Early Mexican Freemasonry: A Confused Chapter in Our History
Bro. Peter Ingram
[ORIGINAL EDITOR'S NOTE: For the benefit of any of our readers to whom it is not obvious we feel it necessary to point out the following. This paper depicts a form of Freemasonry in Mexico early in the 19th century, not regular Freemasonry, which is very different from Freemasonry today. It contained practices which would not be tolerated now, nor indeed by any regular Grand Lodge even then, being an aberration from normal standards. This is especially so of the political and sectarian involvement mentioned in the paper, which is totally repugnant to regular Freemasonry.]
Mexico, or New Spain as it was originally called, was one of the four viceroyalties comprising the overseas possessions of the Crown of Spain. Beginning in 1523, Spanish administration continued with various interruptions until 1821. By 1800 the population was about six million, of whom only around 900,000 were Europeans. By far the most important segment, politically and economically, was a small group of European-born Spaniards known as the Gauchpines. They numbered only about 15,000 or 0.25% of the total population. The remaining Europeans, American-born Spaniards were known as the Creoles. They were often wealthy but they had few political privileges and were barred from high office in the Church, army or government.
The turmoil in napoleonic Europe was the inspiration for the movement towards Mexican independence. In 1808 Napoleon deposed the king of Spain and placed his own brother, Joseph, on the throne. A small minority of Creoles in New Spain decided that with the deposition of the king in Europe, power had reverted to the people and they immediately demanded a share of the government. The Viceroy was inclined to go along with this, which upset the Gauchpines who, fearing that they would lose some of their privileges, deposed the Viceroy and took over the government. Loyalty to Spain was reaffirmed, and the first separatist movement was crushed.
However, whilst the Europeans were quarrelling over their privileges, a major revolt developed among the masses, who demanded an extension of human rights to the Indians and mestizos, people of mixed blood. They were led by a parish priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, and a captain of cavalry, Allende. This truly revolutionary idea united the Gauchpines and Creoles, and the movement was decisively defeated in 1811. It flared up again a year later and was initially successful, but after the capture and execution of its leader in 1825, the populist republican movement dwindled to scattered guerrilla bands. The Gauchpines remained firmly in control of Mexico.
Mexican independence eventually came about almost by accident, when a revolution in Spain in 1820 produced a liberal government. The Gauchpines feared that the mother country would force upon them the social reforms that they had successfully resisted in the last decade. Separation from Spain was the only way to preserve their privileged position. They appointed as their leader Augustin Iturbide, a cashiered army officer, who was notorious for his ruthless executions of noncombatants.
Meanwhile, the original populist revolution, led since 1815 by Vincente Guerrero, had flared up again. Iturbide was sent out with the royal army to crush them. However as soon as he and Guerrero met, they signed a truce and declared a new state of Mexico based on equality of rights for Spaniards and Creoles. The fact that Iturbide and Guerrffo knew each other as Freemasons, as did all the other signatories to the truce, no doubt made their negotiations easier. Iturbide was crowned as Emperor Augustin I in May 1822. A year later, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, the winner of the Battle of the Alamo in later years, declared Mexico a republic and Iturbide was forced to abdicate. An attempt by Spain at about this time to reestablish control of Mexico was effectively vetoed by the American declaration of the Monroe Doctrine.
From the outset the new republic was torn by the conflict between two factions. The Centralist favoured a strong central government. They represented the clericals, the large landowners and the upper ranks of the military, essentially the Gauchpines and the more conservative Creoles. Opposed to them were the Federalists, who favoured limited central government and nearly autonomous states. They came to represent the liberal anticlericals, the merchants, the Creole and mestizos middle classes.
The pendulum of power swung back and forth between the two groups. In 1824, Guadalupe Victoria, a Federalist was elected president. Vincente Guerrero succeeded him and held on to power until 1831, despite a Centralist revolt led by the VicePresident, and the loss of the election of 1828. The Centralists ruled for only a year before being voted out of office in favour of General Santa Ana, who was then a Federalist, but became a Centralist in 1836, whereupon the Centralists managed to hold on to power for a decade. And so on: in the fiftyfive years from independence, this unfortunate country had seventy four governments.
There were also two foreign invasions during this period. Following a dispute over territory the United States invaded Mexico in 1846 and after some hard fighting, occupied the capital. Mexico was forced to accept the annexation of Texas and to sell to the United States the territory which is now California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona and parts of Colorado.
In 1857 the cycle of revolution and counter revolution degenerated into outright civil war between the two power groups which, by this time, were the Conservative and Liberal parties. Eventually the Liberal armies led by Benito Juanez were victorious. However the turmoil of the civil war left the country almost bankrupt. Juanez was forced temporarily to suspend interest payments on all foreign debts. Unfortunately this was the age of gun boat diplomacy; Great Britain, Spain and France all sent punitive expeditions to collect the money owing to them. The British and Spanish troops left when they realised that the French were more interested in political power than in collecting debts. By 1864, they had conquered almost the whole country and installed Maximillian of Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico. One of the reasons that the French got away with this was that the Americans were preoccupied with their own civil war. Almost as soon as that was over and they could again turn their attention to foreign matters the United States forced both France and Austria to withdraw their support for Maximillian who was then fairly quickly deposed and shot.
Juarez resumed the presidency and set out to heal the wounds of war, he made very few reprisals against those who had supported Maximillian. Mexico then entered a period of relative stability and economic growth which was scarcely interrupted by the death, by illness, of Juarez, the succession of Lardo and then the successful coup by means of which Porfirio Diaz assumed the presidency in 1876. Diaz ruled Mexico until 1911 and gave the country a long period of peace. The emphasis during this time was economic development in the hope that social progress would follows. One of his slogans was "few politics but much administration", the loss of liberty being the price the Mexican people were required to pay for progress.
The last successful revolution in Mexico was in 1920 since when the changes in government have all been constitutional.
The First Lodges 1806 - 1846
There were initially two systems or rituals operating in Mexico during this period. The American system of Masonry known as the York Rite probably appeared first and was followed a few years later by the French system which, equally confusing, was known as the Scottish Rite. Although originally devised about 1725, by Chevalier Ramsay, the Scottish Rite had been drastically revised in 1801 and it is probably the new, reinvigorated French system with which we are initially concerned.
The first hints of masonic activity in Mexico, in 1791, are in the records of the Inquisition; a Frenchman was sentenced to three years in jail as a heretic and a freemason. For fear of the Inquisition those masons who came to Mexico stayed away from each other and kept their beliefs to themselves.
The first lodge was probably formed in 1806 although almost nothing is known about it, its name and archives have been lost. It met at the residence of Sir Guerrero y Luyando and had ten founding members most of whom were high public officials. It is believed to have initiated two men, the parish priest of Dolores, Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and Don Miguel Allende. After two or three years it was suppressed by political persecution, in the course of which one brother lost his life. The suppression of the Lodge coincides with the suppression of the first separatist movement in Mexico. Although there is no direct evidence to connect the two events there is enough indirect evidence to suggest the possibility of a connection.
On 16th September, 1810, the lodges' first initiate, Don Miguel Hidalgo issued the 'Grito de Dolores', calling for the end of rule by the Gauchpines and initiating the populist revolutionary movement that ultimately brought about Mexican independence. His second-in-command, Allende, is thought to have been a relative of Don Miguel Allende, Hidalgo's fellow initiate.
From about 1810 onwards, freemasons began arriving in Mexico amongst the Europeans who came out to join both sides of the conflict. They came primarily as political agitators rather than as masons and this had a profound influence on the development of Masonry in Mexico. To Quote from a Mexican writer, '... the first germs of this Universal Institution reached us contaminated with the virus of partisan politics. No wonder the offspring have continued to nourish themselves with the same sap.'
A lodge called Caballeros Racionales (Rational Gentlemen), was founded in 1812 in the city of Jalapa. According to the records of the Inquisition politics were discussed in the lodge and its members joined in several conspiracies although it respected the Catholic religion.
Masonry returned to the capital in 1813, in which year military forces sent out from Spain introduced the Scottish Rite and organized the first lodges under that rite in Mexico. This was when most of Spain was occupied by French troops, and it is easy to see how a French masonic system reached Spain. From the outset, exclusiveness was the main feature of this branch of freemasonry. Only Gauchpines, Peninsular Spaniards, and Creoles of noble blood and proven political reliability were admitted. Strangely enough to our minds, these lodges regarded themselves as Liberal; they conformed to the ideas of Spanish politics, and their aims were to form a Governmental system in Mexico representative of the Mother Country and to reform the Catholic clergy (one of whom had just staged a major revolution).
The order flourished despite the necessity of meeting in strictest secrecy and several lodges were established. In 1821, after Independence, they were able to meet more freely. The Creoles gradually withdrew from the Gauchpine lodges, forming lodges of their own, which were directed by General Nicholas Bravo, and so the Scottish Rite was propagated throughout Mexico.
Turning now to the York Rite, the same Mexican writer quoted above supposes that there were also a great many lodges working the York Rite in this period although his evidence for this is confusing.
However, about 1823, thirty six Master Masons met for the purpose of organizing lodges under the York Rite. The initiative for this may have come from the new American Ambassador, Joel R. Poinsett, or from the Mexican brethren themselves. Their stated reason for this was to try and keep out of politics, as the other bodies were introducing political propaganda into the lodge, greatly to their discontent. Since there were amongst them a Senator, the Secretary of State, the Subsecretary of Justice, and the President of the Republic, Guadalupe Victoria, they appear to have been rather naive, and from the outset the new organization was plunged into severe political strife.
In 1824, they received charters from the Grand Lodge of New York to set up five lodges in Mexico City and one in Vera Cruz. These were obtained for them by the American Ambassador, who then installed the officers. They quickly formed themselves into a Grand Lodge and issued Dispensations and Charters for lodges throughout the country, very soon there were ninety lodges actively at work.
Initially they confined themselves to masonic matters, charity and benevolence, but it was not long before they met with such opposition from the Scottish Rite masons, that they were provoked into acts of resistance, and shortly thereafter, in selfdefence, began to take an active part in national politics. By this time their Grand Master was Vincente Guerrero, who was now also President of Mexico this is the same Guerrero who led the Republican revolution from 1815 as the successor of Hidalgo and Morelos, the same man who signed the truce with Iturbide that overthrew the Gauchpine revolution and established the Mexican Empire that led to the Mexican Republic. There is no indication of when he was initiated into Freemasonry, but it could well have been quite early on, given his connection with Hidalgo and the fact that he was almost certainly a relative of the Guerrero who provided the venue for the first lodge in Mexico back in 1806.
To try and simplify a very confusing situation as it was around 1827: The Federalist Party was in power. The President was Vincente Guerrero, who was also Grand Master of the York Rite Masons. The Centralist Party was in opposition, but their leader, Nicolas Bravo, was VicePresident. He was also Grand Master of the Scottish Rite Masons.
By this time the two political organizations as such had practically disappeared, and their places were taken by the two rival masonic organizations
who kept the country in profound turmoil, bordering on civil war. They both displayed great activity in increasing their membership, with the emphasis on quantity, rather than quality. A typical practice of the times shows the strange masonic spirit of the brethren. The Scottish Rite masons would hold religious celebrations in honour of the Virgin del Pilar, a Spanish Saint, and those of the York Rite made similar demonstrations in honour of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Mexican symbol of worship. In the capital it was common to see MasonicCatholic processions in which masonic aprons alternated with priestly surplices with each side accusing the other of being heretical.
In 1827, Vice-President Yorkinos and his Scottish Rite Masons staged an insurrection against the Government. President Guerrero and the Yorkinos marched off to fight the rebels. Bravo was surrounded and beaten. The Scottish Rite masons were thereby so thoroughly discredited and discouraged that they refrained from putting up a candidate for the 1828 Presidential election. Instead, they threw their support behind Gomez Pedraza, the Liberal candidate, who was elected. However, Guerrero was unwilling to relinquish power and, after resorting to armed force, he was inaugurated for a second presidential term.
Guerrero was eventually deposed and executed by the new Vice-President, another mason, who was himself deposed a year later by Santa Ana, who then reinstalled the elected president, Pedraza, to serve the last three months of his term. With the election of Pedraza in 1828, the Liberals and Scottish Rite masons had a majority in the new congress. It soon issued a decree prohibiting the existence of secret societies under severe penalties. Most lodges accepted this decree and suspended labour until better times, although several lodges of both Rites continued to work until they were closed by the police.
The Mexican National Rite
Back in the dark days of 1825, when the two Mexican Grand Lodges virtually represented the Government and Opposition parties, several brethren, five Scottish and four York Rite Masons, tried to form a lodge based on true masonic principles. Not surprisingly, they received no encouragement from either of their parent organizations, and so they decided to found a new Rite that would meet their aspirations. With a few other brothers they held a Convention to establish the form of the new organization based on the three symbolical degrees of Universal Masonry and six special philosophical degrees. The Convention then authorized the formation of five lodges, which in turn constituted a Grand Lodge, the Mexican National Rite. This organization appears to have escaped the Congressional ban on secret societies, and by 1830 was established in most parts of the country. A number of masons from the York Rite joined the National Rite when their own lodges were closed.
From the outset the Mexican National Rite joined in the political contests with enthusiasm and initially allied themselves with the York Masons. In 1833, it published a programme advocating liberty of opinion and of the Press, abolition of the privileges of the Clergy and Military, closing of convents, establishment of civil marriage, the abolition of the death penalty and the conservation of National territory. These reforms were eventually accomplished, although costing rivers of blood. For instance in 1840, the National Rite armed its lodges in Mexico City and with some of the military attacked and took over the Presidential Palace. They had to give it back twelve days later when they ran out of ammunition.
The Liberal Constitution of 1857 which was followed by the three years of civil war and the French invasion is seen as the culmination of the political activities of Mexican Masonry and particularly the National Rite.
Meanwhile real Freemasonry was at a very low ebb since the two masonic systems only served to identify the political parties that had plunged the country into turmoil and bloodshed, there are traces of two French lodges in 1845, and later a German lodge under the Grand Lodge of Hamburg. However, because of revolutions and a serious cholera epidemic, very little active work is recorded. The American invasion of Mexico in 1846 resulted in the closing of all lodges organized prior to that date. This effectively marks the end of the first phase of Mexican Freemasonry.
The Return of Freemasonry to Mexico
In 1850 a group of French masons living in Mexico City resolved to form a lodge that would have no political association whatsoever. They obtained a charter from the Grand Oriente of France, permission from the President of the Republic and the blessing of the Mexican National Rite, so it was in all sense a regular lodge. Its life appears to have been short, possibly only five years, but it was important because its members were the nucleus of the group that formed the Union Fraternal Lodges from which contemporary Mexican Masonry originated.
The second phase of Mexican Freemasonry really began in a tentative manner in 1859. The initiative appears to have come from a Senor Abad del Oro, a distinguished member of the Grand Oriente of New Granada or Colombia as it is called today. He met and associated with the brethren of the now defunct French lodge. They contacted other masons and joined together to establish a new lodge 'The Union Fraternal' with a charter from the Grand Oriente of New Granada. The first master of this lodge was Jame C. Lohse, an American merchant living in Mexico City who had been initiated into Freemasonry by the Friendship Lodge of Pennsylvania. The news that Freemasonry was once again established in Mexico City, provoked a very hostile reaction. No doubt there were many who could remember the turmoil created by Freemasonry only thirty years earlier. The clerical press particularly attacked and insulted the lodge, its members were excommunicated and its master was caricatured aiming a cannon at the door of the Church.
The lodge was invaded by armed men, the ceremonies being interrupted and some of the brethren were arrested. However, as is often the case the opposition seems to have cemented the lodge together. By the end of 1863 it had about two hundred members; Mexicans, Spaniards, Americans, French, English and German freemasons all working together in the same lodge. When the French army of occupation entered Mexico City many of its officers and men were already masons and they too affiliated with Lodge 'Union Fraternal'. It was said that under the influence of Freemasonry harmony prevailed amongst the brethren. Apparently the different nationalities met on different nights with Brother Lohse in the chair and able to conduct the ceremony in whichever language was appropriate.
In 1864 the mother lodge, Union Fraternal, which probably worked in English subdivided to produce two more lodges. Emule de Hiram to work in French and later Lodge Eintracht to work in German. One of the French officers, who was returning to Europe, obtained charters for the new lodges from France. They may also have attempted to obtain charters from New Granada. Not surprisingly Brother Lohse was its first Grand Master, a position he held until 1872.
At about this time, there arrived in Mexico City from Havana another Mason, Manuel Basilis de Cunha Reis. He was one of those speculators who descended upon Mexico during Maximillian's reign to take advantage of the opportunities that arise in such situations, his particular mission being to secure railroad concessions. He had been a mason since 1844 and claimed to have a perfect knowledge of masonic ritual up to the thirtythird degree. He came with authority to set up a Supreme Council thirtythird degree, Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite which he proceeded to do and gave several of the brethren all the degrees up to the thirtythird.* Brother Lohse, along with his other responsibilities was the charter Sovereign Grand Commander.
* The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite is based on the first three degrees and confers degrees from the fourth to the thirtythird. The three Craft degrees are controlled by a Grand Orient which is similar to a Grand Lodge except that it is ruled by a self perpetuating council, the ordinary mason having no say in the government of the Craft. Furthermore the Grand Orient is often subordinated to a Supreme Council, a similarly undemocratic body, which rules an 33 degrees. One aspect of this is that each degree in turn claims authority over all the lower degrees. In Mexico the terms Grand Orient and Supreme Council appear to have been used interchangeably or even combined! Much of the ensuing conflict and confusion arose because Grand Lodges were not the ultimate authority over the first three degrees; or they may have been depending upon the point of view of the protagonists.
Masonry in Mexico's Second City Vera Cruz
In the same year, 1859, a delegate from the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of New Orleans arrived in Vera Cruz. He proceeded to establish a Supreme Council for the region and named as its ruler a prominent member of the Liberal government which was then in exile in Vera Cruz. At the same time a Blue Lodge La Fraternidad was formed, possibly with the assistance of the National Rite. It was then discovered that the delegate from New Orleans was an imposter so the brethren in Vera Cruz appealed to the Supreme Council in Charleston (possibly the ultimate Supreme Council for the Scottish Rite in the Americas) for regularization which was achieved a year later. The following years saw the French invasion and great political turmoil, both Supreme Councils and most Lodges went into recess and retreated to the north of Mexico. The Lodge Fraternal in Mexico City was probably the only Lodge to continue working.
When the political conditions stablized and the Government returned to Mexico City the two branches of Mexican Masonry, that in the Capital and the brethren in Vera Cruz, agreed to merge. Brother Lohse was reselected as Sovereign Grand Commander. The Grand Lodge of Vera Cruz was also formed at this time, the second in the country.
Schism and Fragmentation Conflict and Confusion.
The Statutes of Naples was a rather fanciful attempt to codify the Scottish Rite. Its recommendations were rejected by the new United Supreme Council. This however did not please the Grand Lodge, Valle de Mexico, particularly the French brethren of Lodge Emules de Hiram. In 1869 they and several other lodges seceded to form a new body El Soberano Gran Oriente del Rito Escoces Antigua y Aceptado para la Republica de Mexico, a Supreme Grand Orient with the Grand Master of the Valle de Mexico as its ruler. In 1870 there were only five lodges left in this rebellious group, all located in Mexico City. However the following year they underwent a major reorganization and thenceforth became the Reformed Scottish Rite. They were then recognised as legitimate by the Mexican National Rite, the Gran Oriente of Spain and several other bodies. This upset the parent body but provided them with stimulus for further growth.
The Reformed Scottish Rite claimed authority over the first three degrees through the Independent Grand Lodge of the Federal District. This claim was not accepted by the Supreme Council and so once again there were two contending masonic organizations competing to establish as many Craft lodges as possible throughout the country. However the result this time was more beneficial for Freemasonry as a whole. Voluntary union between these lodges, which were established indiscriminately by the two powers, gave rise to Grand Lodges in a number of States. These infant Grand Lodges usually asserted their independence of both parent bodies.
One of the Grand Lodges formed at this time was the Grand Lodge of the Federal District. It was organized under unusually difficult circumstances as another Grand Lodge claiming equal authority was established on the same night and in another part of the same temple. Its master was Benito Juarez, the son of President Juarez, Maximillian's executioner. Incidentally the Grand Lodge of the Federal District had no connection with the Independent Grand Lodge of the Federal District. Some years later another Grand Lodge of the Federal District appears which may have been the third distinct masonic body bearing that name.
The year 1876 brought fresh political disturbances in which Masonry took an active part. The outcome was the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. He was apparently initiated under the Mexican National Rite but later became a Scottish Rite mason. When he assumed the Presidency he was already Inspector General of the Supreme Council.
The next schism was a much more serious affair. It originated with the Grand Master of the Gran Logia, Valle de Mexico, Ignacio Altamirano and Ermilio Canton who was master of the Albert Pike Lodge. In 1878 they complained that many of the brethren were dissatisfied with the administration of the Supreme Council. The real but probably unstated cause of their dissatisfaction was that the Supreme Council would not allow politically ambitious masons to advance to higher degrees until they were masonically qualified. As a result, two lodges withdrew from the Supreme Council although Canton's own lodge was not one of them. They also took with them several unaffiliated masons, enough to form a third lodge, Benito Juarez No. 3, which promptly elected Canton as its master. With three lodges they were able to constitute themselves into the Gran Logia Indendiente del Estado del Valle de Mexico. Their intention was to liberate the first three degrees, from the domination of the United Supreme Council. To do this it was apparently necessary to organize another Supreme Council. Altamirano, by virtue of his power as Grand Master of the Valle de Mexico, declared himself to the Sovereign Grand Inspector of the new body. He then proceeded to confer the 33rd on Canton and several others until he had enough men for the new organization which was called the Supreme Council of the Grand Oriente of Mexico. They then promulgated the idea that the representatives of the 4th to the 33rd degrees had nothing to do with the government of the first three degrees. For reasons which are hard to understand, but are probably related to the hierarchical structure of the Scottish Rite, this had the effect of undermining the authority of Grand Lodges throughout the country and concentrating all the power and authority in the hands of the new Grand Oriente. The new organization flourished and by 1884 controlled about 120 lodges and had achieved recognition by several Grand Orientes overseas.
The Grand Diet And The Toltec Lodge
The next major upheaval began in 1889 and once again Ermilio Canton appears to have been the driving force. He approached the Sovereign Grand Commander of the Supreme Council, Luis Pombo and proposed a fusion of the two bodies. Since eleven years had elapsed since the original schism, no doubt passions would have cooled somewhat; furthermore Canton was already in a very strong position. A treaty was signed between Pombo and Canton, apparently without consulting anyone else in their respective bodies. The Supreme Council relinquished its claims to authority over the first three degrees in return for which the Supreme Grand Orient and several State Grand Lodges went out of existence. In effect they merged. Most brethren appear to have accepted the faitaccompli, albeit reluctantly, but there were sufficient objectors to give rise to at least two splinter groups.
However Canton's plan was more ambitious, no less than reuniting all the various Mexican masonic bodies into one organization. In February, 1890, a grand convention was held in Mexico City with representatives from nearly every state Grand Lodge which led to the formation of the Grand Symbolical Diet of the United States of Mexico.
Many masons had strong objections to this plan but their protests were silenced when Canton named the President of the Republic as the Most Respectable Grand Master. Diaz took no part in the affairs of the Grand Diet but he may have used it for surveillance and control of his political appointees, many of whom soon held prominent positions in the organization. Canton appointed himself as permanent Grand Secretary General. Initially the new body appears to have been successful and to have included virtually all the 'regular' Masonic bodies in Mexico. There were four notable exceptions.
1. The Grand Oriente of the Reformed Scottish Rite and its subordinate body, the Independent Grand Lodge of the Federal District which was almost defunct.
2. The Grand Lodge of Vera Cruz which believed that in itself resided the sole authority for Freemasonry in Mexico; this was due to some gratuitous interference by the Grand Lodge of Cuba.
3. The Mexican National Rite. The Grand Diet recognized this body as regular Masonry principally because Benito Juarez and other brethren involved in the defeat of Maximillian were enrolled amongst its members.
4. The Toltec Lodge, No 520, chartered by the Grand Lodge of Missouri for English speaking brethren; at this time it was the only lodge in Mexico working the York Rite.
In 1892 the Grand Lodge of Missouri, as a gesture of goodwill, put pressure on the Toltec Lodge to relinquish its Missouri charter and to accept a charter from the Grand Diet. The master of the Toltec Lodge, Bro. Richard Chism, replied by making three very serious charges about the state of Mexican Freemasonry. He alleged that lodges under the Grand Diet meddled in politics, excluded the Bible and admitted women. These charges were to a large extent substantiated despite which the Grand Lodge of Missouri insisted on recalling its charter. This particular incident had an unusually harmonious ending. When the Toltec Lodge was admitted to the Grand Diet, they really had no choice, only three of its members withdrew. Furthermore their old number was added to the name, they became Toltec Lodge, Quinientos Viente (i.e. 520), number 214.
The charges made by the master of the Toltec Lodge bear further examination.
Politics had always been the bane of Mexican Freemasonry but also possibly its driving force. Writing about events in 1910 one brother said 'In this labour they were very much hindered by the ... inherent tendency of the so called Latin American to convert Masonic Lodges into political clubs.' Similarly another brother thought they 'had been powerful factors in the establishment of liberty and independence in Mexico...' The Grand Diet had publicly placed itself on the side of President Diaz and nearly all the members of its subordinate bodies were office holders in the Federal Government. Meanwhile the Reformed Scottish Rite and its lodges represented the meagre opposition that Diaz permitted.
The Mexican National Rite was accused of being connected with every revolution since its formation. By 1890 it had been taken over by the Post Office, the Postmaster General was its Grand Master and nearly all its members were connected with the Postal Department.
In defence of our Mexican brethren, and let us not forget that they were our brethren, we cannot now judge how necessary political involvement was to development and survival of Mexican Freemasonry. It may well have been that without politics Freemasonry in Mexico would had been a very feeble growth. Furthermore the reason why we are forbidden to introduce politics is probably to preserve the harmony of the lodge. It is, in the opinion of this writer, the harmony which is the landmark of the Craft and not the prohibition of politics.
There were many lodges in Mexico that did not use the Bible. Some Grand Lodges refused to allow it to be placed on the altar whilst others failed to make it mandatory which was equally irregular. In 1909 the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Nuevo Leon, he was also Governor of the State, described the Bible as a sectarian book having no place in Freemasonry. In responding to the Toltec charges one of the brethren claimed that for Protestants the Bible is the only source of their faith whereas Catholics draw their faith from the Church itself, consequently the Bible is not held in the same veneration by Catholics as it is by Protestants. Interestingly enough he did not make what seems to be the more obvious defence; that in Mexico at that time the Church was also heavily involved in politics, had played a part in many of the revolutions and was vehemently antimasonic.
The admission of women into Mexican Freemasonry is thought to have begun about 1871. However the first women's lodge was not established until 1890. Until then women had presumably sat in open lodge alongside male freemasons.
The Lodge Maria Alarcon de Mateos, No. 27, was chartered by the Grand Diet in 1890 and empowered to work the three symbolic degrees. The following year Canton established another women's lodge called Josefa C de Canton in memory of his deceased wife. Following Chism's letter attempts were made to discredit him and to deny the fact that women participated in Mexican Masonry. However the Boletin Masonica of 1893 published a list of lodges affiliated with the Grand Lodge, Valle de Mexico which included both of these lodges. It also refers to 'our very dear sister Clio, the Worshipful Master of Lodge No. 27.' The postal address of this lodge is the same as that of the Grand Lodge.
Two years later an article in the Chicago Legal News created quite a stir amongst the Fraternity. 'The wife of T.W. Parvin, a Past Grand Master and the daughter-in-law of Most Worshipful Bro. Theodore Parvin is ..... (herself) a 14d Mason and was the Worshipful Master of the Martha Washington Lodge of Master Masons in Mexico.' He never expected to see the day when his son and his son's wife would meet in the same Master Mason's Lodge and his son's wife would the Worshipful Master.
It was alleged by some of the brethren that women were confined to Women's Lodges and restricted to the 4th to the 14th degrees, not participating at all in the Blue Lodges. However there were also many witnesses to testify that they had seen women meeting men on equal terms in the same lodge and in possession of the secrets of the first three degrees. In 1893 there were three male lodges which elected women as their delegates to the Grand Lodge.
The crunch came during a Grand Lodge Celebration on 24 June 1895. Upon seeing that there were women present several lodges retired in a body as the labours were about to commence, Toltec Lodge being prominent amongst them. Thereupon Bro. Canton unilaterally revoked the Charters of the Women's Lodges, the doors of the Lodge being forever closed to women. He also declared that instead of the Book of Constitution, the Bible should be placed on the altar.
One cannot help feeling rather sorry for the women involved. One day they were masons, apparently of good standing, the next day they were turned out and for nothing that they themselves had done. It would be small consolation for them to reflect that if they were regularly made masons, however unusual, no decision by the Grand Diet could change that. The fault lay with the organization and not with themselves.
From about 1880 until 1895 Canton was the dominant force in Mexican Freemasonry having maneuvered himself into key positions at three levels. He was the master of the Benito Juarez Lodge which had been organized for his benefit during the schism of 1878. He was, intermittently, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge, Valle de Mexico, and at the summit he was the permanent Grand Secretary of the Grand Diet, President Diaz was the Grand Master but attended no meetings. Canton ran Mexican Freemasonry like a personal empire, his leadership both arbitrary and dictatorial.
In 1892, Canton was charged before the Grand Diet, with the abuse of his authority, apparently he had visited a lodge and without giving reason or justification had suspended its officers. The charges were referred to a Committee for investigation but before it had had time to report Canton had summarily expelled his accuser for perjury and treason.
A year before this the Grand Diet had received a complaint from the Grand Lodge of Texas that the Grand Diet had invaded its jurisdiction by establishing a lodge in Laredo, Texas. Canton visited Laredo and issued a decree closing the lodge. However following this he appears to have immediately established the women's lodge described above, Josefa C. Canton No. 158 at Nuevo Laredo. There is no doubt that Canton was closely involved with the introduction of women into Mexican Freemasonry. At one stage his wife was Assistant Grand Treasurer and his motherinlaw Assistant Grand Orator. It was at his invitation that women were present at the meeting that precipitated the walkout by several lodges.
Inevitably Canton overreached his powers. On 12 August 1895 he issued a decree in the name of the Grand Diet recalling the charters of four women's lodges and making the use of the Bible mandatory. The following night there was a meeting of the Grand Lodge, Valle de Mexico, when this decree was read out. Everyone present knew that the Grand Diet had not met the previous night, that the decree came from Canton himself. The Grand Master of Valle de Mexico then announced that he would not accept the decree and no longer recognized the authority of the Grand Diet. There were thirtysix masons present, twentytwo of whom belonged to Canton's own lodge, Benito Juarez a violent disagreement ensued and the lodge was summarily closed. The Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Diet then declared that the Grand Master of the Valle de Mexico was suspended along with all those brethren who supported him. On 17 August, Canton reorganized the Grand Lodge, Valle de Mexico with himself once again as Grand Master. Their opponents were then formally removed from office and expelled from the fraternity and for good measure three lodges were closed at the same time. It was these brethren who went off and reactivated the dormant Grand Lodge of the Federal District. During one of their early sessions Canton invaded the precincts of the Grand Lodge and attempted forcibly to depose the Grand Master.
A week later Canton persuaded the Grand Diet to ratify these charges, there were only 15 people at the meeting but they claimed to represent ninetynine lodges.
The destruction and usurpation of the premier Grand Lodge in Mexico was the final straw for many brethren. In October 1895, President General don Porfirio Diaz, the nominal Grand Master together with the Senior and Junior Grand Wardens withdrew from the Grand Diet followed by many other prominent men. Within three months the Grand Diet was virtually extinguished as an effective force in Mexican Freemasonry although it lingered on until 1901.
What motivated Brother Ermilio Canton?
When he ceased labour in 1899 it was said that, whatever his faults, he was an indefatigable organizer and a constant champion of what he believed to be beneficial to Masonry. By others it was felt that he enjoyed the exercise of power for its own sake. Many years later a past secretary of the Toltec Lodge was described as a 'professional Mason', the greater part of his livelihood being derived from the salaries he drew for being secretary of various masonic bodies. Could the same charge have been made against Canton?
His Supreme Grand Oriente was organized in such a manner that it absorbed everything, receiving the fees for initiation and degrees, for Charters and Diplomas. Furthermore, when in August 1895 an audit was made of the books of the Grand Diet, a deficit of between $10,000 and $15,000 was discovered. However this is all inference, specific charges of financial speculation could not be found in the available literature.
Scottish vs. York Rite Masons again.
Once Diaz was firmly in power in Mexico he embarked upon a vigorous programme of industrial development. This lead to the immigration of a considerable number of English speaking people, many of whom were already masons. They affiliated with Mexican lodges and soon began to have considerable influence. In 1904 the Grand Lodge, Valle de Mexico had fortyone lodges, twenty working in Spanish, twenty in English and one in German; fiftysix per cent of the membership were foreigners; by 1901 this had risen to seventythree per cent. Although the Grand Lodge had a Scottish Rite constitution and structure the majority of its lodges and brethren by now practised the York Rite. In 1910 they attempted to use their majority to change the constitution to reflect a more York Rite character. Inevitably the Spanish speaking, predominantly Mexican lodges, objected and withdrew from the Grand Lodge. The separation was permanent, the Valle de Mexico continued as the name of the Scottish Rite, Spanish speaking body whilst the English speaking lodges affiliated to become the York Grand Lodge of Mexico. The one German speaking lodge got itself a new charter from the Grand Lodge in Hamburg. The rift between the two Grand Lodges was not healed until 1945 when visitation treaties were worked out between the State Grand Lodges, the Grand Lodge, Valle de Mexico and the York Grand Lodge of Mexico.
In 1983, there were about 600 lodges in Mexico and approximately 32,000 masons, regular and irregular. Apart from the Grand Lodge, Valle de Mexico (154 lodges, 5056 members), and the York Grand Lodge (11 Lodges, of which Toltec Lodge is No 1,632 members) there were also 19 State Grand Lodges. The Mexican National Rite survived with about 1,100 members.
Mexico is, masonically, the most diverse country in the world. Masonic history is so complex that a large book would be needed to do it justice. In preparing this condensed outline inevitably errors and misrepresentations will have crept in, these are regretted. My intention was to bring forward one of the more exciting chapters in our history and to show a completely different aspect of Freemasonry than that which is apparent here in New Zealand.
I wish to express my gratitude to Bro. Roy Adams, without whose guidance and encouragement this paper would never have been written. Thanks are also due to Bro D.H. Hart, Grand Secretary, York Grand Lodge of Mexico for his assistance.
(1) Historical Notes on Masonry in the Republic of Mexico Relative to the Gran Logia Valle de Mexico and the York Grand Lodge of Mexico (1924) Casa Unida de Publicaciones. S.A. Nueovo Mexico 110. Mexico D.F.
(2) Encyclopedia Britannica, 1947 Edition. Vol. 15, p. 389.
(3) Encyclopedia Britannica, 1976 Edition. Vol. 12, p. 65.
(4) Freemasonry in Mexico. A.Q.C.. Vol.6, p. 113, R. F. Gould. 1893.
(5) Freemasonry in Mexico II. A.Q.C., Vol.7, p.72, R. F. Gould. 1894.
(6) Freemasonry in Mexico III. A.Q.C., Vol.8, p.219, R. F. Gould. 1895.
(7) Freemasonry in Mexico IV. A.Q.C., Vol.10, p.66, R.F. Gould. 1897.
(8) History of Freemasonry and Concordant Orders. Edited by H. L. Stillson & W. J. Hughan. 1896.
(9) Masonic World Guide, K. Henderson. p.155. 1984.
(10) Mexican Masonry in 1909, A.Q.C. Bro. F. E. Young, Vol 22, p.214.
(11) Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite. Bro. M. F. Hynes. Transactions United Masters Lodge No. 167, Vol.27, p.55.
(12) History of Masonry in Mexico, 1791 1950 Grand Historian, York Grand Lodge of Mexico, 1981.