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The world of the Freemasons

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February 28th, 2010

[caption id="attachment_8441" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Completed in 1915, the headquarters of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry called The House of the Temple dominates the 1700 block of 16th Street in Washington, D.C. Modeled after Turkey s Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the building is open to the public and houses Scottish Rite offices, ceremonial rooms, a museum of Scottish Rite Freemasonry, and a rare book library."]Freemasonry s origins Hardly the stuff of intrigue, its origins are more practical than sinister. Freemasonry actually started in 14th-century Scotland as a guild of stoneworkers united in their knowledge of trade secrets, such as the geometric calculations for cutting perfect right angles. To protect their jobs from the encroachment of less-skilled and cheaper laborers, Masons devised secret handshakes and symbols by which members could identify one another. This helped ensure that Masons hired only fellow Masons, giving them a virtual monopoly on the labor market and greater control over wages. Their unwillingness to negotiate price especially infuriated clergymen, who had to pay more for their churches as a result. Religious attacks levied in sermons and pamphlets proclaimed the Masons enemies of God, which, in time, helped lay the groundwork for their unholy reputation. [caption id="attachment_8431" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Though started in Europe, Freemasonry has been in America for over 200 years. Its members included everyday citizens, as well as notable figures such as George Washington, shown here in Masonic regalia laying the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building in 1793."][/caption] The secrets and symbolism, in their earliest form, were really about job security, Morris explains. We don t quite know why, but in the early 1700s, this role of labor union basically faded away and Freemasonry evolved into more of a fraternity. Even so, some aspects changed very little and endure to this day among Masons, who hail from a variety of religions and social backgrounds. The secrets that unified Europe s stoneworkers provide the same sense of identity 600 years later; the tools they used to build castles and cathedrals now symbolize the building of character. The core elements of modern Freemasonry are largely symbolic, Morris says. None of us actually work with stone, and the Masonic secrets aren t literally trade secrets meant to protect jobs and wages. They are, however, privileges that come with membership. As a Mason, you make a promise never to divulge them, and that, in itself, is symbolic of your word of honor.

Philanthropic ties

Still, secrets and symbolism aren t the only common bonds among Masons. Often overlooked, says Morris, is the interest in philanthropy shared throughout the Order s various branches. The Scottish and York Rites, the Shriners, and the Eastern Star collectively spend over $1 billion a year on charity, much of it going to the Shriners s 22 pediatric hospitals, the Scottish Rite s 200 speech pathology clinics, and the York Rite s foundation for emergency eye surgery. Most people become Masons because they seek involvement with others in their community, whether through charity or the simple bond of friendship, Morris remarks. Regardless, it all comes down to that sense of belonging that comes with it. When asked what Freemasonry has to offer in the way of power and world domination, Morris, smiling, responds, Not much. Sometimes we can t even decide whether to serve chicken salad or ham sandwiches at a meeting. World control is a bit of a stretch.