Masonic recognition

New to the Collection: A Cerneau Consistory Apron

2011_032DP1DBEven in the context of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library’s collection there is something so tempting about the forbidden. At least, that’s the feeling I had when a prospective donor offered this Masonic apron to us recently. I do have a soft spot for Masonic aprons in general, and then I learned that this one was supposedly worn by a member of the Cerneau Scottish Rite Consistory in Lenox, Massachusetts, during the 1890s. That did it – I was intrigued and immediately agreed that it should be added to our collection.

But, some of you may be wondering who – or what – is Cerneau, while others are grimacing in disgust. For those that don’t know, Joseph Cerneau (1765-1848) was a French Freemason who lived in San Domingo and then Cuba before moving to New York City in 1806. While in Cuba, Cerneau joined a Scottish Rite group and was given the authority of a Deputy Inspector General. This allowed him to confer several degrees on other prospective Scottish Rite members in Cuba, but the jurisdictional restriction does not seem to stopped Cerneau from conferring the degrees once he reached New York. Debate has raged ever since over whether he acted out of confusion or greed (since he would receive a fee from each man who received the degrees).

In 1813, the Scottish Rite Supreme Council in Charleston, South Carolina, sent a member to investigate Cerneau, as well as two additional groups claiming to have jurisdiction in New York. After Cerneau refused the member's request to inspect his records, he was denounced “as an imposter of the first magnitude, and whom we have expelled from Masonic Asylum within our Jurisdiction.” Cerneau was not daunted by the pronouncement and continued to confer degrees.  He oversaw his own Supreme Council until 1827, when he left New York to return to France. Despite Cerneau’s departure from the United States, his name continued to serve as an umbrella term for spurious and irregular Masonic groups, like the one associated with this apron.

Information provided with the apron when it was donated suggests that it was worn by George Washington Ferguson (1865-1936), an ice dealer in Lenox who joined nearby Evening Star Lodge in 1891. At the time, many men who belonged to their local lodge found that they wanted to learn more about Masonic symbolism and philosophy.  Joining additional Masonic groups allowed them to do this, as well as to increase their social circle. The Scottish Rite, with twenty-nine additional degrees, is often called “the University of Freemasonry,” because of the allegorical lessons that its degrees teach. However, in 1891, the nearest recognized Scottish Rite Consistory to Lenox was in Worcester, almost ninety miles away. But, in April 1891, the Cerneau Supreme Council formed Berkshire Consistory No. 56 in Lenox and, according to the information with the apron, Ferguson joined this group. Records of Berkshire Consistory’s founding state that there were thirty-six charter members.

Berkshire Consistory No. 56 continued to meet throughout the 1890s, even hosting the Grand Sovereign Consistory’s “annual rendezvous,” or meeting, in 1895. In response, the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, which had denounced Cerneau and his group back in 1813, established the Onota Lodge of Perfection in nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Relations between the two groups proved to be difficult over the next several years.

Questions remain unanswered about George Ferguson and Berkshire Consistory No. 56. Did he ever switch to the recognized Onota Lodge of Perfection? How long did Berkshire Consistory No. 56 remain functional? Please write a comment below if you know more about the story, or have additional questions.  This year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, saluting its longevity.  This apron is a scarce reminder of the competing Berkshire Consistory No. 56 and its story.

Cerneau Scottish Rite Apron, ca. 1891, American. Gift of Pittsfield Masonic Association, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 2011.032. Photograph by David Bohl.


Is this woman a Freemason? It depends who you ask.

Brother_mary_arlotte_web In the world of Freemasonry, 'recognition' and 'regularity' are important. Some Masonic bodies don't 'recognize' other Masonic bodies because they consider them 'irregular.' That is, one Masonic organization will not - for various reasons - consider another Masonic organization legitimate.  Tony Pope explains the concepts of 'regularity' and 'recognition' fairly succinctly in his essay At a Perpetual Distance: Liberal and Adogmatic Grand Lodges, and so I quote him briefly:

"Regularity

Every autonomous Masonic body has its own tests of regularity, based on its perception of its own character. Thus, each Grand Lodge considers itself to be regular, and requires its constituents to abide by its criteria, whether clearly defined or not. Consequently, every Mason considers himself to be regular because he (or even she!) was ‘regularly’ initiated in a ‘regularly’ constituted lodge, chartered by his (or, indeed, her) Grand Lodge."

Within the closed system of the autonomous Grand Lodge, determination of regularity—or its converse, irregularity—is a relatively easy process, and entirely valid. Problems arise when the definition of ‘regularity’ of one autonomous body is applied to another autonomous body, because ‘regularity’ is a factor in determining whether Grand Lodge A should ‘recognise’ Grand Lodge B, and vice versa.

Recognition

If two autonomous Grand Lodges wish to establish and maintain a fraternal relationship with each other, it is customary for them to ‘recognise’ each other by formal treaty. This usually involves a comparison of the two systems, to determine if they meet each other’s criteria for recognition. Each Grand Lodge has its own list of requirements which, in most cases, may be summarised as follows:

(a) Regularity of origin;

(b) Regularity of conduct; and

(c) Autonomy"

I think that Tony Pope's explanation is fairly clear, but if not, here's a real-world example: let's say you join the American Federation of The Order of International Co-Freemasonry (a.k.a. Le Droit Humain). You will consider yourself a legitimate Mason, the body which conferred degrees upon you considers itself perfectly legitimate, and you may know other men and women who consider themselves Masons and who will consider you a Mason. Yet there will be other Masonic bodies (e.g. any of the "mainstream" Grand Lodges in most U.S. states) that will not consider you a Mason. This is because there is no formal recognition between, say, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania and The Order of International Co-Freemasonry. (Curious about who the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania does recognize? They maintain a list of Grand Lodges that they recognize on their website.)

So why do I bring up such a confusing subject?  To educate, of course!

More to the point, I bring this all up to mention that our Library & Archives collects broadly about the world of Freemasonry. Because we are interested in giving researchers the ability to look at the history of Freemasonry and fraternalism in its entirety, our Library & Archives collects broadly in both Freemasonry and other fraternal groups (focusing especially on Freemasonry and fraternalism in the United States), so our collections contain publications by and about any number of different Masonic organizations. Some of these organizations admit just men, some both men and women, and some just women.

While we'll refer you to a particular Masonic body if you've got specific questions about whether one Masonic body recognizes another or considers them regular, we'd be happy to assist you with learning and conducting research on any aspect of Freemasonry - whether you consider it regular or irregular.

The photo above shows Worshipful Brother Mary Arlotte, Grand Sword Bearer. It's from the May 1933 edition of The Ray, a magazine published by The Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons. (And, yes, members of this self-described "masonic fraternity of women in the U.K." do refer to each other as Brother, something that they address on their FAQ page.) This organization is not recognized by a lot of the "mainstream" Masonic bodies, and I include it as an example of something that might be surprising and eye-opening to folks who know little about the rather large world of Freemasonry in general. If you're curious about women and Freemasonry and you're in London, you might want to check out an exhibition called Women and Freemasonry: The Centenary, that's currently on view at the The Library and Museum of Freemasonry.

As for our collections, we have a single issue of The Ray:
The Ray. London: The Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons, 1933. No. 24 (May 1933).