Review of Freemasonry

Make this site your Home Page Print this page Send Masonic E-card Subscribe News Alerts by Email RSS News Feed
PS Review of FM Search Engine:
recommend PS Review of Freemasonry

Prof.Margaret C.Jacob. Photo by Reed Hutchinson UCLA

by Prof. Margaret C. Jacob
University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) - History Department

Back in the 1970s when first I approached the historical subject of freemasonry I went to the New York Public Library. That seemed the first obvious place to go. There stood the old card catalogue with its neat drawers filled with 3 by 5 cards that revealed the call numbers of its vast collection. The cards devoted to the subject “freemasonry” occupied a row more than 10 feet long and about 5 feet tall. Daunting, and as I quickly realized, from a scholarly point of view, virtually worthless. Let me explain.

At that time the unsuspecting researcher might turn to a standard work in the field of European freemasonry: Revolution and Freemasonry, 1680-1800, by Bernard Fay (1935). It was widely cited, and by a prolific French historian who had first published on this European theme in French. Indeed the book was on the reading list I used as a graduate student when studying the eighteenth century. Nowhere did anyone mention that Fay had gone on to become a Nazi collaborator and that he subscribed to the myth of there having been a masonic conspiracy behind the French Revolution, indeed at the heart of modernity. But in that vast collection of index cards there was no work that took issue specifically with Fay and the shortcomings and distortions found in his approach. Or take the countless histories of various lodges in just about every Western and some non-Western countries, all easily accessed through those index cards. Often the histories were factual and always they were written by devoted brothers who cared deeply about their lodge and its history. Admirable though they were - when they were accurate - they contained little by the way of historical analysis, nor did they ask, why might someone become a freemason, or in the Anglo-American tradition, what did the exclusion of women mean? Those realities - that of course men would want to be freemasons and women not so - were taken as givens.

Days spent in the card catalogue of major libraries quickly revealed that masonic history was cordoned off, work done by and for the devout, or worse still by the fanatical, often from the far-right. It was easy to conclude that it would be better not to enquire about the meaning of freemasonry in the lives of the thousands who populated the lodges in the first three generations of their existence as social centers for Euro-American men - and eventually women. They came from a wide variety of professions and social classes; notably absent after the founding of the Grand Lodge of London in 1717 were actual stonemasons. But it is hard to dampen down the curiosity of any historian especially when the topic is something like freemasonry. It was new to its age, directly linked to British social experience, and by the mid-eighteenth century immensely popular in the larger European cities. How could the historian not be interested? But how should she proceed with a topic that had become slightly disreputable in the larger scholarly world. Incorrectly, freemasonry had become associated with the mystical or the irrational, or with the devoted or the fanatical. We must never forget that particularly in Europe and Latin America the myth survived until well after World War II: there had been a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy that lay at the corrupt heart of modernity.

Let me fast forward. Today when I teach about the early scholarship on freemasonry I draw on the blackboard, somewhat in jest, a picture of what a card catalogue looks like. My students use only computers to access library records and indeed to find web sites that will help them with the topic of their term papers. Put the word “freemasonry” into Google and we discover over 3 million entries. Within the first ten stand sites devoted to exposing the order as conspiratorial or as a Satanic religion. In one sense not much progress has been made since the days of the card catalogue. The problem remains: how do we distinguish fact from fiction, how do we write about freemasonry within a specific historical context whether that be late eighteenth-century Boston or early nineteenth-century Mexico? The answer lies in appropriating the standards of historical scholarship taught routinely at the university level and bringing them to bear on masonic history and its historical context.

The professionalization of masonic scholarship is now happening. There has been an enormous change in the habits of masonic research since the 1970s. First of all, it has become respectable, and second and most important, standards of historical evidence and scholarly rigor have been brought to its study. These changes have occurred on both sides of the Atlantic, but they are more visible in respectable academic settings in Europe. At universities such as Sheffield, Leiden, Bordeaux, and Zaragoza in Spain, scholarly centers for the study of freemasonry are active and supported by both the university and private donors. The European Science Foundation has just given a major grant to study the phenomenon of freemasonry within national contexts.

In America younger scholars can now be found who are doing dissertations or books on aspects of masonic history. Going to the electronic site we discover that over fifty Ph.D. dissertations that deal with aspects of masonic history have been produced during the past ten years in American universities. Let me give but one example with which I am familiar because its author, Jacob Dorman, read with me in preparation for researching and writing “The Black Israelists of Harlem and the professors of Oriental and African mystic science in the 1920s,” UCLA 2004. This work in American black history chronicles the search undertaken by black intellectuals alive during the Harlem renaissance. They turned to freemasonry, as well as various forms of religious experience, as they searched for new truths and new identities that promised liberation.

There are other causes for optimism about the course of masonic research worldwide. Increasingly attention is being paid to masonic lodges in imperial settings as well as lodges founded in non-Western countries by local people interested in the meaning of freemasonry within their own cultural setting. New research is also underway on women’s freemasonry. And finally, there are the “Moscow archives”- to use the shorthand that those of us who work with them use.

These archives contain thousands of hand-written (later typed) documents from countries occupied by the Nazis. They fervently believed in the Jewish-Masonic conspiracy and sought to prove its existence and detail its evil intentions. To that end in 1940 the Nazis raided the Grand Lodges as well as local lodges in the countries they occupied. All this documentation was shipped back to Berlin where an institute was established to study the stolen archives. Then came the Russian army. Most of the contents of what had been in the institute was confiscated by the Russians and shipped back to Moscow, probably intended as post-war bargaining chips in negotiations to secure Russian treasures stolen by the retreating German army. But somehow the process did not work that way and masonic records from France, Belgium and The Netherlands were locked away until the 1990s. The American historian, Patricia Kennedy Grimsted (see her Trophies of War and Empire, Harvard University Press, 2001), alerted the world to their existence. After financial pressure was applied to the Putin government now most of the archives have been returned, to Paris, Brussels, and The Hague. This is an extraordinary set of manuscripts, equaling thousands of documents, some from as early as the 1730s and never seen since the 1930s. I have used them in two recent books and doubtless dozens of other scholars will do the same.

The Moscow archives now further brighten the future of masonic research into the European past and they suggest the necessity of preserving archives, carefully and quickly. Someday all those local histories of individual lodges will need to be rewritten. Guidance will come from the older histories written by dedicated brothers, but as we employ the working methods of good scholars everywhere we will also need the original documents. If thousands of hand-written texts can survive a world war, two confiscations, not to mention the rigor of cold storage in Moscow winters, then we can only hope and assume that all the lodges in this country now in possession of historical documents will work very hard to preserve them and to make them accessible to all reputable brothers or scholars. The masonic past has a future only if we give it one.

Editor's Note:: Courtesy of Cosmopolis the Quarterly Bulletin of the Roosevelt Center. "The Roosevelt Center for the Study of Civil Society and Freemasonry" has been founded in 2006 as a non-profit corporation chartered in the State of California to promote scholarly research and inquiry, education and communication in the study of civil society and Freemasonry

Home Page | Alphabetical Index | What is New | Freemasons World News
Research Papers | Books online | Freemasons History | Symbolism & Rituals
Saggi in Italiano | Essais en Langue Française | Monografias em Português | Planchas Masonicas en Español

| Sitemap | Privacy Policy | How to Contribute a Paper |

RSS Feed News Feed | News Alerts Subscribe News by Email

visitor/s currently on the page.