This is an exchange of letters between the Grand Master of Masons in Massachusetts and the Grand Master of Virginia in early December 1860. The GM of Massachusetts is writing about 2 weeks before South Carolina seceded from the nation, and the GM of Virginia is replying a few weeks after South Carolina seceded, and a few weeks before many other southern states did.
At the time, the crisis had been acute enough, long enough, that both brothers knew what was going to happen, and that it would likely cause a war. The topic of the letters: “What are we going to do as Masons if we have to go to war with one another?”
The GM of Massachusetts (Winslow Lewis) begins:
Even considering the age of the language, this hits me as very flowery and formal, as one might expect of inter-jurisdictional letters. Lewis appears to be saying that efforts of regular citizens to bridge the gap haven’t been effective, and yet efforts are still needed to avoid destruction of the Union. He identifies fanaticism as a “Demon”, and wonders if there is anything that can be done. This is a bid: Lewis is reaching out to Virginia brethren, not providing a specific solution, but looking for help in finding a solution and bidding willingness to try.
Lewis tells a story of how impressed he was with Masonry in Richmond, and the powerful impression it left on him, and says that Boston considers Virginia brothers and fellow citizens.
Lewis ends by invoking the prayer and lessons of the first degree, and with a hope that Virginia feels the same way.
John Robin McDaniel replies, 21 days later, and begins with an apology; the he had recently broken his arm and could not yet use it. He immediately mourns the “threatened destruction of the once-glorious Republic”, and invokes as Masonic penalty to describe what has happened to the flag. It is an altogether sad, bitter, and violent set of metaphors to start of with, but the message gets worse from there.
McDaniel feels that Masonry cannot do anything at all. And he seems to begin to attack failures of others, with the idea that “we wouldn’t be in this situation if not for them”. He invokes his own set of Masonic teachings about a Mason’s relationship to government, and seizes on what Lewis says about fanaticism and turns it around, implying that the south has had its constitutional rights trampled. He says Masonry cannot avoid this attack. In a particularly ominous quote by my reading:
Let each individual brother, whether at the North or at the South, feel the awful responsibility that rests upon him, and apply to his conduct the Plumb, the Level and the Square, and whatever they dictate as right, that do, and do it with a will.John Robin McDaniel
It certainly seems that he knows Masons will end up killing one another shortly, and he was right. Bizarrely, he says that this is what each brother should do, and then immediately follows by saying that Lodges are the place to “correct this evil”. Presumably, this evil is the trampling of the South’s rights, and not the individual conduct of Masons.
McDaniel reinforces that masons should not be ostracized for their political opinions, and then shuts down “discussion of the questions which now agitate the country”. He says in essence that the issue of national unity is past, that the Union is “beyond doubt dissolved”, and rather presses for a hopeful future where the North and South live apart as neighbors. Again, with violent & bitter imagery, he lays blame for the Union’s dissolution:
The blood of the Old Confederacy is upon the intriguing and unprincipled politicians, and the wolves in Christian clothing. They are welcome to the honor of their achievements.John Robin McDaniel
In conclusion, he places Masonry in the role of “continuing to live in the full existence of Brotherly Love”, which, to my reading feels like a weak nod to a principle when he himself knows that violence is more likely.
- The source of this information is the proceedings of the Grand Annual Communication, Grand Lodge of Virginia, 1861. The full proceedings can be found here, under the 1861 selection, page 31 of 74.
- Winslow Lewis at Masonic Genealogy
- Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia: A History, 1852 – 1900