Freemasonry explained in exactly 500 words

It's not as strange as you might think.

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Freemasonry is the world’s most famous secret society whose objective is to ‘take good men and make them better'. If you’re surprised by this seemingly benign goal and were expecting something a tad more satanic, I don’t blame you. I blame Dan Brown.

The Emergence of Freemasonry

While some sources peg the origins of Freemasonry to ancient Egypt, most scholars agree that it emerged in Europe during the Middle Ages.

It was a time when cathedrals were being built all over the continent. Stones and stonemasons were in high demand. While stones were readily available, skilled stonemasons were hard to find. These stonemasons were a tight-knit community that was protective of their trade secrets and averse to outsiders.

It was common for most stonemasons to finish work at one cathedral and then travel to the site of another to continue working.

This created two problems:

  1. Stonemasons needed a way to identify each other.

  2. Traveling stonemasons needed cheap places to stay.

Since fingerprint scanners and Airbnb didn’t exist, their solution to both these problems was Freemasonry.

Freemasonry was an organization that solved the identification problem through secret words, symbols, and handshakes, and the accommodation problem by building Masonic Lodges.

The Transition

Eventually, the demand for cathedrals cooled off, and the stonemasons' traveling days ended. Like a start-up that overinvested in assets the market didn't need, the Freemasons were forced to pivot.

They opened membership to laypeople and transitioned from being an organization of stonemasons who built cathedrals, to a fraternity of men looking to improve themselves and build a better world. In other words, Freemasonry became an institution that aimed to create more moral men.

Men of all faiths were permitted to apply, but applications needed to be approved by existing members. Masonic Lodges began to be used as meeting points for members to socialize and discuss anything other than politics and religion, which were forbidden. The secret handshakes, words, and rituals remained, although they were now used to promote a sacred sense of commonality among members, rather than as identification tools.

In part due to the secrecy that shrouded the organization, demand for memberships skyrocketed. Over time, Freemasonry became one of the most powerful networks on the planet, with a membership list that included the likes of Winston Churchill and George Washington.

Freemasonry Today

After thriving for centuries and expanding its footprint all over the globe, Freemasonry is in need of a pivot once again. New memberships have dropped, and today, in the US alone, Freemasonry has about 1.3 million members, down from 4 million in 1959.

The negative portrayal of Freemasons in the media and the loss of secrecy in a hyperconnected world have been blamed for this decline.

If you ask me – Freemasonry needs to tweak its pitch.

In a world where people are fatigued by online discussions about politics and religion, maybe Freemasonry can make a comeback by pitching the exact opposite – an offline community to discuss everything else.

If it did, I'd sign up.

That’s it for this week. If you enjoyed this piece, I’d be grateful if you shared it.


Special thanks to Na’im Al Amin, Sam Barkley, and Adam Tank, for helping me contact actual Freemasons as a part of my research for this piece.

I’d also like to thank Meeta, Abu, Charlie, Yishi, Anant, James, Vinit, and Alberto for helping out with the edits. I know that’s a long list of folks, but such is the power of the community at On Deck and Compound Writing.

Finally, thank you for making it all the way to the end!

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