Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880-1930

Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880-1930

by Lynn Dumenil

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As the United States moved from Victorian values to those of modern consumerism, the religious component of Freemasonry was increasingly displaced by a secular ideology of service (like that of business and professional clubs), and the Freemasons' psychology of asylum from the competitive world gave way to the aim of good fellowship" within it. This study not only


As the United States moved from Victorian values to those of modern consumerism, the religious component of Freemasonry was increasingly displaced by a secular ideology of service (like that of business and professional clubs), and the Freemasons' psychology of asylum from the competitive world gave way to the aim of good fellowship" within it. This study not only illuminates this process but clarifies the neglected topic of fraternal orders and enriches our understanding of key facets of American cultural change.

Originally published in 1984.

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Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880â"1930

By Lynn Dumenil


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04716-4


Masonry Revealed: An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century Masonry

When a citizen of these United States kneels at the altar of masonry, when he swears allegiance to her laws, he snaps asunder the ties that bind him to his country; he cannot at the same time be the citizen of a free republic, and the subject of a despotic empire....

Free-masonry, by mingling prayers with bloody and profane oaths, by uniting the mummery of masonry with passages from holy writ, by its impious titles, such as "Most Worshipful," and "King of Heaven," by insinuations in the lower degrees, and direct declarations in the higher, stands forth as the apostle of Deism, if not of Atheism.

— Speech by Samuel W. Dexter of Michigan, 1830

In 1830, anti-Masonic sentiment permeated much of American society, and comments like Dexter's were common. Critics accused Masons of being irreligious libertines and potential subversives of American democracy. Once a popular organization, the ranks of Masonry were decimated in the 1820s and 1830s. However, by 1880, the starting point for this study, Masonry had largely recovered from the inroads of anti-Masonic hysteria. Its membership had grown and its lodges had multiplied. Moreover, Masonry had achieved a position of respectability as an important and prestigious organization. This chapter explores the reasons for the order's reestablishment by examining its history, composition, structure, and activities. Many factors contributed, but crucial to its success was its multifaceted nature, which gave it broad-based appeal to America's middle-class men.


Although Masons have been fond of claiming that their order originated in antiquity, it is probably descended from a medieval English guild of stonemasons. Its recorded history begins in early eighteenth-century London, where the order included not only "operative" Masons, but also "speculative" Masons, men who were honorary members rather than craftsmen. Eventually, the speculative Masons predominated, and the brotherhood devoted itself to building "spiritual instead of material temples." Speculative Masons, led by noted scientists and clergymen, drew upon the Bible, stonemasons' legends, and geometry and physics (the builders' sciences) to fashion an elaborate Masonic system. The tone of the order reflected Enlightenment thought, with its emphasis on deism, rationalism, science, and man's relationship to nature. Masonry was pictured as a "progressive science." As the candidate advanced through the first three degrees — Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason — he advanced in his knowledge of Masonry and its moral lessons. Each degree entailed an esoteric quasi-religious initiation ritual. These secret rituals were the central component of Masonry. Through lectures, allegories, and symbols, they imparted Masonry's commitment to equality, charity, fraternity, morality, and faith in God. This form of Masonry spread to America during the colonial period, and by 1800, the order claimed 18,000 Masons and was growing rapidly. In 1825, in New York state alone, there were 20,000 Masons.

One study of early American Masonry suggests that the order offered its members many advantages. In Freemasonry in Federalist Connecticut, 1789–1835, Dorothy Lipson indicates that as a social club, Masonry provided conviviality. As a charitable organization, it offered relief in times of distress. And as a far-flung network of "brothers," it was useful to geographically mobile men and those engaged in trade. One of the most significant aspects of the fraternity, however, was the way in which Masonry served as a vehicle for dissent from Connecticut's standing order, particularly its established Congregationalist church. For many men, Lipson argues, Masonry could have been a surrogate for the church. Its rituals included not only initiation ceremonies, but also elaborate funeral services. Moreover, like the church, Masonry propounded a code of ethics. Apparent parallels notwithstanding, Masonry's religious ideas conflicted sharply with Connecticut orthodoxy. Beyond a faith in God, the order made no doctrinal demands on its members. Rather, as Lipson notes, "Masons could unite on universal principles whatever their 'private speculative opinion.'" Masonry could thus be interpreted as condoning a wide range of religious belief from dissenting churches to deism. This latitudinarianism, embracing individual choice in spiritual matters, presented a striking contrast to the more demanding, rigid Calvinist orthodoxy. In offering men an alternative religious framework, Masonry engendered church disapproval, which occasionally erupted in open conflict between lodges and local clergy. In general, however, the tension was kept in abeyance, in part because ministers were unwilling to create controversy over an organization endorsed by many prominent laymen.

An incident in Batavia, New York in 1826 shattered this quiescence. William Morgan, a Mason, threatened to publish Masonic secrets. Before he could do so, he was abducted, never to be heard from again. A number of Masons were tried for conspiracy, but all but four were acquitted. The incident, exacerbated by the acquittals and the fact that many jurors and court officials were Masons, touched off a violent wave of anti-Masonic hysteria that was felt throughout the Northeastern, Northwestern, and mid-Atlantic states. Anti-Masonic sentiment invaded politics as anti-Masonic parties emerged in many states.

The sources of the anti-Masonic crusade were complex, and they varied from region to region. David Brion Davis has analyzed the movement in the context of American susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Davis views the eagerness to uncover conspiracies as an irrational response to the social disorder accompanying antebellum egalitarianism, laissez-faire individualism, and economic expansion. The movements against Masonry, Catholicism, and Mormonism shared a rhetoric of defending both democracy and Protestantism against organizations viewed as antithetical to cherished American values. Davis suggests that these movements helped to unite "Americans of diverse political, religious, and economic interests," thereby forging a sense of national unity and stability. Davis's comparison of anti-Masonic with anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon rhetoric is helpful in understanding how a minor event like the Morgan affair could explode into an emotionally charged crusade against a seemingly innocuous organization.

More recently, however, other scholars have suggested that anti-Masonry was not so irrational after all. By examining Masonry itself, it is possible to understand more precisely the sources of anti-Masonic rhetoric. Ronald P. Formisano and Kathleen Smith Kutolowski, for example, have demonstrated that there was some foundation for the criticism that Masonry challenged democratic values. In the aftermath of the Batavia incident, New York Masons, many in official capacity, blocked effective investigation of the matter. Moreover, Masons were well represented among judges and jurors sitting for conspiracy trials involving Masons. Those not acquitted received light sentences. The whole thing smacked of a cover-up, and the power of Masons to subvert the law for their own benefit seemed ominous. Masons were not only suspect for their cavalier attitude toward the law, however; the order also seemed antithetical to egalitarianism. Although Masonry appears to have cut across class lines, members of the elite may have been especially plentiful in the order. In addition, with its rituals, its secrecy, and its internal hierarchy of officers with ostentatious titles, Masonry set itself up as a group apart from the rest of society. Thus Masonry, an organization that seemed to flirt with aristocratic notions and to view itself as above the law, became a prime candidate for suspicion in an age whose watchword was "the common man."

Masonry could also be viewed as a serious threat to Christianity. Lipson and Formisano see religion as the central component in anti-Masonry, both in its political and social manifestations. Masonry's tension with the established order was compounded by the highly charged religious atmosphere produced by the second Great Awakening. Evangelical Christians saw Masonry as an agency of the devil. They mistrusted its oaths and considered its religious rituals blasphemous. It is not coincidental that anti-Masonry saw its strongest outpouring in New York's "burned over" district, the area visited by repeated religious revivals in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In politics as well as religion, there was a rational basis for hostility to Masonry. Yet, the hysteria, the extremism, and the hyperbolic rhetoric that pitted good against evil seem to have sources well beyond the specific circumstances of Masonry and the Morgan incident, and to be, as Davis suggests, symptoms of deep societal strain.

Anti-Masonry as a political movement was of short duration; it was dead by 1832. Anti-Masonic sentiment persisted longer, effectively blocking the fraternity's growth for many years. Many Masons renounced the order, few new men joined, and many lodges suspended operation altogether. Lodges that did function found it necessary to meet secretly, and while many men remained loyal to the order, they did so discreetly. The 1830s were troubled times for the fraternity, but by the 1850s, it had begun to recoup its losses. Between 1850 and 1860, its membership almost tripled, from 66,142 to 193,763, and the following decade saw much expansion. By 1870, there were 446,000 Masons in over 7,000 lodges. After 1870, the growth was slower, but steady, as the institution consolidated its position (see Appendix A). Accompanying Masonry's revival were the founding and expansion of many other fraternal orders.

Masonry's enhanced popularity and restored reputation were evident in the public quality of the order in the late nineteenth century. It was still a secret society, but most men proudly wore the Masonic symbol (a square and compass) on their watch chains. Prominent men — businessmen, politicians, and clergymen — joined the order and lent their respectability to the organization. In addition, Masons made many public appearances. The tradition of Masonic funerals accompanying traditional church services was revived, and in some areas lodges periodically attended church as a group. Another important public appearance was the cornerstone-laying ceremony, which Masons performed for both public and Masonic buildings. These ceremonies, such as the one for the Statue of Liberty in 1885, began with colorful parades and ended with a Masonic ceremony and speeches by public and Masonic officials. In a day when parades and oratory were forms of popular entertainment, Masons were important and highly visible participants in major events. Newspapers gave ample coverage to these ceremonies. In Chicago, for example, the laying of the cornerstone of the Masonic Temple in 1890 was front-page news. The press also covered major Masonic meetings and offered fraternal columns. Whether favorable or neutral in their coverage, newspapers gave clear indication that Masonry had returned and was a significant and prestigious organization.

The renewed popularity and prestige of Masonry in late nineteenth-century America may be attributed to several factors. Certainly, part of the explanation lies in the abatement of anti-Masonic sentiment. In the 1850s, ethnic, religious, and sectional conflict displaced concern over the threats posed by Masonry. For those predisposed to see conspiracies against American democracy, the menace of Irish Catholics or a conspiracy of slaveholders posed a much more serious threat than a convivial fraternity of respectable men. After the Civil War, with the Union preserved, it was even less likely that much popular credence could be given to the fear that Masons menaced the Republic. Moreover, the liberalized religious climate of the late nineteenth century made Masonry more innocuous in the eyes of the churches. Hostility to secret societies still existed. The Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations condemned them on religious grounds, but these dissenting opinions had relatively little impact on the prestige and the growth of Masonry and other secret societies. But while the waning of anti-Masonry cleared the way for the fraternity's revival, the key to understanding the sources of Masonry's popularity is the nature of the order itself, in particular its composition, structure, activities, and ideology.


Late nineteenth-century Masonry's structure and principles had changed very little from earlier Masonry. Ritualistic content and format were similar, and the lessons they taught were the same: equality, charity, fraternity, morality, and faith in God. The candidate continued to advance through three initiatory degrees in the Blue Lodge, the basic unity of Masonry. Blue Lodges in each state were under the authority of a Grand Lodge, which collected dues from its subordinates and sought to maintain conformity to Masonic rules and rituals. Grand Lodges were jealous of their sovereignty and successfully resisted the occasional attempts to create a national organizing body. However, they kept in close contact with one another and exchanged information about interpretation of laws and procedures. As a result of this cooperation, the differences in ritual and law among the Grand Lodges in the various states were generally slight. Thus, hundreds of thousands of American men scattered throughout the country shared very similar Masonic experiences.

Who were these men who shared in the experience of Masonry? Masons insisted that their order was committed to the principle of universality, which they defined as the association of good men without regard to religion, nationality, or class. The prospective candidate must be a physically sound, free-born male who believed in God and lived a moral life. Beyond these requirements, Masonry theoretically imposed no policy restricting membership. Although Masonic principles technically allowed for heterogeneity, the fraternity was, in fact, predominantly a white, native, Protestant, middle-class organization.

Despite its insistence on the equality of men, for example, in practice the order excluded nonwhites. Not only did Masonry not admit blacks, but Grand Lodges also denied that Prince Hall Masonry, a black Masonic order that had existed since 1774, was an authentic part of Masonry. Although the refusal to grant legitimacy to Prince Hall Masonry was undoubtedly rooted in racism, there were few racial overtones in white Masons' explanation for their denial that the black fraternity was "real" Masonry. Instead, white Masons justified their position on the basis of Masonic law, claiming that Prince Hall Masonry had not been legally established. This recourse to legalism may be attributed in part to the Masonic obsession with rules and laws that permeated Grand Lodge proceedings. More significantly, however, the legalism reveals Masons' unwillingness to address the order's de facto racial exclusion. Masons were proud of their order's ideals and were unwilling to acknowledge that its commitment to equality was imperfectly realized. The avoidance of overt racist arguments was typical of Masons' desire to be consistent with the order's commitment to universality and the brotherhood of man.

In contrast to its racial exclusivity, Masonry was somewhat more receptive to immigrants. Available data on Oakland's Live Oak Lodge members' nativity are scanty, but suggest that the order had a small number of immigrants from northern Europe. Immigrants in Masonry probably gathered in distinct ethnic lodges in major urban areas. California had three such lodges, all in San Francisco — Italiana Speranza, Parfaite Union, and Hermann. New York City, not surprisingly, had many ethnic lodges, and German Masons in New York state were plentiful enough to establish their own Masonic home for elderly and ill German Masons. While ethnic lodges answered to the authority of Grand Lodges of their states, they do not appear to have had extensive intercourse with regular lodges. Conducting ritual and business in their own language, these lodges self-consciously retained their native culture, a factor that served to separate them from mainstream Masonry. Although immigrants were represented in Masonry, the literary material used for this study — magazines and Grand Lodge proceedings — indicates little recognition that a substantial foreign-born Masonic population existed.

Masons were primarily of Protestant stock. There was little or no overt anti-Semitic sentiment in Masonic literature, but the order was self-consciously Christian, and one Masonic organization — the Knights Templar — permitted only Christians. Membership lists for Oakland indicate Jews' minority status in the fraternity in that city. For example, in 1900, Jewish names accounted for no more than 1.5 percent of all the Masons in Oakland's four lodges. In other cities, the percentages may have been higher, with Jews congregating in heavily Jewish or ethnic lodges. A Grand Master of New York, complaining about disreputable saloonkeepers who had been "smuggled" into the order, for example, suggested the existence of primarily Jewish lodges in New York when he noted that most of the trouble had come from "lodges composed of Hebrews." While he claimed that he had no objection to Jews, his comment indicates that even in cosmopolitan New York, Jews were not considered part of Masonry proper.


Excerpted from Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880â"1930 by Lynn Dumenil. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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