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  • Anticlericalism, Politics, and Freemasonry in Mexico, 1920–1940
  • Benjamin Smith (bio)

On 16 April 1938, the school teacher of the Mixtec village of San Andrés Dinicuiti reported that the Easter week procession had taken place, despite government regulations prohibiting public displays of worship. During the event, the faithful had marched through the streets shouting “Long live religion, death to bad government, death to the state governor, death to the president of the republic.” When they arrived at the local school, they yelled “Death to the masons, long live religion” before denigrating the teacher’s parentage.1 During the 1920s and 1930s, devout Catholic peasants throughout Mexico repeatedly denounced the presumed link between government, school teachers, anticlericalism, and the masons. The popular condemnation obviously emanated in part from the ecclesiastical hierarchy’s frequent anti-masonic pronouncements. The Apostolic Delegate’s charge that masons were “the cause of our persecution and almost all our national misfortunes” was reiterated in countless bulletins, manifestos, and pastoral letters throughout the country.2 In 1934, the Bishop of Huajuapam de León, which controlled the parish of San Andrés Dinicuiti, reminded local priests that they were to refuse to accept masons and members of the government party as godparents for baptisms, confirmations, or marriages.3 A year later, Mexican Catholic Action argued that government policies of socialist education and agrarismo were the “impious work of anti-Christian masons.”4 However, despite this popular cross-class conviction, there is little historical work on the actual role of the masons in modern Mexico. By examining the [End Page 559] archives of the Grand Lodge of Oaxaca, this article posits that Masonic lodges were key to the process of post-revolutionary state formation.5 As the state sought to assert control over a divided country, freemasonry’s anticlericalism not only offered a model for cultural practice, masons also formed a vanguard of willing political emissaries. However, the institution’s influence should not be overstressed. It was often curtailed by internecine disputes, political infighting, and an essentially conservative leadership.

The historiography of Mexico’s masons displays a fruitful interaction between amateur and professional historians. On the one hand, a handful of masons, including Luis J. Zalce y Rodríguez, José María Mateos, Richard E. Chism, and Thomas B. Davis have written a series of extensive monographs on the development of freemasonry during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.6 However, with the exception of Davis’ work, most tend towards partiality, locking masons into a Whiggish teleology of liberal ascent and skipping over problematic periods of intramasonic discord.7 On the other hand, since the 1980s, professional historians have started to utilize these partisan accounts as well as archival resources to piece together the complex interaction between the institution and the nineteenth and twentieth century state. In particular, there is ample work on the importance of Masonic and other secret societies in the diffusion of liberal, Enlightenment ideas during the Independence and post-Independence eras.8 Furthermore, historians like Michael Costeloe and Josefina Zoraida Vásquez have explained how federalist and centralist political parties emerged from divisions between York and Scottish rite lodges.9 There is also a growing body of scholarship on the relationship between anticlerical liberals of the 1850s and the country’s Masonic lodges.10 [End Page 560]

Beyond isolated mentions of Masonic affiliation, historians of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mexico have posited three ways in which masons affected popular politics. First, historians like Francois Xavier Guerra, Jean-Pierre Bastian, and Frank Brandenburg see Masonic lodges as forming the foundations of the imagined ideal of the liberal and later the revolutionary republics. They were “egalitarian societies,” “sources of liberal instruction” and “the civil base of an embryonic democratic process” which performed political discussions and elected authorities according to democratic practices.11 Following Francisco Bulnes assertion that the revolution was initiated by “Mexican Protestant pastors . . . and greasy, beat up masons,” Bastian describes how these dissident groups formed the vanguard of the anti-Porfirian movement and the intellectuals of revolution. Both Guerra and Brandenburg are more circumspect about the masons’ political role and describe them as assisting the spread of liberal and post-revolutionary doctrine into...


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