The Craft In Thirty Seconds

by Midnight Freemasons Contributors
R.W. B. Michael H. Shirley
Todd E. Creason, 33°
(reprinted with permission from The Working Tools Masonic Magazine

What is Freemasonry? It’s a simple question and one that should be fairly easy for a Mason to answer—right? You think that until somebody, perhaps armed with ideas gleaned from History Channel “documentaries” or the latest Dan Brown thriller, notices the square and compasses on your ring and asks, with genuine curiosity, “So what’s Freemasonry about? C’mon, tell me the truth.” Too many of us aren’t prepared for that question, and what the person asking winds up with is a confusing mish-mash of facts, something about George Washington being a Freemason and an assurance that the Shrine is a lot of fun.

That isn’t good enough. Worshipful Brother Christopher Hodapp, author of Freemasons for Dummies, has said that every Freemason ought to have an elevator talk ready, a thirty-second summary of what Masonry is, in order to satisfy those simply curious, while at the same time intriguing the light-seeking inquirer within.

When we began this conversation, neither of us had that talk ready. This article grew out of our discussions on what such a talk should include. We are both writers, and it startled us to realize how difficult it is to put into words what it is about the Craft that has made it so central to our lives. Why, we wondered, could we not respond in simple terms to such a basic question?

Why is the question so hard to answer? It might just be because we don’t think about it very much. Most of us are too involved in our lodges to think about the reasons why we joined to begin with and what it is we get out of it exactly. Our experiences within the fraternity are unique to the individual, so there isn’t a right or wrong answer to the question. We are different men pursuing different paths in life, and we come to Freemasonry in different ways.

"When I returned from the service, my father, who was an active Mason, said 'Noel, it's time to get serious about life.' He handed me a petition and said, 'I think this organization will help you do that.' He was right."

~Past Grand Master of Illinois Noel C. Dicks

Some of us petition a local lodge because it’s a family tradition; one brother we both know is a seventh-generation Mason, and many of us have a father or an uncle who was a Mason. Others join because they want to expand their circle of friends, to become more active in their community, to study philosophy, to improve themselves, or to give something back through Masonry’s numerous philanthropic endeavors. Still other young Masons join, at least in part, because they thought the movie National Treasure was really cool (Surprisingly, we both plead guilty to that one, although we’re not exactly young. Sadly, neither of us has found the Templar treasure…yet).

We all join for different reasons, the way we participate often adds something unique to the fraternity, and we all get something different out of it that keeps us enthusiastically coming back. For a Freemason, put on the spot and ill prepared for the question, it can become a daunting task to easily put into words what Freemasonry is in a meaningful way. How, he thinks, can I convey what it means to me?

“I am not sure I would have spent so many hours in canoes and on rivers with my Dad if we had not become Brothers. I will always love our common interest in Masonry for that.”

~W.B. Brian L. Pettice, 33°

Why is having an answer to that question so important? Freemasonry is often referred to as a secret society, but with Hollywood movies, websites, popular novels, YouTube videos, TV specials, and thousands of books on the subject, we sure aren’t doing a very good job at the secret part. Everybody seems to know something about our Fraternity these days.
We all know as Freemasons that it’s not a secret society, but the truth is that Americans have never been more fascinated with the subject of Freemasonry than they are right now. But unlike many organizations, we don’t advertise. We don’t run membership specials in the newspaper where if you petition the lodge before September 15th, you’ll get a free duffle bag (which you can keep as our free gift to you even if you decide not to join). Traditionally, Freemasonry’s only form of advertising is Freemasons. Remember? 2B1ASK1? The question is, what will you say when 1ASKSU2B1?

Many of us petitioned a lodge after asking that very question of a Mason and getting an answer that convinced us that, however imperfectly we understood it, it was something we wanted to pursue. But we’ll never know how many men decide not to petition because they were given a poor answer to the question.

That’s why it’s so important to be prepared. We all know that question is going to be asked of us. We just don’t know when or where. Todd got surprised recently when he left the mall and found a young man looking at the back of his car in the parking lot—Todd was prepared to see a big dent in his bumper, but that’s not what it was about at all. “Are these Masonic symbols?” the young man asked. And for a change, Todd was ready for him. That one moment of inquiry is, more often than not, when a potential member either decides to join or to pass based solely on how we respond to that simple question.

So what should I say? And that’s another challenge because we know what we should say, but we’re torn by what we have experienced ourselves. We should say something about it being the world’s oldest fraternal organization. We should say something about our philanthropic pursuits and the good we do in our communities. We should say something about the moral values our fraternity holds dear—amongst those brotherly love, relief, and truth. We should say something about making good men better. We might even be tempted to use the old standby—the traditionally accepted centuries-old answer to that question, that Freemasonry is “a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” But do you believe that anyone is going to understand that answer today?

So how do I get to my answer to the question? We can only speak authoritatively of our own experience in this matter, and we have discovered that we have had to think actively about what Freemasonry means to us and not just let it sit on the edge of our subconscious. Our experiences have been different. Todd jokes that he told his wife that being a Mason would involve only a meeting a month and a couple pancake breakfasts every year, and Michael wasn’t sure what he would find but he really thought the tradition he’d read about was cool (only one of us was right). Michael was thrown in at the deep end, being elected Junior Warden two weeks after he was raised, and Todd jumped in, writing the book Famous American Freemasons before he’d learned how to make a good Masonic corner (and some would argue he still can’t).

Start by asking yourself a few questions... You’ve got to think about this. Perhaps the best way to begin formulating your answer is to ask yourself a few questions first, and try to come up with simple one-sentence answers.

What should a perspective member know about our fraternity? Perhaps that it’s the world’s oldest international fraternity. That its focus is to make good men better. Past Grand Master Noel C. Dicks put it well when he told Michael that "Masonry won't automatically make you a better man, but the teachings of the fraternity will supply the tools and opportunities to assist you in reaching that goal." Perhaps that it’s a place where men of many different backgrounds come together and do important work.

How has being a Freemason changed me? Do you feel like Freemasonry has improved your life? Do you think you’re a better husband and father? Have your Brothers helped you through a difficult period in your life?

“Masonry requires me to assume my Brothers’ best intentions. That necessarily changes me for the better.”

~R. W. B. Michael H. Shirley

Why do I think Freemasonry is important? Is it because of the charitable works the fraternity is involved in? Is it because of the difference in makes in the lives of the men who are members? Is it because Freemasonry still regards moral tenets and virtues as important and requires good character as a prerequisite for membership?

What is it I get out of it that keeps me involved? Is it that feeling that I’m contributing to some greater good? Is it having the opportunity to meet and spend time with men that share the same ideals that I do? Do I have opportunities to do things within the fraternity I don’t have the opportunity to do in the outside world?

“I can’t think of a better way to improve both yourself and the community in which you live than to become a Freemason.”

~W.B. Gregory J. Knott

If you don’t like our questions, you can come up with your own, but if you can answer those questions, you’re well on your way to your answer for that unexpected elevator question. All you have to do is expand on it. Once you have an answer you’re happy with, memorize it just as you would a bit of ritual—it may be the most important piece of memory work you ever do. By having that answer ready when you’re asked, you could change somebody’s life in the same way being a Mason has changed yours.

When someone inquires about Freemasonry, he’s not looking for something easy or obvious; he’s looking for something more profound. He’s looking for what we have. The third tenet of Freemasonry is Truth. That’s what he’s looking for, whether he knows it or not. What matters most of all is that Truth be our face to the Profane world. If your answer is True, if it is the answer of a Mason, rather than the pitch of a salesman, then maybe, just maybe, your questioner’s eyes will be opened a bit wider to the possibilities before him. The unexpected elevator question is a chance to be a Mason in the eyes of the world, and to make the gift of Freemasonry available to a future Brother.

Be ready for that moment!


Michael Shirley & Todd Creason
Todd E. Creason, 33° is Past Master of Ogden Lodge No. 754 and the author of several books including “The Famous American Freemasons” series.  He’s the Business Manager at the Office of Technology Management at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley is the Assistant Area Deputy Grand Master for the Eastern Area for the Grand Lodge of Illinois A.F. & A. M.  He is Past Master of Tuscola Lodge No. 332 and Leadership Development Chairman for the Grand Lodge of Illinois. The author of several articles on British history, he teaches at Eastern Illinois University.

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