The Secret Temple: Masons, Mysteries and the Founding of America by Peter Levenda (Continuum Books, 2009)
A good introductory text to a subject is hard to find and with the subject of Freemasonry it is even more difficult. Freemasons take oaths to never divulge the secrets of the Society and (perhaps as a result of this silence) they are often the target of outsiders who lay everything at the feet of Masons from demonic heresy, global conspiracies and in some cases, control over natural disasters. Those who understand don’t talk, and those who don’t understand seem to talk too much.
Peter Levenda enters into this space with The Secret Temple, a relatively concise book of about 200 pages. The first section of The Secret Temple gives a generally overview and history of Freemasonry and tends to be more a social history or a history of ideas. Rather than a narrative built on personalities and individuals, Levenda delves into ideas such as sacred geometry, sacred architecture and theories of ritual. The second section primarily gives a history of the Lodge’s connection to early America and its founding, and it is also where the book gets the most interesting. Levenda delves into mysticism in early America, the relatively unknown histories of not only Masons, but Rosicrucians, alchemists and mystics in the colonies and early republic. He then explores in detail the connections between Mormonism and Masonry, both in the history of Joseph Smith and the Latter Day Saints and the practice of the Mormon faith. The book concludes with a look at Yale’s Skull & Bones society and the Propaganda Due lodge in Italy, a covert lodge that in the late 70s and early 80s was soaking in a vast amount of crime and intrigue and was referred to as a shadow government.
What critics of Levenda are quick to attackt is his tendency to wander into his own interests and research; he seems to take us by the hand and leads us to his own filing cabinets/curiosity cabinets of political conspiracies, cults and secret societies. This is why I personally love his books, and in The Secret Temple his tenancies as a researcher and writer serve the work well. We get completely unexpected answers to the questions we came to the book with. Instead of going on a fool’s errand to chase the Masons back to Solomon’s Temple, we examine the idea of a temple itself and how that has steered Masonic buildings, symbolism and thought. Instead of worn fantasies and conspiracies of a group of Masons coming together to write the Declaration of Independence, we peer into another world of that time when respectable ministers and university presidents were also alchemists and Rosicrucians. Instead of hysterical speculations about Masons controlling the world*, we gave the more frightening and real Skull & Bones and P2 Lodge to ponder.
Between the subject matter and Levenda’s writing style, The Secret Temple makes a worthwhile read for someone looking for a good, smart primer on Freemasonry or wants a deeper understanding of America’s hidden religious traditions.
*True story: While doing research last year I had a conversation with the archivist at a small Freemasonic library in eastern Iowa. He told me that the day after the Indonesian tsunami he fielded a phone call from an angry man who asked them “why the hell they did that.”
-The Filled Slip