Masons survive attacks, controversy for centuries

Sept. 27, 2006

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Henry Chan/Lariat staff
This Mason engraving on the exterior wall of the Bill Daniel Student Center is one example of the lasting mark the group has had on campus.
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By KRIS FIRTH
Reporter

It's one of the world's oldest and largest secular fraternities.

It boasts members such as George Washington, Ben Franklin, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Neil Armstrong, the Ringling Brothers and Robert E. Baylor.

Founded by the builders of the European castles around 1200 A.D. and influenced by the Knights Templar, the Masons have been a controversial and influential group since their establishment.

With practices that include secret ritual work and secret modes of recognition, along with strict white male requirements for membership, the Masons have been targets of conspiracy theories and anti-Mason groups for centuries.

However, the Masons also contribute to education, perform community services and provide fellowship for men with similar values.

"The appeal of Masons is what we do and how we do it," Mason Junior Deacon Thomas E. Waden said. "We perform a lot of charity work and offer the camaraderie of other men who share the same beliefs and goals that you might have."

Waden, who also works in the Baylor Information Systems and Services department, said he joined the Masons because his father was one. As a young man, Waden joined the order of the DeMolay, a youth fraternity organization sponsored by the Masons.

After seeing the similarities between the Masons and DeMolay, Waden said, he decided to ask other Masons about joining the order.

"It's easy to spot a Mason," Waden said. "They usually wear Masonic pins (bearing the customary compass symbol) and are men of good character who are looked up to in the community."

Baylor even has an intimate association with the Masons, said Roger Olson, George W. Truett Theological Seminary professor.

Every Baylor president until Robert B. Sloan was a member of the Masonic order, Olson said.

Unlike European Masonry, which has been cast in a negative light due to secrecy and ancient rituals, "American Masonry is much more acceptable than European," David Hendon, professor of history, said. "It's perfectly respectable."

American Masonry, especially in the South, tends to be more of a conservative business club, Hendon said. In Europe, however, Masons are thought of as liberals who propagate their secrets through popular culture, such as Mozart's "The Magic Flute," a composition filled with Masonic traditions and beliefs, Hendon said.

Today's Masonic Order is heavily involved with the community. The groups support Scottish Rite and other charities and emphasize the value of education, Waden said.

For example, when a school building is first erected, the Masons are very involved with funding and building, Waden said. To make their mark, a cornerstone is laid to demonstrate Mason involvement, Waden said. At Baylor, the Masons placed a cornerstone at the Bill Daniel Student Center.

Hendon said the only thing that's kept secret is its ritual work.

"It's just something we go by to give us a purpose," he said.

The Masons don't support one specific religion; however, one must believe in God and be of solid, upright moral character to qualify, Hendon said.

"I would challenge anybody to say we were a religious order," Hendon said.

Olson disagrees. Olson uses the book Meaning of Masonry, written by W. L. Wilhurst (a Mason), as a theological reference to question Masons on the meaning of the Order.

"Some Masons don't know the full and true history of Masonry," Olson said. "It doesn't take a whole lot of searching to find that out."

Olson was alarmed by what Wilhurst says about Masonry in his book.

"The real meaning of mason symbols is gnostic," Olson said. "They believe the soul of a man is a spark of God himself imminent within us. That's a religion; it's gnosticism."

Olson also has asked Mason acquaintances about the ceremony performed at Mason funerals, which is separate from the traditional ceremony.

During this ceremony, non-Masons must leave while Mason rituals are performed, Olson said.

Masonry does not believe in the resurrection of the body, he said, which differs from the beliefs of Christians.

Some Christian Masons say they're free to believe what they want, Olson said, but he questioned why someone would want to belong to a society that goes against their church beliefs.

As for the white, male-only policy, Waden said he would like to see eventual integration,.

"The segregation bothers me, but it doesn't mean they don't have a right to exist," Olson said.

Michael Parrish, a professor of history, said Masons are still segregated due to "self-segregation."

Fraternities, churches and various clubs tend to be segregated because people want to be with others like themselves, he said. Currently, Mason numbers are declining due to a "change in family values," Parrish said.

Fathers have become more involved in their families' lives and no longer have time for meetings and fraternal organizations, he said.