The origins of Freemasonry are “lost in the unrecorded history of medieval times,” according to the website of the Grand Lodge of Ohio. However, most people believe that the organization began in the 14th century, with local fraternities of stonemasons who provided regulations for their members and acted as a sort of early labor union. From there, it evolved into a loose network of fraternal societies that strive to bring together men of different backgrounds and careers, although many aspects of the organization remain deliberately murky to outsiders.
Today, there are more than three million Freemasons around the world, roughly a third of whom are based in North America—a number that is difficult to pin down because Masonic lodges enjoy a wide latitude of autonomy, and some lodges don’t recognize other branches. Called the “largest worldwide secret society” by the Encyclopedia Britannica, that very secrecy makes it tricky to say much about Freemasonry with any real authority, given that so many of the specifics of the organization are kept close to the vest.
Because of this, conspiracy theorists have long considered Freemasonry an “infamous Pandora’s box of intrigue,” as the Institute for Masonic Studies put it as part of their Fourth International Conference in partnership with UCLA’s history department. The conspiracy theories associated with Freemasonry are innumerable and far too profuse to be listed exhaustively here. However, most are based on a handful of common misconceptions about the organization, including that Freemasonry is its own religion that practices occult rituals and that a centralized, worldwide governing body oversees all Masonic lodges.
So what is Freemasonry? Furthermore, what do its members believe, where did the organization begin, and is there any truth to the many conspiracy theories surrounding it? That’s what we’re here to explore…
Origins of Freemasonry
While the exact origins of Freemasonry are, indeed, “lost in unrecorded history,” the organization is somewhat fixated upon its own past, and looks to a series of documents called the Old Charges to try to flesh out the history of the organization and lend validity to its rituals and traditions. Among these, the oldest is the Halliwell Manuscript, also known as the Regius Poem. It was written in Middle English around 1425, though it makes reference to much earlier events.
The oldest known lodge bearing similarities to modern Freemasonry dates back to 1598. The first Grand Lodge, a regional gathering of smaller lodges, was founded in London in 1717. From England, Freemasonry expanded with the advance of the British Empire, and “remains most popular in the British Isles and other countries originally within the empire,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The earliest known lodges in North America were located in Pennsylvania, where John Moore wrote of attending lodge meetings as early as 1715, two years before the first Grand Lodge was formed in London. Indeed, several of the Founding Fathers of the United States were Freemasons, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and James Monroe. This has lent fuel to one of the more intractable American conspiracy theories regarding Freemasonry, which asserts that the Founding Fathers wove Masonic symbols and rites into everything from national seals to city streets to the dollar bill.
What Do Masons Believe?
The beliefs and rites of Freemasonry are shrouded in a certain amount of secrecy. Add to this the fact that Grand Lodges are beholden to no overarching council or governing body—despite rumors to the contrary—and you can see why it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what Masons believe.
Generally speaking, almost all Masonic lodges confer three traditional degrees upon members, who are initiated into more and more of the lodge's secrets as they rise through the ranks. Some lodges offer additional degrees, with perhaps the best known being the Scottish Rite, which has 33 degrees. Members are first initiated into the lodge as Apprentices before being passed to the degree of Fellowcraft and finally raised to the degree of Master Mason.
Because each lodge is answerable only to the Grand Lodge that governs it—and Grand Lodges are answerable to no higher authority—variations between lodges and Grand Lodges are considerable, to the extent that whole branches of Freemasonry have evolved over time, with one of the most distinctive being what’s known as Continental Freemasonry. Unlike its more traditional counterpart, Continental Freemasonry does not require its members to profess a belief in a supreme being and openly admits atheists.
Grand Lodges are said to be “in amity” with one another when the two lodges both recognize the other’s legitimacy, and in those cases, Masons from each lodge are permitted to intermingle at Masonic events. The qualifications for recognition vary from lodge to lodge, as does most everything else about Freemasonry, but some of the most common criteria were handed down by the Grand Lodge of England in 1929. These criteria include belief in a supreme being and display of scripture during Masonic functions—although ironically, there is to be no discussion of religion, or politics for that matter. Additional criteria include only conferring membership to men, and observing certain other customs. What these customs actually entail are left to our imagination.
Conspiracies and Scandals
The danger faced by any secret society is that, when nobody knows what your organization is actually about, people are inevitably going to invent information to fill in the gaps. And as the largest secret organization in the world, Freemasonry has borne the brunt of countless conspiracy theories. Over the last few centuries, it’s been linked to everything from the crimes of Jack the Ripper to the moon landing.
An early tipping point came in 1826, when William Morgan announced that he would be publishing a tell-all book revealing the secrets of Freemasonry in detail. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared. The local Masons in his home city of Batavia, New York had vociferously protested Morgan’s upcoming exposé, which broke the Masons’ oath not to reveal any of their organization’s secrets. It is suspected that local Masons were behind several short stints that Morgan spent in jail following the announcement of his publication. But it was his disappearance that would incite a firestorm that eventually gave rise to the term “anti-Masonry.”
Upon his second arrest in September of 1826, Morgan was whisked away from the jail in a carriage, under cover of night. He was never heard from again. Several Masons were eventually convicted of taking part in Morgan’s kidnapping, but his whereabouts and the details of his presumed murder were never conclusively determined.
The one undeniable legacy left behind by Morgan’s disappearance was the rise of anti-Masonry in the United States. In fact, immediately after he vanished, the Anti-Masonic Party formed, one of the earliest third-party political groups in American history.
The party was nearly defunct by 1835, but the sentiment remained. In the years since then, the anti-Masonry movement hasn't had any kind of formal organization. It has been driven by everything from conspiracy theories to religious objections to political machinations, and has taken many forms across different governments throughout history.
During World War II, Freemasons were among those persecuted during the Holocaust. This was, in part, due to one of the longer-standing conspiracy theories surrounding Freemasonry: an antisemitic claim that Freemasons and Jews plotted together to control global geopolitical and economic forces.
These conspiracy theories have been fueled by a variety of literary forgeries and hoaxes, such as the famous “Taxil hoax.” In the late 19th century, Marie Joseph Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pagès (writing under the pen name Leo Taxil) professed to have converted to Catholicism and penned a variety of tell-all books about Satanic practices within the highest ranks of Freemasonry.
The entire thing was a hoax intended to poke fun at both Freemasonry and Catholicism, as Jogand-Pagès openly professed years later. And yet, the books of the “Taxil hoax” continue to be cited as evidence of Masonic conspiracy to this day, along with other fraudulent written works like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
So is Freemasonry little more than a fraternal club with delusions of grandeur, or is it a global cabal that controls world governments and economies, faked the moon landing, and killed John F. Kennedy? While it may be impossible for any non-Mason to ever definitively say what Masonry is, we’re pretty sure it’s closer to the former. After all, if a secret organization had that much power, it would probably be a little more, well, secretive about it, right?