If you search the internet for Orthodoxy and Freemasonry, most of what you’ll find will be condemnations of the movement. You might also find my 2012 article on Freemasonry in American Orthodox history. But, as far as I know, there hasn’t been much work done to document the basic history of Orthodoxy and its interaction with the Masonic movement.
Freemasonry seems to have made its first appearance in the Greek Orthodox world in the 1740s. In 1744, a masonic lodge was founded in Constantinople, and a few years later, Ecumenical Patriarch Photius II condemned the movement in one or more patriarchal encyclicals. Some time after this, a prominent teacher in Cyprus named Ephraim the Athenian (who was later Patriarch of Jerusalem from 1766-70) preached against Freemasonry, calling it a “new infidel faith.” In 1793, Ecumenical Patriarch Neophytus VII listed the Freemasons alongside other “organs of perfect impiety and atheism” in an encyclical.
Despite this resistance, Freemasonry spread in the Greek world. Many of the key figures in the Greek War of Independence were Masons, including some bishops and priests. The Masonic-adjacent (spinoff?) secret society Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends) was organized in 1814 and served as the engine of the revolution that was launched seven years later. Some have claimed that Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V — a canonized saint — was a Freemason, although I don’t know if there is any actual evidence for this.
Simultaneously, Freemasonry spread in Russia as well, emerging as a trend among the upper classes beginning in the 1770s. At least some clergy, and perhaps a few bishops, were Masons in late 18th and early 19th century Russia. In the wake of the French Revolution, Catherine the Great banned Freemasonry in 1794, concerned about its potential to subvert the authority of the monarchy. When Catherine’s grandson Alexander took the throne in 1801, he reversed the imperial policy, becoming a protector of Freemasonry, allowing the movement to grow and flourish, and surrounding himself with Masonic advisors.
One source (Jean-François Var, cited at the end of this article) claims that St Philaret of Moscow was a Freemason — a rather shocking claim, and one that does not hold up under scrutiny. Var’s source for this is a French text by Tatiana Bakounine, Répertoire biographique des Francs-Maçons russes, originally published in 1940 and then again in 1967. I haven’t read this source (it’s hard to find), but as I understand it, Bakounine didn’t necessarily have official membership lists — she was trying to reconstruct a partial list of Masons, more than a century after the fact. It’s possible that this is a case of guilt by association — many Freemasons were involved in the Russian Bible Society (including the Ober Procurator of the Holy Synod, Prince Alexander Golitsyn), and St Philaret was also deeply involved in the Bible Society in the late 1810s and early 1820s. (St Philaret’s involvement was rooted in his commitment to the translation of the Bible, and the teaching of Orthodoxy, in the vernacular — a commitment that lasted throughout his life and eventually led to the production of an official translation of the Bible in Russian, blessed by the Holy Synod.)
On the other hand, there’s an enormous body of evidence that St Philaret was not a Mason and, in fact, was very much opposed to Freemasonry. His spiritual father, Fr Anthony Medvedev (a disciple of St Seraphim of Sarov) was himself an outspoken opponent of Freemasonry. St Philaret consistently opposed the occult and external influences and advocated for the sacrament of confession and loyalty to civil authorities.
In 1822, Tsar Alexander I did an about-face and banned Freemasonry in the Russian Empire. This coincided with a broader shift in Alexander’s outlook and behavior, as he deepened his commitment to the Orthodox faith in the years leading up to his (purported) death in 1825. It also coincided with the rise of St Philaret, who became Archbishop of Moscow in 1821 and authored Alexander’s secret will, which passed over the Tsar’s presumptive heir (his brother Constantine) to give the throne to his younger brother Nicholas. If anything, the evidence we have might suggest that St Philaret could have played a role in the banning of Freemasonry in Russia. There is no reasonable basis to suggest that he was a Mason or even a sympathizer.
(Regarding St Philaret, I am indebted to Professor Nicholas Racheotes, the author of the excellent The Life and Thought of Filaret Drozdov, 1782–1867: The Thorny Path to Sainthood, who graciously answered my questions via email.)
Throughout the 19th century, following the example of Greece, many Orthodox-majority countries gained their independence, and as a general rule, Freemasonry played an important role. Jean-François Var writes, “Within those politically and nationally committed Freemasonries, we can find priests, monks, even bishops, as members. So Freemasonry and Orthodox Churches closely cooperated in the fight for national freedom.”
While many of the Greek Independence leaders were Masons, the movement was not universally accepted in Greece. A controversy over Freemasonry erupted on the island of Zakynthos (Zante) in the 1880s. Archbishop Dionysius of Zante was one of the most prominent and respected bishops in the Church of Greece, and several years later, he would be the first Greek Orthodox bishop to set foot in the Western Hemisphere when he came to America to attend the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Dionysius published a magazine and would answer questions from his readers. In 1884, someone sent in a question about Freemasonry. Dionysius’s answer was cautious: he didn’t know much about Freemasonry but had concerns about their secrecy. He’d met plenty of Masons in various countries and they told him that their only focus was on doing good, but Dionysius countered that we have the Church for that and we don’t need a parallel organization like Freemasonry. However, Dionysius concluded that he couldn’t say anything too definitive about it because he lacked sufficient knowledge and had heard both positives and negatives.
A few years later, one of Dionysius’s experienced priests, Fr Ioannis Stratis, became a Mason, which caused a great scandal among the faithful. On May 9, 1887, Dionysius called a meeting of his clergy to discuss the crisis, and all agreed that Freemasonry is an anti-Christian sect, completely incompatible with Orthodoxy. Dionysius demanded that the Fr Stratis repent, withdraw his Masonic oath, and ask the Church for forgiveness. Stratis refused, saying that he was a Mason and would remain a Mason. The next day, Dionysius preached a fiery anti-Masonic homily and condemned any priest who joined a Masonic Lodge. Some newspapers criticized the archbishop and defended Stratis, who was then summoned before the Holy Synod of Athens. There, Stratis finally relented and renounced his Masonic oath, and the Synod declared him to be forgiven and reinstated. Stratis returned to Zante, but Archbishop Dionysius doubted his sincerity, and all of the island’s clergy refused to concelebrate with him. Dionysius then banned Stratis from serving in his diocese.
A year later, May 28, 1888, Dionysius was called before the Holy Synod, which urged him to lift his ban on Stratis. Dionysius replied that he would prefer to have his hands cut off and be hanged. But while Dionysius was away on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the Holy Synod reinstated Stratis themselves.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Freemasonry had made deeper inroads into the Orthodox Church. In 1900, Photios Peroglou became Patriarch of Alexandria. The next year, Joachim III — known as “the Magnificent” — was elected to his second term as Ecumenical Patriarch. According to the Grand Lodge of Greece, both men were Freemasons. In his own day, some were perplexed by Joachim’s mixed messages about Freemasonry, which begin to make more sense in light of the evidence that he himself was a Mason.
And this was just the tip of the iceberg: among the many Mason-bishops in the last century were Ecumenical Patriarch Basil III (1925-29), Archbishop Chrysanthus of Athens (1938-41), Patriarch Benedict of Jerusalem (1957-80), and, most famously, Ecumenical Patriarchs Meletios Metaxakis (1921-23; also Patriarch of Alexandria from 1926-35) and Athenagoras Spyrou (1948-72). Meletios joined the Harmony Lodge in Constantinople in March of 1910, just before leaving for Cyprus, where he had been elected bishop of Kition. Athenagoras — who, when Meletios was metropolitan of Athens, served as his archdeacon — went on to have a well-known friendship with another Freemason, U.S. President Harry Truman.
In the United States, Freemasonry was also rampant among the Orthodox immigrants, many of whom innocently viewed it as a networking tool that could help them become accepted in American society. Some priests and even bishops joined the Masonic ranks. Most notable is Athenagoras, who, before becoming Ecumenical Patriarch, was the Greek Archbishop of North and South America from 1930 to 1948. Longtime Antiochian Metropolitan Antony Bashir (1936-66) was also a Mason, and Archbishop Aftimios Ofiesh was widely accused of being one, although this has not been definitively confirmed.
On the other hand, American saints like Nicholai Velimirovich and Raphael Hawaweeny strongly opposed Freemasonry. In his 1911 letter against the Episcopal Church, St Raphael accused the Anglicans of being overrun by Masonic clergy and bishops. In 1914 — a year before St Raphael’s death — he wrote to Patriarch Gregory of Antioch to ask about the visiting Metropolitan Germanos Shehadi: rumor had reached Raphael that Germanos was a Mason; was it true? Patriarch Gregory responded, “We questioned Metropolitan Germanos and he denied the charge… But if he goes to the United States, the land of freedom, we may discover his true nature.” The same year, Aftimios Ofiesh, facing allegations of Masonic membership, made a public renunciation of Freemasonry to St Raphael. After Raphael’s death in 1915, Germanos and Aftimios emerged as bitter rivals, vying for control over the Syrian/Antiochian parishes.
As the twentieth century wore on, some synods of bishops turned their attention to the problem of Freemasonry. The ROCOR Synod of Bishops, led by Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky, officially condemned it in 1932. At about the same time, the Church of Greece appointed a commission of four bishops to study the movement, and on October 12, 1933, the commission presented its initial findings. The Holy Synod also heard reports from the Theological Faculty of the University of Athens. After this, the Synod unanimously adopted several conclusions. Here are some selected bits:
- “Freemasonry is not simply a philanthropic union or a philosophical school, but constitutes a mystagogical system which reminds us of the ancient heathen mystery-religions and cults—from which it descends and is their continuation and regeneration.”
- “Such a link between Freemasonry and the ancient idolatrous mysteries is also manifested by all that is enacted and performed at the initiations.”
- “Thus Freemasonry is, as granted, a mystery-religion, quite different, separate, and alien to the Christian faith.”
- “It is true that it may seem at first that Freemasonry can be reconciled with every other religion, because it is not interested directly in the religion to which its initiates belong. This is, however, explained by its syncretistic character and proves that in this point also it is an offspring and a continuation of ancient idolatrous mysteries which accepted for initiation worshippers of all gods. […] This means that by masonic initiation, a Christian becomes a brother of the Muslim, the Buddhist, or any kind of rationalist, while the Christian not initiated in Freemasonry becomes to him an outsider.”
- “On the other hand, Freemasonry […] shows itself in this sense to be in sharp contradiction with the Christian religion.”
- “Thus, the incompatible contradiction between Christianity and Freemasonry is quite clear. […] [T]he Orthodox Catholic Church, maintaining in its integrity the treasure of Christian faith [has] proclaimed against it every time that the question of Freemasonry has been raised. Recently, the Inter-Orthodox Commission which met on Mount Athos and in which the representatives of all the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches took part, has characterized Freemasonry as a ‘false and anti-Christian system.’”
In conclusion, the Greek synod declared:
Freemasonry cannot be at all compatible with Christianity as far as it is a secret organization, acting and teaching in mystery and secret and deifying rationalism. Freemasonry accepts as its members not only Christians, but also Jews and Muslims. Consequently clergymen cannot be permitted to take part in this association. I consider as worthy of degradation every clergyman who does so. It is necessary to urge upon all who entered it without due thought and without examining what Freemasonry is, to sever all connections with it, for Christianity alone is the religion which teaches absolute truth and fulfills the religious and moral needs of men. Unanimously and with one voice all the Bishops of the Church of Greece have approved what was said, and we declare that all the faithful children of the Church must stand apart from Freemasonry…
Despite this, five years later, the Church of Greece found itself led by a Mason, Archbishop Chrysanthus. The Greek Synod had to renew its condemnation of Freemasonry in 1949 and again in 1969 — it seems that the problem was not going away.
In 1937, the Patriarchate of Romania also condemned Masonry. The leader of the Romanian Church at this time was Patriarch Miron, who — paradoxically — has been accused of being a Freemason himself.
In 1949, the Holy Synod of the Russian Metropolia in America (today’s OCA) adopted the 1933 Church of Greece decision as its own, and in 1960, the Metropolia reaffirmed this decision.
As far as I know, these are the only formal synodal condemnations of Freemasonry. It seems unlikely that we will see any more, as Masonic membership has been in steep decline for decades. In America, from a peak of 4.1 million members in 1959, their numbers have fallen to 800,000 as of 2021 — and membership is dropping by something like 100,000 annually in recent years. Corresponding declines appear to be happening all over the world. In light of this, I would be surprised if future Orthodox synods will need to address the problem of Freemasonry again.
Nésiotès Eutychios, “La franc-maçonnerie et l’Église grecque,” Échos d’Orient 95 (1912), 333-341. (link)
Nésiotès Eutychios, “La franc-maçonnerie et l’Église grecque en Grèce et en Turquie (1898-1908),” Échos d’Orient 100 (1913), 232-236. (link)
Oleksii Krykunov, Freemasonry in the Eastern European History: Its Political and Cultural Influence (Bonn, 2022). (link)
Jean-François Var, “Freemasonry and the Orthodox Churches,” Handbook of Freemasonry (Brill, 2014), 155-161.