Sons of Mystery

Untangling the truth about Freemasons past and present

Untangling the truth about Freemasons past and present

By Helen Mondloch

Courtesy of Arthur W. Pierson
Courtesy of Arthur W. Pierson

Will Hamm, a junior at Westfield High School in Chantilly, recently read Dan Brown’s best seller, “The Lost Symbol,” with great interest. It wasn’t just the mystery and mayhem that appealed to him, but also the portrait of a group he holds dear: “I liked learning the history of the Freemasons. I also liked how Dan Brown wasn’t aggressive towards the Masons and their secrecy. The book showed the Masons as normal people,” he remarks.

Hamm’s thoughts evoke an early scene in Brown’s novel, during which protagonist-professor Robert Langdon dispels a “common misconception” among his students: that Freemasons comprise a “freaky cult.” It’s an image that the fraternity has battled for the last couple centuries, maybe longer—despite the fact that its ranks have included some of America’s best-loved heroes, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

Hamm, 16, is himself an aspiring Freemason. For the past three years, he has participated in a local chapter of a Masonic youth group, American DeMolay, which meets two evenings a month in Herndon Lodge 264. Made up of about a dozen Masonic proteges, all males ages 12 through 21, the group helps out with local charitable events. Sometimes they enjoy a Redskins game or a few rounds of laser tag. Occasionally they trek around the Beltway for events sponsored by Alexandria’s George Washington Masonic Memorial, a monument to the fraternity’s most revered brother.

Like the legions of full-fledged Freemasons today (there are about 1.7 million in the U.S. and about 3 million worldwide), the DeMolays do not “build” in a literal sense. Instead, they draw on the allegorical meanings associated with ancient tools to build personal virtue and serve their community. Meetings begin with secret rituals and the exchange of secret gestures.

American DeMolay, with chapters in every state, is the namesake of Jacques DeMolay, a 14th-century French martyr who served as a high-ranking official in the Order of the Knights Templar, another famed fraternity, members of which the Masons have long revered as their spiritual forefathers. The Knights were fierce Crusaders and guardians of pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land. At some point they also became the purported custodians of a vast treasure. (Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” popularized the legend of the Templar treasure, as did Hollywood blockbuster “National Treasure,” starring Nicholas Cage.) According to the DeMolay website, the Knights were persecuted in the early 14th century under the French king, who envied their wealth and influence. Jacques DeMolay suffered imprisonment and torture for refusing to disclose the Order’s secrets or betray his friends, and ultimately burned at the stake. “Thus, the story of Jacques DeMolay became a testimonial to loyalty and friendship,” the site declares.

A tour of the Washington Masonic Memorial, which recently celebrated the centennial of its founding, offers an abundance of lore, especially in the vault of King Solomon’s Temple. The vault is in one of the upper tiers of the dramatic nine-story structure that sits atop Alexandria’s Shuter’s Hill. Before the replicated altar, visitors learn the legend of Hiram Abiff, whose martyrdom likewise sheds light on Masonic mythology.

Hiram served as master builder of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem during the ninth century B.C.E. As such, his highly coveted knowledge was considered sacred. When three lower-ranking builders tried to extort building secrets from him, Hiram refused to remit, even on pain of death. He remains a model of qualities that Masons have long upheld—trust, restraint, intrepidness in the face of death—and so his story, like that of Jacques DeMolay, is reenacted in Masonic initiations.

The Freemasons’ history—evoking Biblical figures and medieval warriors—and their family tree, which includes groups like the philanthropic and often parodied Shriners, as well as the esoteric Scottish Rite, mark them as mystical and mystifying. Their debut onto the pop-culture scene has prompted questions about their origins, beliefs, use of symbols and secrets and, not least of all, the reasons they are so often vilified.

The George Washington Masonic Memorial Hall features a 17-foot-tall bronze statue of the most revered Freemason, as well as other Masonic artifacts. Courtesy of Arthur W. Pierson
The George Washington Masonic Memorial Hall features a 17-foot-tall bronze statue of the most revered Freemason, as well as other Masonic artifacts. Courtesy of Arthur W. Pierson

Mythic and Historic Roots
Masonic history is so mixed up with mythology that it’s difficult—even for Masons, say some experts—to tell the two apart. Take, for instance, the popular belief that they are the historic descendants of the Knights Templar. According to Brian Handwerk in a National Geographic News article, “The Lost Symbol and the Freemasons: 8 Myths Decoded,” the misconception evolved starting in the Middle Ages, after the Masons adopted symbols and terminology from the Knights’ lexicon in order to establish a symbolic link to them. Centuries have advanced and embellished belief in a Masonic-Templar connection, says Handwerk. In a similar sense, Masonic lore suggests a lineage to builders of ancient wonders, including King Solomon’s Temple (as suggested in the legend of Hiram Abiff), but this, too, is metaphoric.

According to James Wasserman in “The Secrets of Masonic Washington,” records indicate Freemasons descended from early medieval guilds and trade associations of European stonemasons. Freemasons were literally masons who were free (not bound by servitude) and therefore able to travel to distant sites to build castles and other extraordinary structures. The groups were essentially early trade unions, comprised of workers ranging from unskilled laborers to highly skilled designers and architects. Absent any official means to identify their qualifications, the stonemasons developed secret words and signs to communicate their level of expertise. Accurate and honest claims were essential for the individual—his level of responsibility and pay depended on it—as well as the community: “If a cathedral collapsed because of flawed design, hundreds might die,” says Wasserman.

This early stage of Freemasonry is commonly referred to as “operative Masonry.” Wasserman expounds the reasons that the craft eventually rose to the level of the sublime: “The near-miraculous ability to erect those vast architectural monuments reaching from Earth to heaven, raising massive pre-fitted stones hundreds of feet in the air, supporting unimaginable weight, with seemingly effortless elegance on completion, decorating those edifices with stain-glassed windows that diffused light like the radiant luminosity of direct contact with the Holy Spirit—all imbued Masonry with an aura of mystery, religious significance, and mastery of the secrets of nature.”

This spiritual aura affected the shift that occurred in Freemasonry beginning around the mid-17th century, with the dawn of the Enlightenment. According to Wasserman, “Freemasonry now expanded to include those educated and philosophic souls attracted to what they believed to be the spiritual wisdom of sacred architecture.” With the establishment of the first Grand Lodge in London in 1717, operative Freemasonry became “speculative Freemasonry”—an intellectual gentleman’s fraternity. This brand of Freemasonry was soon imported to America, was shared by a number of our nation’s founders, and endures to the present day as the largest and oldest fraternal organization.

Masonic Symbols
Understanding these historical underpinnings helps observers of Freemasonry grasp the reason that modern Masons, mostly men with no ties to the building arts, have continued to immerse themselves in the symbols of design and construction. Rather than erecting cathedrals, their tools evoke the forces needed to build sturdy character. The most ubiquitous Masonic emblem is the intersecting square and compass; in America the emblem also features a “G” in the center. As explained by S. Brent Morris in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry,” the symbol “reminds the Mason to square his actions by the square of virtue, to circumscribe his passions and desires with a symbolic compass, and to remember that as geometry was in the center of the Mason’s trade, so should God be in the center of his life.”

Another symbol, “the all-seeing eye” (featured on the dollar bill), did not originate with the Masons but captures their belief in an omniscient creator. Because it also smacks of “Big Brother,” the eye is often considered one of the “creepier” Masonic emblems.

Jon Tilley, who conducts spirited tours of the Masonic Memorial, succinctly expounds the meaning of other popular symbols: “The plumb reminds you to stand for God; the gavel tells you to break off the rough corners of your character; the apron, to protect your soul, guard your innocence.”

Washington is seen sporting the apron in a statue that graces the Memorial’s grand entry. The Hall’s south wall also features a mural of the president wearing full Masonic regalia, including the adorned apron, in the elaborate cornerstone ceremony that took place at the U.S. Capitol in 1793.

Separation of Church and Lodge
In addition to medieval stonemason guilds and Enlightenment intellectuals, the Origins Room at the Washington Masonic Memorial reveals that modern Freemasonry is rooted in a third community: members of the Judaic-Christian faith. As any Mason will emphatically tell you, however, the organization is not a religion, nor is it meant to replace religious worship. Traditionally, members were prohibited from discussing religion in their lodges. Membership does require belief in a supreme being, however. And while the majority of American Masons are Protestant Christians, the society welcomes men of all faith traditions. Women can join Masonic groups that are predominantly female, like the Order of the Eastern Star. The men make no apology for never having gone co-ed in their main body.

Fall from Grace
The Origins Room also explores Freemasonry’s detractors, beginning in the American “Anti-Masonic Period,” 1825-1850. A wave of what is called “anti-Masonic hysteria and persecution” emerged in response to various factors (including “innovation and immigration”) that spearheaded a “dilution of Masonic customs.” The Masons’ fall from grace was also triggered by a scandal in upstate New York involving a man named William Morgan, who was kidnapped and never seen again after reportedly slipping into lodge meetings and threatening to publish Masonic secrets. The public accused the Masons of plotting and executing Morgan’s presumed murder.

Freemasonry overcame this 25-year period of organized opposition, but the Masons remained targets of derision well into the 20th century, both in America and abroad. Mary Movahed, who together with husband Mo owns and operates Table Talk Restaurant around the corner from the Masonic Memorial, recalls that in the Greek village where she grew up during World War II, she often heard whispered suspicions about people with alleged Masonic ties, then considered sinister.

Sixteen-year-old Hamm is not at liberty to discuss the secret gestures and rituals opening Masonic meetings. Insiders report that like the secret nature of the Masons’ elaborate initiation rituals, they are mostly symbolic in significance, a link to the Masonic past. Their purpose is said to mainly to evoke age-old bonds of brotherhood, but centuries-old suspicions die hard.

Famous Freemasons
George Washington
Benjamin Franklin
John Hancock
Wolfgang Mozart
Davy Crockett
Andrew Jackson
William McKinley
Rudyard Kipling
Ty Cobb
Theodore Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Henry Ford
Charles A. Lindbergh
Thurgood Marshall
Harry Truman
Duke Ellington
Jack Kemp
Arnold Palmer

Part Two of this series will further explore anti-Masonic sentiments, popular myths associated with the Freemasons, their contributions to American society and the Northern Virginia community, and the impact of Dan Brown. Read part two>>

(April 2010)