Knights of the Wise Men

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Steven L. Harrison, 33°, FMLR

In 2011, velvet-voiced pop singer Lionel Richie, a member of Lewis Adams Prince Hall Lodge No. 67, Tuskegee, appeared in an episode of The Learning Channel's popular series, Who Do You Think You Are. The show follows celebrities as they search out their family roots, usually finding a twist or two along the way. After some digging, the show began to focus on Richie's maternal great-grandfather, John Louis Brown.

In Nashville, where his maternal grandmother had been born, Richie discovered Brown, most likely born into slavery, had married his great-grandmother Volenderver in 1890, when she was only 15 and he was about 50. Before their divorce in 1897, the product of that marriage was Richie's grandmother, Adelaide M. (Brown) Foster.

Knowing his great-grandfather's name, Richie went to the Nashville Metropolitan Archive where things got interesting as they took on a fraternal air. City directories there listed John Louis Brown as Editor of the Knights of the Wise Men in 1880 and SGA of the Knights of the Wise Men in 1885. The title of Editor was a valuable piece of information indicating Brown was literate – not a guarantee back in those days. Richie's curiosity was piqued wondering who the Knights of the Wise Men were and what the designation SGA meant.

This sent him to Prince Hall Lodge No. 1 PHA F&AM in Nashville where he met with Professor Corey Walker, Brown University Historian of African Studies. The program makes no mention if Professor Walker is a Mason.  With a prominent Square and Compasses in the background Walker explains, "Knights of the Wise Men was a fraternal order that also had a benefit for its members. The organization helped build bonds of community between African American men. It was an institution that provided financial benefits to all of its members for sickness as well as in death… It was the precursor of what we think of as modern insurance companies."

According to the show, the Knights of the Wise Men was founded in 1879 to address the needs of the black community. Walker reminds Richie that during that period white organizations were separate and did not admit African Americans. Pushed away from the white community after the Civil War, blacks created their own institutions to assist African Americans. One of these was the Knights of the Wise Men, which grew to 278 lodges by 1882. "These were the prototypes," says Walker, "of the organizations that helped propel the modern Civil Rights movement."

When Richie questions Walker about the meaning of SGA, he learns it stands for Supreme Grand Archon. "He wasn't just a member of the organization, he was its national leader." In addition, Professor Walker produces a book of the order's rules, laws, and regulations which Brown authored. The book contains lectures, signs and passwords, much like today's Masonic rituals, "J.L. Brown was at the forefront in building a significant institution to meet the needs of African Americans across the nation."

A newspaper article reveals the fate of the Knights of the Wise Men when it reports on an 1891 smallpox epidemic, which caused the organization to have to pay out substantial death benefits, draining the treasury. In addition, the article reports on the disappearance of its treasurer, S. Carl Walker, who ran off with much of the remaining funds. With that tipping point the Knights of the Wise Men began its decline.

Brother Richie points out this is the same period during which Brown's marriage fell apart, and the pressures of the demise of the Knights may have had something to do with it, concluding, "My great-grandfather went from being a scoundrel in my mind all the way to being one of the pioneers of the Civil Rights movement."

J.L. Brown moved to Chattanooga after the demise of the Knights of the Wise Men. Richie travels there to find out what happened to his great-grandfather. There, he discovers Brown became a cemetery caretaker and finds a book containing his picture. Brown's death certificate reveals his father was a Morgan Brown, his mother unknown. He is buried in the same cemetery where he worked, in an unmarked pauper's grave.

A final bit of research shows Brown was a slave, his owner being a Morgan W. Brown. In a confusing twist Richie finds a Dr. Morgan Brown had a son, Morgan W. Brown. Dr. Brown's diary reveals J.L. Brown's mother was a slave named Mariah, whom he stipulates to be freed, along with J.L., upon his death. The show leaves it to speculation as to whether Dr. Morgan Brown, 80, or his son Morgan W. Brown, 39, was J.L.'s father.

Documents shown in the program reveal John Lewis Brown died in 1931 at the age of 92. Writing of his fraternity he said, "We believe that an acre of noble oaks is worth more than a countryside full of brush wood, and that one true and loyal Knight is worth more... than a Chamber room full of trash. We fully recognize the fact that we are poor and need no weights upon us, and to make our way successfully through life requires thorough organization of the masses, without which our future cannot be a bright one. It is only by our good qualities rightly set forth that we are to succeed in the future. First by educating every boy and girl and teaching from the cradle to the grave honesty, industry, economy of time and means, and the fullest enjoyment of all rights as citizens, and the destruction, death and burial of the accursed idea that the negro is inferior, simply because he has been in time deprived of life, liberty and property. Let us all be wise men and women."

Other sources indicate that prior to the fallout from the smallpox epidemic and the treasurer depleting its funds, the Knights of the Wise Men had a peak membership of about 350 lodges. It is recognized by some as the first insurance company in the United States. Today, on St. Helena Island in South Carolina, stands a building known as the Knights of Wise Men Lodge. A wood frame building built in 1899, it burned in 1940, and was replaced with the existing concrete structure which stands as the last remnant of a once-noble fraternity.


Bro. Steve Harrison, 33° , is Past Master of Liberty Lodge #31, Liberty, Missouri. He is also a Fellow and Past Master of the Missouri Lodge of Research. Among his other Masonic memberships are the St. Joseph Missouri Valley of the Scottish Rite, Liberty York Rite bodies, and Moila Shrine. He is also a member and Past Dean of the DeMolay Legion of Honor. Brother Harrison is a regular contributor to the Midnight Freemasons blog as well as several other Masonic publications. Brother Steve was Editor of the Missouri Freemason magazine for a decade and is a regular contributor to the Whence Came You podcast. Born in Indiana, he has a Master's Degree from Indiana University and is retired from a 35 year career in information technology. Steve and his wife Carolyn reside in northwest Missouri. He is the author of dozens of magazine articles and three books: Freemasonry Crosses the Mississippi, Freemasons — Tales From the Craft and Freemasons at Oak Island.

Masonry: No Hiding Place for Criminals or Shelter for Crime

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Robert H. Johnson

"In this connection permit me to say that Masonry is no hiding place for criminals or shelter for crime. If a Mason should be a good man and true, and should strictly obey the moral law, then we have no room in our Lodges for criminals and deliberate violators of the laws of the land, nor have we any use for Lodges which harbor offenders against the peace and security of society. The idea that a Mason is to shield a brother guilty of crime, or screen him from just punishment, is a portion of the anti-Masonic code, and is in no sense justified by any Masonic teachings or practice." - Grand Master - Harmon G. Reynolds, 1870

It goes without saying--doesn't it? That within the craft, there would be no tolerance for anyone who is a criminal or who engages in acts that benefit a criminal organization or outfit. We take good men, and make them even better

In our fraternity, we often use terminology like, "Guarding the West Gate" when referring to making sure we select the right men to join our organization. And, for the most part we do. But as all Masons know, and maybe the public would have some clue to this as well--from time to time, we make a mistake. 

Becoming a Freemason involves a petitioning process in which much about a man's character is revealed; his faith is proclaimed (sometimes disclosed), his residential address, place of employment, marital status, where he's resided, if he has a felony, if he can afford the fraternal costs and much more depending on your grand jurisdiction. 

When I first started writing for The Midnight Freemasons, I penned a piece titled, "The Brothers that Failed". It was a crudely put together piece in which I outlined some of the most egregious men to have joined our ranks. Our founder (editor at that time), Todd E. Creason actually did some research on the members I mentioned in the piece, before he decided to publish it. Making accusations is no small thing and is in fact, is a very serious matter--especially considering the results. You could deprive a man of his membership.

Yes, we sometimes make a mistake and let someone in who is not the caliber of man we were told or lead to believe they were. Other times though, a man commits a crime after becoming a Freemason. Our fraternity deals with these instances, likely more times than we'd like to admit. But what can we expect? Mistakes happen.

From jurisdiction to jurisdiction the rules vary. A felony conviction in some jurisdiction bars a man from entering ever, while in others like Illinois, it's the discretion of the lodge whether to accept a man who has a felony or not. In many jurisdictions, there are mandatory background checks, and where it is not mandatory, some lodges take that into their own hands and run these checks as a part of their universal process. The investigating committee is paramount, whether the background checks are done or not.

The Past Grand Master of Illinois, Greg Clark (Illinois) recently addressed this, albeit briefly in his outgoing address in October of 2019. Paraphrasing, he urged lodges to think about background checks and to use them in the petitioning process. Some of you reading this might be thinking that's too far, while your brothers in other jurisdictions know this to be standard practice, e.g. Pennsylvania, where the Grand Lodge runs the background check, and ANY felony at all, bars that man for life at the Grand Lodge level. No lodge can overturn it. And lets remember, Pennsylvania has the highest number of Masons in any state (97,822 in 2017 - MSA North America Membership Statistics).

Earlier when I said, "Mistakes happen.", it's important to understand the options we as Freemasons have and to understand fully the repercussions in the event that we do nothing when these men are found within our organization. To be a just and upright Mason, concerned for the welfare of the craft over titles and accolades is the the prudent path. Principals matter.

Our Past Grand Master, in his 1870 address was no doubt dealing with many of the same things we deal with today in the craft, world-wide. His remarks are timeless and yet one can barely believe that he had to address this concept at all, given who we are and what we stand for. The full text of his address can be found in the Grand Lodge Proceedings, 1870. For our Illinois Brothers with access to MORI, you can find this document there, and for those who have access to the Members Section of the ILoR Website, you cans search them there as well.

May we ever be just and upright Masons -


RWB, Robert Johnson is the Managing Editor of the Midnight Freemasons blog. He is a Freemason out of the 2nd N.E. District of Illinois. He currently serves as the Secretary of Spes Novum Lodge No. 1183. He is a Past Master of Waukegan Lodge 78 and a Past District Deputy Grand Master for the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. Brother Johnson currently produces and hosts weekly Podcasts (internet radio programs) Whence Came You? & Masonic Radio Theatre which focus on topics relating to Freemasonry. He is also a co-host of The Masonic Roundtable, a Masonic talk show. He is a husband and father of four, works full time in the executive medical industry. He is the co-author of "It's Business Time - Adapting a Corporate Path for Freemasonry" and is currently working on a book of Masonic essays and one on Occult Anatomy to be released soon.

A Different Response to the Fringe Element

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Brian L. Pettice 33˚

The recent article by fellow Midnight Freemason contributor Steve Harrison on the fringe element and masonic conspiracies brought back memories of a presentation I gave to the officers of the Valley of Danville, Illinois Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite a few years back.

The presentation was on those values deemed by the Supreme Council to be the Core Values of the organization- Reverence for God, Devotion to Country, Integrity, Justice, Toleration, and Service. I discussed each of these values—how they are illustrated in our ritual and why they are foundationally important to the organization as well as to each of us as individual masons and servant leaders.

What Steve’s piece reminded me of though was the closing of the presentation—a different response to the fringe element.

“As we conclude our thoughts on our core values this morning, I would like to share some thoughts that came to me about Freemasonry and the part we allegedly play in various world domination theories. I recently witnessed an on-line discussion like many I have witnessed before. In this, as in many others, someone—maybe a mason, maybe not—joked about Freemasons trying to take over the world or achieve world dominance. Another mason jumped into the conversation to say that we are not trying to take over the world-- that there is no conspiracy. He joked that he can’t dominate his own house, let alone the whole world. I’ve heard others joke that our lodges can’t agree on what pie to serve after our meetings, so how would we ever agree on something as big as ruling the world? I’ve been thinking we should react differently when someone says Freemasons are trying to take over the world. I think we should say that, yes, we are trying to dominate the world, but not for the reasons you might think. We don’t seek to control nations or power or riches as the theories suggest. We seek to dominate the world by filling it with reasonable and humble men who are Tolerant of others, men of Integrity with a keen sense of Justice, men who revere God and are devoted to Country, men who put Service to others ahead of themselves. We encourage men who possess these attributes and values to join with us to learn how to improve these qualities in themselves and to spread these values across the Earth. How great, then, would our world be if men like these; men like you and men like me, men like all of us in this room—dedicated to endeavoring to live these values—did take over the world? I’m in. Are you?”

Brian L. Pettice, 33° is a Past Master of Anchor Lodge No. 980 and plural member of Olive Branch Lodge No. 38 in Danville, IL and an Honorary Member of a couple of others. He is also an active member of both the York and Scottish Rites. He cherishes the Brothers that have become Friends over the years and is thankful for the opportunities Freemasonry gives and has given him to examine and improve himself, to meet people he might not otherwise have had chance to meet, and to do things he might not otherwise have had chance to do. He is employed as an electrician at the University of Illinois and lives near Alvin, IL with his wife Janet and their son Aidan. He looks forward to sharing the joy the fraternity brings him with others. His email address is

When Was the Last Time You Asked for Help?

The universe is listening, are you?

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Bro. Michael Arce

The first time I took a knee and asked something larger than myself for help, it felt a little weird. Truth be told, it probably looked odd if someone walked out outside to see me kneeling on my back deck, staring up to the stars, doing what looked like talking to myself. At the time, I was in my second year of Masonry and contemplating a job offer. I had spoken with my closest friends and Brothers, getting their insight to help in my decision. It was one of those moments where I had to do choose what was right for me, my family, and my future. The words from our ritual came from a whisper to my soul. I stepped out to the deck that evening to seek a quiet place to ask the Supreme Architect of the Universe for inspiration on this important undertaking.

We are told in our ritual that before any great decision or undertaking, we should invoke the aid of deity. Yet another one of those lines that is so obvious its more substantial impact goes unnoticed. Invoke the aid of deity? "You mean, I should pray before I do anything? Who does that?" We all do it if you think about it. Whether it be for the light to turn green, seats (next to each other) for a movie premiere, dinner to be ready when we get home, or a strong fantasy football performance this weekend; we've all ASKED the universe for something. Most of the time, it is for the tiny little things that are somewhat out of our control, and those prayers go unanswered. No biggie.

But when one of those BIG ASKS comes through, we are genuinely enlightened. Those needs feel different. We approach those decisions with a length of caution that would rival drive-home traffic on a weekday in any city or town. Like a hunter lining up a prize-winning shot, great or important undertakings demand our complete dedication and mental focus. These thoughts consume us to the point of almost overwhelming our conscious. A great or important undertaking is a milestone moment in life. I consider myself fortunate as a man and Mason, that I recognize the significance of these moments and have the knowledge to pause and seek time to call upon deity.

As much as my relationship with others has improved through my continuous study of our work, my understanding of the Supreme Architect of the Universe (SAU) has dramatically improved. For one, I have learned to ask for protection, inspiration, or support as I consider BIG decisions or moments. I treat these moments much differently than when I prayed as a younger man. Those prayers were like the "wish list" I would show my parents when it came to Christmas gift shopping. (Side note: I still miss the fights with my younger brother when "took turns" circling every other thing in the Sears Holiday catalogs.) My conversations with the SAU aren't commonplace, probably a handful over the year.

The second area of my relationship with the SAU that has improved is in understanding our communication is more than one-way; it speaks to me as well. I've done a better job of listening, and I mean really listening to when the universe speaks to me. And when it does, there's no mistaking it! It started about two years ago. After a lifetime of being a "planner," something finally clicked. I took a step back and realized that when I let things fall into place, the feeling of a "missed opportunity" ended. Matter of fact, doors opened, and I started seeing the whole chessboard, not just the top of the pieces. I realized that in my interactions with others, the SAU was connecting with me.

Here is how I explain it. Place your hand's palms up in front of you. Your fingertips should be pointing towards the sky. Now, slowly rotate your fingers so that, like gears in a clock, the fall into place as you turn your hands to the floor. Go ahead; I'll give you a few seconds to try this. Felt pretty cool, right?!? In this experiment, one hand represents our desires and passions. On the other, the opportunities presented in life. If one hand moves faster than the other, fingers miss, points collide or cross, and a void is created. We must then reset our hands and adjust the speed to make that seamless transaction.

When we as Masons invoke the aid of deity, we are, in essence, adjusting the speed to open our minds to receive the instruction of a higher power. We are preparing our ambitions, desires, dreams, and goals to take the role of that leaf that travels gently down the stream, avoid the distraction and detours of rocks and fallen branches. Putting faith in deity doesn't mean that you act remotely or as a conductor, waiting for direction or responding to commands. No, one must still possess an internal drive, the inertia, the unmistakable energy fueled by passion and desire. The difference is allowing deity to act as the governor, the distant yet ever-present voice of clarity.

As we learn to listen to the universe, we can recognize those hidden opportunities and make wise adjustments in our journey that provide beautiful experiences that make life the greatest gift we have. This is great for those who embrace or are enlightened to our teachings. But what about those who are not members of our fraternity? Does this mean that they cannot enjoy sublime moments or benefit from invoking a higher power for counsel? There was little need for investigation as again; the universe provided the answer.

Earlier this year, I connect with Bro. Matthew MacIntosh a member of Morgantown Union Lodge #4 of the Grand Lodge of West Virginia. Outside of the Craft, the only connections that Matt and I share are very loose: fathers, husbands, and fans of Brad Paisley. I'll take that back; he may be a fan of New York-style pizza. Matt messaged me with thoughts on an article I had written on the need for listening to those offering Masonic Education in blue lodge. We've had a couple of hour-long phone conversations about other areas of the fraternity, stretching from the road to the East, ritual study tips, and welcoming new members into our fraternity.

While I was collecting my thoughts for this article, Matt sent me one of his regular "Good Morning, my Brother" texts to share some exciting news. This is what he sent... "I have a Brother in Pennsylvania that called me out of the blue. He had found a bible through a non-Mason friend. Anyhow the Bible had Morgantown Union Lodge No. 4 on it, so he called me. It had our member's name in it, and he had actually passed to the celestial lodge above last winter. The real scary part about this was... it was the Grandfather of the candidate I am working with right now. WOW!!! Was my response to all of this. So needless to say, I now have the Bible in my possession and will present it to our candidate upon his being raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason... what a small world we live in, my Brother!"

My response included how coincidental (not really) that his text was that morning, the news of a gentleman finding Masonry by "chance." What followed was a discussion on how the SAU presents these moments in our life for a reason, for us to seek and understand. Matt's response perfectly summarizes the deeper meaning. "So true, I have always told my wife that he just puts me in the right places at the right time, and I never question."


Brother Michael Arce is a member of Mt. Zion #311, Troy, New York. When not in Lodge, Bro. Arce is the Marketing Manager for Capital Cardiology Associates in Albany, New York. He enjoys meeting new Brothers and hearing how the Craft has enriched their lives. He can be reached at