Printed in the Summer 2013 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Kinney, Jay. "Shhh! It's a Secret! Grappling with the Puzzle of Freemasonry" Quest 101. 3 (Summer 2013): pg. 94-99.
By Jay Kinney
Much of the public's ongoing fascination with Freemasonry has to do with its reputation as a secret society. Yet that reputation—like so much about Masonry—is paradoxical. Given that for much of the past two centuries, Masonic lodge buildings have been a ubiquitous presence on town squares across America and that, by some estimates, nearly 10 percent of the adult male population were Masons, Masonry would seem to be one of the least secret societies of all time.
Another paradox: as part of their initiation rituals, Masons are admonished not to reveal any of Masonry's secrets, but exactly what those secrets may be is never defined—a situation that leaves many new Masons scratching their heads.
A secret society that is hardly secret and a society with "secrets" that no two members can agree upon—is this any way to run a railroad? (as my father used to say).
However, if we look back to the origins of modem Freemasonry in Britain, this emphasis on secrecy becomes more understandable. Prior to the 1600s, Masonic lodges were basically stonemasons' guilds or unions. Their "secrets" were the closely held trade secrets of how to construct massive buildings for both church and state. Secret modes of recognition between masons, be they certain handshakes or passwords, were a means of job protection and quality control in an industry where skilled workers often moved around from project to project. Properly skilled masons were taught those modes of recognition as part of their training, which helped distinguish them from unqualified would-be masons hoping to pass themselves off as the real thing.
In the course of the 1600s, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, lodges began to accept members who were not stonemasons at all, but gentlemen or other worthies who were interested in architecture, mathematics, and other more arcane pursuits. Over time, these so-called "speculative Masons" came to outnumber the working "operative masons," and eventually modern Freemasonry was born. (I must add that this summary barely scratches the surface of a historical sequence that has been the subject of numerous competing theories and conjectures. For a more detailed discussion, see my book The Masonic Myth.)
This newer and more philosophical Masonry maintained the tradition of secrecy, including modes of recognition and the protection of "secrets," but the secrets were no longer building trade secrets. Rather they were largely the wording of much-elaborated initiatory rituals and a collection of symbols alluding to philosophical concepts, moral values, and spiritual ideals. Most of the symbols were derived either from the Bible or from stonemasons' working tools, and the whole motif of stonemasonry was preserved in symbolic form (for example, the wearing of stonemasons' aprons).
None of these secrets were (or are) particularly earth-shattering, nor were they exactly secret. Eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Masons were fond of parading in public processions with symbol-laden aprons, banners, officers' jewels, and other regalia. Anti-Masonic conspiracy theorists have tended to view this as a diabolical public flaunting of secret symbols, but a less sensational interpretation would be that it served as an early form of guerrilla marketing and branding for what was essentially a fraternal order. "Curious what these symbols mean? Become a Mason and find out!"
Still, there are other possible reasons for a tradition of Masonic secrecy, and these lead us back again to the 1600s, the century when lodges evolved from "operative" to "speculative." This was a time of enormous social upheaval in Scotland and England, including religious conflicts, the deposing (and beheading) of the Stuart king Charles I in 1649, the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, the return of the Stuart kings in 1660 (followed by their exile again after the Glorious Revolution of 1688), the Great Fire of London, and the beginnings of modern science.
Furthermore, the anonymous release of the Rosicrucian manifestoes in Germany in the early 1600s set off a great ferment across Europe among mystically inclined intellectuals eager to contact the mythical brotherhood.
Portrayed as a hidden order of esoteric healers founded by an allegorical figure named Christian Rosenkreutz, the Rosicrucians were a literary construct employed by its anonymous authors to advance ideas of universal reform and religious freedom at odds with the Holy Roman Empire (see Yates and McIntosh).
Despite numerous attempts to locate the order, contact was never made, but the initiative succeeded in stimulating a dialogue among intellectuals inspired by its ideas.
It is suggestive that the two earliest Masonic initiates on record in England (Robert Moray and Elias Ashmole) were both interested in matters Rosicrucian, mystical, alchemical, and scientific. One could speculate that such gentlemen might be attracted to Masonic lodges by their secret nature, as a venue where new or controversial ideas could be discussed in private. In an era when one could be burned at the stake for advocating a heliocentric cosmology or challenging religious authorities, secrecy might simply be a matter of self-preservation.
In such a context, Masonic secrets wouldn't necessarily be Masonic as such, just private discussions among learned men on any range of subjects. What one's guess. Perhaps they were on one side of the room discussing chiseling techniques while their speculative brothers were on the other side discussing the Philosopher's Stone. The few records that have survived (mostly Scottish lodge membership rolls) are of little help in tracing this era. There are no detailed meeting minutes to refer to.
Historian Marsha Keith Schuchard, in her book Restoring the Temple of Vision, proposes that the poets, playwrights, and other courtiers in the Stuart royal orbit were variously interested in Rosicrucian, Kabbalistic, and Solomonic tropes, evidence of which she finds in their literary output, correspondence, and personal libraries. These allegorical forays constituted a kind of proto-Masonic discourse unbound by lodge secrecy or institutionalized formality. Traces of these elements can be identified in later Masonic ritual and symbols, though the mystical and occult interpretations may have been minimized as the Enlightenment succeeded the late Renaissance.
Schuchard and others have conjectured that a more esoteric Freemasonry may have accompanied the Stuarts on their exile in France in the eighteenth century, and there are indications of Stuart courtiers helping propagate Masonry there. What seems certain is that Masonry's evolution on the continent took a more elitist and aristocratic turn than the relatively egalitarian variety back in Britain.
British Masonry traced its roots to humble stonemasons' lodges, but there was no such organic growth in France and Germany. There, various Masonic entrepreneurs, such as Count Alessandro di Cagliostro and Baron von Hund, introduced orders largely plastered over any esotericism, this was hardly the case with the continental orders, many of which purported to impart esoteric secrets, often courtesy of "Unknown Superiors" or veiled Masters. It was to this latter stream of "Eastern" Masonry that H.P. Blavatsky credited her Masonic knowledge, wearing a Rose Croix jewel said to have once belonged to Cagliostro (and which she later passed on to Annie Besant).
Setting aside for the moment the question of the actual depth or content of this supposedly more esoteric Masonry, it should be clear by now that "Freemasonry" is an umbrella term covering all manner of streams and tributaries, many in competition with each other, and many sharing only the most general characteristics. What at first glance may appear to be an interconnected international brotherhood is in reality a smorgasbord of brotherhoods (and in some cases, sisterhoods), not all of whom see eye to eye or share a common history.
This is like the rather fractured state of Christianity, where one may speak of the Church, or Christendom, or the community of believers, but the reality on the ground is one of hundreds of denominations separated from each other by all manner of doctrinal, political, social, and national differences.
Traditionally, Freemasonry has tried to avoid such divisions by broadly accepting members with a variety of religious beliefs and, in many of its branches, by banning religious and political discussions within its lodges. Yet some jurisdictions, such as the Grand Orient of France, have encouraged and valued the discussion of social issues within their lodges, to the point of taking political stands, something that would be unheard of in most other Masonic jurisdictions.
Despite such variations and inconsistencies, what characteristics are shared by all Masonic bodies? First, a commitment to performing initiatory rituals (degrees) that are intended to inspire the candidate and impart moral and spiritual lessons of a nonsectarian nature. Second, an attempt to encourage the practice of a universal brotherhood that transcends national, political, and religious barriers. And third, an effort toward some form of community service, which affirms that there is a greater good to be sought than just one's personal advancement.
If this is so, then one might ask, why the need for secrecy? That is indeed a good question and one that is not easily answered. Some Masons have suggested that the most effective initiatory ritual is one that takes the initiate on an unanticipated journey. Few fans of detective mysteries would want to have the mystery solved on the very first page. Much of the emphasis on secrecy in Masonry is akin to such thinking: let's not spoil it for the candidate by blabbing about what is to come. And let's not cheapen the whole experience by having it become a subject of public discussion.
Of course, such pragmatic secrecy comes at a cost. Outsiders resent the keeping of secrets. Anti-Masonic conspiracy theorists assume that such secrecy is a cover for diabolical machinations and elitist power plays. Yet when all is said and done, Masonic secrecy is more gesture than substance.
Beginning in the early to mid-1700s, Masonic "exposures" were regularly published that revealed the degree rituals' wording and contents. Indeed Masons often utilized these unauthorized exposures as study aids for memorizing ritual parts that were otherwise difficult to absorb in a strictly oral tradition.
In other words, from nearly the beginning of modern "speculative" Freemasonry, the much vaunted Masonic secrecy —at least in terms of rituals —has been a kind of facade, an instance of wishful thinking believed by both its proponents and its opponents, but not supported by what's really out there.
This has led to the second line of defense of Masonic secrecy within Masonry itself. To wit, the secrets themselves don't matter so much as the moral efficacy of keeping a secret. If you vow to keep a secret—no matter how trivial or already "exposed" it may be —the keeping of that secret is itself an act of moral fidelity and a valuable tool for training character.
This may be so, but it carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. Keeping a secret that is, in fact, not a secret is psychologically debilitating. It sets up an internal emotional double-bind within the person required to keep such a secret. One feels like a hypocrite in denying or refusing to acknowledge the reality of what one knows is so. Given Freemasonry's emphasis on ethical straight dealing and honesty—admirable values at odds with business-as-usual —an underlying sense of hypocrisy due to bogus secret-keeping undermines the whole operation.
Of course, Masonic secrecy extends beyond just the ritual wording and symbolic interpretations. Masons promise to keep other Masons' confidences to themselves —a somewhat formal version of the assumptions at work between good friends in daily life. Anti-Masonic critics have leapt at the opportunity to see this as an invitation for abuse or corruption, but it strikes me as more akin to lawyer-client or physician-patient confidentiality. All such relations rely on a sense of trust between participants.
If one is seeking advice, for instance, one would prefer not to have one's chosen confidant turn around and broadcast one's problems or worries to the world at large. (Unless, of course, one is seeking advice from Dear Abby or Ann Landers, in which case the advice seeker is actually angling for a public, though anonymous, exposure.)
Yet after a dozen years' immersion in Masonic culture, I've concluded that the primary reason for the continuing emphasis on secrecy in Freemasonry is its inherently conservative traditionalism. Speculative Masonry evolved within a lodge system that protected trade secrets and, once those secrets were largely irrelevant, it still maintained a tradition of secrecy—often for its own sake.
It attracted men who liked the idea of being in on the "inside stuff" and who embraced the tradition of keeping it inside, even though the stuff itself was hardly earth-shattering, as Masonic exposures have demonstrated. The relatively unchanging nature of the ritual work, the ongoing rote memorization of degree "lectures" that were originally conceived in the eighteenth century, the preservation of regalia that strike the modern eye as archaic—all these things are attractive to men who, perhaps, love the past more than the present, who enjoy a certain formality of interaction, and who like having secrets.
If this explanation of mainstream Masonry seems rather anticlimactic, what of the more esoteric "Eastern" Masonry into which Mme. Blavatsky claimed initiation? As best I can determine, this was not some ancient "Oriental" stream of Masonry, but most likely one or more of those European rites that claimed exotic origins. Cagliostro dazzled French society for a spell with his "Egyptian" rite, and HPB stoutly defended his bona fides against charges of charlatanism.
In the early years of her Theosophical endeavors, HPB displayed a patent from the Ancient and Primitive Rite of Masonry (A&PR), which titillated journalists and aroused indignation among mainstream Masons.
Unfortunately, the A&PR loomed larger on paper than in real life, but HPB defended such "Eastern" Masonry while disparaging what she called "Western" Masonry, that is, mainstream Freemasonry in the U.S. and U.K. (Blavatsky 2:371-404).
The advantage of promoting a nebulous and self-proclaimed esoteric Masonry—which is what the Ancient & Primitive Rite put forth—is that its secrecy assures an opaque canvas upon which one can paint one's own picture. If HPB was intent upon promoting the virtues of occultism over those of spiritualism or Christianity (which seems to be the gist of her message in writings of the 1870s, such as Isis Unveiled), it was advantageous to imply that there was a truly deeper Masonry, one perhaps with unspecified occult secrets, that she was privy to and certified to discuss. But promotional campaigns run their course as situations change.
If there truly was a deeper esoteric Masonry with which HPB was conversant, it likely did not derive from her A&PR diploma. It could have stemmed from her youthful reading of her great-grandfather's Masonic books in Russia or from published exposures of higher degree systems. It might have been supplemented by discussions with Charles Sotheran or Albert Rawson, New York Masons fond of higher degrees who were present at the founding of the TS. With them HPB and Henry Steel Olcott discussed constituting the Society as, in Olcott's words, "a Masonic body with a Ritual and Degrees; the idea being that it would form a natural complement to the higher degrees of the craft, restoring to it the vital element of Oriental mysticism which it lacked or had lost" (Olcott, 1:468).
Then again, HPB may have really been an initiate of "Eastern" Masonic rites that she never named (apart from displaying the A&PR patent to journalists). As with so much about her, we may never know for sure. What is clear is that she played up Masonic secrecy when it suited her and disparaged and exposed it when it suited her. Isis Unveiled featured the keys to no less than four Masonic ciphers, an instance of nose-thumbing at "Western" Freemasonry.
Once HPB and Olcott departed for India at the end of 1878— which marked an ever further "Eastern" turn—esoteric Masonry and Egypt were soon water under the bridge, replaced by engagements with Hinduism and Buddhism. These later cross-cultural encounters had an immeasurable influence on global history, but HPB's earlier preoccupations with Masonry, Jesuits, and other controversies of her time tend to get lost in the "old news" shuffle.
Nevertheless, an interest in Freemasonry lived on within Theosophical circles. The TS itself, in the period of Annie Besant's and C.W. Leadbeater's leadership in the early twentieth century, encouraged participation in Co-Masonry, an esoterically oriented system that accepts both men and women and which has continued to this day, despite a number of splits and schisms.
Leadbeater's books The Hidden Life in Freemasonry and Glimpses of Masonic History offered clairvoyant insights into a deeper Masonry, though one perhaps that was not identical to HPB's conception. Like most individuals seeking a more esoteric Masonry—including HPB herself, Cagliostro, and numerous others — Lead-beater brought his own esotericism with him. In this respect, these figures did not so much discover Masonic secrets as create them, for the following reason.
Regardless of the supposed differences or rivalries between esoteric and mainstream, or between "Western" and "Eastern" Masonries, the Masonic secrets that matter most are the individual Mason's subjective experience of the degree rituals and his (or her) unique interpretation of the symbols employed.
Freemasonry may be one of the few international spiritual/ethical/moral institutions that encourage the priority of symbols over holy writ or ideology. Symbols lend themselves to multiple interpretations, none of which can claim complete rightness.
In view of that, every initiate is granted the right to interpret the numerous Masonic symbols in his own fashion. This explains why Masons who are it possible to carve out their own interpretation of Masonry's symbolic components and meaning.
In the end, these are secrets that cannot really be revealed, because they are uniquely subjective and inaccessible to others who have not undertaken the same ritual and symbolic experience. They could be shouted from the rooftops, but any outside interpretation would be confused and at the mercy of the hearer's projections. These, not the keys to ciphers or descriptions of ritual, are the true Masonic secrets. And somewhat ironically, the only way to discover them is to become a Mason yourself.
Blavatsky, H.P. Isis Unveiled. Two volumes. Los Angeles: Theosophy Co., 1968.
Kinney, Jay. The Masonic Myth. San Francisco: Harper One, 2009.
McIntosh, Christopher. The Rosicrucians: The History, Mythology, and Rituals of an Esoteric Order. Rey 3d ed. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1997.
Olcott, Henry S. Old Diary Leaves. Six volumes. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974.
Schuchard, Marsha Keith. Restoring the Temple of Vision: Cabalistic Freemasonry and Stuart Culture. Leiden: Brill, 2002.
Yates, Frances A. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment.
JAY KINNEY was publisher and editor in chief of Gnosis magazine during its fifteen-year span from 1984 to 1999. His book The Masonic Myth has been translated into five languages. He has been honored with the 33rd degree within the Scottish Rite, Southern Jurisdiction.