An Outsider’s View of Masonic Origins

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.


  1. Yep, good stuff. I need to finish it, but I like Bullock’s Revolutionary Brotherhood.

  2. Susan W H says:

    Your brief summary is a breath of fresh air after reading Nick’s review, although I did find his interesting and I will reread it. Masonry has always intrigued me, in part I think, because I grew up in Salt Lake and was always told that Mormons couldn’t be Masons.

    As far as #7, according to my old Poly Sci prof, Freud’s mother called him “Goldeneh Siggy.” I like that expression, but admit I’ve never heard your version of the nickname. Anyway, thanks for this enlightening post. I’ll go back and read Nick’s again. Btw, I may be one of the few people who owns a copy and has actually read Forsberg’s book Equal Rites.

  3. Forsbergs book is terrible. I read the whole thing waiting for a good paragraph. Bullock and Stevenson are the best books I’ve found.
    I’m only occasionally embarrassed by my antipathy for the cocaine philosopher of the subconscious.

  4. I’m so dumb! I read Nick’s entire review before realizing only at the very end that “Brown” referred to Matthew B. Brown, not Dan Brown the novelist!

    It didn’t help that Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol was mentioned early on. I kept thinking, is Dan Brown Mormon?…

  5. Ann’s not really doing that kind of thing. Her most recent book is more about the dialectic between religious experience and religious traditions. She’s got another one coming out applying her theories to religious groups that will have a chapter on Mormonism, but again I don’t think it will be dealing with this stuff. But masonry will likely come up in my dissertation and Cathy may be working with me on that also.

  6. Steve, thanks for setting me straight. I had a memory that you had told me Taves was working on cognitive science approaches to religious experience, which seems relevant to this question of “parallels” in various religious traditions. I can see the beginning of this line of inquiry in her Fits book.

    Are you looking at Masonry as one of the strands of the persistent medieval worldview or something else? I’m interested in reading non-confessional work on these traditions–I’ve had a hard time finding anything non-confessional beyond Bullock and Stevenson (other than a few books specific to fraternity and masculinity in postbellum America). And denominational Masonic history reads like denominational Mormon history to my eye.

  7. Yes, I very much see Masonry in that light (though I don’t have much expertise at this point). Guilds were very important in the medieval world and not just craft guilds. In the late middle ages guild acted as sort of lay monastic orders, lots of people were involved in them, and they generally had secretive initiation rites. One of the best works on the non-craft guilds is Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars. Thus when the Reformation shut them down, I think its understandable that people looked for alternatives (I also like that the first gentlemen antiquarians were initiated in lodges in north Britain: Lancashire and Scotland). Also keep in mind the degree to which reformers shut down religious ritual and drama.

    But I’m pretty new to this. Margaret Jacob seems to be the expert. I’m also interested in a collection of essays edited by Antoine Faire called Modern Esoteric Spirituality that has stuff on Masonry that looks interesting. I found Freemasonry on Both Sides of the Atlantic had useful essays. Also I see a new book out called Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation by Henrik Bogdan. Sorry if that’s not helpful.

  8. Great stuff, Sam. I like the way you lay out these points.

  9. Nick Literski says:

    Not to pollute your “fresh air,” Susan, but I reviewed Forsberg’s book for the FARMS Review of Books. You can find it online, if you’d like to read it. :)

  10. Steve, great sources. The standard radical reformation, “occult” books are useful settings too–Leventhal, Yates, Butler, that set. I think your inclusion of para-religious ritual in your study is a great idea.

  11. StillConfused says:

    The History Channel had a great show on the origin and continuation of Masonry. I watched it and felt like I was in the temple.

  12. Nick
    I read your review of Forsberg’s book when it first appeared and even have it saved on my computer. I hadn’t connected that review with you until you mentioned it here, but I thank your for that useful piece. That review mentioned your forthcoming book–is that still in the works? (It’s on Kofford’s “forthcoming” list.)

  13. The Right Trousers says:

    I think it’s a great idea to put emphasis on the craft (and non-craft) guilds and their initiation rites. I don’t know much about academic study on them, but I *do* know the knowledge is useful to have within our own (LDS) culture.

    I recently gave an EQ lesson on symbolism in the endowment. We spent half of it discussing the meaning of secrets and sacred knowledge. Craft guild initiations were a really convenient way to talk about the mode of the endowment and the meaning it suggests without having to talk about endowment details or about Masonry.

    Speaking of secrets and sacred knowledge, has anyone done work relating these as communicated in initiations with modern cryptography? Both kinds of secrets are about authentication – about identity, rights and abilities. Modern cryptography even defines “tokens” as secrets used to authenticate. There’s got to be some interesting history there, and cryptography has tools for rigorous study of authentication protocols, even ancient ones.

  14. Anybody here work on Freemasonry in Europe? I’m interested in how/when it spread into Jewish and eventually Muslim circles, but don’t have much of a reading list…

  15. StillConfused says:

    Slightly off topic — can a woman be a mason?

  16. stillamason says:

    StillConfused – No. No, a woman can not be a mason. However, she can join the Eastern Star which is an affiliate organization.

  17. There is so much debate and disagreement among Masons about their pre-1700 history that they have essentially taken the position that there is no history prior to that time. And why not? There are no truth claims pertaining to that history that one must accept in order to become a Mason. Mormons would do well to avoid trying to establish more of a connection between the church and Masonry than actually exists.

  18. 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

    I find the contemporary usage of “metaphysical” as a synonym for “occult” both unfortunate and annoying, in the way it tends to discredit nearly every serious philosopher from Plato to Kant and perhaps half of them since then.

    Aristotle’s *Metaphysics* is one of the greatest philosophical works of all time, and yet it doesn’t touch on anything you would find in the “Metaphysics” section at your local Barnes & Noble at all, but rather laid the foundation for two millennia of natural philosophy, the direct precursor to the natural sciences as we know them today.

  19. Mark, that’s been a big pet peeve of mine. I’m always happy when it’s labeled “New Age” rather than “Metaphysics.”

  20. Definitely. I am the sort of person who would rather not be caught dead in the New Age section of a book store.

  21. StillConfused says:

    I suspected that a woman could not be a mason just because I have never seen one. But I wonder if modern times had changed that. So I guess Mormonism is one step up from Masonry as far as the rights of women go. At least women can go to the temple and learn the tokens and signs.

  22. 19-20: the problem is that New Age is only one relatively small subset of a much broader collection of ideas. The question isn’t really whether Aristotle called his work the Metaphysics (he didn’t, actually) but how best we should classify his work using contemporary terminology. And the parts of Aristotle where he’s dealing with topics still called metaphysical, I suspect a fair number of observers would suggest that they’re not as far from other metaphysical ideas as you’d think.

  23. Ever since I moved down the street from the nation’s oldest Masonic Lodge (in Boston), I too have wondered about the origins, associations, and similarities between Masonry and Mormonism. The most candid and non-apologetic discussion I have yet discovered on the subject is a podcast/blog interview dating back to 2005 by John Dehlin of ‘Mormon Stories.’

    He interviews Greg Kearney, a lifelong Mason and Mormon, and though at times John is a less than fluid moderator, he does ask some pertinent and straightforward questions. Greg has great anecdotal stories and explanations – simple honesty seeming to be his main objective. The interview can be found at I’d love to hear what others think on it.

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