With a member list that reads like a textbook of the world’s most powerful men — including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, J. Edgar Hoover, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Winston Churchill, Jesse Jackson, Salvador Allende, John Wayne, Shaquille O’Neal and all of the Ringling brothers — a 500-year history shrouded in secrecy and “door keepers,” who literally guard two sets of doors to ensure no interlopers pass into the inner sanctum of the masonic lodge, it’s little wonder conspiracy theories envelop the world of the freemasons.
“We’re considered a secret society,” says Art Liss, who heads the North Bank masonic lodge in Washougal. “We have our secrets, like any fraternity or sorority, and we have our passwords, signs, symbols and ways of recognizing other members, but we are not really ‘a secret society.'”
Liss, 72, grew up around the masonic culture — his father belonged to a Philadelphia-area lodge and spent time with other freemasons — but Liss says he didn’t start his own freemason journey until age 66. With its close-knit band of brothers, focus on living in peace without the divisiveness of religion or politics, the masonic world attracted the philosophical Liss. In just six years, he has rocketed through the freemason ranks. Today, Liss leads the Camas-Washougal masonic lodge, and is known to his fellow freemasons as “Worshipful Master.”
Although they pride themselves on being open to “men of all faiths,” there are a few notable groups excluded from freemason lodges. Women are not allowed to join, although there are women’s group offshoots like the Order of the Eastern Star, founded in 1808, which welcomes female relatives of freemasons; and Daughters of the Nile, which includes freemasons’ wives.
Likewise, atheists are excluded from joining the freemasons. Liss explains that men must believe in a “higher power” to become a mason, but that the group does not exclude any particular religious belief. Liss himself is Jewish, and took his freemason obligation — a promise or vow to uphold the freemason codes — on the Old Testament. He has seen other local freemasons take their obligation on the New Testament (Christians), the Quran (Muslims), the Bhagavad Gita (Hindus), and even on spiritually important documents, such as the book of patient notes one physician brought for his obligation ceremony. It doesn’t matter what you believe in, Liss explains, but you must believe in a higher power.
Liss is on a mission to shake off some of the myths surrounding the local freemason lodge.
“I’m a progressive leader and I don’t want people to be afraid of the masons,” Liss says. “If you look at the list of the members at this lodge, you’ll probably recognize many leaders from the area.”
Indeed, the historical texts kept inside the Washougal-based freemason lodge are dotted with prominent Camas-Washougal families, including the first six Washougal mayors. In fact, the freemason lodge is one of the oldest establishments in Camas-Washougal. In a book dating back more than 100 years, local freemasons have written their names, ages and occupations. In the early 1900s, there are farmers, blacksmiths, ranchers, bakers and locomotive engineers. By the late 1940s, the papermakers and mill workers are becoming more prominent.
Today, the organization tends to attract a lot of former fraternity and military members, Liss says, possibly because the freemasons have a similar sense of camaraderie and comforting rituals that overshadow political or religious differences. To become a freemason, a man must first win the approval of other freemasons and be asked to join the group.
“To be one, ask one,” Liss says.
For those interested in becoming a freemason — or for community members just hoping to catch a glimpse of the inside of the Washougal masonic lodge — this weekend’s 106th Installation of Lodge Officers at the North Bank Lodge, No. 182, offers a perfect opportunity to meet masons, learn about the group and see the private lodge.
The installation begins at 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 16, at the North Bank Lodge, 888 Washougal River Road, Washougal.
Liss says he hopes opening the often secretive officer installation to the general public will help shed light on what the freemasons really stand for.
“We as Masons have strong beliefs that mirror image Society regarding Politics and Religion,” Liss writes in a statement printed on the back of the 106th Installation of Officers program. “However, we all have chosen to discard these divisive topics and prove Men of all Faiths can live and act together in Peace and Harmony.”