[Square & Compasses]    

Masonic Bookshelf

(originally scheduled for publication in THE NEW HAMPSHIRE FREEMASON, Summer/Fall 2006, Vol. VI, No. 3, the magazine of the Grand Lodge F.& A.M. of New Hampshire.

Freemasons for Dummies

by Christopher Hodapp 32°
Wiley Publishing, Inc.
ISBN-13: 978-0-7645-9796-1

-- Reviewed by Gary L. Dryfoos

Okay, let's get it out of the way right up front -- the title sucks. I'm surely not the first reviewer who heard the name of this book and thought "Oh great! One thing Freemasonry doesn't need is more dummies!" But a persistent editor and my own curiousity persuaded me to take a look, and I'm hoping to do the same for you, dear reader, because as soon as you start flipping through you'll realize that this book wasn't written to appeal to dummies, the men it will attract to the Craft won't be dummies, and the author certainly isn't any dummy. In fact, this might be the best general book on Freemasonry any Mason or non-Mason could want.

Years ago, like all initiates in that time and place, after each degree my lodge presented me with one of "The Claudy books." Carl Claudy wrote the three small volumes of his Introduction to Freemasonry in his own gentle way, to inspire the new Mason with intimations of the world he was entering, and the long line of generations he was becoming part of. But those books were intended for candidates, to be read after receiving each degree, and would seem vague, not much help to any curious outsider. Since then, other introductory books have appeared, but there has never been anything like Wor. Hodapp's extensive and entertaining guide.

In describing the contents, it might be easiest to begin with what Freemasons for Dummies doesn't contain -- the actual secrets of Freemasonry, which Hodapp lists as:

"...the grips (handshakes), passwords, and signs (gestures) that are modes of recognition, and some details of the Masonic degree ritual ceremonies. Undoubtedly, there are still old-school Masons out there who will read something in this book and believe that I should be driven to the state line in a trunk for daring to talk about it, but they should chat with their Grand Lodge before calling to check my measurements."

That quote displays Hodapp's sense of humor and easy style, so refreshingly not full of hot air. It also demonstrates his ability to separate common misunderstandings from actual fact. And it shows one of the most valuable things about the book: that it can help you, me, any Mason understand more clearly how much we can say when someone asks, "So what is Masonry, anyway?" For the uncountable thousands of Masons who have stumbled over that question, or who have avoided the struggle by simply answering, "It's all secret; I can't tell you," that alone is worth the price of admission.

Those of you who have ever visited my website will know that I am a proponent of Masonic education. When we make a new Mason, we owe him a first-class course of instruction in what Masonry is, what it does, and where it came from. We owe it for his own sake, as our brother, for the sake of his circle of family and friends who will ask him about this peculiar organization he's joined, and for the sake of our own future. Freemasons for Dummies could serve as an important part of that education in any lodge.

Hodapp certainly gives Masonic history its due. Those weren't boring dusty times, but vibrant, often violent, periods of great social upheaval and cultural achievement. How could anyone include all of that history in a 368 page book and leave room for the other material you'd want to cover in a general survey of Masonry? Hodapp doesn't even try to get "all of that history" in here. He uses the "short chapters and sidebars" method of the Dummies series to provide brief introductions of lots of historical topics: the Crusades and the rise and fall of the Templars, Gothic architecture, Protestant schisms, the English Civil War, the Jacobites and French Freemasonry, the Enlightenment, Deism, and much more. Anyone who has ever tried to summarize these topics for a general Masonic audience can only feel admiration (and perhaps a little envy) for the skill and easy readability of Hodapp's fact-filled discussions. Each of those brief sections will give the reader a good overview of the topic and an understanding of how it fits into the larger picture of Masonry's past, and any one of them might fire the imagination and interest of the new Mason, lead him to think, "well that's something I want to know more about."

What else is there besides history? A tour through the table of contents may help. The book has six sections:

I. What is Freemasonry? Hodapp introduces Masonry and lodges, and provides answers about "secrecy", related organizations, and other common questions. He walks us through Masonic history, from the mediaeval operative lodges to current times -- very current, with mentions of, among others, The Da Vinci Code and "The Stonecutters". The philosophy of Masonry comes next, followed by a chapter on religion and politics which clears up a lot of misconceptions, and explains why the Craft steers clear of both. An awful lot of folks seem to know an awful lot about Masonry that just isn't so -- and if you need to answer them, this chapter could be a big help.

II. The Mechanics of Freemasonry: How It Works Hodapp covers lodges, lodge officers, emblems, grand lodges (regular, irregular, clandestine, etc.), and ceremonies. He traces the history and evolution of our rituals, including a discussion of the mediaeval guild "mystery plays," a connection that is rarely noted. He presents a chapter listing and explaining our symbols and clears up a number of "myths and misconceptions." A short description of this extensive section can't do justice to what is really the heart of the book.

III. Knights, Swords, Fezzes, and Dresses: The Appendant Bodies This is one area that just bewilders outsiders, and plenty of Masons, too. Hodapp lays it all out nicely: York and Scottish Rites the Shrine, and all those odd degrees and societies you've been wondering about. A lot of points are cleared up here: why it's called "Scottish" Rite? Who were the Templars and what do they have to do with anything? What are Allied Masonic Degrees? Red Cross of Constantine? Amaranth? Beauceant? the MOVPER a/k/a "Grotto"? Sciots? and many others.

IV. Freemasonry Today and Tomorrow This short section reads like Masonry's answer to Bowling Alone, the book that introduced most of America to the idea of "social capital" and lamented its decline. Concerned Masons have been watching that decline for years, even if we didn't know what to call it. Hodapp presents a good account of increasingly solitary modern lives, and argues persuasively that Masonry could be part of a solution. At least, we Masons can hope he is persuasive.

Regarding the growing practice of the one-day classes, Hodapp and I will just have to disagree. I think they are a swindle, cheating the candidate of the unique experience of a personal initiation. He joined Masonry through one and thinks they're fine. He does raise the interesting possibility that some of these new Masons, returning to their lodges and realizing what they have been deprived of, might become dedicated to learning and presenting the degrees properly, to provide them for future candidates. Well, I hope he's right about that, but I haven't seen any evidence yet.

Finally he has a few pages on how to join, why someone might want to, and includes his own quite moving tale of why he decided to become a Mason. He also lays out the usual route, from request, through investigation and balloting, to the time requirements of attendance and candidate instruction. The petitioner that knocks on your lodge door after reading this book will be very well prepared for what follows.

V. The Part of Tens Apparently all books in the Dummies series have a "The Part of Tens" section, where lists of ten are compiled. Varying the formula, Hodapp gives us, not a list of ten famous Freemasons, but ten lists (of varying lengths) in different fields: founding fathers, explorers and adventurers, science and medicine, actors and entertainers (okay, I knew about Michael "Kramer" Richards and Mel Blanc, but Leonardo DiCaprio?), sports, the military, business, statesmen, civil rights, and arts and letters. You're sure to find some surprises of your own in these lists.

[Note: Wor. Hodapp has provided online a list of corrections intended for the next printing. It turns out that Mr. DiCaprio is not a Mason after all. Far more disappointing to me personally is the revelation that, apparently, neither was Louis Armstrong.]

Next comes an entertaining list of "Conspiracies, Anti-Masons, and Hoaxes" and, oh boy, this was fun! Hodapp explains and debunks Leo Taxil, The Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, the secret Masonic layout of Washington DC, the Italian P2 Lodge, Aleister Crowley, and more. This would have been a great little pamphlet all by itself. And it's going to be useful, too. From now on, when someone wants to know about the supposed connection between Jack the Ripper and Masonry, I can reply, "look at page 302 in Dummies".

Oddly, the section summary promised a list of "common Masonic phrases" which seems to have migrated, becoming part of the tear-out "cheat sheet" at the front of the book.

This final chapter is a top ten list of Masonic "cool" places to visit. These include Freemasons Hall on Great Queen Street in London, the George Washingington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, Rosslyn Chapel, and the headquarters of the Grande Loge Nationale Française in Paris.

(Regarding the GLNF, Hodapp doesn't exaggerate when he says that their address, 12 rue Christine de Pisan, is so "very difficult to find" that even the taxi drivers won't know it. Here's a hint: head for the 17th Arrondissement and find Rue de Saussure just northwest of where it crosses Boulevard Pereire. Rue Christine de Pisan looks like a driveway entrance on your right between two buildings. Another hint: call ahead of time to make certain they're open.)

VI. Appendixes Here's an idea: Masonic references always talk about the Regius Manuscript and Anderson's Constitutions. Why not include them? Hodapp gives both, along with some context and explanation of their importance. The final appendix is a list of grand lodges, US mainstream, US Prince Hall, and Canadian. If you need any others besides those, go to the Links section of my website A Page About Freemasonry at MasonryPage.org. That seems to be the only thing Wor. Hodapp neglected to include in his wonderful book, and he did such a fine job on the rest of it that I can forgive him that.

Freemasons for Dummies belongs on every Masonic bookshelf. A few years ago, I attempted to compile my own list of books about Masonry for the general audience. The idea would have been to raise funds to donate a small "Masonic bookshelf" to local public libraries. I could never decide on that list, until now. If your lodge is looking for a way to inform your community about Freemasonry, consider donating a few copies of this book to your town library, and maybe even the public high school libraries.

For myself, I'll try to see that new candidates in my lodge receive those three Claudy books -- back in print at TheTempleBooks.com. But from now on, our candidates will also be presented with Freemasons for Dummies, even if I do have to apologize for the title.

R.W. Dryfoos 32 is a past master of two Massachusetts lodges, Grand Representative of the Grand Lodge of Russia near the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, a member of the Masonic Brotherhood of the Blue Forget-Me-Not, and webmaster of A Page About Freemasonry, the world's oldest Masonic website.

Up to A Page About Freemasonry main page.

A Page About Freemasonry is http://web.mit.edu/dryfoo/Masonry/