Interpreting American Freemasonry throughout Time

It is certainly no accident that my choice of a title for this book contains a reference to Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber’s renowned American Challenge. This was not only because our paths crossed at the beginning of the 1990s and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber then wished to show a sign of his esteem to me. No, what fundamentally inspired this choice was the vision of someone who during the WWII postwar period devoted himself to a complete examination of what he had observed of the United States in order to put the pieces of a very complex puzzle together and shout, “There is still time to take action!”

His motivation was certainly not philosophical in nature. He sought to sensitize Europe and France to the huge stakes raised by the ever-louder assertion of what Hubert Védrine would later call “the American hyperpower.” On this subject, Andreas Önnerfors writes, “We are not facing a classic political imperialism, a will to conquer, but the more mechanical presence of an overflow of power due to the difference of the ‘pressure’ between North America and the rest of the world, Europe included. This high-powered nature of America is felt but poorly understood. It has been the subject almost everywhere of significant documentation. But as its most novel character is acceleration, what is known becomes quickly outdated.”1

My concerns and observations are restricted here to the Masonic order in its American, global, and geopolitical dimension. But this book naturally has the ambition to call for a realization of what is happening and for preparations to be made; French and European Freemasons cannot allow themselves to remain indifferent spectators. This too is the assembling of a puzzle that is more complex than it may appear.

The fact is that the Freemasonry of North America is different in many respects from that of the continental grand lodges. It is equally dissimilar to the obediences of Great Britain. This domain is fairly misunderstood by those outside of North America, after all, with the exception of a certain number of French Freemasons who spend time there as members of the sole grand lodge in France, the Grande Loge Nationale Française (GLNF), which enjoys regular recognition from its counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic. This organization lost its privilege of international recognition quite recently, following a split and the crises it experienced in 2013 after its grand master was dismissed because of his questioned management.

Here we will have the opportunity to devote ourselves to the developments that are essential for grasping the criteria of regularity and “recognition,” as stated and defined by the United Grand Lodge of England—and consequently applied within the boundaries of the American grand lodges. The fact remains, however, that because of such doctrinaire arrangements, the brothers of the GLNF are practically the sole group to have access to American Masonic temples. Others, who live in the United States, have also sometimes had the opportunity to discover this extremely rare Masonic world that gives chance human encounters full opportunity to flourish. But this is only one of the many aspects of American Freemasonry, which possesses many facets that are equally unknown. It is therefore important to dissect them in order to present them to individuals outside this world, while not overlooking the evolutions of a Masonic entity that experienced the undulations of a society known for its plasticity.

It is through a deliberately open approach, which has been cleared of clichés to the greatest extent possible, that I have chosen to tackle these numerous aspects of a subject that is so little understood and sometimes described in very broad lines with little attention to subtleties. It is fairly common knowledge that in the United States, as elsewhere, Masonry is founded on a tradition that will soon be three hundred years old. The grand lodges govern a certain number of arrangements that apply to their jurisdictional boundaries and therefore to the lodges of the symbolic grades. The high councils of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite do as much for the lodges of the high grades. These two spheres, which complement each other, exhibit unique features that distinguish one from the other.

But the Anglo-Saxon connections hardly exclude the special features of the Americans, and this gives us a field of observation to study while unwinding the storyline like a documentary. The American Masonic order is complex and sometimes difficult to define for those who grew up in a European social and cultural environment and who have only lightly brushed the actual realities during far too brief journeys to these distant shores.

We shall additionally see that American Freemasons also claim, rightfully, traditional roots that they share with their “separated brothers” of the Old World. French Freemasonry, like that of London, looks like a strand of Ariadne’s thread here. So there should not be any problem accepting the composite historical line of descent that connects them while wisely keeping a distance from the doctrine. However, one essential factor will be that of their sensibilities concerning identity and their reference points, which have become quite different over the course of what will soon be three centuries of existence for the Order.

A study of American Freemasonry will therefore not entirely escape from an approach that partially falls into the categories of sociology and ethnology. The acceleration of history in a world marked by the shifting of demographic, economic, and political centers of gravity and diplomatic priorities also makes it essential that we take into account the major tendencies of the evolution of American society.

The decline of American Freemasonry, while real to a certain extent, also deserves an analysis to assess the true scope of this decline without falling into the pathos of its decadence or panegyrics concerning its renaissance. The shape taken by the impact of American developments on the Order as a whole is also one of the questions that necessarily arise. But this line of questioning remains pertinent, whether what is being examined is its influence in American civil society or its weight on the profane international stage.

Lastly, this study—which is too succinct to lay claim to being exhaustive—would have contained a significant gap if I had not attempted an evaluation of the impact that the establishment of liberal obediences and jurisdictions (with the lodges of the Grand Orient de France [GODF; Grand Orient of France] in the forefront) in the United States did or could have; some of these obediences and jurisdictions include black and/or female members. All share the commonality of not belonging to the institutional American Masonic system, strictly speaking, and living on its margins—which does not, however, forbid contacts of a limited nature, limits that are quickly reached.

It is therefore necessary to include here an overview of the establishment of exogenous Masonic entities in America while also braving an essential incursion into neighboring Quebec, as the bonds of proximity between the two countries are so strong. On the other hand, falling within the jurisdiction of another tropism, Freemasonry in Mexico is not discussed here despite its inclusion, along with that of the United States and Canada, in the nebula of the permanent Conference of the Grand Lodges of North America.

This book, which is essentially based on information gathered during recent studies, has no other objective than to offer the reader a general overview accompanied by suggestions for future study. This should entice the more curious to expand their knowledge by consulting the many texts and documents listed in the bibliography. This includes old documents that are taken as authoritative and, more importantly, more recent texts. It offers reading and consultation suggestions by going to the most pertinent sources.

This book lastly includes a color insert that eloquently illustrates the course taken by the Masonic order in the United States as well as the Franco-American historical connections symbolized by emblematic figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the marquis de Lafayette, and Alexandre François Auguste de Grasse-Tilly.

I would like to thank the many American Freemasons who opened their archives to me and provided me with the documents that are essential to accurately grasp the evolution of the Order and its various components in the United States.

I would like to particularly thank the grand archivist and grand historian of the Supreme Council of the Southern Jurisdiction at the House of the Temple in Washington, D.C., Arturo de Hoyos, who wrote one of the forewords for this book. He clearly sought to facilitate my consultations on-site with no other consideration than that of historical research and a feeling of fraternity that was never found wanting.

May S. Brent Morris, former editor of the excellent publication Heredom, also find here an expression of my gratitude; Morris, like myself, is also a lifetime member of the Scottish Rite Research Society.

I finally come to my longtime friend John L. Cooper III, grand master of the Grand Lodge of California and current president of the Conference of the Grand Masters of North America, who took upon himself the responsibility to write the afterword of this book. How could I ever forget the fortunate joint initiative that allowed us to organize a seminar together in 2003, in Sacramento, California, when he was secretary general of his obedience, a seminar during which the grand master of the GODF, Alain Bauer, was invited to speak—an extremely rare event.

Bauer caused a sensation, notably during his famous exchanges with Tom Jackson, then president of the Commission on Information for Recognition of the Conference of Grand Masters. Bauer engaged with Jackson in humorous, retrospective hypothetical speculations on the famous rules of recognition, which take up considerable space in the Grand Orient. Some might say “this was no big deal,” but it was definitely one of the most charming pages of our recent history of external relations.

This was another exceptional moment of a too-rare and fruitful complicity between a grand commander and grand master: not competing but engaged together in a confident and completely uninhibited approach with an eye toward what is best for the standing of the obedience and its values. And this inside a zone that had remained unexplored, sealed off, and dreaded until then as an unknown. Here reference does not require reverence. Therefore it was a realpolitik, essentially constructed on an international network of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, which has already been labeled by some as the “new doctrine of joint external policy.”

The GODF continues to draw dividends from this, but upon closer examination it can be seen that this benefit is also shared by our California brethren. This groundbreaking exercise of dialogue was repeated in Los Angeles in 2005 and again in San Francisco in 2009. By accepting the task of writing the afterword, John L. Cooper III has clearly confirmed that his exceptional spirit of fraternal openness knows no bounds. I would like to thank him most particularly.

I would also like to extend my gratitude to René Le Moal, director of the collection of Éditions Dervy—in which this book first appeared—and a tireless adviser, gratitude equaled only by his unbroken granite-like support, which had been previously demonstrated by the publication of an earlier essay for Éditions Vega in 2009.

My ultimate sign of gratitude is reserved for Erika Peschard-Erlih, the ever-attentive reader who aided me in avoiding the reefs with which all authors are familiar.

Finally, a tiny wink to history: it was on the shores of Lake Leman, at Coppet Castle, made famous by Madame de Staël (née Anne Louise Germaine Necker), that the final touches were put on this book, which looks at the facets of a world that is no longer only dominated by America but also characterized more by the growing interdependence of all societies. Freemasonry cannot escape this evolution either.

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