Sunday, February 3, 2019

Unrequited Hope: Freemasonry & Spiritualism in Reconstructionist New Orleans

In the Caribbean world and in Brazil, at the least, the encounter between Freemasonry and African Diasporic spiritual traditions and practices sparked interesting and profound exchanges. These took different forms in different places.

 In Hispaniola, after the revolution had transformed Saint Domingue into Haiti, some Masonic rituals found room to invoke the Loa or spirits of Vodou within the lodge. In Cuba, significant elements of Masonic ritual found their way into Palo Congo initiations, and others incorporated African divination into fraternal orders. To this day, the top leadership in Masonic organization are often the leaders of Afro-Cuban religions. In Brazil, there have been close connections between Candomblé and especially Umbanda and Freemasonry.

The connection between Spiritualism (or Spiritism) and Freemasonry is often a bit more subtle. Since Spiritualism is less inclined to iconographic representation than African traditions, (with a few exceptions) the fusion of these traditions tended to be less expressed through ritual merges than in the overlap of memberships and community, which emphasized mutual social and political concerns.

This was especially the case in pre-revolutionary Saint Domingue and in French speaking New Orleans, most notably in the latter during the unfortunately shortlived Reconstructionist period after the US Civil War, when government and the social efforts of the Creole free people of color strived to develop an unprecidented egalitarian society.

Remarkably detailed records of Spiritualist sessions in New Orleans survive, especially from the Cercle Harmonique, an Afro-Creole Spiritualist Circle led by Henri Louis Rey, François "Petit" Dubluclet and J.B. Valmour. Just as before the Civil War French Masons and Spiritualists were often at the forefront of Abolitionism, during Reconstruction they made strong efforts to create a truly egalitarian society. 

These men were both mason and spiritualist and saw both as paths toward individual and collective perfection.

It was unfortunately, the destruction of Reconstruction policies, that undid the efforts of these French-Creole Masons, bringing along with that the supremacy of English language Freemasonry and Jim Crow racial supression.

A few titles may help uncover some of the most interesting Spiritualist and Masonic history in the United States:

Bell, Caryn Cossé. 2004. Revolution, romanticism, and the Afro-Creole protest tradition in Louisiana 1718-1868. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Clark, Emily Suzanne. 2018. Luminous Brotherhood: afro-creole spiritualism in nineteenth-century new orleans. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Daggett, Melissa. 2018. Spiritualism in Nineteenth Century New Orleans: the life and times of henry louis rey. Jackson: Univeristy Press of Mississippi.

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