Freemasonry has been getting some Bloggernacle attention lately (see here and here), so here are a few more comments on Freemasonry drawing on Religion in American Life: A Short History, by Butler, Wacker, and Balmer (see p. 178-79). Post-Revolutionary America saw not only the rise of unparalleled sectarian diversity (Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians, Catholics) and the appearance of new sects like Mormonism, but also a fraternal civic religion (Freemasonry) as well as stubbornly persistent "folk religion" beliefs and practices (dowsing, amulets, astrology, etc.). But just what was Freemasonry and why did it flourish in America?
Here's what Grant Wacker (who authored this section of the book) says about "The Secret Society of Freemasons":
The Masons traced their origin to ancient Egypt, symbolized by the pyramid on the dollar bill. That notion reflected mostly wishful thinking, but it offered the security of connecting Americans with a source of wisdom in the distant past. The Masons actually started in England in the twelfth century as an all-male fraternity of craftsmen.Granting origins as far back as the 12th century is quite generous compared with other accounts I have read, some of which place its origins as late as the 17th century. Freemasonry was popular: "Almost all the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, as were many members of the Continental Congress." Just what did Masons do? Wacker does not discuss the details of Masonic ritual, but comments as follows:
[Freemasonry] offered men a form of fellowship different from ordinary religion, one rich with rituals, special clothes, and secret passwords. The Masons emphasized brotherhood and fair dealing. . . . The Masons saw God as a grand architect who designed the Universe according to natural law. Their symbols centered upon the carpenter's square and the compass, building tools suggesting firmness of character (square dealing) and high ideals (aiming high, as the compass pointed toward the sky).
Wikipedia has a long entry on Freemasonry. More than you ever want to know, but here are a few highlights. The Boy Scouts were nationally commissioned by a Mason, who thereby "exemplified the Masonic ideals throughout the Scouting program." In France, the Masonic principles are liberty, equality, and fraternity. God is sometimes referred to as the Grand Geometer. "There are as many ways to interpret the [Masonic] rituals as there are Masons, and no Mason may dictate to any other Mason how he is to interpret them." Finally, this little gem is included at the end of the article:
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, was a Freemason, as were the first five presidents of the Church: Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow. When the Mormons first settled Utah, the entire church hierarchy was composed of Freemasons. Many Mormon symbols and rituals bear a striking similarity to Masonic ceremonies.