Who the Masons Aren’t

The Lodge’s commitment to tolerance and the brotherhood of all men has produced hostile reactions among many elements interested in keeping people divided and at odds with one another. For this reason, there are times when the Lodge has existed more or less underground. In most times, however, the Lodge operates openly, only keeping certain things private—means of identifying other Masons and details of certain rituals, for example.

These secrets have produced great jealousy and suspicion, which has in turn led to confusion about who Masons really are. One common confusion is conflating any group with secrets with the Lodge, or confusing the Lodge—a society with secrets—with various secret societies. Here is a quick look at some other fraternal orders that are often confused with the Lodge.

The Illuminati

The Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria was a secret society founded by the defrocked Jesuit Adam Weishaupt in Ingolstadt, Bavaria in 1776. This was the height of the Enlightenment, a movement to secularize institutions of power and bring about democratic republican political changes to Europe. Because of the threats these ideas posed to the ruling Church and aristocracy, many “freethinkers” had to operate in secret, and the Illuminati (as Weishaupt’s group called themselves) were no different. Almost immediately the group came under suspicion, and was the object of conspiracy theories around the time of the French Revolution.

These conspiracies appear to be overdrawn, and while Weishaupt seems to have adopted certain practices from the Masonic Lodge, the Illuminati were not Masons—most members could probably not profess belief in God. The order seems to have collapsed under internal divisions and official oppression within about 50 years of its founding, though some occult orders claim to be its rightful heirs. Figuring out which of the many competitors to this title is legitimate is a task for someone with the patience of Job.

Skull and Bones

Skull and Bones was founded at Yale University in the 1830s amid a controversy over certain student awards. Each year the organization “taps” 15 distinguished juniors to join the society the next year. The organization is not much different from your typical fraternity, except that it draws its members further along in their college careers and focuses on campus leaders. Also unlike most fraternities, the group is now co-ed, and racially diverse. Because it seeks out the most distinguished young people at one of America’s most distinguished universities, many “Bonesmen” have gone on to positions of public distinction, including President William H. Taft and both Presidents Bush.

While there are undoubtedly some Masons who have also been Bonesmen (President Taft, for example), the organizations have no amity or formal connection. For one thing, S&B now accepts women, and the Lodge does not. Like the Lodge, S&B has been the subject of a number of conspiracy theories, despite the rather public nature of their operations and membership.

Oddfellows/Moose/Elks

There are a number of other charitable, fraternal organizations which are often confused with the Lodge. The Independent Order of Oddfellows has a terrific name and a great reputation for community service, but they are not Masons and one is not required to be a Mason to join. The Elks also require a belief in God and engage in charity, but both the Odd Fellows and Elks are more properly “belevolent societies,” in that they were founded to assist fellow members in need. Both these and the Moose Lodge are largely social organizations, and while many Masons belong to these organizations, they are not Masons nor is Masonic initiation required for membership (as it is in such organizations as the Shriners).