J. Scott Kenney – “Freemasons Today: Thematic Claims of Life Changes since Becoming a Mason”

(Please note: This is a paper presented at the 1st intl. conference on Contemporary Esotericism, Stockholm University, August 27-29, 2012. Copyright belongs to the author. Do not quote or distribute without the author’s explicit permission.)

Freemasons Today: Thematic Claims of Life Changes since Becoming a Mason 

By J. Scott Kenney, Department of Sociology, Memorial University, St. John’s, Newfoundland.

View the powerpoint of this presentation.

Freemasonry…has never been a simple phenomenon; rather, it has been distinguished by the many uses to which it was put, the differing interpretations its adherents placed on their membership, and the various satisfactions that they derived from their participation. Consequently, there are many ways to understand it. (Clawson, 1989: 244)

Introduction

“Secret societies” have become an increasingly controversial topic in our society. For example, they have been thrust into public awareness through popular books like the Da Vinci Code and films like National Treasure. In academia, this interest has been paralleled by a recent proliferation of research and the emergence of institutes such as the Masonic Research Center at the University of Sheffield, the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre in London, the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Center for Civil Society and Masonic Studies at UCLA, along with several institutes in Europe. Yet, the former tend to be caricatures, a playing to pervasive stereotypes for public consumption. On the other hand, academic work – especially that produced by Masonic scholars – tends to focus on historical, theological, and philological matters (Pietre-Stones, 2005; Wade, 2002). Indeed, to the limited extent that a sociological focus exists in research, it largely involves the roles played, and the meanings articulated by – and for – members of such groups in social history (Skocpol, 2003; Scanlan, 2002; Wade, 2002; Putnam, 2000; Bieto, 2000; Uribe-Uran, 2000; Hetherington, 1997; Jacob, 1991; Clawson, 1989; Carnes, 1989; Jacob, 1981). There has, however, been a relative paucity of sociological work on the contemporary meanings of active participation in these groups for the members themselves.

In this paper, I intend to begin addressing this theoretical and empirical neglect by focusing on but one small segment of this problem. With reference to the sociological literature, and drawing upon qualitative data from contemporary members, I tentatively elaborate the thematic meanings articulated by today’s Freemasons in relation to their involvement in the Craft, specifically patterned claims related to perceived changes in their lives since becoming involved in the order. It is hoped that this tentative foray into such a vast and largely unexplored area will encourage other researchers to follow suit and begin mapping out this fascinating sociological terrain.

Methodology: 

Data for this study come from three primary sources: (1) video footage shot for a feature film on contemporary Freemasonry; (2) interviews with contemporary Freemasons in two Canadian provinces; and (3) field notes representing observations and experiences of the author in his 13 years as a practicing Freemason. I will briefly outline each source in turn before getting into the findings.

To first help shed light on the experiences of contemporary Freemasons, early in 2005 I negotiated unrestricted access to extensive video footage shot, with written consent, for the documentary film “Inside Freemasonry”(Arcadia Entertainment/Vision TV, 2004). This consisted of 58 videotapes shot during the fall of 2003 containing detailed interviews and discussions with 27 individuals (21 Freemasons, 3 journalists, 2 spouses & 1 academic) in several countries. Furthermore, as an active participant in this film, I engaged in a lengthy roundtable discussion with 3 Freemasons and 2 journalists, in addition to providing a detailed interview to the producers regarding my own experiences in Freemasonry.

Next, between the Fall of 2006 and December 2007, I followed up with a series of detailed interviews among 121 Freemasons in 2 Canadian provinces. These include in-depth discussions probing the experiences and perspectives of 72 Masons in Nova Scotia and 49 in Newfoundland.1 With the exception of eleven immigrants (including three ethnic minority members), and 28 men under the age of 50, this was, not surprisingly, a relatively homogenous group in terms of social background. They were largely white, middle class, Christian men in their 60s and 70s with a wide variety of occupational backgrounds, but with more of an emphasis on white-collar than blue-collar backgrounds.

The above respondents exhibited a wide range of Masonic experience, including 9 men in the process of taking their degrees, 16 Master Masons with no office, 23 who serve as officers in their lodge, 11 reigning Masters, 41 Past Masters, 36 who have served in Grand Lodge, and 6 Past Grand Masters from 6 different jurisdictions. Comparatively high on both involvement and commitment, comments from such respondents can tell us much about the typical life changes claimed by longstanding, experienced Masons today.

Finally, beyond the video and interview data, I have been variously involved in the Masonic order in these 2 provinces for the past 13 years. I have my 32nd degree in the Scottish Rite and have been involved in other Masonic orders such as the Royal Arch Chapter and Knights Templar. I have served as Master in a Craft lodge and High Priest in my local Chapter, and have served on various administrative committees and ritual offices in other bodies. As a result, I have a wealth of experience to draw upon in this analysis. Indeed, I kept careful notes throughout this period.

I transcribed all of these data and analyzed them utilizing NVIVO qualitative analysis software. Methodologically, I followed Glaser and Strauss’ (1967) primarily inductive, “grounded theory” approach where the relevance of theoretical concepts largely emerges out of the observations, while the specifics of their operation in a given social context are data driven. This enabled me to be more open to matters to which I might not otherwise have paid attention, making for a more comprehensive analysis. Using a procedure of open coding, a systematic filing system was developed. Coding and analysis initially proceeded according to common topics (e.g. expanded social contacts). As the process of ‘minutely analyzing’ the data progressed, these materials were recoded into theoretical categories emerging from the data as well (e.g. Freemasonry as a means to cope with social stresses). Throughout, emerging thematic categories and data were continually crosschecked and subjected to negative case testing. If inconsistencies were located, emergent ideas were either discarded or reformulated until practical certainty was achieved.

Findings: 

In what follows, I outline in detail the typical thematic claims that emerged about the changes, if any, in respondent’s lives that they feel have resulted from their Masonic activities. First, I consider those few responses that address the issue of whether there have been changes or not. Second, I will consider the various changes in their social lives claimed by respondents, most notably the various dimensions of (1) expanded social contacts and (2) the multifaceted experience of “brotherhood.” Finally, I turn to outline the typical impacts on their character and abilities claimed by respondents, specifically those relating to: (1) morality generally; (2) tolerance; (3) altruism (4) confidence; (5) memory; and (6) inquisitiveness. Since one of the basic tenets of sociological social psychology is that self is a social construct in continual development in mutual interaction with others (Hewitt, 2003; Mead, 1934), to the extent that respondent’s comments herein reflect more than mere claims, but actual life changes occurring in ritual social interaction, one may consider their involvement in Freemasonry a transformative practice in relation to self.

Overall Changes (if Any):

Before getting into the patterned claims surrounding the impact of respondents’ Masonic activities on their lives, it is important to note that there were a few respondents who qualified their statements beforehand, at times initially utilizing “disclaimers” (Hewitt and Stokes, 1975) before going on to articulate the various claims outlined below. Thus, 14 respondents asserted, as did one man, that there had been “no major, dramatic changes” in his life since becoming a Mason, while another 6 claimed to be “unsure” as to whether any changes had been the result.

Beyond such slippery statements, there was a second broad group, primarily represented by 17 respondents, which would agree with one man who claimed that becoming a Mason “reaffirmed my prior morality.” 10 in this group tended to emphasize the ethical aspect of Masonic teachings, particularly how they were “brought up,” when they made statements like “I was already a Mason in spirit.” Relatedly, there were 7 additional respondents who more broadly denied that Masonry had not only “changed,” but also paradoxically claimed it had somehow “enhanced” them:

I’ve become more of what I already was.

Freemasonry has added richness and meaning to my life. It has allowed a fuller expression of who I really am.

Despite the logical difficulties of such statements, and the implications of a core self in the latter, such claims again largely illustrate tentativeness about commenting on having changed as a result of their associations with others. Whether this contains a gender component relating to traditional male individualism and strength in relation to implications of external influence, or is merely a way of buying time to think before commenting, it is sufficient to indicate at this point that all such respondents soon went on to make one or more of the thematic claims below as the interviews progressed – to which I now turn.

Social Changes Claimed in Respondents’ Lives: 

One of the major areas in which respondents claimed life changes since becoming a Freemason was in their social lives. While there were a variety of sub-dimensions to these claims, they primarily revolve around two broad themes: (1) meeting others; and (2) brotherhood, both of which suggest Freemasonry as social engagement. A third interrelated group of claims, revolving around changes to respondents character and abilities, will be discussed in the section following.

(1) Expanded Social Contacts: 

Freemasonry as a means of meeting others was commented on by a great many respondents. Indeed, perhaps the most common comment, articulated by 41 respondents, was that after becoming a Mason “I met a wide group of friends that I otherwise never would have met.” Beyond this, there were 8 men who claimed to have met their “best friend” at lodge, and 4 more that “a lot of the people I’m friends with now are Masons.” Indeed one man became emotional during his discussion of this aspect, then simply stated: “I started to meet incredible people.” In contrast, only one respondent saw it fit to highlight meeting old friends and acquaintances after joining the Craft. Hence, Freemasonry as a means of meeting friends stands as a very prominent social claim, testifying to the continued role today of Freemasonry in promoting sociability, as scholars have noted it did in the past (Hoffman, 2001; Carnes, 1989; Bolle de Bal, 1989).

Similarly, 8 respondents commented on the expansion of their network of acquaintances:

My circle of acquaintances has grown beyond imagination.

You can get in and meet folks that you wouldn’t otherwise know. And it’s so true, but, again, only true in retrospect – but I bet that I know 1000 men in this town that I wouldn’t have known under any other circumstances – and I’ve lived my life here. I’m committed to this town. But here’s probably 1000 folks – these 2 characters here included – who I just wouldn’t have known. But now I know them and I feel they’re part of my community.

Interestingly, the data revealed two competing, but mutually reinforcing aspects to such claims. On the one hand, with a tip of the hat to the various commonalities in respondents’ social backgrounds, interests, roles, and emotional makeups, 21 emphasized how involvement in the Craft served as a way for them to meet “like-minded” others with “common interests” and moral outlooks (e.g. history or religion) – 4 adding that they’d “never met a bad person” as a result. This corroborates work on earlier periods suggesting that Freemasonry has a select appeal to certain segments of the population (Doan, 1993; Combes, 1989). On the other hand, and in line, to give but one example, with the work of Jacob on the Enlightenment (1981; 1991), 16 respondents claimed that Freemasonry served as both a ritual forum and catalyst for smoothing out social boundaries:

Now I have a common reason to associate with a diverse group of people.

There’s more diversity in this lodge than there is on the streets of this town.

In this latter respect, 11 variously claimed that Masonic topics “opened the door for communication,” served as an “icebreaker,” gave them “something to talk about,” and provided “an opportunity to discuss things with people of that background.” Whether, like 3 respondents, they “spot the ring and introduce myself,” using this as a “starting point,” or simply get to know local members of the Craft in lodge, respondents often claimed, in one way or another, that Freemasonry provides a vehicle to converse freely with men with whom they otherwise would have had little in common. As one man put it: “it’s just great having all of these people to talk to.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but respondents occasionally contrasted this with their existing social milieus, such as the workplace, where they had “little in common” with others, or, in the case of one man with small kids, providing “an opportunity to be out and converse with adults for a change.”

Whether the predominant claim was that they met like-minded people in the Craft, or that involvement enabled them the opportunity to meaningfully engage diverse others, both are partially reflected in the Craft and in the lives of individual respondents themselves – leading to the same destination: claims of a broader friendship networks and a more meaningful social life through the social outlet provided by Freemasonry.

(2) Brotherhood: 

Going hand in hand with its ability to facilitate meeting new people is the second primary set of social changes related by involved respondents: brotherhood. This was a multifaceted concept that, for the purposes of analysis, may be broken down into five interrelated components: bonding, feeling supported, trust, traveling, and status associations. Each will be dealt with in turn.

First and foremost in this respect, respondents spoke of the “bond” that they experienced with their “brother” freemasons. Thus, 21 respondents laid emphasis on “the whole brotherhood, fellowship, handshaking when you meet kind of bonding that’s there,” while another 14 simply stated that “socially, there’s a bond with your brothers.” Some of these men spoke of a sense of “belonging,” of “family” that they had found in the Craft, while another 5 simply claimed that they felt “embraced” by a “larger community.” Such themes were echoed in comments like the following:

I like the concept of a permanent, ongoing brotherhood. With the guys, I don’t have doubts.

If you hang out with Masons, you pick up a sense of well-being. I felt an acceptance that

I could pass on to others.

Interestingly in this regard, some related this brotherly sense of bonding to other people and events in their lives. Thus:

I developed a closer, more special relationship with my father by practicing Freemasonry together.

The feelings I get in the lodge seem like those people get in military type relationships.

You don’t seem to appreciate these things until you go through a lot of grief and crap.

This updates, in the twenty-first century, historical studies indicating that Freemasonry provides one of the ultimate opportunities for male bonding in society (Hoffman, 2001; Jacob, 1991; Carnes, 1989; Clawson, 1989), a place where gender and emotional dynamics extend bonds of loyalty and obligation beyond the family (Clawson, 1989: 15).

Second, picking up on the last quote above, this sense of bonding was related by many respondents to a strong sense of social support, of feeling supported in various ways by their “brothers” in the Craft. Thus, beyond the 17 respondents who simply claimed a vague sense of “support” from their fellow Masons, and 7 who claimed that they felt “encouraged” by others, there were a series of more specific types of support recounted. Thus, there were 12 respondents who specifically expressed thankfulness for the support and encouragement they received in relation to their activities in the Craft itself (i.e. whilst on their way to becoming Master of the lodge or a Grand Lodge officer). There were respondents who spoke of feeling supported “even if you make a mistake,” those who felt encouragement “to do better,” men who noted how brethren “helped steer you in the right direction if you have questions,” and several who indicated how others helped them “learn.” Indeed, two respondents gave heartwarming stories of how shy, uneducated, and elderly men were both encouraged, over time, to become Master, and supported by the entire lodge during their tenure in office. This support in their Masonic activities can reasonably be related to the increased sense of “confidence” noted by brethren, as will be discussed below.

Yet, beyond this internally-focused support, many respondents also spoke of receiving meaningful support from the Craft when facing stressful, difficult situations in their lives. Thus, 27 respondents spoke of receiving support when they faced a difficult personal crisis or problem. For example, there were 5 men who indicated that their involvement in Freemasonry helped them in their struggle with alcoholism, 2 who spoke of how involvement in the Craft helped them cope with a disabling illness, along with a series of individuals who recounted the support they received during a wife’s illness, after a divorce, during a bereavement, or when very ill in hospital. For example:

Masonry helped me in my struggle with alcoholism. It’s almost like a back church for sharing, teaching tolerance and honesty. It’s taken me from being down in the depths to feeling respected again. Not only does it cross back and forth with the skills and lessons I’ve learned in 12 step organizations, the support is great. The brethren help keep me on the straight and narrow. They helped save my life.

For 17 years after my divorce, Masonry was my life.

After my illness and subsequent disability, I think Masonry saved my sanity.

There appear to be three key aspects to this type of support as experienced by the brethren: (1) providing an outlet or venue for one=s concerns; (2) ongoing, organized activity to keep one focused; and (3) organized responses by the brethren when necessary. Thus, in the first respect, 16 respondents variously spoke of the lodge and its brethren as a “comfort zone,” a “safety blanket,” “a safe environment,” “a sanctuary,” “a place to share,@ and Aa place where people will hear your story and allow it to be expressed.” As for the second aspect,15 respondents claimed their Masonic activities provided an “outlet” or “focus” that they could concentrate on to help them stop dwelling on their problems: in the words of one man “being busy and studying helps take your mind off other things.” In this way, for example, one previously hardworking and extremely active business executive, who had experienced disability after coming down with a debilitating disease, and another previously busy union president, who had suffered a stroke, found a way to focus their mental energies – the latter even referring to it as “ritual therapy.” Indeed, 5 respondents variously noted that the common ritual in various lodges enabled them to “feel at home,” “distance myself,” “get a break from everyday life, reflect, and recharge,” suggesting not only the continuing ability of ‘liminal rituals’ to cathartically address members’ anxieties (Carnes, 1989), but a means of facilitating a “controlled decontrolling of emotions” (Elias, 1994). Third, there was the actual, organized support brethren provided to respondents when they needed it. Beyond the emotional and, sometimes, financial assistance received, 15 respondents spoke of the interest shown in them by the brethren, how, for example, “these people cared and took an interest in me and my well-being like an extended family.” Indeed, 2 of these referred to “unsolicited support” received, 3 of how “support comes together in lodge when you need it” (e.g. “at a low point in my life”), and 5 to a “life line” that, in the words of one man, is “always open whenever you need it.” The upshot of these various facets of support, when engaged and experienced by respondents, was that they claimed to experience less stress in their lives: 11 respondents claimed that they were “less stressed” or “more calm,” 2 of these even claiming a greater sense of “peace.” Moreover, 4 additional respondents claimed that they had overheard Masons= wives claim that their husbands were “less stressed” after meetings. Thus, one cannot underestimate the importance of social support in facilitating calmness and coping among Masons facing adversity. Indeed, all of the above testify to the continuing ability of Freemasonry in the twenty-first century to provide solace and social support during stressful periods of change (Summers, 2003; Hoffman, 2001; Hetherington, 1997; Carnes, 1989; Clawson, 1989). Considering the social inputs above, to the extent that these supportive strategies and responses claimed by respondents are valid, they may not only be interactive methods for respondents to reconstruct themselves in a more coping form, but contemporary reflections of the adage that “you get out of it what you put into it.”

The third set of brotherhood claims relate to the above dimensions of bonding and support: trust. Significantly, 18 respondents, in one way or another, articulated that knowing another man was a Mason “reverses the onus of trust” when meeting and/or dealing with others, 4 adding that this is because they, in the words of one man, “realize that the person has traveled the same path you have, and you can identify with that.” Thus, were respondents who spoke of other masons being “vouched for beforehand,” “feeling differently about them,” even of experiencing an “instant connection” with them – quite unlike when dealing with the general public.

You’ve got a common, instant bond. I think that’s important.

Indeed, several respondents articulated precisely the same sentiment to this researcher when approached to be interviewed for this research (i.e. my formal assurances of confidentiality and anonymity were often brushed off as redundant). Yet perhaps the best example in the data of this sense of trust one man who, when preparing for a degree in costume, left his billfold on the table of the dressing room, followed by others. He went on to say, before the researcher and the group being interviewed:

I wouldn’t be scared to leave my wallet here either, unlike anywhere outside.

Moreover, beyond such respondents who “look on Masons differently than men I meet at other clubs and social gatherings,” 3 more added that they had become “more trusting generally,” even “less cynical about people” – not surprising for a group that teaches “the brotherhood of man.” This corroborates today Hetherington’s (1997:103) comment about lodges historically creating a space…of trustworthiness.”

Fourth, brotherhood was claimed important for brethren when they were traveling, visiting, or even moving to another location. Thus, 24 respondents pointed to how being a Mason was helpful when they were away from home:

You now have friends all over.

I can travel anywhere now. The world is a smaller place. I’ll never be alone anywhere I am.

I feel a great sense of family and community when I’m away from home.

My wife and I developed a social network right across the country.

Indeed, the ready trust above, along with the vouching provided by the symbol or the setting, was said to encourage social interaction:

People spotted my ring and that provided me with contacts and buddies in various places.

I make a point to introduce myself and meet new people I see in lodge.

There’s no member in regular attendance in this district that I can’t walk up to and know by name.

This was particularly important when respondents moved to a new area: 12 respondents spoke of the help they received from brethren informed they were coming, whether showing up to help with moving, greeting them on the street, introducing them around, and getting to know the area. Indeed, this researcher can vouch for this personally.

The final aspect of brotherhood revolves around issues of equality and status. Basically, 13 respondents articulated how important it was for brothers to interact as equals. While there are many complexities surrounding this best dealt with in a separate paper, this symbolic equality was very meaningful to respondents. On the one hand, as noted earlier, this opened doors and enabled one to interact socially with a more diverse group of people that one would not have otherwise, where “your background doesn’t matter, everyone is met on the level.” In the latter sense, it served to facilitate a greater sense of status:

I got to meet the elders of my community.

I was able to associate with the movers and shakers, even to pick up their characteristics.

Thus, it would appear that this symbolic equality, encapsulated in the term “brotherhood,” may have different emphases for different people: for relative equals, diversity; for relative unequals, status. While more will be said about this in a later paper, at this point it will suffice to say that, when the tension between these two principles is meaningfully balanced between people of varying internal and external statuses, this can serve more as a way to bring subordinates up than to bring the others down – a means to gain status by association. When not, the data also reveal that, in today’s more egalitarian social ethos, when there is too much emphasis on social status or rank, this can be counterproductive to the sense of brotherhood noted above – as evidenced by respondents recriminations about who gets ahead, the Grand Lodge hierarchy, or:

Guys who are aching, just aching to have someone drop a Right Worshipful title on them, or Right Excellent, or Right Illustrious. Ah what they wouldn’t give for that.

In other words, an alternative status hierarchy may be a meaningful symbolic realm for some, but it shouldn’t be too vulgar or obvious today or it undercuts the sense of brotherhood respondents found so important about the Craft.[2]

(3) Claimed Changes in Respondents’ Character and Abilities: 

Beyond the primary themes of expanded social contacts and brotherhood, there was a third broad group of changes claimed in relation to respondent’s character and abilities. The former were primarily moral in nature, relating to increases in traditional virtues such as tolerance, altruism, and the like. The latter, while related to character traits such as confidence or inquisitiveness, also involve the acquisition of transferable abilities such as, for example, the ability to speak in public, leadership skills, and the capacity to memorize and understand complex texts. In what follows, I will outline these claimed changes in respondent’s character and abilities as follows: (1) morality; (2) tolerance; (3) altruism; (4) confidence; (5) memory; and (6) inquisitiveness.

(1) Morality: 

First and foremost, respondents spoke extensively of a relationship between involvement in Freemasonry and moral character, a theme that has been much discussed in relation to the past, whether in terms of moral improvement, a place for civilizing men, and, through them (the “moral elect”) for improving society (Hoffman, 2001); a space for performing moral stability in a society where the normative order was in a state of flux (Hetherington, 1997); a realm of expressive idealism, for teaching civility and morality (Jacob, 1991); a means of inculcating and enacting masculine morality in a world where it was under threat (Carnes, 1989; Rich, 1997); a kind of perpetual morality play which is chiefly middle class, male, WASP and segregated (Wilson, 1980); even a civil religion fostering a common set of moral understandings (Joliocouer and Knowles, 1978).

Much in line with the above, by far the largest group of respondents claimed Freemasonry as a means of moral development and action (i.e. as something that helped improve and regulate one’s ethical actions and moral character, something that gives men a core or standard to live up to). Thus 36 respondents claimed that their involvement in Freemasonry was beneficial in that the moral obligations they swore to uphold helped to improve their “character,” “outlook,” or “moral actions” over time. Thus respondents spoke variously of “learning a lot about myself,” of “changing,” becoming “less volatile,” “less materialistic,” “more selfless,” “more considerate,” and, that, as “historically lodges were about fair dealing,” “now my word is my bond.” Indeed, 22 respondents explicitly referenced the common phrase that “Freemasonry takes a good man and makes him better,” some going on to elaborate that the Craft is about “self-improvement,” “personal development,” and a “character builder.” Thus, 10 claimed that it gave them a good moral “framework” or “foundation” upon which to live and raise a family, 3 to have experienced “personal growth over time,” and 2 “a different outlook on life.” Some comments from this broad group include:

It’s amazing when you find something to believe in, and to give some expression in your life in what you do.

The Masonic principles represent an ideal I strive for, a beacon for how I should live my life.

Masonry made me better as a man, better with my family – and you’re supposed to be.

If you can live up to the obligations in Masonry, you’ve lived a saint’s life.

Such comments were often linked to the current social order.18 respondents contrasted the morality taught in Masonry with the state of contemporary Western society, seeing it as beneficial in that it “provides a firm foundation to live by in today’s crazy world.” Thus:

There are a lot of things going wrong in our world right now, and I think that if the world had a close look at how Masons behave when they’re together, that the world might be a better place if they would take some lessons from it.

The lodge is a place where I get guidance on how to live a good and productive life that contributes to not only my personal life, but to the world and the community at large.

Somebody has to stand up and really keep certain ideals alive. The moral codes today are being watered down: there’s a lot less religious activity, there’s a lot less social activity, and more and more people are staying at home. There’s not as many people getting married, single parents, single families, things like that. Really, the social fabric is starting to decay What I see in the lodge contrasts with the Jerry Springer morality I see today. It’s solid, not superficial ground in a world going down the tubes. Freemasonry is about fighting that decay.

Indeed, such respondents saw Freemasonry as a meaningful “balance” for “negative social forces” such as anomie:

For me, Freemasonry provides grounding in this world of uncertainties/watered down morality. It’s attractive in a disposable world going down the tubes. It is the opposite of people wasting time on the internet, playing video games, going to bars 3 times a week and blowing money, and so on. Many people are lost today. Freemasonry gives purpose, walking on real rather than superficial ground.

In some respects, such comments may reflect the “disappearance of the sacred” (Mestrovic, 1997: 101-122), a search for moral authenticity, for “collective effervescence” in today’s mass-mediated cultural terrain where there are both a relative absence of emotionally meaningful rites in the Durkheimian sense, and where interpersonal hazing rituals and rites of passage are making a comeback as ways to set groups apart and make members feel special (1997: 113).

Thus it was not surprising to find respondents drawing upon Masonic symbolism when discussing moral incidents or dilemmas (e.g. not acting “on the level,” or engaging in “square dealing”). One man said:

Many Masons wear a Masonic ring, and it was expressed to me at one point that you wear it so that the square and compasses are facing you, not the other way around, because it’s not to show other people that you are a Mason necessarily. It’s for you to be aware of the moral lessons that are taught by those two symbols in your day to day activity and your life.

Thus “the symbols can jump up like flags or prompters in day to day life.” For example, 8 claimed that considering the tenets of the Craft and their obligation “makes me catch myself once in a while,” 4 that they try to “practice the tenets of Freemasonry out of the lodge,” and 4 others indicate how these interact with specific observations of social life: “that’s not something that we would accept.”

Such respondents often contrasted this image, in broad ways, with their prior and present character, indicating degrees of progress along the way:

I don’t know if I was ever good. I wish that I could say that my background is really pure. (3)

I was sort of half good before I started. I was a half decent person. (4)

I have a lot more to do (5)

I’m still learning to subdue my passions. (1)

But now I’m on the right path. (5)

Many added claims about how “personal” some of their comments were, how “special” making a lifelong promise was for them, how “deeply” they have come to feel about “their” masonry, how they have come to “embrace the Masonic code” as “knights of morality,” and how “thankful” they are to have been “prodded” to “do things better.”

Beyond specific improvements claimed in how one “treats others” (6), becoming more “balanced” by “sorting out my priorities in life” (4), becoming “less materialistic” (2) “less temperamental” (2), and “more spiritual” (2), there were also several dramatic stories of moral improvement, such as situations where former enemies had been able to make peace with one another, even to become friends, due to their mutual involvement in Masonry. Thus, beyond those individuals discussed above who claimed to be dealing with their problems (e.g. with alcohol) in part through their involvement in the Craft, there were 3 accounts of men who claimed to have known brethren who since refrained from “immoral behaviors” as a result of the obligation that they have sworn, often through fear of losing the respect of their brothers should they do anything improper. I include one at length:

I know a couple that are, not good friends of mine but they are pretty close and I became aware a few years ago, just from private conversations and jokes, that he was messing around with another woman. And I mean, I knew the married couple well, and the marriage looked like it was going to go down the drain. And I kind of watched this quietly, without getting involved in any way, for I suppose a year, maybe. And then he told me how that ended; this is the story. He was kind of in a mid-life crisis – and I happen to know the other woman. The other woman was very attractive (laughing). So this guy went along, and then suddenly he became aware of what he did not know, that the husband of the other woman was a Freemason. And he broke off that relationship as quickly as he could (chuckling). And to the best of my knowledge never got involved in another one again. And what strikes me about that story, it perfectly illustrates the power of Masonic oaths and obligations. Because it was not his marriage vow that brought him to his senses, and it was not the moral teaching of his parents, or even the church. It was his Masonic obligation (bangs fist on table), and we can all quote it. And he told me when he suddenly realized it, his blood just about congealed in his veins when he realized that potential of what might have happened, and I think that’s a perfectly illustrated story of how our obligations and what we learn in the lodge are perhaps the most important ones we’ll make in our lives.

Such elaborate claims, if true, serve to dramatically underscore the “moral improvement” claimed as a result of Masonic activities.

But how is this claimed moral impact said to come about? Respondent’s claims addressed this issue. Beyond the ritual impact of the degrees and their obligations noted above,10 claimed that there was a moral socialization process underway that operates “like multiplication” where “goodness rubs off” and “just keeps growing” (e.g. “there’s an energy there. It’s like when you put 2 candles together and the flame is 3 times as big”). Beyond this, 5 made explicit reference to the metaphorical symbolism of chipping away the rough parts of a stone to render it perfectly square:

It’s like the difference between the rough and perfect ashlar. Over time, you’re not adding things, but chipping away the bad or imperfect. In that respect, less is always more.

As time goes on, you become part of each other and those bad parts are disappearing.

Overall, however, the idea was, in the words of one man, that:

Freemasonry provides a system, a sub-text, and an infrastructure in which to practice moral imperatives within a community.

Whether or not it was quite that simple, it cannot be doubted that long term involvement, interaction, and identification with the ethos of any organized group does have some degree of impact upon one’s self, identity, and approved courses of action, whether or not it translates quite as directly as claimed above.

Yet, it must be pointed out that there was a second broad group that claimed a different relationship between their involvement in Freemasonry and their moral state. 20 respondents, rather than claim Freemasonry improved their prior morality, claimed that it simply ratified it:

Becoming a freemason reaffirmed my prior morality. I was already a Mason in spirit.

It didn’t really change me morally. I look back at the way I was raised as a kid. There was always a line that you didn’t cross.

Other comments in this respect include respondents who claimed that the Craft “consolidated my beliefs and principles,” “provided a forum and expression of prior principles,” and “confirmed that I was at least internally on the right track.” All such respondents, while they undoubtedly have been impacted in some way, usefully point out that Masonic moral socialization, despite some of the more dramatic claims, is far from the entire story, indeed that it interacts significantly with one’s prior moral traits.

Finally, there is a third group whose claims are difficult to place in either the moral socialization or ratification camps: those 27 respondents who claimed merely to “identify” with the moral tenets and traditions of Freemasonry:

I’ve embraced the Masonic code.

Freemasonry provides a system, a subtext, and an infrastructure to practice moral imperatives in the community.

Rather than get into either a useless chicken or egg debate over the priority of these claims, nor attempt to evaluate the veracity of respondents’ claimed moral improvements – which the nature of the data do not allow us to answer in any event – let us simply conclude that there appears, from the three groups of claims above, to be some sort of interactive relationship claimed between one’s prior moral state, the socialization one experiences during one’s activities in the Craft, and one’s moral claims at a later time. In some cases, the Masonic socialization element may be stronger; in others one’s prior socialization. Regardless of which is predominant in any given case, however, it is clear that, at least in a moral sense, respondents claimed that their involvement in Freemasonry provided them with both a valued moral “identity” (6 respondents) and a “way of life” (5).

Beyond bringing the relationship between Masonic involvement and morality noted in earlier literature into the present, respondents claims in this section in particular resonate with the ideas that the Craft continues to represent: (1) moral improvement (Hoffman, 2001); (2) a space for performing moral stability in a society where the normative order was in a state of flux (Hetherington, 1997); (3) a realm of expressive idealism, for teaching civility and morality (Jacob, 1991); (4) a kind of perpetual morality play which is chiefly middle class and male (Wilson, 1980); and (5) a living civil religion for some that fosters, among this group, a common set of moral understandings (Joliocouer and Knowles, 1978).

(2) Tolerance: 

The most common thematic variation on respondent’s claims to have become more moral involved claims to increased tolerance, a theme that has been noted historically (Hetherington, 1997). 27 respondents claimed to have generally become Amore tolerant@ as a result of their involvement in the Craft. Beyond the most general claims, however, there were several significant additional dimensions. First, there were 30 additional respondents who claimed that they had become more appreciative of others’ differences:

I’m more willing to appreciate differences as contributions.

I’m more open to consider others’ opinions and points of view in decision making.

Now I don’t look for why I don’t like a guy, but “I want to like this guy because…”

I’ve become more tolerant of other faiths after meeting people of different backgrounds and seeing the different books on the altar.

Relatedly, there were an additional 15 respondents who asserted that they now attempted to focus on what they had “in common” with others:

I now see that we’re all the same, the same blood, on the same level, with nobody better than the other.

I’m more willing to look at commonalities than differences, then use these as a nucleus to build around in groups.

It’s taught me to think more of my fellow man. We look at the better part of the person that we meet and become a part of.

Third, there were 40 respondents who claimed to be less “judgmental” or “critical” of others. Variations include those who claimed to have become more “patient” and less “volatile,” “aggressive,” and “manipulative” when dealing with problematic others. Some variations include:

Freemasonry helped me improve the bad attitude I once had. I don’t have unrealistic expectations of others.

I don’t gossip or try to climb over them like before – or I try not to.

Now I fight over issues. I never make it personal.

Even if I don’t like the person, I’m very conscious of treating them fairly. I hesitate before I do or say something negative.

Fourth, there were respondents whose claims to increased tolerance were expressed in terms of being more “considerate,” “understanding,” even “forgiving.” Some examples of the 30 respondents who articulated such themes include:

I’m more willing now to build bridges with people who have problems.

I’m more willing now to consider others= situations, where the other side is coming from.

I see now that, as humans, we all have our failings. I appreciate people for their abilities.

Rather than criticize, I ask “If I were in his shoes, what would I do different?”

Finally in this respect, there were two interesting comments articulated by spouses in relation to tolerance and its related actions. Thus:

I’ve seen more forgiveness in my husband since he became a Freemason.

My wife said to me once: “You’re always so much more loving when you come home from lodge.”

Thus, there were a variety of ways in which tolerance was claimed to translate into Masons’ character and actions today as a result of their involvement in the Craft, updating and fleshing out historical work in this respect (Hetherington, 1997).

(3) Altruism: 

The second thematic variation that respondents articulated in relation to morality related to altruism: 17 respondents claimed to have broadly become more “altruistic” as a result of their involvement in the Craft. In addition, there were 9 who said that they had become “more charitable,” 7 that they “felt encouraged to contribute” to their community, culture, or society in contrast to “the way things are in society today,” and 7 that they had become “more genuinely concerned for others.” Some examples include:

I found myself becoming more charitable in thought, word and deed, and I’ve practiced small acts of charity. That lecture (i.e. in the first degree) really struck home.

There were things in the community where I remember sometimes I’d be out and I’d see people there saying “Oh would you like to buy a ticket? Would you like to buy a ticket to support our thing?” Before I became a Freemason, I was kind of like, kind of grumbly about that. I sort of felt in my head “get lost” and “go away” you know, “stop bugging me,” and then I thought, you know, one example comes to mind. It wasn’t long after I was made an Entered Apprentice, over at the mall there were some kids there selling tickets and raising money to go to a basketball camp. And I thought, you know, “do I really need this cup of coffee, or do I buy two bucks worth of tickets for their basketball camp?” And it was, you know, I bought tickets for the camp. But, prior to becoming a Freemason, I wouldn’t have thought about things in that kind of a way.

I think that I feel more compassion and caring for my fellow man than I otherwise would have had.

Whether as a reflective response to a key lesson in the first degree, to the general injunction “to practice out of the lodge those great moral duties inculcated in it,” to reciprocity for assistance previously provided, or simply to socialization with other Masons over time, respondents claimed an impressive list of specific altruistic actions, having the ability to do more collectively than they would be able to alone. Beyond the well-known work of the Shriners with burned and disabled children noted by many, plus a variety of other organized charities associated with the other concordant bodies (e.g. the Scottish Rite’s support of Alzheimer’s research), respondents mentioned, among other things, volunteering with youth or the abilities foundation, raising money for cancer research, assisting widows, the elderly and orphaned, visiting the sick in hospital, buying glasses for a woman who couldn=t afford them, buying heating oil for individuals on fixed incomes, and befriending/assisting local women who have been harassed/abused. Interestingly, while most such respondents were quite willing to discuss the charitable actions of the Craft, there were 3 who disavowed the limelight, taking the more traditional stance that “you don’t look for recognition” because “charity is its own reward.”

Such claimed altruistic changes in respondent’s character and actions were undoubtedly, along with tolerance, significant underpinnings of the positive moral identity that many nurtured in relation to their involvements in the Craft. As well, unlike studies of much earlier periods, these findings likely reflect historical developments in the Craft. By the mid twentieth century, with the development of big government, big business and labour, plus the popularity of “service clubs” like Rotary and Kiwanis, Freemasonry, particularly in the United States, shifted from a fraternity primarily emphasizing ritual and self-improvement to a highly organized, institutionalized, even bureaucratic group focused on supporting or coordinating various Masonic philanthropies (Tabbert, 2007). The above comments should be seen in this context.

(4) Confidence: 

Up to this point, the changes claimed in respondent’s character and abilities have tended to predominantly emphasize the former. While there may be skills and abilities exercised in activities related to becoming more tolerant and altruistic, these remain primarily matters of moral character actively developed in interaction with others. At this point, however, the emphasis begins to shift more to respondent’s abilities and skills. This shift becomes evident in dealing with claims surrounding confidence.

33 respondents claimed that they had become “more confident” since becoming a freemason. For example:

I have a feeling of self-confidence I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

I’m more assertive now. I’ll stand up for myself more.

In addition, 29 respondents credit their involvement in the Craft with overcoming previous shyness:

I got over my shyness.

I’m more comfortable meeting new people.

I’m less of a loner now.

When asked about the mechanism behind these changes, responses focused squarely on interactive involvement and support. Thus, 14 respondents attributed them to the various administrative and ritual offices that they had held in the lodge, to developing and exercising increasingly complex skills as they advanced with the support of others (e.g. one shy, 81 year old man was encouraged to, and developed the skills to become master of the lodge with the encouragement and support of the brethren). Similarly, 10 respondents attributed their increased confidence to memorizing and performing part of the ritual before the lodge, while 5 more recent initiates put emphasis on “proving up” in open lodge prior to taking their next degree. The similarities between all of these mechanisms involve responsibility, memorization, practice, support, a safe environment, successful completion, and the emerging knowledge that one can handle, even repeat it again if necessary.

In perhaps the most notable outcome of these ritual actions, 23 respondents claimed that their involvement in Freemasonry had helped them to overcome their fear and to learn to speak in public. Given their claim to feel “supported if I make a mistake,” there seemed to be a progression as follows:

That was the first time I ever spoke in public.

I no longer stammer and stutter.

I’ve become a better communicator.

Now I do it with style.

I’m more outspoken now.

The upshot of all this was that, in the words of one man:

It’s easy to have courage to do a part when people support and assist you. It gave me confidence eventually to take on Masonic leadership roles.

Yet this involvement in Masonic activities, respondents claimed, did more than simply help them within the Craft. As with public speaking, it helped provide them with useful, transferable skills that they could use in business, even to advance in their career:

As a result of Freemasonry, I learned how to organize things, to be organized and involved.

The Craft is where I really learned leadership skills. These helped me eventually move up in my job to deputy (fire) chief, to effectively handle the media at fire scenes, and so on.

Once I wouldn’t say a word, but recently I sat on a public panel where I competed against a professor.

Beyond this, respondents claimed that the confidence that they had developed from their time in the Craft enabled them to better deal with their personal situation, including making important decisions:

Freemasonry helped me gain the inner strength to make a tough decision. I quit my job, went back to school and changed careers. Now I’ve opened my own business.

I learned more about what I can handle personally and found a growing sense of purpose. It enabled me to move from “going with the flow” to “taking control” of my life.

But perhaps the most significant impact that such involvement and responsibility, coupled with support, had was on men from modest backgrounds. There were 9 general comments in this regard. One man, who previously saw himself as a lowly “grease monkey,” felt “moved” when his work resulted in his being elevated to the position of Master of the lodge. Indeed, another respondent observes:

Freemasonry really helps guys who have had limited education. I know guys who were functionally illiterate who underwent an amazing transformation. One guy developed an amazing memory, and is such a quick study he can take on just about any part on just a few minutes notice. He’s so much more confident now that he’s gone through the Master’s chair and beyond.

Indeed, it was among such men that were primarily found multiple comments such as claims to “increased self esteem” (7), “self-respect” (4), “recognition” (3), and “status” (3).

Thus, in several respects, Freemasonry may be seen as administrative practice. For the man seeking transferable administrative skills, Masonry may provide a private, supportive environment to overcome shyness, learn to speak publicly, increase confidence, participate in offices/committees, develop organizational, and leadership abilities, and facilitate decision making. Moreover, it may also be that, when practiced by those from modest social backgrounds, they are given a “charge,” even a “boost” of recognition on an alternate status hierarchy – providing a meaningful, perceived alternate source of social power that he does not have outside.

(5) Memory: 

Closely intertwined with the above claims of increased confidence and transferable life skills are respondent’s claims of improved memory. Given the requirement in most lodges to perform the ritual orally from memory, such claims are hardly more surprising than assertions from those who exercise that they gain strength and muscle tone.[3] Thus 17 respondents asserted that their mnemonic abilities had grown as a result of their involvement in Masonic activities. For example:

Without becoming a Mason, I would never have known my abilities. Since going through the chair and serving with Grand Lodge, I can recite the whole Installation Ceremony without the book!

Others spoke of having the words “in my brain so that I can access it later,” and “almost slipping into the rhetoric learned in lodge” when asked a question.

Respondents mnemonic abilities are first exercised as they “prove up” while taking their degrees, and there are numerous opportunities for them to be further practiced over time as they are asked to do small parts, take an office, maybe even eventually become Master or get involved in the activities of Grand Lodge. Insofar as respondents did these things (and recall, the sample of respondents is heavy on experience and involvement), they exercised an ability – a trained memory – that once was highly prized by orators (Yates, 1966), but that has fallen into disuse in modern times. Practicing and working up one=s abilities in this regard, when done in a safe and supportive environment, is interrelated with claims of increased confidence and may help foster another valuable and transferable skill of use in other social contexts.

But there is more. 3 respondents indicated that their memory exercises “reminded me of principles to live by,” harkening back to the moral element discussed above. Finally, and more germane to the section that follows, 4 added that memorization “helped me to understand it,” suggesting an interpretive, intellectual function. It is thus to that final group of claimed changes that I now turn.

(6) Inquisitiveness: 

The final group of changes respondents claimed in relation to their involvement in the Craft involves aspects of both character and ability: increased inquisitiveness. Thus 13 respondents claimed to have found an increased impetus to learn, to have become, in the words of one man, “more inquisitive.” Thus, one man commented:

Masonry provided a catalyst for reading up on stuff that I wouldn’t have. It branched me out further, stimulated an interest that wasn’t there.

29 respondents also broadly claimed that their involvement in Masonry, in the words of one man, “helped me to educate myself.” Hence there were comments such as:

Beyond the mere mechanics, I’ve learned a lot from studying the ritual.  I’ve learned more from Masonry than all of my university years or any service club I’ve been involved in. I realized quickly that this was setting me off on a lifelong learning process.

Respondents who commented in these regards discussed both the content that they had become drawn to unraveling and the means and abilities that they utilized to do so. These must be seen in light of how one=s life and activity impact one=s interpretation of Masonic imagery. Kenney (2008) has argued that at least three things have to be added together for an interpretation of Masonic material to emerge: (1) what is in the ritual (and there are many versions); (2) the level/type of Masonic activity (and memorization) the Mason is involved in; and (3) the Mason himself (reflective of his personal and social background). The first aspect was noted by Masons who travel to other lodges and jurisdictions and observe familiar things being done differently, often remarking that they get something different out of it as a result. The second factor was noted in the often differing experiences of active lodge officers vs. “benchers” (the latter more often “social Masons”/taking basic moral meanings, except for some who were once quite active but are now stepping back). It was also seen in comments that working/memorizing different offices, such as Senior Deacon or Worshipful Master result in different perspectives emerging on the ritual. Yet it is the third factor, the Mason’s background, that may be of much more importance than many believe. Masonic activity always takes place in one’s personal and social context. Thus, respondents were often quietly willing to recognize that educational background may have an impact on how Masons interpreted the ritual, draw parallels and read in analogies, at least initially (since some point out less educated brethren who have developed a deep knowledge over time). Fewer considered that culture, religious or occupational background might play a part (e.g. immigrants, Catholics, WWII bomber pilots, prison guards).[4] Most would deny, however, that things like class and race were significant to the active interpretation of the ritual, despite the fact, for example, that traditionally (i.e. in the “old days”) respondents report that Masons were largely prominent people like bankers and lawyers, and that part of the membership draw was to be “on the level” with them. As for neglecting race, this overlooks striking examples, such as the African-Canadian man who, unlike anyone else, struggled over the term “free-born” when joining Masonry. Thus, beyond what is internalized in memorization, when engaging the interpretive element of this faculty, it is very important to be cognizant of the Mason’s social background when considering the meaning, the interpretation actively constructed through ritual memorization. Interpretation is a two-way street.

But beyond such hermeneutic considerations, respondents spoke of changes in their specific interests as a result of their involvement. Thus, 24 respondents claimed that they had become “more philosophical,” particularly in their newfound willingness to “consider big questions” in life. Thus, in their “fascination” with dissecting the “system of allegory,” comments such as the following emerged:

The “wisdom of the ages” I found has helped me to improve my own understanding and enjoyment of life.

While I understand myself better, I could spend a lifetime and still not piece it all together.

Relatedly, 20 respondents specifically claimed to have become more interested in “spiritual” or “religious” matters. In this respect, it appears that the mnemonic practices that persist throughout one’s Masonic career can interact with Masonic imagery and gradually sedimentize, as it were, from the “surface” to the “deep” phenomenological level of one’s emotional self (Denzin, 1985: 232). Hence respondents speak of the ritual “almost like a mantra,” where practitioners can “really take it to heart.” Thus beyond members drawing upon Masonic symbolism when discussing moral incidents or dilemmas, others added how “personal” some of their comments in these respects were, how “deeply” they have come to feel about “their” masonry, especially how masons attempt to “maintain contact with the inner self” and apply the lessons in other areas of their lives.

Within this group, 10 claimed a deeper “spirituality” in relation to Masonic imagery, while another 10 claimed that Masonry deepened their existing religious faith. Comments from each group include:

Masonry is all about “getting in touch with the Centre,” your inner self, seeing yourself symbolically organized as the lodge and reflecting that ideal back in yourself to others. Not only have I become more spiritual as a result, it’s all given me a better appreciation of other religions.

Freemasonry has enriched my faith and made me a better Christian. It’s stimulated an interest in the Old Testament and forced me to understand and explain Christianity better. I not only understand the trinity in a new way now, I really feel that I have a deeper relationship with Christ.

Finally in this respect, 6 respondents specifically claimed to have either developed or deepened an interest in history through their involvement in the Craft:

I found myself becoming interested in history, where I wasn’t at all before. I became much more interested in history since joining the lodge. I became like a detective in local Masonic stuff, digging through old minutes of the lodge and so on. It was almost like I was reading a secret book that enabled me to piece together an alternative history of our community. It was fascinating, almost an obsession.

Yet such results were not obtained without effort, time, and the exercise of the emerging abilities outlined earlier as respondents progressed through the offices. 13 respondents claimed that the meaning comes “from working at it.” Thus:

The more that you work at it, the more it’s going to affect you.

You go along for some time just attending meetings and its pretty basic. You see more as you’re doing different parts and taking offices, but, for me, there was an amazing transformation when I became Master.

It was like the flower blossomed and suddenly a whole world opens up.

Part of the story here also involves challenging interactions with other Masons:

You can really learn a lot of life lessons from the diverse others and viewpoints that you encounter in the Craft.

I’ve picked up so much from dealing with other Masons who challenged me intellectually.

Indeed, 9 respondents claimed, in the words of one man, that “the meaning comes in time.” Thus:

It took me a while to really start understanding things, after getting up to speed for the first few years.

9 more respondents related the emergence of meaningful understandings to their circumstances in life. Thus:

The meaning comes when you’re ready, when you need it. I found that as I got older I got more contemplative, more receptive to the wisdom of the ages that was being passed down.

In the end, claims of increased inquisitiveness, and the changes in character that go with its exercise, illustrates the fecundity of the interaction between Masonic socialization and involvement. This is amply illustrated in the comments of two respondents who claimed to see an evolution in the meaning of their involvement:

My involvement in the Craft evolved over time. At fist, I was just in it for the social aspect, for a “boys night out.” I moved on to study the technical, “how to” aspects as I took offices, and the meaning started coming. Ultimately I found myself becoming more charitable in and out of lodge.

For me, Masonry went from being about belonging to a sense of personal achievement, developing personal knowledge, and finally towards more of a sense of balance between brotherhood and self-improvement.

Thus, for those willing to do the work, respondents comments suggest that Freemasonry may serve as a vehicle for exploration, providing symbolic tools for a spiritual/ philosophical/ historical journey (e.g. “You can get an initial meaning, but spend the rest of your life expanding on it”). The multifaceted, interconnected strands of the Masonic ritual can be taken far deeper than the basic moral lessons that are apparent on the surface. Indeed, for those who want to privately move beyond the “how to” aspect, to delve beneath the surface moral meanings, the ritual provides an interesting and almost endless set of possibilities for free spiritual and philosophical investigation. This is because the extensive memory work inevitably involves more than repetition. To a greater or lesser extent, consciously or unconsciously, it involves digestion as well. In each of these cases, it is not so much what men do to make sense of the Masonic ritual. Rather, Masonry is the method. Such freedom, despite the practice of apparent rote learning, is, of course, one of the great ironies of the craft.

Before closing this section, however, it must nevertheless be noted that, due likely to the historic shift from a fraternity primarily emphasizing ritual and self-improvement to a highly organized, institutionalized, even bureaucratic group focused on supporting or coordinating various Masonic philanthropies (Tabbert, 2007), aside from those brethren who make the effort, take active parts, or who have had the benefit of a strong mentor program of Masonic education, an increased share of responsibility for deriving these meaningful insights now falls on individual Masons. Thus there were 5 respondents who complained that such meaningful discussion was largely absent and “you have to do the work yourself.” Moreover, the author attended meetings of two separate, informal groups of Masons who meet regularly to have a drink, to discuss Masonic themes, and to challenge each other – most crediting their Masonic knowledge more to that informal group than to their encounters in lodge. Both my personal experience and comments from respondents indicate that such things are quite rare today, crowded out by formalities, “boring business meetings” and bureaucratic concerns.(v) In the absence of meaningful venues for such encounters, understandings either remain basic or motivation and responsibility for learning fall back much more heavily on the individual.

Conclusion: 

In contrast to the plethora of historical research on the social meanings of Masonry for its members, this paper has outlined various thematic claims made by contemporary Canadian Freemasons about changes in their lives since joining the Craft. Clearly, these are claims that one cannot test for veracity given the nature of the data set. Yet, even taking self-presentation (Goffman 1959) and a highly committed sample into account, there remain strong thematic patterns present that shed light on much neglected areas of both Masonic and sociological research. Indeed, to the extent that these shed light on what respondents find meaningful about the Craft, these provide numerous continuities with – and extensions of – historical studies (e.g. claims of Masonry as a place of refuge and morality in a rapidly changing society in relation to the former; administrative, mnemonic, and inquisitive claims for the latter).

Second, to the extent that these claims are valid, they may be reflections of a transformative practice in relation to self (Hewitt, 2003; Mead, 1934), of ritualized social interactions where older, less desired aspects of the social self (e.g. those that were variously isolated, administratively unskilled, coping poorly, spiritually uncertain, or felt in need of moral work) are sacrificed in ritual social interaction, at a pace, and to an extent, largely chosen by each. Meanwhile, at the same time, new selves, new identities, indeed new men are continually rebuilt from within and without. Among other things, these are selves that are claimed to be more morally and socially engaged, charitable, administratively skilled, spiritually aware, and capable of coping with a greater variety of difficulties. Ultimately, however these aspects develop – and what their relative weighting is in an individual case – such claims bear further investigation by sociological researchers in relation to the rapidly changing social landscape today.

Third, the social changes and developments in personal character and abilities claimed here are inextricably tied to involvement, to matters that respondents claim deepen or deter their active participation in the Craft. Further research on those factors that are both conducive to, and corrosive of, involvement would clearly be in order to balance out the often positive claims articulated by respondents in this heavily committed and involved group.

Fourth, researchers would do well to examine whether these thematic patterns hold or differ in important respects across jurisdictions, in lodges that meet in different cultural settings, in areas where Masonry represents the social elite vs. a neglected or persecuted group, and in co-Masonic or women’s lodges, to name but a few.

In the end, there is much more work to be done, and the above merely scratches the surface of the potential research agenda. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the findings reported herein serve as both a foundation and a springboard for further sociological investigation of contemporary – not just historical – Freemasonry in the twenty-first century.

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Endnotes: 
1 There were two individuals who appeared in both the video and interview data. Another appeared separately in both the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland interviews.
2 While Jacob (1991) noted the historical importance of emotional bonding & identification with exclusive status, and Clawson (1989: 255) how Freemasonry “constructed bonds of loyalty across class lines” picturing “a society in which everyone began symbolically at the bottom, on an equal footing, and rose as a matter of course to the top,” this comforting myth faces problems in a society where both the ethos is more egalitarian, on one hand, and the more traditional ideal of equality of opportunity faces stiff headwinds in the contemporary neoliberal era
3Indeed, beyond the respective abilities that each Mason is naturally endowed with – either by birth or by dint of a good education, there have been from time immemorial various methods that Masons have used to artificially train their memory. Beyond mere rote learning, for example, I have heard of brethren who swear by speaking their parts out loud, performing their charges in front of a mirror, studying together with a friend who “prompts” them, and so on. There are also books specifically for Masons in this respect (e.g. David Royal’s Masonic Mnemonics) and a plethora of material on the internet with advice on improving one’s memory (e.g. an article by Tamin Ansary entitled “12 Memory Tricks”).
4 For example, a Mason who had served as a bomber pilot during the war interpreted the three degrees as reflective of: (1) basic military training; (2) the technical knowledge imparted in flight training; and (3) aerial combat, where one is unsure about one’s survival. He would be unlikely to have constructed this interpretation without his background in the air force.
v Indeed, one of the biggest complaints, articulated by fully 62 respondents, was about the “boring business meetings.”

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