In Depth

Who are the Freemasons?

New book suggests that secretive organisation was built on ‘four decades of male eccentricity’

When it comes to secret societies, few are as notorious, or attract as much wild speculation, as the Freemasons.

The mysterious order has been blamed for a range of world events from the French Revolution, World War One, the hiring of Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot John F. Kennedy, the sinking of the Titanic and the Hillsborough disaster.

But a new book, The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World, says “despite rumours of demon dwarfs, piano-playing crocodiles and world domination, the real story of the Freemasons is one of four decades of male eccentricity”, The Times reports.

“Although Dickie’s book is a little light on sex-crazed Satanists, he offers a richly fascinating account of freemasonry’s origins,” the paper adds. “It all began, he suggests, in the 1590s when a group of Scottish stonemasons, lacking a guild of their own, set up lodges to represent their interests.”

Freemasons have long fascinated outsiders, who have for centuries been drawn to the bizarre rites, rituals and customs that form part of the order.

And, with the rise of social media and the internet, the society is grappling with modernisation and keeping up membership while ensuring its secrets are kept under wraps. So what exactly is the secretive organisation?

So what is freemasonry?

Freemasonry is believed to have its roots in medieval trade guilds. These professional and social associations were particularly important for stonemasons, who frequently travelled to work, says the BBC.

Secret handshakes, code words and symbols helped foster mutual trust among members - and gave freemasonry an aura of mystery that it retains today.

By 1717, when four London lodges joined to form what is now the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE), freemasonry had evolved into a more general fraternal organisation, open to all professions.

According to the UGLE, there are more than 200,000 Freemasons in England, another 150,000 in Northern Ireland, Ireland and Scotland - and about six million Freemasons worldwide.

The majority of lodges practice what they refer to as Anglo-American, or “regular”, freemasonry, open to men of “good repute” who profess a belief in a “Supreme Being” of any denomination.

The three core principles of freemasonry are brotherhood, truth - meaning high moral standards - and relief, or charity. The United Grand Lodge of England alone says it raised more than £48m for “deserving causes” in 2018.

What happens inside a Masonic lodge?

Routine Masonic lodge meetings are broadly similar to a rotary club or parish council - a register is called, minutes are taken, and updates on charitable and social events are shared and discussed.

However, it is the society’s mysterious ceremonies that have captured the public imagination for centuries.

Members are initiated as an “entered apprentice”, eventually passing to “Fellowcraft”, before finally acquiring the experience and knowledge of the society’s dogma and rituals to be named a “Master Mason”.

According to the Grand Lodge of Scotland, a “series of ritual dramas” is used to teach members the precepts of freemasonry, which include an allegorical founding myth linking the order to the biblical Great Temple.

“You come into life with absolutely nothing, and that is what the initiation is about,” senior Mason Nigel Brown once told The Telegraph. “The second play is about living a good life and the third is about preparing for the end of your life.”

Masonic rituals also feature symbols depicting masonry tools such as the square, compass and apron, as well as the famous all-seeing eye symbol, widely associated with freemasonry.

Who are the most famous Freemasons?

According to Business Insider, 14 of the 45 US presidents have been Freemasons. These included the country’s first president, George Washington, as well as James Munroe, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Gerald Ford.

Founding father Benjamin Franklin also graduated to grand master and edited and published the first book of American Masonry in 1734.

Britain has also had its fair share of masonic leaders, namely former prime ministers George Canning and Sir Winston Churchill. King Edward VII was also a well known Freemason.

Other famous members include British authors Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde, the Hollywood actor John Wayne and US comedian Richard Pryor. Click on the gallery above for more famous Freemasons.

Can women join?

For nearly 200 years, membership was restricted to men, but this changed in the early 20th century when the UK’s first female lodge opened in 1908. Women currently have two separate grand lodges: the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons and the Order of Women Freemasons.

In 2018, the United Grand Lodge of England also issued a “gender reassignment policy”. This said that anyone wishing to join must be male, but that once they have been admitted they can remain a member if they become a woman.

A woman who has become a man can also apply, The Times reported. According to the newspaper, a senior judge looked into the legal implications of their membership policy before they relaxed the rules.

“As a single-sex association, lodges are exempt from sexual discrimination legislation on admissions criteria, but discrimination against members is a different issue,” says The Times.

The change in guidelines “brings the Freemasons into line with current legislation”, says Pink News.

The Daily Mail reported that the strict dress code had also been slightly redefined, allowing women who were born men to wear a “smart dark skirt and top”.

Some traditions remain, however. When formally greeting fellow brethren, they must be called “Brother”. If someone has changed gender to become a woman, they may be called by their female name such as “Brother Lucy”. And women who have not undergone reassignment surgery will still be excluded from Freemason membership in the men’s lodge.

What else are they doing to modernise?

With its arcane initiation ceremonies, archaic terminology and secret handshakes, plus a whole raft of conspiracy theories about its inner workings, it is little surprise the society has long been shrouded in mystery and viewed with suspicion.

Cheshire’s Provincial Grand Master Stephen Blank says: “I think it’s largely our fault and it stems from the Second World War when dictators took against the masons and they were subject to persecution.”

In fact, he says: “When you look back at our history, that had never happened before. Freemasons were always very open about what they did in the community.”

In 2017 the society celebrated its 300th anniversary and “a conscious decision was made for the movement to be more open and proactive about its work and, where necessary, reactive to criticism too”, says the Norwich Guardian.

To this end, Freemasons have taken to Facebook and Twitter to promote the work that they do. They have been more open about the money they give to charity and established University Scheme Lodges in a bid to break their stereotype as only made up of old, white men.

However, earlier this month the Grand Lodge of Scotland abandoned social media pending an internal review “over fears that jealously guarded secrets are being leaked online”, reports The Times.

The newspaper says the lodge had problems with confidential information and spats between members appearing online, as well as images of its members being posted without their permission.

The Times also notes that cameras were allowed into lodges in Scotland for the first time last year for the BBC documentary Secrets of the Masons. “The lodge refused, however, to reveal the details of its handshakes - or grips - or to allow its initiation ceremonies, which are said to involve blindfolds and raised trouser legs, to be filmed,” it adds.

A Freemasons spokesman said: “It would be the ultimate spoiler.”

What has jazz got to do with it?

Freemasonry provided an unlikely home to a generation of jazz greats that emerged in the mid-20th century.

“Throughout history, freemasonry has attracted musicians,” Martin Cherry, librarian at the Museum of Freemasonry in London told The Guardian.

Citing Mozart and JS Bach as the most famous examples, he says that “for musicians and artists who were new to a city, the lodge would have been an opportunity to meet fellow artists and network with people with whom they may be able to find work”.

The same applied two centuries later, across the Atlantic. “Musicians often led an itinerant lifestyle,” says Cherry. “Belonging to an organisation that had lodges all over a country could help ease the slog of life on the road, particularly in such a vast country as the US."

Many white jazz musicians and bandleaders were Freemasons, including Glenn Miller, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.

Yet while lodges were segregated, membership also extended to black musicians. Jazz legend Duke Ellington was joined by the likes of Nat King Cole, WC Handy, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton to be inducted into the mysterious world of freemasonry.

This is all the more remarkable given their position as figures outside mainstream society.

Paul Gudgin, former director of the Edinburgh Fringe and now director of the City of London Festival, said of Ellington’s Masonic ties: “I found it astonishing that such an anti-establishment figure turned out to be at the heart of an establishment organisation.”

Are Freemasons connected to the Illuminati?

In conspiracy circles, “Freemason” and “Illuminati” are often used interchangeably to refer to the “new world order”, the shadowy cabal of powerful figures who supposedly direct global affairs.

Beyond a shared interest in ritual and symbolism, however, there is no clear connection between freemasonry and the Illuminati, a short-lived order founded in 18th century Bavaria. The association of the two may have arisen because Illuminati recruited many members from Masonic lodges, Vox reports.

Although the order’s rules prohibit Freemasons from using their membership for personal or professional gain, their influence in the UK’s public institutions - particularly the justice system - has been questioned.

The suggestion that politicians, judges and police could be members of the secretive society has long raised concerns about transparency and nepotism.

Shortly after stepping down as Police Federation chairman in December 2017, Steve White told The Guardian that reforms to policing culture, including better representation of women and ethnic minorities, were being obstructed by Freemasons in the force. “The people who blocked progress at the Police Federation were all Masons... and they were all a pain in the arse,” White said.

“Concerns have been expressed about the Masons’ impact upon the make-up of the force for several decades,” says Vice News.

iNews says “up to ten MPs and around 200 judges and policemen are paid-up Masons”, with these pillars of the British establishment joined by hundreds of civil servants and councillors.

UGLE rejects as “laughable” suggestions that there is a Masonic influence over the police or any other institution.

But, says Vice, “until the organisation opens up, for many, that suspicion isn’t going anywhere”.

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