Inside a Masonic lodge.
Despite the impression given by books such as author Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, and movies like National Treasure, the Masons are not a clandestine group.
“We’re not a secret society,” Bennett says. “We’re a society with a few secrets.”
In an effort to boost flagging membership across the USA, an increasing number of Masonic lodges, like other fraternal service groups, are abandoning secretive ways and inviting the public in to see what the organization is really all about.
There are fewer Masons today — by nearly a million — than there were in 1941 as the country came out of the Great Depression, says Richard Fletcher, executive secretary of the Masonic Service Association of North America. There are an estimated 3 million members worldwide and 1.5 million in the USA, he says, compared with more than 4 million members in the USA in 1959.
Why? Blame the Baby Boomers, Fletcher says.
“We had what I call the ’60s syndrome,” he says. “That was the whole concept of the generation. You turned against anything that was mainstream.”
In 2005, the association produced a report called “It’s About Time,” which encouraged lodges to invite the community in, Fletcher says. But most didn’t start opening their doors until Masons in Massachusetts saw successes in 2009 with the policy, he says.
Since then, a growing number have opened their doors:
•In Asheville, Mount Hermon Masonic Lodge 118 allows prospective members to dine with members before official meetings to learn more about Masonry. The effort has paid off. Seven years ago, the lodge was struggling with low attendance and now has about 500 members, says John Burchfield, the local district deputy grand lecturer.
•In Ellwood City, Pa., three lodges in 37th Masonic District held open houses in August.
•In New Hampshire, Freemasons held statewide events in March and October. “It was very well received in New Hampshire,” says Nashua, N.H., Rising Sun lodge member Bob Porter. The Nashua lodge got 30 new members, Porter says.
Tough times The Mason decline is mirrored by other fraternities.
Amos McCallum, a chairman of the past national presidents of the Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks, says his group has 900,000 members, down from 1.6 million in 1980.
Membership in Rotary clubs has dropped nearly 42,000 since 1995 in the USA to 360,790 last year, says Rotary spokeswoman Elizabeth Minelli.
Some civic clubs say they are starting to see an uptick. Lions Club International reported 20,000 new members last year after decades of decline. It has 1.35 million worldwide, says spokesman Dane La Joye.
Reaching out to women has been key, La Joye says. “Women are the fastest-growing segment of our membership today,” he says.
Freemasonry dates to stonemason guilds in the Middle Ages, according to the national association’s website. Its exact origins are unclear. In 1717, four lodges in London formed the first Grand Lodge of England, according to the association. Women are not allowed to join, and the policy is not up for debate, Fletcher says.
Masons nationally give nearly $1.5 million a day to charities, the association says. The best known is the Shriners Hospitals for Children. Freemasonry promotes individual freedom, the right of people to worship as they choose, democratic government and public education, Fletcher says.
To be a Shriner, one has to first be a Mason. The Shriners are starting a major membership drive, and don’t appear to be worried about topping up their ranks.
Debunking myths Masons have long been the target of conspiracy theorists and today are tackling the myths through the service association’s website and the open-door policy at local lodges, Fletcher says. The fraternity denies being part of a “one-world order” or controlling the United States government, he says.
That theory has centered on the Great Seal of the United States and its “eye in the pyramid” design. The all-seeing eye icon is used in Masonry but, the organization says, the image on the seal and the back of the $1 bill have nothing to do with Masons.
Masons also dispute other claims, including that every U.S. president was a Mason. President Obama is not. President Ford was the most recent president who was, according to the association.
The Internet and the rise of online social networks may have something to do with a rise in membership, Fletcher says.
“Freemasonry is a social network,” he says. “It always has been.”