Freemasons are a mystery to most of us, both literally and figuratively. As I started researching for this piece, I couldn’t help but think about the National Treasure movies and all the references to Masonic symbols and teachings. The journey to the treasure, with all its cryptic symbols, is captivating and engaging. The Freemasons are the largest secret society (more like fraternity) in the world and associated with some of the most elusive conspiracy theories. Current estimates put membership at two to six million members worldwide.
The group began in the Middle Ages with the guilds of stonemasons and cathedral builders. These guilds were formed to protect the interests of the profession and offer aid to mutual craftsmen. They began to meet in what we now know as lodges (fun fact: every state in the US has a Masonic Grand Lodge, including the District of Columbia). The first lodge was created in London in 1717. As cathedral building declined, however, they inducted honorary members to boost membership; it was from some of these lodges that Freemasonry as we know it evolved.
Despite what some believe, the Freemasons are not a Christian brotherhood, although some of their basic beliefs mimic Christianity. The three required tenants of membership are 1) You must be a male (most traditions), 2) You must believe in a Supreme Being, and 3) You must believe in the immortality of the soul. Their beliefs actually contain many elements of religion: morality, charity, and obedience to the law of the land.
There was significant religious opposition to the group from the beginning, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. It was rumored that there was a connection to the Knights Templar, a religious military order developed to protect Christians during their pilgrimage to the Holy Land around the time of the Crusades. There was no truth to this; there were no Templars left when the organization was formed. With so much mystery surrounding the group, Pope Clement XII issued the Catholic Church’s first decree against Freemasonry in 1738. It is still in effect today.
Conspiracy theorists have had a field day with the Freemasons; they have linked them to the Illuminati, suggested they are a cult and charged them with starting the American Revolution. UCLA history professor Margaret Jacob is one of the world’s leading experts on Freemasonry, and she has put some of those rumors to rest. Symbols such as the all-seeing eye and the pyramid found on the back of the dollar bill have been linked to conspiracy theories for many years, but Professor Jacob says those images were perfectly common in the eighteenth century.
The secrecy and rituals surrounding the meetings have made for much speculation and interesting suppositions. For example, if you discover the secret handshake of the Masons, would you be killed? The promise of a Mason is not to reveal the rituals and secrets to a nonmason; it is his integrity and has nothing to do with punishing outsiders. By the way, the answer is no. And what with the altar in the center of the room? Interestingly enough, the mystery is what lures new recruits, many coming from the younger generation in recent years. A petition must be made to the lodge of choice, and if the man is found to be of good character, a vote will be taken and the new member inducted. We can thank movies like The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure for some millennials taking interest in the group.
Regardless of your take on the legitimacy of the Brotherhood itself, the Freemasons have become an enigma in America just as they were in the Middle Ages. We have the desire to always be “in the know” about anything and everything we wish. Mystery, suspense, intrigue…it will forever be in our DNA to get the scoop. But if we don’t? Well, I suppose we’ll just have to create our own.
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