Review of Freemasonry

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by Bro. J. Scott Kenney
Burns Lodge No. 10, Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia, Canada
Whiteway Lodge No. 8, Grand Lodge of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

So called "secret societies" are becoming an increasingly controversial topic in Western society, yet are very poorly understood. Groups like the Freemasons have been thrust into public awareness through popular books like the Da Vinci Code, films like National Treasure, and the recent Enigma series on Vision TV. In academia, this interest has been paralleled by a recent proliferation of research, the opening of institutes such as the Masonic Research Center at the University of Sheffield, and the recent International Conference on the History of Freemasonry in Edinburgh. Yet, the former tend to be caricatures, a playing to pervasive stereotypes for public consumption. The latter, on the other hand, tend to focus on historical, philological and (occasionally) more esoteric matters. Indeed, to the limited extent that a sociological focus exists in academic research, it largely involves the roles played by such groups in social history (e.g. fostering enlightenment ideals; providing mutual aid /social service before the welfare state), or gross overgeneralizations based on earlier times (e.g. Masonry and gender roles in the 19th Century). There has, however, been a paucity of work on the contemporary meaning of active social participation in these groups for the members themselves.


In my current research, I am attempting to correct this theoretical and empirical neglect. With attention to the social psychological literature in sociology, I am examining the bases for the ritualistic enactment of meaning and identity among contemporary Freemasons. Given that this group often emphasizes the learning by rote, and ritualistic enactment, of carefully scripted rites carrying varying, complex, and interconnected symbolic meanings, I am examining the potential meanings of such ritual practices for the self and identity of participants today.


Since September of 2006, I have been collecting data from Freemasons throughout Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Canada, and will continue to do so until the late Fall of this year. Thus far, I have spoken to 90 Craft Lodge Masons, almost equally divided between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. With the exception of 7 immigrants (including 3 ethnic minority members), and 18 men under age 50, they are, not surprisingly, a relatively homogenous group in terms of social background. They are largely white, middle class, Christian men in their 60's/70's with a wide variety of occupational backgrounds, but with more of an emphasis on the white-collar than the blue-collar. Of course, there have been a few interesting twists, and now that I am starting to get out of the urban areas into the countryside, this may change somewhat, but that’s the group I’ve been meeting thus far.


While I am still very early in my research, still engaged in data collection, and any kind of comprehensive analysis is some time away, I have been asked to share some impressions - and that’s what they are: impressions - of what I’ve been turning up this far. With this caveat in place, I will present a few brief thoughts on: (1) What Masonry means to its contemporary members; and (2) the role of ritual.


With regard to the first matter, I am finding that Masonry is very important to the men I have spoken to, and that, in one way or another, it all comes down to a transformative practice in relation to self. After all, one of the basic tenets of social psychology is that self is a social construct in continual development in mutual interaction with others. Of course, regardless of the relative homogeneity I spoke of, men come to Freemasonry with varying backgrounds and seek different things from the craft, but that’s the best way I can put it right now. This transformative aspect of the craft can be seen in four primary emphases or orientations to the craft by members: (1) Freemasonry as social engagement (e.g. a social outlet/stress relief, means of developing friendships, networking, and/or having “a night out with the boys”); (2) Freemasonry as a means of moral development and action (e.g. improving and regulating one’s ethical actions, engaging in organized caring and charitable works); (3) Freemasonry as administrative practice (e.g. overcoming shyness, learning to speak publicly, to participate in offices/committees, even quite possibly serving as an alternate status hierarchy); and (4) Freemasonry as a vehicle of self-exploration (e.g. providing symbolic tools for a spiritual/philosophical journey.) I would say that, at least as primary emphases, these fall in descending order of frequency, though, of course, the latter may merely be the most subtle in its expression (i.e.”the real secrets of Freemasonry can never really be spoken”).While these are not mutually exclusive, watertight categories, and there may well be other things that come to light as my research progresses, each of these involve the transformation or mutual construction of self in social interaction. It is on this two-way street that aspects of the old self are chipped away, while new ones emerge.


As for the second issue, it is the genius of Masonic ritual that, while it provides a core interactional framework, it maintains the ability to be many different things to different people. For the socially oriented Mason, for example, it gives him the opportunity to get out, to meet many people he would not otherwise have met, as well as provides a vehicle to converse freely with men with whom he otherwise would have little in common. Its emphasis on charity and ethical behavior gives men a core or standard to live up to, the ability to do more collectively than they would be able to alone, and the fear of losing the respect of their brothers should they do anything improper (e.g. many men emphasized that they had somehow “changed,” were now more considerate of others, less judgmental, somewhat more charitable (albeit quietly), and I heard more than a few stories of men who discontinued previous behaviors). For the man seeking speaking and administrative skills, perhaps even status he does not have outside, Masonry provides a private, supportive environment for practice and recognition. Finally, the multifaceted, interconnected strands of the Masonic ritual can be taken far deeper than the basic moral lessons that are apparent on the surface. Indeed, for those who want to privately move beyond the how to aspect, to delve beneath the surface moral meanings, the ritual provides an interesting and almost endless set of possibilities for free spiritual and philosophical investigation. This is because the extensive memory work inevitably involves more than repetition. To a greater or lesser extent, consciously or unconsciously, it involves digestion as well. In each of these cases, it is not so much what men do to make sense of the Masonic ritual. Rather, Masonry is the method. Such freedom, despite the practice of apparent rote learning, is, of course, one of the great ironies of the craft.


Running through the above is implicit the idea that at least three things have to be added together for any one of these broad sets of meanings to emerge: (1) what is in the ritual (and there are many versions); (2) the level/type of Masonic activity a brother is involved in; and (3) the Mason himself (reflective of his social background). The impact of the first factor is noted among Masons who travel to other jurisdictions and see familiar things done differently, often remarking that they got something different out of it as a result. The second factor is seen in the often differing experiences of officers and “benchers” (more often “social Masons”/ taking basic moral meanings, except for men who were once very active, but are now older and stepping back). The effect of the second factor is also seen in comments from officers that working different offices result in different perspectives on the ritual (e.g. serving as Senior Deacon and Master really seem to “pull together” meanings that were only partially evident to brethren before). Finally, the third factor, social background, was more significant than many men believed, but usually most evident to those somehow differing from the core group. For example, many men were quietly willing to recognize that a man’s educational background had an impact on how he interpreted the ritual, drew parallels, and read in analogies, at least initially (since many could also point to less educated brethren who had developed a deep knowledge over time). Fewer others considered that culture, religious, or occupational background might play a part (e.g. immigrants, Catholics, WWII bomber pilots: one of the latter, for example, interpreted the three degrees in terms of basic training, flight training, and aerial combat).Yet factors such as social class and race were largely not considered as significant to interpretation by respondents. This is despite the fact, for example, that traditionally (i.e. in the “old days”) respondents report that Masons were largely prominent people like bankers and lawyers, and part of the membership draw was to be “on the level” with them. As for neglecting race, this overlooks striking examples, such as one African-Canadian man who initially struggled over whether to join Masonry when he heard the traditional requirement that a candidate be “free-born” (nobody else even mentioned this wording). It is thus very important to be cognizant of Mason’s social background when considering the meaning derived from the ritual. While clearly more research and a comprehensive analysis is needed, paying attention to the various dimensions of Masons’ social background is, after all, simply another way of considering that “you get out of it what you put into it”.


But this third factor became evident in one more way that I feel is important to share. There were several men I spoke to who had suffered tragedies in their lives. Some had lost loved ones, others struggled with addictions, and still others had been afflicted with debilitating illnesses. To a man, they asserted that their engagement in Freemasonry had been their way to cope, a method to overcome, insofar as possible, the difficulties they faced in their lives (e.g. “It saved my life”). My impression was that it was not only the memorization work and ritual activity that helped them focus, to reconstruct themselves in a more coping form, but the social support, even sanctuary that they reported receiving that really helped in these cases (e.g. the man who, after being stricken by a disabling illness, was touched to find that his brothers quickly worked to make the Lodge wheelchair accessible). Thus, it is possible to add a fifth category of meaning and purpose to those above: Freemasonry as a means of coping/therapy.


There are many more impressions that I could share that are not touched on here (e.g. recruitment and retention of members, changing styles of Masonic education, meeting format, perceived problems, etc.). However, it is these core matters that I feel are most relevant to the transformative power of Freemasonry for its members. In many respects, older, less desired aspects of the social self (e.g. those that were variously isolated, administratively unskilled, coping poorly, spiritually uncertain, or felt in need of moral work) are sacrificed in ritual social interaction, at a pace, and to an extent, chosen by each. Meanwhile, at the same time, a new self, new identities, indeed a new man is continually rebuilt, even reborn. This is a self that is more morally and socially engaged, charitable, administratively skilled, spiritually aware, and capable of coping with a variety of difficulties. Ultimately, however these aspects develop - and what their relative weighting is in an individual case – a Freemason is a man that increasingly takes his obligations to others, to himself, to his God, and to his community much more seriously indeed.

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