Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pennsylvania Academy of Masonic Knowledge

Trevorpalooza 2008 is still very much underway, with Trevor Stewart doing what he does best at various locations near and far for a few more days. And I have some more good Trevor stories to share, but I’m going to step out of sequence at this time to tell you about what happened yesterday at the Pennsylvania Academy of Masonic Knowledge.
RW Thomas Jackson

The Academy meets twice a year in the Masonic Cultural Center at the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown campus. Saturday’s program was a different format from the Academy’s usual, in which two lectures are presented by scholars of national or even international reputation. Recent speakers include W. Kirk MacNulty, Miss Pauline Chakmakjian and… Trevor Stewart!

The Academy serves a purpose even greater than hosting great educational meetings. It’s legacy, I believe, will be its Certification Program, a kind of correspondence course in which interested brethren gradually learn about Freemasonry, and then demonstrate what they’ve internalized in the form of various kinds of papers. Personally, I think this is how lodges ought to discern the worthiness of candidates for advancement, but....

It is an extremely valuable system of Masonic education, one that its governors are willing to share with other grand lodges that are looking to create something, but don’t know how to structure one. Pennsylvania’s has been operational for nine years, and is not slowing down at all. There were approximately 250 Master Masons – about half of whom were raised in the past two years – in attendance Saturday, preferring to spend one of the most gorgeous days of the year sitting inside an auditorium to hear nine speakers expound on various subjects geared for the new Mason.

The day’s agenda was titled “Lessons in Freemasonry” and consisted of:

“What, Where, When and Why” by Bro. Thomas W. Jackson, shown above

“Historic Leaders of Pennsylvania” by Bro. Paul D. Fisher

“The Symbols and Tools of Freemasonry” by Bro. James L. Sieber

“Myths and Misconceptions” by Bro. William R. Rininger

“Famous Freemasons” by Bro. John W. Postlewait

“What Can We Discuss About Freemasonry” by Bro. Charles S. Canning

“Purpose of Freemasonry and Masonic Etiquette” by Bro. Merrill R. Shaffer

“Masonic Conduct Outside the Lodge” by Bro. C. DeForest Trexler

“The Meanings of the Oaths and Obligations” by Bro. S. Eugene Herritt

Before anyone of grand rank mutters to himself about the absence of titles from these names, let me make clear that this is how the brethren identify themselves in their Academy literature. I’m certain they all are Right Worshipfuls, but what we find in educational circles are serious men, each content to be called Brother. There is a lesson in there for those who have ears.

The chairman of the committee that operates the Academy is Tom Jackson. I wouldn’t know where to begin in composing a Masonic CV for him. He served 19 years as Pennsylvania’s Grand Secretary, reviews books for “The Northern Light” magazine, and is a Founding Fellow of The Masonic Society, just to list a few things off the top of my head. Tom is known around the globe for his intellect, his unabashed insistence that Freemasonry uphold standards of greatness – from the West Gate to the Grand East – and his indefatigable action. (While laid up after a medical procedure earlier this year, he began writing a book.)

Discussing the “What, Where, When and Why” of Freemasonry, Tom restrained himself, mindful that the day was devoted largely to brethren who were new to the fraternity. He covered the basics of St. John’s Day, 1717, but stipulating there are records in Scotland of 16th century lodge activity.

“Essentially, we don’t know our origins, but Freemasonry attracted some of the greatest men of the last 300 years,” he said, “Did Freemasonry make men great, or did great men make Freemasonry? I say it is both. Voltaire, Mozart, Haydn, Franklin and Washington were men we wanted to be associated with. That is our deficit today in North America. Where are the Mozarts of today? My role is to preserve Freemasonry in case great men come later.”

And speaking of greatness, Bro. Paul D. Fisher continued the program with his “Historic Leaders of Pennsylvania” talk. He covered four or five biographies in a “Profiles in Courage” type format. These were notable men in both Masonic history and U.S. history, including:

William Smith, a congressman once challenged to a duel by Henry Clay (but declined), is credited with authoring a part of Pennsylvania’s Master Mason Lecture. He also published the first version of “Ahiman Rezon” in the United States. A good friend of Washington and Franklin, he was reputed to have been “the best public speaker of all the colonies.” He was provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and founded Washington College, which is now the University of Maryland. Smith served as Grand Secretary, and then Grand Master of Pennsylvania, and unusually later became a Grand Chaplain in New York, when his son was Grand Master.

James Buchanan, the only Pennsylvanian to become president of the United States, was prominent in Masonry as a leader of what is termed in this state as "the revolt of the country lodges." His success is felt to this day, as the District Deputy system is still in place (it was thought that DDGMs should represent the interests of lodges to the Grand Lodge) and the standardization of ritual, which also continues to this day, and is still unwritten.

George Mifflin Dallas, the namesake of Dallas, Texas, for his work in bringing that republic into the Union. He served as vice president under James K. Polk, and was a courageous advocate for Freemasonry during the scariest days of the anti-Masonic movement, during which his mother lodge forfeited its warrant. Pennsylvania General Assembly Representative Thaddeus Stevens, who won election on the anti-Masonic ticket, introduced The Act to Suppress Secret Societies, and subpoenaed 25 leading Masons to testify. All appeared, but none would testify under oath. Dallas argued that Masonry was a private organization that acted lawfully, and he invoked the memory of George Washington to shame these politicians. He served as Grand Master in 1835.

Next, “The Symbols and Tools of Freemasonry” was explained by Bro. James Sieber, who holds a Ph.D. in mathematics. He provided a hand-drawn visual aid depicting about two dozen Working Tools and other symbols, which he explained to the brethren, occasionally detouring into other jurisdictions’ symbols. He urged everyone to travel outside of Pennsylvania to experience more Masonic teachings.

Bro. Bill Rininger took us through “Myths and Misconceptions” to prepare new Masons for the idiotic questions and challenges we all eventually face. “Times haven’t changed much,” he explained. “Except that many of our critics have discovered the power of mass media, and they make their money by telling falsehoods.”

A video, titled “Tools of the Craft,” was screened. This featured several Pennsylvania Masons, including a rabbi and a minister, and MSANA Executive Secretary Dick Fletcher who foiled the most common libels hurled against the fraternity (e.g. it is not a religion, cult, nefarious society, etc.).

Next came a fun presentation on “Famous Masons” delivered by Bro. John Postlewait. He told of a Communication of Celestial Lodge, where dozens of well known brethren assembled in lodge. (The Tiler was J. Edgar Hoover.)

Bro. Chuck Canning, at left, explained “What Can We Discuss About Freemasonry,” in which he told the brethren that their obligations to Masonic secrecy do not proscribe them from learning as much as possible about the Craft. He urged everyone to get acquainted with the various lodges and societies of Masonic research, and to familiarize themselves with the many topics covered in rituals other than Pennsylvania’s, like the Four Cardinal Virtues, various Working Tools, etc.

“Masonic Etiquette” by Bro. Merrill Shaffer proved provocative. He covered important basics that too often go unsaid (punctuality, attire, welcoming visitors, etc.) and also touched on confusing matters that are not necessarily addressed by ritual, like crossing in front of the East. (A no-no, by the way.) Our speaker quoted Preston, Pike, Pound and Coil to illustrate his point that Freemasonry’s role is to show good men how to improve themselves through ethics, morals and knowledge.

This talk carried into the Q&A period later in the afternoon, when the conversation expanded into legal matters. By coincidence, Grand Lodge will host a daylong seminar on the 18th devoted entirely to the jurisdiction’s jurisprudence.

“Masonic Conduct Outside the Lodge” was Bro. C. DeForest Trexler’s call to the brethren to remember their duties to God, their neighbors and themselves. “Whether we trace Freemasonry to ancient antiquity or orders of knighthood or stone guilds, it is a product of 18th century Enlightenment,” he said. “We show exemplary public behavior for Masonry’s public reputation,” avoid intemperance and excess, and are consistent with “good citizenship and Judeo-Christian morality.”

Perhaps the best way to phase it, he concluded, was Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes.

Introduced by the moderator as “the capstone of the edifice we are trying to construct for you,” the final talk, “The Meaning of the Oaths and Obligations” was given by Bro. S. Eugene Herritt, shown below, and very effectively I must say.

Obviously I can’t disclose the details, but he very wisely explained the three sets of oaths and obligations as progressively demanding circumstances that both challenge us to grow and simultaneously reflect our growth thus far.

The Pennsylvania Academy of Masonic Knowledge will meet in 2009 on March 14 and October 24 at the same location.

There also is a lodge room housed within the Cultural Center. A very modern design with dominant diagonal lines surrounding its theme of triangles and rectangles. The high, vaulted ceiling gives it a cathedral feel, but the omnipresent woods say something else. Despite the ubiquitous blonde wood and all that glass, it does not have a cold look. In fact, those surfaces and colors, with the trapezoidal altar and quirky officer chairs, inspire a friendly curiosity.


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