There’s a lot of conspiracies about freemasons (and really any other secret society) and how they have started wars and revolutions and have done this and that basically painting them as some kind of society of super-villains watching from the shadows.
However, when it comes to actual evidence and or sources for these claims there’s usually none other than hearsay. So what have they really done and why did the big bad mason myth start?
It’s going to be a little hard to tackle because the history of Free Masonry is both long and full of popular myths and conspiracy theories that crisscross countries and different parts of history. How old? Most historians will date it back to the early 1700s with some loose claims dating back to old guilds during Medieval times. Texts do exist, however, from the late 1600s that mention Masonry.
The first official Masonic Lodge was officially chartered in England in 1717 ” when several English Masons formed the Grand Lodge of England. The first official rule book was the Constitutions of the Free-Masons, compiled by the English clergyman James Anderson and published in London in 1723.”
Much of the mythos surrounding Free Masons, Masonic Lodges, the occult, religion, etc likely stems from this book. The text made such claims as Masonry being explicitly tied in with the creation of man or the building of Solomon’s Temple. Historian Henrik Bogdan writes that Anderson’s writing
“consists of a history of Freemasonry that starts with Adam and is then traced through the Old Testament, antiquity, and the Middle Ages, reaching all the way to the eighteenth century. In this historical overview, Freemasonry is identified as the art and practice of geometry and architecture and described as an unbroken, perennial tradition transmitted from generation to generation. The idea that Freemasonry was founded in antiquity – be it at the time of the construction of Solomon’s Temple or in pharaonic Egypt – continued to be propagated by both Freemasons and non-Masons well into the nineteenth century, and it was frequently claimed that the rituals of Freemasonry are the most ancient and consequently the most genuine rituals available to mankind. In fact, it was not until the late nineteenth century that this idea was challenged on historical-critical grounds in any serious sense.”
Why make these grandiose claims for several generations? Bogdan argues that it is an appeal to authority and legitimacy. Again, Bogdan writes, “The invention of traditions is not unique to Western esotericism and Freemasonry, however, but can be seen as a common strategy to bolster the credibility of a wide range of movements.”
The creation of these rituals, myths, and oaths, of course, drew the condemnation of both political and religious leaders throughout the time that viewed such groups as potentially dangerous to their established rule or social order. This included Pope Clement XII issuing a bull (or public edict) banning Roman Catholics from joining the fraternity in 1738.
Scholar Mary Greer writes “Masons placed a high value on brotherhood and friendship, unity and harmony, moral conduct, altruism, and secrecy. The sciences and liberal arts, and music, in particular, were also central concerns” and goes on to elaborate and draw connections between the classical works of Bach and many Freemasons.
Well, by (probably) murdering one of their members, they unintentionally provided the infrastructure for the political movements that would eventually end up evolving into the Republican party, so perhaps that qualifies as done this and done that?
We can’t speak with great detail about the conspiracy myths surrounding the Masons – especially those outside the United States – but we’ll start with a great quote on how rabid the opposition had become by 1830:
“Lebbeus Armstrong, a New York minister and prominent (and early) seceding Mason, suggested in his 1830 pamphlet, Masonry Proved to be a Work of Darkness, that if the lodge went unchecked, the United States would have a Masonic monarchy for its government, a Masonic church, a “Masonic way to a Masonic heaven, and blood and massacre and destruction to all who subscribe not to the support of the Monarch.”
To understand how all this started, it’s probably worth looking at the demographics of Masons at the time of the Revolution. George Washington was, of course, the most famous Mason of them all, but individuals like Adams, Jefferson, and Madison had no interest in the organization – and membership was probably at most about 5000 out of a total population of about 2.5 million.
By 1800, the organization had grown to around something like 15000, but what’s the important takeaway here is that despite the relatively small size, their holding of political offices was disproportionately far larger; one study of early 19th century Western New York revealed half of both party central committees of the time consisted of Masons.
This had a lot to do with the traditional methods of obtaining political power in democracies – it helps to have already powerful friends vouching for you – but there was another aspect to this, which was some studies have suggested that the religious and political demographics played a significant role. Masons were predominantly Episcopalian (ranging to outright deist), often Jeffersonian Republicans (and therefore allies of France), and usually urban.
These traits did not play well in Federalist, Congregationalist, Francophobe New England, and in the brutal partisanship of the 1790s, establishing your opponents as the tool of Satan was considered good campaigning.
“By the late 1790s, certain New England Federalists with Antimasonic tendencies had tried to establish a connection between the Masonic lodges in the United States and a notorious secret European organization known as the “Bavarian Illuminati,” alleged to be part of Freemasonry. Masons were accused of fomenting political revolutions to promote anarchy and to destroy all forms of authority. A (1797 Scottish tract) Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All Religions and Governments of Europe Carried on in the Secret Meeting of the Free Masons, Illuminati and Reading Societies (declared) Illuminati dominated lodges now flourished in the United States, (which were amplified by) renowned geographer and clergyman the Reverend Jedidiah Morse of Charlestown, Massachusetts, who, in several well-publicized sermons of 1798-1799, declared that the Illuminati intended to subvert American political and religious institutions. Morse pointed to a lodge in Portsmouth, Virginia, composed of French exiles, as living proof of this conspiracy.
The furor died down somewhat once anti-French fears faded and Jeffersonian Republicans did not, indeed, orchestrate The Terror American Style upon dominating politics for the next quarter-century, but the embers of envy against an exclusive, exclusionary, politically powerful organization remained – and as it turned out, Western New York just happened to be settled largely by Congregationalist, ex-Federalist New Englanders.
This set up one of those genuinely fascinating and quirky events in American political history. An alcoholic, often destitute stonemason named William Morgan (who in 1819 had married the 16-year-old daughter of a Methodist minister at the age of 45) had somehow gained membership to one of the Masonic Lodges in Western New York, quite possibly by reading one of the many already existing British exposes on Masonic rituals which would have given him enough basic knowledge to pretend to be a Mason from his native Virginia.
Given the other aspects of his character, it’s probably not surprising other Western New York Masons decided he really wasn’t someone they wanted in their club, not only refusing him membership in their latest branch in Batavia but also blackballing him from a rather needed job constructing it.
Morgan sought revenge in the most American way: writing his own expose in 1826, the Illustrations of Masonry, which provided every detail of the first three levels of New York Masonry and that he expected would make him rich (given his initial partners promised $500,000, even though they didn’t deliver, he might have been onto something.)
Unfortunately for him, the local Masons were both unaware that similar tracts had long been available overseas and went to work on suppressing the book with every tool available. First, in early September 1826, a mysterious fire was set at the book’s print shop (which local Masons strenuously denied, offering a $100 reward to anyone who could offer evidence they were responsible.)
That same day, another Mason obtained a warrant for an outstanding debt of the princely sum of $2.69 – that for the May theft of a shirt and cravat from a tavern keeper when he’d stayed overnight. While initially released for lack of evidence, Morgan made the mistake of admitting the debt and was jailed.
Unfortunately for him, the debt was paid off by the same Mason who’d gotten the warrant in the first place, and at “about 9:00P.M., a shrill whistle sounded, and the jailer’s wife rushed to the window, only to see Morgan struggling with two men and shouting “Murder!” A yellow carriage appeared, and four men threw Morgan into it.
The carriage went “clattering” into the night, and Morgan was never seen in public again.” In some ways, thereafter Morgan turned into the 1830s version of Elvis, being supposedly spotted in the Ottoman Empire and Honduras, with another report claiming he’d become an Indian chief and yet another that he was somehow found out in Cuba and hanged for his crimes as a pirate.
Despite all the inquiries made in years to come, nobody ever really figured out what happened to Morgan besides that he may have been offered a deal to keep his silence for some cash and a farm in Canada and to live quietly and incognito (which is what Masons afterward had claimed was his fate.)
More likely, the third (!) special prosecutor assigned to his case in 1831 concluded that he probably was held at the then-abandoned Fort Niagara for the next week, had at least a couple of the sixty-nine Masons who were eventually linked with the response panic as the Canada deal fell apart, was murdered, and was weighted down and dumped in the Niagara River.
(A later body that floated up was first definitively identified by a Canadian to be her late farmer husband, then shaved to look like Morgan – the farmer had sideburns and hair, Morgan was bald – then finally released into the custody of the very confused widow.)
For a region already predisposed against the elites who’d become Masons, this presented a tinderbox; one estimate suggested half of the local county officials were in fact Masons – along with the then-Governor of New York, DeWitt Clinton. An 1827 trial for the three Masons who’d actually kidnapped Morgan resulted in incredibly light sentences (ranging from one month to two years, although in fairness kidnapping at the time was bizarrely enough a misdemeanor) but as they plead guilty no additional evidence was obtained.
This did not calm things; between 1826 and 1831, no less than twenty grand juries were empaneled, 54 Masons indicted, 39 tried (with 10 convictions having prison sentences from 30 days to 28 months), and a state assemblyman, Francis Granger, had gotten got shot down by the state legislature by a 3-1 margin to try to move the whole mess out of Western New York.
However, probably the single most important development was that in 1829 the second special prosecutor of the case (bizarrely enough the defense counsel of the first defendants who’d plead guilty) was appointed by now-Governor Martin Van Buren, and what happened afterward is what we’ll discuss in the next part of this answer.
Similar to the Illuminati fraternity, these secret societies were often ways for men to gather in lodges, temples, or homes (after they were sworn to secrecy, of course) and discuss and debate the issues of their time. Given that strong central governments are often afraid of losing power, they are historically hesitant to allow academics, scholars, politically different (or radicals) to gather and discuss ideas, one can see how the mythos of the Illuminati or the Freemasons were able to flourish.
This is why groups like the Masons and the Illuminati (a group philosophically based on the ideas of rationality and the enlightenment) were banned or targeted. The mythos and conspiracies did not just develop out of public speculation, however. The public was often egged on by authors. Referencing Bogdan again, he states
“They [anti-Masonic writings] culminated in the extremely popular works of Augustin Barruel’s Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797) and John Robinson’s Proofs of a Conspiracy (1798) who both claimed that a masonic-inspired organization, the Illuminati, had not only caused the French Revolution but continued to conspire against the European states.
The popularity of these two books and similar works that repeated the polemical narrative directed against secret societies (such as Seth Payson’s Proofs of the Real Existence, and Dangerous Tendency, Of Illuminism, 1802) led to widespread popular suspicion against secret societies and their hidden political agendas. In the USA, this trend culminated in the creation of an Anti-Masonic Party in 1828, which was actually the third major party to emerge in that country after the Democrats and the National Republicans.
The party had its immediate origins in the so-called “Morgan affair,” with the disappearance in 1826 of the former Mason William Morgan (1774-ca. 1826) in upstate New York.”
So, a combination of anti-secret society writings, publications, government persecution, public misunderstandings, and how these groups presented themselves all contributed to the mythos and conspiracies that surround these groups. This leads all the way into modern times, including conspiracy theories centered around anti-Zionism and the establishment of a ‘new world order’.
They have their roots in the same anti-intellectual, fear-based motives that compelled groups like the Catholic Church or central governments to condemn them in the past. Discussions of religious openness, liberalism, democracy, new ideas, and the like were not always a welcome discourse.
Throw in that many prominent men in public society (the Founding Fathers, for example) were part of these intellectual/professional/business-oriented groups, it is easier to see why some of these conspiracy theories can appear to be valid (if one doesn’t dig much deeper).
Hopefully, another contributor/historian can add some additional background information because my interest/where the rabbit hole of Free Mason history began for me did not come from its origins or its European history
We came across some readings about a group called the Red Strings (Heroes of America) during the war that existed primarily in the South (but also in West Virginia and were anti-Confederate. They were an underground group that worked to protect Unionists, dissenters, deserters, pro-Union Southerns, escaped Black slaves, and the like.
So, we started researching other ‘secret societies’ during the war and found an interesting overlap with Masons, the Antebellum South, the war, and during Reconstruction. Most of my reading came from the establishment of the first African Lodge in 1784. Historian Stephen writes, “In 1775 the former slave Prince Hall and fourteen other black Bostonians were re- buffed by the white Masons of colonial Massachusetts when they sought permission to organize a lodge (Masonry’s basic governance unit).
The group then asked for – and received – permission from a lodge formed by some of the British soldiers occupying the city. After the war, Hall petitioned for a charter – the authority necessary to make men into Masons – from the Grand Lodge of England, which enrolled the Boston group on its list of subordinates as African Lodge No. 459 in 1784.”
While many lodges maintained the racist structure of the time, some lodges (and specifically African Lodges) served as a way for many formerly enslaved and free African American men to meet, discuss, deliberate, and vote on issues away from the eyes and ears of white men (many of whom were hostile to the idea of total equality). These lodges would go on to be known as Prince Hall Masons.
So, in conclusion, (this ended up way longer than I thought it would be) it isn’t necessarily what have Freemasons done as a collective group (which wouldn’t really be possible given the various offshoots we’ve seen between Prince Hall Masons, different groups within and outside of Europe and America). The question really is what has significant individuals have done in history who also happened to be Freemasons or part of the Old Fellows or Skull and Bones, etc. It’s not an international web, it is more of an overlap of social, political, and class involvement in societies that happen to attract those types of individuals.
2. Mary Greer. “The Secret Subscribers to C. P. E. Bach’s Oratorio Die Israeliten in Der Wüste: The Masonic Connection.” Bach 47, no. 2 (2016): 77-94.
3. Bogdan, Henrik. “Is It True That Secret Societies Are Trying to Control the World?” In Hermes Explains: Thirty Questions about Western Esotericism, edited by Hanegraaff Wouter J., Forshaw Peter J., and Pasi Marco, 39-46. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019.
4. Kantrowitz, Stephen. “Intended for the Better Government of Man”: The Political History of African American Freemasonry in the Era of Emancipation.” The Journal of American History 96, no. 4 (2010): 1001-026.