From The Northern Light/ May 1993

The Search for Masonic Secrets

By C. BRUCE HUNTER, 32" Copyright 1992 by C. Bruce Hunter All Rights Reserved Reprinted by permission

In the long history of the craft, nothing has caused as much controversy and commotion as the organization's commitment to secrecy. This one thing has generated rumors so fanciful that they have become myths. It has produced suspicion and satire, mistrust and ridicule. And it supports a mystique that has both helped and hurt the organization in ways that can only be guessed.

Unfortunately, this mystique is not entirely benign. While the members enjoy their fellowship, the public is left to imagine what goes on behind the closed doors of the lodge. Imagination is a powerful tool, and through it the very features that make Freemasonry attractive to its members give rise to a great variety of fantastic images.

Some who view Freemasonry from the outside believe that it is a sinister clique. In their minds, the lodge is a place where tonight's clandestine Whispers become tomorrow's government policy and where men gain power by knowing the secret word, not by winning popular elections.

This view is not hard to understand. The mere fact that a thing is hidden spurs curiosity. And an organization that actually flaunts its secrecy will certainly conjure up images of conspiracy and forbidden activities.

Anyone who doubts that the Masons flaunt their secrecy needs to go no farther than the popular press. Newspapers and magazines carry the occasional photo of Freemasons posing in their embroidered aprons and white gloves. Chains of office hang heavily on their breasts, and some wear funny hats. But the captions never explain the accouterments. They only tease the reader, who is then left to speculate about the meaning of these peculiar garments and the strange emblems that decorate them.

This may seem trivial. No real harm is done if the Masons make fleeting displays of their exotic regalia then go behind closed doors to conduct their business. But when we examine the phenomenon, we begin to glimpse the real nature of Masonic secrecy, How the craft perceives its relationship to the general public is at the heart of the issue, and the strange emblems they use in their rituals are enticing clues to the events that launched their commitment to secrecy in the first place.

The style of Masonic uniforms has obviously been handed down from earlier times. Tradition claims that the apron and gloves are descendants of those used by medieval stone masons, who needed leather garments to protect their clothes and hands. Curiously, medieval illustrations do not show stone workers clothed in this way. The square, compasses and other tools were supposedly used to measure stones and architectural plans. And such implements as the trowel and mallet helped shape and assemble the masonry. But again history does not place all of these tools in the hands of the craftsmen from whom the modern Masons say they evolved.

In addition, the claim that stonemason became Freemason doesn't account for the chains of office and other emblems of which the modern craft is so fond. Nor does it explain how the everyday gear of laborers came to be transformed into elaborate uniforms of fine leather and silk and gold braid. The pomp of today's Masonic regalia and ceremonies is more characteristic of the Renaissance than the middle ages. They are more the stuff of government processions and military ceremonies than of the old craft guilds.

Most Freemasons have only a vague notion of how such an odd collection of antiques came to be adopted by their by their organization. In fact, most know very little about the history of their fraternity. They accept its emblems as symbols of the moral values they are expected to uphold. But precisely when and how these things came to be associated with the fraternity is a mystery to them.

Moreover, the members of the craft pay little attention to the quaint appearance of their regalia. Since the new member leaves his initiation believing that he understands the meanings of the craft's symbols and the traditions to which they refer, he doesn't think to question them. And while he quickly becomes comfortable with the regalia, he may just as quickly lose sight of the fact that the public sees all of this differently.

The emblems become a focal point for the non-member's belief that Masons are privy to knowledge - and perhaps clandestine dealings - to which the rest of the world has no access.

This kind of perception is bound to manifest itself in tangible ways. And it has. Over the years, criticism of Freemasonry has become something of a cottage industry. Dedicated critics travel far and wide, often at their own expense, to deliver their anti-Masonic message. They appear on television. They write letters to editors, articles and books, all directed to an audience that often seems fascinated by the lurid accounts that are the stock in trade of the anti-Mason.

What do the Masons think of all this commotion? As might be expected, it has not gone unnoticed.

But this is an internal debate. The Masons don't publicize their concern. The non-Mason, hearing no reply, mistakes silence for indifference. Nevertheless, the debate is real and conscientious.

On one side is the argument that secrecy accomplishes nothing of importance. Its proponents question the need for keeping anything confidential and suggest ways the organization can open itself to public view.

Other Masons argue that secrecy is an integral part of the craft. They believe that doing away with it would only do harm. The secrets of Freemasonry, so they say, are symbolic elements intimately involved with Masonic teachings. Changing them would alter the basic nature of the organization. These men value the traditions represented by an elaborate system of symbols and ceremonies. Secure in their belief that their fraternity harbors nothing sinister, they see no advantage to fixing what they insist isn't broken.

Part of the mystique, of course, has no substance at all. It arises from confusing a lack of information with an overt attempt to conceal it. Many people know so little about Freemasonry simply because they don't know where to look.

In short, public suspicion of Freemasonry owes more to a lack of publicity than to a deliberate conspiracy. It would seem, then, that a brief look at any of the several general histories of the organization would dispel most of the misunderstanding that has built up around it. But there lies another problem. A book or two about the craft would clear up a lot of misunderstanding, but only if the reader could understand and believe what they say. Masonic literature, it turns out, cannot be read; it must be interpreted.

A quick survey of books about Freemasonry reveals quite different and contradictory descriptions of the organization. One book describes Freemasonry as a noble organization that promotes the highest moral values. Another depicts it as a system of demon worship, riddled with drunkenness and debauchery. Even here, the rumors and suspicions intrude. Claims that are otherwise heard in passing are codified in Masonic books, thus taking on the aura of authority that is associated with the written word.

Still, the written word is a tricky thing. Obviously not everything that has been written about the craft can be true. Some of it must be inaccurate. And just as obviously, some of it must be accurate. But anyone who does not already know at least part of the truth will be hard pressed to tell which is which.

For centuries people have tried to discover the origins of Freemasonry. Much of their work has been futile be cause they were looking for an ancient organization that evolved into the modern fraternity. But Freemasonry has never been a single organization. It has always been a tradition.

One of the characteristics of an allegory is that it does not provide answers. It is, after all, only a vehicle for communicating symbols . And symbols merely direct the attention in the right direction. The rest is left to the individual.

The individual Mason is free to interpret the lodge's lessons as he will. The ritual invites him to do so. Once he has been shown the craft's legends and given its secrets, he may conclude that the lessons are intended either to separate or to unite, that the fraternity's passwords and secret signs are designed to exclude the enemy or to welcome the friend.

One way leads him to believe he is under an obligation to keep secrets he may not understand. It gives him a preoccupation with the critics of his organization. And it makes him lose sight of the very lessons to which he should be paying the greatest attention.

The other way leads him to believe that the penalties are symbols, and that the secrets are there to point the way to moral lessons. It makes him under stand that, although parts of the ritual are considered secret, the lessons that underlie them should be shared rather than concealed.

The difference between these two approaches is more than academic. It can have very far reaching effects. This is the real cautionary tale of Freemasonry. And it is both a lesson and a warning ,

Modern Freemasons hold the spirit and reputation of their fraternity in their hands. They will act the part of Hiram or the part of the ruffians, depending on the way they interpret the legend of the ritual.

Both the preoccupation some Masons have with secrecy and the obsessive attacks of its critics are based on a common point of view. That point of view binds the Mason and his critic together in a bond that is stronger than the Masonic bond of fellowship. It promotes intolerance and exclusiveness. And it contradicts the benevolent spirit Masonry has taught since its beginnings.

Unfortunately, too many people who deal with modern Freemasonry -members and critics alike - go no farther than the form. They are satisfied with what they find on the surface and fail to see the meaning that underlies it all. Thus a system that was carefully constructed to bring people together is too often used to keep them apart. Telling a man something - any thing -then warning him that it is a secret is the best way to separate him from the people around him. It forces him to choose between hiding his knowledge from others and betraying those who gave it to him.

In the end, it is probably better to understand a thing than to be mystified by it.