Kent freemasons: Busting the myths and conspiracy theories
- Credit: Archant
Freemasonry has existed for more than 300 years, welcomes men from all weeks of life and supports many charities - yet the myths persist. Kent Life finds out why
Dogged by more conspiracy theories than possibly any other organisation and with an abiding 'secret society' image, the Freemasons have had enough.
They'd like the public to wake up to what they really do, rather than automatically reach for the clichés of 'funny handshakes' and rolled-up trouser legs.
So when the invitation came for myself and my photographer to spend a morning with the East Kent Freemasons in Maidstone to 'bust some of the myths about freemasonry', I not only jumped at the chance, but came away feeling humbled - and enlightened.
Freemasonry is the oldest and the largest of the secular fraternal societies, developed from the stonemasons who built the great cathedrals and castles of the Middle Ages. Inevitably for such an historic organisation, it is steeped in tradition and from that many of the myths and prejudices have built up over the years.
This is what I learnt during my visit to Belvidere Lodge.
The myths: busted
- 1 WIN a holiday to the Isles of Scilly worth £1000
- 2 Win a 2 night beach stay at The Beachcroft Hotel in Sussex
- 3 20 of the best places to eat out in St Ives
- 4 23 cottages that will make you want to move to Surrey
- 5 WIN £500 worth of preloved designer clothes
- 6 6 waterfall walks in Derbyshire and the Peak District
- 7 20 of the best restaurants in Hertfordshire
- 8 8 charming market towns you need to visit in Somerset
- 9 9 lovely beaches in Cornwall that allow dogs all-year-round
- 10 10 of the best restaurants in Hastings
It's a religion, a cult
To be accepted into Freemasonry, initiates must believe in one god - but that can be any god. Christians may be in the majority, but Jews, Muslims, and others are well represented in Masonic circles. At meetings religious and political discussion is banned.
It's a secret society
The traditional 'secrets' of Freemasonry reference the means by which medieval stonemasons made themselves known and proved their qualifications when arriving at a new building site. In more contemporary times, the Second World War saw Freemasons frequently targeted, captured and put into concentration camps, where they were classified as political prisoners and wore an inverted red triangle.
Historians estimate that between 80,000 and 200,000 Freemasons were killed under the Nazi regime. Hitler believed Freemasons had succumbed to Jews conspiring against Germany.
Yet many still managed to hold secret meetings under the very noses of their guards, making do with any materials they could find. The resolve was unshaken - and the need for secrecy indeed paramount. Today, meetings are publicised in advance, minuted and run to a strict set of regulations. An annual directory is published listing the senior officers of every Lodge, there are regular open days, members attend community events and are encouraged to discuss their membership openly with family, friends and colleagues. Not that secret after all.
You have to be recruited
Tradition dictates that Masons don't recruit members but simply accept those who approach them of their own free will. Mobile display units, manned by volunteers, visit High Streets and events in towns throughout Kent and you can ask any questions you want about becoming a Freemason. I certainly did. It's then a fairly lengthy process of eight to 12 months that includes finding the ideal night a candidate can devote to meetings, which will then point the direction of the right lodge, to be followed by an introduction to make sure both sides are happy.
It's only for the upper classes
While a significant number of the Royal Household are members, and the Duke of Kent is grand master of the United Grand Lodge of England, you don't have to be rich, famous or even of a certain age to be a member. Membership is open to men over the age of 21 (but students can apply to join the Universities scheme from the age of 18) and younger members are particularly welcomed for the fresh dynamism they bring to their Lodges.
It's all about personal gain
One of the fundamental rules on joining is that Freemasons agree they're not seeking to gain personal, financial or material advantage. Using Freemasonry for financial benefit is forbidden.
Masons look after themselves
A Freemason's first duty is always the wellbeing of his family, but Freemasonry also teaches concern for others, care for the less fortunate and help for those in need. Freemasons are known for their charitable donations, to their local communities, to national and international causes, but no one is asked to donate more than they can afford. And yes, of course they do also care for each other.
Women are unwelcome
Traditionally, Freemasonry was restricted to men; the earliest stonemasons were all male and when Freemasonry was starting, the position of women was very different from today. Now there are Lady Freemasons, with their own Lodges organised under their own Grand Lodge. In the UK male and female Freemasons prefer to keep that separateness, both agreeing that their Freemasonry offers special attractions for socialising.
It's all about silly rituals
As one member put it: "Rituals are all part of our tradition; because you have to learn it you start to get a deeper understanding of the organisation and what it's all about."
The degrees of Freemasonry reflect the three grades of medieval craft guilds: Apprentice, Fellowcraft, Master Mason. The route forward is then mapped by the individual - some stay at Master Mason level because they enjoy it so much.
Candidates are progressively taught the meanings of the symbols of Freemasonry, and entrusted with grips, signs and words to signify to other members that they have been initiated.
Everything has a meaning. The aprons that are worn, for example, hark back to working stonemasons, on which the ceremonies are based. That single most identifiable symbol of Freemasonry, the square and compasses, are architect's tools and used to teach symbolic lessons. The gavel wielded by the Master of the Lodge is the mason's gavel that was used to break the rough edges off of a stone.
Even the floor has significance. Masonic tradition is that the floor of the Temple of Solomon was decorated with a mosaic pavement of black and white stones, hence all Lodges, as a representation of the Temple, have a floor of the same pattern.
So, don't dismiss or judge, just because Freemasonry is 'different.' It's been in existence for more than 300 years and has not only stood the test of time but also that of prejudice and persecution.
A charitable heart
Living up to their mission 'to be a force for good by providing support, care and services to freemasons and their families in need, and supporting other charities to help the most disadvanted people in society,' the Masonic Charitable Foundation was launched in 2016. It has already become the largest independent Masonic charity for both its own community and the wider population and is now one of the largest grant-making foundations in the UK.
The Cornwallis East Kent Freemasons' Charity supports a wide range of comminity groups and charities across East Kent. in 20017/18 they helped 147 people from the masonic community. This included £200,690 of grants for daily living expenses; £142,645 of supprt for health needs; £95,213 to cover educational opportunities and quality care. The support for masonic charities totalled £438,548. EKF also supported 13 local charities with £189,000 in grants.
A potted Kentish history
One of the oldest lodges in Kent is the Royal Kent Lodge of Antiquity in Chatham, which has been in continuous existence since 1723. Today, the Masonic Province of East Kent has Lodges stretching from Gravesend in the north to Dymchurch on the south coast, Broadstairs in the east and Paddock Wood in the west. A great place to find out more is The Kent Museum of Freemasonry in Canterbury, which serves to explain much about Freemasonry in general and its evolution in Kent in particular. It's run by volunteers, most of whom are Freemasons.