St. Augustine and The Fraternal Orders
Part five of a series
Secret Societies, The Masons
By Geoff Dobson
Some years back, the writer, while researching a fraternal order, The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, came across a website for a Buffaloes Lodge which had a hyperlink promising to provide information as to the Order. Upon clicking the link, a pop-up advised “We can’t. It’s a secret society.”
Although, from their name, the Buffaloes would seemingly predate the Great Flood, it is generally accepted that the various Masonic Orders are the oldest of the so-called “secret societies.”
Written documentation for the Masons date to the Middle Ages in Britain. Some claim that the Masons date to King Solomon’s Temple or to the Knights Templar although written documentation of such claims are at best sparse. In St. Augustine, the Masons have been active since the British Period (1763-1783). Two British Royal Governors of Florida, James Grant of East Florida and George Johnstone of West Florida, were members of the Order.
In addition to the Buffaloes and the Masons, other secret societies include the Odd Fellows, the Elks, the Eagles, the Moose, the Patrons of Husbandry (the Grange), the Knights of Pythias, the Improved Order of Redmen, and the Knights of Columbus. At one time, it was estimated that in the United States there were some 2,000 fraternal or secret societies and that 25 per cent of all American men belonged to a fraternal order, many belonging to multiple orders. The orders were as widely diverse as the Masonic Orders to the Order of Houn’ Dawgs (Founded in 1912. Lodges were called “Kennels.”) and the Improved Order of Yellow Dogs.
The various orders had elaborate secret rituals which in many instances have now been “simplified” as a result of the loss of members. None were, perhaps, more elaborate than those of the Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm, a Masonic order which reputedly requires 40 prophets to stage.
In most instances, the ritual includes a secret initiatory ritual usually consisting of a symbolic journey from station to station where officers will reveal the secrets consisting of allegorical lessons. The lessons basically teach one to be a better person, practicing charity, patriotism, and faithfulness to one’s fellow mankind. The rituals for the various organizations are quite similar, to the extent that some contend that they are modeled on those of the Masonic orders. Indeed, in one instance an officer of one local organization began during one initiation giving the charge from a different order.
Additionally, the various orders are characterized by mystic symbols which impart the lessons of the order and in some instances the orders also have secret passwords, grips, distress signs, and signs of recognition. Most orders also require a belief in God. In order to keep these a secret, the Masons, depending upon the state Grand Lodge, orally pass the teachings and ritual or utilize a ritual book written in code. The secrets are, additionally, maintained by an obligation or oath in which the candidate understands to be enforced by a gruesome penalty akin to being hanged, drawn, quartered and being burned alive, all described in elaborate detail.
The Masons have a series of subordinate or related orders including the Eastern Star, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America (“the Shrine”), The Mystic Order of Vailed Prophets of the Enchanted Realm (the “Grotto”), The Daughters of Mokanna (the “Caldron”), the Rainbow Girl for daughters of Masons, DeMolay for teenaged boys, The Masonic orders are divided into two principal branches, York Rite and Scottish Rite, the latter allegedly descended from the Knights Templar.
In reality, of course, the secrets are not very secret. As pointed out by one person, how secret is a secret society that above its Lodge Building is a large sign, the meeting dates and time are publicly posted (1st and 3rd Thursdays), and the ritual is in reality available by means of a simple “Google” search. Indeed, the local lodge posts on its website full text books explaining the Lost Key of Masonry, the Lost Word , and the Symbolism of 3 Degrees. Secret signs of recognition seem somewhat redundant when members wear Masonic rings or pins. Although in the United States, Masonry, unlike some other fraternal organizations, has not been featured on postage stamps, many of its symbols have been appeared on a British postage stamp. In the stamp, His Majesty, a past Grand Master, is in the east: the trowel and brick wall are emblematic of brotherly love; the position of the square and compass symbolize the Fellowcraft degree and brotherly love; the Dove, under British practice, is the symbol of Noah’s messenger and would, thus, be worn by the deacons who serve as the messengers of the Master of the Lodge. The acacia is the symbol of immortality. The color of the stamp is the color of symbolic Masonry, i.e. the “Blue Lodge.”
There was, of course, a time when secrecy was a necessity. In Florida, under Spanish rule, Masonry was illegal. Masonry was banned by the Nazis, Vichy France, by the Ottoman Empire and some other Islamic countries, in Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain and elsewhere. During World War II, the lodges in occupied Europe were plundered for their membership lists which were turned over to German authorities.
The secret ritual and signs of Masonry have over the years given rise to various conspiracy theories by imaginative writers Those theories involve, among other things, the lost treasure of the Knights Templar, the lost Holy Grail, and the alleged rescue from execution of Grand Marshal Michel Ney, Napoleon’s “Bravest of the Brave. ”
Each will be discussed in the next article.
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org