Anti-Masonic Movements

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ANTI-MASONIC MOVEMENTS. Widespread anti-Masonry first developed in the 1790s with unsubstantiated charges that Masonic lodges in the United States imported and encouraged radical European revolutionary ideas. Nonetheless, after 1800 Freemasonry—a fraternal order originally brought to the colonies from Britain—flourished and included such distinguished members as George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Henry Clay. Freemasonic lodges, offering mutual support and fellowship primarily to mobile, middle-class men who had time to participate and could afford to pay substantial dues, multiplied North and South. Masons uniformly swore oaths never to reveal the content of their elaborate, secret rituals and promised to defend fellow Masons. By the 1820s, most states had chartered grand lodges to over-see the many local lodges. Handsome new Masonic temples, together with Masonic participation in public parades and ceremonies, attracted attention in the North, particularly in western New York, sections of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and portions of the six New England states.

In March 1826 a disgruntled Mason, William Morgan of Batavia, New York, engaged a newspaper editor to help him publish a book exposing the content of Masonic rituals. On 12 September 1826 a group of outraged Masons from western New York kidnapped Morgan. Morgan's subsequent disappearance and suspected murder by Masons first ignited a series of New York trials, then fueled a concerted campaign by opponents of Masonry who wished to identify individual Masons, eliminate local lodges, outlaw Masonic oaths, and revoke the charters of Masonic state organizations. Between 1826 and 1836 anti-Masons from Vermont to the Michigan Territory forcefully argued that Freemasonry was inherently aristocratic, secular, and immoral—a danger to young men, families, Christianity, and the republic. The uncompromising program to eradicate Masonry split churches, divided communities, induced about two-thirds of Masons to desert their lodges, and created the a third party, the Anti-masonic Party.

Anti-Masons established newspapers and tract societies and held mass meetings featuring the testimony of seceding Masons. Having discovered large numbers of Masons in public offices, anti-Masons drove state legislatures to investigate Masonry and turned to political action. From 1827 to 1833 in Morgan's Genesee County, New York, they captured every county office. Elsewhere, they gained local offices, won seats in state legislatures, and elected governors in Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Rhode Island. In September 1831 the anti-Mason convention at Baltimore, the first national party nominating convention, selected Maryland's William Wirt, former U.S. attorney general, as its presidential candidate for 1832. Unwilling to campaign, Wirt carried only Vermont. By 1836 the evolving Democratic and Whig parties had begun to absorb the anti-Masons.

Originally a grassroots social movement whose complex bases of support differed from place to place, anti-masonry became a crusade in Northern communities buffeted by confusing social, economic, and religious changes, but it lacked appeal in the South. Anti-Mason agitators, often established or rising businessmen and lawyers who resembled their Masonic counterparts, drew new voters into politics, advanced the convention system of selecting political candidates, contributed to the voter realignment that produced the Whig and Democratic party system, and helped launch the careers of politicians such as William Seward and Millard Fillmore. After the Civil War the efforts by Wheaton College president Jonathan Blanchard and aged evangelist Charles G. Finney to attack secret societies and revive anti-Masonry fizzled.


Goodman, Paul. Towards a Christian Republic: Antimasonry and the Great Transition in New England, 1826–1836. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Kutolowski, Kathleen Smith. "Antimasonry Reexamined: Social Bases of the Grass-Roots Party." Journal of American History 71, no. 2 (September 1984): 269–293.

Vaughn, William P. The Antimasonic Party in the United States, 1826–1843. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983.

Vaughn, William Preston. "The Reverend Charles G. Finney and the Post Civil War Antimasonic Crusade." The Social Science Journal 27, no. 2 (April 1990): 209–221.

Julienne L.Wood

See alsoFreemasons .