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A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to see a fascinating exhibit entitled The King James Bible: Its History and Influence at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Four hundred years after its first printing, the King James Bible remains one of the most widely read and printed books in the English language. Its language and phraseology still permeates contemporary music, literature, and everyday speech. The exhibition told the little-known story of the translation and making of the King James Bible.

John Rogers, portrait by Willem van de Passe

John Rogers, portrait by Willem van de Passe

I would not have thought that the King James Bible, first printed in 1611, would have a Lewis and Clark connection, until a panel on early translators of the English bible caught my eye. It mentioned Matthew’s Bible, a 1537 translation credited to the imaginary “Thomas Matthew.” In fact, the panel stated, the real editor of the work was John Rogers, a clergyman and chaplain of the English merchant’s company in Antwerp, Belgium, where another Bible translator named William Tyndale lived.

A friend of Rogers, William Tyndale was a young priest living in defiance of the law. His modern English translations of the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament, published in the 1520’s and 1530’s, were the first English translations made from the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. They were also considered heresy.  A 1409 English law, still on the books over 100 years later, decreed that it was heresy to own or even read a non-Latin Bible. Tyndale had asked permission from the bishop of London to perform his translation, but he was denied, so he had moved to Europe, where he published a complete English New Testament and then began to translate several books of the Old Testament.

King Henry VIII of England

King Henry VIII of England

Unfortunately for Tyndale, when the contraband books reached England, King Henry VIII was not amused. Under English law, heresy was punishable by burning alive. Tricked out of seclusion, Tyndale was arrested in Antwerp and thrown in prison. In 1536, he was convicted of heresy, defrocked, and burned at the stake. In a supposed act of mercy, Tyndale was said to have been strangled before his body was set ablaze.

However grisly his death, Tyndale had made an impression on his friend John Rogers. In 1537, a year after Tyndale’s death, Rogers edited and published an edition of the Bible based largely on Tyndale’s translations under the name of “Thomas Matthew.” Fortunately for Rogers, Henry VIII was in the process of breaking away from the Catholic Church and forming the independent Church of England. Henry liked the “Thomas Matthew” translation and licensed it to sell in England, making it the first English edition that was legally sold there. Under the reasoning that every English church should have at least one English bible, 1500 copies of Matthew’s Bible were printed and distributed to English parishes.

Unfortunately, Rogers was not destined to escape his friend Tyndale’s fate. After taking charge of a Protestant congregation in Wittenberg for some years, John Rogers returned to England in 1548 and was eventually appointed the divinity lecturer at St. Paul’s Church. He was outspoken and iconoclastic, declining to wear the prescribed vestments, instead wearing a simple round cap.

“Bloody” Mary

When Queen Mary took the throne in 1553, Rogers preached at Paul’s Cross, warning his hearers against the “pestilent Popery, idolatry and superstition” of the Roman Catholic Church. Ten days after this bold public display, on August 16, 1553, John Rogers was summoned before the council and placed under house arrest. In January 1554, the new bishop of London sent him to Newgate Prison, where he languished for over a year. In January 1555, Rogers was sentenced to death for heretically denying the Christian character of the Church of Rome and the physical presence of the body of Christ in the sacrament of communion.

Rogers remained cheerful and defiant to the end. When he was taken from Newgate Prison to Smithfield, the place of his execution, one of the sheriffs asked him if he would recant his earlier preachings. “That which I have preached I will seal with my blood,” Rogers replied. The sheriff said, “Thou art an heretic.” Rogers replied “That shall be known at the Day of Judgment.” The sheriff then added, “I will never pray for thee.” Rogers responded, “But I will pray for you.”

John Rogers burns at the stake, 1555

John Rogers burns at the stake, 1555

John Rogers was burned at the stake on the February 4, 1555, at Smithfield in London, one of many victims of Queen “Bloody” Mary. His great grandson, named Thomas Matthews Rogers, was the father of Giles Rogers, who emigrated to America in 1680. Giles Rogers is the great-grandfather of explorer William Clark.

For more on the fascinating history of the making of the King James Bible, please visit this fantastic site:

Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible

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What did Lewis and Clark believe about heaven? It is perhaps telling that in the entirety of the journals, despite the jaw-dropping beauty of many of the places they passed through, the word “heaven” was never once invoked by either Lewis or Clark. The closest they came to referring to any kind of afterlife was in Lewis’s 31st birthday note of August 18, 1805, when he mentioned that “I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world” – implying that he believed there might be a world apart from this earthbound one.

A Soul Brought to Heaven by WIlliam-Adolphe Bouguereau, 19th century

A Soul Brought to Heaven by WIlliam-Adolphe Bouguereau, 19th century

Like most educated men of the enlightenment, Lewis and Clark were deists. The deist image of heaven in the late 18th and early 19th century was of a very beautiful place, far away and separated from this cruel and dark world. Full of clouds, angels and harps, it was a place where a virtuous man might, after death, enjoy reward, respite, and reprieve from the toils and pains of physical life. For all its beauty, the deist heaven was somewhat impersonal. The individuality and identity of the soul on earth was no longer of much importance once you reached the celestial plane.

Thomas Jefferson, Lewis’s mentor, has been considered by some an agnostic and heretic, and his religious belief – or lack thereof – remains a matter of controversy. But even Jefferson believed in the concept of heaven. In general, Jefferson applauded the idea of heaven’s existence because of the positive, practical effect the promise of heaven had on earthbound human behavior. Jefferson also believed in the intervening hand of Providence. In his First Inaugural address, he declared that we should be “acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”

Founding Faith by Steven Waldman (2008)

Founding Faith by Steven Waldman (2008)

In his first message to Congress in 1801, Jefferson optimistically thanked the “beneficent Being” who had instilled in the contentious political parties a “spirit of conciliation and forgiveness.” In his second message, he attributed the nation’s economic prosperity, peace abroad and even good relations with the Indians to the “smiles of Providence.” Sounding the same theme in his second inaugural address, Jefferson said that to avoid making the mistakes which he, as a human, was prone, “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.” Jefferson might have been a man of Reason, but clearly God –if not organized religion – had a strong presence in his life and thinking.

Jefferson had a strong belief that the Bible and Christianity had been “corrupted” shortly after the death of Christ. Influenced by Joseph Priestley’s book, The History of the Corruptions of Christianity, Jefferson came to distrust organized religion and to despise any religious doctrine that eliminated good behavior as the path to salvation. While Jefferson doubted the divinity of Christ, he had the highest admiration and respect for Christ’s teachings, which he compiled into his own version of the Bible. “Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips,” Jefferson asserted, “the whole civilized world would now have been Christian.”

Like Jefferson, Lewis and Clark appeared to be men who turned to the power of science, rather than religion, to explain the world and to prove the existence of God. Both were Freemasons, which emphasizes virtue, education, good works, and service, rather than strictly faith in Christ, as a valid means of getting into heaven. But they clearly believed God was looking out for them. On May 11, 1805, Lewis wrote in his journal:

Set out this morning at an early hour, the courant strong; and river very crooked; the banks are falling in very fast; I sometimes wonder that some of our canoes or perogues are not swallowed up by means of these immence masses of earth which are eternally precipitating themselves into the river; we have had many hair breadth escapes from them but providence seems so to have ordered it that we have as yet sustained no loss in consequence of them.

Jonah and the whale

Jonah and the whale

Clark referred indirectly but humorously to God in January 1806, when recounting that the Corps of Discovery was able to procure a small supply of blubber and whale oil from a beached whale on the Pacific Coast. “Small as this Stock is I prise it highly,” Clark wrote, “and thank providence for directing the whale to us; and think him much more kind to us than he was to jonah, having Sent this monster to be Swallowed by us in Sted of Swallowing of us as jonah’s did.” In July 1806, Lewis remarked that it was only “the hand of providence” that had saved the men from grizzly bears, “or some of us would long since have fallen a sacrifice to their farosity.”

Lewis and Clark’s lack of mention of heaven and roundabout references to God reveal an impersonal relationship with the divine that was characteristic of their time, deist faith, and social station. It was a very different view than most Americans have today. I was fascinated to learn recently about how much a single, long-forgotten book shaped our modern notions of heaven as a deeply personal place in which personality, soul, and family remain intact. This information is from Drew Gilpin Faust’s excellent book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. (Thanks to Rebecca at My Adventures in History for putting me onto this gem.)

In the aftermath of the awful, grisly cataclysm of the Civil War, a young woman named Elizabeth Stuart Phelps penned a novel called The Gates Ajar. Phelps had lost her lover in the war. Overwhelmed not only by her own grief but by the enormity of the tragedy suffered by all who had lost husbands, fathers, sons and brothers, she decided to write a book that offered comfort to the bereaved and suggested they would see the beloved dead once again.

The Gates Ajar by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

The Gates Ajar by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

The view of heaven presented in The Gates Ajar was a perfect recreation of Victorian domesticity, where families are reunited with their loved ones, live in houses, walk the streets of heaven, and spend eternity in perfect harmony. Broken bodies are restored to health, and earthly toil and fear of death are banished forever in the light of heavenly happiness. Phelps does not explicitly say that all our old pets will run out to greet us, but she comes close. Released in 1868 and reprinted 55 times, The Gates Ajar was one of the best-selling books of the 19th century, second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This one book shaped, much more than we realize, notions of heaven that we cherish to this day.

More great reading:

Excellent article on Jefferson’s religious beliefs: The Pious Infidel

Lewis & Clark as Masons

Lewis & Clark: Did They Pray?

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Rabbit Skin Leggings, by George Catlin

Rabbit Skin Leggings, by George Catlin

In 1831, four Nez Perce men from the Kamiah-Kooskia region of the Clearwater River made the arduous journey across the Rocky Mountains and down the Missouri River to St. Louis. Their mission: to visit an old friend, William Clark. The substance of their conversation may never be known—Clark himself made no written record of the visit—but the end result was momentous. A few months later, a breathless report appeared on the front page of the Christian Advocate, a popular religious weekly. It claimed that the Nez Perce had come to Clark on a spiritual quest, to seek the truth about the white man’s religion. According to the Advocate, the Indians wanted to know more about the mysterious “book” that seemed to hold the secrets to the white man’s power.

The leader of the group was a Nez Perce warrior named Black Eagle, about 44 years old, who may have met Clark as a young man while the Corps of Discovery stayed with the Nez Perce in the fall of 1805 and again in the spring of 1806. He apparently came from the village of the chief Lewis and Clark called “Broken Arm.” Accompanying him was another middle-aged Nez Perce-Flathead man called Speaking Eagle or Man-of-the-Morning, and two younger men, Rabbit Skin Leggings and No Horns on His Head, both about 20 years old.

In addition to meeting with Clark, the Indians met with some Catholic priests and visited a Catholic church, appearing “exceedingly well pleased with it,” though it was difficult to communicate as no one spoke their language. Bishop Joseph Rosati gave this account of what happened a few months later:

Two of them [Black Eagle and Speaking Eagle] fell dangerously ill … two of our priests visited them. They made signs of the cross and other gestures which seemed to have some relation to baptism. This sacrament was administered to them; they showed their satisfaction at that. A little cross was presented to them, they seized it eagerly, kissed it often, and it could not be taken from their hands until after their death. Their bodies were carried to the church for burial which was done with all the Catholic ceremonies. The other two Indians attended with great simplicity. They have returned to their country.

No Horns on His Head, by George Catlin

No Horns on His Head, by George Catlin

The two younger men, Rabbit Skin Leggings and No Horns on His Head, headed back up the Missouri River on an American Fur Company vessel called The Yellowstone. The western artist George Catlin met and drew both men, and reported that one of them died on the voyage, near the mouth of the Yellowstone River. The survivor reportedly made it back to his home country, but he had no way of knowing what their brief visit had wrought.

The report in the Christian Advocate electrified the religious community. Within months, funds were raised, men were recruited, and a Methodist mission led by Jason Lee and his nephew Daniel headed into the Oregon country. They would be followed by others, along with a flood of white settlers.

Bringing Indians to the Book, by Albert Furtwangler

Bringing Indians to the Book, by Albert Furtwangler

In his great account Bringing Indians to the Book, Albert Furtwangler sums up the situation of the first religious missions: “The missionary beginnings reflect an almost hopeless ignorance—and credulity—about the West. Not one loud voice rose to challenge the dubious notion that four Indians represented thousands yearning for Christian conversion.” When Jason Lee, his nephew and two companions arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1834, they found the area dominated by the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company. Employees of the company helped Lee find a site on the Willamette River, northwest of present-day Salem, Oregon—and at a safe distance from the most lucrative fur trading areas— where he settled with about a dozen Canadian men and their native wives. Over the next six years, Lee established a small but influential American presence in the area, eventually bringing in new ministers, a blacksmith, a doctor, and a carpenter. In 1840, a ship arrived carrying more people— including single women to join the single men. Lee faced serious competition from the Catholic church, particularly Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, who had been sent by Bishop Rosati of St. Louis in response to the Indians’ plea for a “Black Robe.”

Jason Lee, missionary

Jason Lee, Methodist missionary

Though Lee’s mission to bring his Methodist brand of Christianity to the Flathead or Salish people of the Bitterroot range was almost entirely unsuccessful, his efforts had other lasting consequences. As more white settlers followed him to the Salem area, the Indian Manual Training School he founded evolved into the Oregon Institute, a school for white children (it eventually became Willamette University).  The new chapel he built in 1843 became Salem’s First United Methodist Church.  The same year, enough Americans had settled in Oregon that they outvoted the old British and Canadian residents to create an American provisional government.

However, not all fellow ministers approved of Jason Lee’s leadership. The Missionary Board back east felt that he had abandoned the original goal of bringing God’s word to the Indians and was wasting money on land speculation schemes, and they recalled Lee in 1843.  Though he was exonerated of misappropriating mission funds and reinstated by the Missionary Board, Lee fell ill and never made it back to Salem. He died at his family home in Stanstead, Canada, on March 12, 1845, age 41.

By this time, Lee’s pioneering Methodist mission had been joined by Catholic, Presbyterian and Congregational missions, all competing for the privilege of saving the Indian soul. This next wave of missionaries included the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding. Narcissa Whitman and her husband Marcus founded a mission among the Cayuse Indians on the Walla Walla, and Henry and Eliza Spalding settled with the Nez Perce on the Clearwater.

The Whitmans labored with true zeal to make their mission a success, offering Presbyterian church services, Bible instruction, medical aid, and a school. However, their initial optimism soon gave way to discouragement and tragedy. The Whitman’s infant daughter died in a drowning accident in 1839, and Narcissa’s eyesight began to fail. Perhaps most discouraging of all was the lack of interest among their Indian “charges.” The religious message the Whitmans preached made little sense to the Cayuse in terms of their own practices and beliefs, and the Whitmans made little attempt to understand the Indians or explain their message in terms the Cayuse could understand. In the end, the Cayuse simply didn’t like the Whitmans. Not too many signed on to be “saved.”

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

In 1842, the American Missionary Board decided to close the foundering mission and transfer the Whitmans elsewhere. Marcus headed East to persuade the board to reverse its decision but was rebuffed. During his return journey in 1843, he helped guide a wagon train of a thousand pioneers up the Oregon Trail, and the Whitmans’ mission soon revived, becoming a gathering place for these settlers and their children. The ties between the Whitmans’ mission and the encroaching white settlers angered the Cayuse, and when an epidemic of measles struck the area in 1847, the Indians’ dislike of the mission gave way to outrage. Most of the sick white children cared for at the Whitman’s mission lived, while almost all the Cayuse children who came down with measles died. Furious at this perceived treachery, the Cayuse took their revenge on November 29, 1847. They killed fourteen whites, including the Whitmans, and burned down the mission. The incident ignited the Cayuse War, which raged between the U.S. Army, local militias and the Cayuse for the next 8 years. In 1850, the Cayuse handed over 5 men who were hanged for the Whitman Massacre, but that did not end the conflict. The Cayuse were finally defeated and forced onto reservations in 1855.

Compared to the Whitmans, the mission of Henry and Eliza Spalding on the Clearwater River was a smashing success. Henry gave out seeds and hoes and taught the Nez Perce how to cultivate lands for farms and orchards. At Lapwai, Henry built a home, meeting house, school, mission church, blacksmith shop, sawmill and gristmill. Eliza’s school served 200 pupils at a time, and Henry baptized over 900 Nez Perce, including Chief Timothy and Chief Joseph (father of the famous Chief Joseph). In spite of Henry’s reputation as a stern and unyielding man, at the height of his mission efforts as many as 2000 Indians attended his church services.

Ruins of the Spalding Mission at Lapwai, Idaho

Ruins of the Spalding Mission at Lapwai, Idaho

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

After the murder of the Whitmans, the Spaldings were ordered to close their mission. They  relocated to Brownsville, Oregon, where Eliza died in 1851. Henry returned to Nez Perce country twice as a teacher and missionary, dying in 1874 in Lapwai, Idaho, age 70.

He had one final legacy. The conflict between the “treaty” Nez Perce Spalding had helped Christianize and the “non-treaty” Nez Perce led by Chief Joseph (the son of the man he had baptized) would erupt into permanent division. Though initially supportive of Spalding’s mission, Chief Joseph’s father had become disillusioned by the white man’s lust for land. He told Joseph on his deathbed: “My son, never forget my dying words. This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and your mother.”

Joseph heeded these words. His refusal to give in to the pressure to make a treaty and move onto a reservation drove him and many of his people into flight, war and exile a few years later.

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The Jefferson River in Montana, where Meriwether Lewis drew on Masonic inspiration to name the tributaries Wisdom, Philanthropy, and Philosophy.

National Treasure, the dim-witted but smashingly successful Nicholas Cage adventure, may not have been good history or a good movie, but it did get one thing right: Freemasonry was an extremely powerful force in early America. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were both Masons, and for Lewis in particular, the ethics and spiritual values he discovered in the Masonic lodges of Virginia and St. Louis were central to his life. In fact, his identity as a Mason appears to have been weighing on his mind in his last hours on this earth.

A little background helps explain how Freemasonry became so central to the lives of Lewis, Clark, and other elite men of early America. As the name indicates, Freemasonry has its roots in the medieval guilds of bricklayers and stonemasons who built the great cathedrals of Europe. How it evolved into a powerful secret society is a subject of some historical dispute. The short version is this: as the Catholic Church locked horns with dissidents and reformers all across Europe, an event known as the Protestant Reformation, the old medieval guilds were taken over by outsiders–mostly intellectuals, well-to-do middle class men, aristocrats, and clergymen. In a world where taking the wrong side was often fatal, witches and heretics were still being burned, the Inquisition was in full swing, and Galileo was on trial for insisting that the earth revolved around the sun, it seems probable that these men were seeking an underground means to exercise freedom of thought and be able to discuss moral and scientific issues safely.

This Masonic symbol on the back of the U.S. one-dollar bill includes the All-Seeing-Eye of God and a Latin motto that translates “Announcing Conception of the New World Order.”

Though this movement may have been gradual, modern Freemasonry is generally dated from 1717, when four London lodges amalgamated under the leadership of a Presbyterian minister named James Anderson. At that point, it spread rapidly through Great Britain, Europe, and America. As the decades progressed, Freemasonry dovetailed nicely with the spread of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that rejected religious dogma, elevated reason and scientific inquiry, and gave rise to the idea that freedom, democracy, and tolerance should be central to human existence.

In fact, it can said without much exaggeration that “truth, justice, and the American way” are principles from the Masonic creed that became embedded in our culture to the point that we now naively believe them to be universal truths shared by all. Freemasonry’s religious and spiritual underpinnings were embodied in secret lore that included ethics, philosophy, and degrees men worked to achieve, both to measure their own progress and as a symbol of the passage from youth to manhood to old age and death. The lore incorporates much Christian language and symbolism, and often leads people to conclude erroneously that the Founding Fathers espoused modern-day Christian beliefs.

Meriwether Lewis's Masonic Apron

Meriwether Lewis's Masonic Apron

The symbolism on Lewis’s apron explained

In early 1797, at the age of 22, Meriwether Lewis joined the Door to Virtue Masonic Lodge #44 in his home of Albemarle, Virginia. Never one to do anything casually, Lewis threw himself into the fraternity in spite of being an active-duty Army officer at the time. He rose quickly to Royal Arch Mason, held office in the lodge, and promoted charitable activities for the men to become involved in.  And just because Lewis went west in 1803 doesn’t mean he forgot about being a Mason. From some journal notations, it appears that Lewis began recruiting William Clark to join the Masons while the Expedition was still preparing to get underway at Camp River Dubois in the winter of 1803-04. He seems to have continued to reflect on Masonic ideas while in the wilderness.

Meriwether Lewis's Wisdom River (now the Big Hole)

On August 6, 1805, while exploring the high country near present-day Three Forks, Montana, Lewis named the Jefferson River, then assigned Masonic names to three of its tributaries, dubbing them the Wisdom, Philanthropy, and Philosophy. Lewis noted that the names would commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s “cardinal virtues, which have so eminently marked that deservedly selibrated character through life,” but it should be noted that they may also correspond to the pillars of human virtue embodied in Freemasonry. The names didn’t stick, and today the three tributaries are known as the Big Hole River, Ruby River, and Willow Creek.

Symbolic rendering of the three pillars of Masonic thought.

A couple of weeks later, Lewis’s penned one of his most famous journal passages. The birthday reflections of August 18, 1805, are often seen as a wilderness cri de coeur, a sad foreshadowing of Lewis’s death just four years later. But some historians have suggested they might just as easily be Lewis’s attempt to write his own Masonic “words to live by.” Judge for yourself:

This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existance, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.

In any case, Lewis became involved again in the Masons at his earliest opportunity. After returning to civilization, he was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory, with its seat of government in St. Louis. In late 1808, Lewis helped found St. Louis Lodge #111 and became its first “Worshipful Master.”

Graveside service in 1904 for the unveiling of the monument to William Clark at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis

Lewis was probably a little disappointed that the ever-practical Clark did not take to the Masonic philosophy the way that he had. But Clark did join the Masonic Lodge in St. Louis and attended meetings occasionally. In his later years, Clark made a room in his own house available for lodge meetings (which presumably he also attended). When he died in 1838, Clark had a Masonic funeral.

Ironically, Lewis would go to his grave without any ceremony at all. In 1809, he died at the age of 35 at a remote inn on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, shot to death in an incident that may have been either suicide or murder. There is no record of any sort of a funeral, let alone a Masonic one. Clark and Lewis’s other friends evidently decided not to try to recover his body, but simply to let him lie where he fell. It would be more than 30 years before the “broken shaft” monument was erected by the state of Tennessee to mark Lewis’s grave.

However, the symbols of freemasonry were not far from Lewis’s heart on the night that he died–quite literally. Each Mason receives a symbolic work apron that is worn during meetings and rituals. Lewis’s was found folded in the pocket of his coat when he died, stained with his blood. The apron was recovered by Lewis’s family and eventually ended up as a treasured relic of the Grand Lodge in Helena, Montana.

It’s worth noting that Freemasonry was and remains a controversial practice. Freemasonry has been denounced by the Catholic Church, which prohibits secret societies. The secretive nature of Freemasonry has led to its being the subject of unpopularity and outright paranoia at various times in history. There have been outlandish claims made about Freemasonry over the years, such as devil worship. Most of these claims originated in a hoax document published in the 1890s and still repeated on the Internet today. Freemasonry was banned in Nazi Germany, which murdered between 80,000 and 200,000 Masons. It was illegal in the old Soviet Union and is prohibited in most of the Islamic world. It has been linked into notorious hare-brained conspiracy theories such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, and the New World Order.

Freemasonry in the United States failed to respond effectively to the enormous social dislocation caused by World War II, abandoning its philosophical and intellectual underpinnings to become a social and charitable organization. Despite the good works done by prominent Masons such as the Shriners, the organization as a whole is unrecognizable as its former self. Today the demographics of Masonry (most members are over 70) don’t bode well for the future, though there are some recent indications that new lodges are organizing and winning new members by savvy use of the Internet. In Europe Freemasonry remains a strong influence that more closely resembles traditional Freemasonry of the past.

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Lewis and Clark among the Indians, by James Ronda (1984)

A couple of weeks ago, in the post Did They Pray?, we pointed out that Lewis and Clark weren’t particularly religious men. This led to a great comment by Milt Reynolds (check out his On the Move blog), who wondered “how deeply Lewis and Clark pondered the religion of the Native Americans they encountered”:

People who genuinely seek God are attracted and interested in others who also seek God. If Lewis and Clark only lightly wrote of their own expedition’s religious concerns, I would think that this same shallow interest would be seen in their writings of the Native American societies they visited.

This was such an interesting discussion that it led me to do a lot of reading about how Lewis and Clark encountered, understood, and wrote about the Indians, especially those tribes they lived with for an extended period of time. (For those interested in more detail, the best book is Lewis & Clark Among the Indians, by James Ronda.) The first of these tribes was the Mandans, with whom the Corps of Discovery shared the North Dakota winter in 1804-05.

Today the study of human cultures is an entire field of research called ethnography, pioneered in the 1920s with the work of anthropologists such as Margaret Mead. But long before hordes of graduate research assistants descended on the unsuspecting native peoples of the world, the ever far-seeing Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the West with ethnography as part of their portfolio.

And no professor could have been more demanding than Thomas Jefferson was in his “Instructions” that he issued to Lewis in June 1803. Religion was just one aspect of Jefferson’s interest. In fact, his questionnaire was almost laughably comprehensive, covering every aspect of Indian life from easily observed details such as food, clothing, and technology; to customs that could be discovered in friendly interviews, such as vocabulary, trade relations, and diseases; to complex abstract concepts such as religion, morals, and law. Reading over his marching orders, it’s hard to resist adding, “While you’re at it, bring in the moon.” 

Bull Dance (Mandan Okipa Ceremony), by George Catlin

Given the vast gulf that existed between Planet Earth and Planet Jefferson, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that the captains gave short shrift to religion and spiritual customs. They arrived at the wrong time of year to experience the Okipa, the Mandans’ most important holy day, but they did record a number of religious ceremonies, particularly that of offering a ceremonial feeding to the head or skull of a buffalo. They found the custom quaint without understanding its larger meaning. Similarly, Clark wrote a remarkably frank and non-judgmental account of “buffalo calling,” a spiritual-sexual rite: 

a Buffalow Dance (or Medison) for 3 nights passed in the 1st Village, a curious Custom the old men arrange themselves in a circle & after Smoke a pipe, which is handed them by a young man, Dress up for the purpose, the young men who have their wives back of the circle go to one of the old men with a whining tone and the old man to take his wife (who presents necked except a robe) and—(or Sleep with him)   

the Girl then takes the Old man (who verry often can Scercely walk) and leades him to a Convenient place for the business, after which they return to the lodge, if the Old man (or a white man) returns to the lodge without gratifying the man & his wife, he offers her again and again; it is often the Case that after the 2d time without Kissing the Husband throws a nice robe over the old man & and begs him not to dispise him, & his wife 

(we Sent a man to this Medisan last night, they gave him 4 Girls)

all this is to cause the buffalow to Come near So that They may kill thim

But while Clark grasped (and perhaps participated in?) the wild bacchanalia of the rite, he did not understand the complex transfer of spiritual power that was the point of all the mate-swapping. 

On the other hand, Clark excelled at recording the details of native politics. A future politician and diplomat, Clark wrote extensively of how political and military power was gained and transferred in the Mandan society. He found out who were the head men, how they got to the top, and how power was exercised and passed on through the generations.

As the Expedition’s mapmaker, Clark also successfully deposed his new friends for geographic details of the country that lay ahead. 

Mandan warrior's shirt. Courtesy Peabody Museum.

Meriwether Lewis proved to be an ethnographer of extraordinary talent. Leaving political analysis to Clark, Lewis took detailed vocabularies (most of which have been lost) and wrote amazing descriptions of Mandan material culture from war hatchets to teepees to glass beadmaking, the latter worth reading just as an illustration of Lewis’s incredible (and arguably obsessive) flair for detail: 

the Prosess is as follows,— Take glass of as many different colours as you think proper, then pound it as fine as possible puting each colour in a seperate vessel. wash the pounded glass in several waters throwing off the water at each washing. continue this opperation as long as the pounded glass stains or colours the water which is poured off and the residium is then prepared for uce.

You then provide an earthen pot of convenient size say of three gallons which will stand the fire; a platter also of the same materials sufficiently small to be admitted in the mouth of the pot or jar. the pot has a nitch in it’s edge through which to watch the beads when in blast. You then provide some well seasoned clay with a propertion of sand sufficient to prevent it’s becoming very hard when exposed to the heat. this clay must be tempered with water untill it is about the consistency of common doe.   

of this clay you then prepare, a sufficient number of little sticks of the size you wish the hole through the bead, which you do by roling the clay on the palm of the hand with your finger. this done put those sticks of clay on the platter and espose them to a red heat for a few minutes when you take them off and suffer them to cool. the pot is also heated to cles it perfectly of any filth it may contain. small balls of clay are also mad of about an ounce weight which serve each as a pedestal for a bead.   

these while soft ar distributed over the face of the platter at su[c]h distance from each other as to prevent the beads from touching. some little wooden paddles are now provided from three to four inches in length sharpened or brought to a point at the extremity of the handle. with this paddle you place in the palm of the hand as much of the wet pounded glass as is necessary to make the bead of the size you wish it. it is then arranged with the paddle in an oblong form, laying one of those little stick of clay crosswise over it; the pounded glass by means of the paddle is then roped in cilindrical form arround the stick of clay and gently roled by motion of the hand backwards an forwards until you get it as regular and smooth as you conveniently can.

if you wish to introduce any other colour you now purforate the surface of the bead with the pointed end of your little paddle and fill up the cavity with other pounded glass of the colour you wish forming the whole as regular as you can. a hole is now made in the center of the little pedestals of clay with the handle of your shovel sufficiently large to admit the end of the stick of clay arround which the bead is formed. the beads are then arranged perpindicularly on their pedestals and little distance above them supported by the little sticks of clay to which they are attatched in the manner before mentioned.

Thus arranged the platter is deposited on burning coals or hot embers and the pot reversed with the apparture in it’s edge turned towards coverd the whole. dry wood pretty much doated is then plased arron the pot in sush manner as compleatly to cover it is then set on fire and the opperator must shortly after begin to watch his beads through the apparture of the pot le[s]t they should be distroyed by being over heated. he suffers the beads to acquire a deep red heat from which when it passes in a small degree to a pailer or whitish red, or he discovers that the beads begin to become pointed at their upper extremities he (throws) removes the fire from about the pot and suffers the whole to cool gradually. the pot is then removed and the beads taken out. the clay which fills the hollow of the beads is picked out with an awl or nedle, the bead is then fit for uce. The Indians are extreemly fond of the large beads formed by this process. they use them as pendants to their years, or hair and sometimes wear them about their necks.—

Mandan member of the Buffalo Bull Society, by Karl Bodmer

Like Clark, Lewis was not equipped to analyze the deeper meaning of some of the objects he encountered. Undoubtedly he would have loved to draw and describe the sacred medicine bundles and turtle drums of the Mandans, but was not privy to them as a stranger. Both captains kept focused on their larger mission — which was to gather information for the government they served, information of benefit to science, government, and commerce. 

Before they left Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark compiled their observations into a masterfully detailed document called “Estimate of the Eastern Indians,” which they sent back to Jefferson along with dozens of specimens, artifacts, and even live animals that they had collected in the first year of their voyage of discovery. When the shipment arrived in August 1805, surely even the unslakeably curious president must have been delighted.

Next in this series: Lewis & Clark among the Shoshones

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On the Discovering Lewis & Clark site, I recently came across Joe Mussulman’s fascinating article about the religious aspects of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. On the surface, religion didn’t seem to be very important to the Corps of Discovery. No chaplain was part of the Corps, and the discoverers never make mention of the Sabbath. The only religious holiday ever mentioned in the journals is Christmas, and it seems to have been celebrated entirely with secular traditions such as feasting (with what food was available), dancing, and shooting off guns. There is no instance in which Lewis or Clark records that the men stood together in prayer or asked for the help of God or Jesus in their journey. The journals do record that a sermon was preached, probably by Meriwether Lewis, over the body of Charles Floyd, the young sergeant who died of a burst appendix early in the journey.

Camp Meeting

"Religious Camp Meeting" by J. Maze Burbank (1839)

But this in no way implies that the men of the expedition were “Godless.” Mussulman goes beyond the journals to discuss what would have been the major spiritual influences on the men of the Corps. First was the Great Revival, also known as the Second Great Awakening, an evangelical movement that swept the South a few years prior to the Expedition. Undoubtedly, some or all of the men would have been touched by the huge camp meetings that spread the gospel with fervent emotion and audience participation. At least one man, Alexander Willard, was known by his fellows to be deeply religious. The other young men were probably thunderstruck when they learned that Willard had vowed to remain chaste outside of marriage. True to his word, he did not join in with the other men in sexual escapades with the Indians.

Founding Fathers

Founding Fathers

As for the captains themselves, they were Deists. Deism was the primary religion of the Founding Fathers. It is a religious tradition that emerged in light of the scientific advances of the 18th century, and combines belief in a Supreme Being (usually referred to as “providence” rather than “God”) with belief in reason and the power of the rational mind. Nature, rather than the scriptures, is the primary source of inspiration for a Deist.

Lewis and Clark both were Masons. While not a religion, freemasonry does promote a non-denominational belief in a Supreme Being. According to John J. Robinson, author of A Pilgrim’s Path, “Masonry leaves it up to the individual Mason to choose his pathway to God, and that policy naturally includes no rules, advice, or admonitions as to the means of salvation. The Mason is expected, quite properly, to get that spiritual guidance from his own denomination, which he is encouraged to support with both his energy and his personal finances.” Lewis, as the grand master and founder of the first Masonic lodge in St. Louis, no doubt took this responsibility seriously.

Meriwether Lewis's Masonic Apron

Meriwether Lewis's Masonic Apron

The spirituality of Clark’s slave, York, is an intriguing question. According to Ira Berlin’s book Many Thousands Gone, at the turn of the 18th/19th century, only about ten percent of slaves had become Christians. This would skyrocket during the Second Great Awakening. Even so, it’s likely that York probably wasn’t any more devout than William Clark. If religion was important to him at all, he probably combined fading remnants of African belief with some tenets of Christianity.

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