Tuesday, June 27, 2017

‘Freemasonry: Making a Good World Better for 300 Years’

     
Saturday, June 24 brought the 300th anniversary of the day four Masonic lodges in London revealed themselves to the public and organized themselves into the Grand Lodge of England. The following was written for the New York Times’ Op-Ed page, but was not published, so I offer it to American Creation’s readers.



Freemasonry: Making a Good World Better for 300 Years


On June 24, 1717, four lodges of Freemasons that met in various taverns in London united in revelry for the purpose of forming a “grand lodge,” thus revealing their existence to a curious public and initiating a movement that would spread a benevolent culture around the globe.


The facts of the actual founding of the Masonic fraternity are lost to time, but it was on that date when the modern Freemasonry the world knows today was hatched. The fraternity that thrived with, and derived much of its identity from, the Enlightenment would see its members become heads of state, military greats, geniuses of science and industry, legends of the arts, influential spiritual thinkers, and prominent in so many more walks of public life, all united by a philosophy that helped birth and develop the modern world.

In its early decades, there were many competing theories of Freemasonry’s origins. There were plenty who insisted Freemasonry descended from the Greek god Hermes, inventor of letters and sciences. Others taught the beginnings are found in the rites of the Dionysians, or the Pythagoreans, or the Essenes, or the Roman Collegia, or the Druids, or the Gnostics, or the Rosicrucians, or other societies. The most popular, but equally unfounded, opinion says the Knights Templar of the Crusades is Freemasonry’s ancestor. The likely truth lacks glamour and romance: the Free and Accepted Masons of these past 300 years are an evolution from the stone workers and architects of the Middle Ages who constructed the mighty fortresses, castles, and cathedrals of the British Isles and Europe, having mastered and kept inviolate the secrets of geometry, the almost godly techniques of Western architecture, particularly in the Gothic style.

The transition from hardy workers in stone to enlightened thinkers came of necessity. The Protestant Reformation brought the end of cathedral building while simultaneous changes in how wealth was produced lessened the reliance on countryside castles, and the advent of explosives proved new vulnerabilities to stone forts. But the divine secrets of Euclidean geometry guarded by those workers in stone could not be disregarded as useless old knowledge.

Scottish Masonic lodge meeting minutes from the final years of the 1590s show how membership was extended to influential men unconnected to the building arts. Such records are scant, but one diary jotting in 1646 by Elias Ashmole notes his initiation into Freemasonry in Lancashire. Ashmole was no stonecutter. He held an assortment of government positions before and after the English Civil War; had married into money and position several times; and was a known student of alchemy, astrology, and magic. His bequest to Oxford University is known to us today as the Ashmolean Museum.

Whatever Freemasonry did in Scotland and England to the early 18th century is not understood in detail. Even from the years immediately after 1717 the details remain opaque. The first official history of the fraternity was published within the pages of the Grand Lodge of England’s Constitutions of 1723, but it is a history typical of its time, relying on myth, legend, Biblical personalities, and audacity. Authored by a Presbyterian minister named James Anderson and dedicated to the Duke of Montagu, the “History of Masonry or Geometry and Architecture” confers Masonic membership upon Israelite patriarchs, early English kings, and many other unsuspecting figures.

However illustrious or plain the history of Freemasonry is, it actually is the philosophy of the fraternity that enabled it to travel the entire world and endure the centuries. It is true that having divine and royal patronage adds luster and allure, but those conditions also serve to restrict membership to the elites of society, which is the problem that withered first Grand Lodge of England of 1717 until it collapsed less then a century later.

The philosophy of Freemasonry however can inspire those of all stations and places. There are various ways to phrase it, but citing the Golden Rule suffices as well as any other means. Perhaps its most known rendering is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which comes from Matthew 7:12 where Jesus borrows from Jewish law, but it is a concept found in all the major religions.

Was it necessary for Freemasons to mimic established religion when there already were so many sects one might support? That answer also is quite simple: Freemasonry itself is not and never has been a religion. Rather, it offers an ecumenical space where people of many faiths may enjoy fellowship together. Starting in 1717, Freemasonry provided a non-sectarian place where not only Catholics and Protestants could meet in friendship, but also a venue where those of the various Protestant denominations could coexist in brotherhood. It was a time preceded by Civil War (1642-51), Restoration (1660), Glorious Revolution (1688), English-Scottish Union (1707), Jacobite rebellion (1715), and wild change in royal families until the stability of British monarchs was solidified in 1714. Somebody had to do something.

This shows that what we today know as diversity dwelled inside the hearts and minds of decent people 300 years ago. During the 1720s, the first initiation of a Jew into a London Masonic lodge was recorded—it would be well more than a century before Jews in England would receive anything resembling what we today consider civil rights. As the British Empire reached around the world, Freemasonry accompanied it.

A second and separate grand lodge emerged in 1751 whose lodges offered their fraternal embrace to people of more modest backgrounds: Soldiers, sailors, merchants, craftsmen, and others without noble relations were welcomed into Freemasonry, and as they traveled the world, they established lodges everywhere possible. In the 19th century, Muslims, Hindus, Parsees, and others would be initiated into the fraternity. The result was a dynamic cosmopolitan world we take for granted today.

From London, Freemasonry spread fairly rapidly to Europe and the New World. Freemasonry existed in the British Isles before 1717, and grand lodges would be established in Ireland before 1730, and in Scotland in 1736. Lodges appeared in Dunkirk, Hamburg, The Hague, and elsewhere on the Continent by the early 1730s. In the early and mid 18th century, lodges would be founded in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Savannah, Portsmouth, Newport, Annapolis, New Haven, and at various points across Delaware and Virginia.

Where lodges settled, the Masonic philosophy took root. The old builders in stone are not forgotten, as the working tools they wielded were converted for symbolic use for moral and civil instruction. The gavel, the stonemason’s hammer, is employed to teach divestment from the vices and superfluities of life, and is used in practicality to bring order to meetings; the plumb teaches moral rectitude; and the level inculcates equality, to name only three.

The functions of the Masonic lodge taught early Americans about democracy, as lodge officers are elected by secret ballot, and fraternity jurisprudence likewise is decided by member vote. This was a time when only landowners voted in civic elections, but in lodge, one need not have been so well to do. The image of three classical pillars in Masonic teaching aids have been interpreted to symbolize the three equal branches of American governance from the local to the state and federal levels.

While it is untrue that “all” American Founding Fathers were Freemasons, it is true that nine of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence are known to have been Masons, and 13 of the 39 signers of the Constitution are known to have been members. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and many others were prominent Freemasons; Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and far more were not Masons.

In 2017, there are approximately 40,000 members of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York (est. 1781), and on this very day there are hundreds assembled at Utica to celebrate the past, present, and future of their fraternity.


Jay Hochberg, a freelance writer and editor, is a member of Publicity Masonic Lodge No. 1000 in New York City.
     

14 comments:

Erp said...

I note that women and atheists are still not allowed in mainstream Freemasonry and in the US at least Blacks had to form separate lodges (Prince Hall freemasonry) that were/are not recognized by many other lodges. Yes Freemasonry did much to break some barriers, but, it also kept some.

Tom Van Dyke said...

While it is untrue that “all” American Founding Fathers were Freemasons, it is true that nine of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence are known to have been Masons, and 13 of the 39 signers of the Constitution are known to have been members.

Brother Magpie, can you please provide non-Masonic sources for these claims? The American Creation blog obliges links/footnoting for interesting and exotic.


TO OUR GUEST MR. ERP:

"Presentism" is considered out of order here at AC, that is, judging the persons of the past by 21st century social standards.

That said, I find Prince Hall Freemasonry astonishing and delightful on all levels, how black folk leapfrogged such obstacles in establishing their equality in America.

Magpie Mind said...

Tom, have you run off and joined a lodge? (I'm wondering if I ought to address you as Bro. Tom.)

Offhand, I am not aware of a non-masonic source of this information. I suppose there could be an anti-masonic provider of this kind of thing, but I don't know why a non-masonic entity would bother to present it, and, if one did, its source likely would be some aspect of the fraternity itself anyway. If you are doubting the numbers, I assure you credible Masonic historians have documented the memberships in question without wishful thinking or shortcuts.


Erp, I just knew the first comment would be some objection concerning women, those of African descent, and/or atheists.

Your points are well taken, and I infer from the confident tone of your voice that you are aware that atheists are welcome in "grand orient" Freemasonry; that women have their Masonic orders here and there; and that Prince Hall Freemasonry is widely (but not yet completely) embraced by the mainstream.

Thank you for reading American Creation, and for taking the time to write.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If you are doubting the numbers, I assure you credible Masonic historians have documented the memberships in question without wishful thinking or shortcuts.

It's the sort of thing that non-Masons wouldn't cite, is all, without more neutral verification. I just thought it might exist, since Washington's membership was no secret, for instance.

Erp said...

Actually I was thinking more of modern American freemasonry's actions not that of the Revolutionary War era; the article is covering the full documented history of the movement. I am aware of Grand Orient, co-masonry, and Prince Hall though I'm not a member of any freemasonry group (my grandfather was a freemason in England and his father before him and I suspect a fair number of the male members of that branch were freemasons [though I have evidence of only one collateral circa 1800]) nor do I have any great knowledge. I do wonder when lodges in other former British colonies (e.g., Jamaica) became racially integrated or Britain itself.

Art Deco said...

The functions of the Masonic lodge taught early Americans about democracy,

Electoral practices in the colonies pre-dated the foundation of freemasonry by a century. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, you had peasant convocations, merchants' and artisans' guilds, municipal councils, provincial estates, and estates for entire kingdoms. The first Parliament was summoned during the reign of Henry III, IIRC.

Magpie Mind said...

Tom, I'm sure some of that is out there as well. Historical societies, the Sons of This or That, etc. But Masonic lodges and grand lodges, as keepers of membership records and meeting minutes, would be the best primary sources.

Erp, that's a good question that probably has a documented answer. Off the top of my head, I can say that peoples of Hawaii, India, the Near East, and elsewhere were welcomed into the fraternity in the nineteenth century.

Art, I don't doubt what you say, but it doesn't really address what I wrote.

Cordially,
Jay

Tom Van Dyke said...

Tom, I'm sure some of that is out there as well. Historical societies, the Sons of This or That, etc. But Masonic lodges and grand lodges, as keepers of membership records and meeting minutes, would be the best primary sources.

My point would be that if you want to do commercials for Masonry on a history blog, accepting all burden of proof via neutral sources helps your case.

For instance, though it's seldom mentioned, the historical case for Ben Franklin as a Mason seems arguable

http://freemasoninformation.com/2015/01/illustrious-brother-ben-franklin-and-freemasonry/

but then again, there seems little independent confirmation outside Masonic sources.

Masonic history composed from:
The Masonic Chronology of Benjamin Franklin, compiled by Julius F. Sachse, 1906.


My mind remains open on the subject, Brother M. And even if all true, I then remove to my primary question of the significance of such things. A fraternal organization, certainly. But by its own tenets, miliantly non-creedal. And yet, GWash swore his oath of office on a "Masonic" Bible. Is there a "Masonic" Torah? Qur'an?

You see where I'm going with this. You write as a Mason on this blog and for informational purposes, that's fine. But as a Mason in the 21st century, I don't see how you're free to explore these questions, and they are of the only historical importance on a history blog: What WAS the effect of Masonry on religion and the Founding beyond George Washington's apnon and a handful of arcane symbols?

Magpie Mind said...

Hi Tom,

Where to begin? First, I do not post "commercials" for Freemasonry here on American Creation. I was invited to become a contributor here about eight years ago specifically to share information about the fraternity because, at that time, there were occasional posts on the subject that were full of various kinds of errors that were leading bloggers and readers alike to have inaccurate conceptions of Freemasonry, its history, and its historical personages. I do not post as frequently as I would like, but if it is decided that I need not post at all any longer, then I can live with that.

Benjamin Franklin's Masonic membership is not "arguable." It is not debatable, questionable, confusing, opaque, or lacking in documentation. I am not at all familiar with the book you mention, but if it denies or downplays Franklin's involvement in Freemasonry, then you can toss your copy in the trash because the author is a quack. You rightly call for independent sources of historical data, but you refer me to a blog by a fellow Freemason, so you lost me there.

In the Washington presidential inauguration, by "Masonic Bible" we mean a Bible used by a Masonic lodge. The one in question is a KJV printed in London, and was used by the local lodge as its altar Bible. "Masonic Bible" does not refer to its contents. (In modern times, Masonic supply companies do offer "Masonic Bibles" that are meant to be gifts to new members, and that have red letter printing of verses that have particular purpose for Masonic initiation, but that has nothing to do with the book Washington used April 30, 1789.) I will say that Freemasonry's rituals are intricately interwoven with both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament­­—to the point where lodge ritualists are reciting Scripture many times, possibly without knowing it.

"What was the effect of Masonry on religion and the Founding?" As I've probably explained before on American Creation: zero. Freemasonry affects people. Its teachings and rites impact those who receive them. Freemasonry is not going to impact "religion," but it could have the effect of helping a Mason draw closer to his own faith. There are plenty of childish thinkers who believe Freemasonry caused or at least inspired the Founding, but the truth is some of the Founders were Masons, and maybe Freemasonry informed them in ways that caused them to fight for individual liberty and national independence. Organized Freemasonry (the fraternity) did not issue any edict, proclamation, or thesis that caused revolution, but individuals who happened to have been Freemasons took part in it. (Other Freemasons took part on the Royalist/Loyalist side.) Teachings of Freemasonry actually include the admonition that Masons be peaceful citizens who obey the law.

"...as a Mason in the 21st century..." Trust me, the only limits imposed on Freemasons today who want to delve into genuine, true history (as opposed to myths, legends, hero worship, etc.) are our own limitations, such as time, energy, motivation, and the like. If it is determined that I'm not carrying my weight here, then I can go.

Respectfully and in good humor,
Jay

Tom Van Dyke said...

Benjamin Franklin's Masonic membership is not "arguable." It is not debatable, questionable, confusing, opaque, or lacking in documentation. I am not at all familiar with the book you mention, but if it denies or downplays Franklin's involvement in Freemasonry, then you can toss your copy in the trash because the author is a quack. You rightly call for independent sources of historical data, but you refer me to a blog by a fellow Freemason, so you lost me there.

"Arguable" was an unfortunate term, as it means "it can be argued" or "it can be disputed." Actually, the source I mentioned was in support of your position.

Masonic history composed from:
The Masonic Chronology of Benjamin Franklin, compiled by Julius F. Sachse, 1906.


Indeed, I thought you'd be familiar with it.

As for Franklin's freemasonry, again the question returns to its importance in his life. I was a Boy Scout and that had some small influence, but not a lot. The Kiwanis Club is a fraternal organization as well, but not really a historic mover and shaker.

Another reply below for the most interesting comments from you along those lines.

Tom Van Dyke said...

In the Washington presidential inauguration, by "Masonic Bible" we mean a Bible used by a Masonic lodge. The one in question is a KJV printed in London, and was used by the local lodge as its altar Bible. "Masonic Bible" does not refer to its contents. (In modern times, Masonic supply companies do offer "Masonic Bibles" that are meant to be gifts to new members, and that have red letter printing of verses that have particular purpose for Masonic initiation, but that has nothing to do with the book Washington used April 30, 1789.) I will say that Freemasonry's rituals are intricately interwoven with both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament­­—to the point where lodge ritualists are reciting Scripture many times, possibly without knowing it.

Well, here's ground zero for my question, and why I said as a 21sdt century Mason you might not be free to answer it. I do not know what

"Masonic Bible" does not refer to its contents.

means. If The Masonic Bible Washington was inaugurated with [and kissed!] was merely some generic "ceremonial deism" than our blogbrother Ray Soller--who for much of his adult life has campaigned against the idea of Washington saying 'So Help Me God'--needs to hear your expert Masonic opinion immediately as it supports his case tremendously, since Washington kissing the Bible would be tantamount to saying 'So help me God.'

Tom Van Dyke said...

So I hope this shows our militantly secularist friends that contra their d-baggishments, my own interest lies in the truth of these things.

And yet, GWash swore his oath of office on a "Masonic" Bible. Is there a "Masonic" Torah? Qur'an?

Now the Torah part is pretty easy since it's part of the Christian Bible. But a Masonic Qur'an? Is there such a thing? This would be quite probative to how Masons today--and more to the point Masons back in the day--disconnect the Great Architect from revealed religion. You have said that the "Masonic Bible" does not contemplate its content. But could a Mason--would a Mason--swear just as easily on a Qur'an?

Thanks in advance for your honest replies. I was by no means trying to hammer you into a box for your commercials--and let's admit they are :-)

Freemasonry: Making a Good World Better for 300 Years

[now come on, Brother Magpie, let's admit that's a commercial], but to draw out your expert knowledge on what a "Masonic Bible" really means to a Mason like, I dunno, George Washington.

Magpie Mind said...

Hi Tom,

Sorry for the belated reply. There’s only so much I’m willing to do via the smart phone, so I have to make time at the computer. Let me try to explain in response to your questions:

The “Masonic bible” thing is easy to understand. Freemasonry is not a religion, and so it has no holy text of its own. Judaism is a religion, and it has its Bible. Christianity is a religion, and it has its Bible—different versions for different denominations and points in history too. Freemasonry is not a faith, and it has no bible. (Freemasonry’s mythos and rituals are rooted in the Hebrew Bible’s tellings of King Solomon’s Temple as found in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, but Masonic rituals quote both Jewish and Christian scriptures extensively.)

What is meant by the term “Masonic Bible” instead is a volume of, typically, a Christian Bible owned by a Masonic lodge and used for Masonic ritual purposes.

There is no such thing as a Masonic Torah (I think you mean Tanakh). And, in this present climate, I would not even joke about a “Masonic Koran.” In the Muslim world, Freemasonry is widely misunderstood as a colonial—if not Zionist—enemy. That said, when a man appears for his initiation into Freemasonry, he has the right to take his oath and obligation on the holy text of his choice. Either the lodge can supply a copy for the ceremony, or the man can bring his own.

If you will click this link, you will see a photo I shot three years ago while visiting Arts and Sciences Lodge in Cincinnati:

http://tinyurl.com/ybu5qe54

Six “Volumes of Sacred Law” (ecumenical Masonic term) appear on the altar here. In addition to the Holy Bible there are the Tanakh, the Koran, a Shinto text, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Jefferson Bible. If I recall correctly, Freemasonry in California has nine options for acceptable holy texts upon its altars.

Regarding George Washington and his first presidential inauguration where the local Masonic lodge’s altar bible was employed, I’d rather not repeat what I’ve said all along, but let me instead direct you to my first (and best) contribution to American Creation:

http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2009/04/so-help-me-god.html

It’s the best obtainable version of the truth that I can provide. I believe Mr. Soller is familiar with it.

Your mention of a “ceremonial deism” is lost on me. I am not one who believes George Washington was a deist.

Your question into the importance of Freemasonry to Benjamin Franklin’s life is one I cannot answer. I don’t believe it is easy to quantify, but there are facts on the record, such as Franklin served as Grand Master of Masons in Pennsylvania in the early 1730s. This was the embryonic time for Freemasonry in the New World, so holding that position is not nearly comparable to holding that position in 2017 when there are hundreds of lodges and tens of thousands of members throughout the length and width of Pennsylvania, but it still was the seniormost position, and was not occupied by just anybody. He was active in Freemasonry there through the 1750s. Then, decades later, while serving as America’s representative in Paris, Franklin’s primary evening social activity was attending Masonic lodge meetings. (My source on that is the David McCullough bio of John Adams.)

Cordially,
Jay

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