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Mitchell's History

The short biographical sketch of Bro. J. W. S. Mitchell on page 671 was inadvertently so worded as to convey a misleading impression of Bro. Mitchell both as a man and as a scholar, a fact which is regretted. In 1858 he published A History of Freemasonry and Masonic Digest, which had a content so diversified that the descriptive title to the two volumes occupies the whole of the titlepage. By 1869 it had gone to its seventh edition, and second only to Preston and to Oliver was the most widely-read Masonic book in America. Vol. I of that edition contains 720 pages; Vol. II contains 719 pages. The two together covered the histories of Operative Masonry, of Speculative Masonry, the High Grades, the Egyptian Mysteries, and they contained many pages about Solomon, for Mitchell followed Oliver in believing that Solomon had been the first Grand Master.

Bro. Mitchell began the composition of his history only ten years after Mackey (in 1845) had published his Lexicon; the Lexicon was a slender volume of very brief articles, most of them only a short paragraph in length, and in the book certain of Mackey's theories are scarcely less quaint than were some of Mitchell's. and yet Mackey was a highly-educated and widely read man. The two men both suffered from the almost complete lack of any available literature; there were no Masonic libraries; it was almost a case of reading Oliver or nothing. If this fact be taken into consideration, then Bro. Mitchell was entitled to great credit, and was, relative to the handicaps under which he worked, both a learned and an intelligent man, and ought still to possess the same gratitude from Masons that was accorded to him by his contemporaries who bought up seven editions of a large and expensive work.

Also, the work has positive values for Masonic students now: it shows what was known and thought and practiced in Freemasonry in the United States a decade before the Civil War, and explains much that otherwise remains obscure; and though Bro. Mitchell's theories of the history of the Craft are obsolete, his two volumes were not confined to theories; on almost every page are facts about the Craft in his own and in the preceding period which do not cease to be facts when divorced from the theories. These facts are of great worth, just as are the facts in Oliver's books. And again, the chapters on jurisprudence as it was thought and practiced in the 1850's is invaluable for comparison with jurisprudence now.

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