Men In America
4:10 pm
Wed August 27, 2014

Freemasonry Still Alive And Well, And (Mostly) Men-Only

Originally published on Thu August 28, 2014 10:17 am

The members of the Queen Anne Masonic Lodge near downtown Seattle are on the young side. The guy in charge is 26.

Danny Done, the lodge's worshipful master, is lounging on his designated chair in the room reserved for private ceremonies.

His title comes with a top hat, though he avoids putting it on — he says it makes him look dorky. But he does like other aspects of Masonic regalia, like his Templar sword. Done uses it to point to a diagram on the wall that charts out the different kinds of Masonry.

"Here, you have the first three degrees of Masonry," he explains, motioning to the chart. "Which gets you to, basically, the beginning step of this section, which is called the Scottish rite. And the Scottish rite was invented from a lecture series by a Scotsman in France."

Yes, one of America's oldest fraternities, the Masons, is still around. And in a conversation with Done, you quickly find they aren't nearly as secretive as you'd hoped — particularly in Washington state. Rules in each state are set by a "Grand Lodge," and Washington's claims to be relatively liberal in the rules governing what can be shared about the organization's ceremonies.

There's so much information on the Internet about those rituals, many Masons say, that there's little point in being mysterious about them.

Forging In-Person Connections In An Online World

For Done, the appeal of Freemasonry is pretty basic. "A lot of my best friends are here, and all of their friends typically come around, too, and it just becomes a really interesting social network that's not online," he says.

A generation ago, Freemasonry began to decline, and many of the fraternity's buildings around the country were being turned into movie theaters. Membership in the U.S. fell from almost 4.1 million in 1960 to about 1.3 million in 2012. While membership is still falling, those declines have been less steep in recent years.

"Twenty years ago, I would not have been optimistic," says William Moore, a scholar of American Freemasonry who teaches American studies at Boston University. "I would have said, 'Yes, they were relics of a time that's left behind.' "

But historically, he says, the fraternity does well during times of economic instability for men. The U.S. is in that kind of time right now.

And some millennials, Moore says, are looking for the kind of long-lasting commitment available in a lodge.

"They know that those men will be their brothers no matter what their economic structure is," Moore says. "So they know that they can change jobs five, six, seven times in their careers, but they won't be changing the lodge they belong to; they won't be changing the men who are their fraternal brothers."

On a warm Saturday, 150 brothers are on their lunch break in a private Masonic park about an hour outside of Seattle. They're in the woods, but they're also wearing suits, because they're here for the outdoor version of the Masonic initiation ceremony.

There are brothers here from Prince Hall lodges, which are historically African-American, as well as brothers from Canada. In fact, the grand master of British Columbia, Philip Durell, is here — his proper title is grand master of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient and Accepted Freemasons of British Columbia and Yukon.

Still 'Just Guys'

If you ask Durell about the fraternity's rule excluding women, he admits that it's "tough to defend." But, he says, the rule means a lot to the brothers. "Men behave differently when women are there. And they don't open up the same way as they will when it's just guys there."

A few lodges in the U.S. do initiate women, but they're not recognized by the more traditional Masons. The organization instead points to special sister organizations for women, like the Order of the Eastern Star, and the fact that wives are often part of a lodge's social life — they just can't take part in the ceremonies.

So back at the Masonic Family Park, the women do crafts while the men hold their ceremony. Vicky Roberts, the wife, or "lady," of Washington state's grand master, says she doesn't resent being excluded.

"Men are generally not as social as ladies are," she says. "They get stressed out — they don't really make the time that the ladies do to connect with other men."

The men need that time, Roberts says. And besides, she adds, the women are probably having a better time in their part of the campground, eating and chatting, while the men spend the day in the woods, sweating in their suits.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We've been hearing about men this summer - how the roles have changed, what their lives are like. And our series would not be complete without a story on the Freemasons. It's one of America's oldest fraternities. And as NPR's Martin Kaste tells us, these so-called brothers still insist on the importance of keeping their organization men only.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: You might think it would be fun to tease Masons with "The Stonecutters' Song" from "The Simpsons."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STONECUTTERS' SONG")

CHORUS: (Singing) Who keeps Atlantis off the maps? Who keeps the Martians under wraps? We do, we do.

KASTE: But as it turns out, they're way ahead of you.

(LAUGHTER)

DANNY DONE: We know the song. We know the song.

KASTE: They'll even quote the song back to you, especially the members of this lodge near downtown Seattle. They're on the young side here. The guy in charge is 26.

DONE: My name is Danny Done. I am the worshipful master of Queen Anne Lodge.

KASTE: Done is lounging in the worshipful master's chair in the room reserved for private ceremonies. His title comes with a top hat.

KASTE: Is that your hat?

DONE: That's my hat.

KASTE: He won't put it on, though - says it makes him look dorky. But he does like other aspects of Masonic regalia, like this Templar sword...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAWING A SWORD)

DONE: (Laughter) Nice sound effects.

KASTE: ...Which he uses to point to a diagram on the wall. It explains the different kinds of Masonry.

DONE: Here, you have the first three degrees of Masonry - gets you to basically the beginning step for this section right here which is called the Scottish rite. And Scottish rite was...

KASTE: You quickly find that the Masons are not nearly as secretive as you'd hoped, especially in a state like Washington where the rules are loose. Plus, this stuff is all on the Internet. For Done, the real appeal of Freemasonry is more basic.

DONE: A lot of my best friends are here. And all of their, you know, friends typically come around, too. It just becomes a really interesting social network that's not online.

KASTE: A generation ago, Freemasonry was in decline - membership shrank, their buildings were being turned into movie theaters.

WILLIAM MOORE: 20 years ago, I would not have been optimistic.

KASTE: William Moore teaches American Studies at Boston University, and he's a scholar of American Freemasonry. He says, historically, the fraternity does well during times of economic instability for men. We're in that kind of time right now. And some Millennials are looking for the kind of long-lasting commitment that you get in a lodge.

MOORE: They know that those men will be their brothers no matter what their economic structure is. So that they can change jobs 5, 6, 7 times in their career, but they won't be changing the lodge they belong to. They won't be changing the men who are their fraternal brothers.

KASTE: 150 brothers are on their lunch break in a private Masonic park about an hour outside Seattle. They're in the woods here. But they're also wearing suits because they're here for the outdoor version of the Masonic initiation ceremony. There are brothers here from Prince Hall lodges, which are historically African-American, as well as brothers from Canada. In fact, the grand master of British Columbia is here, though, it's best that he give his title.

PHILIP DURELL: My name is Philip Durell, and I'm the Grand Master of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of British Columbia and Yukon.

KASTE: If you ask Durell about the rule that keeps out women, he admits that it's sometimes tough to defend. But he says that rule means a lot to the brothers.

DURELL: Men behave differently when women are there. And they don't open up the same way as they will when it's just guys.

KASTE: A few lodges in the U.S. do initiate women, but they're not recognized by the more traditional Masons. Those point, instead, to the special sister-organizations for women, and to the fact that wives are often part of a lodge's social life. They just can't take part in the ceremonies.

VICKY ROBERTS: And all of you should have a little sponge.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: I think this one's a couple short.

KASTE: So here in the park, the women are doing crafts while the men hold the ceremony. Vicky Roberts is the wife, or the lady, of Washington state's grand master. She says she doesn't resent being excluded.

ROBERTS: Men are generally not as social as ladies are. They get stressed out. They don't really have - make the time that the ladies do to connect with other men.

KASTE: The men need this, she says. Besides, she says the women are probably having a better time up here, eating and chatting, while the men spend the day in the woods sweating in their suits. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.