Masons lift shroud of secrecy to recruit
By Marjorie Wertz
Membership in the Freemasons reached its zenith in the early 1960s when 260,000 Pennsylvania men belonged to the fraternal order.
That has decreased to about 126,000 members in nearly 500 lodges in the state. In an effort to boost membership, the Pennsylvania Freemasons held its first-ever, one-day membership drive yesterday.
"We had a flood of candidates," said William Slater II, of Pittsburgh, the grand master for Pennsylvania. "I can safely say we had over 5,000 new members participate in the membership drive."
The drive was held in 13 cities around the state, including Pittsburgh, Altoona, Uniontown, New Castle and Scranton. Slater attended a membership drive in Ohio two years ago and brought the idea back home.
"The membership drive in Ohio was a success," Slater said. "It showed me that there are good men out there who want to be Masons. The old-fashioned way of becoming a Mason just doesn't fit modern man."
Geared for men who don't have time to spend going through the normal initiation process, the membership drive enabled men to go through an accelerated version of the process of earning their first to 32nd degrees in Freemasonry. It typically takes at least three months to earn the third Masonic degree.
"If someone wants to become a Mason, they bring a petition to the lodge," Slater said. "The petition is held at the lodge for a month. Meanwhile, a group of Masons visit that candidate. If they bring back a favorable report, he is voted upon and given the first degree. The 32nd degree is only given twice a year."
Myths, rumors and conspiracy theories surround the Masons, who pledge their lives to the principles of morality, charity and loyalty to both fellow Masons and to the order itself.
Modern freemasonry was started in the Middle Ages by stonecutters, or masons, who worked on the cathedrals of Europe. They passed on their trade secrets to one another through secret handshakes and passwords that proved their skill levels.
"Stonemasons were free to offer their work to whoever would pay for it. They weren't serfs because of their skill with stone and they could travel around with total freedom," said H. Paul Jeffers, a New York City author whose book, "Freemasons," will be published by Citadel Press in March 2005. "They wanted better wages, so they formed secret guilds and met on building sites or lodges."
In 1715, the Freemasons of England organized themselves into the Grand Union of England. Freemasonry spread to the Colonies as a result of the many Masons in the British military. The first grand mason in Boston, Joseph Warren, was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Paul Revere was a Mason, as were Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Warren Harding and Harry Truman, among other prominent Americans.
The Masonic rituals were at one time secret, but Jeffers found numerous books detailing the organization's initiation rites.
"You have to grow and build yourself spiritually and this is achieved through the three degrees of Masonry," Jeffers said. "The initiations are based on the building of Solomon's temple in Jerusalem."
According to Masonic lore, the chief architect of the temple was Hiram Abiff, who was approached by three stonecutters. They asked him to make them master masons so they could work anywhere in the world. Abiff told them they weren't ready to be master masons and he wouldn't recommend them to King Solomon. The stonecutters became angry, murdered Abiff, and buried his body. Solomon had the murderers tracked down and ultimately executed. He then searched for Abiff's body and had him reburied.
"That story or ritual is acted out symbolically in the three beginning stages of Masonry," Jeffers said. "When you are a master mason, you are symbolically killed and resurrected into the true knowledge and meaning of life. It involves being blindfolded, or what Masons call 'hoodwinked.' The men have to be semi-nude when they go through these rituals and there are questions put to them which are intended to be instruction on the way to higher spiritual development."
James Ernette, of Latrobe, a former grand master, and Slater both said there is no secrecy involved in the Masonic order.
"The biggest secret we have is that we don't have any secrets," Ernette said.
The reason behind the secrecy rumors, said Slater, is that the penalties for breaking a Masonic oath are symbolic.
"If we violate our oath, certain things are supposed to happen but they are symbolic in form," Slater said. "There's nothing hokey. Part of getting a degree is the mystery behind it. There are no off-color surprises."
And while the Masons are not a religious organization per se, members must believe in a Supreme Being.
"Catholics are not welcomed in the Masons," said Jeffers. "Years ago, Catholics believed that Freemasonry was the work of the devil. Any Catholic who joined the Masons would be excommunicated."
Not so, said Ernette.
"We have many Roman Catholics who are members of the Masons," said Ernette. "You can be Buddhist, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, whatever, just as long as you believe in a Supreme Being. We believe in family, a Supreme Being, and charitable works in the community. We just don't go out publicly and advertise what we do."
According to the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, in a policy statement issued by spokeswoman Angela Burrows, before the Code of Canon Law in 1983, the Catholic Church had a strict legal prohibition against Catholic membership in the Masons. Since 1983, that prohibition has been moral and doctrinal, not legal.
A 1983 declaration by The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said the new code no longer invokes excommunication for belonging to the Masons, but Masonic principles "have always been regarded as irreconcilable with the church's doctrine." The declaration added, "Catholics enrolled in Masonic associations are involved in serious sin and may not approach Holy Communion."
In an April 1985 report, the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Pastoral Research and Practices expanded on the Vatican declaration, saying Masonic principles and rituals "embody a naturalistic religion" that is "incompatible with Christian faith and practice. Those who knowingly embrace such principles are committing serious sin."
Ernette said he became a member of the Masons in 1974 because of the group's charitable works. The Masonic organization raises $3 million a day throughout the United States. The largest charity is the Masonic retirement villages, including those in Sewickley, Allegheny County; Elizabethtown, Lancaster County; Warminster, Bucks County; and Lafayette Hill, in Montgomery County.
"We provide care to seniors, not only relatives of Masons but to anyone in the community, regardless of their ability to pay," said Ernette, who is also the president of the Masonic Foundation for Children, which is funding the Child Identification Program throughout the state.
"We want to identify every child statewide. This year, we'll spend $200,000 on the program," Ernette said.
The program started with a $50,000 donation from the Masons with the goal of providing identification kits for 50,000 children.
"Within a few months we had commitments to ID 200,000 children," Slater said. "This is an ongoing program. On Dec. 4, we are hosting a holiday gala in Philadelphia to support CHIP for 2005. If the gala is a success, we'll take on another 100,000 children from the Philadelphia school district to ID."
The Masons have also funded the construction of an outdoor pavilion at the Veterans Administration hospital in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. Statewide, the organization employs more than 2,300 people.
"The whole philosophy of the Masonic fraternity is to be a leader in your community," Slater said.