Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Freemasons: Fact & Fiction

Freemasons are the buzz, thanks to novelist Dan Brown, whose book The Last Symbol promises to blur fact and fiction regarding America’s Founding Fathers the way The Da Vinci Code did with the historical Jesus. But the truth remains more interesting than the creations of Hollywood or the publishing industry.

Conspiracy theories trace the freemason’s origins back to the builders of ancient Egypt, to Solomon and his Temple and other secret orders shrouded in the obscurity of time. But the real story is that the masonic order was an outgrowth of the European Enlightenment.

Freemasonry as the Founders knew it was part philosophical society, part social improvement club, part mystic brotherhood. It had its beginnings in 1717 with the organization of the Grand Lodge in London. Earlier masonic lodges were composed mostly of stone workers, remnants of the craft guilds that build the medieval cathedrals. But with the opening of the 18th century, these guilds were on the wane. The Grand Lodge revived masonry by drawing in an entirely new breed–called “speculative” masons–whose interests were mainly scientific and intellectual. Like their predecessors, these newcomers evinced an enthusiasm for architecture and engineering. Not content to carve in stone, however, “speculative” masons hoped to lay the foundations for a whole new society.

John Desaguliers, whose Huguenot family brought him to England shortly after his birth in 1683, was among the principal founders of the lodge where these ideas germinated. As chair of Experimental Philosophy at Oxford, he was an intimate of Isaac Newton and became Curator and Demonstrator for the Royal Society. His great gift was as a popularizer. He was able to lecture freely on gravity, optics, geometry and mechanics and, with the aid of ingenious working models, bring the concepts of elementary physics within the reach of non-scholars.

An ordained deacon in the Church of England, he became the proponent for a faith whose God owed more to the harmonies of physics than to the traditional Christian scriptures. For deity should be demonstrable, Desaguliers argued, like the laws of science, which his own work had proven to be within the grasp of even average minds. So theology should look to the natural world rather than to revelation for inspiration–to the vast Creation and the orderly working of its laws. For just as Newton’s laws seemed incontrovertible and beyond dispute, a purely natural religion might avoid the disputations that had so vexed human history. Persecutions of the kind that drove his own family from France would become a thing of the past if only people would reorient their faith, away from doctrinal differences and variant readings of the Bible, toward what to Desaguliers seemed beyond question–the existence of God (whom he called the Great Architect and Organizer of the World) and the unity of humankind.

This was religion shorn of supernaturalism, devoid of the Trinity, simplified to an affirmation of the Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of man. And it was this simple faith that appealed to many of America’s founding generation. Early America masons included figures like John Hancock and Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington–who laid the cornerstone of the nation’s capitol building with a masonic trowel. With lodges around the world, from Russia to France to Britain, masonry was poised to become a unifying, international force for the uplift of society, they believed.

There is no Harvard Department of Symbology to “decode” the hints and clues of the fiction writer’s brain. But ultimately none is needed. Symbols like the pyramid, the compass and all-seeing eye which capture Dan Brown’s imagination were far less important to America’s Founders than the moral substance of masonry–promoting general education and public virtue rather than dividing people along narrowly sectarian lines.

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