Most Freemasons, even those with little interest in the Craft’s back story, likely have noticed there’s a whole lot of revision going on, and that it’s causing no small amount of discomfort.
There’s a reason for it, says one of the revisionists, John L. Hairston, whose book “Landmarks of our Fathers: A Critical Analysis of the Start and Origin of African Lodge No. 1” questions the long-accepted back story of the foundation of Prince Hall Freemasonry.
“All of this work, all of this new history, everything being carried out right now,” Hairston told me during a recent telephone interview. “All of this tells me that there’s a purge of the lodge going on, that there is a purging of Freemasonry going on.”
Purges are never comfortable.
For generations, Freemasonic scholars had a colorful reputation for devising comforting histories about the Craft, which taken up by later scholars and uncritically told and retold. It seems everyone, including non-Masons, came to be all cozy with them.
I tend to date the change to the 1980s and the release of noted historian David Stephenson’s “The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century (1590 -1710)” and the work of his doctoral student, Lisa Kahler. These early Masonic revisionists, including Margaret Jacob, Andrew Prescott, and Susan Sommers, all have one thing in common: they are not Freemasons.
Those Brothers who have since produced their own works of revisionist history have encountered subtle pressures to which their more academic colleagues are not subject. After all, the old stories are so comfortable to so many some who’d rather all of these historians not bother. I well recall some of the ripples caused by journalist and then Freemason Stephen Dafoe’s 2014 “Morgan: The Scandal That Shook Freemasonry,” one of the best and most accurate examinations of the murder of William Morgan. The incident touched off the anti-Masonic period in the early 19th Century and came closing to eliminating Freemasonry from the U.S.
Dafoe rubbed some Masons the wrong way by making the case that Morgan was killed by Freemasons, not deported by them to Canada, a story his detractors preferred. The problem was not that Dafoe had written something untrue; it was that he’d written something true that went against the accepted, preferred, and comfortable narrative.
I’ve run into similar sentiments in my works about early women Freemasons and the history of worldwide Co-Freemasonry. It’s not that what I wrote isn’t true – it is. The problem, as I understand it, is that this truth runs counter to the long-time accepted narratives about both topics and disturbs the comfort of gender-based and Co-masons alike. And, that, the discomfort should be respected.
Hairston said he encountered much the same in the lead up to his book, which was released last year. The Seattle publisher and researcher is a demitted member of Harmony Lodge No. 2, which labors under the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Washington and also a member of University Lodge No. 141, which labors under the Grand Lodge of Washington.
Hairston also is the Editor of the “The Quill and The Sword” Masonic blog and his work has been published in a number of Masonic publications, including Living Stones, Washington Masonic Community Monitor, and the Prince Hall Masonic Journal.
Hairston said that when he was initiated into traditionally African American Prince Hall Freemasonry, he was fed the usual and comfortable stories about the origins of that branch of the Craft. That legend tells about Bostonian caterer and leather dresser Prince Hall, a free man of color, along with other 14 free men of color in the same city – “The Immortal 15” – who formed their own lodge after being turned away from existing lodges.
According to the legend, Hall and the other 14 were initiated into Freemasonry by Irish Military Lodge No. 441, under the direction of WM Sergeant John Batt, on March 6, 1775. By July of the following year, African Lodge was organized under a limited permit from Batt and by 1779 thirty-three Brothers were listed on the rolls of the Lodge. Prince Hall later petitioned the Grand Lodge of England for a warrant or charter, which was granted June 30th, 1784.
That story, told and retold for generations and included on a number of Prince Hall websites, has been uncritically passed on by scholars.
I won’t spoil all of the richness in Hairston’s book, but I will say that much of the discomfort about his work is related to the date of formation and the assistance received in formation.
It was not unusual in the 18th Century for Lodges to independently form on their own and then go looking for a Grand Lodge to provide them with a charter or warrant. In that context, African Lodge’s true origins are nothing to be concerned about.
“Does this truthful narrative make the immortal 15 illegitimate, no it does not,” Hairston said. “It does mean that we have a mess to clean up but that’s all.”
The mess is the untruths that have been allowed to accrete around what really happened in Masonic history. Hairston first noticed problems with the date when he examined the primary documentation, much of it preserved by the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts and not especially difficult to get at. He soon discovered that the authors of the legend had access to the actual records but had chosen to write the comfortable legend instead.
That was frustrating, Hairston stated. “I should never had to have written this book,” he said. “This should have been written at least in the 1950s. I had been in Freemasonry only five years when I started down this path. This should have been written by earlier and better scholars than me.”
He did discover that prior scholars, particularly Henry Coil and John Sherman in their jointly written 1982 “A Documentary Account of Prince Hall and other Black Fraternal Orders,” had written about these documents before. However, that work had been largely ignored, which basically made it go away. Hairston could reasonably expect his own effort would be similarly received.
Hairston decided to share his research with scholars at The Phylaxis Society and he found them encouraging. “And they said, ‘You’ve got something here’,” he recalled.
Even with that nod, Hairston had respect for the discomfort. He knew that there were Brothers who wouldn’t like it, and had his doubts, which he shared with his editor and fellow researcher Oscar Alleyne. “And I said, ‘Oscar, why am I doing this?'” Hairston recalled.
“And he said, ‘Because you have to’.”
Naturally, the work gained early support from other scholars and news reporters in the Craft. He was featured in the 7 September 2016 edition of “The Masonic Rountable” shortly after the book was published. He also was appeared in an interview by the Masonic College of the Walter F. Meier Research Lodge No. 281 in Washington and lectured at the Seattle Scottish Rite Masonic Center.
Tony Pope, a Masonic author and researcher of no little reputation and at least equally unafraid to address sensitive topics in the Craft, in this past January’s Harashim, published by the Australian New Zealand Masonic Research Council, called Hairston’s book “a good read for history buffs, a fine example for potential researchers, and a must for anyone interested in the controversy likely to arise from it. I can hardly wait for the next volume in the series.”
However, Pope also nodded to the paradox Hairston’s work inevitably produced. “It must have taken considerable courage for Brother Hairston to pursue this line of inquiry, and to publicise the result,” Pope wrote.
Pope wasn’t the only Masonic scholar to recognize Hairston’s odd position in writing this truth. “Brother Hairston fully understands the delicate ground he treads, but he is a tireless and extraordinarily detailed and dedicated researcher,” Masonic author Chris Hodapp wrote in his review of Hairston’s book.
All that courage was required because “Landmarks of our Fathers” did discomfort many Freemasons, Prince Hall and otherwise, including grand lodge officers across the country. Their response, including their initial lack of one, was understandable, Hairston said. Grand lodges are not too concerned about history and concentrate more on maintain good relationships with other grand lodges, running the front office and keeping the greatest number of members comfortable and happy with their membership, he said.
“Then, all of a sudden, there’s this guy who hasn’t been a Freemason five years,” Hairston said. “He comes along and writes about what really happened, and it’s not the story they know, that they’ve got investment in. Then it gets published and it upsets the comfortable narrative.”
First, they ignored him, a strategy that has worked in the past. “They chose to turn a blind eye to the findings,” Hairston said, “which is surprising, because it wasn’t like the book was going to go away.”
When it didn’t go away, there next came that subtle pressure, grappling for a saving way to respond to the book and even talk of a special meeting of Prince Hall grand lodges officers to deal with Hairston’s troublesome findings.
Then, as suddenly, the pressure eased up. “I heard about it back channel,” Hairston said. “They decided that the book was great and they really didn’t want to refute the contents, they have so much other stuff to deal with and that, really, this wasn’t all that important.”
It seems cooler heads prevailed, as often happens in Freemasonry. After all, Hairston’s research in no way detracts from the story of the founding of Prince Hall Freemasonry. Instead, it simply tells that story more accurately and places it in its proper historical context, warts and all. “African Lodge is talking to us today in their own voice,” Hairston said. “And that voice will not be denied.”
His work is part of that larger trend in Freemasonry, to rewrite the legends to reflect more accurately what really happened, Hairston said. It’s necessary because something is on the horizon, Freemasonry will need to be prepared and that requires making its crooked paths straight and leveling its rough places, he said.
“How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?” Hairston asked. “You can’t.”
The discomforted Brothers who still want their old narratives shouldn’t take their arguments to the revisionist historians, Hairston said. “There’s really no fighting me in all of this,” he said. “They are fighting the Universe; they are fighting something greater than themselves that feels this needs to be done. The Universe has committed itself to this revolution and anything that gets in its way will be ground to dust. It has nothing to do with me, I’m only the messenger.”
Hairston said he doesn’t know what is coming but feels certain that the work he is doing now, a book that questions the present segregation in Freemasonry, has its part to play. “There are things that can no longer go unquestioned,” he said. “In order for Freemasonry to address the coming paradigms, the old paradigms need to be addressed.”