Education is the foundation of Speculative Freemasonry
by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Darin A. Lahners
I was searching for Masonic content on Youtube the other night, and I ran across this podcast, https://benfranklinsworld.com/episode-329-mark-tabbert-freemasonry-in-early-america/, Ben Franklin's world, whose guest was Mark Tabbert. (Mark is the Director of Archives and Exhibits at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.). I can't recommend the episode enough. Several things that Mark addressed on the podcast stood out to me and I wish to highlight them below. I will note that the below are based on notes I took during the podcast as well as additional research, so my interpretation of the information that was given is based upon this and is in no way supposed to speak for Brother Tabbert unless otherwise noted.
1. Freemasonry had no impact on the revolutionary war, and the Masons such as Franklin, Washington, and Revere had all joined Freemasonry for different reasons. There were at the time of Franklin, Washington, and Revere's raising a small number of lodges existed in the colonies (https://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/freemasonry/freemasonry-in-colonial-america/). So, the actual number of Freemasons during the war would have been quite small. As Mark points out in the above article, it's ridiculous to think that it did, and for every Mason that was a revolutionary figure, there was a figure that was not.
Franklin actually had written an article for his newspaper ridiculing Freemasonry prior to being initiated in 1731. Franklin had joined because at the time, thirty-nine years prior to the Boston Massacre, colonial life was focused on the British Crown, and receiving patronage/honors or support from the crown was the goal of many upper-class men. Freemasonry was a way to achieve this much like joining the Navy, or Army or getting another government commission could be a way to achieve this goal. Of course, Franklin went on to get his commission, serving as Grand Master, Provincial Grand Master, and Deputy Grand Master during his Sixty year Masonic Career.
Washington was initiated into his rural lodge in Fredricksburg in 1752 because he was planning on becoming a tobacco farmer and the other farmers in his area were members of the Lodge. Tabbert didn't mention this, but the Fredricksburg Lodge that Washington joined did not have a charter at the time of his initiating, passing, and raising, so he would have been considered an irregular or clandestine Mason by today's standards. His lodge would ask for and receive a charter from the Grand Lodge of Scotland five years after Washington was raised (https://la-mason.com/shorttalk/charter-warrant/). Washington viewed joining as a rite of passage, as well as a way to connect to the other farmers, but later during and after the revolutionary war, viewed it as an incubator for republican virtues (As a clarification, Republican is used in the classical sense and refers to the virtues built around concepts such as liberty and inalienable individual rights; recognizing the sovereignty of the people as the source of all authority in law; rejecting monarchy, aristocracy, and hereditary political power; virtue and faithfulness in the performance of civic duties; and vilification of corruption), as well as a way to improve men by giving them a liberal education. He also viewed Freemasonry as a way to improve individual communities.
Revere was initiated in 1760 at St. Andrews Lodge in Boston. Revere viewed Freemasonry as a way to grow his trade and encourage commerce. Revere was a silversmith by trade and later become the Grandmaster of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts from 1795 - 1797. He would have been representative of many of the middle-class and upper-middle-class men that would have joined Freemasonry during the mid to late 1700s. Interestingly enough, Revere joined a lodge that was chartered through the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Considering that you had at this time four grand lodges (Ireland, Scotland, the English Moderns and Ancients) granting charters, the English Grand Lodges would have thought the other ones irregular, and vice versa. The Moderns and Ancients considered each other irregular at this time. It could be argued that Revere also was a member of an irregular lodge depending on your point of view.
2. The revolutionary war did have an impact on Freemasonry. Historically, you can trace an increase in membership after armed conflict as the survivors turn to Fraternal Organizations to replace the camaraderie that they experienced in those conflicts. However, Freemasonry was also in line with the enlightenment ideals of the time which were the same ideals that were inspiring the non-Freemason revolutionary figures like Jefferson. This being said, the Revolutionary War allowed for westward expansion and you see the growth and expansion of Freemasonry as being one of the things occurring with this expansion. By 1790, there were 200 lodges and by 1800 this number doubled to 400 lodges.
As earth-shaking as the above points might be to some, there are some other things that Bro. Tabbert said that I really wanted to focus on.
1. The writing rituals and initiation ceremonies is a literary genre that started around 1720 with the first printed exhibitions of Masonic Ritual. Much like opera, poems, and other entertainment genres were written about myths and legends, Masonic ritual was a form of entertainment and was enjoyed as a literary exercise.
2. Masonic Lodges were instrumental in teaching men to read, providing them a classical education, and teaching them about the liberal ideas of self-determination, the classical republican virtues, peaceful assembly of people, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.
First of all, the men who joined Freemasonry during this time would have been men who believed in self-determination, the classical republican virtues, peaceful assembly of people, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. Many of those that would have joined during the transition of the Masonic Guilds into what would become the Grand Lodge system we know today were educated "gentlemen" like Elias Ashmole, who we know joined a lodge in 1646. However, the purpose of the lodge would also have been to educate those that were uneducated, and as more of the Middle Class joined, the lodges would have served to teach men how to read, provide them with a liberal education, and instill many of the liberal ideas listed above into them. Of course, the guilds would have been established to be not only a ruling body for the Stone Masons local to an area but also a trade school to teach the apprentices the knowledge of Stone Masonry, in order to advance them to the point where they could be Master Masons, and our degree system is a direct descendant of this.
One could also argue that one of the many reasons behind Prince Hall forming African Lodge No. 1 was to promote literacy amongst African American men, and given his efforts to promote and secure public education for African American children, I don't think this is an invalid argument. In fact, after his numerous attempts to secure public education failed, he started a program from his own home with a focus on the liberal arts and a classical education. I think it then stands to reason that both Prince Hall and English/Scottish/Irish Freemasonry had the same goal of educating their brethren as one of their main goals at their foundations.
At this same time, you have Masonic Rituals being printed in the press and elsewhere starting around 1720, and you slowly begin to see "hundreds upon hundreds" of initiation ceremonies being written as a literary exercise and as a form of enjoyment. So there is the birth of a literary genre associated with the writing and creation of new initiatory ceremonies and rituals, which gave birth to the Scottish Rite and York Rite rituals of today, as well as many others that were used as a folkway for both men and women alike. You could then argue that sub-genres were created and that what I'm currently writing in this blog is a sub-genre of this literary genre. However, for many people, the bible was the only book that they might own, so to be able to write and act out the stories from the bible would have been a popular form of entertainment for them at the time.
Historically you can research and many instances where Freemasonry and Education were intertwined. Many Grand Lodges in the United States were instrumental in helping found Public Education within their state jurisdictions. In fact, one of the enlightenment ideals that many of the Freemasons of that time would have supported, would have been a free public universal education for children as it was necessary for them to grow into conscientious productive citizens. I think you see this belief continue into the mid to late 20th century when there was a sea change and the majority Masonic thought became that Public Schools were political institutions. This belief was popularized by Henry Coil in the 1960's in his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry.
Is it then any wonder that we have seen a diminishing of Education pursuits in our lodges? How tragic is it that our Organization has gone from once being the only place a man might receive lessons on how to read or receive a classical education to a place where education is eschewed in favor of discussions over building repairs, the type of toilet paper the lodge is buying, and other banal items? The seven liberal arts and sciences which are grammar, logic, rhetoric (the verbal arts of the trivium), arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (the mathematical arts of the quadrivium); and which we as Fellowcraft are charged to study, used to be an important part of one's lodge experience. What once was the foundation of Speculative Freemasonry has now been discarded, much like the Keystone in the Mark Master Degree, into the rubbish.
While we no longer need to teach our members to read, or at least I hope this is the case, there are still lessons that can be discovered through the pursuit of the verbal arts of the trivium and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium. Discussions of a masonic nature using the above as a focus will not only strengthen each of us, but also hopefully open up new horizons for ourselves and our brethren. Perhaps we should also attempt to rediscover
the classical republican virtues listed above, and discuss concepts such as civil society and civic virtue, both of which are lacking in today's society.
Many will scoff at such a notion, or attempt to dismiss it as political in nature, all while we have already seen the influence of religion and politics creep into our lodges. Just a week ago, during our tiled Grand Lodge sessions, men stated their religious beliefs and used them in their arguments for being for or against an amendment that dared to state: "Masonry knows no distinction of race or color race, color, or sexual orientation. It is the mental, moral, and physical qualifications of the man that are to be considered." Yet, they were allowed to state them. In my humble opinion, these men should have been gaveled down. Instead, our Grand Lodge without realizing it set a precedent for men to violate the declaration of principles of their own constitution which states: "This Grand Lodge affirms its continued adherence to that ancient and approved rule of Freemasonry which forbids the discussion in Masonic meetings of creeds, politics, or other topics likely to excite personal animosities." within their own lodges.
How we got here is unimportant. What is important is that we must work to bring back this educational experience and hold ourselves accountable to our principles. We must fight back the influence of the profane world in our sacred spaces. We must return to basing the meeting experience around a classical liberal education to not only expand their knowledge of the verbal arts of the trivium and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium, as well as the concepts of civil society and civil virtue, so that they might think for themselves instead of parroting everything they read on social media or hear in the media. In doing so, perhaps they can go into their communities and improve them. Perhaps by working with their public schools to encourage reading, they might be able to have the generations behind them capable of individual thought. Perhaps in time, their children might be able to
grow up in a world that is no longer polarized by those things which divide us now. Many Grand Lodge charities have programs to promote reading in public schools now, and it should be every lodges goal to participate in these.
If we truly go back to our roots of actually improving the individual mason via education instead of saying that Freemasonry does this when it in reality does not, perhaps we can at the very least improve retention, or separate the wheat from the chaff. The men that want to learn and improve themselves will stay, while those who would rather not can go. I'd rather have a smaller, better educated Fraternity than have the one that currently exists. Quite frankly, the one that currently exists would rather rest on it's laurels, continue to act as if we are living in the 1950's and bury it's head in the sand to the reality that the grand leveler is going to take over 75% of it's population in the next 20 years. When the average age of our Master Masons is somewhere in the mid-60's, the writing is on the wall. My hope is that I will live to see the transformation of Freemasonry into what it once was, because it's coming. The brethren who are my age and younger will see to that.
WB Darin A. Lahners is our Co-Managing Editor. He is a host and producer of the "Meet, Act and Part" podcast. He is currently serving the Grand Lodge of Illinois Ancient Free and Accepted Masons as the Area Education Officer for the Eastern Masonic Area. He is a Past Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph. He is also a plural member of Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL), where he is also a Past Master. He’s also a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282, Salt Fork Shrine Club under the Ansar Shrine, and a grade one (Zelator) in the S.C.R.I.F. Prairieland College in Illinois. He is also a Fellow of the Illinois Lodge of Research. He was presented with the Torok Award from the Illinois Lodge of Research in 2021. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.