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Freemasonry Watch

On wobbly ground

g and compass

Dallas News

On wobbly ground

Masons, once a bedrock of U.S. culture, face aging, declining membership

Saturday, April 15, 2006

By HOLLY LEBOWITZ ROSSI / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

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 old Masonic Temple in downtown Dallas, once a hub of activity, is on the block.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.

That assessment, however, doesn't take into account the building directly across Harwood Street from the Dallas temple. The Dallas Scottish Rite Cathedral, run by a subgroup of the Freemasons, recently underwent a significant renovation and is an active center for the charitable work and ritual ceremonies that epitomize Masonry.

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?

To be sure, Freemasonry is at a crossroads. 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.

At the same time, though, Masons do seem to be making a cultural splash. The May release of the film version The DaVinci Code has piqued interest in secret societies and ancient rituals. DaVinci 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 like The DaVinci 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 B. Hodgdon, grand master in Massachusetts.

Although Freemasonry requires a belief in God or some higher power, the fraternity is adamant that it is not a religion, and it welcomes members of all faiths.

"To be a religion, you have to have some form of a means of salvation. Masonry doesn't touch that that's the church's job," said Brian Dodson of Sugar Land, grand master of the Grand Lodge of Texas.

However, Steven C. Bullock, a historian at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and an expert on American Masonry, said the organization, with its rituals and almost ecclesiastical leadership structure, does function somewhat like a religious body.

"Masonry is not a religion, but it's religious in all sorts of ways," he said.

Some religious groups, leery of the Masons' focus on rites, vows, and rituals, warn members to steer clear. In particular, the Roman Catholic Church has famously objected to Masonry since the 1730s.

A 1983 Vatican declaration, the most recent reiteration of the church's position, said: "Catholics enrolled in Masonic associations are involved in serious sin and may not approach Holy Communion." Freemasonry, according to the Catholic Almanac, is "a naturalistic religion, active participation in which is incompatible with Christian faith and practice."

No one, however, questions the Masons' devotion to charitable works.

In most states, Masonic charities fund hospitals, old age homes, and other philanthropic activities. Mr. Hodgdon, from Massachusetts, estimated that nationwide, Masons spend $3 million a day on charitable projects.

This dedication only heightens the urgency brought on by the decline in membership having fewer members means less in dues to be used for charitable purposes.

But like any organization where each branch governs itself there is no national Masonic body; each state or "jurisdiction" sets its own bylaws there is disagreement about how the fraternity can best attract new members.

Several jurisdictions, including those in Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C., have greatly streamlined the initiation process. They have introduced one-day programs through which men can perform the necessary rituals to become "Master Masons" in a single day, rather than over several months.

The program has brought in new blood in Massachusetts, including an 82-member lodge near Harvard University. For that lodge, Mr. Hodgdon granted a special dispensation, exempting several young men from the minimum age requirement of 21.

Besides Catholics, other faith groups have raised eyebrows at the Masons. In the early 20th century, Scottish Rite Masons, concerned with "Americanism" as immigrants poured into the country, stirred suspicions among Jews that the fraternity might be anti-Semitic. But Jews have historically been able to join, Dr. Bullock said. Indeed, the grand master of Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War was Jewish.

And some evangelical Christians are put off by Masonry's non-Christian rituals, or by its prohibition against religious proselytizing among members.

"That would cause strife," said Mr. Dodson, the Texan. "We're looking for a brotherhood."

Mr. Dodson, an Episcopalian, said Texas lodges have lost some members in recent years when the men learned that Masons can take their vows by placing their hands on any holy book, including the Hebrew Bible or the Quran.

"The reason that type of Christian leaves Masonry is because of our tolerance," he said.

That tolerance and the fraternity, charity, and community that the Masons represent will keep the group strong, said Frank Brown of Dallas, a highly degreed Mason and Knight Templar who is also a Son of the Republic of Texas.

"It's something I would recommend to anyone who is striving for relationships with people who they know they can trust and who they want to be trusted by," he said.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi, a Boston-based freelance writer, can be reached through her Web site, www.hollyrossi.com.

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