The 12th International Conference on Freemasonry is returning to the campus of the University of California in Berkeley on March 30, 2024, with a focus on “Rites in America.”

This exciting and informative yearly event brings scholars and academics from a wide range of disciplines together to present new research on topics of interest to Masons. This year’s theme, “Rites in America,” examines the almost countless forms and iterations of Masonry that have sprung up on this side of the Pacific, often in the particular context of immigrant communities or other, larger social movements. 

Says event organizer Susan Sommers, a professor of history at St. Vincent College, “Freemasonry is one of the oldest and most successful fraternal, initiatory societies in the Western world. Despite its reputation for secrecy, it is well known and well documented.” As different Masonic and quasi-Masonic groups formed in the Americas, they often built on Masonry’s ritual framework while adding their own features. “Why reinvent wheels when you can simply change the hubcaps?” she says. “Over the centuries, especially since around 1750, Freemasons have added, edited, and invented orders, rites, and rituals with something close to wild abandon, all the while claiming that the landmarks are immutable, and have been since Adam.”

Speakers

Jonathan Awtrey
Visiting Assistant Professor, Fairfield University
“Moses Michael Hays and Freemasonry in British North America”

Presentation Abstract: Jewish membership in North American Freemasonry peaked after about 1768, chiefly due to the efforts of one Jewish Mason, Moses Michael Hays, who played an integral role in the establishment of lodges in New York City, Newport, Boston, and Philadelphia. Jewish participation in Masonry, with its emphasis on equality and emancipation, occurred at the height of Jewish political activism in British North America. The public rites and rituals of Freemasonry also assisted Jewish Americans in their efforts to fashion public images as community leaders. For Jewish activists who agitated for social acceptance, religious freedom, and emancipation, Masonry functioned as an important cultural touchstone toward that end.

Speaker Bio: Jonathan Awtrey is a visiting assistant professor in the history department at Fairfield University, where he teaches courses on the American Revolution, early America, and world history. Professor Awtrey’s scholarship investigates Jewish migrants to North America and shows the practical cultural methods with which Jews widened the boundaries of religious freedom. Fellowships and research grants from LSU, the American Jewish Historical Society, American Jewish Archives, Southeastern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and the American Philosophical Society have supported his research and writing.

Jesse David Chariton
Ph.D Candidate, Department of History, Iowa State University
“German Americans and Masonic Baptism in the Antebellum United States”

Presentation Abstract: In 1859, the Grand Lodge of the state of Wisconsin suspended the charter of Concordia Lodge, which had formed only two years prior and was made up of German American immigrants, after that lodge held a special meeting called a “Sisters’ Lodge” in which they conferred a rite of baptism with wives and children present on the sons of its members. Members of Concordia argued that baptism was a normal practice among European lodges. The episode illustrates an interesting chapter in the history of German immigration to the United States, where German Americans actively participated in religious and secular voluntary associations as a way of reestablishing cultural ties. The case of Concordia Lodge illustrates that participation in such American organizations was sometimes a multi-step process.

Speaker Bio: Jesse David Chariton is a Ph.D student in the history department at Iowa State University. He earned a B.A. in archaeological studies and history from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse and completed his M.A. in history at Columbus State University. Specializing in 19th century American history, Chariton examines immigration and race and ethnicity through the lens of religion and voluntary associations. He has recently presented his research at the American Academy of Religion, the Lutheran Historical Conference, and the Society for German American Studies, which has supported his research with an Albert Bernhardt Faust Research Award.

Robert A. Gross
Professor of Early American History Emeritus, University of Connecticut
“Canceled and Back! How a Lodge Overcame Anti-Masonry and Regained a Place in Public Life”

Presentation Abstract: The Corinthian Lodge of Freemasons claimed a prominent place in the public life of Concord, Massachusetts, from its organization in 1798 until the early 1830s. But the anti-Masonry movement flared in the early 1830s, inspiring a populist movement that shattered political consensus, unsettled an entrenched elite, and forced the lodge to hold only sporadic meetings until 1845 and inducted few members. Then, in January 1845, regular meetings resumed with no opposition, and continued thereafter down to the present. So how did the Freemasons of Concord come back, and how did they avoid a revival of anti-Masonry? Did the fraternity change its policies to reassure a suspicious public? Or had the wider society changed in ways that diminished concerns about the lodge? In this example, we see a case study of what it was like to be “canceled” in a small New England town—and how it was possible to come back.

Speaker bio: Robert A. Gross is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History Emeritus at the University of Connecticut. A specialist in the social and cultural history of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War, Gross focuses particularly on New England. His first book, The Minutemen and Their World (1976) received the Bancroft Prize in American History in 1977; it was reissued in a 25th anniversary edition in 2001. A revised and expanded edition appeared in 2022 from Picador books, in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. Prof. Gross’s latest book is The Transcendentalists and Their World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021), chosen by the Wall Street Journal as one of the 10 best books of 2021. Prof. Gross has also been active in the development of the interdisciplinary field known as the history of the book. A former director of the Program for the History of the Book in American Culture at the American Antiquarian Society, he co-edited with Mary Kelley An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790-1840 (2010), volume two in the series A History of the Book in American Culture. He has also taught at Amherst College, William and Mary, Brandeis, and Brown. Active in historical organizations, Prof. Gross is a trustee of the Concord Museum and a director of the Thoreau Society of America; he has also served on the Councils of the American Antiquarian Society and of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. He has lived in Concord since 2014.

Alexander Towey
Lecturer, History Department, California State University, San Marcos
“Ebb & Flow: Freemasonry’s Rise, Decline, and Renaissance in American Society”

Presentation Abstract: During the 1960s, service clubs in the United States including the Masons started to diminish in membership. Leading scholars have tried to understand why Americans decided to not join these various social clubs, focusing primarily on external factors include changing community geography and a shift in larger patterns of sociability. Virtually none have examined how the Masons themselves changed in response to these external forces. Towey’s research investigates at how Masonic lodges reacted over the course of the 20th century, from the boom periods after World Wars I and II to a later emphasis on quality over quantity and an increasing focus on Masonic philosophy, education, and symbolism.

Speaker bio: Alex Towey is a lecturer of U.S. History at California State University San Marcos. His main area of study is U.S. history, fraternal organizations, Freemasonry, and their impact on society. His recent work, “The Rise, Decline, and Renaissance of Freemasonry in the United States during the 20th and 21st Century” (2022) has been published by The Philalethes Society. Towey is the recipient of the 2022 Philalethes Society Award of Literature. Other research of his, including “Freemasonry and the Middle East” (2014) and “The Chinon Parchment” (2015) has been published in Living Stones Magazine. Towey has been a Mason since 2006.

Dr. María Eugenia Vázquez Semadeni
“Mexicanizing Freemasonry: The National Mexican Rite ”

Presentation Abstract: In the 1820s, Mexico achieved its independence and rapidly transitioned from a monarchy to a republic. The York and Scottish Masonic rites in Mexico were deeply involved in this transformation and played the role of political parties. But in 1825, a small group founded a third Masonic order: the Rito Nacional Mexicano, or RNM, to “preserve” the “true” fraternal and rational values of Freemasonry and keep it out of political struggles. Paradoxically, during the second half of the 19th century, the National Rite became the main political tool of the Mexican liberals. By the 1860s and 70s, the rite had modified its discourses, rituals, and internal practices to “secularize” Freemasonry and thus contribute to the secularization of Mexican society. It used the Mexican constitution instead of the Bible at the altar; it dropped the requirement of faith in a Supreme Being (seven years before the Grand Orient of France did the same); it changed the liturgy of its degrees; and it admitted women. Even as Masonry’s usefulness as a political tool waned after the revolution, the RNM remained a vehicle for social and cultural transformation, working for “the triumph of the truth and the progress of the human race.”

Speaker bio: María Eugenia Vázquez Semadeni is a historian, author, and expert on Mexican Freemasonry, Mexican political history, and Hispanic-American parliamentarianism. She is the co-author, with Margaret Jacob, of Freemasonry and Civil Society: Europe and the Americas (2023, Peter Lang). After receiving her Ph.D and MA in history from El Colegio de Michoacán, she served as a visiting professor and assistant adjunct professor at UCLA’s History Department from 2011 to 2016. In 2014, she was granted the Tinker Visiting Professorship at Stanford University. Her research focuses on Freemasonry, political culture, republican languages, the formation of secular civil society, and the political parties of 19th- and 20th-century Mexico. She is also a member of the Centro de Estudios Históricos de la Masonería Española and the Centro de Estudios Históricos de la Masonería Latinoamericana y Caribeña.

S. Brent Morris
“The Rectified Scottish Rite”

Presentation Abstract: Robert Benjamin and the oldest English-language version of the Chevalier Bienfaisant de la Cite Sainte—aka the Rectified Scottish Rite.

Speaker bio: Brent Morris retired in 2021 as managing editor of the Scottish Rite Journal, the world’s largest circulation Masonic magazine, and in 2020 as the founding editor of Heredom, the transactions of the Scottish Rite Research Society. He worked as a mathematician and computer scientist for twenty-five years before that, serving as a governor of the Mathematical Association of America and a Distinguished Lecturer of the Association of Computing Machinery. He has lectured at over 100 American universities as well as the Magic Circle and the Worshipful Livery of Makers of Playing Cards in London. His publications include two patents, eight technical papers, a book on the mathematics of card shuffling, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry, and 50+ books on Freemasonry.