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Borderlands: Masons Became Leaders in Texas, El Paso 20 (2001-2002)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Masons Became Leaders in Texas, El Paso

Article first published in Vol. 20 (2001-2002)

By Rita Arroyo and Beth Tucker

All but four of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and 32 of the 55 members of the Constitutional Convention were Masons. George Washington was a Mason as were 14 other presidents. George W. Bush used Washington's Masonic Bible in January 2001 when he took his oath of office. It is the oldest fraternity in the world, with over 4.75 million Masons worldwide, and over 900 lodges in Texas.

Masons Texas symbol

Freemasons, as they are also called, were instrumental to the establishment of El Paso and contributed to education, medical care and business. Yet few non-members know much about the society, commonly believed to be the largest secret society in the world.

Freemasonry teaches a moral philosophy of life. Masons are dedicated to becoming better men, improving themselves and the quality of life of their community, and in so doing becoming wiser and happier. Members achieve these lofty goals by means of a series of moral instructions taught, according to ancient usage, by symbols, allegorical figures and lectures.

Although actual origins have been lost in time, some historians such as G. Albert Mackey claim that the ancient order dates back to the Knights Templar, an order of Christian warrior monks. They were founded after the First Crusade in 1118 to protect pilgrims visiting Palestine. Their noble cause of joining swords, strength and lives to defend the Christian faith soon garnered a tremendous following and great wealth in the form of contributions from noble European families. They formed an effective banking system, transferring money and supplies to Palestine.

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The bankrupt French king, Philip the IV, became envious of the Templars' power and wealth. He appointed Pope Clement V and in 1307 together they conspired to have the Templars arrested, stripped of their riches and charged with heresy and blasphemy.

The Pope used two Templars who had been expelled from the order to testify against their brothers in exchange for their freedom. Based on this testimony, Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Knights Templars, was burned at the stake in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Many Templars sought refuge in England, where the papal edict was not immediately enforced. Some historians believe that these fugitives could have used stonework and its symbols as a cover, much like early Christians used the sign of the fish for identification. The Templars may have communicated with hand signals and grips as a means of protection. Masons today still maintain such secret signs and passwords.

L. Dumenil writes that Masons suffered more setbacks during the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 and again in 1738 when Pope Clement XII forbade Catholics to become Masons under penalty of excommunication. This rift between the Catholic Church and Masons forced many to become Protestants.

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Mackey says that Freemasonry rituals trace their beginnings back to the building of King Solomon's Temple and actual stone, or operative, masons and their tools. Stone masons were ranked by degrees of proficiency from Entered Apprentice to Fellow Craft to Master Mason, the three degrees of membership still used by Masons.

In the Middle Ages, masons were incorporated into guilds or companies. Later masons became "freemasons," independent of any company or guild. As construction of cathedrals slowed, the English Grand Lodge formed in London in 1717, admitting men from other professions. Similar lodges developed in Scotland and Ireland.

These groups gave birth to Speculative or Philosophical Masonry. The men converted tools at one time used by the masons to build cathedrals and other buildings into instruments for use in shaping their own morality. During this Masonic Revival in Britain, Masonry evolved and adopted a cosmopolitan and tolerant rule, accepting men of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. This rule required of its members a belief in only one God, the validity of the Holy Scriptures and faith in the immortality of the soul.

By 1730, Freemasonry made its first appearance in America when Daniel Coxe was named Grand Master of the Lodge of Pennsylvania. A lodge in Boston also organized in that year. All colonists involved in the Boston Tea Party were Masons.

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Freemasonry made its debut in Texas, on February 11, 1828, at San Felipe on the Brazos River. Present at this meeting was Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas." A petition to establish a lodge in Texas was made to the Grand York Lodge of Mexico, then politically divided. The Scottish Lodges were comprised of members of the aristocracy who favored Spanish rule, while the York Masons opposed it. Because civil war broke out in Mexico, the application by Austin and others was ignored.

The Grand Master of Louisiana approved the first Texas lodge in Texas in 1835 in Brazoria, Texas. The story exists that during Texas' fight for independence from Mexico, General Sam Houston, a Mason, spared Mexican General Santa Ana's life after recognizing him as a brother Mason.

Master Masons held a convention in Houston in 1837 and began the Grand Lodge of the Republic of Texas. When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, the name reverted to the Grand Lodge of Texas. During the U.S.-Mexican War, Colonel Doniphan, commander of the Missouri volunteers, captured the El Paso-Juárez area. Doniphan's troops had a Masonic charter for a lodge that was probably lost or destroyed during ensuing battles.

On January 21, 1854, Lodge 130 was founded in San Elizario, the county seat at that time. This was one of the first lodges to appear on the Western frontier, 600 miles from the closest one in San Antonio.

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El Paso Lodge meetings were suspended between 1859 and 1866 during the Civil War. Lodge 130 resumed work in July 1866, and a formal meeting was held at the Grand Central Hotel. During the following years, El Paso Lodge 130 rented different places in which to hold its meetings until they could erect a one-story adobe building at San Antonio and Mesa Streets.

The history of the El Paso Lodge is intertwined with the history of the city. In 1870, judges and Masons Gaylord Judd Clarke and A.J. Fountain founded St. Clement's Episcopal Mission, the first Protestant church in the county.

El Paso Masons first met at Judge Simeon Hart's residence, or Hart's Mill. Journalist Ken Flynn says Hart's flour mill was probably "the first real industry on the America side of the river." Parts of Hart's mill and residence are preserved as historical landmarks and are now home to La Hacienda Restaurant. Hart was also one of the founders of the El Paso Times.

For several years, Masons owned the Ralston Hospital at Five Points until they decided to support the new Providence Memorial Hospital. Later they built the Masonic Hospital, in service until the mid 1940s.

Members of the Lodge also contributed to the economy of El Paso. Benjamin Dowell set up a combination grocery store, saloon and billiards hall, and his business also became the city's first official post office. Joseph Magoffin, who, like Dowell, was mayor of El Paso, served as Collector of Customs. His home is now a state park. Masons Maury C. Edwards and O.T. Bassett were associated with the lumber business for years.

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Masons helped establish the public education system in El Paso. In 1870, M.A. Jones, a Mason and lawyer, set up a day school in his law office where he taught American and Mexican children to read and write. In 1882, the school board was formally organized, with Edward C. Pew, Joseph Magoffin and Samuel Freudenthal, all Masons, serving as members. In the 1800s, Masons as a group lobbied for the establishment of state supported education and federal land grant colleges.

While most Masons are members of the three aforementioned levels, others advance through about 100 other rites composed of 1,000 higher degrees worldwide. The two most popular rites in the United States are the Scottish that awards 33 degrees and the York that awards 10, including the Order of Knights Templar, similar to the highest degree Scottish Rite Mason. Many African-Americans belong to the Prince Hall Grand Lodge.

Other orders include the Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm (the fraternal fun order for Blue Lodge Masons) and the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. The latter are thirty-second degree Masons called Shriners, noted for burn institutes and hospitals for crippled children. Two such charities are the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Crippled Children in Dallas and the Shriners Burns Institute in Galveston.

Shriners also are identifiable by antics in their tiny cars during community parades and their sponsorship of the Shrine Circus. The circus raises money for the hospitals, and free seats are given to local needy children.

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Charity is at the heart of Masonic teachings of growth and development of individuals. Compassion, honor and integrity unite Masons in a brotherhood also known for its emphasis on fellowship. Masonic organizations for women include the Order of Eastern Star and Amaranth. Girls may join Rainbow, Job's Daughters, Triangle or Constellation and boys enter DeMolay.

Like other fraternal societies, the Masons use symbols and rituals. The most widely known symbol is the Square and Compasses, with the former representing things of the earth as well as honor, integrity and truthfulness, and the latter symbolizing things of the spirit, including the importance of self-control. The G in the middle of the symbol stands for geometry, the science which the ancients believed most revealed the glory of God and His works.

Over the centuries, the Masons have encountered much opposition. Masons have never been permitted in some Catholic countries such as Spain, and the Church still discourages its members from joining the order. The Masons do not bar Catholics, however, and many lodges are active in Latin America. In the United States, short-lived opposition came in the form of the political anti-Masonic party established in 1828 that nominated William Wirt to run for president against Andrew Jackson. Jackson won handily over Wirt, ironically himself a Mason. The party lasted only until 1834.

Masons have done much to influence the nation, the state of Texas and El Paso. Although most fraternal organizations have lost membership in the past few decades, Grand Lodges across the country are working to make the organization more appealing to prospective members.

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Masons Sources

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