One such effort erupted into a broad social and political movement in America less than two years after Lafayette's triumphal tour, though this effort was largely triggered by the shenanigans, or something criminally worse, of several overzealous New York members. In the summer of 1826 in the upstate town of Batavia, a disgruntled ne'er-do-well claiming to be a Mason, William Morgan, declared his intent to publish a book revealing the secrets of one of the higher-degree Masonic societies, the Royal Arch, that had earlier blackballed his candidacy. Arrested twice on charges trumped up by local Masons, the would-be exposer was mysteriously abducted and either run out of the country or killed. Charges were brought against the likely suspects, Masons all, but after some 20 trials, writes Bullock in his book Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 , "only a handful of convictions resulted, all followed by minor jail terms." To a growing number of Americans already wary of the power of the craft, it looked as though Masons had gotten away with murder. And to many of those same Americans, everything that prominent evangelical ministers had been saying against Freemasons--that they were deists or believers in "natural" religion or necromantic cultists--seemed to be confirmed by this signal act of unrighteous behavior.
"Morgan committees" that originally set out to establish the truth about the crime soon became the spearhead of a statewide movement and then a national Anti-Masonic Party dedicated to driving the Masons out of existence. Pennsylvania and Vermont elected Anti-Masonic governors, and former U.S. Attorney General William Wirt ran for president on the party's ticket in 1832, winning Vermont's electoral votes and about 8 percent of the national popular vote.
The party soon disappeared as the Democratic and new Whig parties stepped up their organizational efforts to dominate the national political scene. But in addition to providing a model for future American single-issue movements, from abolitionism and temperance to today's Green Party, the anti-Masonic movement nearly drove the fraternity out of existence. New York State was home to about 500 local lodges in the mid-1820s, but only 26 lodges could muster representatives to attend the statewide grand lodge meeting in 1837. Almost two thirds of Indiana's lodges had shut down by the same year. By the end of the 1830s, Masonry was making a slow comeback, but, as Bullock writes, "it would never again recover the exalted position that had once seemed Masonry's just due."
How Masonry had come to such an exalted position in American public life, briefly to lose it before regaining a lesser mantle of respectability, is a story that begins in Scotland and England. Descended from medieval stonemason guilds, the lodges of 17th-century Britain were still dominated by actual (or "operative") masons who gradually welcomed into their ranks, often as patrons, selected gentlemen, as long as they pledged loyalty to the crown and faithfulness to God. These "accepted" members were drawn as much by the sociable character of the fraternities (which typically met in inns or taverns) as by private rituals and signs that had once helped the artisans protect secrets of their craft. Masonry's ties to ancient architecture, geometry, and other rational arts and sciences heightened its allure to men who participated in or closely followed the development of modern experimental science.
Wisdom seekers. As accepted members came to dominate the assorted lodges, many of whom were also members of Britain's scientific Royal Society, the focus of the fraternal life shifted to philosophical (or "speculative" ) considerations and the exploration of connections between newly discovered laws of nature and the wisdom of ancient civilizations. "They studied Greek and Roman architecture and King Solomon's Temple," writes Tabbert, "in search of keys to unlock the lost truths of ancient civilizations." Indeed, the highly mythologized genealogies of Masonry often give the temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem in 967 B.C. a prominent place in the Masonic tradition. The various architectural features of the temple, and the story of its alleged master builder, Hiram Abiff, would become central to the symbolic lore and initiatory rituals of the fraternity.