A new documentary, Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland, airs tonight on PBS. Narrated by Martin Sheen, the award-winning film features insights from Twain scholars around the world. According to the filmmakers, Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem will retrace “Twain’s footsteps using actual details from his letters and journals. The film tells a little-known story of Mark Twain as a young reporter, embarking on a maiden voyage over the Atlantic and across the Holy Land. His final destination – the ancient city of Jerusalem. Twain’s experiences and insights from this trip later shaped him as a quintessential American writer.”
The film’s trailer also asserts that journeying to “the mythical places he knew from the Bible will test Twain’s faith.” It will be interesting to see if this aspect of the film mentions his involvement in Freemasonry at the time and the special gift from the Holy Land he gave to the lodge in St. Louis, Missouri, that he joined in 1861.
Perhaps it will shy away from the touchy subject. Shrouded in mystery for much of its history, Freemasonry is to this day the focus of outlandish conspiracy theories.
The Masonic Service Association of North America describes the secretive, religiously oriented fraternity as:
“Not a religion, nor is it a substitute for religion. It requires of its members a belief in God as part of the obligation of every responsible adult, but advocates no sectarian faith or practice. Masonic ceremonies include prayers, both traditional and extempore, to reaffirm each individual’s dependence on God and to seek divine guidance. Freemasonry is open to men of any faith, but religion may not be discussed at Masonic meetings.”
Further, the site says that Freemasonry defines “God” as the “Grand Architect of the Universe.” Twain uses this phrase in his account of his trip, The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869. Masons believe “that there is one God and that people employ many different ways to seek, and to express what they know of God.”
So, to say the least, Twain’s faith was unconventional before he embarked on his life-changing trip to Jerusalem.
Although he apparently was not very active as a Mason and ultimately demitted his membership in 1869, many Masonic websites today like to note Twain’s involvement in the fraternity in the 1860s. For instance,
“During those years when Mark Twain was ‘roughing it’ in the West, his fraternal activities were apparently at a minimum. There is evidence that he paid a visit to the Chinese Free Mason Hall in Carson City; his mining partner Calvin Higbie, has described how Twain revealed his Masonic membership by giving – although with comic exaggeration – the fraternal ‘grand hailing sign of distress.’ At this point, Twain did not take his role as a Mason seriously and was removed from the organization for the most part. However, upon returning to St. Louis, he petitioned for readmission and was reinstated on April 21, 1867.”
If this timeline is accurate, Twain’s Masonic membership would have been freshly renewed just a couple months before setting sail for the Holy Land. This backstory may shed light on this handcrafted gavel made from a cedar tree in Lebanon that he gave to his Missouri lodge a year later:
According to The Masonic Dictionary, “The Cedars of Lebanon are frequently referred to in the legends of Freemasonry, especially in the advanced Degrees; not, however, on account of any symbolical signification, but rather because of the use made of them by Solomon and Zerubbabel in the construction of their respective Temples.”
Phoenixmasonry.org reports that Twain “sent his lodge a gavel with this note: ‘This mallet is a cedar, cut in the forest of Lebanon, whence Solomon obtained the timbers for the Temple.’ Clemens cut the handle himself from a cedar just outside the walls of Jerusalem. He had it made in Alexandria, Egypt…”
After bestowing this gift upon his lodge, Twain apparently had little more to do with Freemasonry (aside from occasional allusions to it in his writing). In fact, according to an article entitled “Alas: Poor Mark!” in the Masonic New Yorker, A Journal of Masonic Information (March 15, 1907), the “great Apostle of Prevarication” seems to have provoked the ire of his former brothers after dismissing Freemasonry as “foolishness.” The Masonic correspondent found it “pitiable” that “the brother who charmed us with his humor” would “slap in the face the institution before whose alter he had thrice knelt.”
To learn more about this period in Twain’s career and the Quaker City tour which became his first bestselling book, tune in to the premiere of Mark Twain’s Journey To Jerusalem on PBS World tonight at 8 PM EST. The documentary, directed by A. D. Oppenheim and Diana Zaslaw, will no doubt be widely available for streaming soon thereafter.