The History of Freemasonry in Virginia

By Bladek, John David | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The History of Freemasonry in Virginia


Bladek, John David, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The History of Freemasonry in Virginia. By RICHARD A. RUTYNA and PETER C. STEWART. Lanham, Md., New York, and Oxford: University Press of America, Inc., for the Grand Lodge A.F. & A.M. of Virginia, 1998. xii, 561 pp. $30.00.

THE Freemasons have long been America's most famous secret society; serious works on their history are rare, however, and the Masons themselves are often only background material for studies of antimasonry. Richard A. Rutyna and Peter C. Stewart's History of Freemasonry in Virginia is a serious attempt to address the lack of scholarship and to separate Masonic myth from history, an effort they compare to the "fifth labor of Hercules" (p. ix). The book's strength lies not in its myth busting, however, but in Rutyna and Stewart's highly detailed study of the membership and organization of the Masonic lodges in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The authors cover the fraternity from the revolutionary era until 1997, although the twentieth century is included almost as an afterthought. The majority of the work, nearly threequarters, is dedicated to the period from the Revolution until the Civil War. And it is little wonder, for it was during this period that Virginia's Freemasons boasted their most influential membership and reflected the state's history as a whole.

The authors spend considerable space discussing Masonic political influence, most notably during the constitutional convention and ratification debates. They delve into great detail on the Virginia Freemasons present at the convention (George Washington, Edmund Randolph, John Blair, Jr., and Dr. James McClurg) but see little real influence coming from the Masons as such. It seems the fact that a majority of the Virginia delegates were Masons (four of seven) was only incidental. As an explanation for Masonic voting patterns during the ratification debates, the authors fall back on the old commercial argument, noting that most Masons had commercial ties and therefore supported the mercantile benefits of the new Constitution. Their conclusion is that the Freemasons' affinity, first for revolution and then constitution, came from a general similarity between Masonic beliefs and revolutionary ideology, but members were never bound politically to vote as Masons.

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