The editors and contributors of Freemasonry on Both Sides of the Atlantic, including professors and other scholars, have put together a collection of articles [End Page 1111] dealing with the organization’s history and influence in culture and civic life from varied perspectives. The authors strive to be scientific and unbiased, but some confusion appears as to their intended audience. Because of the use of esoteric terminology and references in many parts of the book, the volume as a whole cannot serve as a general introduction to Freemasonry for readers coming from tabula rasa, unless read with great care to first mine those chapters starting with a more preliminary premise, such as that of Lynn Dumenil; even some initiated Masonic insiders, if not extremely thoroughly versed in every conceivable cranny of the exhaustive minutiae of the brotherhood’s broad history, may find much of the material inaccessible. Examples include allusions to the “Old Gothic Constitutions”, the “Regius Manuscript”, and Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, the journal of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, the “premier lodge of Masonic research.” These features add up to a treasure-trove for the serious student of Masonry, but the casual observer will find the tome weighty; even those accustomed to academic textual work may find it dull in places. Nevertheless, the book is rich in historical nicety culled from (generally) scholarly sources, and the avid fan of cultural folklore and the role of fraternal societies will experience it as a tough but rewarding nut to crack.
Despite the volume’s title, most of the articles in the collection deal with Europe, perhaps because the society’s history there is simply so much longer that that in the US. Of those authors who do discuss the situation on this side of the ocean, Dumenil provides the most readable and interesting chapter, “Religion and Freemasonry in Late 19th-Century America.” She discusses Masonry’s multi-faceted relationships with various churches and aspects of particular faith-traditions, including situations arising from Anti-Masonic sectarian fervor of the period. The conversation covers the vexed question of whether the fraternity itself is too religious; though most Masons agree that it is not, as Dumenil explains, many have tried, using its Bible-based ceremonial lore, to fashion it into an alternative source of ritualistic dogma and spirituality, to the dismay of deists and other free-thinkers, who have contended that “[u]nlike the churches, it [Masonry] was not concerned with theology; in particular, it offered no plan of salvation. While universalists insisted that Masonry was not a religion, they did view it as a great aid to religion. Many noted that the fraternity served the churches through its inculcation of moral virtues and brotherly love. Others argued that by encouraging faith in God, its teachings made it a bulwark against atheism and agnosticism” (610).
Demonstrating the eccentric appeal of the book, some of its contents span the divide between the continents, as in the case of such chapters as “UNESCO of the Eighteenth Century: La Loge des Neuf Soeurs and its Venerable Master, Benjamin Franklin” by Nicholas Hans, and “Civil Society and Freemasonry: The Cardenista Rite & Mexico” by Paul Rich and Antonio Lara.
Of those contributors and chapters which discuss Europe, many investigate obscure but potentially interesting corners of Masonic study, including “The Grand Lodge of Scotland and the Establishment of the Masonic Community” by Lisa Kahler, and “Freemasonry in Hungary Between the Eighteenth & Twentieth Centuries” by Zsuzsa L. Nagy, or “‘The Vulgar People Must Not Share It’: Byron, Freemasonry, and the Carbonari” by Jonathan Gross. [End Page 1112]
The articles in the collection deal with a wide range of such topics, and, notwithstanding the starchy denseness of some of its chapters, it should serve as an aid to the scholarly world in providing some much-needed clarifying information about Freemasonry, especially in light of popular haziness and urban myths fed by recent publicity such as Johnny Depp...