In Colonial America, the majority of the people lived along the coastlines for simple reasons; these were the areas where there was a greater chance for employment with the ports being located there. With the most of the population being located in and around port cities it was obviously an area where there were more churches, better chances for social gatherings as well as it being where the majority of the early Masonic Lodges were located.
In this period, a formal education was mainly a thing of luxury reserved for only the rich. The main ways a man could be educated was limited to three things, he could take apprenticeship in a trade, he could be educated in biblical teachings from his church, and if he were a Freemason, he was able to be educated through his Lodge. Since this is a Masonic magazine, obviously this is where the focus of the rest of this article will lay. “The Lodges sought to civilize, to teach manners and decorum, to augment the order and harmony of civil society. They taught men to speak in public, to keep records, to pay taxes, to be tolerant, to debate freely, to vote, to moderate their feasting, and to give lifelong devotions to the other citizens of their order.”[i] The Freemasons in that day and age were learning a lot from their attendance at Lodge meetings. “More important than the influence of Freemasons themselves was the influence the Fraternity had on the society around it. The goal of Masonry is to make good men better, and to make the world a better place by encouraging its members to become more responsible fathers, sons and citizens, and thereby becoming better examples to others. This is precisely what was going on in colonial America. Men who had no formal education were being introduced to the ideas of enlightenment, either directly as Masons themselves, or simply by association with Freemasons.”[ii]
“To no order in society is the encouragement of schools and the advancement of knowledge more valuable than to the Fraternity. The liberal arts and sciences were formally taught in Lodges and Brethren imparted instruction to their children and others than was found in any except Masonic families.”[iii] Why would this not be a desire of a Freemason, after all are we not taught to practice outside of Lodge those lessons, which we received within, if men were getting an education through there Lodge as well as their association with Freemasons it naturally, left them to wonder, why could their children not receive an education? During this period in history, a formal education was reserved mainly for the wealthy with the exception of extremely limited schools, such as Dame Schools, Town Schools, and the Latin Grammar School, which was reserved for the wealthy only and the most popular was the Primer School where children were taught not much more than to read and write. On a side note, the Primer School was where the children’s prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” originated. No matter how you look at it, in those days children of most families were not receiving much of an education if they were at all.
There was one Freemason in particular whom we have all heard of who was responsible for many great inventions and was an all-around great man and Freemason known everywhere for many things. Brother Benjamin Franklin, in 1749 started up a school that was called the “Publick Academy of Philadelphia.” Students of his school were of high school age and the interesting thing about Franklin’s new school is that “it had no counterpart in Europe and had no religious motive.”[iv] Sounds like the ideals of a Freemason to me. The school had the intention of not only preparing students for college but for normal life as well. “The curriculum advanced by Franklin included navigation, surveying, agriculture, the spoken languages of the day, natural history, chemistry, physics, government, and history.”[v] This initial curriculum over the mid eighteenth century was gradually forced to mold as time progressed but, “his school is pointed to as the first American Academy, which was the transition institution from the Latin grammar school to the modern high school”[vi] that we know today.
During the first half century of the schools existence, it saw rise to the first medical school in the colonies in 1765, also some of our newly formed countries earliest law lectures under its brand new government were given in 1790 at this school. By the first half of the century of this particular school, it had been educating the leadership of not only its own faculty and students but for the new nation as well. Nine signers of the Declaration of Independence and eleven signers of the Constitution were associated with the school in one way or another.
Brother Franklin’s school eventually became the College of Philadelphia and presently it is known under a different name, one that most all of us know and respect, as it is one of the most respected Ivy League Universities in the country. His humble school has, since its inception, turned into the University of Pennsylvania, which occurred in 1791 once it was made private, and the revolutionary fervor resulting from our nations independence died down. One of the most coveted Ivy League Universities in the country, as well as Americas first high school and university came to be all because one Freemason saw the importance of an equal education for all, a man that knew that if our soon to become country was to succeed it needed to have educated, wise citizens for this to be possible.
Another famous Freemason felt so strongly about this that he decided to include the following in his farewell address of 1796. Brother George Washington stated, “promote then, as as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”[vii] Brother Washington knew that if the newly formed nation was going to succeed, the education of its people was crucial.
Let me leave you with this to think about. We hear of and see entirely too many Lodges in this country slowly but surely going downhill with lack of attendance, lack of interest, and I myself have seen many Lodges in which the officers are reading their respective parts of ritual from a book or have written it down themselves so they can refer to them at a meeting. Some Lodges, the officers do recite the ritual from memory and that is a wonderful thing as it was meant to be, but aside from the memorization, there is not much else. Think about those words Brother Washington said and think about that simple little school that Brother Franklin started. How are our Lodges and different? If we are to continue and to succeed, we need to be Masonically educated. I am no Masonic expert, but I am an extremely Masonically educated man and even have the luxury to make my living as a Freemason, and I ask you, please bring back education to all Lodges, without it we will not continue on the way we were meant to do.
This in part is an excerpt from my presentation entitled “Freemasonry and Public Education” hosted at www.matsol.info
[i] Living the Enlightenment, Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth Century Europe by Margaret C. Jacob ©1991 Oxford University Press Inc., page 23
[ii] Solomon’s Builders by Christopher Hodapp ©2007 Christopher Hodapp, published by Ulysses Press
[iii] Revolutionary Brotherhood, Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 by Stephen C. Bullock ©1996 The University of North Carolina Press, page 148
[iv] Our Public Schools by William E. Givens and Belmont M. Farley, published in 1959 by the A.A.S.R.,S.M.J. page 14
[v] Ibid page 14
[vi] Ibid page 14-15
[vii] Farewell address by George Washington 1796