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'We Have Handshakes': The Freemasons Greetings, History and Famous Members

They have been portrayed as a sinister secret society, wielding power behind the scenes across politics, business and, in particular, the police.

The Telegraph

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They have been portrayed as a sinister secret society, wielding power behind the scenes across politics, business and, in particular, the police.

But now the Freemasons claim they are the ones suffering discrimination and lack of influence. To debunk the myths surrounding the society, they have announced they will be running a series of open evenings to prove it is not a secret society.

 Chief executive Dr David Staples of The United Grand Lodge of England said: "I appreciate that you may have questions about who we are and what we do, so why not ask those who know?," he said.

While the Freemasons are somewhat shrouded in mystery, we do know some things about them.  Here is what we know about the society so far.

When was the Freemasons society founded?

According to Nigel Brown, who stepped down as Grand Secretary of the United Grand Lodge in 2016, the group was formed in 1717.

A group of like-minded men apparently got together in a coffee house and devised a non-sectarian, socially egalitarian forum in which men of integrity could fraternise, while avoiding the vexed issues of religion and politics.

They took as their guiding metaphor the trade of stonemasonry, hence the symbols of Freemasonry – the square, compass and apron – and its three degrees of evolution, Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason.

Secrecy and power: the modern claims against the Freemasons

It is estimated that between 80,000 and 200,000 Freemasons were killed the by Nazis during the Second World War, with masonic concentration camp inmates ordered to wear an inverted red triangle on their clothing. 

According to Nigel Brown, "In the 1930s Freemasonry was relatively open but then as many as 200,000 Masons were put in the gas chambers by Hitler because he feared they were a secret power base.

“When the Germans invaded the Channel Islands, the Freemasons’ Hall was ransacked and members deported to camps. So people in Britain, fearing invasion, went underground."

Since then, the society has been shrouded in secrecy. However some famous British names have been linked to them: Cecil Rhodes, Winston Churchill, Dr T. J. Barnardo, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Geoffrey Fisher, a former Archbishop of Canterbury.

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The list of elite former members, as well as the fact that the first Freemasons university lodges were founded at Oxford and Cambridge, lead many to believe that the members wield power behind the scenes in the police and government.

However far from being able to manipulate decision-making in Parliament, local government or law and order, the masons say they are the ones at a disadvantage. In January 2018 their leader denied they were a “secret” group, insisting their handshake was strictly for lodge rituals, not a secret signal.

The United Grand Lodge of England has rejected claims by the Police Federation that its members are guilty of thwarting reform within the forces’ ranks and stymying the progress of women and ethnic minorities.

In an unusual step, Dr David Staples, the chief executive of the United Grand Lodge, wrote an open letter attacking claims by Steve White, the former leader of the Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers.

Mr White had said: “There have been occasions when colleagues of mine have suspected that Freemasons have been an obstacle to reform. We need to make sure that people are making decisions for the right reasons.”

But Dr Staples, an NHS manager who says his membership of the masons has never been a secret, says the reality is very different.

In his letter, he says: “We are quietly proud that, throughout history, when people have suffered discrimination both in public and social life, Freemasonry has welcomed them into our lodges as equals. It is a shame that Freemasons are now quite openly discriminated against and that too many of our members, therefore, feel the need to keep their membership to themselves.”

 The United Lodge says repeated calls for masons to declare their membership are themselves discriminatory, as no other members of legal organisations are required to do so.

The lodge also points out that many barristers are worried about their membership of the masons becoming public knowledge, fearing they would be accused of corruption, for which, it says, there is no evidence.

Dr Staples said the masons had no hidden political agenda in favour of any one sector of society and did not discriminate against anyone. He said yesterday: “We do not influence the police. We are a non-political, non-religious organisation. The Home Affairs Select Committee said there is a lot of unjustified paranoia about Freemasonry.”

Dr Staples rejected claims that the masons form a secret society, pointing out that the United Grand Lodge’s headquarters is a large building in Covent Garden that is open to the public. The building even has a gift shop selling masonic memorabilia, including cufflinks, jewellery and books.

Is there a Freemasons secret handshake?

For years the question of whether the Freemasons have a secret handshake – used to greet one another or to send secret signals – has been left unanswered, with some claiming the society has up to twelve different handshakes.

In his open letter on discrimination, Dr Staples admitted that the group have handshakes, writing: “We don’t have secret handshakes. We have handshakes that are part of our rituals. But we don’t use them outside of our lodges.”

However in 2012 Nigel Brown insisted there was no secret handshake. He told The Telegraph “Number one, there is no Masonic handshake,” he says. “I’m afraid my handshake is a perfectly normal one. Sorry to disappoint you. It is one of the great myths.”

Some say secret handshakes are used to differentiate between the different ranks in the society. There are three known ranks: apprentices, fellows and master masons. According to legend, candidates are shown new passwords, signs and secret handshakes as they progress through the ranks.

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How do you join the Freemasons?

According to the United Grand Lodge, any man over 21 years old may join the Freemasons, regardless of ethnic group, political views, economic standing or religion – although members are still expected to follow a faith. Women are not allowed to join the United Grand Lodge; instead, they have two separate, women-only Grand Lodges.

Many Freemasons join through association, however anyone can apply to join on their website. There are 55 Freemason lodges at universities, which allow students to apply for membership through their universities scheme; any man aged 18 or over can join a scheme.

While the amount is kept secret, the Freemasons do admit there is a fee to join: "There is an initiation fee on entry and in due course regalia will have to be bought. The meeting is normally followed by a dinner, the cost depending on the venue. There is, in addition, an annual subscription."

Once you join as an Entered Apprentice, it usually takes between one and two years to progress through the three ranks.

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This post originally appeared on The Telegraph and was published February 8, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.