What about that funny handshake?

December 15, 2006

My late father, a modest Jewish businessman in Philadelphia, belonged to the Masons and was very proud of having earned the status of 32nd degree. Unless he lived a secret life, he never conspired to overthrow the US Government, he held mainstream political views, was not anti-Catholic and was not given to cabals of any kind. For him, the Masons was a fraternal organisation.

For reasons that W. Kirk MacNulty, a Freemason for more than 40 years, tries to answer, the Freemasons, or Masons, have been looked on with suspicion for centuries. Rather than an innocent social group promoting brotherhood and charity, Masonry has been seen as a rival brand of Christianity, in some countries pitted against Roman Catholicism; as a Satanic religion set against Christianity; as a political party set on world domination; and as a reactionary organisation set against Communism and other left-wing causes. MacNulty scorns all of these characterisations, ascribing the public paranoia to the secrecy of events in the lodges. To further his arguments, MacNulty notes that political discussion is banned in all lodges. Yet such a ban surely bespeaks prior politicising.

From another vantage point, Masonry has been viewed as a philosophical movement, rooted by some in ancient Hellenistic mystery religions, by others in the medieval guilds of stonemasons, by yet others in the Renaissance revival of ancient Hermeticism, by still others in the Knight Templars, and by others yet in 18th-century deism. MacNulty opts for the Renaissance origin, and he acknowledges his indebtedness to the scholarship of Frances Yates. "It is my contention that Freemasonry is a codification of that Hermetic/kabbalahistic tradition." Exactly how that tradition was translated into Freemasonic doctrine, MacNulty does not analyse.

Here, too, MacNulty downplays the seriousness of his own organisation. He assures us that whatever philosophical ties Masonry might have had once have long since been lost. Masons do not amass to dispense wisdom, to experience ultimate reality or to cultivate their souls. MacNulty acknowledges that the language of Masonry echoes esotericism. While no specific deity is named, there is official belief in a Supreme Being called the "Great Architect of the Universe". MacNulty never traces the link, which is not self-evident, between the practicality of working with stones and sublime metaphysical statements. Nor does he show the connection between philosophising and good works. It is as if he would prefer that Freemasonry be taken as akin to Rotary.

MacNulty devotes sections of his book to the fabled origins of Freemasonry, to the known history of Freemasonry, to the degrees of "masonhood" that members can achieve, to the charitable side of Freemasonry, to the fashionableness of membership in some periods, to opposition to it in other periods, and to the place of women in what is commonly considered to be a male preserve. Most riveting of all is his chapter on prominent Masons throughout history. They include Newton, Goethe, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, William Hogarth, James Watt, Edward Jenner, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Harry Houdini, Al Jolson, Lord Kitchener, Douglas MacArthur, Jonathan Swift, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, Mozart, Jean Sibelius, George Gershwin (so claimed by him), Louis Armstrong (also so claimed by him), Marc Chagall, Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Edward "Buzz" Aldrin, Alexander Fleming and Oliver Hardy (but not Stanley Laurel).

Almost a third of US presidents have been Masons, not least George Washington. Many British politicians, not least Winston Churchill, have also been Masons, and so have many members of both the British and the Swedish royal families.

Overall, this book seems divided between the author's effort at reassuring the uninitiated that they have nothing to fear from an organisation as innocuous as the Freemasons and his effort at showing how prominent and proud so many members have been. When, for example, he writes that "in the 19th century Feemasonry attracted many (who) were striving against injustice and oppression", he contradicts his own insistence on the apolitical outlook of the brotherhood.

To call this book lavishly illustrated would be an understatement. Every one of its 320 pages has at least one illustration. The images are in lush colours and show the loving and painstaking details of Masonic architecture, symbols, decorations and other paraphernalia. Only tattoos are missing. A proverbial labour of love, this book is directed more to the eye than to the head.

Robert A. Segal is professor of religious studies, Aberdeen University.

Freemasonry: Symbols, Secrets, Significance

Author - W. Kirk MacNulty
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 320
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 0 500 51302 3

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