You've seen their mysterious buildings, seen men coming and going, seen the strange symbols etched above the doorways. You've always associated Freemasonry with a sense of foreboding; Masons feel vaguely sinister in a way you can't quite explain, probably because you can't even explain what their organization is. "What do Freemasons do?" you've thought. "Who are the Freemasons?" Let's put it this way: when it comes to stories of conspiracies and secret organizations, don't believe the hype.
This list breaks down the essential facts about Freemasons: what they do, why they exist, what goes on in their meetings. Even the Freemasons' "secret" symbols are broken down. And in the end, unless you're afraid of gatherings of old white dudes, Masons are really nothing to fear. Keep reading these Freemason facts to find out what goes on behind closed doors.
A Lot of Famous Dudes Were MasonsPhoto: David Martin / Wikimedia Commons
George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill, Mozart, Davy Crockett, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, Gerald Ford, Henry Ford, John Wayne, and even Colonel Sanders were all Freemasons. Bringing together such diverse people from a variety of industries and backgrounds does beg the question: what are they doing in there? It's easy to let your imagination run wild when world leaders are rubbing elbows with magicians in secret meetings.
Freemasonry Is Basically Just a Social Club
Sorry to burst your bubble, but magicians and political leaders were definitely not conspiring to... well, do anything at all, really.
Freemasonry as we know it now got its start in London in the early 1700s. Since medieval times, Freemasonry had been a guild for stonemasons, but eventually, other men began joining too. In 1717, the first Grand Lodge for "gentlemen Masons" was built. And that's when the conspiracies started to swirl.
Townspeople saw men from all different walks of life coming and going from the Lodge and began speculating about what they were up to. Rumors swirled; they were up to something, they just had to be. What could all those men possibly have in common?
Let's look at this from another angle: you're a dude in 1717. You have a job, but outside of that, you've got literally nothing to do. Doesn't a social club where you can relax and talk to your fellow dudes sound appealing? Yep, that's how Freemasonry got started: it was just a bunch of guys who wanted to chill and blow off steam.
But What About the Religious Aspects of Masonry?Photo: David Williamson, King Aethelstan / National Potrait Gallery/ Wikipedia Commons
Okay, wait. They're a social club? But you could've sworn there was some religious aspect to it, right? Well, you're not entirely wrong.
Remember how Freemasonry got its start in medieval times as a guild for stone workers? While their exact origins are unclear, Masonic guilds in Medieval England were made up of trade craftsmen that undertook a variety of building projects using stone. A document called the Regius Poem sheds some light on early Masonic activities. Historians date it somewhere between 1390 and 1450.
The first part of the poem describes how the English King Athelstan (924-939) brought masonry techniques to England and gave stonemasons instructions on how to behave and how the nobles should treat them. They were given moral directions that included going to church, not employing thieves, and refusing to take bribes. The second part of the poem lays out employment codes, including not making the masons work by night and treating apprentices properly. The poem ends with warnings for those that do not follow these articles and rules.
So when Masonry moved from a stoneworker's guild to a social club, they kept a lot of the traditions outlined in the poem, including the guidelines for living a moral life. Today, Masons are required to believe in some type of higher being, but each member is allowed to choose which religion they follow.
Freemason Secrecy, Condemnation, and Power in AmericaPhoto: Snapshots of the Past / Wikimedia Commons
By the 18th century, most members of the Freemasons were upper-class bankers and businessman. The secret aspects of it, along with its mythology built along Christian symbols, aroused the ire of religious leaders and gave way to more conspiracy theories. In 1738, Pope Clement XII issued a decree against the Masons, but Freemasonry continued to grow, especially in the US.
Thirteen of the 39 founding fathers were Masons, and the paranoia about the organization spawned the Anti-Masonic party. Eight congressmen running as Anti-Masons were elected, but when the election of 1828 came around, Andrew Jackson (who was a Mason) proved too formidable a foe for the Anti-Mason nominee, William Wirt. After that, the party pretty much died off.
It was the prominence of people like Andrew Jackson combined with some elements of secrecy in their ceremonies that attracted a great deal of fear and suspicion. Because the powerful men of so many communities were all Masons, a good deal of business was conducted in the Masonic Lodges and lent to the perception that the Freemasons controlled many aspects of government and life behind the scenes.
You've heard the conspiracy theory about the Eye of Providence on the $1 bill, right? That it's a Masonic symbol and that somehow proves that the Masons were doing something sinister with the American government? Yeah, well, the Eye of Providence isn’t strictly a Mason symbol; it was actually a pretty common emblem in the 17th century.