Claims about the Freemasons’ far-reaching influence and subversive aims have played a part in some of America’s most enduring conspiracy theories. The Order of Free and Accepted Masons, an all-male fraternal organization, has had chapters on the North American continent since the 1730s, and has featured prominently in U.S. conspiracy thinking since the late eighteenth century.

Conspiracy theory about the Freemasons points to the semisecretive nature of the organization and the acknowledged political involvement of many of its members to support the allegation that the Freemasons are an extremely powerful and wealthy cabal of antireligious subversives who have infiltrated business and government structures worldwide.

Historical Origins

The history of Freemasonry can be difficult to trace, in part because many of the sources available are markedly biased. Masonic historians claim that only Freemasons, who have been initiated into the secrets of the order, can accurately write its history and charge that non-Masonic scholars are frequently swayed by anti-Masonic sentiment.

Conversely, those who center conspiracy theories on Masonry argue that Freemasons have participated in massive cover-ups of their own activities, which make the task of the “truth-seeking” historian arduous, if not perilous.

Both Masonic historians and many anti-Masonic conspiracy theorists assert that the roots of the order date back to antiquity, though most third-party historians dispute this claim. The craftsmen’s guild on which the present-day fraternal society was based can, indeed, be traced back to the medieval era.

Some of the fraternal society’s characteristic features, such as its ritual initiation and secret signs of membership, can also be accounted for by the nature of masonry as a profession; members sought to protect their status by developing elaborate forms and rituals to ascertain eligibility and proclaim membership, and since masons tended to be itinerant laborers, they created signs, such as the muchtouted “secret handshake,” in order to assure recognition of guild membership.

The mythology embraced by Masonic tradition, however, reaches back more than 5,000 years to encompass the architect of Solomon’s Temple, Hiram, who is said to have been murdered because he would not reveal the secrets of Masonry. Some historians also link the Freemasons to the Knights Templar, a crusading monastic order outlawed by the papacy in the fourteenth century.

While pro-Masonic historians tend to elaborate a long history of anti-Masonic persecution, conspiracy thinkers see in the same narrative a history of secret conspiratorial plots that occasionally come to light, but that have never been fully exposed or interrupted.

Freemasonry step
Freemasonry step

Notwithstanding these rival accounts of Freemasonry’s past, most historians outside the debate understand the fraternal order of Freemasons to have emerged in Britain in the early eighteenth century.

These historians distinguish “nonoperative” or “speculative” Freemasonry as a fraternal order whose function is primarily social, from the much older craftsmen’s guild that served professional functions and which they term “operative” Masonry. “Nonoperative” Masons were attracted to the guild by its combination of rationalist/scientific inquiry and deep respect for tradition and fellowship.

Eventually, as the guild system died out and as “speculative” membership grew, the organization came under the leadership of the nonoperatives and was transformed into the modern order. Membership of the Freemasons grew rapidly in the eighteenth century; the organization spread across Europe and into the North American colonies, with the first American lodges forming soon after 1730.

Conspiratorial Accusations in the Eighteenth Century

The first century of Freemasonry saw explosive growth in the popularity of the order on both the European and North American continents, fueled by widespread interest in the Enlightenment ideas upon which the order based its central tenets and, especially on the American continent, by the perceived social advantages of membership.

As membership grew, so did public suspicion of the order. As early as the 1720s, charges of immorality and lewdness were levied against the Freemasons. Since the proceedings of Masonic gatherings were secret, nonmembers could not find out what the organization actually did during their meetings and dinners.

Critics claimed that Masons habitually overindulged in alcohol, and many also insisted that the all-male meetings were little more than mass orgies, at which sodomy and ritual flagellation were practiced. These complaints did not, in themselves, amount to charges of conspiracy, although later conspiracy theories adapted and reiterated them.

The earliest articulation of Freemasonry as a conspiracy came from the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed that the order intended to undermine the Church and its teachings. The Church’s organized opposition to Freemasonry began in 1738, in the form of a papal bull issued by Clement XII, which condemned Freemasonry and excommunicated all Masons. Numerous other bulls issued in the following decades denounced the secretive practices of the order and declared it an enemy of Christianity.

Masonic chapters were also intermittently accused of political conspiracy in Europe. During the 1730s and 1740s, Masonic meetings were interrupted and even banned, and members of lodges were interrogated by police in Holland, France, and elsewhere, as state forces came to suspect the organization of subversive political aims and antiroyalist beliefs.

The Enlightenment ideals of religious pluralism and individual liberty embraced by the organization increased church and state suspicion of Freemasonry in the eighteenth century; it was argued that the conspiratorial actions of the group were simply the logical extension of its radical philosophies.

Conspiracy thinking about Freemasonry on the American continent drew upon all of these charges, though early American Freemasons tended to be the target of mockery more than of sustained investigation. In the first half of the eighteenth century, American Masonic lodges, generally less concerned with Enlightenment thought than many European lodges, functioned primarily as social clubs.

Following the pattern set by British lodges, they often rejected membership applications from individuals who did not make an “independent” living, excluding a sizeable portion of the colonial middle classes. After 1750, many of those rejected began to set up their own Masonic lodges, known as “Ancient” Freemasons.

Members of these lodges were strongly inclined to the colonial cause, while members of the older lodges (dubbed “Moderns” by the “Ancients”) often tended to loyalism, though neither group took an official stance. Nevertheless, the Masonic affiliation of many key players during the American Revolution led the order to identify itself, in the post-Revolutionary period, with the core values of the new Republic.

At the 1793 dedication of the U.S. Capitol, for instance, President George Washington wore Masonic garb and performed a modified Masonic ritual during the ceremony, assisted by other Masonic brethren; a silver plate laid over the cornerstone located the dedication in the 13th year of American independence and the 5,793rd year of Masonic history.

Conspiracy thinkers also point to the incorporation of Masonic symbolism in the design of the Great Seal of the United States as proof that Freemasonic influence on government was pervasive in this period; however, Freemasons deny that the all-seeing eye atop the pyramid is a specifically Masonic symbol, although it resembles some design elements used by Masons.

Even as the public profile of U.S. Freemasonry improved in the 1790s, the first major wave of conspiracy thinking about Masonry was cresting in Europe. John Robison’s exposé, Proofs of a Conspiracy against All Religions and Governments of Europe, published in 1798, laid the blame for the French Revolution on the Freemasons, who, he claimed, had been thoroughly infiltrated and corrupted by a supposedly atheistic secret society known as the Illuminati, which was founded by Adam Weishaupt, a Jesuit priest, in 1776.

Weishaupt became a Freemason in 1777 and believed that Freemasonry could help him to spread Illuminati beliefs, which were based on Enlightenment thought. Those who raised the alarm over the Illuminati charged that the extent to which they had infiltrated and transformed Masonry was unknown. Robison’s work raised an alarm in the United States.

Congregationalist minister and Federalist supporter Jedidiah Morse was among those who publicly denounced the conspiracy, which he represented as a grave threat to the young republic. Others, such as Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University, joined in the growing alarm. Morse insisted he did not mean to condemn all Freemasons; rather, he insisted, it was only “Illuminized Masonry” that he meant to warn against.

Morse, a Federalist, claimed that the conspirators planned to make inroads onto the American continent through the Jeffersonian party. Other Federalists took up the charges, and even Masonic brother George Washington admitted to concern over the dangerous presence of “Illuminized Masonry” in the United States.

Anti-Federalists denied links to secret societies and responded with conspiracy charges of their own, such as Abraham Bishop, who, in Proofs of a Conspiracy against Christianity, and the Government of the United States (1802), charged Robison with royalist sympathies and accused his supporters of seeking to undermine U.S. democracy.

“Illuminized” Masonry remains a central theme in present-day conspiracy theory about the Freemasons, but the Federalist-era controversy did not tarnish the image of Freemasonry among most members of the post-Revolutionary middle and elite classes. On the contrary, the upper levels of U.S. society, and those who aspired to join them, were increasingly drawn to Freemasonry.

The strong identification of the order with key American values enhanced Freemasonry’s popularity in the post-Revolutionary United States; even more importantly, the order served increasingly useful networking functions in a nation that was actively rebuilding its own political and social infrastructure. Masonic membership was associated with status and power; accordingly, those seeking status and power also sought to become Masons.

Anti-Masonic Movement

The identification of the Masonic order with the nation’s most powerful and influential citizens drew increasing suspicion in the first part of the nineteenth century, culminating in the first national anti-Masonic movement in the late 1820s and early 1830s.

In contrast to the alarm raised in the wake of Robison’s book, which, for the most part, confined itself to members of the clergy and government officials, the anti-Masonic movement of this period was a genuinely populist movement.

The movement was touched off by the abduction and suspected murder of William Morgan, who was in the process of publishing an exposé of Freemasonry, in 1826. When his abductors received light sentences, many charged that a cover-up was in process.

The reformist movement that developed in the wake of the Morgan affair claimed that Freemasons were anti-Christian and antidemocratic, that they deliberately sought power and conspired to elevate the social position of Masons, and that, if unchecked, their growth would have disastrous consequences for the young nation.

They supported this claim by pointing out that secret societies were on the rise; for instance, a Massachusetts congregationalist, the Reverend Peter Sanborn, argued in 1829 that a secret alliance existed between Freemasons and Phi Beta Kappa. Noting that up to a third of college-educated men were yearly inducted into the secret honor society, Sanborn argued that a subversive plot supported by educated youth and well-placed older Masons would destroy the nation. In response, in 1831 Phi Beta Kappa abandoned its secret practices.

The anti-Masonic movement also argued that Freemasonry undermined marriage by forcing husbands to keep secrets from wives, who were not allowed to take part in Masonic proceedings. Women, alienated by the all-male order, joined the anti-Masonic movement in significant numbers.

Suspicion of Masonic practices led to the formation of an Anti-Masonic Party, the first major independent U.S. third party, in 1827. The party held its first national convention in 1830 and in 1832 ran a candidate for president against the Masonic incumbent, Andrew Jackson. After 1833, the party withdrew as an active force in national politics, focusing on state and local-level campaigns. The movement continued to decline in the late 1830s and the party had disbanded by 1843.

During the years of the anti-Masonic campaign and its aftermath, national membership in the Freemasons declined significantly, and the period saw the formation of a number of rival fraternal organizations such as the Odd Fellows. However, by the 1850s, Masonic membership was again on the rise. During this decade and especially after the Civil War, the Freemasons reformed their reputation and regained much of their former prestige.

Changes in the organization’s self-presentation implicitly addressed some of the charges of conspiracy thinkers; the new Masonry professed Christianity, refuting claims that they sought to undermine organized religion, and countered claims of self-interest and greed by actively promoting charity. Masons also responded to the long-standing objections to the all-male nature of the society by forming a female order, the Order of the Eastern Star, in 1869.

In 1867, the National Christian Association revived conspiracy charges against the Masons; their campaign led to the presidential candidacy of General John Wolcott Phelps on an anti-Masonic platform in 1880. Phelps performed very poorly in the polls, receiving only a few hundred votes. After this campaign, anti-Masonic groups avoided electoral politics. Conspiracy charges against the Freemasons, however, continue until the present day.

Conspiracy theory about the Freemasons generally does not directly engage the legacy of the Prince Hall Freemasons, an African American Masonic organization founded in Boston in 1775. The African American lodge received its charter from the British Grand Lodge during the American Revolution; after the Revolution, other U.S. lodges refused to recognize the group, ostensibly on the grounds that it was not “regular” because it had been chartered by a foreign power.

Racist and segregationist sentiment among many members of the Freemasons, particularly in southern lodges, prevented their recognition of the Prince Hall order; this nonrecognition lasted in many cases until the 1990s. Prince Hall Masonry is rarely charged with the kind of far-reaching influence and subversive aims of Freemasonry in general; many conspiracy theories do not even mention its existence.

The Present

Christian conspiracy theorists in particular continue to contend that the group’s agenda is both antiChristian and antidemocratic. Late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century conspiracy theorists see Freemasons as the key to the New World Order conspiracy. Others allege that the group is satanic, that it worships a goat-headed Luciferian god known as Baphomet, and that it is actively involved in plots to cover up UFO discoveries.

Freemasonry has been tapped as part of the conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy, and also plays a key role in conspiracy thinking about the Oklahoma City bombing and, more recently, the bombings of the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11.

In addition to forming the center of many conspiracy theories, Freemasonry, as one of the oldest U.S. conspiracy theories, also acts as an index of thinking about conspiracy. Anti-Masonic sentiment in general and the anti-Masonic political movement in particular have been cited by mid-twentiethcentury political theorists as a key example of the “paranoid style” in U.S. politics.

These scholars argue that such large-scale suspicion of the Freemasons, a harmless fraternal organization, reflected U.S. xenophobia and anxiety. More recently, some populist historians of the period have suggested that, in fact, many Masons did possess a great deal of influence and often used it nepotistically, if not conspiratorially.

Since the post-Revolutionary era saw a concentration of power and wealth among the U.S. upper classes, they observe, antebellum anxiety about Masonry reflected not paranoid suspicion but a well-founded and legitimate concern over the unequal distribution of wealth and power in the republic.