Albert Mackey & A History of Freemasonry
Albert Gallatin Mackey was born on March 13, 1807, in Charleston, South Carolina. Initially, the future titan of Masonic academia would pursue medicine, as his father, Johnathan, had. However, he would eventually alter his life’s intellectual trajectory to collide with the disciplines of philology and general history. Somewhat of an autodidact, Mackey was able to attain near fluency in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and many of what were at the time called the continental languages, on his own. This and the study of other subjects would lead him to examine more obscure and occult subjects, such as the Talmudic schools, Rosicrucianism, and the Kabbalah. Certainly, what medicine lost in Mackey’s application of genius; Freemasonry would gain.
Among his many contributions to the literary landscape, including the establishment of his own, self-funded quarterly, The Southern and Western Masonic Miscellany, A History of Freemasonry stands as one of his chief accomplishments, and a monolith of intellectual power and commitment. Published in seven volumes and copyrighted in 1896, one of the primary goals of the collection itself, says Clegg, a later revisor and compiler of Mackey’s work, was “to divest the Legends of the Craft of the false values given to them by blind belief, and to protect them from the equally false estimate bestowed upon them by the excessive disbelief of those unphilosophical skeptics who view them but as idle fables without more meaning than what these doubters attach to monkish legends.”
I submit to you, as many have claimed before me, that this task was largely accomplished, and that even the passage of nearly two and half centuries has only reinforced the notion that Mackey was right to embark on this work. In fact, his approach and his claims have been so widely accepted and demonstrated, corroborated, and vindicated, that they have been in a great measure integrated completely into the fabric of the Masonic historical discourse, such that they are almost the background radiation of the genesis of true Masonic scholarship. Truly, it is as the Italian tosaphist Isaiah di Trani said, “So too we are dwarfs astride the shoulders of giants. We master their wisdom and move beyond it. Due to their wisdom, we grow wise and are able to say all that we say, but not because we are greater than they.” Mackey, I think, would appreciate being mentioned in the same paper as a Talmudist.
Brethren, and friends, there is much more to say regarding the life and times of Brother Mackey, suffice it to say, his accomplishments, which include ascending to the Sovereign Grand Commandership of the Mother Council of the World of the 33rd Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry for the Southern Jurisdiction, and a delegation to the1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention after the American Civil War for his contributions at the Port of Charleston, were many and great. Now, however, we will turn our attention to an overview of the great work itself, Mackey’s History of Freemasonry.
“Such is the plan of the history that has been pursued in the present work, a plan which materially and essentially differs from that of any preceding writer. Iconoclasts have composed monographs in which they attack particular fallacies and denounced special forgeries but the history of Freemasonry as a whole has not before been written with the same spirit of candor that has been or should always be exercised in the composition of history. Doubtless the well settled and carefully nourished prejudices of some will be shocked by any attempt to expose the fallacies and falsehoods which have too long tarnished the annals of Freemasonry. Yet such an attempt cannot, if it be successfully pursued, but command the approval of all who believe with Cicero that history is “the witness of time, the light of truth, and the life of memory.””
The introductory book of the series covers the broadest concepts with which Mackey hoped to inspire the reader for his future explorations. First, we have a division and explanation of the partition Mackey made between “the Legendary” and the “Historic” history of Masonry. In essence, these were, respectively, the at the time commonly held yet erroneous and altogether fantastical accounts of the origins of Freemasonry, and the actual, verifiable, and academically sound accounts of the same. In this volume are contained transcripts and analyses of old manuscripts such as the Halliwell Poem, and in-depth criticisms of such connections as the Tower of Babel and the Andersonian Theory.
This volume covers a range of topics, and happens to be one of my favorites because one of those subjects is the controversy, or misapprehension surrounding Freemasonry, the Third Degree, and the House of Stuart. Not only is this one of my favorite periods in English history to study, that of the Reformation and Cromwell, but the intrigue of politics enmeshed with the rise of Masonic prestige and power presents a fantastic framework for study. Also in this volume is contained many other fascinating vignettes on the Gnostics, early Masons in France, Rosicrucianism, and the Anglo-Saxons.
The London Companies and the Medieval Freemasons are covered here, as well as the Harlien Manuscript and other significant texts of the time. Additionally, an exhaustive account of the French and German Mason’s guilds of the Middle Ages and their secret modes of recognition. Mackey takes it for granted here that these groups would have had many secret ways of identifying one another across the world, but also backs up his claim with other accounts and historical treatments. Mentioned as well is the practice of “Mason’s Marks” or Master’s Marks, which he comes back to later in the text. Perhaps most significantly is the first exposition on the transition from Operative Masonry to Speculative Masonry.
This volume is primary composed of a treatise on Speculative Masons in England and the creation of the Fellow Craft and Master Masons Degree, both subjects being of great and important interest. Included as a matter of course is the creation of the Grand Lodge of England and some text concerning the great schism of the century, the complete resolution of which Mackey would not live to see.
Here is detailed the formation and genealogy of the Grand Lodge of France, a must read concerning the later evolution of the French Rites and the Haut Grades de Franc. Here is mentioned in depth the creation of the Royal Arch and that Rite in Masonry in America, which includes Mackey’s history of The Christian Knights in the United States and the introductory of Knight’s Templarism in America
Volume opens with a lengthy history of Masonry in each Territory and the subordinate Commanderies, the Ancient Arabic Order and the Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets. Then we come to what might be considered nearly contemporary historical Masonry, or that history which is germane to many discussions on the topic of how Masonry evolved in America. Not only this, but much of what occurs here would be of later impact on Mackey and the resurgence of Masonry and the revivification of the Supreme Council, of which he would later be a member. The anti-masonic movement is of particular interest for the Masonic scholar who wishes to better understand the ebb and flow of Masonic power in the western world and how opinions on the Order have changed over time. Also mentioned and worth exploring for the discerning student is the History of so-called “colored Freemasonry.”
Here we find, as an introductory, a four part series on the nature of symbolism, which are entitled Introduction; Three Revelations; Numbers; and Legends and Symbols. Then, Mackey elaborates on the inclusion of Freemasonry in Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Porto Rico, Central and South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
I hope this short overview has intrigued you, and provoked the contemplative among you to search for further light (or maybe even try and buy a set of these books yourself!). In any case, stop by and see us again soon, and we’ll have more content for you.