The idea that secret societies exist, manipulating everything from the media to the global economy, has been around for centuries. But when it comes to close-lipped organizations, the Freemasons have arguably attracted more fascination, study and suspicion than any other.
Their origin is debated—some trace it to the building of Solomon’s temple in the 10th century B.C.; others, to ancient Greece or Egypt. The first official time stamp is 1717, when the Grand Lodge of England was formed; by the 1730s Freemasonry made its way to the U.S. Today, the Freemasons (also called the Masons) are the world’s oldest fraternity, boasting a membership of more than 5 million worldwide, with an estimated 2 million to 4 million in the U.S.
Whether it’s a religion, a power-hungry cult or merely a fraternity is the crux of the intrigue. Many anti-Masons feel the rituals (such as the interrogation of candidates who are initiated into the first degree of Masonry) and secrecy (a sword-carrying guard stands outside the lodge-room door during meetings) are an affront to Christianity, and the Catholic Church has a history of condemning Masonry (though all faiths are welcome to join). Those who feel the Masons have wielded secret political power over the years cite the impressive roster of historical figures who were Freemasons, which includes 15 U.S. Presidents (among them George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt).
Despite the group’s illustrious past, a Freemason today may be your everyday guy. Eric Diamond, a 43-year-old creative director and Web designer, has been a Freemason for nine years at Chicago’s Oriental Lodge No. 33 (5418 W Gale St, 847-512-7055) on the Northwest Side, where he serves as the lodge’s Worshipful Master (essentially, its president).
Diamond says the moral tenets of Freemasonry reflect the aspirations of a democratic society. “Toleration of all faiths, the fact that we’re all equal, the idea of electing your leaders,” he says. As a practice, Freemasons accept members of all races (though there are also predominantly African-American lodges known as Prince Hall Freemasonry), and religion is only important in that members must believe in a “supreme being.” One nondemocratic aspect is that women are not permitted to join (though in 1850, a Mason founded Order of the Eastern Star, an offshoot group for women).
But what do they do, exactly? That’s part of the mystery. Freemasons publicly embrace philanthropy—Diamond’s Lodge hosts holiday toy drives for Sojourner Truth Parent-Child Center in Cabrini-Green and sponsors children in the Illinois Masonic Children’s Home in LaGrange. Diamond says in recent years, men in their twenties have shown a renewed interest in the Masons. “Guys are looking for more meaning in their life—something they can believe in or hold onto that transcends religion. They’re also looking for lifelong skills to improve themselves: how to lead, how to inspire people.”
But some parts are kept under wraps. “What a lot of Masons like to say is, We’re not a secret society, we’re a society with secrets,” Diamond explains. Modes of recognition among members, such as handshakes and passwords, are one thing they won’t reveal. “They’re inconsequential, but they have a purpose. If I know you can keep a handshake or password secret, then you can be trusted with the bigger secrets.”
The “bigger secrets” are the rites and rituals members pass through in order to reach Master Mason, the highest of Masonry’s three degrees of personal development, which are taught using architectural metaphors, such as the compass and the square (pictured above, right), derived from ancient stonemason guilds. These days, however, many Freemasons are quick to point out that many secrets of Masonry are easily found in books—Diamond cites Duncan’s Ritual of Freemasonry (Dover Publications, $7.95) as one of the most accurate.
Still, misinformation exists. Robert Hieronimus, author of Masonry tome Founding Fathers, Secret Societies (Destiny Books, $16.95), clears up one rumor: that the U.S. dollar features a Masonic symbol. The symbol in question (the all-seeing eye atop a pyramid; pictured above, left) was taken from the reverse side of the Great Seal of the U.S., designed in 1782 by William Barton and Charles Thomson (neither of them Masons). “These symbols go back several thousand years ago to the Greeks and Romans. That’s where [the designers] drew all of their inspiration,” Hieronimus says, adding that it wasn’t until 30 years later that the Freemasons incorporated this symbol into their practice—on the white aprons worn during ceremonies.
As long as conspiracy theories generate interest, the debate continues. And why shouldn’t it? The fact that former U.S. Sen. and erectile-dysfunction pitchman Bob Dole and the Rev. Al Sharpton are part of the same fraternity (yep, they’re both Masons) certainly invites further discussion.