Freemasons Say They're Needed Now More Than Ever. So Why Are Their Ranks Dwindling?
Freemasons have long wielded the qualities most irresistible to thriller writers and conspiracy theorists — secrecy, politics, power and celebrity. Among their members are founding fathers, presidents, musicians, artists and businessmen. But today, as membership plummets within one of the oldest international fraternal organizations to ever exist, a new question persists: What is the point?
The challenges facing the organization have been decades in the making. While part of the problem is that Americans simply don't join clubs or fraternities as often as they used to, some critics argue that masons have also struggled to keep up with the changing face of the nation. Many lodges still don't allow women to join, and others have struggled to attract members of color. In recent years,membership has dropped roughly 75% from a high of more than 4.1 million in 1959 — when about 4.5% of all American men were members.
Within the organization's ranks, some members hoped the coronavirus pandemic might offer an opportunity to shed its reputation for mystery and secrecy and instead showcase the charitable work that masons perform in communities nationwide. But that hasn't been the case. Instead, the virus continues to sweep the nation, keeping men away from their lodges and making it even more difficult to induct new members — something some say is too steeped in tradition to be attempted over Zoom.
"I don't know, really, how we combat [the loss of members]. If I had the answer to that we would have solved the problem years ago," saidChristopher Hodapp, a historian and author of multiple books on Freemasonry. "But I'll tell you, something that's scaring the hell out of me is this COVID shutdown thing. God help us all when we stand back and survey the crumbling wreckage that that has caused."
Explaining the decline
Like many organizations facing an uncertain future — one that could be more online and less interconnected — Freemasons are approaching an inflection point.
It wouldn't be the first time. Lodges saw a big dip in membership in 1826 following the mysterious disappearance of William Morgan, who allegedly broke his vow of secrecy as a Freemason by working on a book revealing the organization's secrets. The scandal fueled a national political movement tasked with taking the fraternity down. But Freemasons survived the scandal — and others that followed.
"Certainly in the 18th century and moving through the middle part of the 19th century, you could be powerful and influential without being a Freemason, but it was more likely that you would have been a Freemason," said Jessica Harland-Jacobs, an associate professor of history at the University of Florida who studies Freemasonry.
Many Freemasons see the decline in membership as symptomatic of the overall decline in all voluntary associations, rather than a problem specific to their fraternity. Membership has been steadily fallingin everything from church groups and school associations to labor unions and Greek organizations, according to a 2019 congressional report. The Joint Economic Committee report found that membership rates in some organizations fell from 75% in 1974 to 62% in 2004.At 52%, the drop was steepest among fraternal organizations like the Freemasons or the Knights of Columbus.
Part of the function of many fraternal organizations was to serve as a social safety net of sorts for its members, a driving force behind some membership, according to Harland-Jacobs. Until about the 1930s, she said, part of the appeal of groups like the Freemasons is that they offered a way for members to acquire insurance.
"Some might've been more interested in the social aspect and some might've been more interested in the insurance aspect: These are the days before actual insurance, so it would be nice to have your brethren to rely on if you needed them," she said.
John Dickie, a historian at University College London and author of The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World, also points to the idea that the secrecy of the fraternity that could have once intrigued men is less alluring.
"I think possibly actually the issue is that secrecy has lost something of its magic," Dickie said. "Maybe, we've become a little bit fatigued by the whole exposé draw and in an age when it can take two minutes or less on Google to find out what the Freemasons secrets really are, I'm not sure that they can really hold that much mystique for members anymore. It's a trick that they've played with great success since 1717, or even before. One wonders what success it will have in the coming decades."
Some outside the organization say that the Freemasons would be able to more easily offset the decline in membership if the group was seen as more inclusive toward women and people of color.
"[Freemasons] should tackle head on those issues: secrecy, race, gender, sexuality, all of those things," Dickie said of how the fraternity could attract new members. But if that were to happen, Dickie added, it could backfire and lead to immediate "ruptures in Freemasonry" because some men are in the fraternity precisely because of those "limitations."
"A man, regardless of his religion, regardless of his social position, and regardless of his race is eligible to be a member of the brotherhood. That promise is obviously really attractive to groups who are traditionally excluded," said Harland-Jacobs. But the history of freemasonry, she said, "has been the history of this tension between this inclusive promise and oftentimes it's exclusive practices."
Men of any race are able to join Freemasonry, but that wasn't always the case. At the time of its inception, you had to be a free man to join — meaning people who were enslaved could not join. When Prince Hall, an abolitionist Black man, attempted to join a lodge in the late 1700s, he was denied, despite being a free man. He, along with more than a dozen other Black men, eventually started their own branch of Freemasonry called Prince Hall Freemasonry, which is still active today.
Membership is more complicated for women. Not all lodges in the U.S. will initiate women, and even if they did, that is unlikely to reverse drops in membership, according to Brent Morris, the director of strategic communications at the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in Washington, D.C.
"I don't think there would be a rush of people to the doors," said Morris, adding that membership was "a social experience that the men seek out and enjoy." Morris noted, however, that women are able to join affiliated fraternities like the Order of the Eastern Star or the Order of the Amaranth.
On the issue of race, Morris said it was a challenge Freemasons have made major progress on.
"I've been a Mason almost 50 years — 49 and a half years — and I have seen breathtaking changes that have occurred during that period with acceptance of people of color, with acceptance for Prince Hall masonry, with Black men joining mainstream lodges, white men joining Prince Hall lodges ... and it's certainly a breathtaking step in the right direction," he said.
Friendships and escape
Morris joined Freemasonry because he wanted a community of supportive men akin to his college fraternity and says he was happy to discover that it helped him "establish friendships at a local level and friendships that you might not have otherwise."
"One of the things that I found so very appealing about Freemasonry is men from different backgrounds," Morris said. "It's nice to go somewhere ... and socialize on a basis other than your occupation."
Freemasons argue that the reason to uphold the fraternity goes beyond maintaining historic traditions or belonging to something that once bore immense influence. It might not be a secret society full of presidents and powerful men pulling the strings of society from the shadows, but that's never been the point for these members. Instead, they joined to establish friendships outside of work, and vibe with a community that isn't divisive. At a time in which polarization and division in the U.S. is growing more intense, Freemasons say it's refreshing to spend time with people who aren't arguing.
"People are isolated," Hodapp said. "People are locked in their apartments, or locked in their parents' basement at the age of 35, and don't associate with each other, and social media has them screaming at the computer screen at 3:00 in the morning because somebody told them to get stuffed over something. Every Mason you talk to will stand there and say, 'Yeah, we're needed now more than we've ever been needed.'"
The challenge, he said, is finding a way to communicate that.
"How do you get the message of, yes, there is a place where you can go where people aren't at each other's throats, there's a place that deliberately stops the kind of arguments that are making your life miserable."
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.