The Truth About the Freemasons- The Not-So-Secret Secret Society

Ask people to note conspiracy theories they’ve heard of, and inevitably you’ll hear the name Freemasons brought up. Our conceptions of them are influenced by arcane symbols on the American greenback and older government buildings, vague conjectures of their involvement in revolutions, wacky fringe radio hosts rambling about conspiracy theories, and popular culture. Freemasonry is featured in high school standards of literature like Edgar Allen Poe’s Cask of Amontillado to throwaway airport novels like Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol. Well, put on that tin foil hat and your best ceremonial robes; today we break down some myths about the Freemasons, who this group are, and what they actually do.

To begin with, Freemasons are simply a fraternity organized into lodges around the world. They focus their efforts on the moral cultivation of members of the club. This goal is achieved through initiations and rituals, with the individual over time moving up ranks, called degrees. These degrees can vary between lodges, but the Freemasons started with three degrees. Lucky for us, ritual origins and meanings are discussed in detail in Freemason literature available for public consumption. In fact, what might surprise you is that, for a so-called secret society, many of their rituals, doctrines, and day to day ongoings are not actually secret at all. Masonry publications go back to the 18th century and continue openly to this day. Periodicals, magazines, books, websites, and so much more open media are put out by Freemasons for other Freemasons and the general public. Of course, our obvious overlords could make up anything, so even if you do not want to take their word for it, we have primary sources and ritual objects recovered from anti-Masonry purges by various regimes to attempt to verify the public stories. Combined, all of these publications and the surviving post-cold war references are great sources for academic Freemasonry studies.

So what do we know for sure? While conspiracy theories and the Freemason’s own founding myths place them at a much earlier point in history, the first lodge was probably founded in the 1710’s. We don’t know when exactly, but internal Masonry sources claim the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster was the original. At first, Freemasons gathered in pubs, cafes, and other public establishments, even later naming their lodges after these locations. As to what they got up to, the first Freemasons discussed the evolving philosophies and scientific discoveries ushered in during the Enlightenment among many other similar things. The Grand Lodge of London and Westminster was the superior lodge during the early era. By the mid 18th century Freemasonry was widespread all over Europe. In lock step of this spread was this so-called secret society’s not so secret practice of widespread Freemason publications, including such well publicized works meant to elucidate rules and rituals for Freemasons like their constitution in 1723, and explanations of rituals in 1730. Both publications helped many prospective members understand Freemasonry before trying to join up, though even in the early days these publications were used by its opponents to attack them.

While this late dating might surprise many, the Freemasons drew on older masonry guilds and fraternities in various ways. Most pertenately in medieval times these guilds took care of skilled workers who cut designs into stone, rather than laying stones. In the renaissance with the flourishing of Hellenic philosophy and architecture, the guilds evolved to incorporate classical and philosophical elements as their craft evolved. The Renaissance also saw a flourishing of Esotericism in Europe- a form of spirituality that includes striving for spiritual knowledge on an individual level. Jewish Kabbalah, which included mystical readings of the Hebrew Bible, became Christianized in Renaissance circles. Other esoteric currents important in the founding of Freemasonry included the Hermetic tradition stemming from Gnosticism, and Rosicrucian fraternities based on a stream of esoteric Christianity. These fraternities and circles allowed laymen access to a form of Christian mysticism that would be hard to obtain outside of Monastic orders. Eventually nonoperative members, meaning non-masons would join the masonry guilds to discuss Hellenic and esoteric currents until we had the fraternal organization the Freemasons would grow out of in the early 18th century.

All this said, Freemasons allege a much earlier history for themselves, with ties to biblical events influenced by Christian Kabbalah. They see their origins in the building of Solomon’s Temple. The Temple architect, Hiram, was commissioned by Solomon to design and build his Temple. Freemasons allege he was murdered by some of the workers because he wouldn’t give them God’s true name. These workers buried him outside of said Temple. Solomon sent Hiram’s freemason associates to find him, which they did after some time and reburied him in the Holy of Holies, or the Sanctum Sanctorum, the area in the Temple where only priests could enter and see God. The Hiramic origin plays an important part in Freemason rituals. The initiate, who takes the role of Hiram, is symbolically murdered, buried, and rediscovered by his Freemason peers then symbolically interred in the Holy of Holies.

Another mythic origin ties the Freemasons to the Knights Templar. Accused of heresy by the Catholic church as secret Satanists, for Freemasons, they helped bring the legend of Hiram to Europe, and merge with the Scottish mason fraternities when they returned home. This supposed connection was later one of many contributing factors to their persecution by Church authorities, with the Freemasons being accused of worshipping the same demon as the Templars: the goat headed Baphomet.

On top of this, the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches had many complaints against the Freemasons, such as their ritual of swearing oaths to superiors outside the church. For many governments, this semi-secretive nature was also a sticking point since every year more people in power professed to be Freemasons. Government regulations or outright bans began in the late 18th and early 19th century, as did Papal condemnation of the organization.

The most famous reaction against Masonry in the United States was the Morgan Affair in 1826. William Morgan, an anti-Mason publisher, disappeared, with Freemasonry being blamed for his death. The affair sparked the founding of the Anti-Masonic Party, one of America’s first significant third parties with membership by the likes of John Quincy Adams. Another extreme reaction to Freemasonry was an outright ban in Russia in 1822. Furthermore, the French revolution is often blamed on the Freemasons in conspiracy circles, which is ironic because Freemasonry was also accused by French revolutionaries for being a haven for the Bourgeoisie.

Of course, no discussion of Freemasons is complete without discussing the illuminati. Yes, the Illuminati existed, and no they were not Freemasons. The Illuminati were formed in 1776 in Bavaria by Adam Weishaupt. The difference between the two groups is simple: the Illuminati were political radicalists, while the Freemasons more or less remained apolitical. The Illuminati did use Freemason-like rituals and iconography, but they remained very distinct. The Illuminati’s goals were to radically reform Central European society with enlightenment ideals. Radicalism was the Illuminati’s downfall as the German speaking states recognized them as a threat and suppressed them by 1787, but that did not stop the conspiracy theories. After the French revolution, Scottish natural philosopher John Robinson and French ex-Jesuit Augustin de Barruel published similar theories concerning the French Revolution in 1789. Both claimed the Illuminati infiltrated the French Freemasons and caused the French Revolution. In the end, French Freemasonry would almost disappear under the revolution until Napoleon Bonaparte revived it as an attempt at state religion.

Another unfortunate elephant in the room is the connection between the Freemasons and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Originating from the fiercely anti-Masonic czarist regime in 1903 Russia, the Protocols are a hoax alleging a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. In the Protocols, Freemasonry is depicted as a tool of the so-called Jewish conspiracy. The irony of antisemitism and anti-masonry is that many lodges did not allow Jewish initiates. Nevertyheless, this antisemitic strain of anti-masonry continues to this day among conspiracy theorists.

This brings us around to the political slant. Although apolitical, charges of aiding colonialism are a common critique against the Freemason. Whether this charge holds up completely is a complicated legacy as some anti-colonial resistance movements were led by colonized Masons. For example, Emir Abdelkader <E-meer Ab-dool-kaa-dir>, Algeria’s national hero, became a Freemason during his exile in Syria. Reformers and resistance leaders associated with Egyptian independence like Muhammad Abduh <Abdoo>, Jamal al-Din Afghani, and Saad Zaghlool <Zag-lool> are also Freemasons. There are lodges in Africa, the Middle East, and India founded during colonial expansion with native members. In the end, Freemasonry simply allowed people from different ethnicities and religions to congregate and work together. This allowed ideas of national independence to spread amongst like-minded colonized Freemasons and political activities resulted.

Continuing with the quasi-political slant, across the pond in America, Prince Hall Freemasonry refers to African American lodges. Prince Hall was a black abolitionist who sought to become a Freemason and opened his own lodge for fellow black Freemasons, but this was rejected by white American lodges. He thus went outside of the United States to charter his lodge with the United Grand Lodge in London in 1784. On this note, tension between lodges of different ethnicities was known to be an issue in colonial times, such as that English Freemasons looked down on Irish lodges in America and Australia.

Further, some lodges only allow Christians to be initiated. This brings us to the surviving Masonry split between the United Grand Lodge of England and Wales and the Grand Orient de France. Freemasonry has seen splits before, hence the inclusion of the word United in the United Grand Lodge which formed in 1813. This particular split happened when the Grand Orient allowed the inclusion of atheists into Freemasonry in 1877. The United Grand Lodge allows anyone who professes faith in a Grand Architect to join, even encouraging the inclusion of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India. This split is still maintained today, as one has to profess a belief in the Grand Architect of the Universe to join a lodge under the United Grand Lodge of England and Wales.

Another issue that separates the two is the inclusion of women. For the United Grand Lodge, no affiliation is given to mixed or female exclusive lodges. Ever rife for outside critique, many noted this stance didn’t exactly live up to the Enlightenment ideals of egalitarianism held dear by the Freemasons. Eventually the French Freemasons listened to such complaints, and now female lodges are generally accepted by the Grand Orient. Female lodges can range from having slightly different rituals than the male lodges to incorporating new rituals that tie the female initiate to biblical tales of Noah’s daughters-in-law helping to build the Ark, rather than the purely male association with Hiram. However, to this day, the United Grand Lodge still does not admit women, or recognize female and mixed lodges.

Regardless of English or French affiliation, all lodges operate very similarly. The lodges have masters and officers. They keep records of members and initiations, and organize the running of the lodge, and collect fees. The fees are used to run the lodge and put on events, generally centered around helping the local community and charities, with some lodges emphasizing the charitable aspect more than others. They also use this money to put on cultural events for the public such as operas and art shows. Lodges even hold concerts, including modern genres like rock, pop, and rap.

As for their scope, Grand lodges oversee a territory that can encompass a country, or in the case of larger countries like the United States, a subset region.

This all brings us around to inter lodge relations, which contrary to what you might expect from a supposedly unified globally dominating secret society, are a complicated affair as generally lodge members are encouraged to NOT visit other lodges, but it does happen. Beyond this, the grand lodge makes and enforces rules about these issues that are ignored or upheld depending on the individual lodge. As you might be gathering from all of this, in all, Freemasonry is somewhat decentralized. Irregular and quasi-Masonic lodges might be stand-alone without a governing body or have a separate governing body outside of the English and French lodges.

In the end, a supposedly cohesive, global secret society that isn’t so secret is a strange contradiction, not to mention that contrary to popular perception their internal affairs are surprisingly decentralized and incohesive in many senses, making their supposed world domination and control even more suspect. But regardless, despite their best efforts to be transparent, and their history of charitable causes and community supporting events and deeds, conspiracy theories still inform the public discourse about the Freemasons. Reputable resources about Freemasonry are available, and the barrier of access is lower than you might think, but that’s never stopped conspiracy theorists from ignoring such and just coming up with whatever ideas in their head that fit their world view anyway. Facts schmacks, grand conspiracies are much more interesting.

Expand for References

Bogdan, Henrik Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

Harland-Jacobs, Jessica L. Builders of Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism 1717-1927. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007

Jacob, Margaret C. The Origins of Freemasonry. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Kudsi-Zadeh, Albert. “Afghānī and Freemasonry in Egypt.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 92, no. 1, American Oriental Society, 1972, pp. 25–35.

Önnerfors, Andreas. Freemasonry: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Révauger, Cécile. Black Freemasonry. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2015.

Sommer, Dorothe. Freemasonry in the Ottoman Empire. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 2015

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