What does America’s tradition of Lodges and
fraternal orders owe to Masonry?
by Dale E. Boudreau
At the end of the Civil War, American society was marked by the organization of hundreds of fraternal orders. This great wave of frater nalism was so prolific that the latter half of the century has been called the “Golden Age of Fra ternity.” During this period more than 150 “se cret societies,” fraternal benefit societies, and ethnic associations were organized. In 1897, out of an adult male population of 19 million, 5.4 million belonged to fraternal orders.
This fraternal movement was inspired by and mostly patterncd after Freemasonry, and most of the founders of these organizations were Ma sons. Uriah S. Stephens, for example, who founded the Noble Order of Knights of Labor in 1869, had a strong affection for secret organizations, being a Mason, an Odd Fellow, and a Knight of Pythias. The Knights of Labor itself was a true secret society and for its first few years kept its name from the public. It was generally known as the “Five Stars” because of the five asterisks that represented its name in all public notices.
If the phenomenal rise of fraternalism was inspired by Freemasonry, what is the purpose and origin of Freemasonry itself? The ancient and honorable order of Freemasons, or Masonry in short form, evolved in the British Isles over several hundred years, but little is known of this forma tive period. The secrecy often associatcd with “the Craft” has left its be ginnings mired in myth and shrouded in uncertainty, but has also lent Masonry much of its allure. Even so, recent research into Masonry’s be ginnings has been able to offer a plausible lineage.
Secret societies have existed ever since primitive men gathered in the farthest reaches of their caves to perform ritual magic and ceremonial chants.Those dimly lit gath erings sanctified the hunt, strengthened relations with the divine, and admitted boys into manhood. Secret societies were also recognized public institutions among the ancient Greeks and Romans. The expansion of the Roman Em pire, which absorbed many religious mysteries and frater nal societies in Egypt and the Middle East, helped to spread both esoteric traditions and the fraternal concept throughout Western Eu rope, eventually giving rise to the fraternal guilds of the Middle Ages.
Medieval guilds were of three classes: semireli gious guilds, trade guilds, and merchant guilds.These organizations ministered to their members’ needs in sickness and old age, of fered employment and in surance against loss by fire or shipwreck, and provid ed burial services.
The medieval guild craftsmen who built the great cathedrals and build ings of Europe were grant ed travel privileges to ply their trades from town to town and kingdom to kingdom at a time when most people lived, worked, and died within five miles of their birthplace. This freedom, which was not enjoyed by bonded serfs, would seem an obvious in spiration for the term “Freemason.” To preserve their sense of singularity, as well as their trade se crets, these “freemasons” developed secret means of recognition, which led to the pass words and grips of later Freemasonry.
The nineteenthcentury Masonic ritualist and philoso pher Albert Pike, on the other hand, proposed that the name is a misinterpretation of the French Jrerema~on, or “Brother Mason.” The name “Mason” itself, or mason in the French, is said to be derived from mas, an old Norman noun meaning”house” (compare the modern French mai son); hence the English “mason” or house builder.
At the building sites the masons were often required to build temporary structures for lodging and tool storage; these “lodges” also served as schools for instructing ap prentices in building techniques. As with most education al endeavors of the age, the instructions of the guildsmen were infused with moral and religious lessons.
In later centuries, with cathedral and castle building declining, the masons’ guilds began accepting other crafts men into membership, and, later on, artisans, scientists, and intellectuals. Eventually the lodges became composed en tirely of these philosophical or “accepted masons,” and the practical or”operative” masons’ lessons were replaced with a “speculative” Masonry that presented the man himself as the stone to be shaped, chiseled, and squared for a larger purpose .
While Freemasonry was being extended to mem bers of other crafts and so cial classes, the craft guild system in general began to break down (although its demise would not be com plete till the eighteenth century); abuses of privi lege, misused power, and corruption were among the causes. A new type of fra ternal organization was formed in the craft guilds’ wake.These”friendly soci eties” proved popular with all social classes, but they too developed their own failings. Meeting in local inns, they began devoting more and more time to feasting and drinking, so that they were derisively la beled “free and easies.” It is from these friendly societies that the Independent Order of Odd Fellows probably sprang; it was originally formed by working men for social purposes and for obtaining employment when out of work.
This history addresses most current knowledge about the Masonic frater nity, but it does not explain the need for the numerous “blood oaths” administered to Masons as a means of pre serving secrecy. One possible catalyst for much of the se crecy that enveloped early Freemasonry can be found in the Holy Land of the twelfth century.
In the year 1118, after the First Crusade had conquered the city of Jerusalem, nine French knights formed them selves into the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Tem ple of Solomon, ostensibly as a protective order to ensure safe passage for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.The Tem plars, as they came to be called, soon became preeminent as warriors of the cross. Taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, they attracted many members, and the sons of eminent lords of France flocked to their beauseant (banner). Kings, popes, and nobles endowed the order with grants of property and tithe as offerings for political and economic favor. The Templars soon became the most powerful reli gious, military, and political force in the Western world.
The Templars were consummate builders; their masons and craftsmen constructed the most efficient fortifications of the day.Their presence in the Holy Land exposed them to the Jewish and Islamic faiths and also enabled them to take part in the burgeoning trade between Europe and the East. Their ships plied the seas, providing Europe with trea sured silks and spices and selling safe passage to thousands of Christian pilgrims. But this association with the East ern world infused the order with influences contrary to tra ditional Christian doctrine.
When the Crusaders lost their dominance of the Holy Land with the fall of the city of Acre to the Saracens in 1291, the Templars retired to their numerous preceptories throughout Europe. There their luxury, arrogance, and pride turned them into objects of hatred among those who possessed enough power to effect their demise. At this time the throne of France was occupied by an ambitious monarch who possessed such power; he also owed a sizable debt to the order. He was Philip IV, the grandson of St. Louis, called Philip the Fair. Philip had already or chestrated the extortion and ex pulsion of most of the Jews in France, and the kidnapping and murder of Pope BonifaceVIII, and was probably responsible for the poisoning of Pope Benedict XI as well. In 1305 he set a French arch bishop on the throne of St. Peter as ClementV.With the Papacy effectively in his hands, Philip arranged a plan to discredit the Templar order and relieve it of its fabled wealth.
The Knights Templars deliberately shrouded themselves in mystery. They evoked associations with biblical charac ters such as Joshua and the Maccabees, and they also con nected themselves with the popular Grail romances as guardians of the mysterious object known as the Holy Grail.This mystique was accentuated by writers of the time, such as Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parsival, and they ap pear in the anonymously penned Perlesvaus not just as war rior monks but as mystical initiates. This was to prove to their disadvantage.
In June 1306, Philip instructed Pope Clement to in vite the Templar Grand Master,Jacques de Molay, to meet in Paris for a consultation of the utmost importance. Ex pecting a call for a new crusade, de Molay arrived from Cyprus early in 1307 with an entourage of 60 knights. After months in Paris, numerous meetings with the pope, and honors from the treacherous king, the trap was ready to be sprung.
On the morning of Friday, October 13,1307 (the day that some believe gave rise to the popular phobia of Fri day the thirteenth), Philip’s men, stationed throughout the kingdom, opened sealed orders for the immediate arrest of all Templars in the over 500 preceptories throughout France. There were at that time nearly 3000 French Templars, only about 350 of whom were full knights of the order; the other brethren included nearly 1000 menatarms and their supporting troops, as well as administrators, craftsmen, and servants.
De Molay and his fellow knights were imprisoned in the Paris Temple. Accused of idolatry, heresy, black magic, and practicing obscene ceremonies, the Templars in France were submitted to the foulest tortures in an attempt to force confessions that would discredit the order and enable Philip to confiscate their properties.
Philip tried unsuccessfully to convince the other kings of Europe to join him in the persecution. Templars were arrested throughout Europe, but in many places, such as Lor raine, they were quickly tried and exonerated. In Portugal and Spain, they were likewise cleared by in quiry and reorganized as the Knights of Christ and the Order of Montesa respectively. In Ger many, the Templars appeared at the court of inquiry flagrantly dressed in their white mantles with red crosses, prepared to de fend themselves with the sword if need be. But they so impressed and intimidated the court that they too were quickly tried and pronounced innocent.
Such was not to happen in France. On May 12, 1310, de Molay’s entourage of 54 unre pentant knights was publicly burned on the banks of the Seine. The order was dissolved by Pope Clement in 1312, and the Templars’ properties were given to their largest rival, the Order of the Hospi tal of St.John, also known as the Knights Hospitallers. In March 1314, de Molay, along with the Preceptor of Nor mandy, followed his brothers to the stake. The two men died faithfully asserting the order’s innocence.
Legend has it that as the flames flared up, de Molay called out a dire prophecy, saying that within 40 days Pope Clement would stand with him before God and that the king would likewise be called before the year’s end. His tory records that both died as foretold, but one can assume that the prophecy was most likely injected into the story after the fact.
While the raid on the French Templars was secretive and swift, there is evidence that the order was forewarned of the impending treachery, as well can be imagined with an organization so deft at intrigue. Inquisition records re late that 620 Templars were arrested without resistance on that fateful
Friday the thirteenth. It is most likely that only a small number of these would have been of the fighting force, and those may have been older knights not up to the life of a fugitivewilling sacrifices for the good of the order. The rest were never arrested or found. Local legend had it that the wooded hills around the town of Lyons at one time concealed some 1500 Templar refugees.Whether this number is exaggerated or not, there was probably con siderable truth in the story.
If it is true that the Templars had advance intelligence of the king’s treachery, then the first duty of these fugi tives would have been to escape from immediate danger. Doubtless, as in the other European kingdoms, they would have been welcome in some of the brother orders, such as the Teutonic Knights of Germany.
The Templars, like all knights, were aristocrats, and noth ing could hide their natural demeanor, but their distinc tive garments and telltale beards would have to give way to more traditional garb, and the utmost secrecy would needs be employed to spirit themselves out of harm’s way. The order’s complex and secretive orginazition would have been more than up to that task. To recognize one another in their new guises, they would have had to use pass words, secret grips, and alle gorical phrases. They would also have had to be sworn to secrecy, since betrayal would have led not only to death but to the excruciating tortures that seem to be echoed in the Masonic blood oaths.
In this manner, the fugitive Templars would have pro gressed from one safe “lodge” to another. In The History of the Knights Templars (1842), C.G.Addison wrote that many Templars,”by obliterating all marks of their previous pro fession, . . . had escaped in dis guise to the wild and mountainous parts of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.” Certainly their military expertise would have been welcomed in Scotland, where the ex communicated Robert the Bruce was fighting to keep his country free from English rule.
After the dissolution, there appeared a number of neo Templar orders, such as the Order of the Garter in Eng land, founded in 1348, the Order of the Star in France, founded in 1352, and the Order of the Golden Fleece, cre ated by the Duke of Burgundy in 1430. In 1540 Ignatius Loyola even made use of the Templar ideal of warrior monks when he created the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits, to crusade against the advances of Protestantism. From their inception, these orders took the Templar orga nization as their model, adopting the mystique of ancient rites and rituals just as the fraternal orders of nineteenth century America would adopt those of Freemasonry.
Just when or how Freemasonry itself was infused with the Templar tradition may never be entirely known; some believe the Templars taking refuge in Scotland hid their knowledge under the guise of a craftsman’s guild. Nonethe less it was in England, on St. John the Baptist’s Day, June 24,1717, that Freemasonry revealed itself to the world. On that date, the four lodges of London joined to form the Grand Lodge of England and resolved to assemble annu ally and elect a Grand Master over all Masonic lodges in England, much to the consternation of lodges outside of that city. Other lodges throughout the realm did not ac cept this decree, andYork, Scotland, and Ireland instituted their own Grand Lodges.
Continued disharmony among the various lodges did not prevent the steady growth of Freemasonry among the upper classes, and by 1732 it had begun to spread through the British army in the form of mobile regimental field lodges. Worhng under the warrants of chartered lodges, they carried their regalia to the battlefield. These military lodges began to arrive in the American colonies with Bntish reinforcements during the French and Indian War. Gener al Jeffrey Amherst, commanderinchief of the British army in the colonies, had nineteen line regiments with no less than thirteen field lodges.
The French and Indian War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763.While Britain had won, the war had added a burden of ,~100 million to her national debt, and she en acted several revenue measures in the colonies.The Amer icans, already suffering from a postwar economic recession, protested against taxation without meaningful representa tion in Parliament. They reacted with mounting resistance to measures such as the Revenue and Sugar Acts of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed taxes on papers and legal documents. Patriotic “Sons of Liberty” clubs were formed in Boston and other port towns to resist the laws. In October 1765, delegates from nine colonies met in a Stamp Act Congress and called for a boycott on any dutied imports, which resulted in the repeal of the Stamp Act the next year.
A few historians have erroneously said that much of the patriotism exhibited during the War for Independence was spurred by Freemasonry or even that this great adventure was a Masonic project. Unlike the French Revolution, which was decidedly more Masonically inspired, the truth about the Masonic role in the American Revolution is complex. The fraternity was prominent both in the colonies and in the British Isles, and even in the colonies there were divi sions within each side. Not all patriots were Freemasons, and not all Freemasons supported the revolutionary cause.
Feelings were mixed for a variety of reasonseconomic, social and Political. Business owners, merchants, and the upper classes tended to be Loyalists, while farmers and the working classes leaned more to the revolutionary camp, but there were many exceptions. There is no evidence that American Masonry openly espoused rev olution, even though many individual Masons were quite passionate on the subject. Out of the 100 or so lodges in the colonies in the early 1770s, only one was known to be revolutionary: St. An drew’s Lodge in Boston, whose members included such prominent patriots as JosephWarren,John Hancock, and Paul Revere. The Green Dragon Tavern, where the lodge met, was also the meet ing place of the local Sons of Liberty, whose membership largely overlapped with that of the lodge.
On December 16,1773, the first step of physical defiance was taken in response to another rev enueenhancing measure known as the Tea Act.When three vessels loaded with British tea arrived in Boston harbor, a party of men, many of whom were Masons of St. Andrew’s Lodge, met at the Green Dragon Tavern. These Sons of Liberty, dressed unconvincingly as Mohawk Indians and with faces blackened with soot, stole loudly down to the harbor. Speaking guttural orders, they boarded the ships, broke open the tea chests with their tomahawks, and dumped the cargo of tea overboard. Henry Purkett, one of the nonMasonic participants, related the next day that “there was a great bowl of tea made last night in Boston harbor which might prove to be a little salty.”
The ubiquitous presence of Freemasonry in the colonies by this time, and the patriotism exhibited by a large num ber of the brethren, served to tie the young states togeth er in a fraternal bond.This Masonic tie seemed so pervasive that John Adams of Massachusetts (although not himself a Mason) saw the necessity of strengthening the cause by se lecting a commanderinchief of the American forces who was both a Mason and an experienced military campaign er. On June 15,1775, Adams proposed”a man who would command the approbation of all America and unite the cordial exertions of all the colonies,” Colonel George Wash ington of Virginia.
In addition to Washington, five major generals and eight brigadier generals were appointed, all but three of whom were Masons. Freemasonry was openly espoused in the Continental Army, and most senior officers were Masons. The military lodges provided esprit de corps in the ab sence of regimental traditions. Masonic titles and ranks were conferred like medals, and even nonMasons were constantly exposed to the order’s ideals.
Both lodge records and personal testimony relate that GeneralWashington actively encouraged Masonry. Captain Hugh Maloy declared that “he was initiated in Washing ton’s marquee tent, the Chief himself presiding at the cer emony.”The regimental drum, with the new American flag draped across it, became the Masonic altar with the three Greater Lights upon it (Scripture, Square, and Compasses), while three bayonets stuck in the ground with candles in them represented the three Lesser Lights (the Sun, the Moon, and the Master). Outside the tent a Mason ic guard, orTyler, stood his solemn vigil. In 1783 the first true American order, the Society of the Cincinnati, was insti tuted by veteran officers of the Conti nental Army. Like the Confederate and Union veteran’s orders established after the Civil War, this fraternal group served to perpetuate the camaraderie the men had enjoyed as soldiers. In the early 1800s several British or ganizations were established in America. The Odd Fellows, which had existed at least since the first half of the eighteenth century in England, inaugurated their first lodge here in 1819; a year later ties with the English Odd Fellows were severed and an Independent Order of Odd Fellowship was established in America.The United An cient Order of Druids, a fraternal group founded in the eigh teenth century that traced its origins back to the ancient Celtic Druids, was established in 1830. Some fraternal groups, like the first college fraternities and the secret so cieties atYale, were organized in the early nineteenth cen tury, but it was only after the Civil War that the majority of fraternal societies arose. These included the Patrons of Husbandry, better known as the Grange, in 1867; the Benev olent and Protective Order of Elks in 1868; the Knights of the Mystic Chain in 1871; and even the original Ku Klux Klan in 1866.
Fraternalism in the working class developed as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Production in the new fac tories superseded any consideration for workmen’s bene fits, adequate compensation, or health concerns. To help protect themselves, workers banded together, forming fra ternal guild unions such as the Brotherhood of Locomo tive Engineers (1863); the Knights of St. Crispin (cobblers, 1869); the Sons of Vulcan (boiler workers; 1876); and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (1883). These unions offered fellowship, group insurance, and the allure of ini tiatory ritual. Indeed ritual became a regular part of the cul tural life of the age, as thousands of men knelt before masked, blackdraped officials reciting semiMasonic oaths.
There were two types of fraternal organizations dur ing the Golden Age of Fraternity; the quasireligious “se cret societies” such as the Masons, Odd Fellows, and Pythians; and the benefit societies like the Independent Order of Foresters (founded in 1874), the Knights of the Maccabees (1878), and the ModernWoodmen of Ameri ca (1883). The benefit societies’ mainstay was the insur ance they provided to members.
The beneficiary nature of some of the orders, the fra ternal element, and particularly the peculiar draw of ritualism attracted many men to seek entrance.The purpose of the rituals was not merely to reform the initiate but to remake him completely. Once reborn into the fraternal society, he would reexperience the stages of life through the successive degrees. The Order of Knights of Honor (1873), for ex ample, maintained three degrees simply titled Infancy,Youth, and Manhood.
Fraternal orders compet ed to attract the “better” mem bers of the community, and nearly every prominent man was a Masoll and/or an Odd Fellow. Many men, called “jiners” in the lodge vernacular, would join several of the scores of organizations available at the time. In 1896 there were nearly 70,000 lodges of over 150 organizations, including some 810,000 Odd Fellows, 750,000 Masons, and 475,000 Knights of Pythias. There were over 361,000 members of the Ancient Order of United Workmen, almost 245,000 Knights of the Maccabees, and more than 204,000 Mod ern Woodmen of America. The Improved Order of Red Men held a membership of 165,000, and other fraternal societies such as the Knights of Honor (numbering 118,000), the Royal Arcanum (189,000), and the Foresters of Amer ica (141,000) contributed to the list.
While there were a small number of nonwhite mem bers in some of these lodges, most members of color had organized their own orders, such as the Prince Hall Ma sons (with a membership of 224,000) and the United Order of Odd Fellows (130,000), or the separate “colored” orga nizations of Pythians and Elks. Catholic organizations like the Catholic Knights of America, founded in 1877, and the Knights of Columbus, founded in 1882, were orga nized to discourage Catholic men from pursuing mem bership in other orders, especially Freemasonry. Ethnic benefit societies, such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians (IrishAmericans, 1836) and B’nai B’rith (1843), were also influenced by Masonry and held considerable membership, as did the numerous women’s auxiliaries maintained for members’ wives.
Death was a central theme of most fraternal rituals. In Masonry it was determined that death was the culmina tion of the initiatory process; that it was only beyond the grave, when released from our earthly confines, that we are fully capable of receiving and appreciating the revelation of divine truth.
Every major order established special burial rituals, and if a member had requested a fraternal interment, the lodge would handle all the arrangements. Learning of a member’s death, officers of the lodge sought the family’s permission to have their own private moments with the deceased. Multiple memberships would sometimes cause problems with funeral protocol.
Fraternalism’s Golden Age lasted into the early twen tieth century. Its demise came during the Depression of the 1930s, when many members found dues, especial ly for multiple memberships, an unnecessary bur den.With this loss of income, smaller organizations disbanded while others, like the Independent Order of Foresters and the Supreme Tribe of BenHur (founded in 1894), turned into insurance companies. The larger orders, such as the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows, survived but lost nearly half their members.
Freemasonry’s member ship reflects the society in which it exists, and it has been through a number of changes throughout its history. In its natal years the fraternity was entirely Christian, and religious tolerance was reserved for denominational differences, but starting in the early eighteenth century members of other faiths began to join. When Rudyard Kipling was initiated in Hope and Perseverance Lodge No. 782, in Lahore, India, in 1886, the holy books of five religions were positioned on the altar. Today lodges throughout the world generally open with the scripture predominant among their members, except in France, where lodges have dispensed with any scripture upon the altar.
Freemasonry is the oldest fraternal organization in the Western world, and it has generated an enormous amount of literature, yet it is still a mystery to many. It holds that there is some truth in all perceptions of deity. Personal religious and political beliefs are not allowed in lodge, but the Craft can be perceived on many levels, exoteric and esoteric, and it can be misunderstood on just as many, by Masons and non-Masons alike.
Throughout its history Masonry has been the target of religious fundamentalism. It has been branded a religion or a cult, yet it does not teach any doctrine of salvation or foster any religious preference and does not invite membership. Condemned by ignorance, persecuted under Hitler and Mussolini, banned in communist countries and by the Ayatollah in Iran, it has remained a beacon of light to those who have sought it. Its espousal of freedom has guided such famous patriots as Simon Bolivar in South America, Lajos Kossuth in Hungary, Benito Juarez in Mexico, and Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy. It has been a source of inspiration to musicians and artists like Mozart and Alphonse Mucha; to scientists and writers like Newton, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and Goethe; and to statesmen and ordinary people around the world.
Masonic membership today runs the gamut of classes and ideologies. While the core of that membership might not resemble the intellectual freethinkers of previous centuries, there is always a progressive element whose influence is leading the fraternity forward. As the eighteenth century savant Giovanni Giacomo Casanova wrote:
Mystery is the essence of human nature. Whatever is presented to people under mysterious guise will always arouse curiosity, but those who join the Masonic lodge from idle curiosity about its secrets risk growing old without ever achieving their purpose. Yet there is a secret, one so inviolable that it can never be confided or whispered to anyone.
Dale E. Boudreau 32ø is a member of the Scottish Rite, Green lake Lodge No. 149, and Walter ~ Meier Lodge of Research in Seattle, Washington. He is currently writing and photographing Fraternal Lodges of the American West.
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