Inside the Masons

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

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Satanic hoax. Despite the fraternity's good works, myths of dark doings continued to haunt Freemasonry. In the late 1880s, a mischievous French writer and former Mason, known by his pen name Leo Taxil, set out to play on Catholic fears of the order. He claimed to expose the order's greatest secret, known only to the highest-degree Masons: that the secret religion of Masonry was the worship of Lucifer. Even after Taxil confessed to the hoax in 1897, the myth served as a staple of anti-Masonic lore, peddled in books like evangelist Pat Robertson's New World Order.

But Masonry's greatest challenge was not its susceptibility to use in conspiracy fantasies. For all Masons did to engage with the larger society, and despite having a membership roll in the millions, Masonry seemed less central to America of the Roaring Twenties and its Babbitt-like "joiners" than did groups like Kiwanis and Rotary, which were more openly glad-handing and had far fewer ritual demands. Yet the old fraternal order saw one more boom. After the war ended, "the Masonic fraternity realized the profits of its hard labor between the Great Depression and World War II," writes Tabbert. "The craft was more accepted and appreciated than . . . prior to 1929." Between 1945 and 1960, membership soared from 2.8 million to a peak of 4 million.

From that pinnacle, the order has slowly lost more than half its members. To more and more Americans who spend their leisure in private pursuits--including heavy TV viewing--the monthly meetings and volunteer commitments of fraternal life seem too much. But in recent years, says Morris, the rate of decline has stabilized. Historian Moore suggests a reason: "A lot of men are joining at retirement age." With the rapid graying of the U.S. population, the lodges may begin to fill with people who have more spare time than most working Americans do. And who knows? Those aging boomers might even figure out how to bring younger Americans back into the craft.

In 1882, England's Puck magazine depicted the Masons as apron-clad buffoons.

Masons raise a glass to their lips, drink a toast, then slam the heavy-bottomed vessel down to mimic the sound of cannons.

Every Freemason has an apron--a stylized contemporary version of the stonemason's utilitarian garb.

The Order of Odd Fellows, like the Freemasons, is a fraternal society whose members are committed to good works.