By Alan Burke
Hollywood couldn't concoct a more ominous crowd. All men, they gather to perform odd rituals. Their roots go back so many centuries, no one knows exactly when they started. They recognize one another through secret handshakes and exotic symbols.
And now the Freemasons have startled the world with the ultimate conspiracy — television commercials aimed at attracting new members.
Except, it's not exactly a conspiracy if it's on television.
For that matter, says Charles Austin, a Freemason at the Salem Masonic Temple, they were never all that shadowy to start with. In the past, he scoffs, "people were claiming we were a secretive, satanic cult."
In truth, Austin says, the group has always been welcoming of anyone wanting to join. And if Freemasonry is a conspiracy, it's a conspiracy to do good, to provide scholarships, to donate to the Shriners' Hospital and help fellow Masons in need. (The Shriners are a subgroup of the Masons.)
"We use the mason's tools," says Austin. "The level. Every mason is on the level. The plumb line. Every mason is upright and erect."
"If it was secret," argues John Blaney of the Marblehead lodge, "there wouldn't be a sign outside every town saying 'Philanthropic Lodge of Masons meets every Thursday.'"
Nevertheless, not enough people know about the Masons to keep the membership lists stable.
Fraternal organizations in general have suffered a loss of members in recent years, says Alan Foulds of the Scottish Rite, another Masonic subgroup. The TV commercials feature an actor portraying Freemason Ben Franklin, calling for young men to join.
Over the years a number of lodges across the state have simply disappeared. Membership ranges from as many as 800 men in Salem's two lodges to 200 in Peabody, says Austin. "But if you get 20 percent of those at a meeting, you're doing a good job."
Marblehead, half the size of Salem, is apparently doing a very good job, bucking the trend. The town lists as many as 600 at a lodge founded before the Revolution. Paul Revere signed the charter.
"I just got my pin for 60 years as a member," says Mason Emerson Brown. Becoming a Mason after service in World War II, the 87-year-old sees the organization partly as a social club. "You have a wonderful time here."
More importantly, he adds, "We help a lot of people who need it."
"It's a brotherhood dedicated to helping others," echoes Marblehead Mason Harry Christensen.
With Masons already in his family, he joined after service in Vietnam inspired him to help others.
Centuries of history
Freemasonry goes back at least to the 1600s. Almost any man is eligible — women can join auxiliary organizations. "We have members from all the religions," Christensen says, "Jewish, Moslem, Christian."
Belief in a supreme being is one of the prerequisites of Freemasonry, says Blaney.
He blames the recent declining membership on the time-consuming demands of modern life.
Marblehead with its unique sense of history and community has avoided such pitfalls. Marblehead is very close," explains Austin. "It's a neighborhood."
Moreover, the lodge itself has been careful to retain all the Masonic rituals and ceremonies. These tend to cement an individual's dedication, Blaney believes.
The decision to advertise was not without controversy within Freemasonry. "You may have lost a little bit of the mysticism," says Austin. "One side thought we should have made it more exclusive."
In the past, the Masons have waited for potential members to come to them. In just that way they attracted some impressive people, including presidents George Washington, Harry Truman, and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.
On the other hand, the TV commercials have had an impact.
"We've gotten people who wouldn't have thought of it to consider joining," says Austin. Many are young — although one was old enough to comment, "If I'd known about this, I would have joined 41 years ago."