Demystifying the Masons
9/28/2009

Do you have a Mason in your family tree? Many clans can claim links to the Freemasons—after all, it's the world's oldest and largest fraternal society.

If your ancestor belonged to this group, knowing how it developed and how it's organized will help you investigate your family's involvement. Although Freemasonry originated with actual ("operative") stonemasons, today the group unites men who share a philosophy—encompassing brotherhood, respect, charity, citizenship and morality—rather than a trade. They're known as "accepted" Masons, or officially, Free and Accepted Masons. (You'll find a good discussion of Freemasonry at www.indianamasons.org/imoground.)

Freemasonry generally has three major "degrees": entered apprentice, fellow of the craft and master mason. Each Masonic lodge belongs to a Grand Lodge (there's a Grand Lodge in every US state). Freemasonry also encompasses various "rites"—for example, the York Rite includes the Royal Arch Masons and the Cryptic Masons (advanced degrees of Freemasonry). Only men could become Masons, but their wives, widows, sisters and daughters could join the Order of the Eastern Star.

If you come across acronyms such as AF&AM and FAAM, or a compass-and-square symbol in your research, you probably have a Freemason in the family. (For a list of Masonic abbreviations and their meanings, see www.bessel.org/abbrevs.htm.)

Most lodges' records don't go back as far as Freemasonry's 18th-century origins. A few records from the 1700s and 1800s still exist, but many have been lost to fire—for instance, all of the California Grand Lodge's records burned after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the Arkansas lodge's went up in flames in 1918. If the records no longer exist, look for the lodge's published history. Depending on how your ancestor was involved with the lodge, you may find him mentioned.

If your ancestor's lodge still has records from his lifetime, you may be able to get his application. Keep two things in mind: First, a man could petition a lodge for membership after he turned 21, but he usually didn't do so until he was in his 30s. Also, the application probably won't include his parents' names. Prior to 1900, it asked only for the name and age of the applicant, along with three references.

When you contact a Grand Lodge for information, you'll need to supply your ancestor's full name, his town and county of residence and the dates he lived there. If the Grand Lodge finds that your ancestor was a member, you also might want to contact his local lodge (ask the Grand Lodge, or look it up in local city directories or the yellow pages—check under Fraternal Orders). The local lodge may have more-complete records about your ancestor's involvement in the organization. Actually, if you're sure of your relative's membership, it's better to contact the local lodge first. Grand Lodges receive many requests from genealogists just like you, which usually means you have to pay for record searches—and wait a long time to receive a reply.

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