OGDEN — An organization that started for building structures and evolved into building men is celebrating 300 years of success.
The fraternity known as Freemasons, organized in 1717, is an often-misunderstood group that today concentrates on the self-improvement of those who profess a belief in a higher power, members say.
"I’ll be honest, it is a bit frustrating that popular media focuses on secrecy and mystery when Freemasonry is discussed,” said Utah Grand Master Robert Wolfarth. “At the core, we are a gentlemen’s association of good men trying to do good works in our communities. In a world of compromised morals and questionable intentions, we’re quietly working to promote the common good. That’s what we’re here for."
Those who participate say they lead better lives as a result of their involvement.
“It made me more cognizant of what I consider to be the true values of a life,” said Ogden resident Duane Carpenter, a past grand master of Utah who has been a Freemason for 62 years.
What he learned over the years, he said, led him to a life of questioning himself as he decided his actions, activities and treatment of others.
“This is not to say all of us are perfect, but we all strive to make ourselves better,” said Carpenter, who is a member of Unity Lodge in Ogden.
There appears to be an interest among Utahns in knowing more about Freemasons these days, even though the fraternity is less popular than elsewhere with 2,000 members in the state, Wolfarth said.
Last week, an annual statewide open house of Masonic temples brought more visitors than ever before.
Visitors to the Salt Lake Masonic Temple more than doubled over previous years. Nearly 8,500 visitors came through the historic site this year, in comparison with 3,000 on an average year, according to a news release from the Utah Freemasons.
The Ogden temple also noticed a marked increase, with 500 visitors. Also with increased numbers were temples in Logan, with 65; Clearfield, with 29; Bountiful, with 12, and Brigham City, with 14, officials said.
“It was a delight to meet so many new people,” Wolfarth said. “We are your neighbors, here to do good works in the community.”
Among the community efforts sponsored by Utah’s Freemasons are the Shriners Hospitals for Children, where children receive free hospital services, and the Scottish Rite Children’s Learning Center, which helps children with communication challenges, Wolfarth said.
Individual lodges throughout the state also serve Habitat for Humanity, highway cleanup and other charitable efforts, he said.
The fraternity’s temples are open to the community for various events and may be rented out by groups.
As a result of the open houses, which invited people to bring food for those in need, the Utah Freemasons donated more than 1,100 pounds of food to the Utah Food Bank.
Wolfarth said he hopes to change some attitudes about the Freemasons.
The organization was started by stonemasons who wanted to improve their craft and to be recognized in other cities as capable and competent masons, Carpenter said.
The group often is misunderstood because its ceremonies are not open to the public, Wolfarth said.
Among the reasons ceremonies are behind closed doors is the desire that the practices not be misunderstood. Wolfarth said the ceremonies are a result of centuries of study about philosophy.
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Carpenter said Masonry was observed as early as the 10th century.
The organization was established as a way for masons to be recognized as men who were skilled for the work as they traveled to other areas in search of employment, Carpenter said. The first three “degrees” of Freemasonry are based on the building of King Solomon’s Temple, he said.
The degrees are presented as allegorical plays, performed for candidates by those who already have received them, Wolfarth said.
In order to become a Freemason, a man must memorize parts of the rituals involved in the first three degrees of Freemasonry, Carpenter said.
“These degrees are presented in sequence,” Wolfarth said. “Once a candidate has received the third degree and becomes a master Mason, he can present the plays to others and is able to join other Mason organizations.”
Grand lodges throughout the world are independent of one another and make their own rules, Carpenter said.
Because of that, women are allowed to become Freemasons in other areas.
“Women can become Masons, just not in our particular organization,” Wolfarth said. “That is mostly traditional. Freemasonry grew out of the operative stonemason’s guilds of the Middle Ages, and those were male organizations. Today, it’s mostly just tradition as a fraternal organization. Just as boys are not invited into the Girl Scouts, Freemasons have traditionally been a male organization.”
“We take men who are good men and make them better men,” he said.
Carpenter said he knows the values he’s learned have kept him and others questioning themselves two or three times before getting involved in situations.
Like Carpenter, Wolfarth believes his involvement has changed his life dramatically.
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“I have found some amazing changes I did not expect,” Wolfarth said. “It helps me in business, communication skills, leadership skills, organizational skills, delegation skills and working with groups and with teams to promote an agenda, I learned all of that through Freemasonry. It wasn’t what I came here for, but was one of the things I found.”
Today, Freemasonry is open to any man of good moral character who believes in a supreme being and who requests membership, Wolfarth said.
No man is asked about his faith tradition during official meetings, Wolfarth said. All faith traditions are represented by members, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Existing members do not solicit new members, Wolfarth said. Men must be voted in by members of a lodge and achieve the first three degrees of Masonry before they are considered to be a master Mason.
Women and youths also are invited to participate in several organizations sponsored by the Freemasons, also with a premise of self-improvement. There’s also an organization for men and women to participate together, Wolfarth said.
“There are Masonic organizations that do allow woman and there are Masonic organizations that are only women,” Wolfarth said. “The Order of the Eastern Star has men and women together. I usually describe Freemasonry as an umbrella of organizations.”
Women and youth wishing to participate must have a connection in some way to a man who is or was a Freemason in good standing, Wolfarth said.