Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Freemasons: Fact & Fiction

Freemasons are the buzz, thanks to novelist Dan Brown, whose book The Last Symbol promises to blur fact and fiction regarding America’s Founding Fathers the way The Da Vinci Code did with the historical Jesus. But the truth remains more interesting than the creations of Hollywood or the publishing industry.

Conspiracy theories trace the Freemasons' origins back to the builders of ancient Egypt, to Solomon and his Temple and other secret orders shrouded in the obscurity of time. But the real story is that the masonic order was an outgrowth of the European Enlightenment.

Freemasonry as the Founders knew it was part philosophical society, part social improvement club, part mystic brotherhood. It had its beginnings in 1717 with the organization of the Grand Lodge in London. Earlier Masonic lodges were composed mostly of stone workers, remnants of the craft guilds that build the medieval cathedrals. But with the opening of the 18th century, these guilds were on the wane. The Grand Lodge revived Masonry by drawing in an entirely new breed–called “speculative” masons–whose interests were mainly scientific and intellectual. Like their predecessors, these newcomers evinced an enthusiasm for architecture and engineering. Not content to carve in stone, however, “speculative” Masons hoped to lay the foundations for a whole new society.

John Desaguliers, whose Huguenot family brought him to England shortly after his birth in 1683, was among the principal founders of the lodge where these ideas germinated. As chair of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford, he was an intimate of Isaac Newton and became Curator and Demonstrator for the Royal Society. His great gift was as a popularizer. He was able to lecture freely on gravity, optics, geometry and mechanics and, with the aid of ingenious working models, bring the concepts of elementary physics within the reach of non-scholars.

An ordained deacon in the Church of England, he became the proponent for a faith whose God owed more to the harmonies of physics than to the traditional Christian scriptures. For deity should be demonstrable, Desaguliers argued, like the laws of science, which his own work had proven to be within the grasp of even average minds. So theology should look to the natural world rather than to revelation for inspiration–to the vast Creation and the orderly working of its laws. For just as Newton’s laws seemed incontrovertible and beyond dispute, a purely natural religion might avoid the disputations that had so vexed human history. Persecutions of the kind that drove his own family from France would become a thing of the past if only people would reorient their faith, away from doctrinal differences and variant readings of the Bible, toward what to Desaguliers seemed beyond question–the existence of God (whom he called the Great Architect and Organizer of the World) and the unity of humankind.

This was religion shorn of supernaturalism, devoid of the Trinity, simplified to an affirmation of the Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of man. And it was this simple faith that appealed to many of America’s founding generation. Early America masons included figures like John Hancock and Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington–who laid the cornerstone of the nation’s capitol building with a Masonic trowel. With lodges around the world, from Russia to France to Britain, Masonry was poised to become a unifying, international force for the uplift of society, they believed.

There is no Harvard Department of Symbology to “decode” the hints and clues of the fiction writer’s brain. But ultimately none is needed. Symbols like the pyramid, the compass and all-seeing eye which capture Dan Brown’s imagination were far less important to America’s Founders than the moral substance of Masonry–promoting general education and public virtue rather than dividing people along narrowly sectarian lines.


Mark D. said...

Great post. Not enough attention is paid to the influence of Freemasonry on the American founders. There's a lot said about Deism and rational religion among the founders, but Freemasonry was also part of the mix as well -- indeed, Freemasonry often built off the same Deistic/rationalistic elements that was part and parcel of the type of rationalized Christianity of many of the founders. It provided a ritualized and formalized expression of the ideas of the Enlightenment and Deistic faith. As such, it formed a parallel church, so to speak, to orthodox Christianity in the western world.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Is that so, Mark? John Hancock and the very orthodox Christian and "key" Founder Roger Sherman were Masons. I do not know if Masonry can be equated with some sort of "alternate" religion.

I meself would have no problem joining a non-sectarian brotherhood of theists [Masons were required to believe in God]. Sounds like a cool thing, and I hear it can be very good for your career.


Magpie Mason said...

I join the applause for this post. Respectfully, I'd appreciate a citation for the information on Desaguliers, not because I doubt the opinions attributed to him here, but because I'd like to read more about him. Oddly, Masonic literature says little about him.

On a less important note, lists of famous Freemasons often are confusing. Neither Alexander Hamilton nor Thomas Paine were known to be Masons. The latter of course authored a book on Freemasonry, but if I recall correctly, he actually was denied membership.

Mark D. said...


Well, I'm going to have to do some more reading on the scope of masonry with the more orthodox founders. I have to confess that I'm not much of a scholar of masonry -- I know it was an influence and that the Deistic founders were almost all masons, but I was unaware that there were large numbers of orthodox believers in the masonic organizations at the time of the founding. Thanks for the insights and for inspiring me to crack some books here once I get some spare time in the future.


Lindsey Shuman said...

Good post, Gary!

Magpie Mason said...

Mark, friends all:

Trying to uncover how Freemasonry influenced the thoughts and actions of those Founders who were Masons would not be a good use of your time. There is no evidence to prove that Freemasonry was a force for revolution. In fact, there IS evidence that Freemasonry served to build friendships between Masons on both sides of the war.

The merits of the American Revolution stood on their own, and did not require any impetus from Freemasonry. It is simply a matter of personal choice that a notable number of Patriots were members of the fraternity. Had the war gone the other way, history would have done a better job of romanticizing the many Tories/Loyalists who were Freemasons.

Nor is it helpful to examine Masonic membership rolls to see which Masons were congregants at which churches, because Freemasons are enjoined to keep our religious opinions to ourselves when we're together. It's one of the reasons we get along so well.

If nothing else, please understand that Freemasonry attracts men of nearly all denominational and political persuasions that fall between the extremes of anarchy and authoritarianism.

Magpie Mason said...

Hello again,

I had the chance to hit the books earlier this evening. I'm sorry to say there is no evidence to show Roger Sherman and Ethan Allen were Freemasons.

In Sherman's case, the claim of Masonic membership falls in the legend category; there isn't even circumstantial evidence, except for a Masonic apron said to have been his. As regards Allen, he does appear on some lists of famous Masons, but without any citation of fact. The book "Masonic Membership of the Founding Fathers" doesn't even mention him, despite devoting half its pages to identifying Founding Fathers who clearly were not Masons or who might have been but cannot be proven as such.

Having read and re-read the two posts from the reverend, I am reconsidering the enthusiasm I expressed earlier for his writing on the subject. That is no reflection on him, but I am reminded of how difficult it is to make sense of Freemasonry by wading into the nearly limitless sea of information and misinformation published all over the globe for three centuries.

- Jay

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, I went with the reference to Sherman's "Masonic apron." Thank you for the correction, and I withdraw the remark. There were plenty of other Masons who were also Christians to reinforce the main point.

The term Great Architect of the Universe originates with John Calvin, does it not?


Magpie Mason said...

Sherman had two sons who became Freemasons. I do not know their names, but if one was Roger, Jr., then that could explain the confusion.


J said...

Holy Secret Handshake batman

freemasons said...

Thank you for the fact-fiction check! freemasons