Secret, sinister and controversial? Why Freemasonry is just misunderstood
Forget the funny handshakes, says a leading historian. ‘The Craft’ held the far-flung British empire together, helped forged the American nation and welcomes members from any race or creed
adapted it to their own needs. But the real secret of Freemasonry’s success, as of the mistrust and loathing it has always inspired, is secrecy itself.
When a man becomes a Mason, his rites of admission are conducted in secret. In the course of those rites, he learns many secrets: such as the strange handshake that vouches for his Masonic status. (Masons call it the “grip”.)
THE symbols whose real meanings Masons learn are also secret. Just to make sure, new Masons also have to swear spooky oaths not to betray the secrets they have learned, including: “Under no less a penalty… than that of having my throat cut across, my tongue torn out by the root, and my body buried in the sand of the sea at low water mark, a cable’s length from the shore.”
So the Freemasons must be a secret society, right?
Ask any Mason and he will deny it. “We are not a secret society, but a society with secrets,” is the standard response, which is hardly reassuring.
Anyone with even a mildly suspicious frame of mind is bound to assume the Brothers have something to hide. Yet the secrecy issue is not at all as straightforward as it might seem.
For one thing, Freemasonry’s secrets are not very secret at all.
People have been publishing exposés of the Craft since at least 1730. Today, two minutes on Google will reveal everything you might care to know.When it comes down to it, when all the mysterious allegories, myths and oaths, are stripped away, what Masons are actually hiding is a series of very elementary moral principles: be a good person, embrace tolerance and respect for your fellow human beings. Heart-warming ideas, to be sure, but hardly earth-shattering. So then why all the fuss about secrecy? The best answer comes from John Coustos, a London Mason who was tortured by the Portuguese Inquisition in 1743.
Faced with the terrifying prospect of the rack, Coustos confessed everything, admitting that one point of Masonic secrecy was just to attract new members, “as Secrecy naturally excited Curiosity, this prompted great Numbers of Persons to enter into this Society”.
All the talk of secrecy among Freemasons is not a way of hiding anything. Rather it is a way to sprinkle a bit of solemnity and sacredness on Masonry’s rituals.
It is actually a kind of ritual game, and the blood-curdling threats in its oaths are not meant to be carried out.
Which would be all very well, except that Freemasonry’s secrecy gives its enemies a licence to imagine all kinds of sinister goings-on in the Lodges. For the Catholic Church, the Masons were heretics at best, Satanists at worst.
The Portuguese Inquisitors who interrogated John Coustos tortured him despite his confession. They were not convinced Masonry could be as innocent as he claimed.
For communists, they were a capitalist clique. For Fascists and Nazis, they were an alliance of subversives and Jews.
For many Islamic rulers, they are Zionist agents. In Britain in the 1980s, a crank journalist caused huge problems for Freemasons when he blamed them for corruption in the police and judiciary.
A Parliamentary Select Committee found no evidence to back up the claims, but the mud seemed to stick all the same.
Ever since then, the Freemasons have been trying to revive their image, and recruit young members into what is now a greying organisation, led by the Duke of Kent, now 84, who was elected Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1967.
AS English Freemasonry’s governing body it has a new PR and communications
team. Both are women, incidentally. Freemasons’ Hall in London’s Covent Garden is the holy of holies of English Freemasonry – the nearest thing the Masons have to theVatican.
But far from being secret, it makes visitors very welcome these days. Inside, amid all the marble and stained glass, there is a fascinating museum. And its library is open to all.
Being a Mason will never appeal to everyone. The Craft will be judged too male, pale, and stale by many.
But if you are intrigued, my advice is simply to do what I did: sit down with a Brother and start asking questions. I have found Masons from as far apart as India and Indiana, Sicily and the Isles of Scilly, to be unfailingly open to discussion, and passionate about their Masonry.