Crumbling Foundation: The Decline of Freemasonry
Story by Keegan Clements-Housser
Photos by Anthony Rimel
After four hundred years of recorded history, Freemasonry is in decline.
This conglomerate of organizations, which includes the well-known Freemasonry groups the United Grand Lodge of England and the Scottish Rite, no longer holds the sway it once did. Entire cities, including world capitals like Washington, D.C., were once built according to symbolic Masonic specifications. Indeed, the group’s influence was once powerful enough to spur an anti-Freemasonry movement stretching from the American shores of the Atlantic to the Arabian Peninsula. Now such notions seem absurd.
Membership is also dwindling. According to the Masonic publication Freemasonry Today, lodges in many areas have lost over half their members in the last two decades. As older Masons begin to die, new members simply aren’t joining in sufficient numbers to replace them.
And yet the presence of Freemasonry remains visible. Most towns in the US have a lodge, recognizable by its symbolic compass design, which marks the local stronghold of the secretive fraternity and its philosophy of honest work, brotherhood, and higher purpose. Cemeteries, schoolhouses, campus cornerstones, and myriad other locales carry the influence of the Masons as well, a testament to their tradition of donating time, money, and materials to support their communities. Freemasonry isn’t only inscribed in our buildings but also in our history books, which list many of this nation’s important political and social figures, Founding Fathers among them, as Masons.
These days, however, aside from the occasional pop culture reference, fresh signs of Freemasonry are scarce. One would be hard-pressed to find the tell-tale Masonic compass etched into a new building or park bench when only a couple of generations ago it would likely have been included in the construction simply as a matter of course.
One Mason, Brian Earle of Cincinnati, Ohio, has a theory to explain this dramatic shift. Earle believes that the changes really started with the counterculture movements of the mid-to-late twentieth century, which aimed at tearing down anything viewed as mainstream. At the time, Freemasonry would certainly have qualified.
“In the 1960s and even the 1970s, you had the rise of hippies sort of in collision with Freemasonry,” he explains. “After the World War II generation, you have this younger generation who collided with mainstream ideals, and that’s really when you see the decline start. By the 1980s, you had the lowest number of Masons in history.”
Earle, for his part, has been a Mason for almost nine years. In that time, he has extensively studied the history of the organization. He believes that in addition to a lack of modern interest, there’s also an aura of mystery surrounding Freemasonry. Though this has ensured the privacy of the conglomerate, it has also lead to public mistrust—people often fear what they don’t understand, as the multitudes of Mason conspiracy theories present in modern society so aptly demonstrate.
“Back in the day, before it became a more structured society, it was a bunch of alchemists and literal stonemasons and the like … Freemasonry was based on mystical principles,” Earle says. “Nowadays, it’s just as much of a social group as it is a mystical or metaphysical society, if not more so, but that history has always remained.”
Freemasonry, he explains, basically comes from the idea that there’s one true “Supreme Being,” referred to in Masonic ritual as the “Great Architect of the Universe.” This “Supreme Being” is a symbol of perfection to work toward. The Degrees of Freemasonry—one of the many secret elements of Masonic thought which has found its way into public knowledge—are each meant to mark a Mason’s steps toward self-perfection and emulation of the group’s divinity.
Although no longer directly tied to it, Freemasonry also has common roots in the body of Western esoteric philosophies collectively known as Hermeticism. This belief structure originated in Roman times and taught individual spiritual perfection, which contributed to the development of well-known mystical practices such as alchemy, astrology, and Tarot readings.
This mystical tradition, even if it’s become more rote performance than serious ritual, has often cast the fraternity under a suspicious light, at least as far as the general public is concerned. In fact, even the initiation ceremony, the most basic Masonic rite, has drawn negative attention.
“In the initiation ceremony, you are [symbolically] murdered and brought back to life, much like in many of the Greek mystery cults,” explains Earle, adding that the mystery cults themselves were often viewed as highly heretical and dangerous by contemporary religious figures. “Although other elements of that style of organization are not something that necessarily happens a lot in modern Freemasonry, I think that people still have that view of it,” he adds. After all, Earle points out, this country’s views on Freemasonry have often been less than positive, despite the number of powerful members the fraternity has boasted, from Benjamin Franklin to US Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
In fact, the political sway of the Masons, real or perceived, was so strong that in 1828 an Anti-Masonic Party was formed in the United States in reaction to the disappearance of a man in possession of Masonic secrets. Although his disappearance was never traced to any Freemason society, it was enough to start a political party dedicated to eliminating all Masonic influences. Though the Anti-Masons dissolved only ten years after the party’s creation, the group nevertheless proved devastating to Masonic membership, starting a pattern of public mistrust and decline still felt today.
However, modern day Mason Nathanael Howe believes that the current decline of Freemasonry goes beyond historical patterns. He traces it to a more immediate problem: “People just aren’t interested in what the Masons represent anymore.”
Howe, whose friends call him Bard because of his singing and tale-telling abilities, has been a Mason for over five years. His own group, the Wayfaring Emerald’s Lodge, is an Oregon chapter with a high percentage of older members. At 27, Howe is definitely the exception. He joined because he appreciated the philosophy espoused by Freemasonry, and didn’t want it to disappear. But not many people of his age share his enthusiasm, Howe says.
“Freemasonry is about bettering yourself and your fellows and seeking deeper understanding in this world,” he says, “but people don’t really care about that anymore.”
With a steady decrease in membership, the Wayfaring Emerald’s Lodge has had a hard time finding a suitable location to meet following the loss of its last lodge. Impromptu and informal gatherings between members are now far more common, at least for Howe.
Decline, however, isn’t limited to lodges. Positive publicity about Freemasonry has grown less common with each decade. In 1870, for example, the New York Times found the Masons newsworthy enough to run the article, “THE NEW MASONIC TEMPLE: Meeting of the Grand Lodge of New-York—Laying of the Corner-Stone on Wednesday.” Now, Freemasonry typically appears only in reference to the fraternity’s slow decline like in the 2009 Times article, “Masonic Lodges Open Those Mysterious Doors.” The transformation of Freemasonry from something once commonplace enough to announce in the daily paper to a true curiosity in the twenty-first century is just as telling of the fraternity’s decline as is the widespread closing of lodges.
Based off of pop culture depictions, this isn’t how the Masons were meant to die. There’s no sudden dearth of powerful political figures with shadowy connections, and no intrepid investigators have uncovered plots like those popularized in books like Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. Instead, Howe says, the most notable changes in the way Freemasonry interfaces with everyday society are found in much more common circles—like the average family.
“Before I joined I didn’t know a single person who was a Mason,” he says. “I didn’t even know anyone whose father was a Mason. I knew a couple of people who thought their grandfathers were Masons, but that was it.”
As Howe points out, the historic tradition within Freemasonry is for fathers to encourage their sons to join, making the fraternity something of an inherited legacy. The fact that so few men now receive this encouragement presents a marked change, Howe says, and is likely a big part of the Masons’ decline.
Not everyone, however, feels such changes are for the worse. Christian monk and Mason Kevin Gore thinks there are plenty of good things ahead for the brotherhood.
Despite his personal spirituality, Gore has no conflict with the ritualism of Freemasonry. Those traditions, he says, are more symbolic representations of a personal spiritual journey, rather than any specific brand of religion connected to Masons.
So what does Gore think needs to change to keep Freemasonry functioning? Nothing, actually, save for the mind set. He says the age of great Masonic works and secret gatherings is in the past, and that’s all right. The mission to better one’s self and one’s community doesn’t need high ritual or secret codes to be accomplished in the modern age, he adds. “We’re not a mystical society anymore even if we do still offer that route for those who are interested. We need to accept that.”
Although Gore doesn’t deny that lingering social stigma and declining public interest pose challenges to the survival of Freemasonry in a recognizable form, Gore doesn’t share some of the more dire views of his fellows. For him, Freemasonry is simply at the low point of a cycle, and even if it never recovers its past numbers, it can certainly accomplish its goal of, as the Masonic motto goes, “making good men better.”
“We’ve become a social fraternity that quietly does good for our communities and ourselves,” he says. “That’s enough—those who want to join us will, and we’ll be stronger for it. We don’t need large numbers to be great.”
Masonic brothers undoubtedly hope Gore’s right in his optimism. If he’s not, then this could be the end of the oldest fraternity in the world. The Masons will have fallen victim to suspicion driven by historical inertia and a shifting global paradigm—a world that no longer has a need for secret societies built on the premise of seeking the deeper wonders of the universe. Perhaps in the end the presence of the Masons might not even be missed. That would be the most telling sign of all.