American Freemasons: Three Centuries Of Building Communities, by Mark A. Tabbert
This book is an interesting work that discusses the complexities that freemasonry has found in the United States. This complexity exists on several levels. For one, how has the organization dealt with shifting societal trends in terms of what is valued in fraternal organizations and what faces has it shown based on what aspects of its approach are most particularly valued at a given time. In some times the quest for knowledge has been appealing, at other times freemasonry has been viewed as offering political or economic advantage, and at all times masons and the outside world have been human and struggled with certain aspects of what it means to have good character and what kind of people are able to be accepted as brothers. The author pulls no punches about the struggles that Americans have had in recognizing certain people as brothers, and in the sort of class and racial divides that have made it difficult for certain groups of people to be accepted in an organization where one black ball can keep one from entering into fellowship and which corresponding requires a high deal of finesse to manage successfully.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages long and is three parts and eleven chapters long. The book begins with a foreword, preface, chart of American freemasonry, as well as an introduction that discusses the purpose of the book as well as the symbols and rituals of freemasonry. After that the first part of the book discusses the establishment of freemasonry in the United States and Europe between 1600 and 1835 (I), with chapters on the enlightenment and its appeal (1), peaceable citizens in a revolutionary world (2), and the call to act honorably, which led to challenges when some masons fell short of his, as in 1820’s New York (3). After that the author discusses the role of freemasonry in building the American community of the 19th and early 20th centuries (II), including chapters on masonic self-improvement in the middle of the 19th century (4), the golden age of fraternity in the last third of the 19th century (5), the relief of the distressed through mutual benefit during this same period (6), the establishment of fraternal fun through associated organizations like the Shriners and Grotto (7), and the tensions in teh lodge relating to the popular desire of many to become masons (8). After that the third part of the book discusses the adornment of American communities (III), with chapters on the plain dealing of the rotarian age (9), the masonic good life during the middle of the 20th century (10), and the service of masons during the last third of the 20th century (11), after which there are notes, suggested reading, an index, and photography credits.
This book is not only well-researched and written from a sympathetic point of view but one which also contains a great deal of criticism of the search for mass appeal that Freemasonry had in the middle part of the 20th century, and one which is written from an insider’s perspective that has a lot to say about the larger and more subtle influence of freemasons on the larger culture. I too share an interest in this discussion on how the organization set a pattern for the growth of a wide variety of fraternal organizations, some of which operated within the masonic family (Shriners, the Grotto, etc.) and some of which modeled certain aspects but were outside of it, like the Boy Scouts and Rotary Club and Toastmasters. Having some personal experience with this larger influence of fraternal organizations with a fondness for speculative thinking as well as developing the character and abilities of people, men especially, I find this sort of history deeply interesting. I happen to think it is worthwhile giving credit where it is due, and as someone who values privacy and understands the value of secrets in binding people together, I can appreciate what the author shares to those who are willing to read it.