They meet behind closed doors but are not a secret society. Gatherings take place around an altar but it is not a church. So, to quote Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “who the hell are those guys?”
The answer to this riddle is found inside the whispered halls of Freemasonry, an organization that remains shrouded in mystery and intrigue — and for some of its members, that’s exactly the point. Ostensibly, they’re one of the world’s oldest and largest fraternal orders with over five million Masons (including about two million in the U.S.) and are known for their philanthropy, charitable acts, and community outreach. They’re also really, really good at keeping secrets.
Fortunately, we can shed some light on this enigmatic crew without anyone having to pledge obedience in a spooky candle-lit room.
In the Beginning…
The origins of Freemasonry began as a guild for the stonecutters who built the castles and cathedrals of Medieval Europe. In 1717, a group in London established its first Grand Lodge and increased the overall scope to include other professions. Apparently, chatting about chopping rocks got a little tiresome before they decided to inject some more lively topics and activities.
As interest grew along the Thames, its popularity eventually spread throughout Europe and fell under the auspice of two main branches: the Regular, guided by the United Grand Lodge of England; and the Liberal, represented by the Grand Orient of France. Later, membership expanded throughout North America, peaking with nearly four million participants in the U.S. in the late 1950s.
Today, a Masonic “lodge” refers to only the specific congregation and not the name of a building. Each lodge is granted a charter from a “Grand Lodge” but is typically autonomous, featuring a byzantine set of customs and rituals that usually infuses religious elements. But at its foundation, they all espouse three basic core principles: Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth.
Rich and Famous
The society boasts an impressive who’s who that includes 14 American Presidents, 13 Founding Fathers, and 8 signers of the Declaration of Independence. However, many early American leaders had no time for secret handshakes, gestures, and passwords. Men such as Samuel Adams, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson chose to spend their energies elsewhere — namely, brewing beer, writing the constitution and inventing the United States.
But countless other historical figures are part of the brotherhood, including Mozart, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, and Henry Ford. The same goes for Mercury astronauts “Wally” Shirra, John Glenn, Gordon Cooper, “Gus” Grissom, and even moonwalker, Buzz Aldrin. In fact, when Aldrin went to the moon during the Apollo 11 Mission, he carried a Masonic flag with him and claimed the celestial body as part of the territorial jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Texas.
Almost from its inception, Masons have been linked to a host of sinister conspiracies theories, ranging from the Illuminati to the assassination of JFK. Not surprisingly, with a gaggle of space travelers in its ranks, the fraternity has been linked to faking the moon landing as well.
However, the most common myth attributed to the organization are the symbols on the back of the U.S. dollar bill. According to Margaret Jacob, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, the unfinished pyramid with an eye on top of it are icons that have been used by numerous groups throughout history — including Freemasonry.
Brent Morris, the managing editor of the Scottish Rite Journal, explains it this way: “The Eye of God is a common icon for God looking over the affairs of man,” Morris said. “It’s an icon that appears in cultures across the centuries. The uncompleted pyramid represented that our country was not yet completed, that we were continuing to grow.”
The joined square and compasses is the most recognizable emblem of Freemasonry. As tools of architecture, the instruments symbolize the philosophical building of morality, faith, and friendship. Staying congruent with the geometrical and architectural themes, the trowel and gavel are also frequently used.
The letter “G” is typically found in the center of the display and carries a multitude ofl meanings. The most common interpretation is that it stands for “Geometry” — the discipline Masons revere as the noblest of the sciences. Another explanation has the letter referring to God — AKA the “Great Architect of the Universe” — a concept associated with well-known Christian figures such as Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin.
Additionally, every Lodge features the replica pillars of Boaz and Jachin as part of its Masonic decor. The ornate columns which stood in front of Solomon’s Temple are meant to signify establishment (of God) and strength.
Rules Are Rules
To become a Mason, an initiate must be of good character, believe in a Supreme Being, and be of lawful age (usually 18 to 25 depending on the Grand Lodge). Participation requires being recommended by someone who is already a member and that the candidate has come on their own free will. And one more thing: he must be a man.
Although not quite as transparent as the “He-Man Woman Haters Club” from the beloved Our Gang/Little Rascals comedies, Freemasonry is almost entirely a male-only society. Some exceptions apply, but even though booze may flow freely at gatherings, you probably won’t find a “Ladies Nite” at this old boy’s club.
Another major rule stipulates not discussing politics or religion during official gatherings. Outside the lodge, however, is a different story. They can also openly tell people they belong to the brotherhood but just can’t divulge any details without risking never being seen alive again (more on that later).
The 3rd Degree
Freemasonry adheres to the old world traditions of using three workman grades to earn degrees in Craft (aka Blue Lodge): Apprentice, Journeyman (now called Fellowcraft) and Master Mason. Once these prerequisites are completed, members can pursue higher degrees in other bodies such as Scottish Rite.
But first, initiates are taught a series of life lessons centered around the construction of the Temple of Solomon and its chief architect, Hiram Abiff. While learning all about the legendary temple in Jerusalem and the man who built it, candidates are Initiated, Passed, and Raised.
The process also involves a blindfolding ceremony, representing the metaphorical transformation from darkness into light. These consecrated affairs are conducted by the Worshipful Master and feature liturgical-type apparel, regalia, and decorative aprons that even Liberace would find over the top.
A Papal Decree
The Masons have managed to make a lot of enemies through the years — which seems a bit ironic for an outfit dedicated to promoting tolerance and brotherly love. The Catholic Church tops this long list of haters with a grievance dating back to the early 18th century that continues to this day.
The Vatican didn’t appreciate these upstarts having secret meetings and wielding power — after all, that’s kinda their thing. So in 1738, Pope Clement XII condemned Freemasonry — a decree that has since been issued about 20 times.
Pope Leo XIII later went as far as labeling the group “the kingdom of Satan” with his famous encyclical in 1884. The pontiff known for social reform condemned their ilk as an evil force that undermined religion, weakened marriage, and leads to paganism. Furthermore, he added: “Let no man think that he may for any reason whatsoever join the Masonic sect.”
Animosity towards Freemasonry gained considerable traction during the U.S. Elections of 1828. Concerned citizens saw the organization’s growing political clout — as well as its secrecy and exclusivity — as being undemocratic in character. The backlash not only marked the beginning of the Two-Party System in America but saw the Anti-Masonic Party become the first third party to gain representation in Congress.
Two years earlier, a major scandal unfolded over the disappearance of William Morgan, a former Mason who planned to publish an exposé about the brotherhood. Speculation ran high that Morgan had been kidnapped and murdered to keep from revealing juicy secrets about the group. Although the whereabouts of Morgan’s body remained unsolved, the book was later published and became a bestseller.
The 1832 Presidential Election featured the Anti-Mason faction as the first political party to hold a national nominating convention. They chose William Wirt as their candidate to take on the incumbent and proud Mason, Andrew Jackson. Wirt, a former U.S. Attorney General, received 7.8% of the popular vote and carried only one state (Vermont). Running as a new Democrat, Jackson won easily in a race against his main rival, the perennial Kentucky statesman, Henry Clay.
By the late 1830s, Mason bashing had run out of steam. Several of the party’s most prominent politicians, including William H. Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, and future President Millard Fillmore would eventually join the newly formed Whig Party as the divisive issue of slavery became a far more important campaign platform.
With their tiny cars and red fez hats, it’s hard not to notice this rowdy bunch during a parade. However, despite their fun-loving ways, the troop is serious about its nationwide network of children’s hospitals, where all patients receive treatment free of charge. And yes, Shriners are Masons.
As the story goes, it all started back in 1870 when some brothers would meet for lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage in New York City. There, the men partied hearty while discussing hopes of someday forming an offshoot fraternity that was more fun and less formal.
One of the revelers, an actor named William J. “Billy” Florence, came up with an idea to create a new assembly based on an Arabian-themed party he attended while on tour in France. The thespian collaborated with fellow brother, Dr. Walter Fleming to found the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine — or Shriners for short. And word puzzle fans will appreciate that A.A.O.N.M.S. is a clever anagram for A MASON.
Today the charity is headquartered in Tampa, Florida with nearly 200 temples (chapters) worldwide.
Question: Which of the following buildings in Washington D.C. were designed by Masons?
A) White House
B) Capitol Building
C) Washington Monument
D) All of the Above
If you chose “D” — pat yourself on the back. They also built scores of other well-known structures, including the George Washington Masonic Memorial that overlooks the Old Town section of Alexandria, Virginia. The massive structure, built to resemble the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt, is dedicated to the memory of the cherished first U.S. President, Revolutionary War hero and virtuous non-liar, and who just happened to be a Mason, too.
Moreover, it’s worth noting there’s a direct brotherly connection to another famous American landmark: The Statue of Liberty. Frederic Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed the masterpiece, belonged to the Lodge Alsace-Lorraine in Paris.