Dwindling Freemasons hope to attract fresh recruits into their secret society
Stereotypes, good and bad, abound about the ancient group and its members and customs.
By Mark Hazlin / USA TODAY
Friday, January 28, 2005
Freemasons say reports that they're trying to take over the country are greatly exaggerated.
But they are having a recruitment drive.
The Free and Accepted Masons, a fraternal organization whose roots may stretch back to the Middle Ages, has long been a popular target of conspiracy theorists. It figures prominently in the movie "National Treasure."
Nicolas Cage's character learns about a legendary treasure protected by the Freemasons, the location of which is hidden in a map etched on the back of the Declaration of Independence.
The movie perpetuates good and bad stereotypes about the group, including the notion that it has been involved in a centuries-old plot to run the country.
Freemasons are now trying to change those perceptions with advertising and public relations campaigns. And, for the first time, some Masonic lodges are engaging in recruitment drives.
Historians say the modern era of Freemasonry began in England in the early 18th century as a union of stonemasons. Others link the Freemasons' origins to medieval times, as far back as the Crusades and the infamous Knights Templar.
Conspiracy theorists often cite circumstantial evidence to support their belief that Freemasons secretly wield great power and influence. According to Freemason Web sites, nine of the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence were members, as were 14 U.S. presidents, eight vice presidents and at least 35 Supreme Court justices.
Members have historically shunned publicity; they use symbols and rituals that members vow not to reveal; and they hold closed meetings. The story goes that President Theodore Roosevelt, a member, couldn't even get his Secret Service agents in.
"We prefer to use the word 'private' instead of 'secret,' " says Robert Leonard, a public relations specialist hired to help recruitment efforts. "Secrecy came from the initial thing where a password or secret handshake was exchanged so people would know they were professional stonemasons. Now we use it as part of our tradition."
But officials may be more concerned with their membership numbers than their Hollywood image. Organization data show that U.S. membership peaked in 1959 at 4.1 million. New York Grand Master Edward Trosin says: "We had this huge quantum leaps-and-bounds growth in World War II. ... It was a generation of joiners."
That number has dropped steadily over the years to about 1.6 million this year, many of them older members. To refill the ranks, Masons are looking to appeal to the 21-to-55 age group, says New Jersey Grand Master Daniel Wilson.
To do so, lodges in New York and elsewhere are taking steps such as cutting the yearlong initiation procedure, in which members must pass the first three (of 33) Masonic "degrees," down to a two-week course. California has launched two support programs intended to help its 355 individual lodges sign up at least five new members each year.
But the organization will change only so much. The one key requirement is that each man must believe in one Supreme Being, "the Grand Architect of the Universe."