by Trevor W. McKeown,|
Curator, Vancouver Masonic Library and Archives
What is a Freemason? A man who has taken an obligation to make of himself the best he can, for himself, his family, and his community.
What is Freemasonry? A fraternity designed to teach morality and ethics, and train good men to make themselves of service to themselves, their families and their communities. Freemasonry is not a religion, but it teaches its members to be active in their chosen faith. Freemasonry subscribes to no partisan politics, but it teaches its members to be active in civic concerns.
Freemasonry is not a charity; although it promotes charity in its members in North America, freemasons contribute some two and a half million dollars a day to operate childrens hospitals, cancer clinics, burn wards, seniors homes and other such facilities.
Membership, in North America, is restricted to men over the age of 21 who are prepared to profess a belief in God. The expression in some rituals is "freeborn, of mature age and under the tongue of good report". Some rituals include references to physical wholeness or fitness but few if any jurisdictions enforce this exclusion in their Constitutions. Some jurisdictions also have a language or literacy requirement. Of a candidates beliefs, only three questions are allowed: Do you believe in the existence of a Supreme Being? Do you believe that the Supreme Being will punish vice and reward virtue? Do you believe that Supreme Being has revealed His will to man? Of these three, only the first must be answered in the affirmative, and in many jurisdictions it is the only one asked.
First, a bit of history. Records strongly suggest a lineage to operative stonemasons' lodges or guilds of fourteenth century Scotland and an inner fraternity of the London Company of Masons. The records of the Lodge of Edinburgh (Marys Chapel) show lawyer and writer, John Boswell of Auchinleck, signing the minutes of a meeting held in 1600, although the first recorded admission of a non-operative doesn't occur until 1634. The oldest surviving Minute Book, dated 9 January 1598, is that of the Lodge of Aitchisons Haven.
It has been theorized that their need to travel at a time when travel was uncommon required the need to create a sense of community. This included means of identifying themselves and proving their standing in the group, and a culture of mutual support. Whether operative and non-operative lodges existed concurrently or if operative lodges slowly accepted non-operative members into their ranks is still debatable. By the end of the seventeenth century most lodges were speculative, not operative, and the ritual which involved the tools of stonemasonry as symbols was all that remained. Other theories linking Freemasonry to the Knights Templar or Rosicrucians are nothing more than that: theories.
It was also in this century that the first anti-masonic tracts appeared. Most attacks on the Craft have taken the position that any society claiming the right of privacy must be up to no good. Having evolved in a Christian nation, its foundations would have out of necessity been Christian but the masonic claim to equality, fraternity and liberty quickly put the Craft at odds with the established churches when a requirement of membership, a belief in Deity, did not require the definition of that Deity. At a time when no group could meet without permission of church or state, the claim that freedom of association was a basic right was also dangerously controversial.
Masonry has been labeled atheistic and pagan since it removed Christian references in its ritual at the Union of the Grand Lodges of England in 1813, and dangerously radical because it would not support oppressive regimes. History shows that Freemasonry has always been outlawed under totalitarian governments. Studies of the Craft by the Church of England and the Southern Baptist Church, in the late twentieth century, concluded that it is eccentric but neither dangerous nor in conflict with Christianity. Various Roman Catholic Popes have published condemnations of Freemasonry, starting with Bull, In Eminenti, by Pope Clement XII, on 28 April, 1738. Although Roman Catholic Canon Law does not specifically mention Freemasonry, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church still views association as a serious sin.
Masonic writers over the years have tried to claim a venerable lineage, associating the Craft with the Knights Templar, the Roman Colleges of Artificers, the Essenes, the Dionysian and Eleusinian mystery schools, Mithraic mystery schools, King Solomon and, even more fantastical, Noah and Adam. There are striking similarities between the rituals of Freemasonry and many ancient mystery schools, at least those few parts that have survived. The ritual can be interpreted, in part, as a reaffirmation of the immortality of the soul. Bring to the ritual what you may; a belief in reincarnation or a commitment to participation in the progress of human endeavour, there is a simple understanding that we are more than base clay that we do not stand alone. The history and philosophy of Freemasonry have been topics of much study, and more information is available through this website and such publications as the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, many societies and fraternities were founded, claiming masonic association or authority. One in particular, the Illuminati of Bavaria was founded by Adam Weishaupt in 1776. The Illuminati was not a masonic body and it was quickly suppressed by the government. Weishaupt founded his Order a year before he joined Freemasonry. Conspiracy theorists see Weishaupt as the connection between Freemasonry and the Illuminati which they view as the precursor of a powerful international elite bent on world domination. In fact, Weishaupt had little or no influence on regular Freemasonry. In the nineteenth century many masonic writers and ritualists were also involved in theosophy and many occultists were claiming masonic affiliation.
Your average freemason has no interest in theosophy, the occult or world domination. He does have an interest in helping others and in making his community a better place; as a Scout leader, a Block Parent, a Heart Fund volunteer or just a good neighbour.
What attracts a man to Freemasonry? Every man comes, of his own free will and accord, with his own individual needs and interests. One man may join so that he can associate with other men who believe that only by improving themselves can they hope to improve their society. Another man may join because he is looking for a focus for his charitable inclinations. And yet another may be attracted by a strong sense of history and tradition. Many join simply because they knew a friend or relative who was a freemason and they admired that mans way of living his life. All who join and become active discover a bond of brotherly affection and a community of mutual support; a practical extension of their own religious and philisophical beliefs.
Most North American masonic lodges are composed of less than a hundred members of which perhaps thirty are active and will come out regularly to the one or two meetings a month. One meeting, run to a certain ritual which is not much more than a form of Roberts Rules of Order, is a business meeting to keep the membership apprised of the workings of the lodge: paying of accounts, charitable works in progress, assistance to sick or distressed brethren, and the like. The second monthly meeting is used for the conferring of degrees. Before an initiate receives a degree, and takes an obligation of secrecy, he is assured that the mysteries are founded on the purest principles of piety and virtue and that any vows are not inconsistent with his civil, moral or religious duties.
Most lodges meet once or twice a month, others only four times a year. Many lodges also organize socials, dances, outings, dinners and sporting events for their members and families.
Each lodge is warranted by a regional Grand Lodge. There are over 200 recognized masonic jurisdictions around the world and no central authority, although all can trace their history from either the United Grand Lodge of England (or its precurser Grand Lodges), the Grand Lodge of Scotland or the Grand Lodge of Ireland. They operate under a system of mutual recognition, working within a loose set of Landmarks defining recognized Freemasonry.
Why are the rituals and ceremonies secret? Tradition, more than anything there have been times and places where promoting equality, freedom of thought or liberty of conscience was dangerous. Also, a lesson that must be earned may have a greater impact. Most importantly though is a question of perspective. Each aspect of the ritual has a meaning. Freemasonry has been described as a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. Such characteristics as virtue, honour and mercy, such virtues as temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice are empty clichés and hollow words unless presented within an ordered framework. The lessons are not secret but the presentation is kept private to promote a clearer understanding in good time.
It is also possible to view masonic secrecy not as secrecy in and of itself, but rather as a symbol of privacy and discretion. By not revealing masonic secrets, or acknowledging the many published exposures, freemasons demonstrate that they are men of discretion, worthy of confidences, and that they place a high value on their word and bond.
But the true secrets of a freemason are not contained in the ritual. A freemason who is true to his obligation will not reveal the modes of recognition, but they are not truly secret; this is demonstrated by the number of exposures that have been published over the centuries. The secrets of a freemason are those personal, private, and lawful, aspects of a mans life that he may choose to share with a brother, a brother who will keep those secrets. This is not secretiveness; this is discretion. There is also that secret which is not kept secret but is only revealed to those who realize the happiness that comes from living a good life.
The symbols have all been taken from stonemasons' tools and endowed with certain meanings. The square "teaches us to regulate our lives and actions by the masonic rule and line, and so to correct and harmonize our conduct as to render us acceptable to the Divine Being, from Whom all goodness emanates..." The compasses "remind us of the Divine Beings unerring and impartial justice..."
Women are not allowed to join recognized masonic lodges. By contemporary standards it may not appear easy to justify this exclusion and most freemasons would simply claim tradition. One might justify this exclusion, in contemporary terms, as a form of male bonding; meeting a group of like minded men from a broad social, economic and cultural background to practice a ritual derived from those practiced hundreds of years ago. If Freemasonry is a power elite then women could and should feel justifiable outrage at being excluded. Freemasonrys goal, though, is not the consolidation of power but rather the education of good men. The only real justification is that Freemasonry actively promotes and teaches certain social freedoms, one of them being the freedom of association. If freemasons wish to associate in a male-only environment, then that is their right and privilege as free citizens. No other justification or explanation is required.
These notes are only a small sample of information available on this website and through any Grand Lodge. For further information, contact the webmaster or explore the links listed below.
This essay does not represent the position or opinions of any Grand Lodge or masonic body. More information can be gained through the Grand Lodge office in your area. It will be listed in the telephone directory under associations, fraternities, or societies.