The Moral Debate On Clandestine MasonryMorality. You will hear that word many times as a Freemason. Merriam-Webster has four definitions for morality. I believe the one that best fits the discussion of clandestine masonry is: "a literary or other imaginative work teaching a moral lesson." Ironically, Merriam-Webster lists "Aesop's Fables" as a "famous example of morality". While the subject of clandestine masonry is a vast, unknown entity to many Freemasons, what is clear is: clandestine groups claim to seek for the same "morality" that we, as Freemasons, overtly pursue. The problem is, their members are all to often unknowing participants in their covert, fictitious work.
Often when we think of clandestine masons, the idea of someone wearing a masonic ring purchased at an estate sale, possessing an apron that is not their own, or claiming to know "our secrets" come to mind. The image of a copycat, wannabe, or pretender who presents fake credentials to access a conversation or find relevance. Someone who would see being a Freemason as a status symbol, not as a privilege. In reality, clandestine masonic groups not only mimic our dress, degree systems, ritual, and education -- they also try to claim legitimacy in our communities. These groups are not quiet "pretenders," rather the opposite; they are well organized, well funded, and target gentlemen who have a sincere desire to become a Freemason.
Three common themes surfaced during my research on clandestine groups: intent, race, and realization.
The Clandestine Experience"I was Junior Warden of my Lodge, Junior Deacon of the District," began Bro. Alvin Gyles, member of Mt. Vernon Lodge #3, F&AM - Albany, NY, Ancient Temple Chapter #5 RAM - Albany, Bloss-DeWitt Clinton Council #14 - Albany. "And, I was in Queen of the South and Royal Arch. The only thing I was missing was the Shriners which they consider the highest degree." The "they" here is a local group of International Free and Accepted Modern Masons, a corporation based out of Detroit, Michigan. International Masons and Easter Stars Worldwide is an unaffiliated clandestine group, not recognized by The Grand Lodge of the State of New York -- in turn, not recognized by ANY Masonic jurisdiction in the United States. This clandestine group looks, feels, and acts legitimate but is far from having the title of Freemasons.
Bro. Gyles' intent was pure, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, a Past Grand Master in Prince Hall. "He had a big impression in my life with the square and compasses," reminisced Gyles. "When I was growing up, since my name started with an "A", I would draw the square and compasses with my letter 'A'." Yet, Bro. Gyles's first masonic experience was clandestine. He unknowing invested almost four years of his life with the International Masons after meeting a member through his church.
Five years into the experience, at 23 years old, Bro. Gyles noticed how his dues kept increasing. The cost didn't rise because of changes in the economy, the sources that called for contributions grew over time. He did the math, he was paying almost $200 a month! "When I first started it was $25 a month, by the time I stopped it was $35. Once you are a member you paid district fees. That was another $12 every Saturday plus the raffles." Wait, raffles? These weren't charitable or legitimate non-profit efforts. No, this fundraising was for the clandestine treasury, paid for by the members. "Every month you would get a book of tickets you have to sell. They were $25 a book. You don't wanna hassle everyone you know, every month, so you basically buy those too. You get one from your Lodge, District, and Grand Lodge." He began wondering where all of this money was going since Bro. Gyles would often pay for dinner, tools, and items needed for degrees.
At this point, I had to know, just as you are probably thinking, how did this group perform ritual? What was their education and history? What exactly were they telling (and selling) to their members? The International "Modern Masons" consider the Shrine the highest degree. Bro. Gyles explained their degree system. "Basically we had three degrees in Blue Lodge," he started. "Then you have to get your Eastern Star Degree. After the Easter Star, you become a member of the Queen of the South. Then comes Royal Arch, Scottish Rite, and you end up as a 32nd degree Shriner." The group used the Duncan Ritual, which you can purchase on Amazon for under $20. "When I do ritual work now, I have to stop at certain moments, to pull back the clandestine words because they are memorized. It's like a lyric from your favorite song that has another version that is played on the album versus the radio."
If you are keeping score:
• This group approaches men who show an interest in Freemasonry
• To apply, men fill out a petition, in this case online
• Initiated men are put through a degree system
• Their ritual is not secret • Dues are paid weekly
• They claim to be founded upon Christian values
So far some of what clandestine groups offer is similar to Freemasonry but we are starting to see a few differences. Oh, and there is a major distinction that Bro. Gyles revealed.
"The only physical building this group had is in Detroit."
Bingo! That fact surfaced when Bro. Gyles' researched this group's legitimacy after a fellow member tried to petition another recognized Masonic body and was denied. It was at that point, Bro. Gyles was told the Modern Masons group was not a recognized Lodge. They were also told to produce a copy of their charter. To regular Freemasons, there is formal communication process between recognizes Lodges that facilities these requests, but to clandestine members this is an awakening moment. For Bro. Gyles, he continued to find the truth.
Creating Racial DivisionAfter his friend called, they reached out their Grand Master for answers. "He was the most honest one we spoke to," noted Bro. Gyles. "He came back to us and said, 'This is what it is: they consider us clandestine... but who are they to call us that? We did the same process that they did to start their Lodges. Who tells these white guys they can do it and we can't?'" It's not uncommon for some clandestine groups to play to the same racial tensions that have divided good men in country since the birth of our democracy.
When I looked at the homepage of the International Masons, as the pictures cycled on the screen, I noticed they all shared one thing in common: the members pictured were all African American. The general thought is, historically, as black men sought admittance to Freemasonry, they were excluded or prevented from joining. At that point, their only recourse was to join other groups, like Prince Hall Lodges. Since Prince Hall Lodges have only recently (late 1990's to early 2000's) been recognized as regular Masonic bodies by the independent Grand Lodges in jurisdictions across the United States -- this divide created an opening for other groups to promote the values of Freemasonry while positioning their organization as a body that offered acceptance to members of the black community.
This might explain the development of "progressive fraternal orders" and their use of the Square and Compasses with letter "G" in their logo -- but upon further, careful examination, you'll notice an addition (like the symbol for a key) or other slight variation, that to the initiated, are clear indicators of clandestine masonry. But you'd have to know that. Like the viceroy butterfly that mimics the monarch, clandestine groups appear legitimate to the untrained eye. This stealthy deception allows these groups to exist in the same mind space as Masonic Lodges and Temples that have legitimately been in the community for generations.
"Brother C" presented a similar story as Bro. Gyles when he shared his clandestine experience. He approached a friend, who was a clandestine member, inquiring about Freemasonry. He did not know that he was talking to a clandestine mason. "Brother C" then went through the Blue Lodge ritual to earn his Master Mason degree. It wasn't until he was asked about his background, that he discovered he was clandestine. "Brother C" is also an African American. Like Bro. Gyles, he eventually went through the steps to become a legitimate Mason. As "Brother C" tells is, "after I approached by a true Brother who then asked about my background, I came to find out that I was a clandestine Mason. I was extremely disappointed because my original sponsor had passed. I don't believe that he knew we were clandestine either. I wanted to be a legitimate Mason."
The Realization of FreemasonryIf you visit your Grand Lodge website and then scan a clandestine page, you'll find that both are a starting point for good men looking to be better. Both will have photos of gentlemen wearing aprons and regalia, or other things that look Masonic. When I scanned through the pages of true, Masonic Grand Lodges, every site shared the same story of our history. The oldest fraternity in the world... created in 1717... one Grand Lodge in each state and the District of Columbia... with references to historic/famous Masons like Franklin, Washington, Roosevelt, or Truman. We offer the authentic history that interested men want to be a part of.
Think back to the last interaction you had with a gentleman who was interested in Freemasonry. What questions did he ask you? What questions did you ask him? If he came to visit your Lodge, did you give him a tour? Did he stay for dinner? This is something to consider. With information just a Google search away, we need to improve the fact-finding process for men seeking to join Freemasonry. It should be the goal of every "Brother Bring a Friend Night" that those who visit our sacred buildings, whether it's for a social occasion or non-tiled meeting, that individual leaves with a clear picture of who we are and what we do.
In my conversation with "Brother C," he discussed how, as a Freemason, he has traveled to Lodges outside of his jurisdiction. He explained the examination process, "I know this now because you may not know you are a clandestine Mason, when you are one." How painful that reality must be. "You are going to always feel like you were robbed of your time," echoed Bro. Gyles. "I was dedicated and put myself in it. Time is the one thing I will never get back. This also caused relationship problems. My clandestine lodge took me away from my family for hours. In the end, it was all gone."
Understanding Our ObligationThe wording will differ across our jurisdictions but we can all agree that as Master Masons, we are prohibited from discussing anything Masonic in nature with clandestine members. The problem is, most of us don't know what or even IF we can say anything to a clandestine member. I reached out to RW Bro. Oscar Alleyne, Junior Grand Warden, Grand Lodge of the State of New York, F&AM for more insight on this issue. Oscar is widely considered an expert in our Craft on the subject of Clandestine Masons. He delivered an eye-opening presentation on "The Prevalence of Clandestine Freemasonry in the United States," at Masonic Con 2017, held at Ezekiel Bates Lodge in Attleboro, Massachusetts.
"I have often found that when speaking with Worshipful Masters or in Lodge discussions, many of us are unsure of how to interact with clandestine members," said RW Bro. Alleyne. His words prompted me to pick up my ritual book. "People hear the word 'intercourse' and wonder what that means. It's true: you are not supposed to talk about ritual or the secret work of Freemasonry. But, you can have a conversation with any gentleman about what it means to join a Lodge and the process for legitimately joining a Lodge." The challenge to Freemasons is finding the appropriate time or method, to gently explain the massive difference between clandestine and recognized Masonry.
Instead of looking at clandestine members as "the hackers of Freemasonry" or malicious evil-doers, keep in mind these men are preachers, the guy you work with, or someone who also volunteers to serve your community. The subject of being clandestine should be approached with caution. Bro. Gyles, who still sees members from his clandestine group, advises that, "every situation is different. Everyone isn't open to hearing that they are a member of something that is fake. When you get into these clandestine lodges, they program in your mind that they are right and that anyone who says different is a liar and you need to protect your family."
"Brother C" advises to use caution as well. "If I came across a clandestine mason, I would let him speak. If it was just somebody passing by, I would not say anything. If it was a gentleman who had a sincere interest, then if I am in particular jurisdiction (i.e. outside my Mother Lodge), I would seek permission to see if I could speak with that gentleman." It's important to note that as Master Masons, we are also instructed to be good members of the community in which we live. RW Bro. Alleyne summed up that duty the best. "We need to embrace who we are, express greater interaction among our recognized bodies, and also, engage the community so that people get a better understanding of what we are. These steps will build a better pathway to joining our Lodges!"
Brother Michael Arce is the Junior Warden of St. George’s #6, Schenectady and a member of Mt. Zion #311, Troy New York. When not in Lodge, Bro. Arce is the Marketing Manager for Capital Cardiology Associates in Albany, New York. He enjoys meeting new Brothers and hearing how the Craft has enriched their lives. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org