03/15/2011

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Your best friend calls you and tells you he/she's really sick? How do you show you care? Part 2 of &quot;Enigmatic Code&quot;:<br/> <br/> The Cultural Locus of the Scottish Rite’s Mother Council: Charleston “Capital of the South”<br/> <br/> There are very strong reasons for assuming that the initial, salient characteristics of the Scottish Rite’s Mother Council were closely tied to the place of its birth, Charleston. While much scholarship has dwelled on the great commercial efflorescence that Charleston represented in the South, it has been less noticed what an intensely religious place it was. In fact, “Charleston was clearly a city full of churches.”/9<br/> Unlike many places in the Country generally, and perhaps in the South in particular, where one might encounter day-to-day uneducated crudeness, Charleston was distinctly otherwise:<br/> <br/> “Charleston claimed to be the “Capital of the South” It was a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city, proud of its past and careful of its honor… its pulpits were supplied by…distinguished ministers. They had been educated at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, at the University of Edinburgh and Berlin. They traveled extensively in this country and abroad and carried on a voluminous correspondence with influential friends in America and Europe, and wrote scholarly books…. These ministers were clearly leaders of the church in South…No other city in the South … could match the distinctions or cosmopolitan perspectives of these Charleston pastors….”/10<br/> <br/> With such worldliness and erudition we should not be surprised that even in the conservative environment of the South that many of these men followed the archetypal trajectory from youthful liberalism to elder conservatism. As a cultural matter there is evidence that Charleston as a locus somehow encouraged these people as young men to in fact have liberal attitudes in opposing slavery. One minister as a young man felt that slavery was, “a violation of all the laws of God and man at once. A complete annihilation of justice. An inhuman abuse of power.”/11 And it certainly says a lot generally about Charleston as a place in the whole pre-Civil war era that, “[a] number of the cosmopolitan ministers in Charleston shared similar views as young men”/12 Of course it is sad to relate, but not surprising historically, that the typical trajectory seems to have included later that they, “became staunch pro-slavery advocates.”/13<br/> <br/> Still having had this youthful viewpoint likely affected them in some way. In fact, it is crucial to see that these religious men, because of their very religiousness conceived themselves as having a different political view, even in their support of slavery:<br/> <br/> “Because they were convinced of the brevity of this earthly life and its relative insignificance beside the eternal, and because they emphasized the duties of both masters and slaves, these white preachers thought of themselves as moderates. Strange as it seems in light of their support of slavery, they considered themselves to be standing between extremes in regard to the black slaves of the South.”/14 [emphasis added]<br/> <br/> There seems to be good reason to assume that the culture of Charleston produced a paradoxical nature in many, especially in its ministers. And since these ministers were regularly sharing their world-view with the parishioners, it seems likely that to some extent this sense of meeting between extremes rubbed off in general in the local culture. This sense of things will become important in our argument, but at this point we should always keep in mind that what produced this sense of meeting between extremes was actually very tragic circumstances. Though Charleston was known as a place where a significant number of free blacks lived, and where there was a gradually developing desire and systematic attempt to educated bondsmen in Christianity,/15 the whole background was sorrowful.<br/> <br/> “The primary difficulty which these white Southerners faced [which we might take as a tragically archetypal example] was exemplified by the very location of their meeting place. They had gathered on Chalmers Street to discuss how to convert and nurture black people in the Christian faith. Yet on that very street…black men and women, boys and girls, were being bought and sold…A family of 5, field Negroes consisting of 2 able Women, a likely girls, 10 and 14 years old, and a likely boy 12 years old.”/16<br/> <br/> It seems the only way to really understand the existential anxiety at the heart of these ministers’ sense of being “moderates” and “standing between extremes” is by keeping the tragic contradictions like the foregoing closely in mind. It is likewise important to see that this sense which pushed them to argue in sermons and in print for better treatment of the bondsmen, likely produced only more anxiety for them because their efforts which, “were hollow because they [the ministers] had little power in the face of a powerful economic and social system.”/17 This feeling of powerlessness, amidst their doubtless concomitant feeling of influence and prestige as ministers, is significant background for any exploration of cultural phenomena relating towards religion in the period. One surely does not suggest that, whatever their personal sufferings, they were in any way comparable to the sufferings of the bondsmen,. But still they relate a telling and perhaps little understood cultural tale.<br/> <br/> This may be one of the variety of reasons why Charleston had another peculiar characteristic. Unlike Richmond or Savannah, in Charleston, “large numbers of blacks and whites worshipped together, whites accepted blacks in ways that would be unheard of in the later segregated South.”/18 Surely we are justified in seeing in this fact alone a great canvas on which some very contradictory feelings could be painted, on both sides of the racial divide, much more than would have occurred in other spots without this dual- worshipping tendency. Further we may, with sure justification, focus on Frederick Dalcho as representative in this regard because his parish, the famous St. Michael’s Church in Charleston shows evidence of this phenomenon. In fact, the records of St. Michael’s parish, kept by the South Carolina Historical Society, allow us to see Dalcho’s parish as a particular evocative example of this dual-worshipping tendency./19 In fact, specifically in the Anglican context, St. Michael’s is a strong example even from colonial times of this very tendency. “At St. Michael’s …[e]nslaved Africans, many present to attend elite white families, occupied the aisles and the floor of the belfry through most of the [eighteenth] century. Many others gathered outside [St. Michael’s] to resist authority structures through disruption.”/20 But from the start these “authority structures” at St. Michael’s would not have conveyed a completely anxiety-easing sense based on clear color-lines or color-barriers. For, “poor whites competed with slaves for seats in the aisles.” during services at St. Michael’s. /21 In addition it would be wrong to believe that the bondsmen were consigned to a mere spectator position. Generally in the churches of Charleston, “approximately one-third of those surrounding the communion table were black.”/22 Therefore, truly we are amply justified as seeing this dual-worshipping tendency as not only as a cultural particularity of Charleston, but as a powerful phenomenon which would have shaped the psychological identities of all persons, black and white, who participated in it. As an astute scholar has said, as if to sum up the whole matter, “South Carolina’s slaves occupied these [church] spaces, participated in worship, and shaped the experiences of their white masters in distinctive ways.”/23 So when we assess Frederick Dalcho’s experience in the paradoxical nature of this place, we do so with heightened sense that the complexity attendant to it already had a very long and powerful history.<br/> <br/> But all of this is set against the much more widely understood and famous fact that Charleston had more free blacks in the local community than other spots in the South. The peculiarity that some of these free black were themselves slaveholders seems to be sometimes used to suggest or imply that such would have been a moral anxiety-reliever for white slave holders. On this reading, if free blacks participated in human bondage, a conscience- relieving sense of moral equivalence might be imputed for some whites even if not made explicit. But this is countered by the fact that it was well- understood that many free-blacks held slaves who were family members, and thus it served an extremely different purpose for them as a potential form of familial protection./24 This fact had to have been well -known by the white slave-holding populace, who saw in this de facto form of family- protection a very practical and obvious purpose. “Free black slave masters served a useful purpose to the white community, “/25 in that it made the whole black community less susceptible to revolt. So in fact it is not the phenomenon of free-blacks per se so much that would have created a conflicted atmosphere in Charleston, but the more peculiar facet of the practical freedom given to those who were still enslaved. Indeed, much less well grasped is the fact that even those who were bondsmen in Charleston were granted much more independence day-to-day that in other places of the slave-holding South. Erskine Clarke paints one of his best pictures of a hard to summarize or imagine phenomenon –of- place in the past and uses particular examples to expertly do so:<br/> <br/> “The daily life of the Charleston slave…was quite different from the plantation slave…Caroline, who was selling potato-pone at the bathing house on the Battery, was one of the many Charleston slaves whose owners found it more profitable or convenient for them to earn wages [outside the home] than work as domestic servants. Such an arrangement permitted not only slave vendors such as Caroline, but also slave hirelings engaged in a wide variety of tasks. While the system provided some economic flexibility to urban slavery, it also permitted a greater degree of freedom for the slave and loosed the control of the master….”/26<br/> <br/> Though these unusual freedoms for bondsmen were certainly countered by brutal punishments if they overstepped then-acceptable modes of behavior/27 , still it clearly must have created a unique environment, which couldn’t help raise certain contradictions in the minds of whites. In other words, to a degree unknown in the rest of the South whites interacted with black in places of worship and in the public square. This oddness of the Charleston environment was therefore surely rich in unspoken anxieties. This is so even if the whole scene could broadly be characterized as hegemeonic. This fact must be factored - in with any consideration of the religious or ritual tendencies of the environment.<br/> <br/> So preliminarily we can summarize these issues with our previous observation in the foregoing matter. The Mother Council of the Scottish Rite’s founding in Charleston would have happened in precisely this sort of paradoxical and contradictory environment. We should read the fact that the founders of the Rite developed Freemasonry even more in the direction of freedom of belief, not simply as a discrete, unconnected fact of Masonic history, but as a cultural phenomenon. The question is where did it come from? We should recall that some of the initial developments of Scottish Rite degrees were met with incomprehension by more established Masonic authorities, and were rejected as simply not pertaining to the Craft at all:<br/> <br/> “In 1802, when the first ‘Supreme Council of the 33rd’ at Charleston South, Carolina announced its existence by issuing its now famous Circular, the Grand Lodge of Scotland was overwhelmed by its multiplicity of degrees, and initially considered it to have been prepared in the ‘spirit of the Illuminati’ [and] ‘sufficient reason for drawing down the contempt of Scottish Masons.’”/28<br/> <br/> As in so many cases in intellectual or artistic history, it is the words of those who oppose that often tell the most piquant truth. For indeed if the initial degrees that existed in the Mother Council in Charleston were such that they brought to mind the notions of radical and even extreme human equality, and rights of individuals against oppressive systems, both of which the “Illuminati” surely symbolized, then that tells us culturally something of great relevance. It means that we are justified in seeing in these degrees, as they existed then, a radical vision, which may indeed have contradicted profoundly their local environment. So in creating the Mother Council they must have had a sense that they were creating something new, something akin to further steps in a direction of human freedom. Since records on the period are limited, and even some were destroyed by fire, we are justified in taking a wider view of the cultural etiology of the founding.<br/> <br/> On the most basic level we can certainly see the curious tendencies of Charleston as a place in the South as highly influential on this etiology. The close proximity in which whites lived with blacks in the city could only on some level have created some doubts about the justification of the whole system by traditional orthodox Christianity. It is not a huge jump to see the de-centralization of religious beliefs in the Mother Council’s degrees as essentially or intrinsically counter-cultural in this environment. My contention is that the conceptual facts speak for themselves as a unique evidence which emerged in an extremely unlikely environment. We miss the radicality of the Scottish Rite’s degrees if ignore the profound universal sense of human equality embodied in the religious pluralism these rituals enshrine. Indeed, even set against the notions of equality embodied in Jeffersonian ideals coming from the founding of the country, the Scottish Rite’s ideals reach an extreme noble height of religious inclusiveness. But when we go from that universal sense to the particularity of the rituals of the Scottish Rite’s Mother Council having been given foundation in Charleston, this scenario reaches a level of almost prima facie grandiloquent contradiction. One very candid and unflinching analyst of the slave-holding South’s conundrums has summed-up this whole matter for South Carolina particularly in contradistinction to other States. This sense reaches back to the founding ideology of the country with a finality very useful for the argument pursued here: “The problem of South Carolina clearly had roots in the eighteenth century. Unlike some in the Virginia squirarchy, Carolinian planter-politicians never had patience with the egalitarian side of revolutionary ideology.” /29 [emphasis added] But this conclusive summation only sets in sharper relief the significant and telling fact that the radical vision of the Scottish Rite, having been connected to the politically dangerous egalitarianism of the Illuminati, was in fact founded in South Carolina! Again, I believe this allows for an almost prima facie assumption of profound feeling of contradiction for the cultural participants. Of course to ground this insight we must have a broader sense of the general mindset of people like these, which will be developed in the next section. Yet the foregoing surely preliminarily allows us to see that the basic point that the Scottish Rite’s doctrines were theoretically, if not actually (in terms of the outward social actions of individuals),/30 opposed to the prevailing system of bondage.<br/>

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