The catchall term for the various Masonic groups, including both the mainstream Freemasonry lodges and the numerous affiliated organizations that Masons or their relatives may join, is often referred to as “Freemasonry” or the “Masonic family.” Freemasonry itself is the largest and oldest fraternity in the world, dedicated to moral and spiritual values with a long history of philanthropy, community service, and moral teaching.
The Masonic family encompasses a wide range of organizations, including but not limited to:
- The Blue Lodge or Craft Lodge, which is the foundation of Freemasonry with three degrees of membership.
- The Scottish Rite and York Rite, which offer additional degrees and further Masonic teachings.
- The Shriners (Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine), known for their philanthropic efforts, particularly the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
- The Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic-related organization open to both men and women.
- The Order of DeMolay for young men, the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls, and the Job’s Daughters International, which are youth organizations associated with the Masonic fraternity.
These groups together form a broad, interconnected community of Masonic organizations, offering a range of activities, teachings, and charitable work, and are collectively referred to under the umbrella of Freemasonry or the Masonic family.
Past Freemasons Organizations
Within the vast history of American Freemasonry, several organizations have emerged and later dissolved for various reasons such as declining membership, financial difficulties, or the completion of their mission. These groups often aimed to either complement the teachings and activities of mainstream Freemasonry or to serve specific social, charitable, or fraternal purposes within the context of Masonic values. Here’s a list of some past organizations that were part of, or closely associated with, the American Freemasonry movement but have since dissolved:
- The National Masonic Research Society (NMRS): Founded in 1914, NMRS was an important early 20th-century organization dedicated to Masonic education and research. It published “The Builder,” a significant Masonic journal, but eventually ceased operations.
- The Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm (Grotto): While the Grotto itself has not dissolved and continues to exist as a social organization for Master Masons, some local chapters (or Grottos) have dissolved over the years due to declining membership or financial issues.
- The Royal Order of Jesters: This organization, which focuses on fostering fun and fellowship among its members, who must be Shriners and Master Masons, has seen some of its “Courts” dissolve. The national body remains active, but like many fraternal groups, it has experienced the consolidation or closure of some local units.
- The Order of the Knights of the Helmet: This was a short-lived Masonic side degree founded in the late 19th century, inspired by the chivalric orders and the Arthurian legends. It faded into obscurity in the early 20th century.
- The Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America (Shriners): While the Shriners as a whole remain a significant and active Masonic-affiliated organization, individual Shriner Temples (or chapters) have occasionally dissolved or merged due to various challenges.
It’s important to note that while specific lodges, chapters, or affiliated bodies within the Masonic family may dissolve, the core institutions of Freemasonry, such as Blue Lodges, Scottish Rite, and York Rite bodies, have shown remarkable resilience and continuity over the centuries. Moreover, the nature of Freemasonry—with its emphasis on local governance and autonomy—means that the fortunes of individual units can vary widely, independent of the strength and vitality of the global Masonic movement.
Freemasonry Tombstone Symbols
On the tombstones of deceased Freemasonry individuals, you might find a variety of symbols that are significant within Freemasonry. Some of the most common symbols include:
- Square and Compasses: This is perhaps the most recognized symbol of Freemasonry, representing morality, ethics, and the eternal bond between members.
- All-Seeing Eye: Symbolizing the omniscience of the Great Architect of the Universe (a term used by Freemasons for a higher power), it represents divine oversight and wisdom.
- Acacia: A symbol of the immortality of the soul, reflecting the Masonic belief in life after death.
- Level and Plumb Line: These tools represent balance, justice, and truth, reminding Masons to live a life of integrity.
- Skull and Bones: A memento mori, serving as a reminder of mortality and the transience of earthly life.
- Five-Pointed Star: Often used to represent the eternal life of a deceased Mason and the journey of the soul.
These symbols are deeply embedded in Masonic tradition and convey a range of spiritual and moral principles that were important to the individual. Each symbol can have personal significance and may be interpreted in various ways by Masons.
Researching a Freemason Ancestor
Researching an ancestor who was a Freemason can be both fascinating and challenging due to the private nature of the organization and its records. However, Freemasonry has a rich history, and many lodges have meticulously maintained records that can provide valuable insights into your ancestor’s life and the times in which they lived. Here are some steps a genealogist can take to research an ancestor who was a Freemason:
1. Gather Preliminary Information
- Start with what you know: Compile all available information about your ancestor, including full name, dates of birth and death, and places of residence.
- Family records: Look for any Masonic-related items among your ancestor’s belongings, such as aprons, certificates, medals, or Masonic literature, which might give clues about their lodge membership.
2. Contact Local Lodges
- Identify potential lodges: Based on your ancestor’s place of residence, identify local Masonic lodges that were active during their lifetime.
- Reach out: Contact these lodges directly. Many have their own historians or secretaries who can help you access membership records or direct you to where those records are kept.
3. Utilize Masonic Grand Lodge Resources
- Grand Lodge inquiries: Each state or country has a Grand Lodge that oversees Masonic lodges within its jurisdiction. Contact the Grand Lodge for the area where your ancestor lived to inquire about membership records.
- Archives and libraries: Some Grand Lodges maintain archives or libraries open to researchers, which can contain membership ledgers, minutes, and other documents.
4. Explore Genealogical and Historical Societies
- Local and state societies: These organizations often have collections that include Masonic records or can offer guidance on where such records may be found.
- Specialized collections: Look for libraries, museums, or archives that specialize in fraternal organization records.
5. Check Online Databases and Resources
- Genealogy websites: Websites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and FindMyPast.com sometimes have Masonic records or can lead to clues about lodge affiliations.
- Masonic research organizations: Organizations dedicated to Masonic history and research may offer online databases or resources that can aid in your search.
6. Review Cemetery and Obituary Records
- Masonic symbols on gravestones: These can indicate lodge membership, and sometimes the lodge number or name is inscribed as well.
- Obituaries: Local newspapers might mention Masonic service or affiliations, providing leads on specific lodges or Masonic activities.
7. Network with Other Researchers
- Masonic forums and groups: Online forums and social media groups dedicated to Masonic history or genealogy can be valuable resources for advice and information sharing.
8. Understand Privacy and Accessibility Concerns
- Respect privacy: Some Masonic records may have restrictions on access, especially for non-members or for records of a certain age. Always approach your research with respect for privacy concerns and follow any guidelines provided by lodges or archives.
Researching a Masonic ancestor requires patience and persistence, given the privacy concerns and the decentralized nature of Masonic record-keeping. However, the effort can be rewarding, uncovering not just the facts of your ancestor’s Masonic affiliation but also offering a glimpse into the fraternal bonds and community involvement that were part of their life.