Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Understanding Prince Hall Freemasonry

On December 8, 2008 the Deputy Grand Master of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Texas, Michael T. Anderson, appeared on the radio podcast Masonic Central and I had the honor of helping to interview him. This was an exposure of Prince Hall right from the horse’s mouth to an audience of mainly Mainstream Masonry from all over.

This show has a blog or chat board that allows those logged on not only to listen to the interview but also to post questions or carry on a conversation with others logged in. There were questions but what got my attention were some of the comments. “We are farther apart than I thought we were”, said one. “He’s preaching”, another blurted out. It’s not that these comments were disrespectful because they were not. It was the chasm of understanding that still needed to be overcome that sunk in.

Most Mainstreamers do not understand the closeness of Prince Hall to Christianity and why prayers to Jesus are allowed in Lodge. They have “sanitized” their Freemasonry and put up a wall of separation between spirituality and Masonry. To understand why Prince Hall operates as it does you need to go back into Black history.

Black people whether slave or free were not allowed to go down to the park and hang around or sit around and talk at the General Store, or attend the town BBQ and Fair or meet at the Grange or have a picnic together. Blacks were not allowed to congregate on their own lest they be a threat to White society and later during segregation Blacks were only allowed to assemble in non White areas which unless you owned property amounted to nowhere - nowhere but the one place where Blacks were permitted to assemble in large numbers, the Black Church.

So if you were a Black man and you wanted to meet a woman, you met her at the church. If you wanted men friends you met them there also. If you were looking for a tutor or some knowledge in an area you went to the church. If you wanted to inquire about Freemasonry you did so at the church. And in later years you most often met the Black politician running for office in your area at the church.

From the Black church flowed everything, not because that is the way Blacks chose it but because that is the way it was forced upon them. Consequently 99% of all Black Masons came from the church. The church was the one area where you got to know strangers. 150 to 200 years ago all Blacks were Christians and mainly churched in just a few different denominations. So every Mason coming from the same religion and the same few churches made the Lodge a gathering of church men expressing their spirituality and their Masonry together.

In the Black community everything became intertwined. Areas of life living were not segregated into little boxes of isolation. Freemasons were very active in the community in Black politics, community action and charity. Politicians and community activists were active in the church and often came to disseminate their message from the church pulpit. Many male church members were Freemasons and brought their religion with them into the Lodge since everyone else there was of the same persuasion. The Black community has never accepted the “Separation of Church and State” Doctrine. Prince Hall Freemasonry is not secular but religious. The Black political world, the religious world and the Masonic world were some of the same people with different hats on, the same people who went around and around in an interconnected circle. There was no wall of separation. Since many Black Lodges were not well heeled most met at the church. The Black church on certain nights became the Black Lodge building.

Now times have changed. You see many Blacks in denominations previously unheard of such as Roman Catholicism. You see some Black people in different religions other than Christianity, such as Islam. Prince Hall isn’t exclusively Christian. It admits men of all religions and will obligate them on the Sacred Volume of Law that pertains to their religion. And today you will find a small mix of others in the Prince Hall system who do not feel uncomfortable at all because Prince Hall only allows the expression of one’s faith not the proselytizing or conformity to any religious dogma.

But we are talking about association not the practice of Freemasonry. We are talking how men act and behave as they gather in the Lodge feeling close to each other. They act out their traditions, they way they were raised, especially when all present feel exactly the same. But that is not the same as practicing and teaching what Freemasonry is all about.

It is the failure of Mainstream Masonry to take any responsibility for the traditions of the Black community and the way Black Freemasonry developed that is the problem today. It is the failure of Mainstream Masonry to take any responsibility for a duly chartered branch of Masonry that always practiced regular Freemasonry and observed the Landmarks to be declared Clandestine for over 200 years. It is the failure of Mainstream Masonry to take any responsibility for creating a monopoly in each state by the American Doctrine of Exclusive Territorial Jurisdiction thereby deliberately blocking Black Freemasonry and then today to say that Prince Hall would be recognized only if it wasn’t a separate Grand Lodge. It is the failure of Mainstream Masonry to take any responsibility because today it says that only solution is a merger whereby Mainstream would dominate and change Prince Hall when for 200 years Prince Hall has sought inclusion within Mainstream Masonry.

All these considerations and issues aside Prince Hall Freemasonry vehemently denies that it is injecting Christianity into the practice of its Freemasonry. What it is saying is that Masonry is scripture based and that the building of King Solomon’s Temple and the playing out of the legend of Hiram Abiff are all Biblically based and therefore to study and connect those scriptures to the knowledge a Freemason needs to learn adds understanding and meaning to the whole process.

There is no proselytizing of Christianity or any particular Christian denomination in the Prince Hall Lodge room. Nor are other religions prohibited from joining and being raised on their Volume of The Sacred Law.

What a Prince Hall Mason would say is that connecting scripture from which the story of Freemasonry originates is putting into context the whole story, the whole meaning of the teachings and virtues of the fraternity. It is not injecting religion into the Lodge room it is making the philosophy of Freemasonry complete.

In many Mainstream Lodges upon being raised the Lodge presents a “Masonic Bible” to a new Master Mason. Some Mainstream jurisdictions even have ritual that goes with the presentation. This “Masonic Bible” is merely the King James Version with scriptural references to the ritual of Freemasonry or a Masonic concordance. All that Prince Hall is doing is alluding to these scriptural references (that Mainstream agrees are there) and pulling out the full Biblical story. From King Solomon’s Temple to Jeptha Judge of Israel to Hiram King of Tyre and Hiram Abiff these stories are all in the Bible. By knowing the full story and all that preceded and followed it within a Masonic scriptural reference a Mason is provided a rounding out of knowledge so that the whole story of King Solomon’s Temple can be seen in its full context.

When I do Bible readings for my church my Pastor asks me to read beforehand for my own edification the whole chapter from whence the reading comes so that I will understand the whole context of the story and the point being made.

If you have had a chance to listen to the podcast on Masonic Central with Brother Anderson you will notice that I asked Brother Anderson to explain what and why The Book of Ruth is taught to every Prince Hall Mason. Not only do we learn that a testimony in Israel was when a man plucked off his shoe and gave it to his neighbor but also it is there we meet Boaz. The full story of Boaz has a very definite moral teaching and every Prince Hall Mason knows the connection of Boaz to Jesus. Boaz was from the house of Jesse and this lineage produced David that went on to give us Jesus.

What we are talking about here is Faith not religion:

“The covering of a Lodge is the clouded canopy or starry decked heaven, where all good Masons hope at last to arrive by the aid of a ladder, called Jacob’s Ladder, having three principal rounds denominated Faith, Hope and Charity;”

IT’S FAITH NOT RELIGION that permeates the Lodge.

Prince Hall Masons would say that the story of the Building of King Solomon’s Temple is taken out of context unless the scriptural references are pursued and tied in to allow the full meaning to blossom. Most of these scriptural references in the Blue Lodge are Old Testament, which is not a direct tie to Christianity.

So Prince Hall Masons looking at Mainstream Masonry would say it is practicing Masonry out of context and without the scriptural story it is secular Masonry, neutered so as not to offend and so bland so to be politically correct. Prince Hall Masons would point out that there is no Constitutional right not to be offended and that they will maintain their position of wishing any and all a Merry Christmas along with continuing to teach Freemasonry as a scripturally based philosophy.

Perhaps this is too harsh an assessment or you might think an exaggeration. But the constant criticism of Mainstream Masonry leveled at Prince Hall without researching the facts of the situation and the history behind traditions which is available to anyone who would take the time to search and investigate, only spreads disharmony, discord and disunity.


Justa Mason said...

As you may have seen me mention, Fred, I have visited our local PHA Lodge on a number of occasions. I had the pleasure of acting the Tyler at the first official visit of Prince Hall Masons to a Lodge in my jurisdiction, and was the one who opened the door and told them they were welcome to come in to the open Lodge meeting (we received them formally).

But you continue to talk in terms of generalities. "Mainstream Masonry would say..." "Mainstream Masonry levelled..." You can't always generalise. I don't know of any "only solution is a merger" talk anywhere in my jurisdiction. Unless you don't consider this part of Canada mainstream ;)

Enough, I say, of the accusatory "us versus them" attitude.

I don't get your logic that someone is somehow "responsible" for the actions of someone else it has nothing to do with, though I've heard lawyers use that argument that their client somehow isn't responsible for his own actions.

From a Masonic standpoint, Jesus' connection with anyone is irrelevant. Why bring Him up at all .. unless you're dealing with one of organisations open solely to Christians who are Masons? If one wishes to compare His virtues with that of anyone mentioned in Masonic ceremonies, then you have Masonic, and not religious, context in my opinion.

The story of Ruth is referred to in other Lodges besides PHA; I'm in one.

I'm glad you have raised the points that no one religion is pushed in the PHA Lodge room, and equal respect is given to the Holy Books of the individual members, lest anyone misunderstand.

I personally have a problem with giving the so-called Masonic Bible in Lodge but that's for another time.


Frederic L. Milliken said...

Thank you for your comments, Justa.

The Canadian Masonic system, as diverse as it is, is one I admire.

It contrasts sharply with Southern USA Masonry. 40 states have recognized Prince Hall leaving ten left to do likewise. Those ten contain 50% of the total PH population nationwide. It is to them much of what I write is penned.

Jesus' connection is revelant and I urge you to read Wilmshurst's "The Meaning of Masonry".

Northern and Canadian Freemasonry still does not understand a scripturally based philosphy because they have not been involved in such a fraternal society. I was raised in Freemasonry much as you practice it and think of it. Yet there is a whole new world out here for the taking

To deny that Whites forced Blacks into certain modes of behavior thus creating their traditions for them is to deny history. Of course that is USA history not Canadian.

Good to hear from you!

Masonic Traveler said...


I very much like what you’ve posted here. I did find it troubling to read the part of the failure of MS Masonry to take responsibility for PHA lodge development, but perhaps my concern is more our of ignorance rather than knowledge.

There is no doubt that the PHA experience (as the black experience) is an absolute result of their position relative to that of others in power. Is MS Freemasonry to blame though is questionable as it too operated under the social morays of their time. From a modern perspective it is difficult to adjudge how they “should” have acted when instead we can say the whole of past experience was wrong minded across the board.

With that said, I think the exploration of the religious presence is a profound one, and one linked to the situations that I just spoke of above. Because of this vacuum like development, it was bereft of the religious dilution that came into Masonry in the past 100 years essentially linking it most likely to how Masonry was practiced at the end of the 19th Century. This is merely a guess, but one that seems to resonate as we look at it in juxtaposition to the works of Wilmsurst and the Webb Preston Rituals of the York Rite.

Freemasonry WAS inherently a Christian organization, with allegory from the Old Testament that leads directly to the house of David, and there by Jesus himself (even in some respects alluding to him in the mystery of H.A.). And that these strong ties to one religion have been less emphasized by the Main Stream branch, for reasons their own.

So it would seem that PH masonry has kept that aspect of American Masonry and grown with it in the decades of the last century. It is merely a different branch of the same tree, though unchanged as ideas of the 20th Century began to reshape Main Stream Masonry. So, to use the oxymoron it is the “same but different”. Neither better nor worse, merely a bit different.

Will this affect the recognition issue? That will remain to be seen. But from the interview with Brother Anderson I can say that what he said sounded like Freemasonry to me in every way, and hopefully it will serve to represent “for the record” as an example of the passion we all have for Freemasonry.

In the end, would I suggest that MS go back to it roots of a specific faith practice? I would caution not to as it would close off some of the more profound development from its recent past and for its future. Nor would I suggest Prince Hall to change its Modus Operandi, as it retains a vibrant quality of its past and community. The two can exist together and nurture one another as they proceed into the future.

In short, Great piece Fred.

Frederic L. Milliken said...

QUOTE: I don't get your logic that someone is somehow "responsible" for the actions of someone else it has nothing to do with, though I've heard lawyers use that argument that their client somehow isn't responsible for his own actions.
QUOTE: Is MS Freemasonry to blame though is questionable as it too operated under the social morays of their time. From a modern perspective it is difficult to adjudge how they “should” have acted when instead we can say the whole of past experience was wrong minded across the board.


Well I would say look at what the White man did to the American Indian. We sure changed their way of life.

Regarding the Black experience it was not Black society's way to have everything eminate from the church. It was forced upon them. Because it was forced upon them, Freemasonry grew up as an arm of the church not because that would be the way they would do it if left alone to gather freely wherever they wanted but because that was the only way they were allowed to operate. That explains why Prince Hall seems so "religous" or Christian to some.

I am a big believer in not applying todasy's standards to yesteryears decisions. Slavery was the norm at one time. And I am not about to champion the removal of Washington and Jefferson from all school history books because they owned slaves.

And I haven't been saying that here. What I am saying is that once Mainstream Masonry finally realizes what id did - why can't it try to make amends rather than constantly pushing Blacks away who have over and over and over again petitioned for some kind of togetherness.

Not that the Black community or Prince Hall is squeeky clean. It's not an all one side thing.

And you do see Mainstream now moving in the direction of a shared Brotherhood. Progress has been made.

However, what I am saying, is too many White Masons are not taking into account how past actions affected future behavior and events. All I am asking is that they take some responsibility today- by admitting that things happened because of the actions of man years ago and then to try to work with what those past actions created rather than constantly saying that Prince Hall is practicing Masonry the wrong way, they are too much this and too little that.........and they just don't meet the white standard.

Frederic L. Milliken said...

I would like to further add:

I know that there are some Prince Hall Masons who do not want Recogniton nor do they want Mainstream Masons sitting in their Lodges. It is what it is. It happens.

And I’m not blaming my ancestors and your ancestors for what happened between Whites & Blacks. Nor am I blaming today’s Masons for what happened 100 or even 200 years ago. What I am saying is in “take responsibility” – is to recognize what happened, admit that it could have been done better and then make sure that today’s values are being implemented today.

But that’s not what’s being done in some cases. Masons are still trying to apply yesteryear’s standards to today. I won’t try to apply today’s standards to times past but I will try to implement them here and now.

What we have done civilly in society is to implement preferential treatment in education, in jobs and in most of society to make sure that we bend over backwards to correct past wrong doings and to insure that the opportunity today is there. But we are not doing the same in a significant amount of cases in Freemasonry.

When I can still listen to Masons talk about their Grand Lodge by-laws prohibiting Prince Hall and Mainstream interaction I cringe. When I listen to Masons tout the American Doctrine of the Exclusive Right of Territorial Jurisdiction as a reason why Prince Hall should not be recognized I am listening to Brothers who want to apply standards from long ago to today’s problems. It just doesn’t wash and it doesn’t come clean. Those Masons who think this way are standing on technicalities to enforce the letter of the law made long ago in order that changes that most of society can see need to be made today are thwarted. What I want to say is rules and regulations be dammed. When something needs to be done, it just needs to be done.

In our civil society one needs to realize that Martin Luther King marched for civil rights 50 years ago. Yes, 50 YEARS AGO! And the Civil Rights Law of 1964 was signed 44 years ago. Much of Masonry is living in the past and some refuse to implement what we as a people long ago recognized that needed to be done.

So take responsibility for what has happened and fix it. Understand what happened in the past and that the results you see today are often dictated by circumstances of long ago. Take responsibility for correcting what was beyond another’s ability to do otherwise. Implement today’s societal values in today’s Masonry. Do not try to perpetuate what we now know to be wrong because that’s what the rules still require.

Look at West Virginia. They expelled Grand Master Frank Haas for talking to Prince Hall (among other charges). He didn’t sit in Lodge with them. He didn’t go to the Prince Hall Grand Lodge Building or have Prince Hall Masons come to the Mainstream Grand Lodge or sit in a Mainstream Lodge. He met them at a neutral site, a hotel, to explore avenues of cooperation by opening up a dialogue. For doing that he was brought up on charges and expelled. How can both sides ever get together if it against Grand Lodges rules to even talk to each other?

And let’s also stop demanding that one style of Masonry is the only correct one. I keep hearing that Prince Hall Masons pray to Jesus in Lodge and that is not correct. Says who? I hear that Prince Hall practices Masonry with a rough style and that is forbidden. Says who? I hate to tell Mainstream Masonry that they have 51 jurisdictions with 51 different ways, different ritual and different traditions. So which Mainstream Masonry is correct? What is the one and only true Masonry? There isn’t any. All spokes on my bicycle wheel, however, lead to the same hub.

Let’s come together as equals celebrating our diversity and recognizing our different traditions as all valid. Let’s bring American Freemasonry into the 21st Century with the rest of society.

higgs_boson said...

Brother Fred:

As a Jewish freemason, I'm slightly uncomfortable with the idea of an explicitly Christian freemasonry. I have no problem with having my lodge "dedicated to the Holy Saints John", nor am I uncomfortable with Wilmshurst, Pike or Mackey when they mention "the Christian Teacher" in their writings. Without revealing any content I am obligated to keep silent about, I was mildly uncomfortable with the 18th Degree of the Scottish Rite (in the NMJ version), but I felt that the Most Wise Master did an excellent job of showing that the ritual was not exclusively Christian.

I love my Christian brothers, but I do not want to worship in a Christian manner, nor have a prayer addressed to Jesus given at my lodge, nor at any lodge I visit. Just as Prince Hall brothers were forced to limit their social interaction to the church because of the nature of their oppression, Jews were often forced to Christianize because of the nature of our oppression. You can understand that some of us are somewhat sensitive about it, and how grateful we are that freemasonry does not treat us this way.

There is biblical content in freemasonry. The VSL is opened to a specific passage for each degree, and I include those passages, in the original Hebrew, in my morning prayers. I even read and endorse the New Testament content, as I feel confident that it was chosen for its wisdom, and in a manner designed not to offend non-Christian brothers.

I had to sit with what Right Worshipful Brother Anderson said about the integration of Christianity with Prince Hall freemasonry before I made my peace with it, which I did. As a Massachusetts regular freemason, I am proud that Prince Hall brothers feel welcome attending my lodge, and I fully intend to repay them the compliment (I was just raised in June, and have not visited any other lodge yet).

While not as common as white-on-black racism, there have historically been many so-called brothers who were quick to throw a black cube when a Jew knocked at the West Gate. In my region of Massachusetts, a few lodges were formed by Jewish freemasons who no longer felt comfortable in their mother lodge, and welcomed Jewish brothers who could not get into a normal lodge. My grandfather's lodge was mostly Jewish, and has, 25 years after his death, merged with the larger, normal lodge in his town.

I just wanted to point out, respectfully, that there are reasons to question whether lodges should be explicitly Christian that do not have to do with the historical lack of fraternalism between mainstream and Prince Hall freemasonry.