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Freemason leaders hope Dan Brown's latest novel will revive interest in group's membership
Sunday, October 04, 2009
By Jeff Diamant/The Star-Ledger
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
'The Lost Symbol,' the new book of bestselling author Dan Brown, is displayed at a bookstore in Washington on Sept. 15, 2009. The book, which sees "The Da Vinci Code" character Robert Langdon plunged in the secretive world of the Freemasons, takes place in the U.S. capital.
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
A bust of George Washington, the First US President and a Free Mason, sits on a granite pedestal in the gardens 21 November, 2007 at the Free Masons Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia in the North West section of Washington, DC. A sequel to the blockbuster thriller "The Da Vinci Code" by US novelist Dan Brown is set to lift the veil on mysterious Freemason symbols carved into the fabric of the historic streets and buildings of the US capital.
Each year since, membership has declined, in line with those of other service organizations. The current membership? 1.4 million.
Now, though, the group’s leaders are hoping that the publication of novelist Dan Brown’s latest thriller, "The Last Symbol," whose plot is tied to Masons, will revive interest in the group. This past Saturday, most of the 129 Masonic lodges across New Jersey held open houses to answer questions from aspiring members.
Word that Brown would feature Masons in his newest novel did not initially please some Masons. After all, the author is still viewed as villainous in many Catholic circles for sinister portrayals in "The Da Vinci Code" in 2003 of the lay Catholic group Opus Dei, another group that, like Masons, has long been viewed as overly secretive. (It didn’t help that "The Da Vinci Code’s" premise claimed Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had descendants.)
After reading reviews of "The Lost Symbol," however, Masons seem more likely to hold a "Dan Brown Appreciation Day" than to bad-mouth him. Treatment of Masons in the new novel, released last month, is generally positive.
"From what I’ve read, it’s not that critical of Masons, it’s just a couple of rogue Masons going against the code of what we believe in," said Mike Rems, secretary of the Jersey City Masonic Lodge. "Dan Brown actually respects the Masons."
Historians disagree on the Masons’ origins. Many believe the first ones were in organized groups of medieval stonemasons. After 1717, when the first Grand Lodge of England was founded, the group became easier to trace. Through the three ensuing centuries, it has been an international fraternal and service organization requiring members to believe in a supreme being, irrespective of which religion, if any, they claim.
Like Opus Dei, the Masons have been subject to conspiracy theories long before Brown used them as plot fodder. And both groups saw the need to react to publicity from the respective books.
"Dan Brown’s treatment of Freemasonry is overwhelmingly positive in The Lost Symbol, but he does engage in some dramatic license for the sake of his plot," group leaders wrote on a new website, freemasonlostsymbol.com, set up for he occasion by The Masonic Society, The Masonic Service Association of North America, and the George Washington Masonic Memorial.
There are about 28,500 Masons in New Jersey, down from 104,000 five decades ago, and 129 lodges, down from 270, said Larry Plaskett, the Grand Secretary for the organization in the state.
In recent years, membership in New Jersey has decreased about 1,200 people each year. Between 800 and 1,000 join each year, and about 2,000 members die, he said.
Many lodges have followed the suburban trek of their members. Newark once had 26 separate Masonic lodges but now has zero.
"In the old days, everybody lived in town and worked in town, and they belonged to the fire company and belonged to the lodge," Plaskett said. "As we’ve become a transient society, people have moved around."
Members know the conspiracy theories that abound: that Masons have plotted to overthrow governments, favor a New World Order, promote Jewish interests, worship Satan, have placed secret codes in public places, and inform only high-level members about these matters. Vatican officials have long denounced Masonry, most recently Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1983.
"It’s our own fault," Plaskett said. "Over the years, we had this whole veil of secrecy, which we never needed to do. ... We have a few (secrets) -- our methods of recognition and passwords. The only thing we really consider to be secret is our initiation ceremony. We’re not this group plotting to overthrow the world as some suggest."
The group began consciously demystifying itself in the 1980s, he said.
"We decided we really needed to get out in the public more and let the people know who we are. ... We’re neighbors," Plaskett said, who are proud of their public services, like providing free identification kits that can help police find lost or missing children.
It also has become more culturally diverse.
"When I first joined 38 years ago," said Rems, from the Jersey City Masonic Lodge, "it was predominately white, mostly Protestant. We had Jewish members, but no black members, no Filipinos. Now we’ve got Filipino, we’ve got Spanish, Peru, Ecuador, and one of our past masters is from Sri Lanka."