One subject that has caused a lot of ink to flow is the Secret in Freemasonry. The idea that there is a Secret in Freemasonry is often intriguing, sometimes disturbing, and obviously adds fuel to the fire of its detractors : if Freemasons have a secret, it means they have something to hide. Is there indeed a secret (or secrets) in Freemasonry ? And what could be the origin, the motive and the reason for it ? This article explores the questions surrounding the notion of secret in Freemasonry.

The origins of secret in Freemasonry 

The origins of secret in Freemasonry are very prosaic. Initially, they were trade secrets that were carefully guarded to guarantee the privileges and quasi-monopolies of the Confraternity, and to avoid what today would be called unfair competition. In addition to these strictly professional secrets, there were of course signs of recognition, which enabled the Fellows to be recognised and hired on a site where no one knew them, and to receive the salary commensurate with their rank. A symbolic trace of this can be found in the legend of the Master degree, where we learn that Entered Apprentices, Fellowcrafts and Master Masons all had a word that enabled them to receive the wages due to them.

But the very fact of being a Mason was no secret at the time, since it was a profession that was perfectly recognised in society. The only purpose of the signs of recognition was to keep out impostors.

At the turn of the 17th century, we know that Scottish Masonry took a turn that led to the birth of speculative Freemasonry. From 1600 onwards, members who did not belong to the trade were admitted to the Lodges, which were still operative, and were known as ‘Accepted Masons’. These were generally notables who were admitted as protectors and sponsors. Of course, there was no question of passing on to these people the real professional secrets of the Brotherhood : the Scottish Masons created a new secret for them, which is simply a secret of recognition, the Mason's Word. The Mason's Word consists of the ritual communication of the names of the two pillars of Solomon's Temple. These two Words were perhaps already in use among the Scottish operative Masons, but we do not know clearly about it.

When the first English speculative Freemasonry was organised in the first third of the 17th century, it seems to have borrowed some of its ritual forms from Scottish Masonry, and the two Words were adopted, followed later by a third Word for the Masters. It is likely that the Secret covered not only the two Words, but also all the Masonic ritual secrets ; and the oldest forms of oath committed the recipient never to reveal them either verbally or even by engraving or chiselling them on any object whatsoever.  These oaths seem to have been particularly well kept, as no 17th-century Masonic ritual document is known to exist before 1698 for Scotland and 1700 for England.

From the 18th century onwards, it is clear that indiscretion became widespread, and the number of manuscripts, and then of published disclosures to the general public, increased.

The three forms of secret in modern Freemasonry

What exactly do we mean when we talk about secret in the context of modern Freemasonry ? What areas are subject to secrecy ? There are in fact three of them.

The first one is similar to the secrecy of the ancient speculative Freemasonry : ritual secrets, i.e. words, signs, symbols, the conduct of ceremonies and so on. 

The second one is the secret of membership. While a Freemason may disclose his own Masonic membership, he may under no circumstances disclose that of another.

Finally, the third one is internal to the life of the Lodge : it is the secret of deliberations. The words of the members of the Lodge, the discussions and deliberations during a meeting cannot be revealed to anyone who was absent. Only the official minutes will be known to those absent.

Ritual and symbolic secrets 

Secrets concerning rituals, symbols, words etc. must not only be kept from the profane world, i.e. the world outside Freemasonry. It also concerns Freemasons themselves, who are committed not to reveal the secrets of a degree to Freemasons who have not yet received it.

Here, secrecy is necessary to the initiation process. There is nothing to hide per se, but since initiation requires candidates to undergo various ordeals that should impress them and lead them to new insights, the element of surprise is very important. To reveal what is to happen during the ceremony of reception of a degree would be tantamount to cutting off its effect and depriving it of its real effectiveness. It is therefore in order to preserve the progress of Freemasons that everything is not revealed to them from the outset. And all the more so for profane people : who knows whether such a profane person will not someday knock on the door of the Temple to ask to be initiated ; if he knows in advance everything that is going to happen, the desired effect will clearly not be obtained.

The secret of membership 

While a Freemason has the right to reveal his membership of the Masonic Order, he may not reveal the membership of a Brother or Sister. This secret has concerned Freemasonry since it became a philosophical and initiatory society, because such a secret had no reason to exist for operative Masons. What could be the reason for this secret ?

The first reason seems to be one of freedom. Those who choose to become Freemasons wish to undergo as little conditioning as possible on their progress. They owe no account to society and work discreetly on their own psychological, philosophical and spiritual development, with the aim of better serving humanity. Ideally, they will act in the world as Freemasons, but without revealing they are Freemasons - the nuance is important. 

The secrecy of membership is supposed to prevent Freemasons from being approached from outside simply because they are Freemasons and are supposed to be able to influence the world thanks to their occult network. Secrecy protects Freemasonry from being used for self-interested ends, and also from being trivialised. Even if every Freemason is allowed to reveal his or her membership, it can be observed that in countries where virtually all Freemasons openly display their membership (such as the United States), Freemasonry is no longer really distinguishable from Service Clubs such as Rotary, and no longer has much of an initiatory character. 

The second reason for secret concerns countries or cultures where Freemasonry is at best suspect and at worst banned or persecuted. In these situations, it is obvious that revealing one's membership or that of another can cause real danger. But let's not think that this danger only exists in far-right or far-left dictatorships and Islamic theocracies. It is potentially present in any country, including France, as the Vichy regime clearly demonstrated in the 1940s. Even the very peaceful and democratic Switzerland experienced real hostility to Freemasonry in the 1930s, and even today, in the canton of Wallis, civil servants are obliged to reveal their potential Masonic membership. The secrecy of membership is simply a precautionary measure, because no one knows what the future holds.

The secrecy of deliberations 

This secrecy concerns above all the Freemasons themselves, even it obviously also concerns the profane world. A Freemason who has not attended a meeting does not need to know what was said by everyone, but will only know the final and official version recorded in the minutes. This is a simple measure of freedom of speech, to avoid words being distorted and misinterpreted out of context. The open Lodge is a place of trust, where people can speak freely, and those who did not experience the session do not need to know all the details.

The same idea can be found in the dynamics of listening and support groups, adult education and personal development groups. This instruction is often formulated as follows : ‘What is said in the group belongs to the group’.

This secrecy is not intended to conceal any conspiracy whatsoever, as all decisions are recorded in the minutes, but rather to protect the members and guarantee them a comfortable and emotionally secure space in which to speak.

And what about the ‘True’ Masonic Secret ?

So, what about the famous Masonic Secret that we often hear about, the knowledge of which would distinguish Freemasons from ordinary mortals ? Even if it disappoints some, we can confirm that there is no such Secret. There have indeed been a few Masonic Orders that have claimed to hold this Secret, which was for them the true origin and purpose of Freemasonry. But these were hardly more than particular interests, material, political or mystical depending on the case, but not representative of Freemasonry as a whole. 

Baron von Hund, for example, claimed that the Secret of the Strict Templar Observance was twofold : to support the Stuart pretensions to the throne of England and to re-establish the Order of the Temple (while recovering all the property that had belonged to the Order, of course). For Willermoz, on the other hand, who reformed the Strict Templar Observance into the Rectified Scottish Rite, the Secret was purely spiritual and mystical : it consisted of the Martinezist doctrine of the Reintegration of Souls and culminated in the theurgic practices that flowed from it. If someone tells you that he knows the Masonic Secret, or that the Freemasonry he practises knows it, there is a good chance that he is simply using Freemasonry to serve a cause or ideology that is in no way Masonic.

So why do so many rituals, particularly in the Higher Degrees, always suggest that each new step brings the adept closer to the discovery of the famous Secret ? Here again, we need to demystify : in the 18th century, the Higher Degrees were a flourishing and lucrative business. Those who created them sold their patents at a very high price, and the taxes levied by the governing bodies for admission to these degrees were generally high. The tempting claims made throughout the rituals can be seen as what we would call marketing today : the aim was to build customer loyalty and encourage them to continue consuming !

So, is there a Masonic Secret or not ? Certainly, but it is not as some imagine it. It is not an objective secret, one that could be possessed and that would offer its holders Superior Knowledge, extraordinary power, a source of wealth... It is a personal and existential Secret : it is what each Freemason will have discovered, in the course of his initiation and his Masonic career, about himself, about Humanity, about the World and possibly about the Divine. This Secret is eminently personal and no two Freemasons will have the same one. It is the result of a sum of personal experiences and is therefore incommunicable. At most, it can be evoked and shared with those who have followed the same path.

June 10, 2024 — Ion Rajalescu