John Banvard's "Loony Speculations About Masonic Oaths"
August 07, 2008
I was recently reading Paul Collins' book Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World. John Banvard (1815-1891) was a 19th-century American artist who was famous during his lifetime for presenting to audiences his panoramic paintings which he accompanied with live music and narration. One of his most famous travelogues took audiences for a trip on the Mississippi River. The painting was said to have been three miles long, depicting 1,200 miles of life along the Mississippi River. While Banvard narrated with musical accompaniment, one of his panoramic paintings depicting a bank of the Mississippi River was slowly cranked from one spool to another, so that the scene moved across the stage and gave audiences the illusion of viewing a bank of the Mississippi rolling by as one traveled by boat up or down the river. (Banvard only showed one bank at a time, and, depending on what show you went to, you either went upriver or downriver, since the canvas was threaded on two spools and Banvard didn't rewind the canvas in between shows.)
I found this all quite fascinating in terms of the history of American popular entertainment, but what caught my eye in terms of our library was a mention that in 1880 Banvard published a book of poetry entitled The Origin of the Building of King Solomon's Temple [RARE 63.B219 1880], with a cover title of The Tradition of the Temple. Collins remarks that the book's "epilogue descends into a miscellany of details about English church building, Egyptian obelisks, and loony speculations about Masonic oaths, a subject of apparently inexhaustible interest to the author."
Shown here is our copy of Banvard's book, which I took a look at. For better or worse (and I'll admit to being a little disappointed), Banvard's interest in Masonic oaths seems neither of inexhaustible interest (it's all of one page), nor do his "loony speculations" strike me as particularly loony - especially not for the time period. What I found instead was a fairly typical point of view that seems heavily influenced by 19th-century American orientalism, something that was especially prevalent in the visual arts at the time and which would certainly overlap with Masonic rituals and symbolism which draw heavily from Biblical settings and bring to mind thoughts of an idealized, ancient Middle East. With Banvard, as with others at the time, this all dovetails especially well with a long-standing Masonic interest in Solomon's Temple, which features prominently in Masonic rituals.
The book itself contains some poetry that I'll let you judge for yourself, having already shown my cards with respect to my own opinion about 19th-century poetry. Here's an excerpt from Banvard's book:
And now pious men have the field in their care,
And good pilgrims from far go thither for prayer.
That perfume still ascends, and will ever ascend,
Ascend o'er the world with its aroma sweet
Where two Masons commune, there pervades that perfume,
And the sweetest of strains their fellowship greet;
Wherever two brothers in fellowship stand,
That field has an emblem in every land.
And here's a complete citation for the Banvard book:
Banvard, John. The Origin of the Building of Solomon's Temple: An Oriental Tradition. Boston: Published by Howard Gannett, 1880.
Call number: RARE 63.B219 1880
As for Paul Collins, the author of Banvard's Folly, he has his own (highly entertaining) blog, which you can check out here.