Following the work done by my father and other relatives, I wanted to look deeper into my grandmother’s paternal line, which led back to Protestant Germany, far from my overwhelming Irish Catholic roots. I was curious how my great-grandfather was converted from Protestantism by his saintly, Irish wife. The foray took me into mid-19th century St. Louis, Missouri, which only then did it finally dawn on me was a city named after the only canonized king of France, Louis IX (1214-1270, canonized 1297).
With assistance from the History & Genealogy Department at the St. Louis County Library, I was provided a historical city map in order to better understand the urban landscape of the time in question. I was particularly intrigued by my grandmother’s great-uncle, who I learned, thanks to a PDF the department sent me of his death certificate, died at age 30 in 1875 from pneumonia, leaving behind a young wife.
What I found especially compelling was that the name of this great-uncle surface in at least two records I could find from the Polar Star Lodge Number 79, Missouri’s largest Freemasonic lodge at the time, as it attracted quite a few men whose line of work was working the steamboats and other activities on the Mississippi River. The name of the lodge refers to the polar star, the ancient navigation point for those at sea.
The relationship between Catholicism and Freemasonry, of course, is a complex one. It likely comes as no surprise that Masons, an historically non-Catholic organization (even so far as condemned by Pope Leo XIII in Humanum genus in 1884), viewed themselves as the heirs to the Knights Templar. That much of the actual Templar memory and legacy is fairly unknown to Catholics, including myself, is likely owed to the success the Freemasons have adapted themselves as the Templar heirs in our recent history.
I discovered all of this from a highly unexpected source. Among those men drawn to the Polar Star Lodge was a 25-year-old river pilot named Samuel Clemens. Records show Clemens petitioned to join the Lodge the day after Christmas, 1860. Clemens was elected as a first degree Mason on February 18, 1861, before his rise as an American cultural phenomenon. By July Clemens was elevated to Master Mason, but an extended tour of the fledgling American West — the basis for Twain’s Roughing It — drew him away from not only the lodge but the Masonic order in general. Yet he was readmitted to the Polar Star Lodge in 1867, only to depart once again for his international voyage, later chronicled in his widely acclaimed The Innocents Abroad.
The travelogue chronicles Twain’s voyage through Europe, the Ukraine, Turkey, and the Middle East, a glimpse of recognizable city names and countries yet completely different from how we know them today. For instance, Twain’s view of France was seen through the lens of the Second French Empire and the reign of Emperor Napoleon III. When Twain traveled through Italy, the Pope was still the temporal authority of the Papal States, in its twilight years, with Italian unification under King Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy still a few years away.
But it was in the Holy Land where Twain’s account brims with obvious fascination for the ancient sights and places. It was jarring at first to read Mark Twain, of all people, writing about places like Ephesus, Caesarea-Philippi, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, so tethered his legacy is to Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and mid-19th century life on the Mississippi.
What intrigued me wasn’t just that it was Mark Twain who retraced the path of Jesus and the early church, even if that fact alone was surprising. My recollection was that Twain was somewhat apathetic, if not suspicious, of religious things. Which is why I was even more surprised to find that in the same year Twain published the sequel Tom Sawyer, Detective, he also published his last completed novel, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), a work of which Twain was immensely proud.
Suddenly, a simple curiosity in genealogy instantly catapulted me from the Great Illustrated Classics of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to knowledge of Twain in Palestine, his novel of Saint Joan of Arc, and his association with the Freemasons. And it was what Twain experienced during his time in the Middle East that really arrested me. Alexander E. Jones in his 1954 journal article in American Literature, “Mark Twain and Freemasonry,” described Clemens’s thinking during this part of his voyage:
[I]t is probable that Twain’s interest in the Masonic order was at its peak when he stood in Lebanon, musing that ‘all around us are what were once the dominions of Hiram, King of Tyre, who furnished timber from the cedars of these Lebanon hills to build portions of King Solomon’s Temple with.’ To a Master Mason this was an awesome spot; and Twain, who elsewhere viewed sacred shrines with a jaundiced eye, behaved like a true Brother. Securing a piece of this special cedar wood, he had it fashioned into a gavel, which he sent to the Worshipful Master of his mother lodge.
Installed back in St. Louis’s Polar Star Lodge, the gavel inscription reads:
This Mallet is of Cedar cut in the Forest of Lebanon, whence Solomon obtained the Timbers for the Temple. The handle was cut by Bro. Clemens himself from a cedar planted just outside the walls of Jerusalem by Bro. Godfrey De Bouillon, the first Christian Conqueror of that City, 19th of July 1099. The gavel in its present form was made at Alexandria, Egypt, by order of Bro. Clemens.
Had my great-great-great uncle ever gazed upon that gavel back in St. Louis, I wondered. In any case, it was a euphoric moment. Godfrey of Bouillon, not only the hero of the First Crusade but the first ruler of the Catholic Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem — refusing the title “king” and opting for Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri, Defender of the Holy Sepulchre — was he here actually considered a freemason by the masonic order, “Brother Godfrey”?
Twain’s interest in the Temple of Solomon as depicted in The Innocents Abroad renewed the ever-present popular belief that the Freemasons are the continuation of the mysterious Order of the Temple of Solomon, the Knights Templar, another group of which I was ignorant. Why, I often thought with not a little frustration, was my grasp of things medieval, of Catholic Christendom’s own colorful history in general, so woeful? After all, I received Catholic education from first grade through higher education, and am forever grateful for it. Yet I could not name any of the kings of Jerusalem or discern one crusade from another. The only one at fault was me: I was still looking at things of the faith as a part of life, not the whole of it.
But I suspect I am not the only one in this regard. “Study the past if you want to define the future” goes the quote attributed to Confucius. To date, the perception of the crusading period continues to be viewed as an embarrassing affair, shaped largely by secular entertainment which has the money and means to exploit the Catholic medieval period. These days, awareness of the Knights Templar is owed more to airport thrillers (The Templar Legacy, The Last Templar) seeking to recreate the cultural phenomenon that was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code than the actual historical foundation of the order and their inseparable link with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians. And certainly, the Holy Grail is fundamentally associated with King Arthur and Merlin, and for those of a certain age, Monty Python and Indiana Jones.
Christendom can no longer be shaped by piecemeal secular ideology which reinvents the persons and events that actually existed in order to denigrate the faith of believers today. While he was no Confucius, Michael Crichton wrote this in Timeline, his novel set in 1348 France: “Professor Johnston often said that if you don’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!