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What, exactly, are the Masons and Shriners?
September 28, 2004 3:47 PM   Subscribe

What, exactly, are the Masons and Shriners? A fraternal organization? Secret society? Religious cult? Charity fund-raisers? Community organization?

To be honest I've always been a little creeped out by these groups, but since I don't much about them I don't know why that is. They don't seem very secrative, what with posting their logos on city welcoming signs wherever they have a chapter. But their buildings always seem so spooky.. tinted glass, no signage to speak of.. doesn't seem very inviting or sociable. Are the Shriners and Masons related? About the only dealings I have had with Shriners are having them show me where to park at county fairs. But what's the point of joining the group? Any benefit? How would one join? And are "Free" Masons different? I understand they've been around awhile..
posted by robbie01 to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Along with the Kiwanis, and Elks, and FOE, and IOOF, I've always assumed all of these organizations had only one purpose: To enable old men to sit around drinking, grousing, and smoking cigars.
posted by majick at 3:58 PM on September 28, 2004


They're fraternal organizations. Originally many of them were what is known as "benevolent societies." Back in the days before social security, welfare and life insurance, [we're talking 1700's here] groups of like minded people would join together and pool funds so that in the event that something happened to one of them [injury on the job, death, old age] there was a sort of fund set up to take care of the worker, or take care of their families. So, originally, the Masons were masons. The Odd Fellows were people who did odd jobs [so one legend of how they came to be goes]. There are more smaller groups all over the US and the UK like the Order of Red Men, the Loyal Order of the Golden North, the Order of Woodsmen. Many of the lodges have some sort of women's auxilliary and the ones that are really thriving tend to have full-fledged female sister organizations. I may be getting some of the names off but that's the general gist. Now that these organizations don't serve the same "social safety net" purpose, many of them are dying out and have mostly older folks as members. However, many of the groups have a fair amount of funds both in dues collected over decades if not centuries as well as real estate holdings. You can see Odd Fellows and Masonic buildings in a lot of smaller towns, just look for the scales or the three links. Each group has their own pet charities. The Shriners take care of kids with a series of hospitals worldwide, the Odd Fellows run cemeteries and rest homes for their members and give scholarships to local kids. I don't know about the Masons, but the Odd Fellows are very circumspect about their philanthropy, so a lot of their bequests can seem a bit on the secret side.

These folks are not to be confused with military groups like Eagles and Elks who formed associations so that they could have places to go drink and socialize on Sundays, or groups like Kiwanis and the Rotary Clubs that are primarily business networking associations.

The Masons used to be a lot more secretive about who was a Mason and what exactly they did. There was a time in the US when people thought there were too many Masons in positions of national government and there was actually an Anti-Masonic Party formed to combat this. Today, a lot of the overall secrecy is gone, but they still have many secret practices and rituals that can seem bizarre when revealed to the outside world. Recently, the Masons started their 2B1ASK1 [To Be One [a mason] Ask One] which you see on license plates and billboards in the states. Membership used to be much more of a hurdle, now they're just trying to keep from dying out.

I lived in an Odd Fellows Hall in Seattle as the caretaker for three years and knew a lot of the Odd Fellows [and was friendly with the Masons who owned a building down the street] and for the most part they're just normal guys having monthly bullshitting sessions [the Odd Fellows don't drink as a group which I think is another reason they were thought of as "odd"]. I got to muck around in the basement where all their secret stuff was and a lot of it wasn't anything super-nutty. They always thought it was funny that people assumed they had a ton of "secret handshake" stuff when most of their rituals and events have been documented in books for years and years.
posted by jessamyn at 4:08 PM on September 28, 2004 [1 favorite]


They're essentially fraternities. "Mason" and "Freemason" are two names for the same thing. You can read about Masonry here. You can read about the Shriners here. They're a group for high-level Masons, so you can only become a Shriner if you are already a Master Mason.

I used to have a friend whose father was a Shriner. It seems pretty non-creepy - mostly a social group with some "secret" frat rituals, silly hats, and a lot of philanthropy. Definitely not the all-powerful Illuminati, unless Jon's dad missed a memo somewhere.

On preview, jessamyn's info is great!
posted by vorfeed at 4:24 PM on September 28, 2004


Nothing much substantive to add after jessamyn, but I was actually surprised that any Oddfellows were still around. The only other evidence I've seen of their existence is up in California's gold country, where there's an old IOOF hall in just about every town on highway 49, and one in the Bodie Ghost Town State Park. I thought it was strictly an 1800's thing.
posted by LionIndex at 5:28 PM on September 28, 2004


Heck, there are IOOFs in Canada. I'm pretty sure I was in one of their halls in Edmonchuk or saskaToontown.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:56 PM on September 28, 2004


jessamyn has finally cleared a long time puzzle for me.
On Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa is a small single doored building with a large sign that says Rebekahs and Oddfellows.
I and my friends always assumed it was some weird shop but not any more.
( this was made stranger by my knowledge that there is an "interesting" tasting sweet/candy in the UK call an oddfellow )
posted by stuartmm at 5:56 PM on September 28, 2004


You can read more about the Odd Fellows here if you're curious. This is the lodge I worked for.
posted by jessamyn at 6:08 PM on September 28, 2004


My grandfather was a Shriner, and my grandmother was in Eastern Star. Their children, my mother and uncle, were in Job's Daughters and DeMolay, respectively. I never got involved, myself, though I did go to a summer camp run by the Oddfellows (smack dab in the middle of the California gold country mentioned by LionIndex). I never thought much of it until I met an anti-Mason conspiracy theorist in college. That led to some interesting late-night conversations.

I always had the feeling that it was a pretty big deal in my grandparents' generation, but these days you get better networking opportunities at AA and better perks from AAA. As for controling the government and whatnot ... well, I definitely would've gone to DeMolay meetings for that.
posted by Acetylene at 6:22 PM on September 28, 2004


In Australia, the IOOF has turned pretty much completely into a financial firm - they are more well known for being somewhere to invest your money, than for being a secret society.
posted by Jimbob at 6:48 PM on September 28, 2004


The Shriners paid for my twin brother's cancer treatments (chemo, operations, recovery, etc.) and my preventative care (do twins share tumors?; turns out not so much), to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, when we were little kids. All I know is they drive silly cars, and they're OK by me.
posted by waldo at 7:32 PM on September 28, 2004


I'm a Freemason. I basically can't add a lot more than what vorfeed said. His link about Freemasonry is a very good resource. If anybody has any specific questions, I'd be happy to answer them. I wish more people from my generation would get involved in these traditions before they are lost.

Oh, and FWIW, here's just a few famous Freemasons: Frederic Bartholdi, Count Basie, Irving Berlin, Daniel Boone, James Bowie, Winston Churchhill, Lewis & Clark, Davy Crockett, W.E.B. DuBois, Jesse Jackson, Benito Juarez, Franz Haydn, John Hancock, George Marshall, Ben Franklin, Mozart, Paul Revere, Will Rogers, Harry Truman, George Washington, the list goes on.
posted by keswick at 7:59 PM on September 28, 2004


Odfellows Local 151 behind the firehouse, where Peewee sits upon the wall to preach...
posted by kindall at 8:17 PM on September 28, 2004


I used to wash dishes for the Elks in high school. From what all of us could tell it was a place that they could all hang out, drink cheaper beer, pay high school kids more than we were worth to bus tables/wash dishes, and occasionally have a real meeting to give out scholarships or whatever.

Definitely benevolent, and a great dish washing job to try to get if you're in high school or have high school aged kids. It's been years but I still remember weeknights there fondly.
posted by togdon at 8:35 PM on September 28, 2004


Also, beyond the conspiracy theories, there are also reasons that Masonry, specifically, has survived for so long as a professional fraternity, and also gotten so many spiritual associations with it, like:

1) Back when all this really started, it was something pretty damn impressive to be able to stack up stones and make them stand. One of the key early roles of all these groups was to simultaneously hoard and pass along the "secrets of the trade"--to keep them valuable, but to make sure they didn't die out. Of all the trades you could learn in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, it's hard to imagine something more squarely important as the ability to put up a building that didn't fall down, and it was _not_ a simple thing to do. Masons, as a profession, served a critical role, and their professional organization was understandably a prominent one.

2) That first point being said, it's not too hard to see the figurative parallel with God and his role in building the world. In the later Renaissance and Enlightenment, when the idea of God as a tradesman ("the Clockmaker God", etc.) really became prevalent, the spritual layer to all this expanded, and started to move Masonry from a trade fraternity to a group of like-minded souls, many of whom saw themselves as "builders" on a higher plane. It's an easy step from there to visions of the Illuminati and Trilateral Commission.
posted by LairBob at 9:42 PM on September 28, 2004


somewhat tangentially - cremaster 3, matthew barney's [beautiful symbol-stuffed incomprehensible] opus is based on "the masonic myth of hiram abiff, purported architect of solomon's temple, who posessed knowledge of the mysteries of the universe." the movie itself is structured around the idea of the ceremony by which a candidate progresses from the status of "entered apprentice" to master mason...

less tangentially, the phoenix masonry website has a fraternal supply catalogue and issues of builder magazine which provide an interesting counterpoint to jessamyn and vorfeed's comments. i'd hazard a guess that when masonry was most popular, chapters ranged in character from local fraternities [interested in getting together, drinking, having a good time, and apparently playing tricks involving electricity on candidates] to organizations to whom the religious and historical aspects of masonry were rather more important. which extreme is closer to the modern day masons, i don't know - they hold information/recruiting sessions at my university in january, but i've never gone, unfortunately. the phoenix masonry "museum" has interesting stuff, at the very least, even if it's rather outdated now.
posted by ubersturm at 10:58 PM on September 28, 2004


The Trilateral Commission has a nice website, in case anyone was wondering whether it exists.

I wonder why they haven't spent more of their budget on disproving conspiracy theories.
posted by inksyndicate at 11:01 PM on September 28, 2004


Woodsmen
Grand Lodge of Japan
posted by planetkyoto at 2:45 AM on September 29, 2004


my dad is a mason. i find it all a bit odd, but for him it's a great way of meeting his friends, having a drink and a good meal.

in the uk the police traditionally have a strong presence in the masons. once someone left a note on my dad's car with a licence number - someone had witnessed who scratched his car. so he decided to ask "a friend" at the masons who happened to be a policeman to find out the address from the numberplate. i think that's a good example of the way this kind of group can lead to small-scale corruption. and the friend said "sure" and then came back later to say there must have been a mistake because that number didn't exist (and i think that's a good example of how to handle such a request, if one otherwise feels obliged to help out).
posted by andrew cooke at 4:01 AM on September 29, 2004


I'm assuming the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes is such an organisation. They have, (or had, the building is now for sale) a branch in my home town of Saint John, New Brunswick and the bizarre name always caught my eye and made me wonder. The skanky-looking crowd the place attracted did something to strip away the mystical veneer the name held for me though.

And let me just say that the Masonic Temple in Vancouver, BC is creepy. I used to walk past it after work every day. It's this huge concrete cube with windows only along the bottom floor. There were something like five floors above with no windows that I could see. What was on those floors? My guess? Definitely something Cthulhu-related.
posted by picea at 7:32 AM on September 29, 2004


Of course if they really were secretly ruling the world, wouldn't they want you to think they were just a bunch of guys getting together for drinks and helping kids?
posted by dirtylittlemonkey at 9:00 AM on September 29, 2004


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