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by Wor.Bro. MARK A. TABBERT 33
FREEMASONRY AND THE DIGITAL REVOLUTIONPresented as the 2006 Blue Friar Lecture, Washington, DC, February 10, 2006
Grand Abbott, fellow members, distinguished guests, brothers all, thank you for inviting me here today and conferring upon me the high honor of inducting me as a member of the Society of Blue Friars. Today I am going to speak to you on Freemasonry and the Digital Revolution, but not as a Freemason or as a Masonic historian, but simply as a historian.
I was a historian before I became a Freemason. My journey toward the craft began in 1993 when I worked at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. There I discovered American Fraternal history – particularly the Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, the Grange and all those now nearly forgotten orders that were central to American society 100 years ago. Freemasonry, of course, being the oldest was the model for most of them.
During graduate School at Duquesne University I did an internship at the Scottish Rite National Heritage Museum in the summer of 1995. In 1997 I began work at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis and had given up pursuing Masonic and fraternal history. I therefore, in part, decided to become a Freemason in my hometown in Iowa.
Then suddenly in 1999 I was hired at the National Heritage Museum and within five months—even before I had affiliated with a Lodge—I was asked to create a new exhibition on the history of American Freemasonry. Having studied Freemasonry as a hobby for four years and only being a Mason for 18 months I was placed on very steep Masonic learning curve. Fortunately I was greatly assisted by several Blue Friars including Richard Fletcher, Thomas W. Jackson, Arturo DeHoyas, Grand Abbott Brent Morris, and most especially Richard Curtis.
Two and half years later the exhibition, “To Build and Sustain: Freemasons in American Community” opened in spring 2002. Five months later I started writing the book “American Freemasons,” and completed the manuscript in 2004. Although aided by brother Masons, I still had to rely on my academic training and museum experience to curate the exhibition and write the book. Because I was on tight deadlines I had little time to do in-depth reading of Masonic history. Instead, I built both projects on 10 excellent scholarly books on Freemasonry and American fraternalism. To these I supplemented my research largely through the Internet. Only when time allowed, or I required specific historical data, did I turn to detailed Masonic histories or used Masonic primary sources, such as Grand Lodge Proceedings of lodge minutes.
But when I turned to Masonic sources, either on the Internet or as published materials, I found most of what was available extremely frustrating. Local lodge, research lodge and Grand Lodge websites, proceedings, periodicals, statistics, facts and figures –the very stuff of history—was usually dispersed, disjointed and more often, contradictory.
Through the ill-directed and uncoordinated efforts of thousands of inspired and well intentioned individual brothers the Temple of Masonic knowledge is being ravaged. The liberation of knowledge that the “Digital Revolution” is bringing to the world, is bringing confusion and disorder to the craft.
By the Digital Revolution I mean the last 15-20 years of personal computers, overnight delivery, e-mail and the Internet. Faxes, scans, email, e-commerce, cell-phone and streaming video all travel the world instantaneously. Twenty years ago if you wanted to buy a book, you went to a book store; if you wanted to see a movie you went to a theater or a video store; if you wanted to buy music you went to a record store – now all this and more is available through the Internet.
Let me now turn to how American Freemasonry’s information and its historical record were organized. Most Masonic libraries were established when communication often took days and transportation took weeks. In the early 20th century, it made sense that every Grand Lodge, and many Lodges, had large libraries to serve their members. But today with Amazon.com and overnight shipping, it’s easier for a Mason to buy a Masonic book on–line than to contact his Grand Lodge library.
On the broader scale, most Grand Lodges, Masonic bodies and Masons have at the least, created websites and are posting information and historical articles. New Masonic educational committees are publishing books, periodicals, and hosting state and local Masonic awareness and educational meetings. Some Masonic libraries, such as the Grand Lodge of New York’s Livingston Library, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania and the House of the Temple’s library have embraced the digital age. They are producing on-line library catalogs, databases of Masonic artifacts and highly informative websites. Other Grand Lodge libraries and museums are moving by fits and starts into the digital age, while some remain no more than rooms full of old books and proceedings that go unused or unappreciated.
While all of these programs are worthy and necessary undertakings, when viewed as a whole, however, they create more chaos than order. Simply encouraging such activities, is not, and will not, solve the problems of Masonic education and public appreciation. In fact, they often cause more confusion, dilute the quality of knowledge and exponentially duplicate good and bad information. To understand this dilemma, simply compare the lists of famous Masons that appear in numerous Grand Lodge websites, books and publications. They are haphazard and full of inaccuracies, despite Denslow’s 10,000 Famous Freemasons being published for nearly 50 years.
Compounding the problem further, American Freemasons in the “Digital Revolution” have generally focused their educational efforts inward. Masonic information is largely written and published by Masons for Masons and then distributed only to Masons. It more closely resembles internal corporate memorandums, than public relations’ press releases. I submit we need to ask ourselves, who is the real consumer, the ones most likely to need and use Masonic information? Where is the greatest un-tapped market for Masonic knowledge? I would argue the professional scholar.
To understand this consumer and the market they represent, we need to understand the economy of American scholarship. The best analogy I offer is to “gold fever.” Graduate students, doctoral candidates, academic and public scholars are constantly prospecting for new and undiscovered archives—letters, photographs, diaries, business records, membership listings, meeting minutes, etc. When such new archives are found, scholars rush to stake a claim. They rush not necessarily to find knowledge—but to make a living. Although eager to learn, they are hell-bent on exploiting the archive to secure scholarships, grants, fellowships and teaching positions, and ultimately to get tenure.
This description may sound cynical but it is indeed how new knowledge is dispersed to the world. Just as gold comes from the earth and through stages ends up as jewelry, so develops knowledge mined by scholars. When scholars discover a new archive they first develop esoteric and highly specialized research papers and presentations. These “high-brow” academic papers beget dissertations and academic books, these books beget “middle-brow” museum exhibitions, best selling popular books and TV documentaries. Lastly, when exploited by the “low brow” mass media - television, the Internet, newspapers and magazines—public perception is changed.
What the Information Revolution has done, more than anything else, is to move scholastic dissemination from “glacial” to “light speed”. Consider well how Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code “shocked the world” with new revelations about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail. Such “revelations” had, of course, floated about in all sorts of obscure, but well-known to Masons, publications for many years. Yet once his book became a best seller, people quickly believed his fiction was true.
As a historian and archival prospector, I tell you my brothers, American Freemasonry is sitting on “the mother” of all “archival mother loads.” Indeed no other American volunteer association has Freemasonry’s documented historical record dating back to the 1730s. What’s more this “seam of information” stretches across all geographical areas, through every race, ethnicity, class, political party and religion in American culture. It is a goldmine to every scholar anxious to stake a claim.
The problem is that there is no central access to this Masonic history. Moreover, when scholars attempt to enter the Masonic “vein of information” through the myriad of Grand Lodge, lodge and general Masonic websites, they are confronted with a confusion of facts, Masons with divergent levels of knowledge and the peculiarities of Masonic bureaucracies. With the Craft still largely operating in the telephone and hardcopy age, the vast amount of information waiting to be appreciated is almost wholly inaccessible and largely unintelligible.
With this in mind, we, as stewards of Masonic archives, must ask ourselves, how should Freemasonry communicate its great and distinguished history to scholars and ultimately the world? First and foremost, we do not necessarily need more websites, education committees or research lodges. We are, however, in desperate need of one unified place where honest researchers and professional scholars can start their journey from ignorance to the light of Masonic knowledge. What they need is a solid, veritable and open doorway that will lead them to the most creditable information, the best person to answer their questions and the greatest repositories of knowledge.
Mindful of the ongoing technological revolution, Freemasonry needs a “virtual portal” between the Masonic universe and intellectual and public spheres. One national website, supported by Grand Lodges, reviewed by Masonic and academic scholars, and linked to every lodge, research lodge and Masonic library; will make American Freemasonry available to a broad audience. Through this portal, Masons and non-Masons alike will be enabled to search the site, follow the links, read the facts and decide for themselves.
In other words, rather than expecting Masons, scholars and the public to “seek” thousands of Masonic websites, “ask” numerous Grand Lodges and Masonic bodies, or “knock” on a Masonic library door, Freemasonry must proactively present itself to the public. Through this portal, the visitor will find a fraternity that is well organized, consistent in its information and eager to direct the curious to greater depths of knowledge.
I believe the George Washington Masonic National Memorial is the logical Masonic institution Freemasons to embrace the Digital revolution and become the “virtual portal”. First, because it is dedicated to George Washington, the Father of our Country – the man who truly brought order out of chaos and our most admired brother. Second, the 52 Grand Lodges and every Masonic organization in the country built and support it. The Memorial is therefore, both symbolically and physically located to be that neutral point of entry. Indeed, it is the one institution where every Mason can collectively labor to gather, organize and present their history, philosophy and activities to scholars, the American people and the world.
The Memorial’s collection databases and storage and exhibition techniques should establish standards that other Masonic librarians and curators could follow. Equally important, through the use of its website, collections and exhibitions, the Memorial can provide a national “neutral” example to inspire Masonic leaders to renovate and fully fund their own libraries and museum. By the Memorial hosting and upgrading on-line national databases that integrate American Masonic libraries and museum collections, it would thereby provide scholars and the public a sense of Freemasonry’s unity, openness and purpose.
Besides materially supporting local and state Masonic repositories, I propose The George Washington Masonic National Memorial leading the fraternity into the Digital Revolution by coordinating the following six on-line national projects:
1 - DIGITIZATION OF EVERY GRAND LODGE PROCEEDING, 1733 – PRESENT
If done right every proceeding ever published could be searched by keyword. It would allow scholars to determine such facts as:
- Every charity the fraternity has ever supported – from 1733 to the present –every college, university, public library, hospital and orphanage.
- Every cornerstone ever dedicated by a Grand Lodge.
- On the individual level, one could determine every Grand Lodge meeting President Harry Truman, or any other Mason, ever attended.
These scans could be given by Grand Lodges to every university and historical society in their jurisdiction and made available through the Internet. Consider how much square footage proceedings consume in Masonic libraries, yet are almost completely unused. What’s more, the younger generation, raised on computers and the Internet, will never use them in hardback form.
2 – NATIONAL DATABASE OF US REGULAR GRAND LODGES, 1730 –PRESENT
While this project sounds simple as most U.S. Grand Lodges have remained sovereign since their creation, nonetheless, among the 13 original colonies, many such as Massachusetts, New York and South Carolina had more than one Grand Lodge operating in the 1700s and early 1800s. This database would include when the Grand Lodge was founded, its meeting locations, lodges that it chartered, if and when it ceased to exist, and if and when it merged with another Grand Lodge. This database would be the foundation for the next two projects
3 - NATIONAL DATABASE OF U.S. MASONIC LODGES, 1730 - PRESENT
Connected to the Grand Lodge database would be a database of every lodge ever chartered in the US and overseas. It would contain such information as when the lodge was founded, and its past meeting locations. Also included would be the most current information, such as locations, contact information and a link for a lodge website. Furthermore, it would list if and when a lodge ceased to exist, and if and when it merged with another lodge.
With such a database the following can be easily answered:
- Genealogists looking for their ancestor’ lodge
- Statistics of lodges in any given state, or city, in any given year
- Number of lodges chartered, merged or gone dark in any given year
- Lodges that formed territorial and state Grand Lodges
- Internet links that will take a researcher, or perspective candidate, directly to a local lodge webpage.
Think of the research possibilities for this database containing an estimated 20,000 lodges. As an example, I offer my own lodge’s history. Mystic Valley Lodge was formed in 2004 when three lodges merged –Hiram, Russell, and John Abbot-Samuel Crocker Lawrence. Hiram Lodge was chartered in 1797 and Russell Lodge grew out of Hiram in 1923. These lodges met in Arlington, Massachusetts. John Abbot Lodge was chartered in the 1850s in Somerville, Massachusetts. In 1979 it absorbed the original Mystic Valley Lodge chartered in the 1920’s. Samuel Crocker Lawrence Lodge was chartered in the 1910s in Medford, Massachusetts. In 2001, it merged with John Abbot Lodge. Tracing the genealogy of the current Mystic Valley Lodge reveals a history dating back to 1797 of five lodges located in three different towns.
This database of lodges would then be directly linked to the biggest database project:
4 - NATIONAL DATABASE OF DECEASED U.S. FREEMASONS, 1700 – 1980
This database would include the following fields of information on every man who ever joined an American Masonic Lodge: place and date of birth, lodge joined, dates of receiving the three degrees, place and date of death. Like the list of lodges, this process could begin by merging current Grand Lodge databases and then entering typed or written paper records. It would be entirely up to each Grand Lodge who and how much information they wish to include in the database. Depending on the availability of information additional fields could be added such as: expelled for non-payment of dues or other reasons, lodge and Grand Lodge offices held and membership in other Masonic bodies.
With this database, and especially linked to lodges, everyone could check the facts. Was Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon Johnson a Mason? Conversely, what about Jack Ruby or John Dillinger or Jesse James? In short, we would not need Denslow’s 10,000 Famous Freemasons we would have five million Famous and not-so Famous Freemasons on every computer screen in the world.
Using my lodge again as an example consider one of its more famous brothers. Baseball Hall of Famer Harold “Pie” Traynor became a member of John Abbot Lodge in 1925. But if a baseball researcher was writing his biography and he knew Traynor joined John Abbott Lodge, as things now exist, he could not find the lodge on the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts roles. What’s more John Abbott Lodge originally met in Somerville Massachusetts. With an on-line database of membership tied to lodges, the baseball researcher could find Traynor’s name and be linked to Mystic Valley Lodge’s website and thereby send an email directly to the lodge secretary. By having lodge “genealogies” on-line, the researcher would not have to trouble Grand Secretaries but could go directly to the information sources.
With such databases, scholars could extract, for example, every Freemason who served in the American Revolution or Civil War, was ever elected to government office, was an artist, actor or athlete, etc. etc. The research possibilities are endless.
The last suggested project is already underway through the leadership of the Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction, House of the Temple Library.
5 – A UNIFIED ON-LINE CATALOG OF MASONIC LIBRARIES
Through this catalog, no matter where a person lives, the catalog will tell him where the nearest copy of the book he wants to read is located. The catalog would not be limited to Masonic libraries, but would also be tied into public and academic libraries, not just in the US but around the world. So if someone in Kokomo wants to read a book on the history of the Grand Lodge of Virginia, they would not have to contact the Allen E. Roberts Library – the book may actually be sitting in a Kokomo Masonic library or the Kokomo Public library.
6 – A UNIFIED ON-LINE UNION CATALOG OF MASONIC ARTIFACTS
Create an on-line database of Masonic historical artifacts. This is simply having Masons take digital images of their artifacts – aprons, regalia, jewels, furniture, and furnishings—and submit it with basic artifact information to one national database. For Museums and decorative arts scholars it would be a treasure trove to know how many of a particular type of hand-painted or engraved apron existed, or all the varieties of Masonic jugs and tankards, silver officers jewels or lithographs and art. A lodge could then more easily get their historical artifacts appraised and insured. And like the unified library catalog, museum and historical societies could add their Masonic holdings to this database. From these images and this database museum exhibition and television documentaries and movies are developed – not to mention spectacular websites.
With the vast amount of facts contained within these six projects, available on the Internet, the fraternity could quickly and easily defend itself, encourage rigorous scholarship, inspire better men to seek the good of the fraternity, and even change world opinion of the Craft.
In conclusion, without such centralized on-line databases there are two imminent social forces that Freemasonry needs to address. First, if Freemasonry does not present its history and encourage the best scholarship, it will be exploited by immoral and unscrupulous people. The fact is, Anti-masons, sensational journalists and internet bloggers are mining Freemasonry right now. They are and will exploit the Craft to make their fame and fortune. Because Freemasonry is not providing access to its archives, they are free to make things up, twist the facts and misrepresent its ancient and honorable history. Lining up behind such so-called Masonic historians are many more reprobate people eager to make movies, and produce contradicting books and documentaries, provide tours of so-called Masonic historical sites and hawk the worst sort of sensational garbage. Each and every one of them will strip mine and gold-dig our history, our philosophy and our honor for a few dollars more.
We as Freemasons may initially find this attention exciting and we indeed may get more members – or at least more men and women wanting to join-- but in the long run we will be abused. If the fraternity does not cultivate and encourage professional scholarship of the Craft in the Digital Age, then we open ourselves to be exploited, exposed, investigated, bamboozled, sued and bankrupted by squatters, claim jumpers, atheists, libertines, madmen and fools.
Lastly, and perhaps most important, Freemasonry is experiencing a generational change. The Baby Boomer, that largely refused to join their parents’ Freemasonry, is being replaced by a younger generation. These men, between the ages of 21 and 40, are desperately looking for answers to the big questions in life and are searching for an honorable and ancient institution to join. They are beginning to join in record numbers and they are the hope of Freemasonry’s rejuvenation. This generation is also producing its share of academic and public historians. If, however, the fraternity fails to demonstrate the honor and prestige of the Craft to this generation that they read about on the Internet or do not provide serious and in-depth answers to their questions, they will walk out the lodge and never return.
It is the Grand Lodges’ and local lodges’ duty to maintain the honor of the Craft, but it should be the mission of The George Washington Masonic National Memorial to assist all Freemasons in providing the best resources to satisfy the intellectual and spiritual curiosity of the younger generation. By educating and assisting the younger generation, be they professional or amateur scholars, whether they join or not, Freemasonry’s reputation, over time, will be improved
As exemplified by George Washington and to whom this one great American Masonic edifice is dedicated to, the Masonic National Memorial must become the unifying and preeminent institution for American Masonic history and be the lighthouse of Masonic Truth to the digital world.