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Freemasonry & the Labor Movement in America

The first Monday in September marks the end of Summer and all across the USA, Americans celebrate Labor Day with picnics, parades, and backyard barbecues.

While the first recorded mention of Labor Day was in September of 1882 at a celebration in New York City, it was President Grover Cleveland who signed a decree in 1894 marking the first weekend in September as a national recognition of an official Labor Day as a national holiday.

More than 60 years before President Cleveland signed his new law, a devout Baptist family was celebrating the birth of their baby boy in Cape May, New Jersey. Born on August 3, 1821, Uriah Smith Stephens was a smart and religious-minded boy and studied to become a minister. However, his family was poor and young Stephens had to set aside his dreams and take a job as a tailor to help the family recover from a financial crisis.

When he was 25, Uriah Stephens settled for a time in Philadelphia but he was filled with wanderlust. He traveled to Central America, Mexico, and California and then to Europe – working his way around the world for five years.

In 1858, Stephens settled down in Philadelphia again working as a tailor. An avid reader and life-long learner, he studied economics, politics, history and taught himself several foreign languages.

Stephens also became a Master Mason of Kensington Lodge No. 211 in Philadelphia on March 24, 1865.

Prior to the end of the Civil War, the establishment of trade unions had not found much success. While Stephens had helped to organize the Garment Worker’s Union in 1862, it was not until after his personal experiences as a member of Freemasonry that he was inspired to found a new fraternal organization for tradesmen which he called the Knights of Labor.

Speaking to fellow union-minded garment workers in a meeting at his home on Thanksgiving Day in 1869, Stephens presented his concept for a new organization which he proclaimed as the "Noble and Holy Order of Knights of Labor."

This new “brotherhood” would bring together not only fellow tailors but would open membership in Stephens’ own words to, “Every laborer, mechanic, and artisan who desired professional improvement, regardless of country, creed, or color.” Certainly Uriah Stephens mission was an American-inspired concept of unification that might have found favor with our nation’s Founding Fathers!

Uriah Stephens vision for the Knights of Labor was certainly inspired by the ritual and lessons he himself had learned as a Mason in his Philadelphia Lodge.

Stephens plan for the Knights of Labor included his being installed as the first “Master Workman” as well as naming himself as the “District Master Workman” and the first “Grand Master Workman” of the new Knights of Labor.

In creating and founding the Knights of Labor, Stephens freely adapted many of the symbols of Freemasonry and also some of the Masonic ritual into his new organization. The building in which members would assemble was called a “lodge”. Members referred to each other as “brothers”. Stephens dreamed of a new fraternal network of skilled laborers who would work together as fraternal brothers for the good of their fellow members. Members wishing to join would go through a ritual ceremony led by “Masters” wearing aprons and giving “lectures” on the nobility of labor. Secret signs and symbols were given to initiates as they were sworn to secrecy and loyalty to the brotherhood of the Knights of Labor.

Within a decade, the Knights of Labor had expanded from one “assembly” or chapter to 1300 local assemblies. The organization was quickly growing into a large and powerful labor movement.

However, as the organization grew and, perhaps, as Stephens was losing some control over the brotherhood he had conceived and founded, there were polarizing issues causing cracks in the fellowship.

Stephens was frustrated with the growing disenchantment rising from some members of the Knights of Labor who wanted to abolish the secret ritual which Stephens had created. Stephens also was fearful that the new membership was also becoming too aggressive in calling for frequent strikes and union demands.

Seeking to re-establish himself as a labor leader, Uriah Stephens launched a political campaign and stood for election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1878. As a defeated candidate for the “Greenback-Labor Party”, Stephens’ star as a labor leader was now tarnished. A year later, he resigned from the Knights of Labor.

Under new leadership, the Knights of Labor grew in power and influence in America as well as worldwide. Membership was opened to what was described as all members of the “producing class” – factory workers, small business owners, and farmers. Those not entitled to membership included lawyers, speculators or anyone involved in “sinful” business enterprises including the liquor industry and gambling. The Knights of Labor membership dwindled in the early 20th century.

So, what became of the first “Grand Master Workman”? Uriah Stephens’ reputation with many in the Knights of Labor was still held in high esteem but Stephens at age of 61 was working to create a new fraternal labor-centric organization. It was at his home in Philadelphia on February 13, 1882 that Uriah Stephens passed away and went to meet his maker, as he described as the” Grand Architect of the Universe”


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