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.

“People may develop quite different notions of “time,” but some appreciation...seems fundamental to many aspects of the human condition. Ethnographically rooted examinations of people’s perceptions, definitions and uses of time...merit greater attention on the part of social scientists”

Robert Prus (1997:114)


The issue of the past - its events, activities, glories, symbolism, and implications - lies at the very heart of Freemasonry. Freemasons place a high premium on history, and not only glory in their own alleged role in historical events, but attempt to draw links between their institution and notable institutions, societies, and personages in the past (e.g. the building of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem). Of course, as has been pointed out many times, much of this “historicizing” is spurious at best. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the significance of such flights of historical fancy for participants, nor their meaningful actions.


To help shed light on this issue, among others, early in 2005 I negotiated unrestricted access to extensive video footage shot, with written consent, for the documentary film “Inside Freemasonry”(Arcadia Entertainment/Vision TV, 2004). This consisted of 58 videotapes shot during the fall of 2003 containing detailed interviews and discussions with 27 individuals (21 Freemasons, 3 journalists, 2 spouses & 1 academic). Furthermore, as an active participant in this film, I engaged in a lengthy roundtable discussion with 3 Freemasons and 2 journalists, in addition to providing a detailed interview to the producers regarding my own experiences in Freemasonry. Most of these data concern the experiences of Freemasons and their views on the role and meaning of Freemasonry in contemporary society. I transcribed these data, analyzed them for common themes, and soon discovered much of interest related to the role of the past in contemporary Freemasonry that I would like to share.


Theoretically, perhaps the best way to frame the broader issues that emerged is through George Herbert Mead’s theory of the past. In The Philosophy of the Present (1932), among his other works, Mead outlines the significance of temporality in relation to the present. Maines et. al. (1983) succinctly elaborate Mead’s position, noting that while the present always implies a past and future, our reality is always that of a present (1983:161). As such, “no matter how far we build out from the present, the events that constitute the referents of the past and future always belong to the present” (1983:161). Ultimately, then, neither the past nor the future have existence in and of themselves, but are important components of the present. Naturally, in all this Mead does admit to a certain aspect of irrevocability to the past, but insists that it has no significance apart from its relation to the present (1983:162).


Elaborating further on this point, Maines et. al. (1983) outline four dimensions of the past implied in Mead’s work - dimensions, as we shall see, that are very relevant to Freemasonry: (1) the symbolically reconstructed past (i.e. “redefining the meaning of past events in such a way that they have meaning in and utility for the present”); (2) the social structural past (i.e. the past that structures and conditions the experiences found in the present); (3) the implied objective past (i.e. some event had to have taken place in order to exist in present experience as a past event); and, perhaps most significantly, (4) the mythical past: “Symbolic creations which are used to manipulate social relationships. These pasts are creations, rather than re-creations, because they are not empirically grounded. They are fictitious. However, they are empirical in their consequences because they can materially affect relationships” (1983: 164).


Mead’s general point about the present being the reality against which the past is defined is significant, as any characterization of the past (e.g. as “noble,” “natural,” or uniquely “legitimate”) has important social implications for the present (e.g. in terms of prioritized moral behaviors, social hierarchy). Here I will briefly elaborate on each of these dimensions in relation to Freemasonry to explicate their social implications more fully.


First, in relation to the symbolically reconstructed past, it is clear that Freemasons redefine the meaning of past events in such a way that they have meaning in and utility for the present. For example, some emphasize their perceived role in social history (e.g. alleged involvement in the American and French revolutions), in order to underscore their advocacy of a liberal conception of civil society (Joliocoeur and Knowles, 1978). For example, one man commented that Freemasonry provides a “balance” whenever authoritarian tendencies becomes strong, adding:


I like to think of Masonry as sort of an historical fire-ax. Like, ‘break glass in case of fire.’ So, if you’re in some really hard times, like I believe the Western world was in the early 18th century, Masonry can come along and do some really good stuff. Just by talking about things like liberty, equality, faith, hope, charity, fraternity. You know, these are some quality things when things are looking bleak...In the 18th century the glass got broken and a lot of change got brought about through the influence of men who were also Freemasons.


In a less open fashion, it has been argued that, in the 19th century, Masons held fast to their alleged emergence from medieval stonemasons guilds, and their corresponding glorification of the independent craftsman, to both provide a symbolic and spatial haven (Hetherington, 1997), even a sense of independence against the increasing domination of industrial capitalism in the workplace (Clawson, 1989).


Among the Freemasons who provided data for this paper, the symbolically reconstructed past was perhaps the most commonly expressed of Mead’s categories. Though it took myriad forms, I will only describe two of them here: first in respect of how they relate to respondents’ views of the current state of Freemasonry, secondly in relation to their own personal lives.

With regard to the craft itself, there was first the frequent claim that Freemasonry’s current “membership problem” has much to do with its change from a very public, community-oriented organization before the Nazi persecutions of WWII to a very secretive, closed-in one thereafter - a public relations stance that the craft kept until very recently to its detriment. This historical reconstruction pays little attention to the surge in membership after the war despite the secrecy, the fact that this pattern also occurred in countries not under the immediate threat of invasion,  does not consider changes in social structure and societal patterns of leisure activity, nor attend to role of the ritual and oaths of secrecy. Nevertheless it tends to come up in relation to a claim - disputed by some traditionalists - that Freemasonry needs to be more open about its activities in the community and what it stands for in order to recruit members. In the words of one man:


Freemasonry in England spent 40 years in the shadows.  Really we shot ourselves in the foot after the end of the war.  Freemasonry was very visible in the community up to the mid to late 30s.  When the Freemasons here saw what was happening to Freemasons in Hitler’s Germany, they were frightened there was going to be an invasion, frightened the same thing would happen here, so they retreated underground. And of course there was always that whole thing about walls have ears.  Everybody became very secretive at that time. And in 1945 when the war ended, for some strange reason they didn’t come out of the shadows. They stayed where they were. Before the war there were two Masonic newspapers on sale in the news stands. And every time a public building was consecrated, the foundation stone was laid, there would be a procession of Freemasons in regalia up to the mid to late 30s.  After ‘45 till about 1984, Grand Lodge here had a policy of ‘No comment’.  Somebody would make some stupid allegation about Freemasonry and we’d just say ‘No Comment’ and let them get on with it.  And so for forty years, the mythologies about Freemasonry were allowed to grow.  They festered.  In 1984, a book appeared my Michael Stephen Knight, called The Brotherhood, which was full of innuendo and accusation.  No evidence. It was a best seller.  It’s still quoted back at us now. I’m involved in the PR side of it, now constantly, bits of that book are being thrown back at me. It’s a badly written book, but it seemed to bring all the strands of Anti-Freemasonry together in one volume. And Grand Lodge, when this came out, said ‘oh, we’ve had enough of this.  We’ve got to start responding and reacting.’  So in 1984 Grand Lodge became re-active. Really it’s only the last 5 or 6 years that we can safely say that we’ve become pro-active. We’re trying to get control of the agenda now.  Because we feel we’ve got this wonderful product to sell...Yet it seems to me we missed a generation


Another man, who reiterated a very similar claim, added that membership problems also have to do with the alleged nature of younger people in the years since the war:


I think through the 60s, 70s and 80s the idea that people would want to be involved in something larger was lost. My parents’ generation didn’t have an interest in Masonry.  So when I talked to them about it, it was very funny ‘cause my parents, they didn’t even have the Simpsons and Flintstones reference that my generation had. They just had, ‘Yeah, Masonry... That’s some sort of old school thing.’ They had surprisingly little information except for the fact that they didn’t want to be part of it because they were their own people and so on... And I’ve come to learn since that this reflects a huge demographic scoop in Masonry. There’s a whole generation of folks missing from Masonry.


Third, given claims – both anecdotal and otherwise - that there has been a slight - but apparently uneven - increase in younger men’s initiations in recent years (Alban, 2007), attempts were made to relate this to changes in society that have been taking place. For example, some relate this to the “uncertainties” in both the working world and relationships today; the “firm foundation” or “commitment” provided by Masonry compared to the “disposable” consumer society, cynicism and “watered down” morality that has developed over time; the emergence of more magazines and websites for potential Masons to peruse; the decline in organized religion leaving many young men - particularly those of a conservative bent - searching for an alternative, meaningful tradition; the strangely “comforting” nature of conspiracy theories surrounding the craft; and connections through family histories and friendship networks to Freemasonry.  However, the apparent unevenness and moderate size of this slight uptick in recruits is explained by other counterbalancing factors, such as the gender issue, the growth of cynicism since the 1960's, the fact that the craft and its altruistic orientation is increasingly out of place - and facing stiff competition - in an era of mass leisure and consumption, along with increasingly family and “couple oriented” social activities.


Finally in this respect, there were attempts to relate current proposals to reinvigorate the craft to specific historical circumstances. For example, there was a strong emphasis on the need for more Masonic education, particularly that lodge meetings had to be made more interesting because new members were now more often there out of “choice,” and today have many other time and work pressures, along with recreational and leisure activities that they can choose from (e.g. meetings that consist largely of “reading the lodge minutes and paying accounts just won’t cut it”). Indeed, it was pointed out that the controversial one day ceremonies were partially instituted in relation to the many pressures on men’s time in contemporary society, and that, in the words of one proponent:


You’ve had the opportunity for the last forty years to prove that the way you’re doing things in a fraternity is the right way and it’s working, and obviously we saw that it wasn’t working because we weren’t bringing in enough members.


Going hand in hand with this, there was an emphasis on making Freemasonry more visible through various means to fight contemporary public “ignorance” of its activities - particularly its charities - in the community. There was an emphasis on lodges becoming more involved than they had traditionally been in social and recreational activities for members and families. There was an emphasis on inclusivity (at least for men), as well as meaningful opportunities to explore spirituality in an era of lost faith. Finally, there was a feeling, in all of this, that Freemasonry must be distanced from its “old fashioned” image as an “old man’s” organization, and, if it could be successfully “rebranded,” it might be able to return to its historical place as an organization where men of all ages could find a general means of meeting new friends, traveling and having fun.  Overall, there was a feeling that the craft needed to come up with a comprehensive approach to meet the claimed changes in social circumstances to both attract and keep new members today. Symbolic reconstructions - and uses - of the past played a large part in respondents’ discussions of all of these matters.


But I also mentioned that the symbolically reconstructed past was invoked by respondents in relation to their own lives and situations. Several examples will suffice. First, men spoke of their lives before becoming Masons, and either claimed how life had changed for them, or that Freemasonry was an expression of who they really were:


I can’t remember what my life was like before I was a Freemason.  I don’t know how I existed without it.  It grabbed me right from the word go.  I loved it right from the word go.  My life was very empty before I was a Freemason.

Well... being a Mason doesn’t change my life at all.  In fact, I think it’s because of who I was to begin with that I was attracted to Masonry


Next, many Masons talked of the impact of Masonry on their morals and community activities:


In retrospect, I’ve become a much more tolerant person, and I’m much more community involved.


Thirdly in this regard, Masons speak of the many friends that they met through the craft that they would not have met otherwise - the implication being that their lives would have been different - perhaps emptier - without the bonds formed through becoming a Mason:


I don’t meet people very well, but this forces you.  If you go out you have to meet people and it’s as simple as that - and you’ve already benefited


It’s so true, but, again, only true in retrospect - but I bet that I know 1000 men in this town that I wouldn’t have known under any other circumstances. And I’ve lived my life here in _____ (City). I’m committed to this town. But here’s probably 1000 folks - these 2 characters here included (gestures to others present) - who I just wouldn’t have known. But now I know them and I feel they’re part of my community.


Fourth, Masons pointed to other Masons in the past with whom they could identify. Sometimes this consisted of family members, with the implication that they were carrying on a meaningful family tradition:


First of all, joining was obviously a family thing. My grandfather was a Mason, in fact was a past master of _____ lodge.  He was also, I believe, Grand High Priest of the Royal Arch Masons in ______  Chapter.  My father is a Mason and is a member of our lodge. Several of my uncles were Masons, that sort of thing.  So it was very much a family thing for me.


Other times, respondents listed off famous Masons and - implicitly or explicitly suggested through such “name dropping” that there were similarities based upon common membership. For example, one man, after naming a list of famous Masons in his province, several of whom belonged to his lodge, commented:


Becoming a part of that lodge for that respect, that I’ve put my name on the same pieces of paper that people in a thousand years are going to look back on and see that I had something in common with these people.  We were all members of the same lodge.


Another man, a musician of African descent, commented:


I’ve done a little research there.  That’s where I found out about Prince Hall and some other members.  Louis Armstrong was a Mason and I just found that out too.  So that’s great. It makes me feel good too, being a musician.  There’s a lot of them.  I found out some famous people are Masons.


Finally in this respect, Masons commented on how, in retrospect, Freemasonry had been “good to me.” For example, some talked of how it added “richness” and “extra meaning” to their lives. Others about how they “enjoyed every minute.” Lastly, many took great pride in long periods of membership, and were “honored” to receive recognition for their contributions. Taken together, these comments suggest that personal reconstructions of one’s past - and of one’s involvements in the craft - are also useful for providing meaning in the present.


Thus far, I have only dealt with one of Mead’s categories of the past. I move on now to consider his second category: the social structural past. In this respect, it goes without saying that in Freemasonry, as in other things, the past structures and conditions the experiences found in the present. Given the strong emphasis on tradition (e.g. “the Landmarks”) among Freemasons, “innovation” - in ritual, in dress, even in language - often tends to be looked at with disdain (e.g. “this is the way it’s always been done”). Thus, perhaps nowhere else do we see individuals engaging in rituals using 18th century language and still adhering to social exclusions so characteristic of the past based upon alleged historical patterns (e.g. “women can’t be Masons because Medieval stonemasons were men”). If there ever was an institution where current societal influences may be less important than traditional, structured ways of doing things, Freemasonry stands out.


Perhaps the best example of such reasoning is a joking comment passed on by one respondent:


Our grand master told this joke the other day - and it just struck me. ‘How many Masons does it take to change a light bulb.’ And the response from Masons was: ‘Change?’


Of course, this leads into a whole debate that is going on in Masonry these days about what is essential and what can, in fact, be adjusted to make the craft relevant to contemporary society. While I don’t have the space to discuss this at length here, there appear to be a range of views. Because of Masonic oaths against innovation, the ritual and landmarks appear to be held more or less sacrosanct (despite the ritual having been revised many times). Yet there is a range of opinions on the contemporary need for Freemasonry to engage in things like public relations, recruitment campaigns, the controversy over the one-day/three degree ceremonies in parts of the United States, and so on. The fact is that despite the strong influence of the social structural past on current practices in Freemasonry, change is occurring, waters are being tested, but the hope remains that a fundamental and powerful core of traditions will remain. This is perhaps best expressed in the words of one man that “the essential philosophy doesn’t need to change, but things can change around it.”


Third, in relation to Mead’s idea of the implied objective past, it is clear that Freemasonry didn’t emerge out of nowhere. Some event or events had to have taken place in order for Freemasonry to exist in present experience as a longstanding institution. Very briefly, despite significant controversy about its origins, along with a great many flights of historical fancy, historian David Stevenson argues that Freemasonry emerged in Scotland out of declining stonemasons guilds that began, in the 17th century, to incorporate non-operative Masons (i.e. “gentlemen”) imbued with late Renaissance Hermetic, Kabbalistic, Neoplatonic and Rosicrucian thought (Stevenson, 1990). The resulting synthesis of mysticism and metaphors based on the building trade became popular during a time of significant political, religious and scientific turmoil, and men began joining the secretive stonemasons guilds in order to freely interact in a domain where outside distinctions of (and conflicts over) politics, religion and class were prohibited. This proved increasingly popular, and in 1717 four London lodges got together to form the Grand Lodge of England. Contemporary Freemasons around the world trace the “official” birth of their institution to this event (some debate continues over the period before 1717). This, and the actual activities of lodges ever since, largely comprises the “implied objective past” of Freemasonry.


But there is also an aspect of the implied objective past that has to do with the roots of Freemasonry in the local community, and how this relates to local history. For example, respondents noted that the city they lived in was founded by a Mason, that one if its most noted mayors, businessmen and famous brewmasters was the first Grand Master of the province; that a famous local advocate that won the battle for responsible government made speeches in the Masonic hall; that there had been a lodge on the property for over 200 years and the first cornerstone was laid by a future King of England; that the lodge itself - and its attached museum - were full of priceless historical artifacts; and some added that their lodge was the oldest not only in the city, but in the current British Commonwealth outside of England. Not only did such comments reflect simple pride in local Freemasonry, but the implied objective past of the craft in the local area. This can perhaps be best seen in the comment of one man that:


It’s so funny to me now how I was taught history in school, how I learned about my community and people in my community without any reference to Freemasonry... Because knowing what I know now about history, the community and people in the community, find it impossible to think that any explanation of any of those things is complete without reference to Freemasonry. Unless you put Masonry into the picture, you really don’t have an explanation of history and the motivation and the group of folks who drove history and the community. You don’t have a good understanding of the characters involved in your community.  


Finally in this respect, since the implied objective past relates to the idea that “something must have happened,” it is interesting that some Freemasons also attempt to use this “but/for” argument to implicitly favor of some of the more esoteric theories that Freemasonry’s history is far more ancient. For example:


How we propagate Masonry, down through the ages is through the ritual, OK? Masonry has an oral tradition, and that’s where the ritual really started was because of the oral tradition, and you know, people memorize these things and do all kinds of things within the Masonic lodges. But, you know, when the old stone builders built the cathedrals, well the knowledge to do things like that came from somewhere. It didn’t just spring to light at the end of the dark ages. It was nurtured somehow, OK, by people who could not read.


Of course, this leads directly into consideration of Mead’s final category: the “mythical past.” What immediately springs to mind are the many books, such as Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas’ Hiram Key (1998), which allegedly trace Freemasonry beyond the guilds to the medieval Knights Templar, Greek and Roman mystery cults, early Christianity, the ancient Israel of Solomon, even the Egypt of the Pharoahs. Needless to say, there is little convincing evidence available for such hypotheses. Nor are references to such distant pasts in Masonic ritual any more convincing from an historical point of view. That’s not the point. What is significant is that the long-dead authors of Masonic rituals, not to mention numerous contemporary authors, invoke alleged links to, and focus attention on select aspects of, these ancient contexts in the present. Essentially, such mythical pasts are “real in their consequences” because they can materially affect relationships:


“Mead’s pragmatic theory of truth contains a discussion of myths as explanations which emanate from specific situations. They belong to the realm of ideation, but have practical value in solving situational problems. Myths are inherently part of the consensual basis of truth, and they function as well to establish validity insofar as they contribute to consistency of action. If a past is created  which believably ‘fits’ with other pasts, presents, and futures and is acted upon as such, it is real...Mythical pasts are validated through their acceptance and use as grounds for creating forthcoming action. A mythical past is made real through a complex interactive process that links assumed courses of previous acts to an anticipated and apparently continuous direction. The myth is granted an objectivity in the process of constructing concerted action” (1983:164-65).


It is in this respect that we can best understand Masonic fascination with such ancient contexts. First of all, despite little empirical evidence for connections to Freemasonry, the murky history of the institution before 1717 certainly left wide room for romanticizing, speculation, the construction of ritual, and, in particular, a ready market for successful authors willing to feed the curiosity of members. Indeed, in the words of one of the Masons in this study: “Masonry went public in 1717 and the first expose was published in 1718.” Of course, attempts to characterize Freemasonry and its background - for good or for ill - have been going on ever since, and the internet has opened up a whole new venue for such activity. Secondly, the ritual incorporation of symbolic elements from various past cultures, and their repetitive enactment in ritual, feeds curiosity about the meaning of these elements, in some cases, prompting a search for further reading on the subject - and questionable historical claims may then be introjected into members’ understandings, interpretations, and actions. It is a fact that some Masons are taken in by such claims, and, as such, these “mythical pasts” serve as a source of pride in relation to the institution, and in relation to themselves as members of such a venerable institution. For example, several of the newer Masons in this study, who professed a prior interest in history, commented about mythical pasts that ultimately prompted them to join the craft:


Before my initiation, I sort of gained understanding, you know, obviously because the history of Masonry goes right back to the Knights Templar.  It goes right back to the Crusades and even further back to the Roman times and I think ....I’m losing it... I’m just staring at the light, I’m like a bug here.


I’m a history buff too and I like the whole historic factor of the Masonic lodge, group, fraternity...I’m really looking forward to it.  I’m going to be a part of something that’s close to six centuries old.  Yeah.  I’m pretty excited.


We have education and people come in and speak and we have Masonic lectures and I’ve been reading a lot of stuff.  And like I say, I’ve always been interested in history, so learning anything that I can about ancient civilizations is a good thing to me. And I take everything I hear at the meeting to be fact.  So I’m learning a lot about the world.


One respondent, a professional historian, even commented how:


Freemasonry as an organization has a profound sense of engagement with history.  It’s very interesting to see when you go out to Masonic halls throughout the country, how local Freemasons, ordinary people, are really very deeply interested and committed to artifacts that might go back to the 18th century that are associated with their lodge. On top of that, with the mythologies... they’re interested in the mythologies that come down with Freemasonry... There will be debates within Freemasonry about particular Anglo-Saxon kings... and you don’t get that very often in small towns in Britain.  And one of the things that surprised us is the range and extent of amateur historical research activity going on amongst Freemasons themselves.


Finally, it is important to note that - even among those members not taken in by mythical claims - the very ability of an institution to subsequently draw meaningfully on the symbols, myths, philosophies, and practices of so many ancient traditions to construct a spiritual system of morality provides a present source of legitimation for its moral and ritual practices. In the words of one man: “Freemasonry provides wonderful philosophies through time that have been used by people to live their lives.” Such “enlightenment” is explicitly related to both self-development and its application through moral activities (e.g. charity, providing assistance to indigent “brothers,” their “widows and orphans”). Needless to say, since many bring to this context a distinguished family history in “the brotherhood,” along with awareness of - if not participation in - its many charitable activities, there is a risk that the subsequent legitimation may partially blind members to some of the less charitable aspects of the institution (e.g. hierarchy, “office politics,” gender issues).


In the end, through an analysis of videotape data of contemporary Freemasons, it has been shown that Freemasonry is an institution to which various components of the past are an ever present social reality. Indeed, Mead’s theory of the past is both extremely relevant, and potentially useful. What remains now is to take these theoretical insights as sensitizing concepts and examine empirically how they may be fleshed out in more detail through ongoing empirical analysis. That is one of the goals of my ongoing research project - to move beyond theory and historical studies to discover the role of the symbolic pasts of Freemasonry in the lives - and actions - of its current members.

Works Cited:

ALBAN, D.R. (2007). The future of the Scottish Rite. The Scottish Rite Journal. March-April Issue. (

ARCADIA ENTERTAINMENT (2004) Inside Freemasonry.

CLAWSON, M. A. (1989) Constructing Brotherhood: Class, Gender and Fraternalism (Princeton, H.J: Princeton University Press).

HETHERINGTON, K. (1997) The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Order (London: Routledge).

JOLIOCOEUR, P.M, and KNOWLES, L.L. (1978) Fraternal Associations and Civil Religion: Scottish Rite Freemasonry. Review of Religious Research 20:1 (Fall): 3-22.

KNIGHT, C. and Lomas, R. (1998) The Hiram Key:Pharoahs, Freemasons, and the Discovery of the Secret Rolls of Jesus. (Barnes & Noble).

MAINES, D., SUGRUE, N. and Katovich, M. (1983). The sociological import of G.H. Mead's theory of the past. American Sociological Review, 48,161-173.

MEAD, G. H. (1932). The philosophy of the present. Chicago: Open Court.

STEVENSON, D.(1990). The origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s second century 1590-1710. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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