Freemasonry nearly extinct in modern era: Fraternity, in steady decline as members age and die, looks for ways to remain relevant in a changing culture, by Holly Lebowitz Rossi
Reprinted from the Dallas Morning News, May. 18, 2006
In a long-in-the-tooth corner of downtown Dallas, between the Farmers Market and the Stewpot, sits the solid, well-maintained — but largely vacant — Masonic Temple.
The 65-year-old landmark has been on the market since October. (Asking price, $3.6 million.) Like the organization it represents, the temple has seen better days.
The Freemasons were once a cornerstone of American society, counting among their members nine signers of the Declaration of Independence, 14 presidents and 42 U.S. Supreme Court justices.
The organization is a fraternity, social club and "brotherhood" that, using the ancient craft of stonecutting as a metaphor, seeks to instill morality and upright behavior in members. At monthly lodge meetings, Masons perform rituals to induct new members, attend classes on what they call "the craft," and organize charitable activities in their communities.
But the organization is in serious decline — and, looking at the downtown temple, one might even call it an institution of generations past.
Any close look at the centuries-old Masonic fraternity reveals more than a dying group with a mysterious past.
Freemasonry today echoes questions that are being asked in churches and other religious institutions across the country. How do we recruit new members? Should we change to fit modern social conventions? How do we overcome biases against us?
Popular with the World War II generation, the Masons hit their peak in 1959, with more than 4 million U.S. members. Now, membership is around 1.5 million.
Ward Guffey, president of the Masonic Temple Corp., which owns the downtown Dallas temple, said it was once home to nine lodges with a combined membership of roughly 10,000. Today five lodges, with a total of 2,000 to 3,000 members, meet there.
"Modern-day people, especially younger people, just don't have as much time to devote to social and fraternal organizations," he said. He added that many Masons in days gone by were downtown businessmen — and many of those downtown businesses have moved or disappeared entirely.
Masons do, however, seem to be making a cultural splash. The May release of the film version of "The Da Vinci Code" has piqued interest in secret societies and ancient rituals. "Da Vinci" author Dan Brown's next book, "The Solomon Key," is rumored to be about Masonry and the Founding Fathers. Masonry also figured prominently in the 2004 Nicolas Cage adventure film, "National Treasure."
Many Masonic leaders see the spike in interest as an opportunity to re-energize Freemasonry and its various subgroups — which include, in addition to the Scottish Rite, the York Rite, the Order of the Eastern Star, and the Shriners.
The fraternity has a lot of history on its side — and legend, precisely the kind that is so fascinating to eager consumers of tales such as "The Da Vinci Code."
There are different theories about the origins of the Masons. In the most popular narrative, the fraternity looks back on two historical moments in particular.
One is the building of King Solomon's Temple, which Masons say was completed in the 10th century B.C. by stonemasons of three skill levels — entered apprentice, fellow craft and master mason.
The second dates to medieval times, when a group known as the Knights Templar, or the Poor Knights of Christ, was sent to protect Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. Legend has it that the Knights were actually on a different mission, having learned that treasure had been buried by the builders of Solomon's Temple, which was destroyed in 587 B.C.
Many historians are skeptical of a direct link between the Knights Templar and Freemasonry. But scholars do agree that around 1717, Freemasonry emerged in England as a fraternal order, distinct from the medieval craft guilds. (Starting in that period, working as a builder was no longer a criterion for membership in the Masons.)
Masonry arrived in America by 1730, when Benjamin Franklin became a member in Philadelphia. In 1733, the fraternity's American presence became official with the establishment of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
Freemasons today view the tools of the masonic craft as metaphors: They see their lives as "spiritual and moral edifices," and they try to fulfill the fraternity's motto, "We make good men better."
Masons advance through the ranks by "degrees." To move up, a participant must undergo a ritual in which he learns secret handshakes and words, as well as moral and ethical lessons.
The first three degrees bear the same names as those of Solomon's era. To move beyond those three, a candidate joins either the Scottish Rite, which awards degrees 4 through 32, or the York Rite, which includes the degree of Knight Templar — the only Masonic degree that requires Christian faith.
Knights, secret rituals and treasure aside, Masonry is, its leaders say, fundamentally about giving back to the community and being a force for good in the world.
"If everyone lived in the world based on our teachings — not what we preach, but what we actually do — the world would be much better off," said Jeffrey Hodgdon, grand master in Massachusetts.
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