Going where angels fear to tread: Christianity and Freemasonry
One of my biggest culture shocks in moving to the South has been seeing all the enormous Masonic lodges and discovering that many, if not most, older Baptist (and other) men are members. Where I come from originally (upper midwest), evangelical Christianity (including the majority of Baptists) and Freemasonry don’t mix. They’re like oil and water. In fact, some denominations divided over whether members could be Freemasons; the conservatives considered the drift toward allowing it a sign of liberal theology or worse (nominal Christianity).
A friend of mine was in line to succeed the retiring Fire Chief in his town of about 100,000. Some city council members came to him and told him he would be Fire Chief if he joined the Masonic Lodge. It was against his evangelical convictions, so he never became the city’s Fire Chief.
As I was growing up in the thick of evangelicalism (my uncle was on the national board of the National Association of Evangelicals) somehow I just knew one could not be both evangelical and a Mason. None of my relatives were Masons; nobody in our church or denomination was a Mason.
The reasons given when I asked (probably in my late teens when I became aware of Masons through my high school friends who were joining DeMolay–the boys’ branch of Freemasonry) were that 1) Christians should not belong to secret societies and should devote their free time to the church and its mission rather than to an organization that is not specifically Christian, and 2) Freemasonry’s deep background, if not present reality, is inconsistent with evangelical Christianity.
I didn’t really think that much about it for quite a few years. After all, there were no Masons in the evangelical circles I moved in (even after becoming a Baptist while attending an evangelical Baptist seminary). The issue really first came to concern me when we made our first move to the South for me to pursue my Ph.D. at a major Southern secular research university. I became youth pastor and Christian education director at a Presbyterian church and discovered that most of the older men of the congregation were Masons and were inviting the boys of the youth group to join DeMolay by suggesting they would get college scholarships. They started attending DeMolay meetings INSTEAD of youth group meetings. It was a struggle to hold on to them for the youth group and church. I gradually realized that some of the men of the congregation were more invested in their Masonic relationships and activities than in the church.
One elder of the church invited me to lunch to discuss this problem. I had made a little noise about it–mostly just by asking questions such as “Why are our men drawing our boys away from church to Masonry?” And I asked some questions about Masonic beliefs and practices–most of which never received answers. The elder, who was a 32nd degree Mason, took me to lunch and said (direct quote seared into my mind): “If there is a conflict between Masonry and the Bible I’ll go with Masonry any day.”
Curious, I decided to do some reading about the history, dogma and rituals of Masonry. Of course, that’s not easy. So I looked for a book by a current (not former) Mason that would explain its basic beliefs. What I found was The Meaning of Masonry by W. L. Wilmshurst, a Grand Master over a group of Masonic Lodges in Great Britain. Wilmshurst was clearly NOT talking about his own branch of Masonry (whether York Rite or Scottish Rite or whatever); he was talking about the deep roots of Masonry in general. According to Wilmshurst, an acknowledged authority on Masonic history and beliefs, Masonry necessarily has an esoteric side. As he described it I recognized it as modern Gnosticism.
What am I saying? That all Masons are Gnostics? No. Of course not. But, if Wilmshurst (and many knowledgeable critics of Masonry) is right, even in the 20th century Freemasonry is rooted in a basically esoteric quasi-religious belief system that is incompatible with orthodox Christianity. Do most Masons know that? I don’t know. But why would anyone join a group without knowing as much as possible about its history and beliefs–especially if that group requires an oath of secrecy and loyalty?
A few years ago an influential fundamentalist Southern Baptist “anti-cult” watcher led a crusade against Freemasonry especially among Southern Baptists and evangelical Christians in general. He produced a book and a video attempting to expose Freemasonry as incompatible with Christianity. He and some of his friends brought a resolution to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention that, if passed, would have asked Southern Baptists to avoid membership in Masonic Lodges. It would probably also have made it unlikely that Southern Baptist churches allow Masonic ceremonies in them and at Southern Baptist led funerals. (Masonic members who die are given a special ritual by their Masonic brothers. One explanation I was given by a Mason is that they do not believe in the resurrection of the body but only in the immortality of the soul.)
The resolution was soundly defeated.
I came to the South again 12 years ago and right away noticed the presence of enormous Masonic Lodges in this relatively small city with over 100 Baptist churches. I discovered that many, if not most, older Baptist men have at one time or another been inducted into Masonry. I have been told that all but the most recent presidents of the university where I teach were Masons. I haven’t asked, but I’m sure many of the older men in the congregation to which I belong are Masons. It’s part of the fabric of Southern culture including Southern Baptist culture.
Now, let me make clear I am not “against Masonry.” I know too little about it to be against it. Rather, I’m perplexed. First, I was raised to believe that the church is one’s extended family, the family of God, and that one’s energy should be devoted to its ministry and mission first and foremost. Second, I was raised to believe that membership in secret societies is not compatible with biblical Christianity. It would be like an early Christian belonging also to a mystery religion; it wasn’t encouraged (to say the least). Third, I was raised to believe that Masonic Lodges were competitors with the churches even if many Masons also belonged to churches.
Whether all that is true, I’m not sure. But I continue to be perplexed about it. How many Masons know that the first modern Masonic Lodges grew out of Rosicrucianism (an esoteric sect on the fringes of Christianity)? How many know about the esoteric meanings of Masonic rituals? How many are aware that, historically, Freemasonry denies the resurrection of the body and emphasizes the immortality of the soul instead? Why would a Christian devote a hearty portion of his free time and energy to a secret society when that time and energy could be devoted to the work of Christ through the church?
These are questions I struggle with. I’d love to hear real answers that carry some authority and weight from a knowledgeable Mason. In the meantime I continue to suffer a bit of culture shock every time I drive by one of the several large Masonic Lodges in this region and realize that most of the members are probably Baptists.