Return of the Freemasons?

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Mr. Beneke is an assistant professor of history at Bentley College and the author of Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism (Oxford University Press, 2006).

If you live in eastern Massachusetts, you might have heard the advertisement on the radio or seen it on television.  I first encountered it on a local hard rock station as I parked by my neighborhood Dunkin Donuts.  An older, distinguished, male voice—it’s supposed to be Benjamin Franklin—speaks vaguely, but solemnly, about his own success and about the potential in me, his presumably young male listener.  A driving, Hollywood-style orchestral score plays in the background.  The distinguished voice decries partisanship and appeals to “Men of Tolerance.”  With a foot already out the door, I kept the car running and listened to the end.  On this Sunday morning when I should have been going to church rather than the office, Old Ben encouraged me to “ask.”  Ask who?  Ask a Mason.  The Freemasons were looking for new members.  Two hundred Harvard men had already joined.  Would I like to find out more?

I knew a little already.  I had read a portion of the growing body of historical work on Freemasonry (my favorite is Steven Bullock’s Revolutionary Brotherhood) and studied a number of texts penned by eighteenth-century Masons.  In many ways, the Masons embodied the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which represented a budding Western commitment to rational argument, religious ecumenism, and tolerance for dissenting opinions.  The Masons took seriously the enlightened ideas of liberty of conscience and the enlightened emphasis on locating points of common agreement.  They also emphasized moral discipline, public benevolence, and male friendship.  As it happens, two notable founders of our country, Ben Franklin and George Washington, were each sympathetic to Enlightenment thought, tireless advocates of personal virtue, and devoted Masons.  And they weren’t alone.

Like so many other fraternal societies of the last few decades, the Masons have fallen on hard times.  Their membership has aged and aspiring young Masons have proved hard to attract.  Allegations of deism and conspiratorial behavior have hounded the brotherhood for almost two centuries.  More recently, the organization has been confronted with yet another troubling accusation: racism.  Since 1787, when Prince Hall organized a separate African Lodge in Boston, African-Americans have generally met separately from their white brethren.  Though most non-African lodges welcome African-Americans these days, the pattern of segregation persists.  An October 23rd Associated Press report revealed that the trend toward mutual recognition by predominantly white lodges of predominantly black lodges has ended somewhere around the Mason Dixon line.  Reciprocal privileges don’t exist in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, or West Virginia.  The recent decision of North Carolina’s Grand Lodge to deny recognition to the state’s Prince Hall lodges brought newfound attention to the issue of race. (In fairness, 681 votes were cast for the measure and only 404 votes against, but the necessary 2/3 majority was not reached.)

Despite the setback in North Carolina, the Freemasons have been making significant strides toward transforming themselves and their image.  Since 1989, thirty-eight grand lodges have extended mutual recognition to their African-American brethren.  To bolster their membership more generally, some lodges have accelerated the promotion process for all candidates.  Others have opened their once mysterious halls to non-Masonic visitors (New York Times, October 4).  The advertising campaign here in Massachusetts seems designed to dispel myths about the organization while, at the same time, capitalizing on the surge in interest generated by Dan’s Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and the forgettable film, National Treasure.  Then there is Brown’s forthcoming fictional work, The Solomon Key, which will purportedly illuminate the role of Masonry in the founding of the nation.  For these reasons and more, the Freemasons seem to have chosen a propitious time for a revival. 

Should we welcome them back?  To be sure, the Freemasons won’t single-handedly restore the ideals of the Enlightenment.  Nor do the organization’s ads propose to do so.  In fact, the slick spots featured on www.askaFreemason.org focus on the potential “greatness in you,” which suggests that they might be more of a self-help, rather than a social improvement society—and we’ve got more than enough of the former.  Yet if you click around the site, you will discover the same venerable commitment to charity and brotherly love between men of different backgrounds.  Interestingly, the Massachusetts Grand Lodge gives subtle priority to racial brotherhood over religious and political brotherhood.  Freemasonry is, according to the website, “a fraternity; comprised of men from every race, religion, opinion, and background who are brought together as Brothers to develop and strengthen the bonds of friendship.”  Obviously that hasn’t always been the case.  It was religious inclusion—not racial inclusion—that distinguished the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Masons (think again of Washington, the slaveholding Mason).  The exclusively white faces featured in the television ads, as well as the continued separation of black and white lodges throughout the country, should also give a young man pause.  

Still, it may be time to give the Freemasons another look.  Outside of fantasy football leagues, there are few durable forms of male community around.  Chat room exchanges, golf outings, and water cooler conversations are a poor substitute for the collective benevolence and rational discussion that the Masons have long prided themselves on.  Moreover, in an age of religious extremism and racial distrust, we might benefit from the resurgence of a group that at least aspires to balance faith, tolerance, and brotherhood.  This surprised radio listener doesn’t have any immediate plans to become a Freemason himself (the Catholic Church currently forbids it) nor does he expect them to cure all that ails us, but he wouldn’t mind seeing a few more apron-clad Brothers around.  

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More Comments:

George Robert Gaston - 6/13/2007

Where were we? Did we go somewhere? Where are we returning from?

It is true that the Masons, along with other civic and fraternal organizations missed the baby boomers. I have been comparing notes with people I meet from lodges, and it seems that we are doing pretty well with “Gen Y”. I do not really know why, but it is true.

As to being welcomed back. We never went anywhere, and the question of race is being addressed on a lodge-by-lodge basis (as it should be). Anyone with the idea that a state wide (grand) Masonic jurisdiction could force a specific lodge to accept or reject someone on the basis of race does not understand the nature of the fraternity

And, by the way; it is a conspiracy. To have a little fun and get away from the ladies for a few hours a month.

Lorraine Ann Henneberry - 11/18/2006

My Father was a Freemason and a better man you would never find,if anyone wants to know anything about the craft they only have to read Laurence Gardner's book The Shadow of Solomon. I'm sick of all the ridiculous stories that are posted on the net, the only ones that lie and critize are the ones who aren't good enough to be accepted. The only critism I have is that they don't allow women. As yet.

Mark Allen Tabbert - 11/13/2006

Excellent article! As a Massachusetts Freemason, now the Director of Collections at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria VA, I must say this is one of the best pieces I've read in quite some time.
Prof. Beneke is absolutely right that Freemasonry in its earliest forms was dedicated to religious inclusion, but not racial. Sad to say racial inclusion has only happened in the last 20 years or so. Still, neither mainstream white Grand Lodges nor Prince Hall Grand Lodges wish integration. Private organizations are free to be private and peaceably assemble. It has been my great honor to have the Grand Master of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts visit my lodge in Arlington, MA, yet I would never presume to demand the same from him.

Freemasonry is essentially a self-improvement organization - not a self help. It seeks to make good men better, not bad men good. Inherent in its Enlightenment development is the belief that society improves as individual men improve themselves, living moral, pious and charitable lives. Freemasons are called to higher principles seeking to overcome provincial and narrow ideological, religious, ethnic and social differences. Certainly this is needed as greater friction is generated in political, religious, and other beliefs. Because Freemasonry has never had a religious creed or political ideology, it became subject to attacks or ridicule by zealots. Freemasonry believes there needs to be a neutral place for human beings to simply live together without agenda.

Regarding Mr. Decker's comments, Albert Pike was not a member of the KKK and in fact assisted Prince Hall Masons in their rituals. Furthermore, Albert Pike never had any power within Grand Lodges and never served as a Grand Master of any Grand Lodge.

Mr. Decker is correct that George Washington never served as a Grand Master or was overly active in Freemasonry. Yet, he is wrong to suggest Washington did not support Freemasonry or was not proud of his membership. Besides attending several Masonic events during the War for Independence he also presided over the Masonic ceremony to lay the cornerstone of the US Capitol and upon his death received a Masonic funeral service. To learn more I invite him and anyone to visit the George Washington Masonic National Memorial (www.gwmemorial.org)

Lastly, while some Confederate generals were Freemasons, so were many Federal Army generals. Same with the War for Independence, the First World War and for that matter there are Freemasons of nearly every political and religious belief in the world. It is widely known that Masons on both sides of many wars and conflicts rendered assistance to each other regardless of the cause they fought for.

My thanks again to Prof. Beneke for a thoughtful article.

Mark A. Tabbert

Ed Decker - 11/12/2006

Good article! You are correct in your observations about American White Freemasonry and the African-American lodges.

The Prince Hall Lodges will continue to stay separate, esp. since Albert Pike, the greatest American Masonic ritualist was also involved in the expansion of the KKK.

However you were off the mark with George Washington's zeal for the craft.

George Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Address, made it perfectly clear that he was opposed to Freemasonry and all it stood for:

“All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Further, Governor Ritner, in response to a communication from the Legislature of Pennsylvania, prepared a vindication of President Washington from the stigma of adherence to secret societies, in which he proved from authentic documents:

That in 1768 Washington had ceased regular attendance in the Lodge.

That in 1798, shortly before his death, his opinions were the same as thirty years before, when he was thirty-six years old.

That he was never “grand Master” or “Master of any particular lodge.
That in 1781, as appears by the record of King David Lodge, Newport, Rhode Island, it was agreeable to Washington to be addressed as a private Mason.

That all the letters said to be written by Washington to lodges are spurious.

Washington was initiated into Masonry when a young man, but in his mature years it was distasteful to him to be addressed as a Mason, and in reply to a letter from Dr. Snyder, declared that he had not been in a lodge of Masons but once in or twice in thirty years. He was to all intents and purposes a seceding Mason.

Aaron Burr and Benedict Arnold were good Masons, lived and died as such and so were nearly all the Southern generals of the War of the Rebellion, but to connect General Washington’s name with Freemasonry now is an insult to his memory and every honest and intelligent Mason knows it.

So Mote it Be.