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From The Northern Light/ May 1993
The Search for Masonic Secrets
Copyright 1992 by C. Bruce Hunter
All Rights Reserved
Reprinted by permission
In the long history of the craft, nothing
has caused as much controversy and commotion
as the organization's commitment to secrecy.
This one thing has generated rumors so
fanciful that they have become myths. It has
produced suspicion and satire, mistrust and
ridicule. And it supports a mystique that has
both helped and hurt the organization in ways
that can only be guessed.
Unfortunately, this mystique is not
entirely benign. While the members enjoy
their fellowship, the public is left to
imagine what goes on behind the closed doors
of the lodge. Imagination is a powerful tool,
and through it the very features that make
Freemasonry attractive to its members give
rise to a great variety of fantastic images.
Some who view Freemasonry from the outside
believe that it is a sinister clique. In
their minds, the lodge is a place where
tonight's clandestine Whispers become
tomorrow's government policy and where men
gain power by knowing the secret word, not by
winning popular elections.
This view is not hard to understand. The
mere fact that a thing is hidden spurs
curiosity. And an organization that actually
flaunts its secrecy will certainly conjure up
images of conspiracy and forbidden
Anyone who doubts that the Masons flaunt
their secrecy needs to go no farther than the
popular press. Newspapers and magazines carry
the occasional photo of Freemasons posing in
their embroidered aprons and white gloves.
Chains of office hang heavily on their
breasts, and some wear funny hats. But the
captions never explain the accouterments.
They only tease the reader, who is then left
to speculate about the meaning of these
peculiar garments and the strange emblems
that decorate them.
This may seem trivial. No real harm is done
if the Masons make fleeting displays of their
exotic regalia then go behind closed doors to
conduct their business. But when we examine
the phenomenon, we begin to glimpse the real
nature of Masonic secrecy, How the craft
perceives its relationship to the general
public is at the heart of the issue, and the
strange emblems they use in their rituals are
enticing clues to the events that launched
their commitment to secrecy in the first
The style of Masonic uniforms has obviously
been handed down from earlier times.
Tradition claims that the apron and gloves
are descendants of those used by medieval
stone masons, who needed leather garments to
protect their clothes and hands. Curiously,
medieval illustrations do not show stone
workers clothed in this way. The square,
compasses and other tools were supposedly
used to measure stones and architectural
plans. And such implements as the trowel and
mallet helped shape and assemble the masonry.
But again history does not place all of these
tools in the hands of the craftsmen from whom
the modern Masons say they evolved.
In addition, the claim that stonemason
became Freemason doesn't account for the
chains of office and other emblems of which
the modern craft is so fond. Nor does it
explain how the everyday gear of laborers
came to be transformed into elaborate
uniforms of fine leather and silk and gold
braid. The pomp of today's Masonic regalia
and ceremonies is more characteristic of the
Renaissance than the middle ages. They are
more the stuff of government processions and
military ceremonies than of the old craft
Most Freemasons have only a vague notion of
how such an odd collection of antiques came
to be adopted by their by their organization.
In fact, most know very little about the
history of their fraternity. They accept its
emblems as symbols of the moral values they
are expected to uphold. But precisely when
and how these things came to be associated
with the fraternity is a mystery to them.
Moreover, the members of the craft pay
little attention to the quaint appearance of
their regalia. Since the new member leaves
his initiation believing that he understands
the meanings of the craft's symbols and the
traditions to which they refer, he doesn't
think to question them. And while he quickly
becomes comfortable with the regalia, he may
just as quickly lose sight of the fact that
the public sees all of this differently.
The emblems become a focal point for the
non-member's belief that Masons are privy to
knowledge - and perhaps clandestine dealings
- to which the rest of the world has no
This kind of perception is bound to
manifest itself in tangible ways. And it has.
Over the years, criticism of Freemasonry has
become something of a cottage industry.
Dedicated critics travel far and wide, often
at their own expense, to deliver their
anti-Masonic message. They appear on
television. They write letters to editors,
articles and books, all directed to an
audience that often seems fascinated by the
lurid accounts that are the stock in trade of
the anti-Mason.
What do the Masons think of all this
commotion? As might be expected, it has not
gone unnoticed.
But this is an internal debate. The
Masons don't publicize their concern. The
non-Mason, hearing no reply, mistakes silence
for indifference. Nevertheless, the debate is
real and conscientious.
On one side is the argument that secrecy
accomplishes nothing of importance. Its
proponents question the need for keeping
anything confidential and suggest ways the
organization can open itself to public view.
Other Masons argue that secrecy is an
integral part of the craft. They believe that
doing away with it would only do harm. The
secrets of Freemasonry, so they say, are
symbolic elements intimately involved with
Masonic teachings. Changing them would alter
the basic nature of the organization. These
men value the traditions represented by an
elaborate system of symbols and ceremonies.
Secure in their belief that their fraternity
harbors nothing sinister, they see no
advantage to fixing what they insist isn't
Part of the mystique, of course, has no
substance at all. It arises from confusing a
lack of information with an overt attempt to
conceal it. Many people know so little about
Freemasonry simply because they don't know
where to look.
In short, public suspicion of Freemasonry
owes more to a lack of publicity than to a
deliberate conspiracy. It would seem, then,
that a brief look at any of the several
general histories of the organization would
dispel most of the misunderstanding that has
built up around it. But there lies another
problem. A book or two about the craft would
clear up a lot of misunderstanding, but only
if the reader could understand and believe
what they say. Masonic literature, it turns
out, cannot be read; it must be interpreted.
A quick survey of books about Freemasonry
reveals quite different and contradictory
descriptions of the organization. One book
describes Freemasonry as a noble organization
that promotes the highest moral values.
Another depicts it as a system of demon
worship, riddled with drunkenness and
debauchery. Even here, the rumors and
suspicions intrude. Claims that are otherwise
heard in passing are codified in Masonic
books, thus taking on the aura of authority
that is associated with the written word.
Still, the written word is a tricky thing.
Obviously not everything that has been
written about the craft can be true. Some of
it must be inaccurate. And just as obviously,
some of it must be accurate. But anyone who
does not already know at least part of the
truth will be hard pressed to tell which is
For centuries people have tried to discover
the origins of Freemasonry. Much of their
work has been futile be cause they were
looking for an ancient organization that
evolved into the modern fraternity. But
Freemasonry has never been a single
organization. It has always been a tradition.
One of the characteristics of an allegory
is that it does not provide answers. It is,
after all, only a vehicle for communicating
symbols . And symbols merely direct the
attention in the right direction. The rest is
left to the individual.
The individual Mason is free to interpret
the lodge's lessons as he will. The ritual
invites him to do so. Once he has been shown
the craft's legends and given its secrets, he
may conclude that the lessons are intended
either to separate or to unite, that the
fraternity's passwords and secret signs are
designed to exclude the enemy or to welcome
the friend.
One way leads him to believe he is under
an obligation to keep secrets he may not
understand. It gives him a preoccupation with
the critics of his organization. And it makes
him lose sight of the very lessons to which
he should be paying the greatest attention.
The other way leads him to believe that the
penalties are symbols, and that the secrets
are there to point the way to moral lessons.
It makes him under stand that, although parts
of the ritual are considered secret, the
lessons that underlie them should be shared
rather than concealed.
The difference between these two approaches
is more than academic. It can have very far
reaching effects. This is the real cautionary
tale of Freemasonry. And it is both a lesson
and a warning ,
Modern Freemasons hold the spirit and
reputation of their fraternity in their
hands. They will act the part of Hiram or the
part of the ruffians, depending on the way
they interpret the legend of the ritual.
Both the preoccupation some Masons have
with secrecy and the obsessive attacks of its
critics are based on a common point of view.
That point of view binds the Mason and his
critic together in a bond that is stronger
than the Masonic bond of fellowship. It
promotes intolerance and exclusiveness. And
it contradicts the benevolent spirit Masonry
has taught since its beginnings.
Unfortunately, too many people who deal
with modern Freemasonry -members and critics
alike - go no farther than the form. They are
satisfied with what they find on the surface
and fail to see the meaning that underlies it
all. Thus a system that was carefully
constructed to bring people together is too
often used to keep them apart. Telling a man
something - any thing -then warning him that
it is a secret is the best way to separate
him from the people around him. It forces him
to choose between hiding his knowledge from
others and betraying those who gave it to
In the end, it is probably better to
understand a thing than to be mystified by it.