Freemasonry in 18th Century America
© 2007, by Jim Peterson
A small number of fraternal societies were exported from Europe to America during the 18th-century. The most significant group was known as the Freemasons - established as an organization in London in 1717. Its history as a stonemasons guild apparently goes back to the Middle Ages, but there is very little documentation regarding its membership or precisely what its goals were outside of actual masonry before 1717. For more information outside of 18th century America, there are a few good books (and several bad ones) on the subject and its European heritage.
There is no perfect source on Freemasonry and it's history. Several authors over the years with anti-Masonic missions have published works with alternate agendas and speculative history. There is a broad middle ground on this subject between scholarship and editorial sensationalism. Let the buyer beware.
It's clear most scholarly historians of the Revolutionary period are, for many reasons, somewhat reluctant to explore Freemasonry fully in relationship to the Founding Fathers. Much of it would simply be hearsay. All we can safely say is that many of our Founding Fathers were members (membership roles have been made available to the public domain). Since this organization had members who were sworn to secrecy at one time, it's very difficult to project its impact on the Founding Fathers when there are no records of what went on during these meetings.
Freemasonry is a charitable organization based on philanthropy and civic duty. Another accepted mission is to build character and leadership. There is no official definition of Freemasonry. There is no official spokesperson or ruling body of Freemasonry. In each state there are one or more Grand Lodges, each of which can define Freemasonry any way it wishes, and the same is true in other countries in the world. Religious tolerance and religious liberty seem to be an important undercurrent among Freemasons, but religious belief is not discussed in meetings nor used as a screening device for Freemason membership (other than a belief in a creator).
Freemasonry is not a religion by any definition. It's ethical beliefs cut across religious lines, it has no deity that it worships, no eschatology, no theology, no church, and no spokesperson. The mission of Freemasonry was\is likely moral by nature, and the understanding of the word "moral" originates largely from Judeo-Christian values since that was the spiritual environment in which Freemasonry was born. However, Freemasonry is a worldwide organization and is open to members of any religion.
According to Freemason historians, very little is secret anymore concerning the society - certainly not the meeting times and places. Passwords, handshakes, and some ceremonial stories and information remain secret, but the organization's mission is not. In fact, the original Freemason Constitution was published in 1723 and was called Anderson's Constitution. It can be found several places on the Internet, and specific constitutions and rules can be found at local Freemasonry offices.
Several definitions of Freemasonry by a variety of people can be found here.
A more complete look at the misinformation surrounding Freemasonry can be found here.
American Freemasonry in the Colonial Period
The most straightforward factual information that we have is the following:
1. George Washington was a Freemason
All of the above have been entered into the roles of lodges and specifically attended meetings. James Madison was presumed a Freemason at one time, but the records of the lodge that he is believed to have attended have been lost for that time period. He is no longer included in the body of evidence suggesting a Freemason connection.
For specific information on Washington's generals and founding fathers, visit this site.
Among the many European Freemasons were Voltaire, John Locke, Haydn, and Mozart.
Deism and Freemasonry
Freemasonry and Deism had some "reason-based" philosophical ties during the Age of Enlightenment, but American Freemasonry was not founded on Deism. I explore Deism more fully on the "Founding Fathers" page.
Deism has no church and no official organization, hence, it is not considered a religion any more than Freemasonry. One is a philosophical outlook and one is a fraternal organization with a civic mission. Deism is more a reason-based view of religion in general or perhaps it could be seen as a "religious philosophy". The attitudes of a Deist might seem philosophically comfortable within a 1770 Freemasonry Lodge, but that connection was probably a product of Enlightenment ideals effecting Europe and America at the time. A Freemason is not required to a have a specific religious outlook, and most Deists were not Freemasons. The only link between the two is they both reflected reason-based Enlightenment thinking in the 18th century.
Deism had an influence among several important Founding Fathers. However, I think it's relatively safe to say that most colonial American Freemasons (and most Americans at large) were more typically orthodox Protestants of varying denominations and included much smaller religious minorities of Catholics, and Jews. Deist-thinking Christians were in the minority at the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution signings, even though some of the biggest names linked with those documents would be both Deists and Freemasons.
There is some assumption that Freemasonry believed the birth of the American nation was a singularly important event - perhaps even pre-destined. Since this "sense of destiny" may have been somewhat true of the colonists in general on the eve of 1776, it's hard to know how specific this idea was to Freemasonry. However, the importance and realization of an independent America may have been more defined within Freemasonry than just the American public at large.
America had the unique capability of planning it's own religious and political emergence at a time when reason and science were permeating Western culture. To some extent, Freemasonry was a blossoming, democratic, morally responsible microcosm of what many colonists thought that the new American Republic should look like. It had a democratic membership where lowly cobblers could reign as Grand Masters of the Lodge while nobles and gentry had initiations at the lowest levels just like all others initiates. As a rule, most all religions were tolerated with Freemasonry. Neither of the ideals of status equality or complete religious tolerance were actualized in any known Western government at that time.
According to historian Christopher Hodnap, Teddy Roosevelt tells a humorous story of returning to his hometown Freemason Lodge while still president only to find his gardener had become the Grand Master of the Lodge. Roosevelt and his gardener never discussed this matter, but Roosevelt was subservient to his gardener in all issues related to the Lodge even while president - and he believed that's exactly how it should be.
Although Freemasonry requires a belief in a creator, it does not specify any belief other than that. Neither religion nor politics are allowed to be discussed at Lodge meetings.
Freemasonry was almost certainly a networking "delivery system" for Enlightenment ideals. It was the only "national' civic organization operating in America in the mid-1700s. It encouraged philosophical beliefs that could be exported into a new, independent America after 1776 - an America that would be the political gold standard for future Western countries and their systems of government.