Stonecutting and Religion in America

stonecuttersI’ll just admit it: Freemasonry is one of those things in American history that I have trouble getting my head around. I suppose I understand the importance of guy-time, but many of my closest friends are women. The very idea of secret societies, with initiations and special rings, just seems boyish to me. I would suppose that the boyishness is the point–a search for wonder and enchantment and all of that–except that early in the nineteenth century the Masons banned alcohol at meetings: no stein hoists here. The largest group at midcentury actually required its members to be teetotalers, making enchantment a much harder sell, for my money. More to the point, in the same period enchantment without booze could be had at a Methodist camp meeting, which seems like it would have been quite a lot more interesting, what with women there.

Masonry’s historical importance doesn’t depend on whether or not we get it, of course, but the difficulty of understanding it is curious–I don’t go in for evangelical religion, either, but I do understand the appeal. That exact question–Freemasonry’s position in American history and culture relative to religion–is the subject of David G. Hackett’s new book, That Religion in Which All Men Agree (University of California Press, 2014). While other works have considered Freemasonry’s place in early American history–most notably, Steven C. Bullock’s elegantly-written Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 (UNC Press, 1996)–Hackett intends this new study specifically to place “American Freemasonry in the context of the religious history of [early America]” (11).

That Religion offers a succinct history of Freemasonry in America–from its arrival from England in 1733 to its late-twentieth-century decline–focused on religious resonances that will be useful for teaching. For the later period, Hackett provides thoughtful chapters on African-American, Catholic, Jewish, and Native American iterations of Freemasonry that open out onto larger issues of race and religious questions of nationalism and belonging. I’ll be focusing here, though, on the parts of the book relevant to The Junto’s timeframe. Freemasonry’s influence in America peaked, according to pretty much everyone, in the late 1820s, when it was derailed by the Morgan affair, in which Masons in upstate New York were accused (almost certainly accurately) of kidnapping and murdering a brother who planned to publish their most-secret secrets, essentially using the Sacred Parchment as a napkin. Between the early eighteenth century and this waning, individual Masons, of course, held considerable power in America. For a brief period after the Revolution, brothers engaged in the “sanctification of the new nation through Masonic rituals,” as Hackett writes: Masons including George Washington laid cornerstones for public buildings with appropriate pomp and larded the nation’s founding with so much Masonic imagery that it might take a third National Treasure movie to unravel it all (65).

Hackett’s exploration of Freemasonry in the period of its greatest influence pursues two lines of inquiry. On one hand, he looks at how Freemasonry functioned as a religion for its initiates. On the other, he examines Freemasonry’s relationship with concepts and institutions prominent in American religious history. His goal for Freemasonry here is ambitious: he aims to bring it to the center of that history. “As a widely available resource for organizing social relations and ideology, Freemasonry provides an interpretive lens through which to reframe our understanding of the American religious past” (2).

On that first point–the idea that Masonry functioned as a religion for its initiates–Hackett discusses the details of Masonry’s rituals obliquely, focusing instead on their intended effects. What, at the end of the day, was Freemasonry for, beyond keeping Atlantis under wraps and the metric system down? The answers to this question seem to be primarily about sociability. In the eighteenth century Masonry provided a sense of belonging, a venue for friendship and brotherhood among wealthy, white, urban men. In the nineteenth, the brotherhood expanded its bounds of class and geography (less-so with respect to race; not at all with respect to sex), just as the “private world of warmth and intimacy” that Masonry provided came to be more and more desirable in the face of “an increasingly cold, competitive, and uncertain public sphere” (5).

What, though, about religious purposes? The appeal, inasmuch as it had aspects beyond sociability, seems to have been a “search for deep meaning” that involved moral instruction. How, though, was that search validated? Hackett avers “that unlike Protestant ministers, who emphasized the moral power of the Bible, Masons taught morality through the practice of ritual” (143). This begs a question about legitimation: How was the performance of complicated, recently created, and ad hoc rituals legitimated as a search for truth? Christians appealed to a scriptural past for that, and so did Masons to some extent, but with a lot of extra “ancent” material. Here, I think Hackett’s analysis is somewhat hamstrung by a constructivist definition of religion–“shared ideologies and practices that help people become human in relation to transcendent realities”–that doesn’t give him space to think more about how shared ideologies and practices become transcendent in relation to human realities, but that’s a religious-studies conversation for another time (4).

In the early nineteenth century, Hackett draws interesting comparisons between Masonry’s increasingly complex ritual system and prominent themes of early-national religion. Hackett convincingly places Freemasonry’s guiding pursuit of ancient wisdom in the context of primitivism as a formative impulse in American Protestantism (85). Early-national revivalism, likewise, had Masonic resonances: like contemporary revivalists, Freemasons believed in the “use of strong emotions to reach an inner self” (13). While evangelicals utilized emotional preaching and imagery to “break open the hearts of ‘sinners,’” Masons created dramatic rituals to split the rocks of ignorance that obscure the light of knowledge and truth. Direct connections between Masonry and early-national Protestants abound–Masons were often called upon to dedicate churches in this era; prominent leaders such as Charles G. Finney and even Lorenzo Dow were Masons; Masonry’s influence on Joseph Smith is well known.

Lastly, while several dichotomies structure the book–public and private, elite and common, rational and magical–the one that comes to matter most is male and female. Church membership in America has been predominately female, and so placing Freemasonry in a religious context necessarily means comparing an all-male institution to a decidedly feminine one. Hackett says early on that this point is actually what drew him to this study in the first place: “I initially read my way into the literature on Freemasonry while looking for the existence of a male world that might broadly complement the Protestant women’s sphere” (ix). Positing fraternal orders such as Masonry as a counterpoint to the churches–as a male “private haven of intimacy and ritual” to parallel “a pious women’s domestic sphere that encompassed the church”–says a lot about both fraternalism and the churches that may be problematic (5). For one thing, I’m not sure that it’s so simple to compare men’s place in the all-male world of Freemasonry to women’s place in the churches, where they were numerically superior but typically able to exercise leadership only indirectly if at all.

Beyond that, one fascinating aspect of early-national Masonry is that it came to be perceived as, well, feminizing, rather like the church and home that men were supposedly going to the lodge to avoid. As Masonry’s ritual life became more complex in the early nineteenth century, Hackett notes, “The idea that women already possessed the ‘softness’ of heart that was one goal of Masonic training entered Masonic apologetics with a flourish (108).” Isn’t it fascinating that Masonry was for men and men only but intended to instill characteristics which had been coded as feminine? There is a lot here about the importance of women being excluded, and quite a lot about the feminization of the churches (implying that it drove men to Freemasonry), but in the end there isn’t much about gender within Freemasonry. What ideal of manhood, exactly, did the lodges seek to cultivate? Other studies have considered this sort of question–such as Mark C. Carnes’s Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (Yale 1991)–but in Hackett’s specifically religious context, it would have been interesting to compare Masonry’s “softened” ideal of manhood to that which Christine Heyrman has argued evangelical denominations adopted and then backed away from in the early nineteenth century.

In any case, That Religion raises a number of interesting questions in a short space, ideal for a religious-history classroom, where (in my experience) Freemasonry tends to get short shrift. Freemasonry deserves to be understood on its own religious terms, as oblique as we may find them, because if anyone needs to move beyond presumptions of Christian consensus in American history, we do, we do.

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  1. Pingback: Sunday Links Roundup - Fr. Peter Michael Preble | Fr. Peter Michael Preble


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