The Origins of Freemasonry & Revolutionary Brotherhood

by Margaret C. Jacob

A Book Review by Wor. Bro. Frederic L. Milliken

Jacob’s Origin of Freemasonry

I have never reviewed two books together before but there is a good reason for doing so. The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts and Fictions by Margaret C. Jacob and Revolutionary Brotherhood by Steven Bullock are both written by historians who are not Freemasons.  They both write from the same point of view, that is they look at the world through the same discipline that they were trained in.  Both books are a look at Freemasonry’s interaction with society, of the Craft’s effect on the political, religious and economic systems of a nation and the reverse, the effect of the systems on Freemasonry.  In fact in reading both books I felt as if I was back in college in SOC 101. The full title of Bullocks book is Revolutionary Brotherhood, Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840.” The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts and Fictions and Bullock are looking at Freemasonry through the eyes of a Sociologist and they are dispassionate, objective observers because they are not members of the Craft. They have no agenda driving them nor do they care if Freemasonry doesn’t come out always smelling like roses. It’s about time we Freemasons got some scholarly work from knowledgeable academians who are not members of Freemasonry.

The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts and Fictions said it best when she penned these words:

“When entering the world of the eighteenth-century Masonic life the historian must assume a willing suspension of disbelief. How else are we to understand why women and men would devote many hours a month, spend lavishly in the process, and covet the opportunity to participate formally in quasi-religious, yet secular ceremonies that we can only dimly imagine as meaningful and satisfying.”

Both books deal primarily with 18th century Freemasonry, although Bullock does stretch it out to the pre Civil War period.  Both discuss the origins of Freemasonry and then go on to trace the Craft’s development through the various changes in society and how that influenced Freemasonry.  But also there is the recognition that perhaps the development of Freemasonry influenced the changes in society.  There is the age old question of which comes first the chicken or the egg and both authors are more interested in cataloging the steps of development rather than making a referee’s ruling on who gets the most credit.

The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts and Fictions sticks pretty much to European Freemasonry and Bullock to American (U.S.A.) Freemasonry yet each must venture into the other’s sphere to make the story complete.

The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts and Fictions has five chapters, abbreviated as follows- Origins, Daily Lives, Schools of Government, Freemasons and the Marketplace, and Women in Freemasonry. The book makes a number of good points so let’s look at those.

As a historian The Origins of Freemasonry: Facts and Fictions firmly asserts that the origin of Freemasonry was a transition from Masonic guild to modern speculative Freemasonry. She tells us that early notable Freemasons such as Sir Robert Moray and Elias Ashmole, “may have believed that masonry put him (them) closer to the oldest tradition of ancient wisdom, associated with Hermes, out of which mathematics and the mechanical arts were said to have nourished.” Freemasonry claiming origins from the Knights Templars or Rosicrucians is just fantasy run amuck. As a side comment she addresses the modern demise of Freemasonry because, “Voluntary associations that radically crossed class lines have largely disappeared, replaced by advocacy groups or professional associations.”

She goes on to say that it was new market forces that caused an evolution of guild decline and disappearance.  Only the British stonemasons were able to survive, largely because they had a “richness of lore and traditions” and they were highly skilled.

As commerce and business were conducted in a new manner causing the old guilds to wane, surviving stonemasons guilds took on non laborers for needed monetary gain and thus as a means of survival. Gentlemen Freemasons soon overtook the membership of Lodges and were in charge of their operative Brethren.  “Suddenly, whole initiation ceremonies were created to install the master in his ‘chair’.”

These revamped guilds now half speculative Lodges instituted “degrees” by which its operative and non-practicing Brethren might be distinguished from each other.  There came about a marked gain in literacy and the Lodges performed a great amount of charitable work that society and the government had not yet equipped itself to do.

“In town and city the power of the old guilds to regulate wags and labor had now been broken.  But the collectivist definition of liberty and equality inherent in guild culture could be given new meaning.  It could now pertain to the aspirations of the political nation.  Voters and magistrates could meet within the egalitarian shell provided by the guild shorn of its economic authority and in most cases of its workers.  In the new Masonic lodges urban gentlemen, as well as small merchants and educated professionals, could practice fraternity, conviviality, and civility while giving expression to a commonly held social vision of their own liberty and equality.  They could be free-marketeers while hedging their debts.  By bonding together through the fraternal embrace, they sought refuge from harsh economic realities if bad fortune made poverty seem inevitable.”

Another theme in the book is that manner in which Lodges and Grand Lodges governed themselves not only paved the way for these methods to be adopted by civil society but it was good practice or training for those who would fill those civil roles. In England she says that government and society first started modern democratic reforms that spread to Freemasonry.

“Now seen to be enlightened, Masonic practices such as elections, majority rule, orations by elected officials, national governance under a Grand Lodge, and constitutions – all predicated on an ideology of equality and merit – owed their origin to the growth of parliamentary power, to the self-confidence of British urban merchants and landed gentry, and not least, to a literature of republican idealism. The English Revolution was the framework within which Masonic constitutionalism developed.”

But not so for the rest of Europe.

“The lodges brought onto the Continent distinctly British forms of governance: constitutions, voting by individual, and sometimes secret ballot, majority rule, elected officers, ‘taxes’ in the form of dues, public oratory, even courts for settling personal disputes; eventually the lodges even sent representatives to organized Grand Lodges.”

The last chapter traces women in Freemasonry from the beginnings in the 1740s as Adoptive Lodges started to form through the end of the 18th century. Jacob makes the point that if it was important for men to gain experience in democratic self government through participating in the workings of Lodges and Grand Lodges that it was doubly so for women.  Women in the public sphere at this time had no freedom or ability to influence anything.  It was only in a private venue that women could gain some measure of control over their lives and influence others.

And so Jacob credits the Adoptive Lodges with giving women the start on the road to feminism.  First the Lodge, followed by the Salons and then the Republican Clubs. Jacob takes us through the constant development and refinement of the Adoptive ritual each step along the way women having more control over the Lodge practices.

“Like the salons, then, the lodges of adoption may be presented as entry points to the organizing concepts of the Enlightenment.  The lodges become ‘secret’ places where women’s power and merit grew and were expressed through elaborate ceremonies (many of them published), and where large numbers of women first expressed what we may legitimately describe as early feminism.”

I found the Origins of Freemasonry to be less about the origins and more an 18th century development of European Masonry. The first thing the book could use is a better title. For such a lofty and inclusive work the book was quite short, 132 pages not counting appendixes.  I found Chapter 2 that dwelt on Masonic diaries to be unappealing and not very informative. Jacob says that she put the book together from expanding and revising some earlier essays.  I get the feeling that they might have been lectures or speeches or classroom professorial treatises that were added onto. The writing seemed choppy and the themes sometimes overlapping.  For instance in chapter one, Origins, much time and words were devoted to the thoughts of Chapter three, Schools of government and Chapter five, Women in Freemasonry.  This often happens when you are lecturing and continuing on from week to week in the same vein.  Of course that may not be the case but I just get that feeling.

Yet there were many good points made about Freemasonry and historical observations that were top notch. Margaret C. Jacob is an eminent historian and she knows what she is talking and writing about. This was a nice little scratching of the surface. What it could or should have been is a 500 page exhaustive study. Let’s just say I appreciated the author’s mind but I just didn’t like the presentation.

 

Revolutionary Brotherhood is a much more extensive work of 319 pages not counting appendixes.  Steven Bullock outlined in the Introduction exactly what the book was going to contain.  After reading the entire book cover to cover that outline is the best summation of what Revolutionary Brotherhood is all about.

“This work seeks to understand the appeal of Masonry for eighteenth – and early nineteenth century Americans and, from that perspective, to illuminate the society and culture that first nurtured and then rejected it.”

“Such an examination makes clear that Masonry, rather than being entirely separate from the world, changed dramatically in conjunction with it. Four major shifts in the fraternity and its context are examined, in chronological sections.  The story begins with the fraternity’s creation in England and its transit to colonial America, where it helped provincial elites separate themselves from the common people and build solidarity in a time of often bitter factional divisions (Part I). These leaders, however, would be overtaken in the Revolutionary period as lesser men appropriated the fraternity for their own purposes, spreading it to inland leaders as well as Continental army officers (Part II). These changes prepared the way for the period of Masonry’s greatest power and prestige, the years from 1790 to 1826, when Americans used Masonry to respond to a wide range of needs, including their hopes for an enlightened Republic, their attempts to adapt to a mobile and increasingly commercial society, and their desire to create a separate refuge from this confusing outside world (Part III). This multiplication of uses involved Masonry in conflicting and even contradictory activities and ideas, a situation that exploded in the midst of a widespread attempt to reform and purify American society based on the principles of democracy and evangelicalism.  The resulting Antimasonic movement virtually destroyed Masonry in the North and crippled it in the South.  The fraternity revived in the 1840s and 1850s but without the high pretensions to public honor and influence that had made it seem so overwhelming to men such as Salem Town (Part IV).”

What is so eye opening and important about this book is the realization that American Freemasonry was not always this monolithic, never wavering, never changing institution.  Freemasons today sometimes try to paint the Craft as always being this or always being that when in reality Freemasonry was always changing.  And that says a lot about what the future might hold for American Freemasonry as it may very well be going through another period of significant reinvention of itself.

Bullock gets us briefly started in merry old England to lay the background for the exportation of Freemasonry to the American colonies.

“Speculative Masonry developed within the London intellectual and social circles that surrounded Newton, partaking of the same confusions, the same mixing of traditions that marked him and his Masonic friends such as Stukeley and Desaguliers.  The origins of the fraternity lay in the encounter between these cosmopolitan groups and operative Masons’ mysterious heritage and practices. To protect the antiquity they perceived there and the hope for a deeper knowledge of universal truth, early speculative brothers created a powerful organization and a regular series of degrees that reaffirmed the link between the new group and ancient wisdom.”

What Bullock is telling us here which is so fascinating is that while modern speculative Freemasonry grew out of the operative Guilds who had specialized, privileged and private knowledge it did not remain a labor movement but got co-opted by early 18th century English intellectuals who sought to bring back ancient mysteries bordering on the occult and the wisdom of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and also by the elites of society and the players at his majesty’s Court and Parliament who were feeling the spread of power among the upper crust.

And this is how Freemasonry came to American as Bullock titles the Chapter on this period, “The Appearance of So Many Gentlemen – Masonry and Colonial Elites 1730-1776.” The two central themes of Colonial Masonry were love and honor.  Bullock tells us, “Colonial leaders saw the fraternity as a means to build elite solidarity and to emphasize their elevation above common people.” Lodge members consisted of those of wealth, political, religious, and business leaders and the professional class, lawyers and physicians being heavily represented. Dues were set high, as much as two month’s wages for the average workman, to keep out the riffraff. In the late 1730s Boston’s First Lodge increased dues  so that it would not exclude “any man of merit” but would “discourage those of mean spirits, and narrow, or Incumber’d fortunes” so that none should enter who would be “Disparagement to, and prostitution of Our Honor.”

Bullock tells us that “for colonial brothers, consistent procedure was less important than keeping out the wrong people.  The key division was, not between Masonry and the outside world (as post Revolutionary brothers would come to argue), but between different social ranks. And “Colonial Masonry did not view fraternal fellowship as a withdrawal into a private world of freedom.  Rather, the honorable met within the lodge to learn the virtue and polite ways, necessary for public honor.”

Thus colonial America was set up as a carbon copy of the class society of the mother country, England and Freemasonry reflected the way society was set up and was practiced just as English Masonry was observed. But as England and America parted ways, each going off on its own, so did Freemasonry in the two countries radically depart from each other in practice.

That lead us into Revolutionary Masonry where we see the effects on society of the quarrel between the Antients (Patriots) and the Moderns (Loyalists).  Here the struggle for supremacy in society was also fought inside the Craft. The Moderns catering to the elites formed few Lodges, most of them in large cities along the coastline.  Pennsylvania chartered only 3 Lodges in its first 40 years of operation and the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in sixty years of existence chartered only five Lodges outside Boston all along the coastline. In 1753 the Antients had 10 Lodges but by 1771 they had 140. As settlement spread westward off the coastline, it was Antient Lodges that formed in the new communities not the Moderns. By the time Washington was sworn in as our first President the Antients totally overwhelmed and dominated American Freemasonry. Although Antient Masons were not “common folk” but rather what you would call the forerunners of the American middle class, they did add a distinct different more plebian atmosphere to the practice of Freemasonry.

The Continental army contained a larger than usual percentage of Masons and military Lodges which were widely populated throughout the colonies were mostly Antient Lodges. Bullock credits American Freemasonry with providing the camaraderie that kept it from falling apart in rough times. He tells us that army officers through Freemasonry’s ability to combine exclusive honor with inclusive love were able to develop the spirit de corps that helped it survive to win the war.

The dominance of the Antients and victory over the British forever changed American society and American freemasonry.  Gone were the exclusivity of the elites, in was republican thinking.

The next period in Bullocks breakdown was post war Republican Masonry.

“First, the new vision of the fraternity fitted into the widely shared desire to reconceive the character of American society as it emerged from the Revolution. By celebrating morality and individual merit, Masonry seemed to exemplify the ideals necessary to build a society based on virtue and liberty. Fraternal membership and ideology helped bring high standing to a broad range of Americans, breaking down the artificial boundaries of birth and wealth.  Masonry offered participation in both the great classical tradition of civilization and the task of building a new nation.”

The byword of republican Freemasonry became virtue. Education and learning were encouraged and Freemasonry once again linked back to the wisdom of the ancients while at the same time pushing the advancement of science. Freemasonry became supporters of schools for all of society and advocates of increasing knowledge.  Just what a new republican nation needed. Freemasonry melded with the concept of liberty thereby giving it broad public appeal.

It is here that Bullock mentions the contributions of Prince Hall and Hannah Mather Crocker who, in a society becoming increasingly more open, were able to accomplish much for Blacks and women in Freemasonry as the concept of liberty permeated the Craft in a republican increasingly classless society.

At the same time Freemasonry became more closely identified with the Christian religion and some in the fraternity maintained that Freemasonry fulfilled a divine purpose while others went them one better by declaring Freemasonry a sacred institution. It was also during this period that American Freemasonry also increased its commitment of universal charity.

“Masonic brotherhood now included close, even emotionally charged bonds of obligations.  As Royall noted, Masonic fraternity created ‘claims of a sacred nature.’  Such claims, Clinton explained, formed ties of ‘artificial consanguinity’ that operated ‘with as much force and effect, as the natural relationship of blood.'”

But all was not rosy in Freemasonryland.  Masonic Brothers during this period developed a code of “Preference” meaning that Brothers would always choose to do business with each other in preference to a non Mason. Bullock writes, “Masonic ties did more than promote broad moral standards; they actually guided the paths of trade.” However this can be seen as presenting the Craft with conflicting allegiances trying to balance its declaration of operating for the common good while at the same time using Freemasonry for personal gain. By creating an exclusive tight little network Freemasonry started working against its ideals of rising in society by merit and morality.  These would later be seeds sown to Freemasonry’s own destruction.

And so would Freemasonry increasingly involvement with partisan politics. A very high percentage of Masons in this time period held public office. Freemasonry’s ability was in a time of poor methods of long range communication, to provide a network of men who could more easily communicate with each other and to encourage and reinforce republican values of government and intellectual prowess. More than half of Andrew Jackson’s cabinet members were Freemasons coming from many different states. What Lodge members could do in politics is what they were also able to do in business, show “Preference” to each other for their own personal gain.

This period saw the rise of what Bullock calls the “higher degrees” or concordant bodies. Freemasonry increasingly began to see itself as sacred in this period.

“The fraternity, brothers now argued, was not simply an exemplification of universal processes but a sanctified institution whose values and experiences transcended the ordinary world.”

The result was that Freemasons became obsessed with the standardization and memorization of rituals.  Ritual was no longer a means of initiation but rather a scared body of knowledge. Higher degree ritual carried religious overtones with often extreme emotion reminiscent of Evangelical Christianity. This new tact tended to pull Freemasonry inward away from the outside world and make it exclusive and privileged – in knowledge rather than in social class,however.

These factors of favoritism in business and in politics and this new ritualistic based exclusive, privileged, sacred fraternity were factors which increased its numbers and popularity but at the same time were exactly the factors that led to its downfall, to jealousy of the fraternity and eventually outright hatred.  The Morgan affair was just the spark that set it off.

And that is Bullocks last period from 1826-1840.  He calls it “Masonry and Democracy.” He takes us through all the Anti Masonic rhetoric, the newspapers and the Anti Masonic Party.  Not only was this America’s first third party but also the first time in politics that public opinion had been rallied to bear pressure upon an issue and support a political party. Generally Bullocks thesis is that the American people took back their governance and squashed all those who claimed special privilege. Anti Masonry thus became a massive movement to purify America.

“Opponents of Masonry first pioneered new means of agitation, printing, meeting, and politicking to change public opinion on a single issue.  At the same time, and just as important, Antimasons also explored and popularized new ways of thinking that opposed widely accepted beliefs.  By elevating conscience and public opinion as the test of religion and republicanism, Masonry’s opponents helped lay the foundation for the cultural dominance of democracy and evangelicalism.”

For those of you who thought I might have knocked the Jacob book, I recommend that you read both The Origins of Freemasonry and Revolutionary Brotherhood, and that you read them together starting with “Origins” first. That is the way I read them and I can’t think of a better way of getting a better picture of the development of Freemasonry in its early speculative stages.  Only a qualified, knowledgeable historian could give you this kind of insight and we are blessed with two. For to look at Freemasonry through the research and eyes of two eminent non- Masonic historians is really to see Masonry from the outside looking in.  So often we read Masonic authors who look at Masonry from the inside looking out.  There is always, in my humble opinion, much to be learned from an objective, impartial observer who has no vested interest in the enterprise being studied. Both books are well researched and footnoted.  And both will punch some holes in some Masonic myths.  One big observation to note is that Freemasonry is an ever changing society, pulling society this way and that and being pulled by society this way and that. It means that the Freemasonry of the future will probably look a bit different from now.  Everything evolves.  Life is change.  Ask a historian.

But there is a problem with putting all our observation eggs in one basket, the basket of the historian.  It tends to over ride or even negate the contributions and effects of the esoteric – spiritual side of the Craft, that part of Freemasonry which is that private personal journey building that spiritual temple.  Working on one’s soul is a whole different ball of wax and needs not to be left out of the equation.  Happy reading!

      

Margaret C. Jacob                          Steven C. Bullock

 

                  

               

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