I have done and continue to do a lot of talks on my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. One of my favorite parts of every lecture is the question and answer period. At nearly every presentation someone will ask me a version of these two questions:
- Doesn’t the Treaty of Tripoli make it clear, once and for all, that we were not founded as a Christian nation?
- What does the fact that many founding fathers were Masons tell us about whether or not they believed they were founding a Christian nation?
I write about the Treaty of Tripoli at the beginning of the book, but I say nothing about the Masons. If there is a third edition of the book, I think I will need to add something about the founding fathers and their relationship to Freemasonry.
Over at JSTOR, Peter Feurerherd has a short piece on Masons in America. It is a nice starting point on this topic.
Here is a taste:
The United States Masons (also known as Freemasons) originated in England and became a popular association for leading colonials after the first American lodge was founded in New Jersey in 1730. Masonic brothers pledged to support one another and provide sanctuary if needed. The fraternity embodied European Enlightenment ideals of liberty, autonomy, and God as envisioned by Deist philosophers as a Creator who largely left humanity alone.
Those theological views created friction with established Christian churches, particularly Catholics and Lutherans. While the Masons captured the allegiance of much of the early Republic’s elite, the group did fall under widespread suspicion. The William Morgan affair of 1826—when a former Mason broke ranks and promised to expose the group’s secrets—threatened its demise. Morgan was abducted and presumed killed by Masons, and the scandal proved a low point in the public image of the fraternal order.
The anti-Mason backlash grew. Abolitionists like John Brown railed against the often pro-slavery Masons. Prominent figures including John Quincy Adams, a former president and former Mason, and publisher Horace Greeley joined in the widespread castigation. Future president Millard Fillmore called Masonic orders nothing better than “organized treason.” In 1832, an anti-Masonic party ran a one-issue candidate for president. He captured Vermont’s electoral votes.
Feuerherd’s post draws heavily from two scholarly articles:
- Antonio Rafael De La Cova, “Filibusters and Freemasons: The Sworn Obligation,” Journal of the Early Republic 17:1 (Spring 1997), 95-120
- John Wilson, “Voluntary Associations and Civil Religion: The Case of Freemasonry,” Review of Religion Research 22:2 (December 1980), 125-136.