This is the article as it appeared in the
Charleston City Paper.
To the uninitiated, secret societies like Freemasonry are, to put it mildly, not at the forefront of our thoughts in day-to-day experience. Yet, ironically, many of their symbols and iconography are ubiquitous in our culture. So pervasive are they, in fact, they’re easy to overlook. The obelisk we call the Washington Monument, for example, is a Masonic symbol, its cornerstone laid by Masons. George Washington, along with numerous officers in the Continental Army were Masons. Benjamin Franklin was one of 13 signers of the Constitution who were Masons. Astronaut John Glenn is even a Mason, as is Senator Fritz Hollings. Or take the pyramid and eye on the back of a dollar bill. Though many a lunch break conversation has dealt with these topics, it’s doubtful that any have accomplished much more than perpetuating nebulous conspiracy theories about Freemasons secretly ruling the world.
Masonic symbols, originally adopted from the Bible, Greek mythology, early Hermeticism, and ancient Egypt, among other sources, have again been co-opted by popular culture and art. Books like Dan Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, Michael Baigent’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and movies like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider have recently generated an upwelling in popular interest in the subject of secret societies.
Now a 14th-degree York Rite Mason, as well as a member of the Odd Fellows, Texan Bruce Webb is also an established collector of lodge art and artifacts from a number of secret fraternal organizations including the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Knights Templar, Order of Red Men, and many others. At one point the youngest Mason in Texas, Webb now curates his own gallery in Waxahachie, Texas. Webb’s collection, including ritual ephemera, decorative woodwork, detailed charts, theatrical regalia, masks, models, and painted backdrops, much of it dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, will form the core of an exhibition opening Friday at the College of Charleston’s Halsey Gallery entitled Oft Unseen: Art from the Lodge and Other Secret Societies.
“It’s a fairly rare phenomenon to see this kind of thing take place outside the Masonic libraries or museums,” says Dr. Frank Karpiel, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of History at the College who will be delivering a lecture at the opening of the show entitled “The International Lodge: Fraternal Societies at the Centerand Periphery of Empire from 1750-1900.”
Even Masons don’t necessarily know the specifics of the origins of Masonry. “I don’t think anybody really knows when and where it started,” says the Illustrious Brother McDonald “Don” Burbidge of Charleston. “Keep in mind that over time things get lost. From what I understand and what I’ve seen, it goes back to King Solomon’s days.” Burbidge, a 33rd-degree Mason, has been studying the history of Masonry in Charleston for nine years. At the exhibit’s opening, he will present a slide show and talk entitled “The Masonic History of Charleston.”
“Charleston is a good example of a colonial lodge that later became a center itself,” Karpiel says. Charleston is in fact known as the birthplace of the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. Formed in 1801, the Scottish Rite, the alternative to the York Rite, has spread throughout the world.
Participation in secret societies apparently used to be something of a norm in the United States. At the turn of the 20th century, there were anywhere from 300 to 800 fraternal organizations with several million members in America. And while their numbers have been on the decline, lately public interest in secret societies has been on the rise.
Buff Ross, the technical curator at the Halsey Gallery, says he was initially attracted to the “mysterious visual language” implemented by secret societies. And after learning of Webb’s collection, and having read The Da Vinci Code, as well as books on the art and architecture of Freemasonry, Ross conceived of the idea for Oft Unseen.
What goes on inside the walls of a temple or lodge once the doors are shut has always been cloaked in secrecy, and so, naturally, speculation takes the place of fact in the minds of the uninitiated, Ross observes. As to the scope of secret societies’ spheres of influence, one’s imagination is left to run wild.
Considered quasi-religious by academics, many secret societies are thought to make members take blood oaths — cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye kind of stuff. Public reaction is often mistrust and fear. Books like The Da Vinci Code, which foster globally encompassing conspiracy theories, heighten suspicions and speculation.
“The frustrating thing about The Da Vinci Code,” says Ross, “is he [author Dan Brown] claims it’s historically based, but it’s also fiction, and it’s hard to tell where fact ends and fiction begins. It’s a great read, but it’s in the fiction part of the bookstore for a reason.
“Many people are quite convinced of a Masonic connection to the Illuminati,” Ross continues, referencing another of history’s notoriously mysterious orders. “The main thing they do now is charity work. Just the fact that they are willing to support this exhibit and have this stuff out there should dispel some of the more ominous and duplicitous accusations people level against them about controlling the world.”
“What Masonry does do is, by its teachings, it helps someone be a better person and respectful of others,” Burbidge notes. “It’s always been to help others.” He cites charitable work by Masons such as the establishment of the Charleston Orphan House in 1790, the oldest municipal orphanage in the U.S. Today, the Scottish Rite is establishing childhood language disorder clinics, called Rite Care Clinics, across the country.
Karpiel points out that there are a lot of links between the growth of science and democracy and Masonry. He says lodges formed because people needed associations. They were the only networking associations of their time. In the days before automobiles and telephones, lodges served an added and necessary function. Webb says, “Without radio and television, that’s where people would get their information.” In rural farming communities, Webb says, people worked during the week, and generally on Saturday came to town to do their business and attended a fraternal meeting on Saturday where they spent the night. Hence the name “lodge,” he says. Almost all lodges had degrees, Webb says, which were earned through participation in dramas that taught moral and philosophical lessons. He says, “One of the things that really appeals to me is it’s an ancient dialogue in almost a Shakespearian language.”
Within the structured environment of the lodge, through historical pageants involving symbols and allegories, initiates engaged in a productive communal experience dealing with basic human values.
“It was really like theater. And suddenly these farmers weren’t just farmers, but they put on a robe and were King Solomon. It took you away from the drudgery of everyday life,” Webb says. “The symbols are supposed to be a reminder of sometimes long passages of dialogue. It’s very different from how we are supposed to deal with things today, especially with all the emphasis on text and computers. With Masonry it’s the spoken word. But it all relates to symbols, so they are the storehouses of a great deal of information, but only to the initiated. Unless you spent time learning it, you wouldn’t know what it meant. They are designed to jog the memory to assist you in remembering dialogue.”
Public curiosity in societies like the Masons is probably due to a large extent to their secretive nature. But Burbidge says secrecy is merely a tradition. “It’s just been like that since day one, and until someone says we can make it public, it will always remain that way,” he says. “It’s like a fraternity; if you ask them what it’s like they won’t tell you, and Masonry is the same way.” Anyway, Burbidge says, “Everything about Masonry is out there except for the ritual work and the handshake. That’s about the only thing that’s secret.”
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