Masons try to be esoteric, relevant

The Record, New Jersey/October 22, 2007

The Masons are a secret society -- and they're totally open about it.

Any visitor can go to, say, the Alpine Tilden Tenakill Lodge No. 77 in Tenafly and see the two Greek columns -- one on either side of the meeting room door -- overlaid with Egyptian and Roman motifs, and topped by globes depicting the Earth and the cosmos.

But what the columns are called, what they mean and what part they play in Masonic ritual -- shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

"Everything has a name, but I can't say what it is," says Clive Pearce of Haworth, past master of the lodge.

In 1985, Pearce passed between these columns for a ritual in front of an audience of 50 "brothers," and set to the strains of music written specially for the occasion 200 years ago by brother Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Ninety minutes later, he walked out an apprentice Mason – the first of three "degrees" of Masonry.

"It's like a play acted out with symbolism," says Pearce, 55. "It's very interesting and meaningful."

But no one, other than a Mason, knows the precise meaning.

That hasn't prevented lots of people from guessing. Thanks to movies like "National Treasure" (2004) and "The Da Vinci Code" (2006) and various conspiracy Web sites, everybody now thinks he knows what a Mason is.

Masons, you will learn from these sources, are (a) an international conspiracy, linked to the Knights Templar, that guards the true identity of Mary Magdalene; (b) a secret society bent on world domination; (c) a group that protects a vast treasure horde buried by the Founding Fathers in 1776; and (d) Satanists.

None of these notions has the least truth to it, says Frederick J. Eilert, past master and current secretary of Eclipse Lodge No. 259 in Rutherford.

"If I knew where there was money at the bottom of a church, I'd be down there with suitcases," says Eilert, 65.

But he does credit such fantasies with sparking revived interest in the group.

Pamphlets, bumper stickers ("to be one, ask one") and license plates are part of a drive, now four or five years old, to capitalize on new interest in the old organization. One thing that's not secret about the Masons is that the membership, like that of most service organizations, is getting a little long in the tooth.

Between 1959 and 2007, U.S. membership in the Masons has dwindled from 4.1 million to 1.5 million (and U.S. members account for roughly half of the world's Masons). Today, the best that can be said is that the decline has begun to level off.

"We're not seeing positive numbers, but we're seeing slower negative numbers," says national Masons spokesman Dick Fletcher.

Amid a forest of Elks, Moose, Lions and other service organizations, the Masons occupy a unique place.

The group has a fabled past, one that is said to stretch back to at least the 14th century and has included some of the greatest artists, statesmen and thinkers in human history. Mozart, Beethoven, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were all Masons. So were Duke Ellington, Voltaire, Rudyard Kipling and both President Roosevelts.

Worldwide fraternity

Today's Masonic lodges, descendents of the original Masonic Grand Lodge founded in England in 1717, resemble the Rotary Club or Knights of Columbus more than the exalted Temple of Light – the thinly disguised Masonic temple that figures in the climax of Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute." Masons do charitable work, raise scholarship money, run learning centers for dyslexic children, and offer boys-night-outs to what is still, in 2007, an all-male membership.

Yet the group has a mystique.

"You go on a cruise boat or something like that, and all of a sudden, you're meeting guys from Turkey or India or Africa or England, and you have this thing in common," Pearce says.

Yarns of Masonic blood being thicker than water are part of the lore of the group.

There are stories of Union Masons who sought -- and received -- burial in Confederate Masonic cemeteries, and of Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East finding common ground in Masonic lodges.

The universal connection between men, regardless of race or culture, is one of the keystones of Masonic philosophy. Or as Masons put it: "The brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God."

But what really provokes people about the Masons is not what they profess, but what they don't profess.

The mysterious handshakes, passwords and grips; the secret voting on members using white or black balls (hence the term "blackballed"), and the rituals that surround the three "degrees" of the "craft" -- apprentice, fellow and master mason -- have led to endless and sometimes sinister speculation.

Extreme conspiracy theorists talk of phalanxes of Masonic black helicopters that can be brought forth, from hidden bunkers under St. Louis' Union Station, to subdue America at a moment's notice.

"There are two basic groups of people who oppose [Masonry]," says Fletcher, the national spokesman. "One is conspiracy theorists. The other is religious extremists. They claim you can't be a Christian and a [Mason]. And they quote from the Bible."

Once in a while, an incident will occur that calls the group into question. In August 2004, a Long Island inductee was fatally shot in the face -- apparently by mistake -- during one of the ceremonies.

No Masonic ritual, to his knowledge, involves a gun, Pearce says. But it's also true that rituals vary, to some extent, from place to place. "Since there's so much stuff that's not written down, the ritual changes," he says.

Secret handshakes

Only a secret cadre of 5-percenters within the Masons, according to fundamentalist Christian Web sites run by Ed Decker and David Bay, are privy to the real – Satanic – truth of the order. But even Christians who don't go that far are sometimes wary of the group.

"Their secret oaths and rigmarole and programs are not exactly what Christians should be doing in general," says the Rev. Noah Hutchings, president of the Southwest Radio Church Ministry in Oklahoma City.

Far from being anti-religious, Masons require a belief in a supreme being as a key condition of membership. And, of course, many Masons are Christian.

"We're not a cult, we're not even a religion, we're a fraternity," Eilert says.

But it is also true that the Masons, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, did much to spread Enlightenment ideas worldwide -- one of the reasons that intellectuals and artists were drawn to them.

Paradoxically, the Masons -- otherwise known as Freemasons, or Free and Accepted Masons -- began as a workingman's group.

Passwords, handshakes, grips and signs are likely holdovers from the medieval masons' guilds from which the group sprang, Fletcher says.

"If you were a guild member, and there was a job available and you had the skills, you were entitled to it," Fletcher says. "But how do you prove you're a guild member? You're on a job site, miles away from home. There are no faxes, no phones. But if you've been taught a grip, or a word was whispered in your ear, you can identify yourself."

By the 18th century, the trappings of Masonry took on a largely symbolic meaning. The carpenter's square and compass, the universal symbol for the Masons, came to signify ethical squareness and a moral compass. Such everyday phrases as "I'm being square with you" and "I'm on the level" originated with the Masons.

Women's branch

Over the centuries, a wide range of people have been accepted into the Masonic fraternity – including, from an early period, Jews and black members (though tensions within the group caused African-American members to split off into their own "Prince Hall" lodge in 1813; the schism only ended seven years ago).

The one group that continues to be excluded is women.

While a splinter group -- the Eastern Star -- admits women, the main organization remains male-only.

"We are a fraternity," Fletcher says. "Just as women belong to sororities, men belong to fraternities."

Some open secrets

Top Mason symbol: The compass and square, with the initial "G" at the center to signify God.

Top Mason garment: The apron (worn during ceremonies).

Top Mason movie: "National Treasure" (2004).

Top Mason story: "The Man Who Would Be King" (1888), by Rudyard Kipling.

Top Mason opera: "The Magic Flute" (1791), by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Top Mason rumor: That the pyramid and eye, the U.S. Great Seal featured on the back of the $1 bill, is a Masonic symbol. Probably not -- despite the fact that several Founding Fathers were Masons. It seems likely the designers of the Great Seal and the Masons took their symbols from parallel sources, says a 1976 State Department publication.

Famous Masons:

  • "Buzz" Aldrin
  • Irving Berlin
  • Ty Cobb
  • Davy Crockett
  • Cecil B. DeMille
  • Jack Dempsey
  • Henry Ford
  • Clark Gable
  • Barry Goldwater
  • John Hancock
  • Burl Ives
  • Andrew Jackson
  • Marquis de Lafayette
  • Fiorello La Guardia
  • Charles A. Lindbergh
  • Douglas MacArthur
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Arnold Palmer
  • J.C. Penney
  • John Philip Sousa
  • Harry S. Truman
  • John Wayne

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