Posted: Monday Sep 16, 2013
Sept. 16, 2013
While Dr. Susan Mitchell Sommers has been teaching contemporary European history to undergraduates at Saint Vincent College for 20 years, she is also a prolific author of books and articles about 18th Century British history that are eagerly sought by scholars around the world.
The author of Parliamentary Politics of a County and its Town: General Elections in Suffolk and Ipswich in the Eighteenth Century (Greenwood Press, 2002) and Thomas Dunckerley and English Freemasonry (Pickering & Chatto, 2012), her current book projects include: Job’s Children: A London Demimonde, 1770-1820, and The Radical Brotherhood: The Society of the Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights. Both of these involve placing Freemasonry and Free and Accepted Masons into a larger contemporary context.
What is her motivation? “It’s really fun,” she says. “Getting a doctorate is sort of like your union card. Once you get the degree and secure a teaching position, nobody says you have to research just this one particular thing anymore. I think as our scholarship matures, most academics find our own niche. We find something that intrigues us and keeps us intellectually stimulated. It brings spice to the classroom and makes our students interested.”
“What I’ve been doing over the past ten years is working on a variation of what I did my graduate research on and that’s 18th century British politics,” she explained. “But I’ve been looking more at the lives of the men rather than their parliamentary careers. One of the characteristics of 18th century life was fraternal societies – drinking clubs and charitable organizations and societies like the Odd Fellows or the Freemasons.”
“My favorite is the Improved Order of Imps (in Australia), which I think is just a wonderful name,” she smiled. “In the days before television and movies this was what gentlemen did in the evenings. They would go out and have a convivial glass or they would have a meal and hear a lecture or they would raise money for a charity. Many of these fraternal societies invented mythological origins for their clubs and Freemasonry has more mythology than most. The Freemasons themselves are responsible for a good deal of that mythology but none of the most exciting conspiracy-related things you ever hear about Freemasonry are true. But the mythology makes studying them more entertaining.”
“One of the most rewarding things that I have found with the Masonic research that I’ve been doing is that there is an increasing body of scholars who are not Masons who have turned to this because the Masonic archives are now open to us and they hadn’t been up until 20 years ago,” she explained. “There are some truly outstanding scholars, like Margaret Jacob at UCLA, for example, who were instrumental in convincing the Masonic authorities that it would serve everyone’s purpose if the archives were open and scholars could come in and look at the primary sources. People like me have really benefited from that because I have been able to come in and have unprecedented access to sources that have not been used before by historians. And so that is what made the stack of books that I have written and contributed to possible.”
“There are two or three projects that I am particularly proud of and, of course, the recently published Le Monde Maçonnique au XVIIIe siècle, edited by Cecile Révauger and Charles Porcet, is the most impressive,” she explained. “What’s interesting about this is it’s really about the Enlightenment and about important men during the Enlightenment, like George Washington and John Hancock and others who were active in politics and society. While they were important scholars or generals, they were also Freemasons. What is unique about this project is that it puts their Freemasonry in the context of all their other activities and it is that sort of synthesis that my own body of work is really aimed at.” This publication, nearly 3,000 pages, contains the biographies of nearly 1,100 18th- century Freemasons from Europe, Britain and the Colonies. Participation in this project brings Saint Vincent College into the company of such institutions as the University of Bordeaux, Cambridge University, UCLA, the University of Saragossa, the Royal Irish Academy, the University of Leiden, the University of Parma, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Leicester, the University of Toulouse, the Free University of Brussels, Boston University, the University of Lund, King’s College, London, University College London, the University of Bristol and the University of Paris.
“Quatuor Coronati Lodge, No. 2076, the very first Masonic research lodge, was founded in 1884 in London,” she said. “I was invited to give their 125th anniversary lecture. So I went to London and I gave a lecture based on my recent book on Thomas Dunckerley. We were in the temple of the United Grand Lodge of England. The gentlemen were all there in their gloves and aprons, and they allowed those of us who weren’t Masons to come in after their lodge meeting. They were so hospitable, and it was a lovely evening – even though I got up and said ‘You know this guy that so many of you revere as one of your most important 18th-century Freemasons, he was a big liar.’ He made up this tremendous story about being the illegitimate son of the king and he wasn’t – he was just a regular mortal, like the rest of us. Members of the lodge were very welcoming and it was a significant thing that a woman, a non-Mason could come in and tell them the truth about one of their cherished myths.”
“Two nice things happened to me recently as a result of all of this work,” Sommers shared. “One is that I have been invited on Sept. 27 and 28 to go to the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, and to give the keynote address at a conference called the Quarry Project, which is designed to introduce Freemasons to professional historians and trained personnel who work in the Masonic libraries and archives, and to familiarize novice researchers with best practices. I am doing two lectures, one is the keynote and one is a panel paper on how to be a historian, and how to do it right. It’s tremendously flattering that I’ve been invited.”
“The other thing that has happened recently is that I received an invitation from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, to do an article on Thomas Dunckerley for them. The DNB has been a fundamental resource for British historians since the first edition was issued in 1885. Only the top people in each field receive this sort of invitation, so I am flattered and excited by the opportunity.”
In addition to her books, Sommers’ most recent articles include, “Robert Thomas Crucefix, Redux,” published in the Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism, (September, 2013), “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Order of the Eastern Star in the Historiography of American Women’s Associations,” published in the Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism, “Marranos, Masons, and the Case of the Mislaid Text,” published in Heredom, Vol. 20, (2013). "Thomas Dunckerley: A True Son of Adam,” published in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Vol. 124, (2012). Sommers is also contributing to British Freemasonry, 1717–1813, 5 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto), under Róbert Péter, general editor.
A frequent presenter at academic conferences, Sommers has presented papers on Masonic topics at the University of Bordeaux, the University of Sheffield and two ICHF Conferences.
Sommers joined the history department faculty in the school of humanities and fine arts at Saint Vincent in 1993. She earned a bachelor of arts degree and master of arts degree in history at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and a master of arts degree and Ph.D. in history from Washington University in St. Louis. Her fields of specialization include the Enlightenment, Early Modern and Modern Britain, the Age of Empire, Historical Method and Colonial Latin America.
Sommers and her husband, Dallas, live in New Stanton. They have a son, Alexander, who is a senior at Saint Vincent, and a daughter, Sophia, who is a sophomore at Hempfield Area High School.
Photo: Dr. Susan Mitchell Sommers and the stack of scholarly books she has written or contributed to.
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