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by Bro. S. BRENT MORRIS 33° G.C.

A Survey of the Literature Describing American Freemasonry

Presented to The August Scene

August 7, 1982, Deep Creek Lake, Maryland

 I don’t know that much about the Masons, but they sure make good Jars. 

Freemasons have many reasons for being interested in their public image. At a very basic, almost egotistical level we would like to think that we are admired by the community for our membership. Everyone likes to take pride in what they do and in the groups they belong to, and Freemasons are no exception. On a more involved organizational level, our outward appearance is directly responsible for our lifeblood—the initiation of new Masons. Unbiased by friends and uninfluenced by mercenary motives, a candidate freely and voluntarily presents himself for the mysteries of Freemasonry. He should be prompted to solicit the privileges of Masonry by a favorable opinion conceived of the Institution—our public image.

Several approaches can be taken in examining our public image. Ideally we’d like to carefully interview a large cross section of the population, and determine their feelings towards religion, politics, education, civic duty, organizations in general, and Freemasonry in particular. This method is both expensive and time consuming, and no Masonic organizations are yet interested enough in our image to support or fund such a study of the public. In fact, we’re not even particularly interested in knowing about our own members. This was recognized twenty years ago at the 1962 Conference of Grand Masters, by M.W. Brother Daniel C. Jenkins, Grand Master of Ohio, who observed that “one of our weaknesses … is our failure to analyze our membership by occupation, by talents, by education, and professional achievement.”[1] We are then left with what few examples of recorded public opinion that can be found, anecdotes, written reports on Freemasonry, and findings of other researchers. The ultimate goal of this paper is to duplicate the conclusions of an intelligent researcher who knows nothing about Freemasonry, but who does want to know what the people think about it.

There are occasional opportunities for a researcher to examine the popular opinions about Freemasonry, but they are so few that they can almost be ignored. Brother Dennis Treece reported in The Philalethes magazine about a radio talk show out of San Francisco that was devoted to Masonry.”[13] The host invited Masons to call in to tell him about the Craft and particularly about its “secrets.” I can only hope that few listeners tuned in, because the image presented was confusing at best.

Before describing the callers’ responses, it is worth commenting on the host’s conception of Freemasonry as a secret society. Now I know that it is an article of faith among Masons that ours is not a secret society, but a society with secrets. However, despite our continual pontifications, Webster’s definition of a secret society applies to Freemasonry (as well as to Odd Fellowship and to Elks and to others): “Secret Society—any of various oath-bound societies often devoted to brotherhood, moral discipline, and mutual assistance.” We must accept that a real part of our image is secrecy.

The callers to the talk show ran the gamut from sincere supporters to rabid detractors. Their common trait was an ignorance of Freemasonry, whether shown in a discussion of the profound importance of the Thirty-Second Degree or in a failure to appreciate that there is no uniform Masonic law in the United States or in a solemn debate on whether Freemasonry dates from King Solomon or the Garden of Eden. “The whole affair must have left everyone with the same impression: that Masons seem to know only a little more than anybody else about Freemasonry, and even they can’t agree on much.”[13]

The only case of a direct survey of the public that I am aware of is a Louis Harris poll, commissioned by the Imperial Council of the Shrine on attitudes towards the Shrine and knowledge of bum prevention.[7] While this was not a study of Freemasonry itself but of a major subdivision, it nonetheless gives us some important information and lets us make some inferences. The poll found that 90% of those contacted have heard of the Lions; 87%, the Shriners; 84%, the Masons and the Rotary; and 83%, the Kiwanis. Of those who had heard of Shriners, 55% agreed that they operated hospitals. This means that only 48% of adult Americans have heard of Shriners’ Hospitals. Considering the much higher visibility of the Shrine with their parades, circuses, public service advertising, and so on, we may conclude that most Masonic charities have even less recognition. To support this conclusion, I can add that in seven years in Maryland, I’ve met only one person who knew of Bonnie Blink, the Maryland Masonic home.

The visibility of Shriners and their connection with community service have earned them a generally good image: 75% of those sampled hold favorable opinions about the Shrine, 2% unfavorable, and 23% no opinion. Most of the unfavorable opinions are due to the perception that the Shrine is a discriminatory organization. Finally, 41% of the people agree that Shriners, are Masons, and 34% agree that they’re “secretive.” There is a large public awareness of Shriners, but little accurate information. It may be inferred that Freemasonry, with its broader activities and much less flamboyant affairs, is subject to greater misunderstandings than the Shrine. Having exhausted these few direct sources, our researcher must now find some other method to measure public opinion about Freemasonry.

Of the research methods available, anecdotal reports are the least trustworthy, unless in large numbers. Not only are such accounts unreliable, but they can lead to apparent contradictions. As an illustration of this, let me give you two brief examples. I worked with a fellow a few years ago whose cousin had received extensive orthopedic treatment at a Shrine Hospital. My colleague would sing the praises of the Shrine at the drop of a hat, and yet he had absolutely no interest in joining a Lodge. On the other hand, my very first exposure to Freemasonry after moving to Maryland produced a different image of the Shrine for me. I was taken aside and told just exactly which Temple blackballed “those people” and which other Temple had been taken over by “them.” While my enthusiasm for the Shrine in Maryland was cooled, my zeal for Freemasonry is unabated. With little effort, we can find dozens of other anecdotes—all interesting, perhaps amusing, but not very enlightening. For that reason, we’ll move on to some other research method.

It is appealing to look to press reports of the Craft to determine our external appearance, but the appeal is shallow. Certainly we don’t want to measure our public image by pictures of new officers nor by presentations of 50-year pins nor by announcements of ham and oyster suppers. We would hope that journalism offers a medium in which an accurate picture of Freemasonry can be had, but this isn’t always so. The American press rarely knowingly publishes false information, but by emphasizing only one facet of a complex story they can produce amazing distortions, both good and bad. Everyone has his favorite examples, and I’ll share two of mine with you.

When I was Master of Patmos Lodge in Ellicott City, Maryland, the Howard County Times used one-third. of their front page to describe the Lodge and our 157th birthday. Through an innocent misconception, the reporter stated that 200 Masons in tuxedos attended Patmos Lodge every meeting night, and had done this for over 150 years!

At the other end of the spectrum is the instance of the Rainbow Girls in Iowa a few years ago. An Assembly there had elected a local girl to membership, but was then told by the Supreme Assembly that she could not be a member because her mother was black. The furor over this racist and unmasonic act against a twelve year old girl made national news when it was reported by the wire services. What didn’t receive equal coverage was the almost immediate edict by the Grand Master of Iowa. He stated that the Supreme Assembly could either change its racist policies, or all Iowa Masons and Lodges would be forbidden contact with the Order of Rainbow.

Neither of these examples presents accurate images of the Craft, but they are representative of what the press considers “news.” We can console ourselves with the thought that most readers remember little of what they read, and then for only relatively short periods. The good as well as the bad images are lost in a fading blur of poor memories.

What then is our hypothetical researcher to do? Surveys of the Public have not been made, anecdotes are unreliable, and news coverage tends to emphasize the extremes or the utterly trivial. Perhaps resorting to encyclopedias or published declarations of principles will yield greater insight. This method, though, can trap the unwary.

Consider the case of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. To an uninformed observer, it is virtually indistinguishable from Freemasonry. Both orders have centuries old traditions from England. Each maintains orphanages and retirement homes. Both have appendant orders for the zealous, the convivial, and the family (though Freemasonry has more). The governments of both orders are similar, with local lodges and state grand lodges (though Odd Fellowship has a national Sovereign Grand Lodge which controls Grand Lodges as well as nearly all appendant bodies). Finally, the principles of “Friendship, Love, and Truth” differ from “Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth” more in wording than in meaning. Our researcher would be hard pressed to distinguish materially between the orders on the basis either of their organization or of their laudable purposes.

However, Freemasonry has grown by 35% since 1920 and Odd Fellowship has dwindled by 90%!9 Our rather recent complaints of a one percent national attrition per year for the last two decades pale beside the Odd Fellows’ staggering decline of 90% in 60 years. This frightening hemorrhage of the Odd Fellows’ membership can only be described as the dissolution of this noble Order as it once existed. Clearly then, knowledge either of external organization or of platitudinous principles gives no deep insight into a society.

A possibly better source of information is Masonic publications. By considering those subjects that receive consistent and wide coverage, we may get a better glimpse of the image we want to project. In this analysis, the Grand Chapter of Maryland must appear rather silly: we’re not willing to assess ourselves 250 per issue to deliver the quarterly Royal Arch Mason magazine to our Companions. The Knights Templar come through for the York Rite, however, and send their fine magazine to all Sir Knights. The Free State Freemason will not yield much in this type of study, though, as it is essentially a “house organ,” devoted primarily to telling what has been or what will be happening.

Pamela Jolicoeur and Louis Knowles in an article in the Review of Religious Research studied the Scottish Rite by this method.’ The dominant theme they found in the literature was that of raising “the level of understanding of the citizenry concerning the mythology of America, its origins and its enemies.” Almost 20% of the articles they sampled mentioned the American Constitution. One of the major issues they saw was a staunch defense of the Constitution and the identification of it as inspired by Masonic thought. This certainly goes enthusiastically beyond the Second Charge of Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723: “A Mason is a peaceable Subject to the civil power.…”

Unfaltering support for Americanism may be an image we want to project, but it is seen only by those who read our publications. Again we find another avenue of research unproductive (this time because our writings get such little public exposure). This leads me to what I consider to be the only meaningful measure of our public image: a description of the men who are Freemasons. At the 1966 Conference of Grand Masters, M.W. Brother Alexander Duff, Grand Master of Manitoba, said, “The profane world has no criteria by which to judge Freemasonry other than by the fruits produced by the Masonic lives of those who are members of our beloved Craft.”[2]

There may be few polls of popular opinion towards Freemasonry, but fortunately for our researcher there are several important studies of Freemasons; we will refer principally to three. The first is a survey of Texas Masons made in 1978 by the Committee on Printing of the Grand Lodge of Texas.’ It is flawed because it overemphasizes the responses of officers and of active Masons, and thus does not reflect the Craft as a whole. Next is the 1975 master’s thesis in geography of Brother Burton A. Kessler which looks at characteristics of Illinois counties that had large numbers of Masons in 1970. Finally, there is the detailed 1977 Grand Lodge survey of Kansas Masons conducted by Professor John Wilson of Duke University and Brother S. Brent Morris.[10, 14] While this latter study is the most far reaching and important, it too is flawed. Financial and organizational problems kept the return rate of the questionnaires at 37%. This means that some of their conclusions are only tentative.

Before dealing with this data, our theoretical researcher should consider one other factor: how well do studies in Illinois, Kansas, and Texas describe the Craft in Maryland? Certainly we don’t expect those reports to be as accurate a reflection of Maryland Masonry as an analysis of Delaware or New Jersey would be, but then the latter surveys have never been made. We’ll do the best we can with what we have, keeping in mind that Masonry in the Midwest may differ somewhat from Masonry in Maryland.

Sixty percent of the Masons sampled in Kansas were over 50, as compared to 35% of the general population in Kansas. This characteristic of age is supported by the Illinois study, and is probably explained by two factors. First, as suggested by the Louis Harris poll, Freemasonry usually attracts men who are well settled in their communities, and are thus older. Second, as Wilson noted, Freemasonry generates a more intense loyalty than voluntary associations in general, and tends to retain its members for life.

This lifelong loyalty is seen in the 62% of the Kansas respondents who had been Masons 20 years or more.

Masonry in Illinois, Kansas, and Texas is rural, with the Texas and Kansas studies showing that 46% and 20% of the Masons, respectively, live in towns of less than 5,000. This trend, however, is not seen in Maryland. The 1980 U.S. Census shows that less than 30% of the potential Masonic population lives in Baltimore City and County, but about 50% of Maryland Masons are from there. Masonry in Maryland, then, is more strongly urban than rural.

In Kansas and Texas, education and income figures for the Craft are nearly the same: less than 10% of the members had only an elementary education and over 50% had a college education; about 40% made from $10,000 to $20,000 per year and about 40% made over $20,000. Freemasons are thus much better educated and (allowing for the lower retirement income of many of our older members) wealthier than the population at large. In addition to the esteem associated with wealth and education, Kansas Masons were more than twice as likely to have a professional or managerial occupation than other citizens. However, there are signs of a declining socioeconomic status: adjusting for age factors, “Masons who joined prior to 1955 were 33% more likely to have managerial or professional jobs and 19% more likely to have obtained a college degree.”[14]

In Iowa in 1958 the average age at Initiation was 35, and in Wisconsin in 1957 it was 40.[3, 4] Empirical evidence suggests that the age is lower in Maryland now. The Texas results showed that 42% of those questioned (who by design were mostly active Masons) had been in the Craft 5–10 years. This was confirmed in the Kansas survey, where Wilson noted that “it seems as if, whatever the age of joining, becoming a member is followed by a flurry of activity which subsides over time.”[14]

Before concluding our research of the literature describing Freemasons, there are a few remaining facts that bear noting. They don’t really help with our profile, but they are too interesting not to repeat. The Texas report found that the more active a man was in Masonry, the less likely his sons were to join. Perhaps the sons are dissuaded by the many nights they see their fathers spend away from home and family? Still from Texas, 7% of Masons’ sons were in DeMolay, 26% of their daughters were in Rainbow, and 51% of their brothers were in Masonry. In Kansas, 12% of the Masons had been DeMolays, and 36% of their fathers had been Masons. Kansas Masons are rather inactive in collateral bodies: 48% belonged to none and 40% belonged to only one or two.

By this point, our hypothetical researcher is probably exhausted, but he now has the data before him to prepare his summary. Freemasonry is widely recognized and respected in the community, especially by older, well established residents. Most people are aware of its reputation for mutual assistance and somewhat less aware of its philanthropy (and this awareness probably comes from associating Masonry with Shriners). Rightly or wrongly, the Craft is seen as a secret society with vaguely discriminatory membership policies. Many people wrongly assume, at the least, that Catholics are barred from membership, if not that Masonry is actively anti-Catholic. Virtually none of the citizenry understands the government of Freemasonry, and most attach outlandish importance to the Thirty-second (and particularly the Thirty-third) Degree of the Scottish Rite. There is a small but dogged group in the public (and in the Craft) that associates Freemasonry with occultism and mysticism.

Freemasons tend to be older, wealthier, and better educated than the population at large. Most new Masons are in their early thirties, and the majority of the active core is in their early to mid-forties. Members are more likely to have professional or managerial jobs, and they have a tenacious loyalty to the Craft. In Maryland, Baltimore City and County produce proportionately more Masons than the rest of the state. In a Mason’s family, his brothers are as likely as not to belong to a Lodge, but his father is not as likely to belong, and a Mason’s sons are unlikely to be in DeMolay.

Freemasonry has always valued the virtues of silence and circumspection, and thus historically has maintained a low profile. By well-established and prudent custom, we do not participate in nor sponsor the types of activities people now associate with fraternal orders and community clubs. These factors plus the over half-century decline in fraternalism as an important part of American life have produced a situation where the public simply no longer is conscious of us.[11, 12] Despite these negative elements, Freemasonry is still well known and respected in the community. We may not be at the center of public attention, but we do have an enviable reputation and image we can take deep pride in.


1. Conference of Grand masters of Masons in North America. “What Can We Do as Masons to Give More Publicity to our Craft and Its Activities?” Proceedings, February 20–21, 1962, pp. 114–28. Washington: Conference of Grand Masters, 1966.

2. “What, if Anything, Can Be Done About the Lack of Interest in Masonry by Non-Masons?” Proceedings, Feb. 23–24,1966, pp. 85–103.

3. Delzell, Earl B. “Age and Occupational Statistics for Initiates of 1958 in Iowa.” Grand Lodge Bulletin, Grand Lodge of Iowa, A.F. & A.M., vol. 60, No. 5 (May 1959), pp. 131–32.

4. Grossenbach, Paul W. “What are the Causes for the Continuing Decline in Masonic Membership and What Remedies Can Be Suggested to Stop the Trend?” Grand Lodge Bulletin, Grand Lodge of Iowa, A.F. & A.M., vol. 60, no. 5 (May 1959), pp. 133–37.

5. Jolicoeur, Pamela and Louis Knowles. “Fraternal Associations and Civil Religion: Scottish Rite Masonry.” Review of Religious Research, vol. 20, no. 1 (1978), pp. 3–22.

6. Kessler, Burton A. “Some Geographic Aspects of Freemasonry in Illinois, 1970.” Thesis. Western Illinois University, 1975.

7. Louis Harris and Associates, Inc. A Study of Public Attitudes towards Shriners and the Shrine of North America and a Study of Family Knowledge and Behavior in Fire and Bum Prevention. Study No. 804,004. New York: Louis Harris, 1980.

8. Masonic Service Association. Crystal-Balling the Future, The Results of a 1978 Computer Survey of Texas Freemasonry. [Stewart M. L. Pollard, ed.] Silver Spring: M.S.A., 1979.

9. Morris, S. Brent. “A Fraternal Abstract of the United States: 1900–1980.” Manuscript, Columbia, Md., 1981.

10. Morris, S. Brent and John Wilson. “A Survey of Kansas Freemasons, 1977.” Manuscript, Duke University, 1978.

11. Morris, S. Brent. “Trends Affecting American Freemasonry.” [Maryland Masonic Research Society, February 6, 1982.] The Philalethes, vol. 35, no. 2 (April 1982), pp. 16–17.

12. Schmidt, Alvin and Nicholas Babchuk. “Trends in U.S. Fraternal Associations in the Twentieth Century.” Voluntary Action Research: 1973. David Horton, ed. Lexington Books, 1973.

13. Treece, Dennis P. “More Light in Masonry.” The Philalethes, vol. 35, no. 2 (Apr. 1982), pp. 18–19.

14. Wilson, John. “Voluntary Associations and Civil Religion: The Case of Freemasonry.” Review of Religious Research, vol. 22 (1980), no. 2, pp. 125–36.