The enigma of Albert Pike is a persistent one. Certain facts are known about him, facts that detractors and supporters alike can both agree upon. He’s a little-known figure whose impact upon American history far exceeds his notoriety. He single-handedly created the higher degrees of Scottish Rite Freemasonry (degrees 4 through 33). He was Sovereign Grand Commander of the Southern Jurisdiction of Scottish Rite Freemasonry from 1859 to 1891, the year of his death. He was a Confederate General during the American Civil War. He was a powerful attorney in his day. He was also a prominent poet, whose literary works have been forgotten except by a small handful of devotees. He is the author of the most important work on Masonic ritual, philosophy and symbolism, i.e., Morals and Dogma.
On these facts, everyone can agree. It’s the interpretation of these facts that begin to grow a bit misty.
Pike is a polarising figure. There seems to be very little objective analysis of his impact on history. Mainstream historians rarely, if ever, refer to him. Therefore, we are left with volumes of questionable interpretations that often draw upon half-truths, rumours, innuendoes, misinterpretations, and outright forgeries. Pick up any book that contains even a minor reference to the man and you will find that the interpretation of the author either falls into one of two categories: 1) Pike was a genius and a Saint whose very touch turned men’s souls into alchemical gold, or 2) Pike was a Satan worshipper whose noxious acts still stain the very heart of the United States of America – indeed, the very world itself.
There is no middle ground among these ‘researchers’. Pike was either good or evil. Of course, the world would be much simpler if anyone was wholly good or wholly evil. Zen Buddhist Alan Watts once wrote a book entitled The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are in which he advises his readers to drop that dialectic way of thinking, what he calls “the game of Black-versus-White.”1 It only causes confusion because it is a model that does not reflect reality. Human beings are far more complicated than that, and this includes Pike.
With most historical figures, the latter statement could normally go unsaid, but strange as it is to say a very small minority of pundits have indeed implied Albert Pike was not human at all (he was really a shape-shifting reptilian in disguise). I’m going to immediately crawl out on a limb, right here in the fifth paragraph, and propose we eliminate that theory for lack of evidence.
But first, picture a scene for me, if you will. Picture an underground train depot, a twisted set of metal tracks sunk about ten feet into the concrete. On either side of the tracks people are yelling at each other: men, women, children… all races, all creeds. Strangely, some of the people who are shouting the loudest have no faces at all. A giant bronze bust of Pike is sitting in the middle of the tracks. In the distance, a train is barrelling down upon this immense monument. The train is so loud, nobody can hear what anyone else is saying.
Let’s slow this scene for a moment, turn the volume down on the train, and turn up the volume only on certain individuals… just one at a time. There’s no preferred order amidst this chaos. We’ll select our speakers at random….
Pike as Satanist
Ralph Epperson, a Fundamentalist Christian and author of the book The New World Order, concluded that Albert Pike was a Satanist whose secret goal was to stamp out all organised religions in the world. (But isn’t Satanism itself an organised religion? Oh, wait, sorry about that. Let’s leave aside editorial intrusions for a moment and just examine the claims.) Here’s Epperson in his own words:
…Pike considers Lucifer to be the God that is good, and the God of the Bible is the devil, the god of evil. That is what [Pike’s] statement about ‘that which is Below is as that which is Above’ means. That means that the God in the heavens is the god that is below, and the god who is below is the god in the heavens.
So the Masons do believe in a god: it is in the fallen lightbearer, Lucifer. There can be no other reasonable explanation of what Mr. Pike just wrote.2
No other reasonable explanation? This is a common belief among Christians, particularly the Fundamentalists, many of whom are very concerned about the ongoing “threat” of Freemasonry. Most people reading this magazine will no doubt already be aware of the fact that the hermetic dictum “As above, so below” is a common phrase among the ancient practitioners of alchemy and does not refer in any way to either God or Satan. In fact, the belief systems associated with alchemy no doubt existed long before the Christian religion even came into being. But when one is viewing the world through a limited framework, the amount of information one has to draw upon will be equally limited… and thus may lead to numerous misperceptions, like the one we’ve just heard.
Now let’s pan over to the other side of the tracks, shall we?
Pike as “Oracle of Freemasonry”
Manly P. Hall, a 33rd Degree Scottish Rite Freemason who wrote scores of books attempting to illuminate the esoteric meanings of Masonic symbolism (The Secret Teachings of All Ages being the most exhaustive) seems to have an endless supply of adoring adjectives to describe Albert Pike. He variously refers to Pike as “the Plato of Freemasonry,” “this Masonic Prometheus,” “the Homer of America,” “the Master Builder,” “the Real Master of the Veils,” “the Oracle of Freemasonry,” and (perhaps most confusing) “the Zoroaster of modern Asia.”3 And that’s just scraping the surface.
Hall chooses to introduce Pike in his illustrated review of occultism and philosophy, The Phoenix, with the following anonymous tribute:
Albert Pike was a king among men by the divine right of merit. A giant in body, in brain, in heart and in soul. So majestic in appearance that whenever he moved on highway or byway, the wide world over, every passer-by turned to gaze upon him and admire him. Six feet, two inches, with the proportions of a Hercules and the grace of an Apollo. A face and head massive and leonine, recalling in every feature some sculptor’s dream of a Grecian god…. 4
Hall does not mention who wrote the preceding tribute or where it was originally published. It’s hard to imagine what sort of prostrate position the writer was in when these words flowed from his (or her) pen. Perhaps Pike himself wrote it. Or maybe even Manly P. Hall. When it comes to attribution in Hall’s writing, everything’s in doubt. He had a bad habit of being rather too lackadaisical about citing his sources – a habit he shared with Pike himself. For this reason alone much of his writing is considered useless by mainstream historians, and I understand their dismissal of him on those grounds. But it could be that Hall didn’t want his work to be useful to historians. Like Pike himself, Hall was interested in history only on his own terms, and those terms involved the practice and explication of metaphysics. Every aspect of the mundane world somehow related back to the big Masonic “G” – whether that G stood for the initial letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Geparaith,” “God,” “Geometry,” or “the generative principle” is entirely open to interpretation. Pike cites them all as possible candidates. (On pages 780, 640, 40, and 632 of Morals and Dogma, respectively.)
Hall saw himself reflected in Pike and came to admire him accordingly. They were both pre-eminent scholars of the arcanum, perhaps the most knowledgeable of their respective centuries who chose to compile their occult knowledge in encyclopedic works, and therefore it might be no surprise that Hall would place Pike on such a lofty pedestal. And here we come to an important point about the enigma of Albert Pike: because so much of Pike’s real life and career is shrouded in mystery, it’s easy for him to become a polymorphous Rorschach blot upon which people with an intense interest in the esoteric can project their own highest hopes or darkest fears.
In a Labor Day lecture delivered to the Schiller Institute in Washington, D.C., Anton Chaitkin (author of Treason in America) delineated what he called “the Scottish Rite’s KKK Project” by attempting to connect Pike to the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. He said:
The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was a terrorist counterattack, beginning in Tennessee, designed to block Reconstruction and reverse the outcome of the Civil War. The Klan and the Scottish Rite were one and the same enterprise, continuing the imperial effort behind the slave owners’ rebellion. 5
But to James T. Tresner II, author of the anecdotal biography Albert Pike: The Man Beyond the Monument, Pike is nothing less than…
…one of the most amazing men who has ever lived. During his long life, he was a teacher, an explorer of the American frontier, a poet, a newspaper editor, a lawyer – in fact he is still regarded as one of the outstanding legal scholars of the 1800s – a short-story writer, a linguist, a worker for reform in both education and the criminal justice system, an active advocate for the rights of women and the rights of Native Americans, an orator whose speeches are still reprinted in collections of Southern literature, a general in the Civil War, and a philosopher.
He made and gave away fortunes. He built the finest home in Little Rock, Arkansas. The society columns of the Washington, D.C. newspapers spoke of him as one of the most graceful dancers, cordial hosts, and knowledgeable connoisseurs of food in the capital city. He always had a joke to tell his legion of friends, and his hearty laugh was famous.
When, in the last years of his life, he moved to an apartment in the House of the Temple, his personal library contained thousands of books. He was a profound student of religion and philosophy.6
Could this possibly be the same person under discussion here? The preceding two examples were chosen almost at random, by simply dropping books about Albert Pike on the floor and letting the pages fall open where they may. Other examples of this extreme dichotomy could be reprinted here, but I think you get the point by now.
When researching this article, I decided to give Pike the benefit of the doubt. I wondered if writers like Epperson and Chaitkin might have given Pike short shrift; after all, facts can always be misinterpreted to bring about a negative conclusion. My first goal, therefore, would be to visit the library established by Manly P. Hall at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, one of the largest repositories of occult texts in the United States. Since Manly P. Hall was one of Pike’s most ardent admirers, I concluded this might be the best place to go in order to get a more positive view of Pike and his work.
The librarian at the Philosophical Research Society at that time was Maja D’Aoust, who has lectured frequently over the years on the subject of alchemy and co-authored a book on hermeticism entitled The Secret Source. I asked Ms. D’Aoust to comment on Pike and his contributions to Freemasonry:
Guffey: Do you know anything about Pike’s life?
D’Aoust: Pike was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He was a Grand Wizard. And, of course, I read Morals and Dogma.
Guffey: Anton Chaitkin was the first person I ever read who mentioned Pike’s supposed KKK connection. Pike’s a very elusive fellow. If you read a book by a Freemason, Pike’s a wonderful guy who was against slavery. You can easily find another book about Pike in which you’ll have the exact opposite information, but both stories will seem equally plausible somehow.
D’Aoust: They probably are both true, because he had different faces for different parts of the community. There are bridges and elementary schools built to him in his home town because he was such a helpful member of the community, and to that part of the community he was very helpful. He was very helpful to many people, but not to – you know, unfortunately – the black Americans who he probably strung from a tree.
After our conversation Ms. D’Aoust referred me to Paul Austad, the Director of Technology at the Philosophical Research Society. Mr. Austad provided several valuable sources that dealt with Pike’s involvement in the Ku Klux Klan.
Pike & the Ku Klux Klan
The 1905 book Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin, Growth and Disbandment by J.C Lester and D.L. Wilson contains an introduction by Dr. Walter L. Fleming, who was a professor of history at West Virginia University and held a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. In his introduction he lists “[s]ome well-known members of the Klan” and states, “General Albert Pike, who stood high in the Masonic order, was the chief judicial officer of the Klan.”7
The 1924 book Authentic History, Ku Klux Klan, 1865-1877 by Susan Lawrence Davis contains an oil portrait of General Pike given to the author by Pike’s own son (Yvon Pike of Leesburg, Virginia) for the specific purpose of including it in her book. In Chapter XVIII, entitled “Arkansas,” Davis reports:
General Pike organised the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas after General [Nathan] Forrest appointed him Grand Dragon of that Realm at the convention at Nashville, Tenn. He was also appointed at that time Chief Judicial Officer of The Invisible Empire. He advised in this capacity that the Ku Klux Klan memorise their Ritual and to never make it public […].
In 1872 Arkansas had two governments operating at one time and civil war was threatened and great excitement prevailed against the Washington Government. General Pike called a mass meeting at Little Rock, Ark., in the Capitol building and appealed to the people to be patient until better times would come and assured them that he would go to Washington and intercede for them, which he did many times.
At this meeting General Pike unfurled the Stars and Stripes and in a most beautiful manner, asked the people to follow it, which thousands of them did, promising him to be patient until the Ku Klux Klan could redeem the state.8
In his 1929 book The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln, a former Ambassador to Spain and Chile named Claude G. Bowers writes, “In the earliest phase [of the Klan] only men of the highest order were in control.” He lists the leaders in each of the Southern states in which the Klan had lowered their roots including Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, and Georgia – leaders such as “[i]n Arkansas, General Albert Pike, poet and journalist, scholar and jurist, solider and explorer, and a commanding figure in Masonry for half a century…”9
Far more recently, Wyn Craig Wade’s 1987 overview of the White Supremacy movement, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America, identifies Pike as having served as the Grand Dragon of Arkansas during the early days of the Klan’s inception. But Wade also adds this clarification:
[T]he leadership of these men, originally appointed by Memphis officials, was usually in name only and nowhere lasted longer than 1869; such experienced veterans quickly realised the impossibility of governing in secret such widespread bands of young hellions and wanted no responsibility for it.10
In a very rare book, History and Evolution of Freemasonry, written in 1954 by a Freemason named Delmar D. Darrah, Pike’s own words seem to clarify his sympathies further. Regarding the establishment of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodges for African-Americans, Pike wrote a letter in 1875 in which he stated, “I took my obligations from white men, not from negroes. When I have to accept negroes as brothers or leave masonry, I shall leave it.”11 He goes on to declare that he is dedicated to keeping “the Ancient and Accepted Rite uncontaminated, in our country at least, by the leprosy of negro association.”12 Some Masons claim these quotes are being taken out of context.13
There are still more voices to be heard amidst the turmoil: The Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon have published a lengthy essay on their website, “Albert Pike Did Not Found the Ku Klux Klan,” countering the claims that Albert Pike had any connection to the Ku Klux Klan.14 This title is, in fact, a true statement: Albert Pike did not found the Ku Klux Klan. During the American Civil War, he founded a secret society called the Knights of the Golden Circle which later transformed into the Ku Klux Klan.
Knights of the Golden Circle
The Knights of the Golden Circle is the X factor in this debate. What was the Knights of the Golden Circle? What was Albert Pike’s intention in forming it? Was it an esoteric secret society with a benign interest in hermetic rites that was then later twisted into what we now know as the Ku Klux Klan?
In 2003 journalist Warren Getler published a fascinating history of the Knights of the Golden Circle, Shadow of the Sentinel, a book that’s been sadly overlooked despite the fact that it’s a highly readable, true-to-life detective story. Getler claims the main purpose of the Knights of the Golden Circle was to overcome the North on the battlefield and prepare for a contingency plan to continue the war underground, secretly, in the event the South was defeated. This book is the best and most comprehensive analysis of Pike’s involvement with both the Knights of the Golden Circle and the Ku Klux Klan.15
There’s no doubt Pike was involved in these secret societies. The question is, why? Let’s now turn up the volume on another member of the crowd, shall we?
James Tresner II, who’s a 33rd Degree Scottish Rite Freemason, attempts to defend Pike’s connection to the Knights of the Golden Circle by putting the following words in his mouth in a strange videotape produced by the Scottish Rite Research Society in which Tresner dresses up like Pike and answers questions from a contemporary Mason who’s sent back in time into Pike’s library for a late night chat (yes, that really is the plot of the video). Here is what Tresner, in the role of Pike, has to say about the American Civil War:
Have the people of your time reduced the terrible and complex issues of the war to a simple-minded belief that the North wanted to free the slaves and the South wanted to impose slavery? […] Oh, sir. No, no. I knew no one personally who argued that slavery was a good thing, though there may have been such people. But how do you end it? Decree, in a day, that the slaves are free? No, I believed that the only way to end slavery was to make it unnecessary economically. And I hoped for better conditions in the South than in the North; for there were slaves there, too – women and children who worked in the manufactories for so low a wage that they starved to death even as they worked. To that end, I worked and argued to increase shipping and manufacturing in the South.
When the Southern Convention met in 1856 and introduced a resolution in favour of resuming the slave trade, I took the floor and spoke against it. I ended that speech by saying that I looked forward to the day when ALL men would be free. And for that I was booed off the floor, my character was attacked, and I was threatened with physical assault.
No, sir, I was no lover of slavery. But to me, and to many of us, that was not the issue of the war. The issue was whether the states or the federal government was to control. I feared the despotism of a large government, and I believed in my heart that the states were better suited to governing the citizens and protecting their interests.16
Some of these statements strike me as plausible. Indeed, the central issue of the American Civil War was not the abolition of slavery, though high school history books have encapsulated the war as such in order to make it more easily digestible by students whose knowledge of American history has been bastardised by years of oversimplification. Other statements strike me as outright dissimulation, particularly the notion that Pike never once came into personal contact with a single person in the antebellum South who argued “that slavery was a good thing.” In complex technical language, this statement could be categorised as “a shuck and a jive.” Quite frankly, for me, that comment alone strains the credibility of the rest of Tresner’s statement.
Pike’s Own Words: Morals and Dogma
Let’s return to what can be documented: not Tresner’s words, but Pike’s. How do we reconcile Pike’s incendiary, overtly racist comments with his own magnum opus, the apex of Masonic philosophy, Morals and Dogma? Let’s turn the volume up on Pike’s own words at the moment. Is Morals and Dogma the work of a man who advocates slavery or violence in any form? Let’s allow the monument to speak for himself at last….
Might, in an army wielded by tyranny, is the enormous sum total of utter weakness; and so Humanity wages war against Humanity, in despite of Humanity. So a people willingly submits to despotism, and its workmen submit to be despised, and its soldiers to be whipped; therefore it is that battles lost by a nation are often progress attained. Less glory is more liberty. When the drum is silent, reason sometimes speaks.
Tyrants use the force of the people to chain and subjugate – that is, enyoke the people. Then they plough with them as men do with oxen yoked. Thus the spirit of liberty and innovation is reduced by bayonets, and principles struck dumb by cannonshot.17
* * *
…[I]t is one of the fatalities of Humanity to be condemned to eternal struggle with phantoms, with superstitions, bigotries, hypocrisies, prejudices and the pleas of tyranny. Despotisms, seen in the past, become respectable, as the mountain, bristling with volcanic rock, rugged and horrid, seen through the haze of distance is blue and beautiful. The sight of a single dungeon of tyranny is worth more, to dispel illusions and create holy hatred of despotism, to direct FORCE aright than the most eloquent volumes. The French should have preserved the Bastile as a perpetual lesson; Italy should not destroy the dungeons of the Inquisition.18
* * *
[The Mason] labours equally to defend and to improve the people…. He knows that the safety of every free government, and its continuance and perpetuity depend upon the virtue and intelligence of the common people; and that, unless their liberty is of such a kind as arms can neither procure nor take away; unless it is the fruit of manly courage, of justice, temperance, and generous virtue – unless, being such, it has taken deep root in the minds and hearts of the people at large, there will not long be wanting those who will snatch from them by treachery what they have acquired by arms or institutions.
He knows that if, after being released from the toils of war, the people neglect the arts of peace; if their peace and liberty be a state of warfare; if war be their only virtue, and the summit of their praise, they will soon find peace the most adverse to their interests. It will be only a more distressing war; and that which they imagined liberty will be the worst slavery. For, unless by the means of knowledge and morality, not frothy and loquacious, but genuine, unadulterated, and sincere, they clear the horizon of the mind from those mists of error and passion which arise from ignorance and vice, they will always have those who will bend their necks to the yoke as if they were brutes; who, notwithstanding all their triumphs, will put them up to the highest bidder, as if they were mere booty made in war; and find an exuberant source of wealth and power, in the people’s ignorance, prejudice, and passions.19
* * *
To honour the Deity, to regard all men as our Brethren, as children, equally dear to Him, of the Supreme Creator of the Universe, and to make himself useful to society and himself by his labour, are [Freemasonry’s] teachings to its Initiates in all the Degrees.20
Quotes such as these are often used by Freemasons to “prove” that Pike could not have been a racist or a supporter of slavery. The Freemasons are right: these are not the words of a man who supports either racism or slavery. These words have as much relevance today, perhaps even more so, as they did when Pike first wrote them. Does that mean the man who wrote them was not a racist?
No, it doesn’t. No one can know, at this late date, exactly what Pike was like in his private life. This would not be the first time in the fields of philosophy, religion, or literature when the words a man penned were far nobler than his actions. Does a man’s actions invalidate a man’s work? Does the fact that Ezra Pound was a fascist anti-Semite lessen the artistic quality of his Cantos? Does the fact that Lewis Carroll had a penchant for taking nude photographs of prepubescent children invalidate Alice in Wonderland as a classic in British literature? Does the fact that William S. Burroughs shot and killed his wife cancel out his status as one of the great innovators in American literature in the 20th century?
Perhaps it does.
And perhaps the fact that neither Ezra Pound, Lewis Carroll, nor William S. Burroughs ever deigned to pen a 1,086-page didactic tome entitled Morals and Dogma should be taken into consideration here as well.
If so, it should also be kept in mind that the words inscribed in the United States Declaration of Independence are clearly not those of men who support the slavery of fellow human beings… and yet, nonetheless, most of the learned gentleman who signed that auspicious document did indeed own slaves and continued to own them once their tidy revolution was complete.
Listen to the clamour growing: these are the arguments of the crowd still milling around in that underground depot, cut off from the rest of society. Few people today, above ground, care whether or not Albert Pike was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Few people today even know what Freemasonry is, and far less have ever heard the words “Knights of the Golden Circle.” Quite frankly, it’s not something they really need to know in order to pursue their daily lives.
But still, here in the dusty underground, the war continues to wage as if there were never a better war worth fighting. The masses can barely hear each other over the noise of the oncoming train, the apocalyptic clamour of a bronze statue being shattered into tiny shards. The masses stand agape, staring dumbly as the train whizzes past.
Would these paralysed fellows be shocked to see who’s driving this train, the very same coal-black engine that just reduced Pike’s larger-than-life-sized monument into copper-coloured dust? Look closely through the front window and you can almost make out the engineer’s bedraggled, wizened features: it’s him all right, the one person who went the farthest to encourage all this mystery and obfuscation in the first place: Grand Commander Albert Pike, Confederate General and Master of the Royal Secret… yes, the “Zoroaster of modern Asia” himself.
There’s no doubt in my mind Pike would be pleased to learn that his mystery, at the very least, still persists even as the amount of people in the world who actually read his cryptic words dwindle ever further into non-existence.
After all, there’s something to be said for mystery… one notion with which everyone huddled in this underground depot can agree.
What does it matter what you say about people?
– Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, 1958
- Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Collier 1967, 30
- A. Ralph Epperson, The New World Order, Publius P 1990, 159
- Manly P. Hall, The Phoenix: An Illustrated Review of Occultism and Philosophy, 1956, The Philosophical Research Society 1995, 37-8
- Ibid., 37
- Chaitkin’s truncated lecture can be found online at www.the
- James T. Tresner II, “A Visit with General Albert Pike,” Heredom 10 (2002), 39-62
- J.C. Lester & D.L. Wilson, Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin, Growth and Disbandment, Neale P 1905, 24
- Susan Lawrence Davis, Authentic History, Ku Klux Klan, 1865-1877, American Library Service 1924, 276-277
- Claude G. Bowers, The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln, Blue Ribbon 1929, 310
- Wyn Craig Wade, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America, Oxford U P, 1998, 58
- Delmar D Darrah, History and Evolution of Freemasonry, C. T. Powner, 1954, 329
- William H Upton, Negro Masonry: Being a Critical Examination of Objections to the Legitimacy of the Masonry Existing Among the Negroes of America, (1902), AMS P 1975, 215
- Interested readers can see the entire text in Appendix 12 of William H. Upton’s Negro Masonry, a book written by a Freemason. The entire letter can also be see at this pro-Masonic website www.masonicinfo.com/pikesracism.htm. Feel free to judge for yourselves.
- The title of their essay is “Albert Pike Did Not Found the Ku Klux Klan” (the full text can be found at http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/anti-masonry/kkk.html.
- I’ve written more extensively about the Knights of the Golden Circle’s involvement in the Civil War in an article entitled “The History of Unknown Men” published in New Dawn Special Issue 3.
- James T Tresner II, “A Visit with General Albert Pike,” Heredom 10 (2002), 60
- Albert Pike, Morals and Dogma, (1871), L.H. Jenkins, 1956, 3
- Ibid., 4
- Ibid., 177
- Ibid., 329