2018 Lecture – Catechism, Spectacle, Burlesque: American Fraternal Ritual Performance, 1733-1933

Prof. William D. Moore


William D. Moore is Associate Professor of American Material Culture within the Department of the History of Art & Architecture at Boston University where he also serves as the Director of the American & New England Studies Program. He is the author of Masonic Temples: Freemasonry, Ritual Architecture, and Masculine Archetypes and the editor, with Mark Tabbert, of Secret Societies in America: Foundational Studies in Fraternalism. He served as the Director of the Livingston Masonic Library & Museum of the Grand Lodge, F. & A.M., of the State of New York from 1992 to 1999. In 2017 he received the Thomas W. Jackson Masonic Education Award. He serves on the editorial boards of the Encyclopedia of American Studies, Winterthur Portfolio, Buildings & Landscapes, and the Journal for Research into Freemasonry & Fraternalism.

Lecture summary

Fraternal organizations like to espouse an ideology of timelessness, asserting that they stretch back unchanging to the mists of antiquity. While the ritual inculcation of identity has been central to North American fraternalism since lodges first appeared in the British colonies, the manner in which rituals are performed has transformed over time. By examining material evidence, this illustrated lecture will argue that North American fraternal ritual practices can be divided into three historically situated modes characterized by catechism, spectacle, and burlesque. Catechism describes the largely oral communication of esoteric ideas which took place in the first century of North American fraternalism, from the establishment of the first Masonic lodges in the British colonies until the anti-Masonic period. Spectacle refers to the increasingly theatrical, visual, and material presentation of fraternalism which coincides with industrial expansion and concomitant prosperity in the century between 1830 and 1933. Finally, burlesque refers to behaviour parodying or commenting upon earlier fraternal forms which developed around the advent of the twentieth century.