Melvin M. Johnson

Newly added to Digital Collections: Harry S. Truman Letters

A2019_001_016DS_webDid you know that President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was in correspondence with Melvin Maynard Johnson (1871-1957), the head of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction's Supreme Council during the 1940s and 1950s? A number of recently digitized letters, written from Truman to Johnson on White House stationery are available through the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives Digital Collections website. They reveal a friendly relationship, with President Truman beginning his letters to Johnson by addressing him "Dear Mel."

Truman became a Freemason in 1909. By 1940, he was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Missouri. In 1945, Truman was created a 33rd degree Sovereign Grand Inspector General in the Scottish Rite's Supreme Council, Southern Jurisdiction. That same year, the Supreme Council, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, awarded Truman its first Gourgas Medal, the Supreme Council's highest honor.

The letters in this collection include both those from Harry Truman as well as one written by his wife, Bess Truman (1885-1982). The majority of the correspondence in this collection consists of letters written by President Harry S. Truman to his friend and fellow Freemason, Melvin Maynard Johnson (1871-1957). Johnson served as the Supreme Council, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction's Sovereign Grand Commander from 1933 to 1953.

For more about the friendship between Truman and Johnson, have a look at one of our earlier blog posts, A Mason Answers His Country's Call and Receives the Scottish Rite's Highest Award.

There are now over 750 items in the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives Digital Collections website. Be sure to visit and check them all out!

Caption:
Letter from President Harry S. Truman to Melvin M. Johnson, 1948 August 3. Collection of Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Lexington, Massachusetts. SC069.


A Mason Answers His Country's Call and Receives the Scottish Rite's Highest Award

As a somber nation mourned the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April of 1945, Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, received this telegram message that resides in the Archives of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library:


Telegram from Melvin M. Johnson to President Harry S. Truman
Telegram from Melvin M. Johnson to U.S. President Harry S. Truman, [undated].

President Harry S. Truman
Washington


The God of Truth and wisdom will be with you and you will succeed in the great task to which you have been called. I shall ask you for nothing except to be of service if and when I can be helpful in the least degree. 

Shall be back in Boston Monday. 

Melvin M. Johnson


For the past two years, Johnson, the Sovereign Grand Commander of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction  of the Scottish Rite and a Masonic brother of Truman, had sought to award him with the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction’s highest award, The Gourgas Medal, for Truman’s work leading the Truman Committee, a Congressional oversight body which oversaw the war effort by probing into charges of corruption. And while Truman had always been flattered by Johnson’s request, Truman's sense of duty to his country and to the Fraternity had led him to decline the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction’s most prestigious honor.

  Senator

Letter from U.S. Senator Harry S. Truman to Melvin M. Johnson, September 8, 1944.

 

“I think you are exactly right,” Senator Truman wrote Johnson on September 8, 1944, “about the postponement of the program so far as I am concerned. No matter how deserving it might be under the circumstances it would look exactly as if it were a political program.”

Now, in April of 1945, anxious to make Truman the first recipient of the Gourgas Medal, Johnson petitioned the busy President once more.

"I hope you may find it possible to attend a session of our Supreme Council on Tuesday, September 25, 1945, at 10 a.m., or the following day, in order that I may have the honor of making you the first recipient of the Gourgas Medal."

With the war concluded and the political battles of 1944 behind him, sometime during the spring of 1945 President Truman had a change of heart, which he expressed to Johnson from the White House on May 2, 1945.

“I hope it will be possible for me to attend the meeting to receive The Gourgas Medal," Truman wrote Johnson.

Johnson wrote back to the President in September of 1945, “If it is agreeable to you, I should like to make the presentation [of the Gourgas Medal] at The White House, or wherever else you may select. I hope, however, we can make arrangements far enough in advance so that invitations may be extended to the members of Congress who are also members of our Supreme Council . . . .”

On November 21, 1945, President Harry S. Truman received the Gourgas Medal for his service to country and humanity. After the ceremony on the White House lawn had concluded, a subdued President Truman led the delegation back to his office where the President “looking down at the medal” said quietly, “I appreciate this more than anything I have received.”

 

Letter from U.S. President Harry S. Truman to Melvin M. Johnson, May 2, 1945.
Letter from U.S. President Harry S. Truman to Melvin M. Johnson, May 2, 1945.
Presentation of Gourgas Medal to Illustrious Harry S. Truman, 33°
Presentation of Gourgas Medal to Illustrious Harry S. Truman, 33°

Captions

Telegram from Melvin M. Johnson to U.S. President Harry S. Truman, [undated]. Assistant to the Sovereign Grand Commander: Subject Files. Gift of the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, SC 069.

Letter from U.S. Senator Harry S. Truman to Melvin M. Johnson, September 8, 1944. Assistant to the Sovereign Grand Commander: Subject Files. Gift of the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, SC 069.

Letter from U.S. President Harry S. Truman to Melvin M. Johnson, May 2, 1945. Assistant to the Sovereign Grand Commander: Subject Files. Gift of the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, SC 069.

Presentation of Gourgas Medal to Illustrious Harry S. Truman, 33°, page 136. Supreme Council, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite (1945). Illustrious Harry S. Truman, 33°, President of the United States, Received the Gourgas Medal. In Abstract of Proceedings of the Supreme Council, (pp. 136 – 140). [Boston: Supreme Council].

References

Letter from Melvin M. Johnson to U.S. President Harry S. Truman, April 26, 1945 [copy]. Assistant to the Sovereign Grand Commander: Subject Files. Gift of the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, SC 069.

Letter from Melvin M. Johnson to U.S. President Harry S. Truman, September 19, 1945 [copy]. Assistant to the Sovereign Grand Commander: Subject Files. Gift of the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, SC 069.

Supreme Council, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite (1945). Illustrious Harry S. Truman, 33°, President of the United States, Received the Gourgas Medal. In Abstract of Proceedings of the Supreme Council, (pp. 136 – 140). [Boston: Supreme Council].

 


Talking About Rituals in Atlantic City

1936 Ritual CommitteeIn September 1936, the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction's Supreme Council held their Annual Meeting in Atlantic City, NJ at the Hotel Traymore. This photograph, likely taken in a room at the Traymore, shows the Council's Committee on Rituals and Ritualistic Matter sitting around a table. The Committee was - and is - responsible for all of the Scottish Rite degrees sanctioned by the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, as well as other aspects related to ritual. In 1936, the Committee approved a design for an "Emeritus Member of Honor." The small hinged box sitting in the center of the table possibly holds one of these jewels.

The members of the Committee pictured above are (left to right): John S. Wallace, Norris G. Abbott, William H.H. Chamberlin, Frederick W. Hamilton, Melvin M. Johnson, Frank S. Sayrs, Charles H. Spilman, Samuel H. Baynard, Jr., and Delmar D. Darrah

The photo above, which is in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, appears in the new book, A Sublime Brotherhood: Two Hundred Years of Scottish Rite Freemasonry in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction.

Caption:

Melvin Johnson and the Ritual Committee, 1936. Fred Hess & Son, Photographer. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, SC 154.


Henry Ford Receiving the 33rd Degree in 1940

1.18 SC154DS1
At the Annual Meeting of the Supreme Council for the Scottish Rite's Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, held in September 1940 in Cincinnati, Ohio, George E. Bushnell, Deputy for the state of Michigan,

"presented the name of Henry Ford, of Dearborn, Michigan, to receive the degrees of the Rite from the Fourth to the Thirty-second, inclusive, and thereafter, the Thirty-third Degree, and asked for unanimous consent to ballot upon this nomination...The request was granted and the ballot spread and, it proving to be clear, Henry Ford was declared to be elected to receive the degrees of the Rite from the Fourth to the Thirty-second, inclusive, in some Valley of the Jurisdiction in which the degrees were being worked under the direction of the Sovereign Grand Commander, and the Thirty Third Degree after he has been duly created a Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret [i.e. 32nd degree]."


At the time that the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction's Supreme Council conferred the Thirty-Third degree on him at age 77, Henry Ford (1863-1947) had been a Mason for 46 years, having been raised in Detroit's Palestine Lodge No. 357 in 1894 at age 31.

On the evening of December 6, 1940, the Supreme Council opened a special meeting to confer the 33° on Henry Ford at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, Michigan. The meeting opened at 9pm and was over at 11:45pm.  Among those present were the men pictured in the photo above: Ohio Governor John W. Bricker, 33°; Sovereign Grand Commander for Canada’s Supreme Council John A. Rowland, 33°; Sovereign Grand Commander for the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction Melvin M. Johnson, 33°; and Deputy for Michigan (and future Sovereign Grand Commander) George E. Bushnell, 33°.

While Ford was unquestionably the most well-known person in the room that evening, two other men pictured in the photo above were not only well-known within Scottish Rite Freemasonry, but were, at the same time, luminaries in the legal field. At the time of the conferral, George E. Bushnell was Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and Melvin Johnson was Dean of the Boston University Law School. John Bricker, then Governor of Ohio, was also in the legal field, having served as Attorney General for Ohio from 1933-37 before becoming governor, and returning to law practice after his twelve years (1947-1952) as a U.S. Senator from Ohio.

The photo above, which is in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, appears in the new book, A Sublime Brotherhood: Two Hundred Years of Scottish Rite Freemasonry in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction.

Caption:
(Left to right): John W. Bricker, John A. Rowland, Henry Ford, Melvin M. Johnson, and George E. Bushnell on the day Ford received the 33°, 1940. Detroit, Michigan. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, SC 154.

Sources consulted:

Abstract of the Proceedings of the Supreme Council...Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. [Boston: Supreme Council, NMJ, 1940), 20.

Abstract of the Proceedings of the Supreme Council...Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. [Boston: Supreme Council, NMJ, 1941), pp. 4-6.


Melvin M. Johnson's 1949 South American Diary

South American Diary original coverAt the 1948 Annual Meeting of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction's Supreme Council, the Committee on Foreign Relations recommended that then-Sovereign Grand Commander Melvin M. Johnson (1871–1957) "consider making at trip of visitation into South and Central America to study at first hand Masonic conditions there and to report his findings to the Supreme Council..."

Commander Johnson took up the recommendation of the Committee and, on February 25, 1949, Johnson, accompanied by Ralph Sleeper, boarded the S.S. Uruguay in New York City for an official Masonic visit to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. The trip took nearly ten weeks and is well documented by a diary that Johnson kept of the journey.

South American Diary published coverThe Supreme Council published a transcription of Johnson's diary in the form of a 66 page booklet (pictured at right). In it, Johnson records his observations both on board ship and while on land. He makes mention of the many Masonic dignitaries he met with and also gives his impressions of the various cities and countries he visited.

In addition to the published diary, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library also has the original diary (above left). The original diary is typescript in a three-ring binder, with some corrections and annotations made in Johnson's hand. To call it a diary doesn't quite do it justice since it's part diary and part scrapbook, containing quite a bit of ephemera that Johnson collected or produced while on the trip. The binder contains photographs, event programs, Masonic certificates, and other material that all help give a much fuller picture of his trip.

Below are two photos from the original diary, which document Johnson visiting the Grand Orient of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro on March 18, 1949.

Johnson champagne toast

In the diary, Johnson describes the reception he received at the Grand Orient:

"When we arrived at the Masonic Temple, a band in the courtyard was playing our National anthem. We were escorted upstairs where we were most formally received by the Grand Master, Joaquim Rodrigues Neves, the other officers and guests. Our National anthem was again played. Then the Grand Master and I toasted each other with champagne and then broke the glasses. Next, the glove ceremony was enacted. This comes from the old English custom which required the initiate to present a pair of gloves to each member of the Lodge. The Temple was packed with brethren, probably 250 to 300. There was pomp and ceremony ad infinitum!...There were lavish floral decorations everywhere. Address after address was made, each being translated from Portuguese into English....Following my response to the numerous addresses, each brother was served champagne and we toasted each other. I have never before experienced such an elaborate reception. Photographs galore were taken throughout the evening; and it must have been 100° in the lodge room. However, I was grateful that I had the strength to go through with it."

Johnson in Masters Chair

 

Captions (top to bottom):

Diary of Melvin M. Johnson - Trip to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina (February 25 - May 3, 1949), MM017.

Melvin Maynard Johnson. A South American Diary, February 25 - May 3, 1949. [Boston: Supreme Council, NMJ, 1950(?)]
Call number: 17.980 .J65 1949

Photograph of champagne toast between Melvin M. Johnson and Joaquim Rodrigues Neves, 1949.

Photograph of Melvin M. Johnson (seated) and members and visitors of Grand Orient of Brazil, 1949.