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Masonic Bookshelf

(originally published in THE NEW HAMPSHIRE FREEMASON, Summer/Fall 2005, Vol. VI, No. 1. the magazine of the Grand Lodge F.& A.M. of New Hampshire. Our thanks to Wor. Bro. Mark Furber for providing this review.
book cover image

American Freemasons: Three Centuries of Building Communities

by Mark A. Tabbert
New York University Press
ISBN: 0814782922

-- Reviewed by Mark Furber

In 2002, the Scottish Rite National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA, opened a new exhibit, "To Build and Sustain: Freemasons in American Community." The curator of the exhibit was Brother Mark A. Tabbert, the Curator of Masonic and Fraternal Collections at the Museum. Instead of producing the usual exhibit catalogue, Brother Tabbert undertook a far more ambitious project: to produce a book that traces the history of Freemasonry in the United States and describe its impact on and interactions with American society, and to answer the question of why millions of men from all levels of society have become Masons during the last few hundred years. In this book, he has succeeded in a readable and visually stunning way.

The book is a joint publication of the Museum and the New York University Press, and is part of the 30th anniversary celebration of the Museum. It contains three major parts. The first, Establishing Freemasonry, 1600-1835, traces the growth of Speculative Freemasonry in Europe from the builders of the Middle Ages to the thriving organization that counted the leaders of the Enlightenment among its members. It also describes the development of the Craft in America and the part played by Masons, if not Freemasonry directly, in the Revolution and the early years of the United States. The second, Building Freemasonry and the American Community, 1835-1920, discusses the growth of Freemasonry and other fraternal organizations during a time when most Americans participated in at least one fraternal order, and when they provided education, social status and, in many cases, insurance benefits to their members. Fraternal orders of the 19th and early 20th Century were important in the formation of the American social systems we still live in today. The third, Adorning American Communities, 1920-2000, discusses the 20th-Century transformation of the Craft in the direction of a large community service and charitable endeavor, the development of the Masonic family organizations, and addresses the issues behind the drop in our membership over the last two decades and offers thoughts on our future.

The book is furnished throughout by more than 200 color illustrations of items from the Museum's collections, primarily Masonic but covering many other fraternal orders, such as the Odd Fellows. Although the illustrations are of great interest, I find Brother Tabbert's interpretations of the Craft's role to be of more interest. Most Masonic historians tend to cover the "who" "what" and "when" well, but seldom address the "why."

I also find myself in agreement with many of his thoughts on the Craft's present situation and likely future. To quote some words that we should ponder: "Undermining each of Freemasonry's problems was a deeper issue, one that Masonic leaders were inherently unable to recognize. Freemasonry was losing the one commodity that that every craft must hold dear: quality. In the rush to compete with the growing number of civic organizations and to be more inclusive, Freemasons altered their standards in a vain attempt to make quantity as valuable as quality. At the same time, many professional and inquisitive men sought other interests. The honor and status once earned by being accepted as a Mason and being recognized as "a good man and true" was blurred with the emphasis on philanthropy." (pg. 210).

In the interest of full disclosure, I did find one error. In a discussion of the Masonic Knights Templar (page 95), the book states that the three Orders of our Commanderies are based on the Crusaders. Two are, but the first, The Illustrious Order of the Red Cross, deals with the rebuilding of the Temple after the Babylonian Captivity and is closely related to the 15th and 16th Degrees of the Scottish Rite. Also in the interest of full disclosure, Brother Tabbert is an Honorary Member of Anniversary Lodge of Research and I am a Past Master of that Lodge.

I can unreservedly recommend this book to anyone, Mason or not, with an interest either in the history and sociology of American fraternal orders or in fraternal arts and crafts. I also suggest that Lodges think seriously about buying a copy or two and donating them to local their town and high school libraries. It would be an excellent way to assist the public in understanding the Craft.

American Freemasons is available for $29.95 plus $8.95 shipping from

The Heritage Shop
National Heritage Museum
33 Marrett Road
Lexington, MA 02421
through the Museum web site or by calling 781-547-4108.

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A Page About Freemasonry is http://web.mit.edu/dryfoo/Masonry/