Some Piercing Questions for Freemasons
In one article, “Psst! Let’s Talk About Masons,” Ms. Stack writes about Freemasonry as it is depicted in The Lost Symbol, and describes aspects of her visit to the Salt Lake Masonic Temple. She quotes R.W. John Liley (Senior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of Utah), Mr. Dan Burstein (editor of the forthcoming Secrets of The Lost Symbol), and myself. The article features an interesting photograph of a staircase in the Salt Lake Masonic Temple, a staircase of 3, 5, and 7 steps, each step labeled, for example, “LOGIC.” (No information was provided concerning whether this staircase is ever used for ritual purposes.)
In one section of her article, Ms. Stack asks a couple of questions that she does not then go on to answer—but that we should. After quoting Dan Brown’s letter of October 6 to the Scottish Rite, she writes:
Sure, Freemasonry was once among the most common bands of brothers, where men met for "instruction" and networking. If it really is the humanistic haven Brown describes, why has the membership declined so dramatically in the past few decades? (It's down to fewer than 1. 5 million in the United States, from a high of 4.1 million in 1959, and fewer than 2,000 in Utah, from a high of about 6,000 in the mid-1960s.) Are its theatrical presentations, complete with bloodthirsty threats, really the way to enlightenment?
As one of the people interviewed for this piece, I wish that Ms. Stack had asked me these particular questions, which I would have been glad to address. I would have pointed out the following:
- Membership in a movement is not a measure of the movement’s value, nor even of its success.
- Our membership, of course, dropped a great deal when men of the late Sixties and Seventies generations largely eschewed involvement with Freemasonry, through its being identified with the “establishment.” Now, simple mortality is depleting our numbers of the brethren who became Freemasons in the Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties. However, a new generation is showing a great deal of interest in Freemasonry.
- As Ms. Stack herself quoted me as stating in the article, our penalties are not threats made by men, but promises made by God.
However, the most important thing about this passage has to do with a couple of interesting word choices. She states that Dan Brown characterizes Freemasonry as a “humanistic haven,” and then implies that Freemasonry portrays itself as “the way to enlightenment.”
Are these good characterizations of Freemasonry? I consider these appropriate aspirations. Heaven knows that not every lodge embodies Masonic values, and no lodge does so perfectly or all the time, but at its heart Masonry is supposed to be a “humanistic haven,” in the sense of showing forth important Enlightenment-era values: egalitarianism (being ‘on the level’), devotion to the search for truth and self-improvement, and toleration of different religions and political viewpoints. At the same time, Masonry does have ties to important pre-Enlightenment values: the fulfillment of one’s duty to the Divine; being (literally) centered on the teachings of the Volume of the Sacred Law; the entire notion of keeping sacred obligations.
Ms. Stack seems to imply that if this were really true of the Lodge, then we would not have suffered membership decline. Perhaps this is so. Ultimately, though, the main concern I have is that the typical Masonic lodge really should embody the values that Dan Brown says we do. We need to live up to the standards of our best selves and highest aspirations.
As far as enlightenment is concerned: Different traditions define what is meant by ‘enlightenment’ in different ways. To make a very broad distinction, one may consider a spiritual enlightenment, on the one hand, and an intellectual enlightenment on the other. It may well be that Freemasonry can contribute to each one (perhaps the topic for future blog posts). However, if it is to make that contribution, then certainly some of the work of the Lodge at our Stated Communications must be to foster that enlightenment, through education in the meaning of our esoteric symbolism (not just in the performance of our esoteric ritual). If we provide that kind of access to enlightenment, on a consistent basis, then issues of retention, certainly, will evaporate.
The Mason-Mormon Connection
In another article, “Mormons Off the Hook in Brown’s Book,” Ms. Stack notes that a major theme of The Lost Symbol, apotheosis, or the potential for human beings to become gods, is an echo of the Latter-day Saint (‘Mormon’) doctrine of exaltation. (I consider this matter in some detail in a post on another blog.) I am quoted in this article, as well.
Ms. Stack touches briefly on the complicated history of relations between the Latter-day Saints and the Grand Lodge of Illinois in the early 1840s. She mentions one of the great hairy issues still unresolved from the period, the matter of the relationship between the Masonic rituals of initiation and the Latter-day Saint temple endowment ceremony.
Perhaps it’s just me—I’m sensitized to both sides of the issue, being a Latter-day Saint Freemason, or a Masonic Mormon, take your pick—but I think I’ve seen the profile of this issue slowly rising over the last decade or so. The LDS have seen a 50% increase in membership during this period, and the Masonic Lodge has seen an increase in the number of new petitions, as well; perhaps that is why a variety of people—anti-Masons, anti-Mormons, Masons and LDS, and the curious John Q. Public—have shown more interest in the whole Mason-Mormon thing.
I have been writing a book on this issue for some time. Perhaps I need to blog about it as well. It’s a complicated issue, but one concerning which it would be wise for Freemasons to educate themselves, given the certainly rising profile of Freemasonry and the Latter-day Saints, and the possibly rising profile of their long-ago association. For the record I’ll just throw out a few points:
- The LDS prophet, Joseph Smith, had on several occasions encountered some spiritual text, and then received a vision that represented a major development of LDS doctrine and/or practice. Thus, his reading of the letter of James in the New Testament preceded his cataclysmic First Vision of the Father and the Son; his study of a passage in the Gospels preceded his Vision of the Three Degrees of Glory; his viewing of some Egyptian papyri, as these were traveling the country as part of an exhibition, preceded his vision of the Book of Abraham. In my opinion, his exposure to Masonic rituals preceded a vision in which he received the LDS Temple endowment.
- The Masonic rituals of initiation and the LDS temple rituals differ in purpose, form, and guiding mythology. What similarities there are, are minimal. Joseph Smith did not steal from the Lodge to give to the LDS Temple.
- The politics of Illinois during this period provoked all sorts of anti-LDS violence. There may well have been Masons in the crowd that assassinated Smith. However, overall, the Lodge is not inherently anti-Mormon, either.
I must say, I have been stunned to read the virulently anti-Mormon tone of some early-to-mid-20th century Masonic writers. I would hope that, as these two growing organizations more frequently bump into one another in this shrinking world, we’ll see less of that.
(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)