That Religion in Which All Men Agree

Freemasonary in American Culture

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David G. Hackett
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , September
     2015.
     336 pages.
     $26.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520287600.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The idea of scholarly research on Freemasonry remains an open field that, at least on the American side of the Atlantic, does not squarely fit into typical disciplinary boundaries. Studying a movement which identifies as a secret society poses challenges to the scholar; and until fairly recently, Freemasons have typically discouraged outside commentary on the craft. Since the turn of the century, a defined and sizeable movement within American Freemasonry has encouraged the development of scholars and “Masonic educators” among their membership; as a result, some sophisticated research has been produced and Freemasons have sharply increased their attention and interest in western esotericism.

An exception is, however, scholarship pertaining to religion. Freemasons continue to hold an old dogma that discussion of religion in their lodges is forbidden, and any discourse identifying Freemasonry as or with scholarly perspectives on religion is eschewed. Yet at the same time, the celebrated Masonic philosopher and public intellectual Joseph Fort Newton famously wrote in his best-known treatise, The Builders (III.iii.1), that “It is true that Masonry is not a religion, but it is Religion.” In some ways, their rejection of religious scholarship or categorization functions as a mechanism for promoting its secretive identity as not to be defined by outsiders. Rather, the initiated inside the tyled lodge inhabit privileged position against any critical scholarship proposed by external experts on religion.

So if Freemasons claim that they’re not a religion, how should scholars of religion approach Freemasonry? And more importantly, what useful or fruitful ends are offered to the scholar of religion who critically engages Freemasonry?

Herein lies the significant contribution of David Hackett’s That Religion in Which All Men Agree: Freemasonry in American Culture. Early in the book, Hackett addresses these challenge Freemasonry poses to the study of religion and proposes a careful methodological framework for this project. Citing Steven Bullock’s Freemasonry and the Transformation of the Social Order, 1730-1840 (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), Hackett affirms and validates Bullock’s argument for the inclusion of Freemasonry as a key object of study to understand the history of America. Instead of focusing on the “motives of Masonic brothers and those opposed to them,” this approach “takes their beliefs and activities seriously” (11). Hackett adds, “my interpretation diverges from his in placing American Freemasonry in the context of the religious history of the period” (11).  In other words, while Bullock offers a social, historical, and gendered study, in the present work Hackett aims for a similar approach from a religious studies perspective.

Still, Freemasons emphatically claim that Freemasonry is not a religion. This study makes the case that the study of Freemasonry in North America, considered as complementary to the study of religion, is a helpful resource to understand religion in America. “This study,” Hackett explains, “argues that from the 1730s through the early twentieth century, the religious worlds of an evolving American social order broadly appropriated the changing beliefs and initiatory practices of this all-male society” (2). As such, “Freemasonry provides an interpretive lens through which to reframe our understanding of the American religious past” (2). While not arguing for the scholarly necessity of this Masonic “source,” the book itself may serve as an excellent starting point for research into this complicated history of the entanglements of Freemasonry and America.

The scope of this review cannot do justice to the depth of Hackett’s research, which is not meant to offer exhaustive histories but rather demonstrates of why Freemasonry is a helpful source for understanding American religious culture—especially pertaining to gender and race. Like the best elements of Bullock’s research, Hackett considers the experience of white men in colonial America to be indicative of constructed masculinities to which Freemasonry responded. Hackett’s approach to womanhood discusses the history of the Order of the Eastern Star, but steers clear of feminine lodges; instead the book observes how women understood and challenged gender roles because of their connection, rejection, or apprehension of Masonic influences in their home and cultural surroundings.  

The book is organized into two parts: first, early colonial and white American Freemasonry; and second, Freemasonry outside of white Protestantism. While the Prince Hall tradition of Freemasonry deserves much more investigation than presented, Hackett gives respectable attention discussing the proliferation of African-American Christianity, particularly the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and its Masonic connections. The intersections of Biblical literalism and Masonic biblicism are fascinating; here, Hackett offers a substantial resource for further scholarship by tracing these hermeneutical tensions within the black church for future consideration of, for example, the Nation of Islam or Moorish Science.

The seventh chapter, “Freemasonry and Native Americans,” proposes a different perspective on the intersections of Freemasonry, race, and religion. Beyond offering significant history, the reader is presented the fruit of Hackett’s operative methodology. While not so much arguing that Freemasonry shaped Native Americans’ religious practices, Hackett’s earlier discussions about Freemasonry and religious primitivism, race, and class together coalesce into a provocative and complex history. Hackett argues that taken together, all of these threads demonstrate fraternalism’s role in establishing not only racial identities but promoted “an early public framework for the activism of today’s Native American community” (191).

This book is now, at the time of this review, roughly four years old and has been reviewed—mostly positively—in a variety of journals across the disciplines, including some written by Freemasons. The primary criticism is that certain organizations, such as the Shrine (the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine), receive only passing mentions. The book’s epilogue might offer fuel to this criticism, which attempts to place the previous two hundred pages of research into the context of Freemasonry today, and here is a brief, casual mention the Shrine (221). Hackett concludes the book by restating his thesis, “As a widely available resource for organizing collective ideology and social religions, the history of Freemasonry in American culture helps us to better understand the American religious past” (227). Taken seriously, we may easily imagine a study of the Shrine that moves beyond the obvious orientalist critique to consider how these appropriative practices functioned as expressions of race and class for Christian Freemasons; asking, for example, how the Shrine would simultaneously become a major charity for children’s hospitals and a local opportunity for fezzed men to drive mini-cars in small-town parades. Given the diversity of American fraternalism, Hackett’s omissions show precisely why this book is such an important contribution.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher D. Rodkey is Pastor of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Dallastown, PA, and teaches at Penn State’s York campus.

Date of Review: 
January 9, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David G. Hackett teaches American Religious History at the University of Florida.

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