Masonic Medals 

Their journey began as soon as they entered the anteroom, where they donned the cloaks of shepherds, the extravagant mitres and costumes of Jewish high priests, or the mail and armor of medieval knights. They arranged the sets and paraphernalia- altars, candles, lighting effects. Then they marched into the temple itself, an enormous carpeted room with pews along each wall, altars in the center. Mysterious words, warnings, and prayers were uttered, and the lights were extinguished. As if by magic, late-VictorianAmerica gave way to an ancient and exotic realm. A resounding knock on the thick oak door heralded the arrival of an initiate seeking admission to this wondrous world. [1]


                           The Commodification of Ritual                        

The incorporation of fraternal orders has so far been characterized by the wide-spread establishment of highly organized mutual aid networks, the appropriation of the Masonic paradigm as a means to further the cause of more labor-oriented and politically minded groups, and the pervasive re-interpretation of Masonic value systems into more culturally specific variations. At the heart of the fraternal experience, however, was the ritual, which acted to inculcate those fraternal values around which so many orders organized themselves. Rituals offered an escape into an ideal masculine world were a common man could dawn the regalia of a Grand Potentate and take part in the pageantry of a re-calibrated social order.  Not only an escape into the past, the rituals were a means to address cultural concerns of the present. As fraternal orders proliferated and incorporated, how did these rituals change?

            Rather than engage in a definitive analysis of the make-up of these rituals, which would be outside the scope of this project, I am more interested in observing the ritual as a commodity—as a means to lure new members to invest in the fraternal order. Members of quasi Masonic fraternal organizations “spent huge sums on initiation fees, annual dues, mutual assessment funds, and ritualistic paraphernalia,” [2] making “the writing of rituals . . . a major growth industry.” If the ritual is a tool for attracting new members, “it must exert an aesthetic appeal.” [3] The character of these aesthetics transformed with late nineteenth-century technological advancements, making the fraternal experience more elaborate and theatrical. By 1900, “fraternal agents were organizing lodges for a living, paid on commission, like traveling salesmen, to sell the product of lodge membership.” [4] This commodification of the fraternal experience not only fueled its incorporation, but also caused it to be considered a full-on entertainment genre by the twentieth century.

             The Masonic rite of initiation, which incorporated symbolism and dramatic plots, constituted the paradigm for fraternal ritual. The initiate was blindfolded, questioned and confronted with death, and then reborn into a new life. On one level, these symbols served a practical purpose: “ritualistic representations of death reminded initiates to pay their dues… and of what would happen if they violated their oath of secrecy.” [5] On a deeper level, these symbols mediated between “unconscious psychological concerns and social structures.” [6] By crafting the initiation ritual as an unnerving transition into brotherhood, what one historian calls “the shock of entrance,” [7] Masons “disrupted the candidate from the ties of the world, and introduced him to the life of Masonry.” Subsequent degrees entailed a series of moral lessons all of which comprised a spiritual journey towards the goal of acquiring a symbolic identity. In the Masons, that identity was that of a worker in stone. After advancing through the rituals of the York Rite, he became a Knight Templar, successor to the Christian crusaders, while the Scottish Rite transformed him into an adept master of esoteric wisdom. If the newly inducted Mason had time and money he could advance as far as 32 degrees.


            Besides realizing that fraternal ritual offered an alternative and ideal symbolic identity, the esoteric matter of these degrees is not my concern; the manner in which they are experienced in nineteenth century America, however, is crucial to understanding the incorporation of fraternalism. As social circumstances changed, so did the experience of the rituals. Early in American fraternal history, however, a tension existed between the proliferation of fraternal orders and the need to maintain conformity. “Never-changing, highly sacred, rituals . . . infused the order with a sense of formality and stability.” [8] To achieve this uniformity, Masons and Oddfellows instituted a centralized form of government, which “ensured that the rituals . . . would remain subject to the authority of the grand lodge.” [9]

            Despite these attempts to standardize, fraternal orders revised several of their ceremonies displaying a “mania for tinkering with degrees.” [10] English Masons criticized these rituals for being “too progressive, too long, too complicated, and too theatrical,” [11] while American Masons claimed that they were more effectively “arranged to suit the American mind.” Regardless of their status as an improvement upon or perversion of English Masonic ritual, “nineteenth century historians of Oddfellowship and Freemasonry underscored the importance of the revised rituals to the order’s subsequent success.” [12]   The result of this repackaging of ritual, however, was a gradual decontextualization of original ingredients: “As fraternal orders became more numerous, genealogies became more complicated and rituals often represented a pastiche of their founders’ prior fraternal experience.” [13] By taking ritual forms out of their original context and revamping them in an experientially specific way, fraternalists could justify the legitimacy of the ritual while shaping it to fit an alternative character. This appropriation and transformation of rituals allowed for an eventual kaleidoscope of quasi-Masonic ritualistic modulations.


            One interesting example is The Improved Order of Red Men, who combined Indian regalia with fraternal convention. “Determined to replicate the success of the Oddfellows by devising rituals comparable to the Initiatory degree of the latter,” [14] the Redmen were aware of the ritual as commodity. Offering cash prizes for effective rituals, the Grand Lodge adopted and discarded several rituals before adopting one that, due to its particular character, provoked “unparalleled growth.” [15] The connection between ritual and attracting new members was the first step towards commodifying the fraternal experience and went hand in hand with the proliferation of fraternal orders during the Victorian age.

            The way the experience of ritual changed over time in reaction to the currents of industrialization can most easily be observed in the Ancient and Accepted Order of the Scottish Rite, which transformed from “a small and dedicated group” [16] in 1870 to a flourishing order of thousands by 1900. Since the Scottish Rite constituted an elite, and therefore more expensive, order of Masonry, their growth can be attributed to investment in “staged initiation ritual and full theatrical paraphernalia.”

            In the 1860s, Masonic rituals, which “were essentially dramatic pageants with the officers and candidates the main actors,” [17] were mostly a matter of “one candidate being initiated at a time in largely verbal ceremonies enacted privately in small gatherings.” [18] The higher degrees of the Scottish Rite, however, demanded more elaborate ornamentation than regular Masonry due to “the narrative and philosophical scope” [19] of the rituals. Early on, Scottish Rite Masons “improvised and manufactured materials themselves.” Relying heavily on “initiates’ ability and willingness to attend to the spoken word and to decipher the meanings of symbols and allegories,” [20] the ritual was personal and involved reciting lengthy, if not tedious, passages of text.                                                                    


scottish rite lodge theater   

        By 1880, however, the Scottish Rite began to repackage these old methods into a more spectacular experience in which the initiate watched the ritual occur on stage (see figure above). Dividing the members of the order into audience and spectator, “what had once been largely cerebral if sometimes mystical now became a more multi-sensory and, above all, more visually oriented experience.” [21] In order to understand why this repackaging was necessary, it is important to consider the psychological effects of industrialization and technological advancement, “which transformed the world the world in ways that would have been inconceivable a century before.” [22] Higher standards of production, brought about by developments in the speed and control of manufacture engendered society with an almost blind faith in progress. “What had seemed adequate or even impressive in the past began to appear second-rate and even unacceptable by the late and early twentieth centuries.” [23] Scottish Rite Masons, therefore, felt the need to make their rituals more compelling in order to keep up with commercial trends. In many ways, this notion represents a well-planned marketing decision—a way of insuring the success of their business through entertainment.

scottish rite scenery

            “Using  scenery (see figure above), costumes, lights, and public address systems,” [24] the theatricalization of the Scottish Rite experience created revenue for the order by allowing multiple initiations at one time: the more initiates, the more dues collected. This quantitative thinking allowed Scottish Rite Masons to allocate funds for new temples in which thousands of initiates could be inducted at once. On one hand, this business mentality resulted in exponential growth. On the other it represented, for some Masons, a cheapening of the fraternal experience. As appearance became more important than substance, “initiate involvement in the ritual became increasingly depersonalized and remote.” [25] No longer a matter of “being blind-folded, threatened, and challenged,” [26] the ritual drama took on a superficial character. Most Scottish Rite Masons, however, defended the transformations by underscoring the value of constructing a visually mesmerizing spectacle to inculcate Masonic values.

thunder-making machine

            With lavish costumes, ornate scenery, lighting and special effects such as thunder-making machines (see figure above) little difference existed between the performances of the Scottish Rite and commercial theater. “Both reflected rising standards of excellence, which demanded increased accuracy and awe-inspiring illusions.” [27] To acquire these effects, lodges dealt with commercial theater supply companies, which “offered stunning backdrops marketed by traveling salesmen.” [28] Offering the most grandiose example of the commodification of ritual, Scottish Rite had turned into big business.


         Other, more instrumental orders, whose concerns centered on labor issues, might have been less sensitive to ritual; however, many of them incorporated elaborate quasi-Masonic ceremonies. The Knights of Labor created by Uriah S. Stephens, a Mason, an Odd Fellow and a Pythian was originally characterized by a “long and complicated ritual with many Masonic motifs and phrases,” [29] though the order concerned itself more with a social agenda under later management. Likewise, the Grangers incorporated an elaborate quasi-Masonic ritual that their founder Oliver Kelly hoped would “lend an interest and a peculiar fascination, while the material for manufacturing new degrees to keep up interest would be inexhaustible.” [30] Kelly’s capitalist perspective viewed ritual as an attractive product to be continuously marketed. Ritual “permitted setting at work thousands of Patrons who participated in its attractive features, thus holding their interest in the order, which might not have been retained if they had not been given such parts of ritualistic character to perform.” [31] . When the Farmer’s Alliance found that “it would have a hard time competing with the Grange without the drawing card of a ritual,” [32] it turned from its political and economic agenda to develop a quasi-Masonic ritual. Though less interested in ritual, on the whole, these fraternal orders viewed the necessity for incorporating traditional ceremonies in order to sell the experience of it

            The Masonic ritual modulated over time to meet the needs of a vastly growing multiplicity of orders. Competition for membership in these orders resulted in a commodification of ritual. Equipped with some pertinent version of the Masonic paradigm, fraternal orders expanded and grew into powerful social entities. As previous chapters have shown, the incorporation of fraternal societies occurred at all levels. In terms of mutual aid, fraternal orders developed highly organized systems of insurance and benefits which resulted in national fraternal insurance plans and the construction of hospitals and orphanages. In terms of class, increased variations of fraternalism retained a paradoxical co-existence of egalitarianism with exclusivity, a trait that in turn causes an exponential proliferation of separate but equal fraternal orders. The tension between brotherhood and exclusivity appears again in light of gender, race and ethnicity, wherein marginalized groups embraced the fraternal experience and cause further differentiation of the Masonic paradigm. What all the fraternal orders shared was basic Masonic rhetoric and symbolism. Whether they were greatly concerned with the minutiae of ritual or not, the structure of their social network was cemented by it.   


[1] Mark C. Carnes, “Scottish Rite and the Visual Semiotics of Gender,” Theater of the Fraternity Ed. C. Lance Brockman (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996) 74.

[2] Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) 5.

[3] Mary Ann Clawson, Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender, and Fraternalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) 13.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Carnes, Secret Ritual, 55.

[6] Ibid., 33.

[7] Albert Mackey, Encyclopedia of Freemasonry(Philadelphia: L.H. Everts, 1886) 112.

[8] Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry and American Culture 1880-1930. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) 24.

[9] Carnes, Secret Ritual, 28.

[10] “Tinkering Degrees,” Voice of Masonry (February 1879).

[11] Carnes, Secret Ritual, 28.

[12] Ibid., 29.

[13] Clawson, 126.

[14] Carnes, Secret Ritual,  98.

[15] Ibid., 99.

[16] C. Lance “Creating Scenic Illusion for the Theater of the Fraternity,” Theater of the Fraternity. Ed. C. Lance Brockman (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996) 15.

[17] Dumenil, 23-4.

[18] William D. Moore, “From Lodge Room to Theatre: Meeting Spaces of the Scottish Rite,” Theater of the Fraternity, 31.

[19] Ibid., 39.

[20] Kenneth L. Ames, “The Lure of the Spectacular,” Theater of the Fraternity, 21.

[21] Ibid., 21.

[22] Ibid., 24.

[23] Ibid., 25.

[24] Moore, 41.

[25] Ames, 27.

[26] Carnes, “Scottish Rite,” 76.

[27] Ames, 26.

[28] Carnes, “Scottish Rite,” 76.

[29] Carnes, Secret Ritual, 9.

[30] Carnes, 8.

[31] Charles M. Gardner, The Grange: Friend of the Farmer (Washington , D.C.: The National Grange, 1949) 346.

[32] Clawson, 136.