If there were a Venn diagram describing the relationships of secret societies, the Freemasons would undoubtedly be at the center of it. Are they the secret cabal behind every revolution, the insidious puppet masters of the world bank, or just a harmless fraternal order of benevolent old men? With its persistent secrets and vast, venerable history, it would take volumes to capture the full story of Freemasonry, thus the answers to these questions may remain murky. However, in as much as this brief article may allow, we can discuss the fundamentals of what the Freemasons are and are not.
The origins of Freemasonry are, in short, unknown. The first Grand Lodge was formed in London, in 1717. This, of course, implies the existence of smaller, independent lodges, which no doubt existed prior. It is impossible to date these first lodges with any degree of accuracy, though the formation of the Grand Lodge generally marks their arrival on the world stage. A fair, if not vague assessment, would be that Freemasonry evolved from the outpouring of science and philosophy during the Renaissance, particularly that of alchemy. The oppression of religious and political institutions necessitated discretion in disseminating many of these ideas, thus establishing small and secretive groups under the guise of something innocuous like a social club made a lot of sense.
The Freemasons have another origin story. According to masonic lore, their history begins with the ancient stonemasons’ guilds. Allegedly, these guilds were in possession of advanced trade skills and divine secrets, such as might be used to create the ancient wonders of the world. It’s a story best told in the initiation rite to the third degree of Freemasonry, in which the initiate reenacts the murder of the Widow’s Son, master stonemason, Hiram Abiff.
In the allegory, Hiram Abiff, chief architect of Solomon’s Temple, is accosted in the courtyard of the temple by three workers, demanding his secret phrase. He is delivered three blows at the three gates of the temple, before being killed by his assailants. The initiate plays the part of Hiram and is expected to learn to importance of loyalty, keeping secrets, and the certainty of death.
Freemasonry has always been steeped in arcane ritual and secrecy and for that reason it has always been viewed dubiously by outsiders. In the modern era, they are frequently credited as conspirators in the American Revolution and having their fingerprints on everything from the constitution to the design of the dollar bill. Beyond being low hanging fruit for History Channel conspiracy theorists, it’s hard to ignore the list of founding fathers that have donned a Masonic apron. But is there any truth to it?
A short answer would be yes, Freemasonry did have an influence in the formation of the United States, but context is everything. At the time of the Revolution, Freemasonry was exploding across Europe and the Colonies. It was the premier venue for philosophic, scientific, political, and religious discussion, without the scrutiny of the church or state. It stands to reason that men having strong opinions on these topics would gravitate to such a group. By default, it was the perfect and safest environment for discussing revolution.
It’s hard to divorce the idea that Freemasonry had some part in the engineering of the United States as a nation. Our first president and many founding fathers were Freemasons. In that regard, the influence of Freemasonry is undisputed, though as a singular entity orchestrating the revolution with a mind toward world domination, not so much.
In many ways, the time of the American and French revolutions represent the golden age of Freemasonry. In terms of progressive thinking, it seems to have been their highwater mark. It is important to note that Freemasonry has historically been dominated by white men. To this day, the central branch of Freemasons do not allow women among their ranks and, until recently, African Americans were long relegated to their own branch known as Prince Hall Masonry. The accusation of Masonry being an institution of the white patriarchy is one that is historically hard to refute, regardless of their outward benevolence.
Modern Freemasonry, with the possible exception of their allegorical rituals and extremely secretive nature, bears little resemblance to the lodges of the 18th and 19th centuries. the principal difference would be the esoteric spirituality of the group. One of the founding principals of Freemasonry is the belief in a supreme power in the universe. In practice, this is not so much religious as it is an acceptance of all faiths as being compatible with each other. That said, early Masonry is known to have practiced tenets of what would now be described as Western Hermeticism or Spirituality.
This overlap in philosophy is shared by other infamous secret societies such as the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, the Golden Dawn, and many others. To what degree these groups influenced each other is certainly debatable, though they all find a common relative in Freemasonry.
It’s not difficult to imagine how the Freemasons became the bogeymen of conspiracy theorists, they practically invite it with their prolific membership and absurdly secret rituals. When you consider their affiliations, history, and international clout, its hard to conclusively close the door on all the fantastic theories.
Personally, I believe that conspiracies of the magnitude credited to the Freemasons would require an enormous and dedicated consensus of their members that I just don’t think is possible. One only need look at the Civil War and the Masonic views on either side of the conflict to understand just how divided they can be. Today, there are thousands of Masonic Lodges across the world, for even the members of one of them agreeing on how to rule the world would be shocking, let alone all of them. If it’s a puppet master your looking for, the Freemasons aren’t it.