"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Friday, January 12, 2018

January 12, 1818: "A New Constellation in the Firmament of Masonry"

Today's post is one for my home team here in Indiana. We kick off a big party here as of this morning: the Bicentennial celebration of the Grand Lodge of Indiana F&AM.

Two hundred years ago today on a cold, wintery Monday, Freemasons representing nine widely scattered and isolated Masonic lodges assembled at the prospering river town of Madison, Indiana. There that week, legendarily in a second floor room of what we know today as Schofield House, they exchanged their original Ohio and Kentucky charters for new ones, and officially organized and constituted the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Indiana.

To the English mind in the mid-18th century, the word “Indiana” was touched with romance and the echoes of a faraway Utopia. Like India, it was a fanciful product of bungled Latin for the farthermost eastern shore of the Orient that might be reached by sailing far enough west. Clever land speculators latched on to it as the perfect word for a rich wilderness that beckoned, as they’d done with other land deals, like “Transylvania” in Kentucky, or “Vandalia” in West Virginia and Illinois. It even came into vogue as a woman’s name, and novelists like Fanny Burney and George Sand christened their wild, beautiful heroines as Indiana. 
Out here in the West, we were batted around between the French, the English, and even Spain for a bit. And the Indians, of course. Indiana had clung to the far northwestern end of Virginia under the English. Then we were declared part of the Northwest Territory after 1787. By 1800, Ohio was split off from us and became its own state to our east.  But the Indiana Territory was still a rough, rugged, unsettled and dangerous place to be out on the edge of Western civilization. 

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, impatient potential settlers who had been stopped all along the Appalachian Mountains by the British troops and England's territorial claims began hotfooting it toward the West and the Indiana Territory. The Indians here soon had enough of white encroachment. Led by the legendary chief Tecumseh and his brother, 'The Prophet,' they weren't going to give up northwest Indiana without a putting up a significant fight, culminating at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. But with their final defeat, the settlers began to arrive in greater numbers. 

And so did Freemasonry.

After the end of what we Americans think of as the 'War of 1812' (really 1811-1815), white immigrants finally felt it was safe to settle in the Wabash Valley. 

By the summer of 1816, the lands along the Wabash River and many miles to its east had been surveyed and officially put up for sale from a land agent in Vincennes. The other major land sales office was at the Falls of the Ohio in Jeffersonville, across from Louisville, and it was doing a booming business as well, partially because Indiana offered even cheaper land prices than Ohio. So a huge flood of pioneers roared into Indiana. Fifty settlers’ wagons were recorded crossing the Muskingum River at Zanesville, Ohio on a single November day in 1816, all bound westward for Indiana. It was estimated that 42,000 people came to Indiana just in 1816 alone. Population rose enough between 1814-1816 to enable the Indiana Territory to officially become its own state on December 11, 1816.

In more than a few early towns and settlements at the time, the formal or informal establishment of a Masonic lodge often predated the arrival of the organization of a local church. Settlers were usually self-educated, and a Bible was their most commonly available reading material. Without a church, these isolated people received their religious and moral training, understanding, and reinforcement almost entirely from interpreting the family Bible on their own, discussing its various passages among their own family members or with the rare neighbor. Yet, any church coming into the area frequently brought with it disagreements over denomination differences. 

A Masonic lodge forming was a uniquely civilizing force on the edges of the frontier, unlike any other. If a settler was recognized as a man of honor and trust, and was made a Freemason, men of all classes, all political persuasions, and all religious denominations surrounded him, without descending into arguments. The lodge taught the basic tools of organizing and administering a democratic body, preparing members for civic responsibility, whether they knew it or not. Masons learned tolerance, benevolence, charity, prudence, justice, public speaking, cooperation, and more. And despite the altruistic, nonsectarian philosophy of lodge meetings, Masonic degrees were nonetheless centered around Old Testament themes—albeit filtered through its Enlightenment-era lens. Early frontier Masons could be forgiven for coming to regard their lodge meetings almost as a combination village meeting and a non-denominational religious service all its own.

And so, Masons from the nine lodges already at work in the new State of Indiana assembled in “Freemasons’ Hall” at Madison that Monday, January 12, 1818 and spent four days at labor. There were fourteen official representatives in all, eventually with thirteen visitors. They had come through the wilderness on horseback or by river, from as far as Vincennes, 150 miles away, and Brookville, 96 miles. 

By evening candle-lighting, they formally agreed to "proceed immediately to organize a Grand Lodge for the State of Indiana."  

The organizational meeting continued for four days. Alexander A. Meek, of Madison, presided over the organization of the new Grand Lodge. On Tuesday January 13th, they elected officers with Alexander Buckner, of Charlestown elected as the first Grand Master. Then they came forward and gave up their original charters, requesting new ones under the new authority, and adopted Webb's Illustrations of Masonry as their official ritualistic work. 

On the 14th, the attorneys in the group drafted their constitution and by-laws, and Buckner ordered the preparation of the new charters. Remembering the old Masonic admonition, at 4 PM, the twenty-seven brethren processed down the muddy streets of Madison, clad in their aprons, and assembled in divine worship at the nearby log-built Methodist church to ask the blessings of the Great Architect of the Universe on the work of their hands. 

On January 15th, they issued a formal address to the other existing grand lodges requesting recognition, and beginning life with five chartered lodges: Vincennes Lodge No.1; Madison's Union Lodge No. 2; Charlestown's Blazing Star Lodge No. 3; Lawrenceburg Lodge No. 4; and Corydon's Pisgah Lodge No. 5.

To the surprise of the assembled brethren, a sixth lodge already at work in Indiana did not give up its original heritage that week. Melchizidek Lodge’s large, colorful, and bombastic representative, Colonel Marston G. Clark of Salem, held out for reasons known only to himself, refusing just yet to officially turn in his lodge’s existing Kentucky charter in exchange for a new Indiana one. That lodge would close, and it would be 1822 before Salem Lodge No. 21 would be chartered.

Three more U.D. lodges were granted Indiana dispensations at that January meeting: Rising Sun Lodge, Vevay's Switzerland Lodge, and Brookville's Harmony Lodge.

The Grand Lodge of Kentucky was the first jurisdiction to extend formal, written, fraternal recognition of Indiana that September, declaring us to be "a new constellation in the firmament of Masonry."

Indiana began life with 176 known Freemasons associated with the lodges across the new state. The Grand Lodge recorded 37 'additions' by the end of its first year of labors, for a total of 214 members in its nine lodges. It was an auspicious beginning for what would eventually become the fifth largest grand lodge in the United States.

And so it is that Indiana officially enters its third century of Masonic labors and celebrations today.

Vivat! Vivat! Vivat!

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