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date: 25 May 2017

Freemasonry’s Sacred Space in America

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Please check back later for the full article.

American Freemasonry is as much a geographical as a sacred practice. Emerging from arcane Enlightenment origins, masonic theology and practice brims with a spatiality representative of masonry’s compulsion to make men moral. Moral masculinity reflects in Freemasonry’s “sacred geography,” masonic space fixed with symbols vital to the moral, social, and arguably spiritual growth of potential and actual Freemasons. Masonic spatiality links to Freemasonry’s central myth: the erection of King Solomon’s temple. Interpreting the Old Testament sanctuary as a stone artifact (for which no archeological evidence exists) furnished Freemasonry with a) its foundation narrative and architectural imaginary; b) the intrigue for the death-and-resurrection ritual capping the Master Mason rite, the last of masonry’s three core rituals; c) the sacred meanings and purposes of the lodge; and crucially, d) its rite-inspired spatiality, in which elements of the temple, its divinity, and construction achieve prominence.

Masonic geography ironically includes a penchant—albeit waning—for racial and sexual apartheid, a social segregation originating in early modern American misapprehensions of biology, anthropology, and gender. Accordingly, “black” masons attend separate lodges. Prince Hall Freemasonry has existed since the late 18th century and is named for its eponymous founder, although “blacks” join “white” lodges today. Women masons or “matrons” are initiated in an appendant Christian rite. A 19th-century phenomenon, the Order of the Eastern Star, was developed for evangelical Protestant women-followers of Jesus, intentionally to distract them from the unconcealed deism of the men’s rituals in a milieu of Christian antimasonry.

The locus of Freemasonry was (and is) the lodge, which denotes both the building space and its occupants. In lodges, masons conducted the busy-work of admitting multitudes of late-Victorian, Edwardian, and interwar American males into the mysteries of “Blue Lodge” or “Craft” Freemasonry. It was likely because of the intensive initiation-toil in Craft lodges that masons over time sacralized the lodge and its teleological attributes; masons insist Freemasonry is not a religion. They routinely embedded sacred geography in buildings as stylish as Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian “temples,” or as prosaic as frame, brick, or block ex-urban and suburban halls. Still humbler lodges could be found in simple multi-use back rooms or above street-level shops.

Importantly, this historical spatiality evokes Victorian faith in moral environmentalism: the impulse to effect virtuous and civil behavior through orderly manipulations of environment. Indeed, the dedicated employment in the lodge of masonic furniture and furnishings loosely mimics the Victorian middle-class parlor’s preoccupation with order, design, and moral aesthetics. Masons call this ritual—and allegorical—décor the lodge’s form, support, covering, furniture, ornaments, lights, and jewels. These include, among others, the letter G (God), the compass and square, a draped altar, a bible, candlesticks, blocks of dressed and undressed limestone, Greek columns—usually Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian—and a mosaic of checkered floor tiles. Each instance of this arguably religious space in the lodge signifies to a degree a rite’s moral masculine transformation of masonic candidate and mason alike. In this way, the lodge becomes a “sacred retreat” for masons who dwell outside its precincts.