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”
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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:
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.
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).
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
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:
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
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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
many Masons talked of the impact of Masonry on their morals and community
retrospect, I’ve become a much more tolerant person, and I’m much more
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:
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
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
man, a musician of African descent, commented:
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.
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.
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.
the best example of such reasoning is a joking comment passed on by one
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:
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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).
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:
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.
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
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.
respondent, a professional historian, even commented how:
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.
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).
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.