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by Bro. S. BRENT MORRIS 33° G.C.
THE PUBLIC IMAGE OF FREEMASONRY
Presented to The August Scene
7, 1982, Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
don’t know that much about the Masons, but they sure make good Jars.
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
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.” 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
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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. 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
lifelong loyalty is seen in the 62% of the Kansas respondents who had been
Masons 20 years or more.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
“What, if Anything, Can Be Done About the Lack of Interest in Masonry by
Non-Masons?” Proceedings, Feb.
23–24,1966, pp. 85–103.
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.
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.
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.
Kessler, Burton A. “Some Geographic Aspects of Freemasonry in Illinois,
1970.” Thesis. Western Illinois University, 1975.
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.
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.,
Morris, S. Brent. “A Fraternal Abstract of the United States: 1900–1980.”
Manuscript, Columbia, Md., 1981.
Morris, S. Brent and John Wilson. “A Survey of Kansas Freemasons, 1977.”
Manuscript, Duke University, 1978.
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.
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.
Treece, Dennis P. “More Light in Masonry.” The
Philalethes, vol. 35, no. 2 (Apr. 1982), pp. 18–19.
Wilson, John. “Voluntary Associations and Civil Religion: The Case of
Freemasonry.” Review of Religious
Research, vol. 22 (1980), no. 2, pp. 125–36.