The town of Concord, Massachusetts, is widely known as the home of Minutemen and Transcendentalists. It is the place where “embattled farmers” fired “the shot heard ‘round the world” on the 19th of April 1775, and launched the war for political independence. It is equally famous as the residence of the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who more than a half-century later, waged a second American revolution for intellectual and spiritual independence. But had you come to this small town of some two thousand souls, sixteen miles west of Boston, in the mid-1820s to mark the jubilee of the fight for freedom from the British Crown, you would have encountered a community with yet another distinction. It was a pillar of Freemasonry.
There on the village green, at the heart of the town, stood a two-story brick building, constructed in 1820, housing a grammar school on the ground floor and a meeting place for the local lodge immediately above. Freemasons Hall was built in a public-private partnership, with the lodge contributing $400 – roughly, $8,200 in today’s money – to obtain a secure space of its own. Close by, a leisurely stroll of a minute or two, was the cornerstone for a monument to the Concord Fight that the brothers laid on the fiftieth anniversary of the event and that awaited the arrival of a granite shaft to make it complete. (As it turned out, it would wait in vain.) In this bustling public square, which also hosted the county court house and jail, several stores, and a hotel, local Masons and out-of-town guests frequently gathered to celebrate festivals of the craft and patriotic holidays as well. At this site more than five hundred men outfitted in white aprons and white gloves assembled on St. John’s Day in June 1824 and paraded, to the tune of an accompanying band, to the Congregational meetinghouse to hear a Masonic discourse from the pulpit.
Two years later it was the setting for another gala: the public installation of a Royal Arch Chapter. Since 1797 Concord had been the headquarters of the Corinthian Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, the lowest rung in the fraternal hierarchy. Now it was stepping up the ladder, raising its stature in the brotherhood, and gaining a new store of enlightenment and virtue. Though access to that knowledge was restricted to a chosen few, the local newspaper, whose co-editors belonged to the lodge, treated the event as an occasion for community-wide rejoicing. So did the “companions” and “brothers” who offered toasts at the post-installation dinner in the Middlesex Hotel. Among the good wishes offered for the health of the new Royal Arch Chapter, “the youngest member of the family of the faithful,” and for the continuing partnership of “Christianity and Free Masonry – Sun and Moon of the Intellectual World” was an encomium to the historic place where the participants met. The Grand Secretary of the Massachusetts Grand Lodge lifted his glass to the “Concord Chapter – Located on the spot where their fathers in the revolutionary struggle first met the enemy and beat them – on this occasion we have the strongest assurance that their sons know well how to appreciate their civil and masonic institutions.” Lodge and chapter, town and nation: their destinies were intertwined, their affections knit together in civic union.
Yet, within five years, Concord Freemasonry was in crisis. Attendance at monthly meetings of the lodge plummeted, so, instead of gathering each Monday evening preceding the full moon, as the by-laws dictated, the brothers agreed to assemble quarterly. Even that schedule proved too taxing. Time and again the master was reduced to the symbolic act of opening and closing the lodge without doing any business. Starting in 1836, that formality was abandoned altogether. No regular meetings were convened for the next nine years. Nor were any new inhabitants initiated, passed, and raised to master masons between 1833 and 1844. As a result, an organization that boasted forty-five members in good standing in 1826 shrank to thirty-four in 1830, then to twenty-two in 1840, and bottomed out at nineteen in 1844. The diehards hung on, refusing to give up the lodge charter, but were obliged to consider desperate measures. Freemasons’ Hall opened in 1820 to great fanfare as the start of “a new era, a new order of things”; now it sat unused and unoccupied, requiring regular maintenance from a depleted treasury. Should the lodge sell it off? That measure was too extreme; instead, the members rented out the room for “lyceum lectures, public meetings, and concerts,” and on Sabbath mornings, it was occupied by Methodist or Universalist worshipers, who lacked a meeting house of their own. As for the companions of the Royal Arch, they disappeared from view soon after their joyful beginning, leaving no further written trace. Masons faded as well from the roster of local magistrates. Once prominent in elective offices, they steadily lost public favor. Concord no longer linked its well-being to Masonic leadership. When the lodge finally revived in 1845, it did not claim general notice. It became a private institution for members only, one group among many in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic society.
Why the sudden collapse of an association once so closely identified with the town? Concord’s experience was not unique. All over the new nation Masonic lodges suffered similar fates and for the same reason. They fell victim to the popular fury that first burned over western New York in 1826-27, then scorched the rest of the Northeast and into the South and West. The spark was set by the arrest, kidnaping, and disappearance from Batavia, New York, of a disgruntled Mason named William Morgan, who had planned to publish the secrets of the fraternity. When local officials, many of them Masons, obstructed investigations into the purported murder, they touched off the political firestorm known as Anti-Masonry, the first national populist movement in American history. By the time the anger cooled, politics had been transformed, especially in the North. “Public opinion,” mobilized by well-organized political parties, now claimed to hold sway over society as well as government, and under its bright light, Freemasonry wilted. At its peak New York state had nearly five hundred lodges; in 1837, only twenty-six possessed sufficient strength to send delegates to a statewide meeting. Nor did the order recover its previous strength before the Civil War; in 1860 the Massachusetts Grand Lodge oversaw fewer local groups than it had in 1825.
In this overcharged atmosphere, why should Concord be spared from the anger boiling over the republic, even if its brothers had nothing to do with Morgan’s disappearance? Freemasonry there was as subject as any place to the strenuous objections raised by its enemies. The members met in secret, behind the closed doors of Freemasons’ Hall, in front of which stood the tyler – the lodge’s security officer – with his drawn sword. Who knew what “bacchanalian frolics and abusive behavior” happened within and what sacrilegious oaths were demanded of initiates?4 Such dark suspicions were voiced in Concord not long after the Corinthian Lodge got its charter. But they had little impact in the town for more than a quarter-century. Even after Anti-Masonry had swept through the “Burned Over” district of New York and captured the government of Vermont, the Yeoman’s Gazette of Concord kept news of the gathering movement out of its pages. Only at the start of 1833 did the charge that Freemasons were a self-serving conspiracy bound by blood-curdling oaths to advance one another’s interests take hold, thanks in large measure to the defection of the Gazette editor to the enemy camp. Reading his exposés, the inhabitants of Concord behaved like Anti-Masons everywhere, driving members of the fraternity from office and stigmatizing them in everyday life. What, then, is to be learned particularly from close inspection of the fraternity’s history in the home of Minutemen and Transcendentalists?
For one thing, to study Freemasonry in Concord is to recover a heritage of thought that has been lost in the town where Emerson preached the doctrine of “self-reliance” and Thoreau squatted alone in a cabin by the shores of Walden Pond. What could be more antithetical to Transcendental individualism than Masonic fraternalism? Freemasons took pride in an ancient lineage reaching back to the King Solomon’s Temple and to the dawn of Creation, and they were expected to absorb lessons dictated by tradition and authority. Transcendentalists urged Americans to free themselves from the dead hand of the past and seek out first-hand experience in nature. The lodge was governed by rules and constitutions tightly regulating the conduct of individuals. Thoreau resisted such constraints with all the force of his will. “I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society,” he declared in “Civil Disobedience,” “I am not the son of the engineer.” To the band of brothers composing the fraternity, the secrets of the universe lay hidden within the lodge, typically situated in a commercial center. Concord’s Transcendentalists headed outside the village and took to the woods, where the individual could cast off the claims of business and politics and discover the spiritual truths lodged within nature and the self. Ironically, although Concord is known today for its Transcendentalist writers, most townspeople never embraced that radical faith. Well over 150 men passed through the Corinthian Lodge between 1797 and 1832; spiritual rebels like Thoreau can be counted on two hands. Even more to the point, Freemasonry was the faith of the Transcendentalists’ fathers. The Rev. Ezra Ripley, member of both the Corinthian Lodge and the Royal Chapter and forceful defender of the fraternity in its time of woe, was the step-grandfather of Emerson. His generational counterpart was the erstwhile minister and clergyman Asa Dunbar, maternal grandfather of Thoreau. Tracing the lineage from Freemason to Transcendentalist is surely as crucial to our intellectual history as following the path from Jonathan Edwards to Ralph Waldo Emerson.
At the same time, Concord has a good deal to teach students of Freemasonry. When the Corinthian Lodge was organized in 1797, it was one of a handful of voluntary associations, all closely connected to church or state. In the decades that followed, independent groups dedicated to a host of public and private purposes proliferated in the Bay State. “This is the age of benevolent institutions,” the Rev. Noah Worcester declared in 1817. A dozen years later the Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing repeated the point: “Every thing is done now by societies. . . . Would men spread one set of opinions and crush another? They make a society.” At the time these observant ministers wrote, New England was generating a multiplicity of groups for “the diffusion of useful knowledge” and “to excite and cherish sympathetic, humane, and benevolent affections.” Agricultural societies and mechanics’ institutes, libraries and lyceums, female charitable societies, moral reform and temperance societies, missionary groups and tract and Bible societies, anti-slavery and non-resistance societies: these and many more sprang up in the decades after 1815 alongside the numerous lodges and chapters in town and country alike.
Yet, historians of Freemasonry seldom pause to compare their favorite group with others operating at the same time and in the same places. How distinct was Freemasonry as an organization from its contemporaries? Did Masons admit members and conduct affairs on different principles? To what extent did they offer similar services and compete for members? Such questions have not often been asked, for historians of Freemasonry have been as inward-looking as the lodges they study. Yet, if we expand the view and explore a wider associational landscape, we may see how Freemasonry became vulnerable to attack after William Morgan went missing in the summer of 1826. For as the rich record of Concord’s grassroots organizations in the 1820s and 1830s shows, the lodge and chapter no longer stood out as distinctive agents of philanthropy and reform. They had rivals in every arena of social action, from distributing charity to widows and orphans and supporting schools and advancing science and learning to cultivating leadership and fostering temperance and moral virtue. In this crowded scene, many of the advantages that came with Masonic affiliation were now available through other groups and at a much reduced cost in time and money. In an age of voluntary associations, when people easily came together to form groups for limited ends, joining and departing at will, why bother with exclusive, secret societies demanding intense identification and sustained commitment? With its demands for regular attendance and conscientious service and its unyielding claims on the loyalties of members, Freemasonry could appear something of an anachronism in the individualistic world of Emerson and Thoreau.
There is time today only for a sketch of Concord’s embrace, repudiation, and then rehabilitation of Freemasonry over the half-century from the 1790s to the 1840s. But we can highlight the sources of the group’s original appeal and detect the reasons for its eventual vulnerability to political attack. When the townspeople first won a charter for the Corinthian Lodge on June 16, 1797, the fraternity was enjoying a surge of popularity, expanding beyond its narrow colonial base along the eastern seaboard and moving rapidly into the countryside. The Massachusetts Grand Lodge chartered thirty-nine new units in the 1790s and forty-nine over the next ten years. 1797 marked the peak of that wave of growth. Concord embarked on its romance with Freemasonry along with a dozen other towns that year. It was enlisting in a movement that promised to spread all over the American republic. Though born in England, the former mother country, in the late seventeenth century, the fraternal order was quickly adapting to the political culture of the new nation and taking on a patriotic tone. Never as nonpartisan as it claimed – it was mostly Federalist in New England during the 1790s, then tilted Republican in ensuing years – Freemasonry nonetheless brought together men with opposing political convictions and differing religious persuasions for a common cause.
That purpose was the promotion of enlightenment and virtue for the general public good, and it would be achieved through the selection of worthy individuals – men “of sober life, of industrious and good moral habits, and of an occupation by which [they] can obtain a decent and honorable living,” as Concord’s by-laws prescribed – for well-regulated instruction in the timeless truths cherished by practitioners of the mason’s craft through the ages. That knowledge encompassed both the abstract laws of geometry, accessible to every rational mind, and the “ancient mysteries” of the arts and sciences, which could be passed on only to specially prepared seekers through “secret ceremonies” and occult symbols. Freemasonry was, first and foremost, a key to wisdom and a mode of education.
The appeal of Freemasonry went beyond its arcana and its aura. The fraternal order was various things to its members, and that was surely crucial to its success. If it offered spiritual experiences to some through the solemn rituals, it was valued by others as a source of material rewards and connections. Not that these benefits were mutually exclusive. Why shouldn’t a virtuous elect prosper in this world and the next? Within the lodge and the chapter Masons could enjoy many blessings at once. A sacred temple, a pillar of republicanism, a political network, a bank of friendship, a fund of charity, a school and lecture hall, an all-male retreat: Freemasonry in the early American republic was an all-purpose institution for self-improving American men.
The Corinthian Lodge planted itself in a small New England town, where voluntary associations were a recent innovation. John Adams once offered up a recipe for such a community.. It consisted of “towns, militia, schools, and churches”: a quartet of institutions responsible for “the growth and defence” of the Puritan colonies. Each entity was locally based, and each exercised public authority under the royal charter and, after 1780, the constitution of the Commonwealth. Together, these institutions supported and supervised a distinctive way of life, rooted in families and neighborhoods and encompassing every inhabitant. That was the ideal; in practice, Massachusetts towns proved far less inclusive. Even so, why gather together individuals with shared interests and set them apart in a formal association? Such arrangements, characteristic of Boston, Salem, and other urban centers, made for diversity and choice, but they also undercut the unity of the town. By the 1790s, such concerns were losing hold. Cherishing the individual liberty enshrined by the Revolution, Concord’s citizens were discovering the principle of voluntary association. “Two are better than one,” announced the founders of the Charitable Library Society in 1795, “and a threefold cord is not easily broken.” On that insight the local elite formed an exclusive body, known as the Social Circle, to meet privately in one another’s homes and forge consensus about the issues to come before the town. Home-owners organized a volunteer Fire Society to combat blazes threatening public buildings and private dwellings; singers in the church choir strove to improve their performance on the Sabbath through a Harmonic Society. By June 1798, when it was publicly installed, the Masonic lodge was the fourth voluntary association in the town.
But the Freemasons were unlike all the others. The library, the fire society, the social circle were born and bred in Concord, and they confined their ambitions there. Not so the brothers of a cosmopolitan fraternity. Their group owed its very existence to a charter from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Every aspect of the operation – its constitution and by-laws, its hierarchy of officers, its ladder of degrees, its rituals and oaths, its costumes, tools, and jewels – followed rules and models made in Boston and London. To insure conformity with its directives, the state body dispatched officials to visit each lodge annually and review its conduct, and it supported a Grand Lecturer, who went from town to town dispensing lessons in Masonic doctrines, rituals, and history. Freemasonry was a top-down institution intent on imposing uniform rules. Wherever a brother went, the order would always be the same.
That sameness was what made lodges familiar and welcoming places to the many brothers who passed through their portals. Freemasonry was designed for a mobile world. In Concord, whose central village thrived with stores and crafts servicing surrounding farms, the fraternity attracted men of a similar stripe, notably, merchants and artisans, along with lawyers, doctors, and public officials. These figures knew the ways of commerce and specialized in moving goods and people across land and sea. Prominent in their ranks in the early republic were stage owners and stablers, tavern- and hotel-keepers, carriage makers, saddlers, and wheelwrights, established merchants and fly-by-night operators of “cheap stores,” a highway contractor, and even a onetime supercargo in the China trade. Few farmers and laborers were among them. A visitor from another lodge would have been comfortable in this mix of businessmen, artisans, and professionals. The social profile of the Corinthian Lodge was no more unique than its table of organization and its fraternal rituals.
Few of Concord’s Masons stayed in town for long. Although the fraternity lodged itself snugly in the social structure of the community – it enlisted top office-holders and the minister of the established Congregational church (who was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s step-grandfather) – the rank and file were peripatetic souls. Between 1797 and 1828, 156 residents joined the lodge: more than 70 percent were newcomers, and about the same proportion would soon be somewhere else. With good reason: these birds of passage were young men, typically in their mid- to late twenties; just starting out in life, they went where opportunities lay, taking refuge with brothers along the way. A certificate of membership in one lodge was a ticket of admission to others. “To say unequivocally, ‘I am a Free and Accepted Mason,’” the Rev. Ezra Ripley reminded his fellows, should secure “friends and needed favours,” wherever members of the order are found. The fraternity could be counted on to look after its own.
Parson Ripley had good reason to join the Corinthian Lodge within a year of its opening and to play an active part in Masonic affairs for four decades. The fraternity gave him access to an audience that seldom was stirred to enter the fold of his church. Between 1797, when the lodge was chartered, and 1827, when an evangelical Calvinist church set up on its own, the liberal minister had no competition in town. Twice every Sabbath he preached a doctrine of good works and Christian faith no different from what he periodically affirmed in Masonic sermons. Yet he had little success in winning over the men in the pews. Over the three decades from 1797 to 1827 a mere 65 men became full members of the First Church; in the same period the Corinthian Lodge raised more than twice that number – 149 male inhabitants, both natives and newcomers – to the status of master masons. The new communicants in the church were middle-aged, married men, ranging in age from the late thirties to late forties, and they formed a small minority of the faithful. Just one out of every four church members was male. The First Church constituted a vast sisterhood with a sprinkling of aging men. The venerable minister Ripley, who stayed put in Concord from 1778 to his death in 1841, was clearly losing the young, many of whom preferred to be brothers in the lodge, rather than in the church, and to obtain their spiritual comforts in an all-male sanctuary.
Indeed, Freemasonry afforded a more intense experience of faith and a deeper sense of belonging than was available at the established church. On its path to Unitarianism, the First Church, under Ripley’s prodding, had relaxed requirements for admission, simplified its articles of belief, abandoned moral oversight of members’ behavior, and ceased to inquire into the state of their souls. If only a Mason’s life were so easy! Before a candidate could begin the initiation process, he had to survive an examination of his character by a special committee, and the entire membership had to be unanimous in accepting a favorable report. Once admitted to a lodge, the successful applicant remained subject to collective discipline for immoral or criminal conduct. When the storekeeper Daniel Smith, master of the Corinthian Lodge for two terms, was arrested for counterfeiting and cheating in 1818, his erstwhile subordinates immediately expelled him from their ranks, well before the case went to court, and publicized their action in the press. Becoming a Mason required hard intellectual labor, too. At its core, the credo of Freemasonry could be summarized in four words: “VIRTUE LEADS TO HAPPINESS." But it took careful study, lots of memorization, and as long as six months to learn the meanings of key symbols, the lore of fraternal history, and the culture of the group in order to acquire the necessary three degrees of wisdom. Service to the lodge was expected; where collective governance atrophied in Ripley’s church, every Corinthian was always on call for an ad hoc committee or a “worshipful”office. Crucially, the fraternity demanded far more loyalty from its adherents than did the church. One set of men professed faith in a gospel open to all and won praise for spreading the word; the other took a solemn oath never to reveal the secrets of their order. Even when the brothers joined together in singing Masonic hymns, they were as solemn as in church:.
Great God of Heaven! [they chanted at one ceremony in 1826]
All power and might.
Surround thy throne, bright Source of Light!
We fear thy Great and Sacred Name --
JEHOVAH'S praise, aloud proclaim.
The tune was “Old Hundred,” the Puritans’ favorite. With all these reminders of the old-time faith, Freemasonry must have served for many as a “surrogate religion.”
But by the mid-1820s there was a new church in town: a “little band” of true believers fed up with the progressive dilution of Congregational doctrine and practice under Ezra Ripley and anxious to restore “the faith once delivered to the saints.” Seceding from the establishment, the dissenters organized their religious body just two months before local Freemasons assembled at the town square to celebrate the public installation of the Royal Arch Chapter. Little did these newcomers to the local scene realize that they would soon turn bitter adversaries. In keeping with their religious orthodoxy, the Trinitarians revived all the policies the First Church had discarded: public testimonies of conversion and confessions of sin, moral oversight and collective discipline, and active participation in church governance. At the new Trinitarian meetinghouse a short walk from the town’s established house of worship, the members labored to create a warm community of faith, including holding emotional revivals to spur experiences of saving grace. The outreach bore fruit: by 1829 the Trinitarian parish had drawn 91 worshipers, and most of them had a social profile reminiscent of the young men drawn into the Masonic rank and file. Only one out of four was born in Concord, and the great majority (some 60 percent) were soon on their way, like the journeyman cordwainer Nathan Robbins, a native of the town, who resented his minister’s disdain for the judgment of youth. Ezra Ripley made plain to Robbins and his contemporaries that “we, who were young, had no right to pretend to know more about the Bible than he did, and leave his preaching, and go away to hear others, without his permission.” But the 22-year-old shoemaker demurred and “out of a feeling of individual responsibility” obeyed his conscience and joined the Trinitarian church. Not long after he was plying his trade elsewhere and holding fast to his new faith.
How different was Nathan Robbins from other men at his stage of life, who were drawn not to the Trinitarian Church but to the Corinthian Lodge? From our vantage point, with the evidence in hand, it is impossible to say. But perhaps it was equally hard to determine at the time, and so Trinitarians competed furiously with Freemasons for the loyalties of young men in search of security and community. Did this rivalry drive the Trinitarian objections to the fraternal order? The first minister of Concord’s new church had no strong objections to organization; in fact, as a student at Andover Theological Seminary in 1826, he took the three degrees of Freemasonry in the local lodge. That was apparently enough of fraternal life for him, and after moving to Concord, he never sought fellowship with the Corinthians. But he was pressured by church members to “publicly renounce” his Masonic affiliation. And when he declined to do so, the critics stopped contributing to his salary. Short of money and deeply in debt, that pastor followed Nathan Robbins’s path out of town. His successor took a prominent part in the Anti-Masonic crusade, and so did leading figures in the congregation. To the Calvinist hard-liners, Freemasonry was as guilty as Unitarianism of promoting deism and unbelief. It preached morality rather than grace, and it bound members together not by a covenant of faith but by bloody, Satanic oaths. It was imperative to rescue young men from this route to perdition. Masons and Trinitarian were at war for the same souls.
Freemasonry in Concord faced challenges on many fronts in the mid-1820s, just as the furor over the Morgan affair was gathering force. The brotherhood prided itself on its generous assistance to members in distress and to their needy widows and orphans, but it was no longer the only player in the local charitable field. In 1814 benevolent women in the town joined a growing movement in New England to come to the aid of the poor and established a Concord Female Charitable Society for “relieving distress, encouraging industry, and promoting virtue and happiness among the female part of the community.” Within two years the group had close to 100 members, whose officers got together monthly in one another’s homes to knit and sew clothing for poor children lacking proper garb for school and church. The aid was extended to any Concord women and children – and a few men as well – whom the society deemed unable to procure their own necessities of food, clothing, and fuel. Unlike the Corinthian Lodge, the CFCS did not wait for applications from those in dire straits; it actively sought out worthy candidates for its grants. Typically, two dozen or more individuals would receive help each year from an annual budget of $63 during the late 1820s. Masonic charity was more tight-fisted, extended only to members or their dependents upon application and limited to $10 per recipient. The lodge took care of its own; the Charitable women took responsibility for an entire town.
Even those who benefitted from brotherly aid had other options in the 1820s. Freemasonry was a form of mutual insurance, on which members could call in sudden emergencies. In March 1823 William Whiting, junior warden of the lodge and soon to become its master, suffered a severe blow when fire destroyed his house and shop at a loss of over $3,000, roughly half of what the 35-year-old carriage-maker had saved up through “constant and hard labor” since age fourteen. Generous neighbors rallied to his aid, and so did the lodge, which sent out an appeal for help to brethren throughout the area. But men like Whiting would soon have a more reliable form of protection against such calamities: the Middlesex Mutual Fire Insurance Company, incorporated by the state legislature in March 1826. The new business was owned and operated by its policy-holders. It offered coverage for seven years at a lower rate than was charged by commercial firms bent on maximizing profits. “Whenever any loss or damage by fire shall happen to any member of the company upon property insured,” the firm advertised, “instead of being under the unpleasant and mortifying necessity of asking charity of the community, he has only to give notice of his loss to the Secretary of the Company, and it will be made up to him within thirty days.” That was quicker and less intrusive than appealing for assistance from the lodge, as Whiting learned a dozen years later when a blaze destroyed five structures serving his carriage works. The damage could have been devastating, but this time the property was insured for $1,000, close to the total value. Thanks to Whiting’s precaution, the loss was “trifling.”
One final instance underscores the diminished role of Freemasonry in an expansive world teeming with voluntary associations. Ever since the late seventeenth century, when leading figures in England’s Royal Society had helped to invent the modern order, the fraternity boasted its devotion to science and its commitment to the progress of knowledge. But to judge from the records of the Massachusetts Grand Lodge and its Concord subsidiary, such professions lacked substance. The statewide body did appoint as its first Grand Lecturer in 1805 a Boston schoolmaster named Benjamin Gleason, who devised a novel “system of teaching astronomy and geography” that he popularized in lectures all over the United States and Canada. But when the Brown University graduate carried out his official duties for the Grand Lodge, he discoursed not on scientific subjects but on the symbols and rituals of Freemasonry. His public address at the opening of Concord’s Freemasons’ Hall in 1820 was far more concerned to establish the antiquity of the order and the moral connotations of its tools than to communicate anything about the latest discoveries of science. Yet, the thirst for such information was growing fast and creating a market for all sorts of “traveling dealers in wisdom,” as the local newspaper called them, who regularly passed through Concord in hopes of drumming up paying audiences for their presentations on everything from eloquence and ventriloquism to astronomy and chemistry. The field for popular education in science was wide open for those with the ingenuity and ambition to tap it. Masons, focused on the internal affairs of lodges and chapters, passed it up.
The initiative was seized, instead, by a Connecticut schoolmaster named Josiah Holbrook, who came up with the idea of starting “associations for mutual instruction in the sciences, and in useful knowledge generally” in towns and cities throughout New England. A Yale graduate with a passion for astronomy and geology, Holbrook was inspired by an article he read about British mechanics’ institutes, which aimed to expose workingmen to the branches of science, so that they could cooperate more effectively with employers in the pursuit of technological progress and thereby improve their wages and status. He seized on the idea, adapted it to American circumstances, and made it the mission of his life.
The target audience for this plan was young men in need of “an economical and practical education,” who would come together for lessons in the many “branches of Natural Philosophy” – “Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Chemistry, [and] Botany” – along with “any branch of the Mathematics, History, Political Economy, or any political, intellectual, or moral subject.” Central to this effort were the sponsorship of lectures “in any subject of useful knowledge” and the assembling of the essential means of scientific instruction: books, laboratory equipment (then called “apparatus for illustrating the sciences”), and collections of minerals. Participants in the associations would learn both by listening and by doing. And these inquisitive young men would do so alongside other members of the community – notably, businessmen and professionals – eager for self-education. Who better fit this bill than the brothers of a Masonic lodge, with all those young mechanics on the make passing through?
The lyceum movement, as it came be called, took off right away, with fifty or sixty groups operating in Massachusetts within a year. Concord was near the head of the class, establishing the first lyceum in Middlesex County in January 1829. There for the next six years the group hosted a total of 143 lectures, given by locals and outside experts alike; the programs ran once a week from October through March. More than a third of the lectures discussed science or technology. No other topic came close. That intellectual fare evidently pleased the townspeople. Membership in the lyceum doubled from fifty-seven men in 1829 to 118 in 1832. Prominent Masons took an active part in this educational program. The Rev. Ripley served a couple terms as president of the group and as a frequent lecturer (though he spoke on moral topics rather than scientific ones); other offices were held by fellow Corinthians, including William Whiting. The Concord Lyceum even featured a brother as its inaugural lecturer, the Unitarian minister Bernard Whitman from the textile-manufacturing town of Waltham, who devoted ninety minutes to exposing “popular superstitions.” But these were exceptions. Masons only occasionally held forth on the local platform. Nor did rank-and-file brothers opt to follow the lead of their officers and join the Concord Lyceum.
The new group operated under broader auspices. It was a community-wide institution, non-partisan and non-sectarian like the Masons, but open to women as well as men, and to well-behaved children. Membership cost $1 annually, half the dues imposed by the lodge, but any inhabitant wishing to attend a lecture could get a ticket of admission for free. Here lay a fundamental difference between the lyceum and the lodge. The former offered many more opportunities for instruction in science and technology, history and public affairs, than did the latter. That greater reward could be enjoyed at a fraction of the commitment and cost entailed by membership in a chapter or lodge. Besides, in the sociable setting of the lyceum, the lectures promised both intellectual substance and moral uplift for men and women alike. The lyceum offered a coeducational experience. Nobody worried about what was happening behind those closed doors.
In sum, by the mid-1820s, most of the benefits that Masons restricted to insiders – mutual insurance, opportunities for leadership, moral oversight, spiritual excitement, instruction in science – were plentiful outside its walls. Against this background, the brotherhood looked distinctive chiefly for its secrecy, exclusivity, and patronage in an all-male setting. Edward Everett, who represented Middlesex County (including Concord) in Congress during the years opposition to Freemasonry was building, suggested in the summer of 1833 that the fraternity had outlived its usefulness. “Its only avowed objects -- charity and knowledge -- can be much better promoted by public associations.” Why, then, waste so much "time, attention, and money" to sustain the fraternal order? Everett’s was a moderate voice in the mid-1830s: Freemasonry, in his view, posed no danger to liberty. It was simply obsolete. For the organization was at variance with the modern mode of voluntary association. All it took to join the lyceum, the temperance society, the female charitable society, or the anti-slavery society was agreement with the group’s purposes and rules and a willingness to pay the yearly dues. No tests of character were required for admission; no drawn-out rituals were imposed on initiates. There were no blackballs to exclude objectionable members and no armed men to guard the meeting halls. And all business was conducted in the light of day, with elections and proceedings quickly disclosed in the public prints. On this model the voluntary association shifted from the closed, corporate blueprint of Concord’s Social Circle and Corinthian Lodge to the open, transparent model of the Female Charitable Society and the Lyceum. The new ethos was of a piece with the individualistic world of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Freemasonry suffered grievously for its refusal to abandon its founding principles. But when it resurfaced in 1845, at the very moment that Thoreau was building his house by the shores of Walden Pond, it would remind Americans that contrary to Emerson’s famous saying, “an institution” is not merely “the lengthened shadow of one man.” It can transform diverse individuals into a corporate body transcending them all, imbue them with shared beliefs and moral sentiments, and bond them in mutual loyalties to one another and to a larger civic cause. In a country that is now profoundly polarized in its politics and wrestling with libertarian challenges to the very idea of a common good, the fraternity reminds us of an alternative heritage to individualism and Transcendentalism in our past.
Robert A. Gross, University of Connecticut
Paper delivered to “Secrets Revealed! Freemasonry and the Conspiracy Theories It Evokes”
Co-sponsored by Institute for Masonic Studies and History Department, UCLA
University of California at Los Angeles, March 21, 2015
Posted to the Thoreau Society Blog, July 9, 2015