Brother Truman: A Lifetime In The Craft

 by Midnight Freemasons Regular Contributor
Michael H. Shirley

The Illustrious Harry S Truman, 33rd Degree
“The Masonic Lodge was one enthusiasm that he has had that’s been a life-long one, and the Masonic Lodge has made him very well known.”

–Ethel Noland (Harry Truman’s cousin)

Most Worshipful Brother Harry S. Truman, Senator from Missouri and President of the United States, counted as the greatest honor of his life his election as Grand Master of Masons in Missouri in 1940. His biographers, however, mostly overlook Freemasonry’s place in his life.  It’s not surprising, since biographies of “Great Men” tend to focus on the events that made them great in history’s estimation, and Freemasonry, for most such men, rightly merits only a passing nod, especially since the “secrets of the Craft” owe most of their secrecy to a lack of surviving records. Truman was different. His Masonic career was unusually distinguished, and he lived in an era where records tend to survive. (Andrew Jackson, the only other Grand Master (of Tennessee) among the Masonic Presidents, has far fewer existing records of his Masonic career, and there is no evidence that the Craft occupied as central place in his life as it did in Truman’s.) Even David McCullough’s Truman, the most comprehensive of all Truman biographies, mentions Freemasonry on only a few of its more than 1,000 pages.

Published 1985, Anchor Books
Fortunately, those who want to read more about Truman’s life as a Freemason have an excellent resource available: Allen E. Roberts’s Brother Truman: The Masonic Life and Philosophy of Harry S. Truman. Published in 1985 for the Missouri Lodge of Research, Brother Truman is based on available secondary works, including Truman’s own memoirs, and thousands of original documents held at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. Organized chronologically, it tracks the events Truman’s public and private life, focusing on his Masonic activities, while providing enough historical context that a full sense of Truman the man emerges.

And it’s the context that astonishes.

Initiated in 1909 as an Entered Apprentice at Belton Lodge No. 450, Truman founded Grandview Lodge No. 615 in 1911 and served as its first Worshipful Master, served the Grand Lodge of Missouri as District Deputy Grand Master and District Lecturer from 1925 to 1930, and as Grand Master from 1940 to 1941. A great student of history all his life, he signed the Charter for the Missouri Lodge of Research in 1941, and served as its Master from 1950-1951. He was an active member of just about every Masonic organization, including the York Rite, Knights Templar, Shrine, Red Cross of Constantine, Allied Masonic Degrees, and the Order of the Eastern Star (Roberts provides a complete list, with dates, in an appendix). During that time he was a farmer, Captain of Artillery during World War I and Colonel in the Army Reserves, County Judge, Chief County Judge, United States Senator, Vice President, and President of the United States. While serving as Grand Master, he was also working as a very busy Senator and running for reelection. One is left with the impression that Harry Truman was the hardest-working man in both Masonry and politics.

That he was also a man of the highest sense of honor is also clear. Roberts provides numerous examples of Truman’s understanding that he was a public servant, and that when he was honored as President it was the office that was honored rather than the man.

This is not just a book for Masons. Roberts includes a glossary of Masonic terms for the general reader, as well as transcripts of Truman’s speeches on George Washington, the Mason, The Masonic Service Association, and the dedication of the George Washington Statue at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. In a valuable evaluative postscript, Roberts explores Truman’s understanding of Masonic philosophy, and connects it to his life and career. There is also a fairly complete index.

In 1948, Secretary of State George C. Marshall, a man not known for complimenting anyone with whom he worked, was a guest at a private birthday party for President Harry S. Truman. As toasts were being given, Marshall rose unexpectedly, and with a serious expression on his face said of Truman, “The full stature of this man will only be proven by history, but I want to say here and now that there has never been a decision made under this man’s administration, affecting policies beyond our shores, that has not been in the best interest of this country. It is not the courage of these decisions that will live, but the integrity of the man.” Brother Truman is an essential source for the reader who seeks to understand why Marshall said that, and belongs in the library of anyone who wants a full picture of  the man who was arguably the greatest Mason ever to become President.


W.B. Michael H. Shirley
Michael H. Shirley is Past Master of Tuscola Lodge No. 332 and Leadership Development Chairman for the Grand Lodge of Illinois A.F.& A.M.  He's also a member of the Illinois Lodge of Research, the Scottish Rite, the York Rite, a Shriner, and a member of the Tall Cedars of Lebanon. The author of several articles on British history, he teaches at Eastern Illinois University.

Todd's Note:  I'd like to welcome Michael Shirley to the Midnight Freemason's blog.  I was introduced to Michael about three years ago in Mattoon, IL, by the Grand Master of Illinois at the time, Richard L. Swaney.  He told me that Michael was somebody I should know--those are the kinds of introductions you tend to pay attention to.  He was right--we've become good friends over the last few years, both sharing a passionate interest in history and Freemasonry.  In fact, he gave me a copy of "Brother Truman" a couple years ago--it's a prized (and very well thumbed) addition to my collection.  Recently, we've become writing partners.  We've just finished one, of what we now believe will be a series of articles on topics of interest to Freemasons.  And I'm sure they'll all wind up reposted on here eventually.  It'll be interesting to see where this partnership may lead.


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