It is the oldest fraternity organization in the world, an enigma to those who do not know the traditions and mysteries that its members have access to. With the group’s apparent secrecy, many speculate: Is it a cult? Did the organization really hide treasure during the Revolutionary War (like in the movie National Treasure)? What does the group even do? What exactly is it all about? Do its members have secrets that unlock questions about, say, the meaning of life?
This is the world of Freemasonry, with famous members including many of the Founding Fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among others. And there is a Masonic Lodge just a brisk minute-long walk from Currier Hall: Williamstown Lodge No. 16. The Lodge has 67 members who are 50 to 55 years old on average; there have been as many as six employees of the College who have been a part of the local lodge within the past 30 years, and as many as three students.
To get a better picture of the organization, I sat down with Williamstown Masonic Lodge Secretary Nicholas Mantello to better understand what leads men join the brotherhood, what it takes to be a Freemason and what’s fact or myth about Freemasonry. Here are my main takeaways.
Nicholas Mantello became a Freemason in 1989 after 10 years of consideration: According to Mantello, it was “the mystique, the brotherhood” that drew him in. As a member of the North Adams branch as well, Mantello has spent the past 28 years serving both lodges.
Freemasonry desires to bring out the best in men over the age of 18. “The core and what’s usually the first thing that comes up when discussing what we’re about is making good men better,” Mantello said. “It’s trying to improve yourself daily, so every day you’re better than you were yesterday. It’s just improving a man’s character and meeting with like-minded brothers and gentlemen.” This, Mantello said, takes place by being active in the community. The local lodge organizes pancake breakfasts, blood drives, highway clean-ups and other charitable services.
You don’t need to be Christian to be a member. There is, however, a requirement that candidates believe in a higher deity of some sort. While approximately 80 percent of Williamstown Lodge members are Christian, there are also other religious groups represented, including Judaism, Islam and now Buddhism – the newest member of the brotherhood, who just joined several weeks ago, is Buddhist.
The organization requires that its members believe in a higher power in order to emphasize the gravity of joining the brotherhood. “Believing in God is binding. Similarly, joining a Masonic Lodge represents a binding contract,” Mantello said.
According to its members, freemasonry is not the same thing as a cult.
“We are not a cult!” Mantello said, marking the absence of a religious component as the biggest difference between Freemasonry and a cult. Additionally, Freemasonry will not force its members to break the law in order to protect each other or the Masonic message. The idea that Freemasons will commit perjury on the stand to protect a brother is a myth, Mantello said.
Freemasons are generally open to speaking with those who want to learn about the life of a Freemason. “My comparison has always been … if you want the teachings that we have, it would be so much better gained if you were to join and go through the ritual yourself rather than get it online,” Mantello said. “It’s like going to an amusement park and watching the roller coaster rather than riding the roller coaster. If you really want it, get the experience of it. It’s awesome. It’s very deep. It doesn’t infringe on your friends, family, job or religion.”
Most of the Freemasons’ knowledge draws upon understanding the significance of various symbols that are critical to the Masonic ideology and improving men, such as the “center of a center,” the hourglass, rough ashler and perfect ashler (rough stone and perfect stone). Freemasonry emphasizes memorization of symbols and their meanings because, as Mantello said, “symbols gives [Freemasons] a moral code to try to live by, by applying lessons learned from symbolism to daily situations.”
Additionally, Mantello said that besides the meanings of symbols, most of Freemasons’ secrets involve modes of recognizing other Freemasons: Handshakes and bumper stickers are just two of several modes of recognition. (Hint: If you want to join a Lodge and see a bumper sticker with “2B1Ask1” – “to be one, ask one” – just approach the driver!). While Mantello noted that a Freemason won’t explicitly explain the meanings behind symbols, he also said that most information that is thought to be secret is accessible to the public.
“There is very little that we don’t share to the public,” he said. “I can honestly say we have no secrets. All of our ‘secrets’ can be found online. I’m not going to show you where to find it, but if you were to really search for it, you can find whatever you’re looking for.”
The Williamstown Masonic Lodge requires candidates to submit a background check and to be interviewed by a member of the chapter; afterwards, an investigation committee will evaluate the applicant and give a recommendation to the entire lodge as to whether the candidate is “favorable” or “unfavorable.” Nothing is set in stone, however, until the whole group votes; a unanimous vote is necessary for a candidate to be let into the lodge.
While this may seem daunting to some, Mantello said that those who are good men and want to improve their lives will have no trouble being accepted by Freemasons. “Any man of good standing can join,” Mantello said.