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Masonry and Masons In The News

Masonic Membership Is Declining

From the Detroit Free Press

In a long-in-the-tooth corner of downtown Dallas sits the solid, well-maintained -- but largely vacant -- Masonic Temple. The 65-year-old landmark has been on the market since October (asking price: $3.6 million). Like the organization it represents, the temple has seen better days.

The Freemasons were once a cornerstone of American society, counting among their members nine signers of the Declaration of Independence, 14 presidents and 42 Supreme Court justices.

The organization is a fraternity, social club and brotherhood that, using the ancient craft of stonecutting as a metaphor, seeks to instill morality and upright behavior in members.

At monthly lodge meetings, Masons perform rituals to induct new members, attend classes on what they call "the craft," and organize charitable activities in their communities.

But the organization is in decline. In 1959, the Masons had more than 4 million U.S. members. Today, membership is about 1.5 million.

At the same time, Masons are making a cultural splash. "The Da Vinci Code" has piqued interest in secret societies and ancient rituals. "Da Vinci" author Dan Brown's next book, "The Solomon Key," is rumored to be about Masonry and the Founding Fathers. Masonry also figured in the 2004 Nicolas Cage film "National Treasure."

Masonic leaders see the interest as an opportunity to reenergize Freemasonry and its subgroups: the Scottish Rite, the York Rite, the Order of the Eastern Star and the Shriners.

Cloudy beginnings

There are several theories about the Masons' origins. In one, the fraternity looks to two moments in history. One is the building of King Solomon's Temple, which Masons say was completed in the 10th Century B.C. The second dates to medieval times, when a group known as the Knights Templar protected crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. Legend has it that the knights were actually on a different mission, to find treasure buried in Solomon's Temple, which was destroyed in 587 B.C.

Many historians are skeptical of a direct link between the Knights Templar and Freemasonry. But scholars do agree that around 1717, Freemasonry emerged in England as a fraternal order, distinct from the medieval craft guilds.

Knights, secret rituals and treasure aside, Masonry is, its leaders say, about being a force for good in the world.

Although Freemasonry requires a belief in God or higher power, the fraternity is adamant that it is not a religion, and it welcomes members of all faiths. The Catholic Church, however, considers Freemasonry incompatible with Christianity.

And some evangelical Christians are put off by Masonry's non-Christian rituals, or by its prohibition against religious proselytizing among members.

"That would cause strife," said Brian Dodson, grand master of the Grand Lodge of Texas. "We're looking for a brotherhood."

Dodson, an Episcopalian, said lodges lost members when the men learned that Masons can take their vows on any holy book, including the Hebrew Bible or the Quran.

"The reason that type of Christian leaves Masonry is because of our tolerance," he said.

No one, however, questions the Masons' devotion to charitable works.

Masonic charities fund hospitals, old age homes and other philanthropic activities. Jeffrey B. Hodgdon, grand master in Massachusetts, estimated that nationwide, Masons spend $3 million a day on charity.

That commitment -- and the fraternity, tolerance and community that the Masons represent -- will keep the group strong, said Frank Brown of Dallas, a degreed Mason.

"It's something I would recommend to anyone who is striving for relationships with people who they know they can trust -- and who they want to be trusted by," he said.

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