The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Mark Twain, Freemason

My search of family genealogy led to St. Louis and Samuel Clemens, which eventually revealed my lamentable grasp of things medieval and of Catholic Christendom’s colorful history.

Mark Twain in 1907 (Image: A.F. Bradley/Wikipedia); right: The Seal of the Grand Lodge of Missouri, founded in 1821. (Image: Wikipedia)

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!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About James Day 12 Articles
James Day is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (Sophia Institute Press, 2016). He is a producer and operations manager for EWTN’s West Coast Studio at the Christ Cathedral campus in Orange County, California.


  1. I have had similar thoughts about my Catholic education from first grade to 12th. I never heard of Chesterton of Belloc until after I graduated. I did read some Nelson Algren, which seemed totally irrelevant to my Catholic faith and culture.

  2. Interesting indeed .. and every bit of such truth to hep us to use same wisely enough , with the help of The Mother .. the little virus has helped us to see how little we truly know about so many areas and in His Providence , to help us to be grateful in The Truth that our worth comes from belonging to Him , from our mustard seed stages on up , when it might seem that we are very poor in such wisdom / knowledge ..
    to marvel at the mystery of the human soul, if such has been blessed even in its early days , to love God as our Blessed Mother did , in The Immaculate Conception as sending forth oceans of love and praise to The Trinity , in the blessed role to requite the Love from Them ..

    Her having been dedicated at age 3 , to live in that temple of Solomon , by her parents …in the graces of the I.C. , likely more and more aware of the related histories and lineages of the place and the people … and in prayers lifted up , transforming the swords of violence in the lines unto swords of hope and love in The Spirit .. to help us too, to trust and invoke same against all such areas and even curses –

    Confucious – ? a likely descendant of Solomon ( and the 1,000 wives ) ? the Greek Fathers too as well as the many such persons world over with the imperfect wisdom in all such – in contrast to The Word that shows us The Way , to bring all such to Him , to The Kingdom of Glory , Wisdom and Love ..

    May The Brotherhood in The Lord reign , including in all the lands in turmoil such as Lebanon , to be ever more under the caring protective hands in blessing of the surpassing wisdom of St.Joseph !

    Blessings !

  3. Thank you so much for this article. I didn’t know Mark Twain was a Mason. My late uncle was a 3rd Degree Mason & a number of ancestors on that side of my family were Masons also. Masonry was pretty popular back in the 19th century & one of the few fraternal orders that accepted Jews, but I wonder how membership’s going today? It seems like fewer & fewer people are joining fraternal or community organizations. We can’t even get folks to volunteer at church.

    • The ultimate goal of freemasonry – undermining our Christian culture, and subverting the Catholic Church – has largely been accomplished. There’s really no need to push its agenda at this point, so of course it’s popularity is declining. And Jews were accepted, because much of freemasonry is based on Jewish Kabballah. It’s Gnosticism, basically.

    • My 19th Century French immigrant ancestors were Catholic. Until my umpteenth great grandfather joined the Masons, some time before the Civil War. From then on, that branch of the family were Iowa Methodists. I’m the first descendant of which I know who has returned to Rome.

  4. Apart from “piecemeal secular ideology,” as we well know, the history of Christendom is not always edifying. Take your example, the First Crusade (1095-1101), the only one of all eight that was militarily successful—the picture is not pretty.

    By the time that Jerusalem was actually besieged (the invasion route consumed a full year) it had changed masters back from the feared Turkish invaders to the original and milder Saracens. (In exchange for routine tribute, the Saracens had given hospitality and protection to Western pilgrims.) On the verge of the assault and in hopes of peace the Saracens now offered gifts, but the European leaders now were propelled partly by sacred vows to rescue the city from all Muslim infidels.

    By widespread account Jerusalem was retaken with great brutality: “.. . amid scenes of hideous carnage, the soldiers of Christ battered their way into Jerusalem, slaughtering all the Muslims in the city and burning all the Jews alive in the main synagogue.” The stark choice given to Muslim infidels was to either convert where they stood or be executed (summarized from John Julius Norwich, “A Short History of Byzantium,” 1988/1997; and Norman Cohn, “Pursuit of the Millennium,” 1970).

    When Saladin retook Jerusalem nearly a century later, in this instance he astonishingly refrained from responding in kind. The superficial Henry Ford was partly correct when he remarked that “history is just one damn thing after another.”

      • Does anyone actually READ anymore? My wording is “in this instance.” Nothing about “benign.”

        Read on—recalling how Jerusalem had been earlier put to the sword during the First Crusade, Saladin’s remarkable restraint in the battle for Jerusalem (“in this instance”!) is surprising:

        “Saladin’s magnanimity was already celebrated. Every Christian, he decreed, would be allowed to redeem himself by payment of a suitable ransom. Of the twenty thousand poor who had no means of raising the money, seven thousand would be freed on payment of a lump sum by the various Christian authorities . . . There was no murder, no bloodshed, no looting. Few Christians ultimately found their way into slavery” (Norwich, “A Short History of Byzantium, Vintage Books, 1997, p. 296).

        After the battle, Saladin singled out and with his own hands killed and beheaded Reynald of Chatillon who had instigated the renewed hostilities. From Kerak in southern Jordan (1176-1178 AD), Reynald had dispatched routine pillaging parties into Muslim controlled territory and finally one of the intercepted caravans was made up of only Muslim pilgrims bound for Mecca. (For Muslims, this raid–against pilgrims–signaled a threat against the holy places of Islam—-in this case a mirror image of the Christian motive for the crusades.)

  5. “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…”

    You mean the Jews, don’t you? I mean, who controls the secular media and entertainment? James, read both Libido Dominandi and the Jewish Revolutionary Spirit and you’ll never look at history the same way again. We Catholics have been completely lied to for the last century.

  6. I understand that this Freemason was a part of your family history, but why are you glorifying this SATANIC CULT on here? That’s incredibly disrespectful to all of us real & genuine Catholics. You should know that especially at the higher levels of freemasonry, they openly worship Lucifer Satan and denigrate Jesus Christ as their enemy. You should be ashamed of yourself doing this on our site.
    If you want to go and celebrate freemasonry and the dark heartless occult that goes completely against God, do it on your own time and not poison a Catholic site.

  7. My 19th Century French immigrant ancestors were Catholic. Until my umpteenth great grandfather joined the Masons, some time before the Civil War. From then on, that branch of the family were Iowa Methodists. I’m the first descendant of which I know who has returned to Rome.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Zap Big Pulpit – Big Pulpit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.