, have long had problems with Freemasonry. One point of contention is the bloodthirsty Masonic oaths, which read like something from a Jacobean tragedy or Tales from the Crypt. For Masons, such pledges symbolize the importance of keeping one's word, but the Reverend Walton Hannah, a theologian quoted in a 1985 report to the Catholic Bishops Conference, called their language "high-sounding schoolboy nonsense sworn on a Bible, which verges on blasphemy."

The major religious objection to Freemasonry is that it teaches a "natural religion," honoring a generic God who may be approached without the sacraments or faith in Christ. Such universalism offends any church that makes serious exclusive claims about its own way to salvation.

In practice, the Roman Catholic Knights of Columbus cooperate with Masons in small-town bake sales and scholarship programs all over America. But from time to time, the hierarchies revive their objections. In 1993, the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention received a report critical of Freemasonry. This spring, Catholic Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, threatened to excommunicate Freemasons, along with supporters of abortion, euthanasia and the exclusive use of the Latin Mass.

EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY-STYLE ANTI-Masonry still occasionally raises its head, however--most recently in 1991, when Pat Robertson, the televangelist and former presidential candidate, published The New World Order. Robertson's book, written in the wake of the Gulf War, reflected the anxieties of a millennialist who thought a Middle Eastern conflict was a sign of the end times prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Robertson's speculations about the Antichrist and his plans for the world drew on an array of conspiracy theories, harvested from all the fever swamps of the last 200 years. The New World Order implicated a host of villains, including Jewish bankers, Nazis, Communists, the United Nations and the Bush administration, but back of them all were Illuminated Freemasons (and their putative master, Satan): "The New Age religions, the beliefs of the Illuminati, and Illuminated Freemasonry all seem to move along parallel tracks with world communism and world finance. Their appeals vary somewhat, but essentially they are striving for the same very frightening vision." It took a few years for Robertson's book to get attention in the mainstream press, no doubt because many people found its theories as peculiar as they were crazy. Crazy perhaps, but not peculiar. Worrying about Freemasons is as American as Jedidiah Morse, and making hay out of other people's worries is as American as Thurlow Weed.

Masonry made a second unexpected appearance in the national spotlight in Minister Louis Farrakhan's two-and-a-half hour address to the Million Man March in October 1995. Besides exhorting his audience to live clean and work hard, Farrakhan discoursed on numerology, the Masonic beliefs of the Founding Fathers and the architect of Solomon's temple. "Oh, black man," Farrakhan said, "the secret of the Masonic order is the secret of Hiram of Abiff...."

In touching on these topics, Farrakhan was treading on familiar ground, for the Nation of Islam emerged in the 1930s from the Moorish Science Temple, a religious group whose red fezzes suggested both their interest in Islam and their debt to black Masonry. In the 19th century, blacks had developed a parallel system of lodges, with ritual and nomenclature as elaborate as those of their white counterparts. Members of the black elite, such as Thurgood Marshall, have belonged to the black Prince Hall lodges.

Farrakhan owes more to Freemasonry than a few riffs and a long-lost organizational tie. Mary Lefkowitz argued, in Not Out of Africa, that Afrocentrism--which holds, among other things, that Greek culture and philosophy descended from the ancient Egyptians--was inspired by the Egyptian iconography of early Freemasons. Eighteenth-century Masons looked to Egypt as a source of wisdom. All modern black nationalists had to do was take a myth, change the color of some of the main characters (Socrates, Cleopatra), and they had an ideology. Freemasons have claimed secret knowledge, and have been claimed as secret conspirators, since day one. Farrakhan came to the right place.

The underlying attraction of Freemasonry is obvious enough. It is the desire to belong to what C.S. Lewis called the "inner ring"-- the circle of those, in any society or organization, who are in the know. Freemasonry is an inner ring made formal, with history and handshakes and baleful vows. It may claim to be egalitarian, in that any man can be admitted, but it is also elitist, since nonmembers are, by definition, excluded. The tension between these poles has made Masonry an attraction, and a target, throughout its history in America.

But Anti-Masonry is another inner ring. Their enemies believe that Masons wield enormous power and are up to no good. In the hopeful phase of Anti-Masonry--the First Degree, if you will--the Anti-Mason believes that the evildoers can be thwarted. But then comes a second phase, the phase of knowing that resistance is hopeless. The credulous reader of The New World Order and the bow-tied Farrakhanite know where the world, directed by the Illuminati, is going--to hell. This cheerful fatalism is a relief from the wear and tear of American life, just as Freemasonry offered relief from the bustle of 18th-century London. The domestication of Freemasonry (and the proliferation of imitators) has made it less of a lightning rod today. But it is still old and unusual enough to attract members--and fervent foes.

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