Inside the Masons

The fraternal order has long been the target of conspiracy theories and hoaxes.

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In America, Freemasonry was eagerly embraced both by the gentlemanly establishment and by members of the artisan and commercial class who aspired to that establishment. Indeed, Freemasonry encouraged social movement and a more inclusive elite through education, the cultivation of politeness and honor, mutual assistance, networking, and tolerance for differences in the delicate matter of religion. (Brothers were expected to honor "that religion in which all men agree [that is, belief in a "beneficent God"], leaving their particular opinions to themselves," wrote Scotsman James Anderson, a Presbyterian minister who in 1723 published Constitutions of the Free-Masons, the first official record of the Grand Lodge.)

Social climbers. Right up to the Revolution, men of character, talent, and ambition used Freemasonry to rise on the social ladder. Before his famous ride, Paul Revere was known as a prominent silversmith and Freemason. A fellow Bostonian, a free African-American and leather-shop owner named Prince Hall, shrewdly assessed the benefits of the fraternity. In 1775, he and 14 other African-Americans underwent initiation in a British military lodge. Hall and several brothers founded their own lodge during the Revolution. Prince Hall Freemasonry, as it was named after the death of Hall in 1807, spread to Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere to become a powerful crucible of African-American leadership, even while providing charity and other support to the black community. Although African-Americans can join any lodge, Prince Hall Freemasonry remains a vital--and still separate--part of American Masonic tradition.

After the Revolution, reluctantly breaking ties with the London grand lodges (Masons really did believe their fraternal ties should transcend politics), American lodges reorganized under state grand lodges. Freemasonry also began to move into the country's interior, promoting commercial and other connections between coastal cities and the ever advancing frontier.

Freemasonry in America is a story of successive reinventions, says S. Brent Morris, a scholar of Masonry and editor of the Scottish Rite Journal. From 1790 to 1820, younger American Masons imported two new higher-degree systems of Masonry, the York Rite, following English traditions, and the Scottish Rite, following French practices. The Scottish Rite and the York Rite encouraged more ritual instruction in morality, even while promoting some fanciful ideas about the origins of the fraternity. (Perhaps the most influential was the legend that Masons descended from the medieval Knights Templar, an order that fell out of favor with the Roman Catholic Church before substantially disappearing in the 1300s.) The elaborate and secret new rites attracted members but also added to the suspicions of critics who already considered Masons to be elitists with far too many secrets to be trusted.

As Masonry revived in the wake of the anti-Masonic campaign, Masons cultivated a more modest style. Gone were the tavern revelry and open proposing of toasts that bothered evangelicals. The order itself "took on a more evangelical coloring," says William Moore, a historian at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and author of the forthcoming Masonic Temples: Freemasonry, Ritual Architecture, and Masculine Archetypes. "The books that Masons produced," Moore notes, "looked like Sunday school manuals with illustrations that looked like engravings from Victorian Bibles." Masons also began to direct charity efforts toward the larger community and not just toward fellow Masons and their families. And partly to quiet criticism from women, Masons created the Order of the Eastern Star and other affiliates for women to join. Even today, "mainstream Masonry is male only," says Morris, although state lodges set their own rules to a degree and there are some coed groups.

After the Civil War, and as the Gilded Age got going in the early 1870s, Masons again modified their role, becoming the model to more than 300 fraternal groups that appeared during the next 50 years. During this "golden age" of fraternal orders, Freemasonry and societies like the Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias provided a buffer against the dynamic, often cutthroat economy and an increasingly diverse society. Boosting their good works, including the support of schools and hospitals, Masons even found a way to blend fraternal conviviality with philanthropy, creating the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine in 1870. Open only to Freemasons who had completed York or Scottish Rite degrees, this festivity-oriented order celebrated the well-rounded personality in an age that was coming to value personality over older ideals of honor and character. Shriners learned to amuse while raising money for hospitals and ambitious Shrine temples.