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Masonic Waves

Myths persist. Membership ages. But the granddaddy of all fraternal organizations sticks to tradition.



So you want to become a Mason, eh? Enter the room. Climb the stairs. There are 15 of them in all. There are the first three, for the number of principal offices of the Masonic Lodge. Then there are five, for the number of human senses and the orders of architecture. Finish your climb with seven more, the number of liberal arts and sciences. Now that you’re on the top, rap on the door. It will open. Inside you’ll receive your “Degree.” It’s a poetic, allegorical monologue, recited from memory by a group of Masons.

“Listen to the content of what is being said,” says a handbook for those curious on joining up. “These are spiritual lessons given with great dignity. You should have no worries about entering a Masonic Lodge. The Degrees are simply lessons and you will be treated as the friend and brother that you are becoming.”

But even before all that, as a Mason in the making, you will kneel in front of the trestle board. There your blindfold, wrapped around your head before you entered one of the Masonic Temple’s rooms, will be removed.

Every culture has its ceremonies. The Jews hold bar mitzvahs. Muslims head the call of the muezzin. Christians baptize believers. Even though Freemasonry is not a religion, it, too, has ceremonies. The removal of the blindfold during the conference of a “Degree” is symbolic of sight. Once it’s removed, you can see, both literally and metaphorically. Duke Ellington, an initiated Mason in a Washington D.C. Lodge, even wrote a song about it: “I’m Beginning to See the Light.”

Among many other themes, Freemasonry is about “seeing.”

The words “secret society” have dogged the Masons for centuries. Never mind the fact that for decades people could see any room they wanted in the Salt Lake City Masonic Temple, and most Masonic Temples nationwide.

Just ask.

A grand, gray old frog in the middle of an urban pond, Salt Lake City’s Masonic Temple juts its monolithic chin out onto 650 East South Temple street every day. It has done so for 75 years.

Walk past it. No one can resist at least a cursory look. In fact, it’s hard to resist a serious extended look. In an age when most people shrug off the grandiose, it sends off a curious vibration.

“We have no secret rooms here, which disappoints a lot of people,” says Marrianne Ausseresses, the Masonic Lodge secretary who leads frequent tours. “But we have a lot of hallways.”

Make arrangements with Ausseresses, and you can even rent the banquet or auditorium out for music concerts, belly dancing, or a vegan dinner fund-raiser for animal rights. But don’t bring or expect any alcohol. Like the LDS Temple, this one is dry. Television crews love the place. So do university architecture students, who tour the Masonic Temple on a regular basis. With its intricately decorated rooms, it’s one hell of a showpiece.

With its ceremonies, initiation lectures and sometimes ostentatious regalia in the form of aprons or even full-on costumes, Freemasonry is the glam rock, the David Bowie, of fraternal orders. But even most of its “secrets” are public knowledge—if you have the fortitude and determination to make your way through several meaty books and reference materials. Scour your bookstore or library. The signs, tokens and words of each Masonic Order are more personal, and therefore more confidential. But not ironclad “secret.” A discerning Mason will tell you it’s simply a matter of privacy, a matter of holding something almost dear to your heart.

There is Freemasonry’s unique, controversial connection with Mormons. Every Joseph Smith biographer knows the LDS church founder was a Mason. Every Brigham Young biographer knows that the territorial ruler of Zion was also a Mason. A minor argument rages, and the research continues over what parts and how much of the Mormon Temple ceremony was culled from Freemasonry. Connections are easily made. The beehive was a Masonic symbol long before the founding of Utah. Salt Lake City’s LDS Temple is covered with offshoots of Masonic symbols—or not. Mind your manners if you broach the subject.

The Masonic pamphlet, A Gallery of 275 Famous Masons, states that while Smith was initiated in an Illinois Lodge in Nauvoo, he was later kicked out for “his misuse of the ceremonies” which later became the basis of the Mormon Temple rituals.

The Mormons fired their own shot. “We have the true Masonry,” said Apostle and member of the First Presidency Heber C. Kimball in 1858. “The Masonry of today is received from the apostasy which took place in the days of Solomon and David. They have now and then a thing that is correct, but we have the real thing.” So there.

The debate might be best left to scholars. John L. Brooke’s book, The Refiner’s Fire, is an academe’s feast of lengthy, albeit dry, exposition on this touchy theme. Brooke links Freemasonry with hermeticism, an obscure religious attitude toward spiritual alchemy that attempts to transform men into more perfect creatures. He then links Freemasonry to the language and religious fabric of Mormonism. More than a few Masons disavow any link to hermeticism, and Mormons argue around any conclusion that Freemasonry played a hand in their church.

When the Masons first set up shop in Utah, there was hardly a dialogue between the two parties. Relations have thawed. So much so, that Masons don’t give the old quarrel much thought.

As Blaine Simons goes about his day as Secretary of the Grand Lodge and the Masonic Foundation, he notices a fair share of LDS missionaries asking Ausseresses about the tour schedule.

“We’re glad to take them through. They’re real nice, and they seem to have some prior knowledge of Masonry. We’ll take anyone through a tour when we have the time,” says Simons. “We get lots of correspondence from people around the nation asking us about our relationship with the LDS church. We tell them it’s just fine.”

Today, the Masonic Temple has a number of Mormon members among its various Lodges. But no one keeps count where religion is concerned. No one asks, because men of all religions are welcome to join. The one ironclad rule of the organization is that religion and politics are never broached inside the meetinghouse. Once again, Freemasonry is not a religion. But every Mason must profess belief in a Supreme Being.

For many young men, the impressive list of Masons past is enough to pique an interest. Mozart, an enthusiastic Mason, wrote a whole opera, Die Zauberflöte. It’s rife with subtext about the order’s esoteric meaning. Poets such as Pushkin and Goethe joined up. So did eminent writers James Boswell, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Oscar Wilde and French novelist Stendhal. Statesmen of eminent rank—Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—made regular visits to their Masonic Lodges. So did such disparate personalities as film director D.W. Griffith, escape artist Harry Houdini and artist Marc Chagall. George Washington couldn’t get enough of it. A Mason for more than 30 years, he wrote, “A just application of the principles on which the Masonic order is founded must be promotive of private virtue and public prosperity.”

Salt Lake City’s Masonic Temple is liberally adorned with portraits of the nation’s first president. Tucked away in the corner of a window in Simons’ office, next to his formidable desk, there stands a small figurine of the Founding Father—wearing his Mason’s apron, natch.

But like any organization of comparable size, the Masons have had their stinkers as well. History hasn’t been kind to the memory of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

There are mild, yet eager, attempts to keep the Masonic ranks flush with younger members. Bumper stickers adorned with Masonic symbols are more common: “To Be One, Ask One,” or “Real Men Wear Aprons.” Some Masons, such as Simons, scoff lightly at reducing Freemasonry to sloganeering.

At 32 and 30 years of age respectively, John Liley and Travis West would probably cringe at being tagged “The New Generation of Masons.” They have a healthy respect for their elders, who give them a Masonic bridge into the fraternal organization’s future. Unlike their elders, they’re more comfortable about joking around.

Coincidentally, an all-seeing eye mural at a local coffeeshop stares down on the interview table. “That’s why we chose this place,” laughs Liley, pointing to the mural. “You’re being watched!”

Liley fostered his Masonic motives largely around ethnicity. His genealogy goes back to the Sinclair family, hereditary Grand Masters of the Masons in Scotland. Before entering his degree as a Master Mason in 1998, Liley’s aunt shipped him his grandfather’s Masonic ring from an old safety deposit box in Boston.

His journey had come full circle with his family’s roots. “In a weird way, I got to meet my grandfather, whom I’d never known,” Liley says. “Here I was, going through something he also had gone through.”

West’s journey into Masonry was more roundabout. No one in his family had been a Mason. But, curiously enough, both his father and grandfather were “operative” Masons, or actual bricklayers. It was in the U.S. Army in Germany that West met another Mason, also an American. The questions started, and didn’t stop. West was definitely interested, but the Mason that West had befriended said it would be better if he looked into more aspects of the fraternal organization for himself. West discovered his friend was right.

“That’s because there’s magic in it,” West says.

Not magic as in sleight of hand, but as in a sense of delight or wonder. Like Liley, West recalls vividly the night he became an Entered Apprentice, and the blindfold dropped from his eyes.

“It was magic in the same way my marriage or the birth of my child was magic,” West says. “You’re thrust from one world to another when the blindfold is taken off.”

Lilely embarked on extensive research before he took the plunge. Not because he feared discovering anything nefarious about Masons and Freemasonry. He only wanted to be familiar with it. He read the “codes,” or initiation texts, for the first and second degrees. By the time he was ready for his third degree, he didn’t want to read it in advance. That would spoil it, in a sense.

He’s fielded the odd question from people curious about Mason. “Someone once asked me if Masons all got together to study geometry, almost as if we do math problems,” Liley says with a chuckle, referring to the “G” on his Masonic ring.

On one level, people get so caught up in Freemasonry’s symbols, mysterious history and the imposing nature of Masonic Temples that they have a hard time understanding its simplicity. It’s really about the somewhat lost art of striving to become a better person. Love, charity, honesty. Stuff like that.

“And all that stuff was clearly in you before you wanted to be a Mason,” Liley says. “You were the young man who shoveled your neighbor’s walk, the young man who helped others out. Freemasonry is about laying the bricks for the betterment of your own character.”

Lilely and West both feel an undercurrent under way, a time when, someday soon, fraternal organizations like the Masons will once again be on the ascendancy. Once people get fed up with watching television every night after work, once people come back to the vital bonds of friendship and family, and once people realize the importance of charitable works, who’s to say Freemasonry won’t see a new day? The order evolved long ago as the favorite social gathering of rulers and aristocrats into an entity where more everyday men could meet, talk and interact.

“There are a lot of guys who just go home and never leave the house after work. It does seem in a sense that the world is becoming more closed. But you can’t just close yourself off from the world,” West says. “Especially when, really, we’re all interconnected.”

Bill F. Baker, whose enthusiasm for Freemasonry earned him the title of United Grand Imperial Council Red Cross of Constantine, has read several hundred books on the fraternal order. “If you’re inclined to do so, it’s a subject you could research for the rest of your life. It’s helped me culturally, and certainly morally. The moral precepts—if a man takes to obligations of the various degrees—are bound to make him a better man, husband, father and citizen,” Baker said. “There certainly is a lot of published information on Freemasonry that would defeat the assertion that it’s secret.”

One thing Freemasonry isn’t is self-promoting. No one’s pressured to join. You must know a Mason personally for six months, then you can consider putting in an application. There is no centralized marketing department or even an active public relations campaign in place. The rules were bent a little with newspaper advertisements during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games inviting people into the Temple for a tour.

A lot of interested would-be applicants find their way to the Masons via the Internet at or For a while, Friendship Nights at the Temple generated a lot of RSVPs, a lot of talks over coffee for men interested in joining. But it’s still an open question as to whether a steady stream of new Masons will replace the aging ones. Then again, membership in all fraternal organizations across the board is down, a trend that alarms some sociologists, who see thriving social organizations as vital to national strength. Not ones to shout their virtues from the street corner, Masonic orders diligently fund all sorts of charitable organizations. Shriners Hospital treats children and burn victims. The Scottish Rite funds instruction for the learning disabled. The York Rite hosts a special charity for eye operations and funds Alzheimer’s research. The Masonic Foundation oversees university scholarships.

“I’m pretty enthused about what it is we do here,” says Grand Secretary Simons. A retired public employee of the state’s Department of Education, he’s belonged to the Masonic fraternity for 30 years. “But it’s true that we’re losing numbers. Certainly we’re not replacing them very fast. It is an issue.”

It’s just a matter of tapping into the right men for membership. An “Imperial Shrine” survey by the Masons several years ago found that a sizable number of men nationally still performed charity work.

“What it really showed is that there’s a lot of people who would find this kind of organization interesting if they knew how to access it,” Simons notes. “There’s a challenge to make these organizations better known.”

With the Masons, too, there’s a certain challenge in making it better understood.

Even the Mason’s own literature, which explains much, is still but a cursory overview. A 21-page paper written by the Masons themselves covers such topics as “What is Masonry?” (“a system or morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols”), “What Masonry Stands For” (“Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. … Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, Justice”) and the “Origin of Masonry.” But in the end, it concludes that “these statements are not exhaustive. We have just touched the fringe of a great theme.”

There are competing, and coexisting theories about Freemasonry’s origins. Some maintain it evolved exclusively out of the Masonic or bricklaying guilds of the Middle Ages, the same men who built the great cathedrals. These craftsmen wore aprons, conducted their trade by way of handshakes and certain signs. It was all such a good time that, even after their services were no longer needed and most construction stopped, they carried on with their traditions. But instead of being Masons in the “operative” or actual sense, they became Masons in the “speculative” or metaphorical sense. Designing and building great structures was hence analogous to the building of character and virtue.

Other historical researchers, one by the name of John J. Robinson in particular, passionately argue that the Masons instead have their roots in the Templar Order of the First Crusade, which dates back to the Jerusalem of 1118. Because King Phillip IV of France owed bucketloads of money borrowed from the Templars’ well-heeled banking system, and because Pope Clement V loathed the Templars’ religious independence, this mysterious band of warriors found themselves persecuted, if not outright tortured. The Templars, many of them French, found refuge in Scotland and the rest of the British Isles.

“There remained no reasonable doubt in my mind that the original concept of the secret society that came to call itself Freemasonry has been born as a society of mutual protection among fugitive Templars and their associates in Britain,” Robinson posits in his book, Born in Blood. “They possessed a rich tradition of secret operations that had been raised to the highest level through their association with the intricacies of Byzantine politics … and the intrigues of the Moslem courts which they met alternately on the battlefield or at the conference table.”

His is just one opinion. Even Robinson, who became a Mason late in his life, admitted in the same book that most, if not all, theories about Freemasonry’s origins are loose around the edges. “Not one of them is supported by any universally accepted evidence,” he wrote.

Thomas Paine, America’s own voice of the Revolution, knew as much 150 years earlier. “From every thing that can be collected from [Freemasons’] own accounts of Masonry, their real secret is no other than their origin, which but few of them understand; and those who do envelope it in mystery,” Paine wrote.

Theories on the origins of Freemasonry are almost like dessert. Few can resist them. Not even Paine. For him, Freemasonry clearly had its roots in the religion of the ancient Druids, and its secrecy evolved as Christianity swept Europe and the Druidic tradition was threatened with persecution. These are the kinds of theories—indeed, any theory that links Freemasonry with the occult or pagan tendencies—that upset Masons most.

All sorts of speculations are thrown about. Even in best-selling books. The Secret Architecture of our Nation’s Capital, by David Ovason, contends that Pennsylvania Avenue, Constitution Avenue and the Old Post Office connect in forms of Masonic symbolism. The Hiram Key: Pharaohs, Freemasons and the Discovery of the Secret Scrolls of Jesus connects Freemasonry with ancient Christianity. Another book hints that, instead of being a rebellious Jew, Jesus was instead part of an Egyptian religion.

Some of these wild tomes are penned by Masons. Some aren’t. What’s important to remember, you’ll be told, is that even if one Mason seems to have gone off the deep end with his own book, he certainly can’t speak for all Masons. And Masons are worldwide, except in renegade holdouts such as North Korea and Iran. Communist regimes, as well as Hitler and Mussolini, banned Freemasonry while their rule lasted.

Not that Masons don’t still take a drubbing. The Southern Baptist Convention, which also has a problem with Mormons and gays, stated in 1993 that “many tenets and teachings of Freemasonry are not compatible with Christianity or Southern Baptist doctrine.” There are those who believe that Masons shielded Jack the Ripper from eventual justice, that they’re connected with the Trilateral Commission, helped found the Ku Klux Klan, caused the French Revolution of 1789, and/or plotted to kill the Pope and John F. Kennedy. That’s not even the half of it. Some anti-Masons believe, apparently straight-faced, that Masons know the exact location of the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail or Jesus’ cross of crucifixion.

By far the craftiest anti-Masonic libel, and the most difficult to shake, came from Frenchman Leo Taxil, who forged documents falsely attributed to American Mason Albert Pike. In these pamphlets, Pike was quoted in an 1889 Bastille Day speech stating, “Lucifer is God.” In 1897, Taxil admitted that all his pamphlets linking Freemasonry to devil worship were fraudulent.

Attacks on Freemasonry continued on into the 20th century. It featured prominently in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. During his prison stint, the popular civil-rights leader was taught by his Black Muslim inductee, Reginald, that “The devil has only 33 degrees of knowledge—known as Masonry.” Malcolm X himself went on to teach other Black Muslims that the white man, or devil, used Masonry to rule other people. The fact that famous African-Americans the likes of William “Count” Basie, Duke Ellington and light heavyweight boxing champion “Sugar Ray” Robinson belonged to Masonic Lodges apparently didn’t count for much.

From a public-relations standpoint, what’s most remarkable about the Masons is their restraint in answering critics, despite the fact that Freemasonry so frequently pops up as the all-purpose flypaper of paranoids and conspiratorial minds.

“Those kinds of questions and accusations have been around a long time and will probably be around a long time to come,” says Simons. “My guess is that people don’t really want to let that go. Some people are going to believe in conspiracy no matter what you tell them. I guess some people still think the Rothschilds are still going to take over the world.”

Perhaps vicious allegations from the outside are one reason so many Masonic Temples look so imposing. There’s an immovable, eternal quality to Salt Lake City’s Temple. Weather, wear and tear, and other acts of God aside, the biggest nuisance the Masonic Temple has to put up with is skateboarders. They love that ramp at the front west end, the parking lot out back, and the front steps.

In a way, Simons sees himself and other Masons as the keepers of a tradition. Then there’s the larger tradition of fraternal organizations, a tradition in gradual decline as people spend more time in front of the television or computer.

“It’s something worth being concerned about. As people’s lives change, as society changes, hopefully they will look at this organization as something that could add value to their lives. I don’t think Masons will just fall off the face of the earth,” he says.

Through most of the early part of the 20th century, it’s estimated that eight out of every 10 men belonged to a fraternal organization. During the Masonic Temple’s more boisterous early days, people danced on the tiled roof. That kind of party atmosphere is gone, mainly because the roof started to leak from wear.

“I was up on the roof just yesterday with an air-conditioning repair man,” Simons says. “And as I stood up there, I just thought, ‘What a view!’ No wonder it was popular to have dances up there.”

Even outside the Masonic Temple, it’s about “seeing.”