By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
At a time when emptied Masonic lodges across the country are being turned into movie theatres and apartments, a new generation of young men in Liberty Hill are helping keep alive one of its oldest downtown institutions.
The uptick in young men that Masonic Lodge #432 has seen in recent years has helped slow the decline that lodges everywhere are experiencing as Freemasons’ peak generation continues to fade.
Master Mason Ted Robertson, a member for the last 10 years, has not even noticed a decline thanks to these new members.
“We’ve had a few old-timers pass on, but we’ve managed to break even, and maybe even stay a little ahead of the game,” he says.
In 1967, the Liberty Hill lodge had 65 active members. In 2007, they had 56 active members. Today, they have 60 active members.
Across Texas, membership in 1967 was 241,706. In 2007, it was 108,064. Today, it has dropped to 71,274.
Standing in the upstairs of the lodge, a long ceremonial chamber, Robertson and the other Freemasons are gathered for their Tuesday night study sessions, when they learn, teach, and practice the complicated rites that have survived generations.
Framed black and white portraits of the chapter’s former Lodge Masters dating back decades line the walls. Almost all are bearded, and a few sport cowboy hats. They strongly resemble the current members in this regard.
Almost every object in the room has a symbolic purpose, they explain. A pair of gilded columns near the front refers to the Temple of Solomon described in the Bible, a copy of which sits on a central altar next to a sword. The stonemason tools also on the altar have been a constant in lodges since the beginning of modern Freemasonry in 17th Century Europe.
A deeper symbolism to these and more is given in the ceremonies, the details of which have been closely guarded secrets for generations.
The ceremonies, part of the rites that initiates must pass through to become full voting members of the Lodge, when they are granted the degree of Master Mason, are intentionally long and arduous. The full series typically take the better part of a year.
Learning them is made harder by the fact that there are no written materials to study. Per Masonic tradition, nothing is written down. Initiates must learn by listening closely to the older Masons.
Master Mason Brent Taylor, 40, says these new young members have proven quick learners at the rites. Like most, Taylor struggled to memorize the lengthy rituals for the first part of his initiation when he joined four years ago.
“I don’t know if it’s because of a change in education, but these guys are like sponges. They soak up a lot more information and a lot faster,” Taylor said. “These last three or four gentlemen we’ve had come through here, they’re smart as whips.”
“We’ve needed the younger crowd to get involved,” Robertson said. “Masonry helped build this country, whether people want to realize it or not.”
He and other members emphasized Texas’ long history with freemasonry.
During the 10 years of the Republic of Texas, Masons filled some 80 percent of the republic’s higher offices, despite being only 1.5 percent of the population, according to the Texas State Historical Association. All of the presidents, vice presidents, and secretaries of state were Masons. After statehood, five out of the first six governors were Masons.
“This was a Masonic country,” said Master Mason John Brengle, who lodge members refer to as the chapter’s informal historian.
The Liberty Hill lodge has existed since 1875, first meeting in the upstairs of the old Methodist church. The downtown building, a historic limestone structure with stained glass, across from the new city administration building, was built shortly afterward.
Membership in the lodge probably peaked after World War II, Brengle says, as it did in lodges across the country. Following that same national trend, membership has also seen a gradual decline, as Baby Boomers showed little interest in joining the fraternity of their fathers.
Membership in the United States fell from almost 4.1 million in 1960 to about 1.3 million in 2012.
The Liberty Hill lodge, while still “small town and rural,” as Lodge Master Don Walker describes it, has still managed to keep a consistent count above 60 or so Master Masons with these new younger members. Attendance at their monthly meetings, held every second Saturday evening, has also been unusually high.
While 10 percent is standard for most lodges, Brengle says, who is also a member of three other lodges, Liberty Hill’s sees around 30 percent on average. “That’s really good,” he says.
Explanations for the renewed interest of young men is varied.
Walker points to the growth Liberty Hill is experiencing in all its institutions.
“There wasn’t a single subdivision when I moved here,” he says, “now they’re everywhere.”
“Young men are finding that they can talk here about questions, deep questions, that they can’t talk about in other places,” says Gene Eaves, a Master Mason for the better part of 40 years.
The whole point of Masonry is to help its members improve themselves, he says, and this promise of spiritual development appeals to young men.
But pointing to a painting of famous American Masons, including Benjamin Franklin and the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Eaves hints at another view with a longer scope, and a characteristic Masonic reading of history.
“Masonry tends to come and go in cycles through the ages,” Eaves said.