Vol. XXXVIII No. 4 — April 1960

Masonic Colleges

Conrad Hahn

A generally forgotten chapter in the History of American Freemasonry is the story of various attempts to found schools and colleges on the part of some grand lodges in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Insufficient research has so far been undertaken to determine the causes or impulses that led to these educational enterprises, none of which has survived to the present day as a distinctively Masonic institution.

The eighteen-thirties, forties, and fifties were a pioneering age. The West was being opened. The nation’s frontier was steadily advancing toward the Pacific. It was a period of rapidly shifting populations, of “rough and ready” institutions for law and order, and of a dearth of civilizing agencies like schools and colleges where men were still conquering the wilderness and other challenges of the time.

Masonry was always in the vanguard of the pioneering trains. It was one of the first institutions to establish a local habitation and a name wherever men had settled down and organized a community. This is a facet of American history that has been seriously neglected, even by Masonic historians. American Freemasonry’s great role in the conquering of the West is completely ignored by Hollywood writers and producers in the tremendously popular T.V. “westerns.”

American Freemasons, imbued with the doctrine of free universal education for the nation’s citizenry, and true to their belief that a builder is an enlightened man, were generally the first to take practical steps for public education in a newly organized town. Where a Masonic lodge was built, it was generally of two stories — the ground floor to serve as a school-room, the one upstairs as a lodge. In Texas, for example, this combination was so frequent in the days of the Lone Star Republic that it almost seems to have been a rule.

As soon as the first generation of children arrived at the threshold of manhood, the need for academic institutions of a higher level became apparent. To answer the need there came a great wave of denominational and state supported colleges that spread over the landscape of America in the middle of the 1800s. Freemasonry undoubtedly derived part of its interest in founding colleges from this educational urge.

In most instances, however, Masonic institutions of higher learning were designed to provide education for worthy but indigent Masons’ children. In this respect the founders were remembering their obligation to help, aid, and assist; but at the same time they were sowing some of the seeds of decline that would ultimately destroy their laudable undertakings.

It was also the period of the Morgan excitement, which saw so great a decline in Masonic membership and influence in the 1830s that it almost destroyed the Fraternity in some states. To counteract the false accusations and the vindictive interpretations of Freemasonry’s purposes that her enemies had put forth at the time, the Fraternity began to look for projects and institutions of a praiseworthy nature to which it could offer assistance. The founding of Masonic colleges was one of these projects.

Although it never actually “got off the ground,” the first proposal to build and operate a Masonic school or college seems to have taken place in Ohio. Steubenville Lodge No. 45 submitted a resolution to grand lodge in 1834 in favor of establishing “a manual labor school” for the education of orphan or indigent sons of Masons. The proposal asserted that $10,000 would be sufficient to purchase land, erect buildings, and furnish all the equipment necessary for the operation of such an institution.

The resolution also proposed that the plan be submitted to the constituent lodges by an appointed correspondence committee, and that the lodges inform the grand lodge, with their annual returns, of their opinions of the proposal, as well as their declaration of intention concerning the amount they would pledge annually for a period of five years.

The resolution was referred to the grand lodge ways and means committee, which after “due consideration,” especially of the slender funds in the grand lodge treasury, recommended that it was inexpedient to enter upon any such undertaking, or even to communicate with the lodges on the subject.

Although the resolution was tabled, its proponents wouldn’t strike their colors. Another committee favorable to the resolution was appointed later in the sessions; its recommendation was to the effect that the grand secretary communicate with the lodges, telling them of the project, and requesting them to forward their opinions to grand lodge, “with the amount, if any, they will contribute to this object.”

In 1836 the ways and means committee reported in favor of such a school, and called attention to offers from two lodges, amounting to $8,200, as well as other five year pledges from a few lodges. The report was adopted, and a committee was appointed to select a site and to take steps to organize such a school.

No report was forthcoming from the committee in 1837; a majority of the lodges manifested almost complete apathy toward the project. Consequently grand lodge adopted the report of a special committee that the whole matter be indefinitely postponed. In spite of the effort of two lodges to revive the project in 1839, grand lodge found it “inexpedient . . . now to undertake the establishment of such a school.” That seems to have ended the matter.

After Ohio introduced the idea of a Masonic school or college in 1834, a number of grand lodges in other states took up the proposal, the chief purpose in each case being the establishment of educational opportunities for orphan or indigent children of Masons at minimum expense. The life and activity of these colleges extended from the early 1840s to the Civil War period. Most of these institutions were created in the Southern states; consequently the Civil War seriously affected their prosperity, if not actually ruining them. Masonic colleges were established in Missouri, Kentucky, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia. Empire State Masons, as we shall see later, became somewhat involved in a People’s College at Havana (now Montour Falls), New York.

In 1841 the Grand Lodge of Missouri voted to establish a Masonic college under grand lodge auspices. The charter of this institution, dated February 17, 1841, declared its object to be “the establishment of an asylum for the nurture and education of indigent children, and a college of learning under the patronage of the grand lodge.” Its name was specified as “The Masonic College of Missouri.”

The first location was near Palmyra, Marion County, where the grand lodge in 1842 purchased the “extensive and valuable property known as Marion College” for $9,500. This was originally a Presbyterian college, for which extensive plans had been made. It could accommodate a hundred students. The first President of the Masonic College of Missouri was J. Worthington Smith, grand master ofVirginia.

A discouraging report to grand lodge in 1845, concerning the deterioration of the college properties, persuaded that body to consider a change of location, to that part of Missouri where “the most liberal subscriptions should be made for erecting the necessary buildings.” Lafayette County offered $33,000 as an inducement, provided the college were located in Lexington, along the banks of the Missouri River. The contribution was accepted and in 1846 the college was moved to Lexington.

Financial problems, however, continued to plague the institution. Pledges were rarely paid in full; longterm scholarships were sold to raise money for construction as well as for deficits, with the result that income per student gradually declined. The serious financial plight of the college was described to grand lodge in 1852. In 1856 the grand master announced that the charity fund voted by grand lodge was annually gobbled up by the financial needs of the college; that the endowment fund was at a standstill; and that great dissatisfaction was being expressed in lodges everywhere.

Although the institution had 157 students in 1857, only 51 were in the collegiate department. Tuition was only $15.00 per semester in the college; total expenses for the year were guaranteed not to exceed $85. Students sent by lodges paid no tuition fees. Faculty salaries were consequently low. The college had difficulty in holding good teachers.

In 1857 the Grand Lodge of Missouri began to consider seriously the sale or other disposition of its academic institution at Lexington. At the 1861 session of grand lodge the grand master was authorized and empowered to deed to the state of Missouri the college properties at Lexington. Since which time they have become a city park overlooking the broad Missouri.

During the siege and battle of Lexington in September 1861, the college hall received considerable damage from shell and mortar fire. In 1932 the structure was razed by fire; but two years later a smaller replica of the famous Masonic College was built on the spot, as a shelter in the public park, and a permanent reminder of Missouri’s Masonic venture into college education.

In 1840 the Grand Lodge of Kentucky became interested in establishing “a seminary of learning,” to be called the Kentucky Masonic Orphan Asylum. The matter was studied by various committees, with no definite action being taken until 1845. A year earlier the trustees of Funk Seminary at La Grange had offered to the Grand Lodge of Kentucky the grounds, buildings, property, and funds of that institution on condition of establishing and maintaining a good school for paying students. In 1845 grand lodge voted to accept the offer; the state legislature legalized the transaction on February 10, whereby Funk Seminary became the Masonic College of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky.

Grand Lodge, in assuming control of the Masonic College, guaranteed its finances; but apparently it had not anticipated the costs of education, for it struggled with that problem throughout the period of its sponsorship. The sale of scholarships for long periods of time and the employment of “field agents” to raise funds in the constituent lodges suggest that it was a perennial problem to keep the budget balanced. In 1850 the state of Kentucky conferred upon the college full university privileges and changed its title to the Masonic University of Kentucky. Among the honorary degrees awarded by the University was the Doctor of Laws degree conferred on Brother Rob Morris, the “father of the Order of the Eastern Star,” and for a short period in 1863, the president of the college.

For a number of years, especially under the leadership of Rev. John Trimble, Jr., the college enjoyed a full enrollment and a growing reputation for sound scholarship and academic training. But then came the Civil War. The student body fled “in consternation”; the faculty was dissolved; and the institution literally closed its doors for the rest of the year 1861.

While it soon re-opened for business, and even enjoyed an enrollment of 118 students in 1866, right after the war, its “days were numbered” because of mounting deficits and insufficient financial support. Moreover, the establishment of the Kentucky Masonic Widows and Orphans Home in that same year undoubtedly attracted Masonic philanthropy in another direction. By 1873 the university seems to have become inactive. The grand lodge was sued in a forfeiture proceeding, the Funk Seminary gift having been allowed to become idle. The grand lodge had judgment rendered against it. Its operation of a Masonic university came to an end.

Tennessee appears to have been most prolific in establishing Masonic schools and colleges. Among the institutions maintained and supported in whole or in part by the Masons of Tennessee, during a third of a century beginning in the 1840s, were the Masonic Female Institute at Hartsville, the Masonic Male College at Gallatin, the Clifton Masonic Academy at Clifton, the Petersburg Masonic Academy at Petersburg, Jackson College at Columbia, Macon Masonic Male College at Macon, the Male and Female Institute at Sale Creek, Hiwassee Masonic Institute at Charleston, a Masonic College at Dayton, the Masonic and Odd Fellows College at Nolensville, and the Masonic College of Tennessee at Clarksville.

Jackson College was an incorporated institution of learning managed and controlled by the various Masonic bodies of Maury County, Tennessee, the largest share of stock being owned by Columbia Lodge No. 31.

During the Civil War both sides used the building as a hospital; but when the Federal forces evacuated the town, the building was burned to the ground pursuant to a general order that all property of use to the Confederate forces be destroyed.

Jackson College had been offered to the Grand Lodge of Tennessee when it debated the desirability of establishing a Masonic University in 1846-1848. But at the grand lodge session of 1848, it was voted to accept the offer of the County Academy building at Clarksville, plus a sum of $15,000 for additional buildings, as well as $1,000 for laboratory equipment and a library, pledged by “the brethren and other citizens of Clarksville.”

A new college building was almost immediately begun; eventually it was to become one of the handsomest collegiate edifices in the land. Progress on the construction was slow, however, because lodges failed to heed the request of grand lodge that they make annual contributions to the enterprise. Another setback came in the form of an epidemic of cholera, which caused the death of many of the prospective donors and interested patrons.

However, the college began to operate almost immediately, using the old academy building; and by 1851 the “Masonic University of Tennessee” was reported to be “in a most flourishing condition.” The decade preceding the Civil War saw a genuine flowering of this Masonic institution; but that bloody conflict brought about a decline in patronage and support, which ultimately forced its sale to other interests.

Arkansas Masons established a Masonic College in 1851, known as St. John’s College of Arkansas, at Little Rock. It was to be a military school, the students wearing uniforms like those of West Point cadets. The first building was begun in 1857, and in late 1858 the first sessions of the college began. About fifty students were in the entering class. Financial support for the institution was slow in coming; early in the Civil War it had to close its doors. The famous re-creator of Scottish Rite Masonry, General Albert Pike, had been elected president of the college in 1853, but he never actually filled the office.

During the war, the properties were used as an army camp. Barracks were built on the grounds; the handsome college hall became sadly deteriorated. Not until 1867 was the college restored to its Masonic owners, and they found it difficult to re-awaken interest in the college because “the people of the state are not disposed to patronize a home institution.” After a few futile attempts to raise money for repairs and operations, the Grand Lodge of Arkansas was forced to relinquish control of St.John’s College.

St. John’s Masonic College at Oxford, North Carolina, was only briefly under the control and management of the Grand Lodge of North Carolina, although as early as 1838 that body had entertained resolutions “to establish a Masonic seminary of learning.” Committees were appointed annually to formulate plans and to raise money for such an institution. In 1850 it was voted to locate a college at Oxford, in view of Tuscarora Lodge’s offer of $8,500 and ten acres of land in that town.

The contract for the college hall was let in 1855. Two years later it was completed at a cost of $23,000. The college was opened July 13, 1858. In 1862, with a serious decline in enrollment, it was proposed to make St. John’s College a military school; but the grand master was authorized to sell the college and to place the proceeds in the grand lodge Orphans Fund. For a number of years grand lodge debated its liability for the debts of the college. In 1870 it dissolved the institution. The war and an insufficient base of financial support had claimed another victim.

The Grand Lodge of Illinois also considered the establishment of a Masonic school or college. In 1848 an educational committee was appointed to study the possibilities. This group reported that “a high school or college education would be uncalled for, but that a good academy would be all that is necessary.” The year 1850 brought forth another proposition for a school when Macomb Lodge No. 17 proposed to donate to grand lodge the building and grounds of McDonough College, if that body voted to establish a college, and not merely a school for orphans or indigent Masons’ children. Franklin Lodge No. 25, which had been running a school of its own, objected, believing that every lodge should adopt their plan. The majority of the lodges represented in 1850 agreed; thus settling the question of grand lodge participation in educational enterprises.

A somewhat different experience in collegiate education occurred in New York, where in 1867 the trustees of Peoples College at Havana voted to surrender control of that institution to the Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York. People’s College had been incorporated April 12, 1853, by an act of the New York legislature; but it provided no location and no appropriation. The twenty-four incorporators were authorized to sell to the public 250,000 shares in the college at a dollar a share.

This method failed to provide much money; and the few who purchased stock made it difficult to obtain a clear title to the property that was later acquired. This is usually given as the chief reason why the college did not become a permanent Masonic institution.

That a college was established at Havana and a building actually erected in 1858 was due largely to the exertions and benefactions of Charles C. Cook, a Mason in Havana. But after his death, the struggling institution faced a desperate situation, which it hoped the Morrill Land Bill would avert. However, the federal grant under that bill was finally awarded by the state legislature to a new university, Cornell, and Peoples College was no longer of any interest to the people’s representatives at Albany.

Transfer of control of People’s College to the Grand Lodge of New York was then proposed, but because of involved liabilities and litigation brought by stockholders and heirs of Brother Cook, the Grand Lodge of New York in 1869 voted to take “no action favorable or prejudicial to the transfer of the People’s College at Havana,” although a group of Masons on the board of trustees of the college had been operating the institution as a Masonic home and school for approximately two years. Thus ended New York’s operation of a Masonic school or college.

All these endeavors by Freemasonry to establish schools and colleges were laudable in their purposes and praiseworthy in the sacrifices and effort that they inspired. But all of them went out of existence, and therein must he a lesson in the dear school that experience keeps.

The first mistake made by the founders of Masonic schools and colleges was their failure to evaluate the clientele they chose to serve. A good college needs well-prepared students. The preparation given college students was seriously inadequate. Where Masonic institutions recognized the deficiency and attempted to conduct both a preparatory and a collegiate school, they “spread themselves too thin.” The funds at their disposal were inadequate.

The second mistake was in their evaluation of the support they could enlist. Masonic lodges were struggling for existence. They had a very small percentage of the community in their memberships. The average Mason was a man of modest circumstances. In limiting their plans for raising money to the Masons of the constituent lodges, the founders of Masonic schools and colleges had chosen a foundation so narrow that it could not uphold the structure it was asked to support.

Another mistake was due to the general lack of professional educational experience of the founders, and their attempts to satisfy local pride. Masonic colleges developed no new curricula or special studies to promote even a particular Masonic philosophy of education (there was none); and individually they were too feebly supported to pursue successfully the classic or traditional liberal arts programs that they were imitating. Furthermore, there were too many of them. The Fraternity was “scattering its shot.” What might have been, if grand lodges had joined in a united effort to support one or two such institutions, is interesting but idle speculation.

Furthermore, the willingness of Masons to give to charitable enterprises was somewhat misjudged. To widows and orphans no Mason could turn a deaf ear. To the need for a college education many a Mason of the nineteenth century was cold or just tepid. The expanding nation placed a premium on “self-made men,” not on polished scholars.

Finally, the broad base of financial support enjoyed by many denominational colleges that were “competing” with Masonic colleges, and the Morrill Land Bill of 1863, which assured the supremacy of state “land grant” institutions of higher education, put the Masonic colleges at a grave disadvantage that they were unable to overcome.

They passed into the limbo of lost causes, but not without leaving a valuable residue of worthwhile effort and noble sacrifice, which helped to shape the standards and values of a dynamic and democratic civilization. America is richer because of the Fraternity’s devotion to education and enlightenment,

The Masonic Service Association of North America