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What is Freemasonry?

 

A Brief History of the Craft

With a focus on North American Freemasonry

by Hayward Evans

A Brief History of the Craft by Hayward T. Evans is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License
Based on a work at www.ohperry341.com.

Files linked to this paper include The Leo Taxil Confession, Regius Poem, and the Humanum Genus.
The linked files are in the body of the text below.
Please read within the context of the article to understand their significance and meaning.

Freemasonry has a rich and diverse past. As an institution it spans the globe attracting members from many countries, cultures, and diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Freemasonry counts among its membership Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, as well as men of other faiths. Freemasonry is also the oldest democratic organization in the world still in existence, and while there is a tremendous historic record of Freemasonry, there is no undisputed “known history” of how the fraternity was created, or date when it was founded. There is however, an abundance of theories as to the origins of Masonry. The most common theories have Freemasonry originating with the stonemason’s guilds in medieval Europe, as a way for members to identify themselves as “freemen” or “Freemasons” not tied to one particular noble or territory when traveling between job sites. These “Freemasons” formed guilds whereby they could keep the secrets of their trade private. This theory is one of the more popular as it helps to explain Masonry’s abundant use of the working tools of stone masons in its rituals.

Another theory has freemasonry being founded by the Knights Templar, or their remnants, either before or after their suppression by the Catholic Church and King Philip. Their need for secrecy especially after their suppression would have been paramount to their very survival. They would have therefore had to create a means to identify themselves to allow safe travel throughout Europe, as well as to recognize one another or be recognized by those sympathetic to their plight.

The theories are numerous, and no definitive history of the fraternity prior to the establishment of the first Grand Lodge in 1717 has ever been unearthed. What we do know is that the first documented work that mentions Freemasonry, The Regius Poem(PDF), was believed to have been written in the 15th or 16th century.  TheRegius Poem, A Poem of Moral Duties, was lost until it was re-published in 1840 by James Halliwell, who found it in the King’s Library in the British Museum, and renamed it The Regius Poem; A Poem on the Constitutions of Masonry. As the name implies it is written in rhyming verse and lays out a code of conduct for how Masons ought to act.1

The popularity of Masonry really took off in the 18th century when it went public with the announcement of its existence to the world with the creation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. Not only did it flourish in England but also prospered in continental Europe as well as on the North and South American continents, the Middle East, and Asia. The rapid spread of Masonry around the world can in large part be attributed to the English military lodges which during the 18th and 19th centuries operated around the globe throughout the British Empire.

Freemasonry during this period known as the Enlightenment, flourished among the intellectuals in the Americas and Europe. It was embraced by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Marquis De Lafayette, Voltaire, Sir Isaac Newton, Mozart, and Haydn, as well as many others in every social class of the time. The appeal of the fraternity to these men, many of whom were prominent figures in the various scientific and cultural movements occurring at the time, appears to be as stated by Margaret C. Jacob in Living the Enlightenment, “that the constitutional and legislative environment was what attracted men on the Continent to the first lodges. Within their confines brothers adjudicated new forms of personal power and they could imagine themselves as involved in governance as well as in opposition.”2 This was unheard of at the time, especially on continental Europe. For centuries men in continental Europe had met and formed bonds, whether it be clubs, civil groups, or other various organizations.

But for these men to not only join an organization that allowed the privilege of voting on matters of importance but also was organized with a constitution and legislature was not only unusual but was even considered dangerous by the authorities of the time. As Jacob notes in Living the Enlightenment, arrests were made in Paris as well as elsewhere on the European Continent throughout the 1740’s by those who feared and misunderstood Freemasonry. Because of the records kept by the authorities we have documentation of some of the arrests and the interrogations that followed, such as this one described by Jacob and obtained from the official police records of the day;

“The nature of the gathering was doubly confusing because on another occasion the police arrived just at the moment when an elaborate feast was being prepared. The problem was that some of the men present were of the most ordinary status: a lapidary (or jeweler), a minor official of the poultry market, a gardener, a tapestry merchant, worse still, an actor in the Comédie Italienne, and perhaps most remarkable of all,”a Negro who serves as a trumpeter in the King’s Guard.” There were also a wine merchant as master of the lodge, army officers, a secretary to a nobleman, three Benedictine priests, a valet at court, a “gentleman,” a “bourgeois,” a surgeon; and, on the raid conducted in June 1744, four women, unmarried, were also rounded up. Such a wide range of occupations and status conforms to other Masonic records from the 1730s. In them we find accountants, a black musketeer, merchants, and an official of a provincial tax court who was also a prominent champagne merchant. All addressed one another as brother and openly discussed their new loyalty to freemasonry. At that early date they were also being persecuted and forced as a result to change regularly their place of meeting.”

In spite of this persecution Freemasonry flourished. Although the impact that Freemasonry had on the political and social movements of the time is disputed by some scholars, it is supported by others. There is ample evidence to support the fact that its principles and moral teachings greatly influenced the men who stirred the cauldron of the call to freedom during the turbulent times of the late 18th through the mid 19th centuries. Many of the leaders of this period were Freemasons. The list includes George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, James Madison, Marquis de Lafayette, Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Martin, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Voltaire, Sir Isaac Newton, Mozart, Darwin, and many other men who were important and instrumental leaders in the cause of liberty, science, culture, and philosophy around the world.

George Washington wrote in several letters and communications about the influence that Freemasonry exuded on his life and his feelings about the fraternity. These are made abundantly clear in the two excerpts from his writings below;

“Flattering as it may be to the human mind, and truly honorable as it is to receive from our fellow citizens testimonies of approbation for exertions to promote the public welfare, it is not less pleasing to know that the milder virtues of the heart are highly respected by a Society whose liberal principles must be founded in the immutable laws of truth and justice. To enlarge the sphere of social happiness is worthy of the benevolent design of a Masonic institution; and it is most fervently to be wished that the conduct of every member of the Fraternity, as well as those publications that discover the principles which actuate them, may tend to convince mankind that the great object of Masonry is to promote the happiness of the human race.” 2

“So far as I am acquainted with the doctrines and principles of Freemasonry, I conceive them to be founded in benevolence, and to be exercised only for the good of mankind. I cannot, therefore, upon this ground, withdraw my approbation from it.” 4

Although flourishing in Europe and elsewhere around the globe, it was in the United States that Freemasonry saw its greatest growth. And it continued to flourish by attracting men far and wide from diverse backgrounds. Following the revolution lodges exploded into existence across the colonies. Many states saw a doubling or tripling of lodges in the years following the war.

Then in 1826 in New York State an event that became known as the Morgan Affair set back American Masonry for years to come. The Morgan Affair occurred in Batavia New York. William Morgan, rejected by local Masonic bodies due to his reported intemperate and immoral behavior, colluded with a local newspaper man Colonel David Miller to publish an anti-Masonic book entitled An Exposition of Ancient Craft Masonry. Local Masons being incensed at the thought of this work being published abducted Morgan and transported him to Canada at which time he disappeared. No evidence of foul play ever surfaced but four local Masons were tried and convicted and sentenced to jail terms for their part in the abduction. Even so, various newspaper men, leaders from churches, and local government added fuel to the fire of the anti- Masonic backlash that wouldn’t begin to subside until after the Civil War.

This period of time saw the creation of the Anti-Masonic political party and a decline in the membership of lodges in many states. Masonic membership saw a decrease from over 100,000 members to just 40,000 in ten years. New York saw a decrease in membership from 20,000 to 3,000.5 Many lodges closed their doors amid the decline in members and public demonstrations against the fraternity, the account below by R.W. Joseph P. Johnson is a eulogy to Brother Rueben Goodspeed and speaks to the devastation this event had on Masonry.

“He has stood by her (the lodge) through evil and good report; and in the troublesome times of anti-Masonic excitement, which swept over our land like a moral pestilence; which confounded the innocent with the guilty; which distracted and divided churches; which sundered the nearest ties of social life; which set father against son and son against father; arrayed the wife against her own husband; and in short , wherever its baleful influences were most felt, deprived men of all those comforts and enjoyments which render life to us a blessing. When many around him were bending to the blast of the whirlwinds of fanatical fury which was passing over them, he stood like the sturdy oak, unmoved and unwavering amid the storm. He has lived through the darkness of the night to see the sun of Masonry again arise in all its original splendor while others who sacrificed their principals and their honor before the morlock of an unrighteous and misguided public sentiment lived to receive the scorn of Masons and all honorable men. He has now gone to his rest a faithful Mason who we shall do well to imitate.”6

Ironically enough even with the hysteria of anti-Masonic sentiment in the years following the Morgan Affair, Freemason Andrew Jackson received widespread support and was elected to the office of President twice. Following the Civil War Masonry in the United States once again began to grow as history saw the decline of the Anti-Masonic party and its eventual merger with the Whig party. Internationally Masonry continued to spread due again in large part to the global influence of the European empires.

The 19th Century also saw an anti-Masonic backlash particularly among Catholics in Continental Europe. Due in large part to Pope Leo XIII and his famous papal encyclical Humanum Genus (PDF) and the fabrications of Leo Taxil, whose real name was Marie Joseph Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pagès.

First let us take a moment to deal with Mr. Taxil. Taxil, actually petitioned a lodge before writing his anti-Masonic works, but met with resistance from the members based on his anti-Catholic writings. He joined Le Temple de L’Honneur Français Masonic Lodge in Paris for a short time but was expelled before undergoing the first degree. His anti-Catholic writings resulted in Taxil undergoing intense scrutiny and criticism from the clergy. After being accused of libel for a book he wrote titled, The Secret Loves of Pope Pius IX, he underwent a feigned conversion to Catholicism and among others he wrote a four volume history of Freemasonry and a book titled Devil in the Nineteenth Century, both of which contained fictitious accounts of Satanic ritual in the Masonry. Taxil was also behind a false letter alleged to have been written by prominent American Freemason Albert Pike, to be addressed to Masonic leaders in France on Bastille Day in 1889. The letter quotes Pike as saying that God is Lucifer and that Freemasonry is a religion that should be “maintained in the Purity of the Luciferian doctrine.”7 In 1897 Leo Taxil called together a large audience including journalists and Catholic clergy. He then announced to the world that his anti-Masonic writings were all products of his imagination and in his words, “The most colossal hoax (PDF) of modern times.”8 Unfortunately Taxil’s works, continue to be employed by anti-Masons even though they have been proven to be fraudulent.

As for Pope Leo XIII and his papal encyclical, written in 1884, when read in its entirety one sees that it is not only an attack on Freemasonry, but an attack on democracy and the separation of church and state in particular. “They work, indeed, obstinately to the end that neither the teaching nor the authority of the Church may have any influence; and therefore they preach and maintain the full separation of the Church from the State. So law and government are wrested from the wholesome and divine virtue of the Catholic Church, and they want, therefore, by all means to rule States independent of the institutions and doctrines of the Church.”9 Pope Leo XIII also attacks Freemasonry for only requiring a belief in a Supreme Being; “By opening their gates to persons of every creed they promote, in fact, the great modern error of religious indifference and of parity of all worships, the best way to annihilate every religion, especially the Catholic, which, being the only true one cannot be joined with others without enormous injustice.”The Catholic Church has in recent years reconciled with Freemasonry. Catholics can now become Masons without fear of reprisal, and there are many members of the clergy that belong to the fraternity.

The critics of Masonry that use the Humanum Genus(PDF) as a basis for their attacks do not cite the true reasons the Pope had for writing it, which was his frustration with the decline in membership and the anti-Catholic backlash in Europe that had been building since the Enlightenment. He needed a target for his frustration and Freemasonry fit the role perfectly. The critics take the bits and pieces of the encyclical that suit their needs and use it to their benefit. Men like British journalist Stephen Knight who published the book The Brotherhood in 1984. Mr. Knight cites Humanum Genus (PDF) saying that Pope Leo XIII classified Freemasonry as belonging to a grouping of organizations in the “kingdom of Satan.” But Mr. Knight fails to mention that as stated in the Pope’s own words, any group outside the Roman Catholic faith are part of the “kingdom of Satan”, including other denominations of Christianity.9

Despite the Leo Taxil’s and Pope Leo XIII’s of the world, the turn of the twentieth century saw Masonry well established in Europe and North America. Two of the largest growth spurts in Freemasonry’s history occurred following both World Wars. Post WWI membership as a percentage of the population peaked at 8.6% while post WWII numbers peaked at 7.6% in the 1960’s.10 Membership in the United States soared as many saw in Freemasonry an outlet for their desire to be socially active while maintaining fraternal bonds.

Since the sixties however, Masonry has seen its ups and downs as societal changes have provided challenges for all civic organizations. Organizations such as the Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias have all but disappeared. Robert Putnam in The Strange Disappearance of Civic America says this about civic participation “Evidence for the decline of social capital and civic engagement comes from a number of independent sources. Surveys of average Americans in 1965, 1975, and 1985, in which they recorded every single activity during a day (so-called “time-budget” studies), indicate that since 1965 time spent on informal socializing and visiting is down (perhaps by one-quarter) and time devoted to clubs and organizations is down even more sharply (by roughly half). Membership records of such diverse organizations as the PTA, the Elks club, the League of Women Voters, the Red Cross, labor unions, and even bowling leagues show that participation in many conventional voluntary associations has declined by roughly 25 percent to 50 percent over the last two to three decades.”11

The future of Freemasonry remains to be seen. Efforts have been made in recent years to curb the decline in membership. Some Grand Lodges such as the Grand Lodge of Ohio have opted to simplify and reduce requirements of new candidates requiring only that candidates be able to read their obligation and show proficiency in giving the signs for each degree. Grand Master One Day Classes have also been widely utilized. Allowing one to receive all three Blue Lodge degrees in a single day without any requirement of memorization. Grand Lodges have also eased up on the restrictions involving advertising. Lodges are encouraged in some jurisdictions to advertise in their local papers. Some Grand Lodges even provide the templates for the lodge to use. The web has also become a useful tool for Masons. Websites, blogs, and online newsletters allow Masons an easy way to remain connected to their Lodges and the fraternity as a whole.

 

REFERENCES

1. Pietre-Stones Review of Freemasonry, “The Regius Poem” http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/regius.html
2. Margaret C. JacobLiving the Enlightenment”
3. Robert Hieronimus “America’s Secret Destiny: Spiritual Vision and the Founding of a Nation”
4. Robert Mackey “Revised Encyclopedia of Freemasonry ”
5. W. Bro. David Barrett “The Morgan Affair” http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/freemasonry_morgan_affair.html
6. Wor. James J. Theriault, curator of King Hiram’s Museum and lodge historian. http://www.kinghiramslodge.org/morgan.html
7. Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon A.F. & A. M.http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/anti-masonry/anti-masonry06.html#universal
8. Reprinted from an article by Edmond Frank in l’Illustration, May 1. 1897- No. 2827: Paris, France.
9. Leo, Pope, XIII, The Masonic Sect
10.
Art DeHoyos, S. Brent Morris, “Freemasonry in Context”
11. ByRobert D. PutnamThe Strange Disappearance of Civic America

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