Reading Nick Litterski’s thoughtful review of a recent book on Mormonism and Masonry made me think again about how difficult it has been for many people within and without the tradition to wrap their minds around the origins of Masonry. It occurred to me that I have done some reading in this area, and as someone with no strongly held beliefs about what the answer ought to be, I might be able to offer a brief summary of the literature I’ve read. As I’m pressed for time, the prose will not be polished, and footnotes will be notable in their absence, but I suspect that the best sources will appear in the comments. I recommend that any discussion of the intersections between Mormonism and Masonry be directed to Nick’s thoughtful post rather than my canceled threadjack. With that preamble:
1. Human cultures derived from ancient Mesopotamia exhibit an array of intellectual, religious, and folk traditions related to covenants of mutuality, the power of words, ritual recapitulations of human origins, and uncovering the wisdom of the Gods, many of which are heavily grounded in the scriptural record of theirs and antecedent cultures.
2. Many of these traditions, in part because they unfold in related cultures, in part perhaps because of the way the human mind works, in part perhaps because of sacred Truth and the will of God, in part because there are occasional textual or oral connections between them, and in part because almost all of them depend on the same broad scriptural corpus, look rather alike depending on the perspective of the examiner.
3. Artisans of various stripes in the late medieval and early modern period regulated labor supply and technical quality by banding together into what are most commonly called guilds. These regulating guilds employed a variety of tests of skill and commitment that ensured that a) unqualified workers did not pass themselves off as actual artisans, and b) the labor supply could remain relatively limited. These guilds, by their very nature, supported and perpetuated lore and origin myths that helped artisans locate their trade in time and conceptual space. Where does the hammer come from? Who first used it? Who developed the technique of weaving or painting? Who first developed thread, how did it come to them, and what did they use it for? What is the right way to shape wood or work stone? Who decreed that it was the right way?
4. Stone masons–perhaps because erecting a stone building took months if not years of intensive, on-site work that drew masons away from family and village, perhaps because geometry was revered as an esoteric science, perhaps just coincidence–proved a useful infrastructure at some point between say 1600 and 1717 in Great Britain for the development of a fraternal order or set of interrelated fraternal orders that were no longer actually tied to the practice of stone masonry.
5. These sets of traditions grew, diversified, and evolved, with particular interest in the early American Republic, a hiatus from the 1820s to the 1840s related to the first third party (the Anti-Masonic Party), and a stunning flourishing in postbellum America perhaps related to Victorian manhood, perhaps related to a need to reorganize society in the wake of the Civil War, perhaps as a way to digest Victorian sentimentalism or any number of other reasons. During their heyday these traditions continued to draw on the same scriptures and concepts as many other human cultures deriving from ancient Mesopotamia, stories about banishment and estrangement from God, the wisdom of supernatural beings, the meaning of death, the power of ritual, the nature and persistence of human community.
6. I know almost nothing about Masonry after around 1900 except that there are a wide variety of very thoughtful, interesting, pleasant people who are part of the fraternity, and people like Dan Brown write bizarre conspiracy theories about the Masons. And nowadays many people refer to early Masonry as one of the “hermetic” traditions (where “hermetic” refers to Hermes Trismegistus, a probably mythic figure occasionally merged with the Egyptian God Thoth, that stands behind a corpus of esoteric writings from early in the Common Era–The Divine Pymander is the most familiar title, but the hermetic corpus is expansive, and these days “hermetic” most often seems to be a fancy of way of saying “esoteric,” which is an academic way of saying “occult,” which is often considered an aggressive proselytizer’s way of saying “ewwww,” which, if it’s onomatopoetic, is a disconcerting speech act).
7. I wish Jonathan Z. Smith would write something about Masonry. (If he has, let me know. I would like to read it.)
Catherine Albanese recently wrote a book trying to synthesize what she calls American metaphysical religion, and it’s a reasonable place to start in working toward understanding the relationships among various traditions in the West that have a lot in common with Masonry. Ann Taves has been interested in applied psychology/cognitive science in explaining religious experience. It’s possible that she or someone else in that school will come up with an explanation for the widespread persistence of hermetic/metaphysical/esoteric/occult themes in religious experience. Theorists like Jung might have argued that such intellectual/religious traditions are hard-wired in the psyches of human beings. Ziggie “Crackhead” freud likely believed it had to do with some infantilized corporeal aperture hidden deep within the subconscious mind. Before the nineteenth century, most people believed that these were fragments of an original pure religion, that the reason so many intellectual/religious traditions look the same is because they all derived from the religion taught to Adam by God Himself. Nowadays I suspect a variety of explanations would be perfectly reasonable.