Sunday, June 10, 2018

Are Dummies and Idiots Wrecking Freemasonry?

The latest edition of the Scottish Rite Research Society's collected papers, Heredom (Vol. 15), arrived while I was enjoying myself in Connecticut last week, and I picked it up over the weekend to savor its contents. It includes Stephen Dafoe's detailed and very important paper on the Morgan incident and the aftermath that led to the huge changes in the fraternity that followed in the wake of Morgan's disappearance—right up to the Baltimore Convention in 1843. Stephen's is a seminal work on the subject, collecting the episode together in a way that has not been done before. I urge Masons with an interest in the history of how and why US Freemasonry developed differently from the rest of the Masonic world to read this important work.

But the first article in Heredom is by Brother Josh Gresham Gunn (right), who currently teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. Brother Gunn's paper is "The Two Rhetorics of Freemasonry," and I urge you to read it in its entirety. This is the third incarnation I have read of this paper (one on his website in bits and pieces, once in a shortened article in the Scottish Rite Journal, and now this one). In all three versions, Brother Gunn has taken issue specifically with me and a passage I wrote in Freemasons For Dummies. He is not alone in having his hackles raised by the passage. I will not attempt to paraphrase his article—again, I urge you to read it for yourself. But I do want to respond to that part of his work that references me.

The quote that Gunn and others find bothersome, offensive or otherwise irksome is this:

In your research about Freemasonry you will doubtless come across the writings of Albert Mackey, Manley Hall, Arthur Edward Waite, and Albert Pike. These men and many others have filled reams of paper with scholarly observations of Freemasonry. They eloquently linked the Craft to the ancient Mystery Schools of Egypt and elsewhere. They wrote that Masonry was directly descended from pagan rites and ancient religions. Some wrote that Masonry was the stepchild of magick, alchemy, and the shadowy mystics who dabbled in the world of the Kabala (Jewish mysticism) and in mysterious ancient writings like Hermes Trismigestes and the Key of Solomon. The works of these men were filled with fabulous tales of beliefs and cultures and cryptic theories of the deepest and earliest origins of Freemasonry.

In short, they wrote a lot of crap.

Guys like Pike and Mackey were incredible scholars and had dazzling intellectual and spiritual knowledge. Their works are both enlightening and frustrating, because they reach into obscure legends and beliefs and drag out what appears to be a lavish and alluring connection over a 3,000-year period to modern Freemasonry. Unfortunately, much of it is metaphysical wishful thinking.

Sadly, they ignored the paper trail and documented evidence that exists in England and Scotland that really tells the story. Freemasonry descended from the stonemason guilds and was taken over in the late 1600s by philosophers and men of science and learning. The Masons did not build cathedrals by using incantations to levitate stones. They did not cast spells to turn their enemies into stone gargoyles shaped as demons. They did not transmogrify base metals into gold to pay their wages. As Arthur C. Clarke has said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Geometry was not a sorcerer’s art — if it were, no one would be safe from an Advanced Placement high schooler with a calculator and a protractor.

Unfortunately, Pike, Mackey, and Hall were prolific. They wrote big, thick books that are in every Masonic library, so people who don’t understand their works to be Masonic folklore trot them out as experts, “noted” Masonic scholars, and long-dead spokesmen. The problem is that their writings are continually cited as “proof” of an occult connection to Masonry. Worse, their writings are often deliberately altered by the critics of the Craft, and Freemasons have to explain all over again to their relatives and ministers that, no, they aren’t reenacting the dismemberment of Osiris, making pagan sacrifices to Lucifer, stirring cauldrons, or worshiping goats.

They were all well read on the wide variety of world religions and cultures, and their work on the subjects of symbolism and philosophy can be fascinating. But let’s just say their version of history of modern-day Freemasonry is not accurate and leave it at that.

—Freemasons For Dummies


Albert Pike literally plagierized much of Morals & Dogma from the French mystic Eliphas Levi, who had his own peculiar theories of Masonic origins. Mackey in his later years reconsidered his more fanciful writings from his younger days. Waite, well, was Waite, who desperately wanted Freemasonry to be something it was not. Hall wrote his most extravagant works on Freemasonry when he was 27, and didn't join the fraternity until he was in his 50s.

I stand by my assertion. They wrote fascinating works that explore symbolic and philosophical topics that had never existed in the fraternity before. They wrote books that are quite fascinating. And they also wrote a lot of crap. Or at least a lot of wishful thinking.

I make it clear in the book that it is my opinion, and that no one book, no one author, is authoritative on Freemasonry. And it is my opinion is that Pike, Waite, Hall, Crowley, Mathers and others found Freemasonry was lacking the ancient, mystical aspects they had hoped for, and so added them themselves.

We had an old gag in advertising: "Where do good ideas come from? SOMEBODY ELSE!"

Freemasonry did not spring forth, fully formed, plump and swollen with its own unique symbolism, and delivered up with drinks at the Goose and Gridiron by the handsome maid Hannah. I don't discount the influences of alchemy, astrology, Rosicrucianism, gnosticism, and a raft of other isms on the formation of the Blue Lodge degrees. Everything comes from somewhere. And the period from the end of the English Civil War up to the Romantic Age (which sprouted its own very different kinds of fascinations) literally turned all accepted dogma and philosophy on its keister.

The change from operative to speculative Freemasonry was, in my mind, a very conscious effort by a group of men who sought to use it to educate a wider audience in the tenets of Enlightenment thinking. Drinking and social clubs were the rage in Britain during the period, and they popped up like crabgrass. Initiation rituals in these clubs were quite common. Men like the members of the Royal Society saw the symbolism of the building trade as an opportunity to teach the new rational methods of thought and education, painlessly, with a memorable initiation event, followed by a fine dinner. It's why I'm an oddball and think the Preston-Webb Fellow Craft Middle Chamber lecture is my favorite part of the three degrees. When it developed there was no third MM degree. There was just Apprentice and Fellow of The Craft. But the MC lecture was—and is—a crash course in the Liberal Arts, and it was created to teach unlearned men who, in most cases, had never encountered these ideas before.

Gunn argues that perhaps the reason why US Freemasonry has lost more than 50% of its membership in the post-1960s era is because of a new sense of openess and transparency that has stripped the fraternity of its aura of secrecy and mystery. Books like Freemasons For Dummies and Brent Morris' Complete Idiot's Guide to Freemasonry, along with a nationwide attempt by Grand Lodges to say "No secrets here!" have made the Craft TOO accessible, TOO simple. And Gunn is not the first or only critic to claim that Freemasonry had some earlier, better time when it wrapped itself more thoroughly in occult mysteries.

The Dummies and Idiots books are designed to be the first ones someone picks up on a subject, not the last one. They are informal, easy to digest introductions to a topic, designed to answer the common questions, and provide enough information to hopefully spur the reader to dig deeper. Masonic historians have been dancing angels on pinheads over the origin of the fraternity for two centuries, once they started coming to the conclusion that Anderson's fairy tales might be suspicious. Reading Pike and Waite and Hall, and to a lesser extent, Mackey, requires a few years in the fraternity, experiencing both Blue Lodge and appendant body degrees, and lots of reading, along with a healthy dose of skepticism. All of that is beyond the scope of either Freemasons For Dummies or The Complete Idiots Guide To Freemasonry. While I understand the feeling of some Masons that seeing the term Dummy or Idiot in conjunction with Freemasonry gives them stomach upset, I would say that you are not the audience the books are trying to educate.

If the identical book—same text, same sidebars and cartoons—were to be published by the Grand Lodge of Your-Name-Here as the "Official Grand Lodge Masonic Education Manual" with a gray cover and official Grand Lodge seal on the cover, few would read it, secretaries wouldn't order it for candidates, and grand lodge warehouses would be stacked to the rafters with unshipped copies. It is the Dummies and Idiots brands that appeal to two generations of readers who have come to depend on the two series as introductions to subjects they want to know about quickly. Neither my book nor Brent Morris' are designed to be the be all and end all of Masonic education. But if they spur new Masons (or old ones) to study further—Masons who might otherwise have never read a book about the fraternity before—then they have done their job.

I do not believe that some “golden age” of esoteric Masonry has EVER really existed on a large scale within the Craft, and I would challenge anyone to identify it. I would argue that the Royal Society members who most probably shaped the change from operative to speculative Freemasonry certainly used the currency of Enlightenment thinking and philosophy when they fashioned the changes in ceremonies. But if you look at the earliest English and French exposures between the 1717 formation of the Grand Lodge, up through the 1750s and 60s, you don’t get the big waves of symbolic lecture material appearing until Preston comes along in the 1790s. And if Freemasonry really descended from Scottish traditions, as David Stevenson alleges, I don’t see the esoteric or gnostic evidence there either. Anderson’s Constitutions read like an updated Regius poem, even though he never saw it. Lodge hierarchy and traditions came from a provable paper trail that leads back to at least the 1300s, and it is steeped in Christian, née Catholic, antecedents. But Grand Lodge was formed to revive the Annual Feast, NOT the annual reading of papers on the ancient alchemical elements.

I don’t deny that Masonry, in particular the Scottish Rite degrees, is rife with imagery and concepts borrowed from earlier sources. I do NOT believe, however, that Blue Lodge, Craft Freemasonry in its post-1717 form is a direct descendant of the Mystery Schools, Kabbala, Alchemy, or Rosicrucianism (which sprouted at almost exactly the same time). Everything I study points me in the belief that Freemasonry is more the child of the cosmopolitan eating/drinking/reading/philosophy clubs of London that were exploding in popularity at this same period, than of some ancient “mystery” tradition.

Freemasonry did not appear out of a vacuum. I believe that the speculative gentlemen who took over the guild did exactly what our traditions say they did - they saw in the stonemasons something unique, they co-opted the allegory of cathedral building as a lesson in character building, and they draped it with myth and symbolism grabbed from a wide variety of existing sources. The explosion of other similar clubs and fraternal groups that did the same sort of thing during the same period of time points to the conclusion that modern Freemasonry was part of a larger social movement, and probably not an extension of a medieval or older mystery cult.

Did the hundreds of degrees that sprouted across France and Germany after Ramsey's Oration bring gnosticism, alchemy, astrology, Qaballah, Jewish and Christian mysticism, Martinism, and more into Freemasonry? Sure. For 150 years or more there was a mania for creating new degrees across Europe. But if a degree filled with Rosicrucian philosophy was invented in 1782 by someone who was fascinated with Rosicrucianism, that's not evolution. That's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Do these additional degrees bring "wise and serious truths" to Freemasonry? Of course they do. Even if they are comparatively modern creations, do they introduce ancient philosophies into the fraternity? Again, no contest. But like Pastafarianism, it's the intentional design of someone cherry picking old concepts and wrapping them in a new package. They are "ancient" in that they use ancient ideas, not that they descended in an evolutionary line traceable to an ancient source. Creating a new degree, then jumping back and shrieking, "Look! This ancient degree is descended from Egyptian Sun God worship!" isn't exactly divine revelation. It's self-aggrandizement. It may be interesting, enjoyable, and even enlightening. But you just wrote it. And claiming you found it under an old apron in a dusty box in the library where it was left by Unknown Superiors, or that some gnarled bookseller along the Seine tucked it out from under her skirts where it had been secreted away since Charlemagne... sorry, call me a skeptic.

Finally, there is little no evidence whatsoever that the loss of Masonic members today has anything to do with some loss of esoteric tradition that existed at some mythical point in the 19th or 20th century. That IS wishful thinking. The losses the fraternity is suffering from today has to do with the statistical aberration of waves of joiners between 1939 and 1952. I submit that Freemasonry has never lost large groups of its members because of some nebulous elimination of esoteric philosophy from the lodges. Lodges, by and large, have NEVER had an overwhelming concentration on the ancient “mysteries,” whatever you may conceive them to be. George Washington didn’t join a lodge to divine the secrets of the ancients, no matter what Katherine Kurtz novels may claim. Freemasonry was, as early as the 1730s, largely an organization to socialize with the movers and shakers in the community.

There have always been men within the fraternity who have sought to trace modern Freemasonry’s traditions to an earlier philosophy, religion or tradition. Men like Pike and Hall and Mackey and many others truly believed what they wrote (although Mackey in later years admitted that his more youthful writings had been self-fulfilling wishful thinking. Would that Pike had done the same in later years with what he cribbed from Levi). But modern scholarship has has blown the dust off of quaint 19th century notions about many things in the world. I find comfort and wisdom in those earlier scholars’ works. But there is much that is just plain wrong, and worse, much that is just plain made up. And it is intellectually dishonest not to call them on it, simply because we might want to believe what cannot be proved, or has been disproved.

Would Freemasonry profit by introducing more mysterious aspects, locking the doors and cultivating instead of shunning the “secret society” moniker? Possibly. This is what Traditional Observance lodges are attempting to do. But, while satisfying to their members, they remain a small curiosity within the fraternity right now. In an age that hangs on every word written about Jedi Knights, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and other legendary, mythic stories, groups, and characters, it could be that Freemasonry is pursuing exactly the wrong tactic with its new openness. Frankly, I wanted my lodge to be, well, cooler than it turned out to be in life. A little incense, guys in black robes… (Wait! Those would be Jesuits!) So, it could very well be that we need to be cultivating a more mysterious aura. Time will tell. And as the reins of the fraternity get turned over to a younger group of leaders, perhaps those changes will happen at a faster clip. The lack of the Baby Boomers who didn’t join as young men have given Masonry a bad case of hardening of the arteries. That is changing. And there should always be a place in Freemasonry for individual lodges to pursue that path, if it is the will of its members.

I don't discount the enjoyment and fascination many of my brethren derive from studying such topics. The fraternity has survived and grown because of its elastic walls that have embraced a huge array of disciplines and philosophies—there certainly haven't been 10,000 books written about the Odd Fellows or the Knights of Columbus. But personally, in the end, I tend to come down on the side of H. L. Haywood's remarks in A Bird’s Eye View of Masonic History (1921):

“Freemasons, for some reason or other, always have been, and even now remain, peculiarly susceptible to the appeal of the occult; we have had some experience in this country during recent years that prove this. No doubt a learned dustman can find particles of gold buried away in the debris of occultism and the true gold, even in small quantities, is not to be despised; but the dangers attendant upon trifling with the magical are a heavy price to pay for what little we can gain. Those who have, with worn fingers, untangled the snarl of occult symbolism, tell us that these secret cults have been teaching the doctrine of the one God, of the brotherhood of man, and of the future life of the soul; all this is good but one doesn’t need to wade through jungles of weird speculations in order to come upon the teachings that one may find in any Sunday School. It behooves the wise student to walk warily; perhaps the wisest things is to leave occultism altogether alone. Life is too short to tramp around its endless labyrinths. Moreover, there is on the surface of Freemasonry enough truth to equip any of us for all time to come.”

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