Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gordon Wood on Freemasonry and the Founding

I am slowly working my way through Gordon Wood's recent book on the post-revolutionary period, Empire of Liberty (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009). The book demands slow reading -- each page is packed with detail and interpretation, and it is simply a joy to mull over Wood's insights. The book is a tome -- 738 pages excluding the biblographic essay -- but so far, every page is a winner. Wood has put together a landmark book here, one that builds off of and massive expands his earlier work in Radicalism of the American Revolution.

A while back here at American Creation there was some back and forth on the role that Freemasonry played in the American Founding. Wood addresses the question in the first part of his book, proposing that Masonry played a dual role as a source of unity in America and as a new religion designed to replace Christianity for those skeptical of Christianity's claims. His take on Masonry is set out on page 51 of the book:

Freemasonry was a surrogate religion for enlightened men suspicious of traditional Christianity. It offered ritual, mystery, and communality without the enthusiasm and sectarian bigotry of organized religion. But Masonry was not only an enlightened institution; with the Revolution, it became a republican one as well. As George Washington said, it was "a lodge for the virtues." As Masonic lodges had always been places where men who differed in everyday affairs -- politically, socially, even religiously -- could "all meet amicably, and converse sociably together." There in the lodges, the Masons told themselves, "we discover no estrangement of behavior, nor alienation of affection." Masonry had alway sought unity and harmony in a society increasingly diverse and fragmented. It traditionally had prided itself on being, as one Mason put it, "the Center of Union and the menas of conciliating friendship among men that might otherwise have remained at perpetual distance."
As Wood makes clear, Masonry served a religious as well as a civic function. Its importance in the Founding Period was not simply social or political. It stood alongside Christianity as a source of religious values and perspective for many of the Founders.

27 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

a new religion designed to replace Christianity

Nonsense. While it's true Christian skepics could find a home in Masonry, Mr. Kowalski's own quote says they became trans- or noncredal out of "expedience," since there were so many sects even in the prevailing religion of a country, namely Protestantism.

Masonry was a parallel institution to organized religion, not designed to "replace" anything.

Mark in Spokane said...

Well, Wood classifies it as a "surrogate." That would imply that it was a substitute for Christianity, not a supplement to it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

For some individuals, sure. But not all and likely not even most. One could be both a Christian and a Mason. They were parallel institutions, and this was the fundamental problem with some of the past posts done here on the Masons trying to turn it into some new religion or sect.

This is a serious misreading of Masonic history.

Remember, originally, Masons were supposed to be of the religion of the host country, so as to allow for unity. Only as the number of Protestant sects proliferated---making credal unity impossible--- did it become "expedient" [quote] to become noncredal. It was a way to accommodate conflicting beliefs, not establish new ones.

Mark in Spokane said...

You may well be right, but I don't think things are quite as much a slam-dunk on this point as you argue. Gordon Wood -- certainly no slouch -- indicates that Masonry functioned more as a substitute for Christianity than a supplement. He could be wrong, but the fact that an historian of Wood's caliber holds to the position he does indicates to me that the issue is at least open to multiple interpretations.

Magpie Mason said...

Based on what is posted here, it seems to me that Mr. Wood's description of Freemasonry is, at best, uninformed. It might even be a deliberate mischaracterization of Freemasonry.

I look forward to reading one documented fact that supports the notion that Freemasonry at the Founding of the United States was accepted as a replacement for Christianity. If one particular Mason viewed the fraternity that way, then that's his personal view; it does not translate into truth for the entire fraternity.

Until then, I'd file this under Don't Believe Everything You Read. Tens of thousands of books have been written about Freemasonry since the 1720s, but publication does not equal verification.

Freemasonry "offered ritual, mystery, and communality without the enthusiasm and sectarian bigotry of organized religion." Yeah, so does the Army, but the characteristics of religions include paths toward salvation and ecclesiastical hierarchy, neither of which is found in Freemasonry.

At its root, the purpose of Freemasonry is to allow men of different faiths to unite in a social setting, not to supplant anyone's church. Freemasons of this period met in taverns, for heaven's sake.

How many times must this be explained on American Creation?

- Jay

Mark in Spokane said...

So, Jay & Tom, you are both contending that Gordon Wood is simply wrong in his characterization of Masonry during the Founding Period?

And Jay, taverns and religion aren't mutually exclusive.

Magpie Mason said...

Mark, I am stating that nothing will be found in any official Masonic record that supports the claims of Freemasonry either being a religion or a surrogate religion, etc.

Books of Masonic constitutions, regulations, rituals, minutes, etc. written by the authorized Masonic bodies do not support that claim. Therefore the claim is wrong.

So that leads us to question the motives prompting the claim. Perhaps Mr. Wood was stimulated by the opinion of one individual Mason. Or six Masons. Or maybe it was the claims of an anti-Masonic group. Whatever it was, it does not validate the claim that Freemasonry either is a religion or a surrogate religion. Period.

Can't make it any more clear than that.

To be fair, there have been variations in the Masonic experience that would appear to make Masonry a religion, but they are not at all relevant to the Masonry at the time of America's Founding.

Jonathan Rowe said...

This is straight from Anderson's early 18th Century Book of Constitutions:

"I. Concerning GOD and RELIGION.

"A Mason is oblig'd by his Tenure, to obey the moral Law; and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine. But though in ancient Times Masons were charg'd in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet 'tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish'd; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain'd at a perpetual Distance. [Bold mine.]"

http://www.freemasonry.bcy.ca/history/anderson/charges.html

What I put in bold, it seems to me, leaves a great deal of room for argument over just how compatible Freemasonry is with orthodox Christianity, or whether by its very syncretic nature (and whatever was intended by whomever), it ends up replacing Christianity with some "other" monotheistic, generic moralizing creed.

Magpie Mason said...

Jonathan,

I'm sorry, but no.

What you quote definitely does NOT leave a great deal of room for argument over Masonry replacing Christianity.

The language quoted from Rev. James Anderson's Book of Constitutions is very much the product of the dawn of a new era following England's Civil War, Restoration and Revolution and during the era of English-Scottish Union, Jacobite rebellion and wild change in royal families from Catholic Stuart to Protestant Hanover.

The essence of Anderon's First Charge is its message that Catholics and Protestants, and the various Protestant denominations themselves, could meet in lodge peacefully by agreeing to leave their religious opinions outside the door.

The goal was not to replace their churches with lodge, but to find a way to live with their neighbors, even if the neighbors had beliefs that were a little different. This tradition has lived on in Freemasonry as a prohibition of discussing religion in lodge, and has been expanded to allow Masonic membership for non-Christians.

It is tempting to read historic documents with modern eyes, but we must remember to read in context, and even to understand how words change meaning over time.

- Jay

Jonathan Rowe said...

Jay,

Did you ever watch Walter Martin's debates on Freemasonry.

Here is the first part. What do you think of it?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roLtdAErkpA

I'm neither a Christian nor a Mason. I do try to take your caution about being objective seriously. I know that orthodox Christians in general and evangelicals/fundamentalists in particular have a very narrow view about what is compatible with "Christianity."

Daniel said...

Mark,

Does Woods cite any sources that indicate the basis of his description? Or any clarification of the meaning? "Surrogate religion" can be used in the sense that art, music, or politics can provide some people with what serves the function of a religion. Freemasonry may not be intended to be a religion and may not be a religion, but could have served that function for many people who were disenchanted with orthodox religion.

To call it a "surrogate religion" feels like a loaded term. But on reflection, we do not call Bahai or Scientology "surrogate religions" (although they permit their converts to continue other religious commitments). We call them religions.

I don't think it works to refute the "surrogate religion" claim to show that it wasn't (and isn't) a religion. The claim is that it served the purposes of a religion for enlightened men. That is refuted, not by official records and constitutions, but by the journals and letters of members. (Of course, proving a negative remains a nearly impossible task).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Then let's read what you put in bold, Jon. I did, in counterarguing Mark and Gordon Wood, quoting the very same passage:

"...yet 'tis now thought more expedient..."

and I went on to explain the impact of that expedience. To park theological differences at the door simply isn't the same thing as creating a new theology.

[Mark, I've largely found Gordon Wood quite solid; however, the issue here isn't Wood, or you, but the issue in question, Masonry-as-religion. And I'm certainly glad to have a genuine Mason here with us as an independent authority on the subject.]

Let's look at this another way, which we might all find agreeable: that there's Venn Diagram overlap without it being an either/or.

A staunchly devout Holy Roller type might not be attracted to Masonry, finding all the truth and fellowship he requires within the confines of his own religious sect. I'd compare this to contemporary left-liberalism, which attracts the lion's share of atheists, "secular humanists," and the not-very-devout, but a Christian in good orthodox standing like Jim Wallis can still be left-liberal. [In fact, our erstwhile fairy blogmother Lindsey Schuman specialized in rounding up left-liberal Christian fundamentalists to contribute to this blog, a statistical miracle!]

Further, and I think this is an even better comparison, and I just saw a play about its origins in the 1930s this afternoon---Alcoholics Anonymous. Some Holy Roller types were getting off the sauce within their Christian Churches; however, that didn't work for Bill W. and Dr. Bob, both of whom preferred William James' phenomenology of religious experience to sectarian Christianity.

They went on to found AA, but nobody would say that the millions of AA folks don't include a helluva lot of traditional Christians, or that AA represents some new religion or new sect or replacement for the existing religions.

Does this sound about right, to both Mark and Jay? It satisfies me as a bridge, an overlap instead of a mutual exclusivity between the two positions. Even more than simple belief in the existence of God, there's a faith in the dynamic that there is a Higher Power than man. But the afterlife is a separate matter for both Masonry and AA and beyond them---their concern is how to manage this life with dignity: for Masonry, to overcome civil strife and live decently, for AA, to overcome personal self-destruction and to live with decency.

But we would not characterize AA as religion, nor as a substitute for it.

Magpie Mason said...

Jonathan, that was my first exposure to Walter Martin. As soon as I saw the name Ankerberg, I knew what to expect: objections to the fact that not everybody professes belief in Jesus Christ.

Now with that as a starting point, then suspicion of Freemasonry is natural because Christianity is only one view of deity represented among the Masonic membership. It is neither the only nor the majority view.

If it makes those guys with the bad toupees feel any better, there ARE lodges in America that DO invoke Jesus Christ. There are lodges in the Bible Belt, for example. Also, there is what is called Prince Hall Masonry, which historically has been the Freemasonry of African-Americans, and they too specify Christ in their prayers. Both are minority voices and, frankly, both are rogue in that respect. But then, Freemasonry adapts to its local surroundings, so if that's what those Masons want, then that's what they can have, regardless of what others say about it.

Now the book Ankerberg was holding (A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry) was written by A.E. Waite, who was one of the leading Christian mystics of English Freemasonry in the early 20th century. His interpretations are his own, and very few Masons have read his work.

Listen, there ARE Freemasons who view Freemasonry as their religion. They like it because it is positive and that it concentrates on right thinking and right behavior, and does not so much as mention sin and redemption. Masonry is, in that respect, friendly and non-judgmental. What's not to love, right? But they are inventing something for themselves that is not being offered by their lodges.

There is no dogma in Freemasonry, which is why so much diversity of thought exists, and why so many outsiders are so vexed when they try to pin an identity on Masonry.

- Jay

Magpie Mason said...

>It is neither the only nor the
>majority view.

Sorry, I should have said "neither the only nor the OFFICIAL view." I WOULD say the overwhelming majority of Masons are Christians.

- Jay

Daniel said...

Tom,

AA can serve as a substitute religion. I have seen it. There are people for whom AA is a surrogate religion. Some of them go to church. Some don't. But the key link to the transcendent is AA. AA is also the link to survival and they grasp it very firmly, attending multiple meetings weekly, finding their most meaningful relationships there, and, with some of them, making everything else secondary to AA. AA is not a religion, but for such people, it would not be wrong to call it a "surrogate religion."

Magpie Mason said...

>Does this sound about right, to
>both Mark and Jay? It satisfies
>me as a bridge, an overlap
>instead of a mutual exclusivity
>between the two positions. Even
>more than simple belief in the
>existence of God, there's a faith
>in the dynamic that there is a
>Higher Power than man....

Hi Tom,

The big problem here that I see is that Freemasonry's rituals and many of its symbols are borrowed directly from Jewish and Christian Scripture.

Even our ecumenical rhetorical device "The Great Architect of the Universe" is lifted from Calvin.

What we ask of those who aim to join a lodge concerns whether or not they believe in a supreme deity. In 2009, we're even reluctant to ask "Do you believe in God?" because followers of Eastern faiths do not have a concept of god, and heaven forbid you offend anyone.

So, yeah, "deity," "supreme being," "higher power," et al., all serve their purpose, but Freemasonry has a decidedly Judeo-Christian foundation. The lodges are patterned somewhat on Solomon's Temple, and the rituals freely quote Jewish and Christian verses.

Admittedly this is likely why some think Masonry is a religion, but these are only religious elements; they do not add up to enough to establish a religion.

No more comments tonight. I'm trying to finish a Magpie Mason blog post of my own.

- Jay

Tom Van Dyke said...

AA is not a religion, but for such people, it would not be wrong to call it a "surrogate religion."

Stipulated, for "some" people. But as you previously noted, many things can stand as surrogate for religion, and I noted that secular humanism and left-liberal politics does it for some.

But that doesn't make for a normative definition of either AA or Masonry, or of their normative understanding of themselves, which was my [and I think Jay's] counterargument.

Daniel said...

Tom,

I agree with your point. But I think Wood may not be inaccurate, if "surrogate" if understood to mean something different than "substitute." Granted, even if I am correct about his meaning, it seems like a huge overstatement to make a blanket claim about what Freemasonry was for enlightened men. Even among those enlightened men who were suspicious of traditional Christianity, I think we can be pretty confident that not all turned to Freemasonry to replace religion. Unless context dictates otherwise, I tend to read the word "many" into such broad statements by otherwise credible sources.

I think to use Wood as the source to argue that Freemasonry was some sort of substitute religion would take more than this statement. I think the statement supports that claim that Freemasonry served a religious function, but that does not make it a religion or a competitor with Christianity.

I think Wood may be making an interesting observation regarding the spirit of the age. But no, it does not seem like a normative statement about Freemasonry.

Pinky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pinky said...

I don't know what all the fuss is about here.
.
It seems from what Mark in Spokane has posted that the book by Gordon Wood is right on.
.
I knew a lot of Masons that fit the pattern Mark lays out.
.
You'd be surprised at how deep some Masons get over their beliefs thinking it is the TRUE religion.
.
Above deletion as a result of a typo I made.

Tom Van Dyke said...

You'd be surprised at how deep some Masons get over their beliefs thinking it is the TRUE religion.

Some, perhaps, and in 2009, I'd believe people believe anything. But it's not Masonry's normative understanding of itself, especially in the Founding era. Especially, based on Jay's testimony that

In 2009, we're even reluctant to ask "Do you believe in God?" because followers of Eastern faiths do not have a concept of god, and heaven forbid you offend anyone...

Masonry holds a theism so diluted as to have no describable normative theology atall.



But perhaps I'm wrong. You and Jay should sort this out, Phil. Mebbe GWashington actually believed he had some mystical cosmic connection to the builders of the pyramids.

If so, that's every bit "theistically irrationalist" as any of Christianity's mystical claims. Heh.

Pinky said...

.
I can't speak for George Washington; but, I can pretty well imagine his position regarding the symbols of Blue Lodge Masonry. He was a Worshipful Master during a time very different than ours. I'm sure he was less concerned about maintaining a membership level and much more concerned with raising new Masons up from their fallen condition.
.
I am also sure that Masonry in Revolutionary times was highly regarded by men of the middle classes.
.
Masonry, in those days, was far more secretive than it has come to be these days.
.
Why has there been such a falling away?
.

Magpie Mason said...

>Masonry holds a theism so diluted
>as to have no describable
>normative theology at all.


There is no theology in Freemasonry because Freemasonry is not a religion.

- Jay

Pinky said...

.
The Magpie sez, "There is no theology in Freemasonry because Freemasonry is not a religion."
.
So you say, Magpie, so you say.
.
But, both of us know many Masons who make Freemasonry their religion.
.
On either side of the issue, saying something does not make it so.
.
Do the York and Scottish Rites exist outside of Freemasonry?
.
Are lectures given as ritual in Blue Lodge?
.
Does Freemasonry end with the Third Degree?
.

Magpie Mason said...

Dear Bro. Phil,

I'm afraid I miss the point of your questions.

If you are noting how the York and Scottish rites have religious elements in their degrees, I agree withyou, but I again remind you that we're talking about the Freemasonry at the time of America's Founding, before AASR and YR existed. And anyway, Judeo-Christian themes do not a religion make.

Does Freemasonry end with the Third Degree? For the majority of Freemasons, yes it does.

Are there lectures in lodge? Yes, but they are explanations of Masonic ritual and symbol for the education of the advancing Mason. The lectures do not teach how to worship god.

- Jay

Pinky said...

.
All I'm saying, Jay, is that there are those Masons that believe the craft is truly a religion--and it is for them.

I agree that it is highly doubtful that any Revolutionary-Era Masons thought of the craft as a religion--maybe a fraction of one percent or less? You're correct in that.

Some lectures quote Biblical passages.
.
I'm not sure when the York Rite claimed it was part of Freemasonry.

I do wish I had stayed active as a Templar regardless of the religious connotations.
.
I think the core tenets of Masonry are excellent.
.

Brad Hart said...

Cool debate! I'm sorry that I missed it...but I did enjoy reading it!

All debate aside, I am excited to read this book. People are giving it quite a lot of praise, some even saying that it's Wood's best work.