With “Angels and Demons,” Dan Brown’s novel about secret societies and ancient rites, on the big screen, talk has turned to which shadowy organization the best-selling author will train his sights on next. Rumors have placed him in the District, scoping out sites related to the Freemasons.
The Masons are a natural choice for Mr. Brown. Freemasonry, perceived by many to be a secret society, is an organization with deep ties to American history - 14 presidents have been confirmed as master Masons, including George Washington; nine signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, including Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock; and 13 signatories to the Constitution were Masons - leading conspiracy theorists naturally to assert the group had some sort of unholy influence over America’s institutions.
But the biggest impact the Masons have had on America is no real secret, and it can be discovered simply by walking into the temple on 16th Street Northwest and asking a few questions.
“The Masons spend over $2 million a day, over three-quarters of a billion dollars a year, in philanthropy,” Brent Morris says when asked about the impact of his organization’s charitable giving. Mr. Morris is the managing editor of the Scottish Rite Journal and author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Freemasonry.” During a recent tour of the museum and library at the temple, Mr. Morris went into greater detail about the organization’s charitable work.
“The main philanthropy of the Scottish Rite, the Southern jurisdiction, is speech pathology,” he explains. “We’ve got a network of 170 clinics,” while the Northern jurisdiction has “35 or 40 clinics up there.”
“We provide speech and language training and intervention for children of all ages, usually at no cost or at a modest cost,” he says.
Examining the philanthropy room within the museum - which is open to the public for tours - reveals just how long and deep the organization’s dedication to charity is.
“Down in Alabama and Tennessee, they have a shoe program where every year the Scottish Rite Masons set up shoe stores and they give away shoes,” Mr. Morris says. “The way they do it is they send coupons to the principals of the schools, and if they have any children that can’t afford new shoes for school, they take the coupon [to] the Scottish Rite Shoe Store, and except for using a coupon instead of cash, they try to make the experience exactly like going to any other shoe store.”
By organizing volunteer labor and garnering donations or deep discounts from shoe manufacturers, the Masons are able to provide footwear for hundreds of children every year.
Among the best-known of the Masonic charities are the Shriners Hospitals for Children. The Shriners - aka the Imperial Council of the Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine - operate more than 20 hospitals across the country. According to “Masonic Philanthropies: A Tradition of Caring,” “any child can be admitted if, in the opinion of surgeons, the child’s condition can be cured or substantially helped; if the child is younger than 18; and if treatment at another facility would place a financial burden on the family.”
The history of charity stretches into the past. Mr. Morris related another story about charitable giving that couldn’t really be called charity. A woman doing her dissertation on Freemasonry in federalist Connecticut came across an odd item in the Masons’ list of holdings: a cow.
“Why would a Masonic lodge have a cow? That was odd. So she researched, and it turns out that a member of the lodge died and left a widow and two children,” Mr. Morris explains.
In those days, Calvinists dominated Connecticut, and one of the tenets of Calvinist theology was that material success reflected on a person’s state of grace. Someone who relied on charity had fallen out of God’s favor.
“So the lodge bought a cow. And they didn’t give the cow to the woman” - that would be charity, after all - “they kept the cow. But they said, ‘Would you take care of the cow for us? Now, you’ll have to milk the cow every day, and every spring you’ll have a calf. If you don’t mind the hassle of the calf and the milk every day, then we’d appreciate if you’d look after our cow for us.’ ”
It might not be as seductive as conspiracy theories regarding the nation’s founding, but the real story about the Masons is their commitment to helping their fellow man.