The Secrecy and
Enlightenment of Freemasons


LECTURE | “Most of you have read or heard of The Da Vinci Code,” Dr. Margaret Jacob said to the roomful of students and faculty assembled in Logan Hall. “Some of you may even wonder if there is a shred of truth in its marvelous story about the linkage between medieval secret societies and modern Masonic conspiracies. The short answer is, ‘Sorry, no.’” Amid laughter, she added, “Though I would give anything to have [novelist] Dan Brown’s royalties.”

Jacob, a history professor at UCLA, spoke on “Freemasonry: The Paradox Amid the Mysteries” as part of the Penn Humanities Forum’s year-long series of events on belief. As she observed, even in today’s modern world of science and fact, the name “Freemasons” is shrouded in mystery, conjuring images of clandestine rituals, secretive meetings, and hidden conspiracies. Though elements of these did exist in early Freemasonry, Jacobs said, the real paradox is how what amounts to a workers’ union transformed into a society of educated freethinkers.

Masonry, she explained, began as one of many guilds that flourished in medieval times. To exclude non-members from working in guild commissions, the Masons employed a series of passwords and other secret codes.

Sometime in the 17th century, guilds of ordinary, working stonemasons “suddenly became attractive to educated gentlemen who had never cut a stone in their lives.” By this time the guild system had essentially broken down, and the dues of the wealthy lords were needed to stay in operation. For the merchants and gentlemen whose money buoyed the flagging guilds, lodge membership was appealing because, “in the Masons, the prosperous found useful men skilled in architecture, engineering, and military fortification,” and also because masonry as a skill was—even in those days—associated with legends of “ancient learning” and mysterious “lore inherited from Egyptian master priests.”

However, Jacobs said, “the 18th-century lodges also spoke consistently of civic virtue … about men meeting as equals, and the need for brothers to become ‘enlightened.’” Elections, majority rule, national governance, and constitutions became the hallmark of English lodges in the 18th century.

The return in 2001 of some 750 boxes of Masonic records to Paris from Moscow, where they had disappeared after World War II, has presented even more evidence of social progression within Masonic thinking. Records show that lodges open to women spread rapidly and visibly in France in the late 1700s. In one ritual, the principal figure was called the “Queen of the Amazons,” who “ran the ceremonies despite the 1723 Masonic Constitution that said women could never join lodges. The idea of internal equality went so far as for the lodge catechism to call on women to “recognize the injustice of men and to throw off the masculine role, to dominate in marriage, and to claim equal wealth.”

As forward-thinking as these lodges might seem, Jacobs observed that the Masons’ modern successors have “lost those innovative qualities.”

Though the early lodges expressed “the highest ideals articulated in an age of enlightenment,” they could also be places of exclusion that were kept purposefully remote from peasants, workers, and many women, and all slaves, Jacob said. But “in their search for equality and merit … the lodges looked more to the future than they did to their medieval past for human rights and humanitarian ideals.”

Alison Stoltzfus C’05

2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04


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