Masonic Monday is a series that discusses a bit of Freemasonry each week, from famous members to strange rituals.
I’ve been asked to explain what Freemasonry is. There have been volumes written about this, so one blog post can’t do justice to the subject. But, so that Henscratches readers will better understand the “Masonic Monday” posts, I offer this “quick-and-dirty lowdown,” excerpted and condensed from Little Lodges on the Prairie. Feel free to ask any question, or leave any other thoughts, in the comment section.
Legend holds that the organization began with the stone masons who worked on King Solomon’s Temple almost a thousand years before the Christian era. Only masons of the most upright character were allowed to work on that holiest of buildings. To ensure that only the deserving would have a place at the construction site, they devised secret words and phrases to convey the trade secrets of their craft to deserving masons, and keep those secrets from masons who were not deemed worthy and from persons who were not masons.
Although there are no records supporting this theory, we know there were stone mason societies in existence in Europe from long before the Templars’ time; extant records date them as early as 643 A.D. From these documents, we know that societies of masons existed, that they had instructions in behavior, and that they had rituals and secret words. These masons were the ones who built the great cathedrals and castles of the medieval period. The headquarters for the stone masons at a large building site was a smaller building or tent nearby known as the lodge. In the lodge, the craftsmen received their orders from the supervising master mason and met to discuss the technicalities of their work; it was also the place they could rest and eat.
Suppose you are a stone mason living in 1200 A.D. You have heard that a large castle is being built in Exeter, so you journey there, seeking work. When you arrive, no one there knows you. You find the supervising (master) mason and ask if there is a place for you to work. The master can make his decision in one of several ways. He can just look at you and make a decision. Quick, but not very reliable. He can ask you to sculpt something, to prove that you know what you’re doing and see your level of skill for himself. Reliable, but not very quick. Or, he can ask you for the secret words and signs. Since you had belonged to a society of masons previously, you know secret words and signs which instantly let the master know that you are trustworthy, that you have vowed to follow certain behaviors and work ethics, and how skilled you are (since there were different words for masters, craftsmen, and apprentices). Quick and reliable. Which do you think the master would most like to use?
This is the origin of Masonic Lodges, with their rituals and secrets. They were “operative masons,” that is, working masons by trade, and the oaths and signs and secret words had a practical purpose in the trade at that time.
Toward the end of the Gothic era and the beginning of the Renaissance, there was less physical building and more emphasis on enlightenment and intellectual growth, meaning less work for trade masons and, therefore, a decline in their membership. So, Lodges began to admit non-masons as honorary members. They only accepted into a Lodge men who were deemed worthy in regard to their moral behavior and who, in harmony with the new ideals of the enlightenment, wanted to work in cooperation with other men to create not only a better Lodge society, but also a better society at large. Also in harmony with the times, when symbolism of all types was enjoying a spurt of popularity, signs and symbols were used to reinforce the teachings. Naturally, these signs and symbols were drawn from the trade mason’s craft.
The non-mason men who were initiated into Lodges were known as speculative masons. Before long, speculative masons began to outnumber operative masons. By the early 1700s, so many Lodges were made up of mostly “accepted” speculative Masons, with only a few true “free” operative masons, that the leaders began to see the need for some sort of means to keep them unified in their rituals, words, and so forth. So in 1717, on the 24th of June, the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster (also called the Premier Grand Lodge of England) was organized.
As the ultimate authority, its leaders established the ritual and set some basic tenets to which all Lodges had to conform in order to be recognized as a true Masonic Lodge.
In outlining the tenets of the society, the Grand Lodge drew inspiration from the tolerance, unity, and advancement of intellectual pursuits promoted by the enlightenment. The founding principles were liberty, equality, and peace. Charity, beginning within the Lodge, Mason to Mason, but also extending outside the Lodge to any in need, was also an important precept.
Today, Freemasonry is said to be the oldest and largest fraternity in the world. There are approximately five million members worldwide; about half of those are in the United States. Within the organization, all members are equal as individuals; there is no recognition of social status or class among them. The Masonic term is “on the level,” and it means that a lowly laborer may meet with the President of the United States, and while in the Lodge, the President has no more prominence as a person than the laborer — they are equal as brothers. Although an office in the Lodge, such as that of Worshipful Master, may be a higher office, the individual in the office remains on the level with the other members.
The requirements for membership are simple, yet meaningful. The first three requirements are to be free, male, and adult. Much of ritual Masonry depends on the obligations made, which has always been considered a contract. Slaves, females, and children were not able to act in legal capacities, and this is what precluded them from membership. In addition, children must answer to parents, slaves to owners, and – in those days – wives to husbands; thus, none of them had complete control of their own actions, and might therefore be unable to fulfill a commitment made. Furthermore, women and children were not stone masons in ancient times. As Freemasonry builds on the Old Charge landmarks of masonic guilds, these membership requirements remain as they were in those days. A man must also hold a belief in a Supreme Being, and be of high moral character.
Many people believe Masonry is a religion. This is a misconception. Freemasonry is a fraternity, not a religion. A Mason may be of any religion or faith, as long as he is not an atheist. One reason confusion exists about the nature of the organization is the spiritual aspect of the fraternity. Faith is an important value in Freemasonry. Masons are admonished to seek the blessing of Deity before commencing any important undertaking. Furthermore, they are instructed to diligently study the Sacred Law; however, during Lodge meetings, no religious dogma or creed may be advanced, nor any political agenda. The meetings are “no religion or politics” zones, as Lodges are to promote unity, not discord.
Freemasonry is sometimes mistakenly called a “secret society,” but Masonry is not a secret at all. Everyone knows about it, and its Lodges are brazenly marked. It is instead a society with secrets. Supposedly, anyway; there really aren’t that many secrets. Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1730, “Their Grand Secret is That they have no Secret at all.” In these modern days of the information superhighway, there is more truth to his statement than Franklin would have thought possible.
Why does the fraternity have secrets at all? Remember that in the beginning there was a practical purpose for the secret words and signs: to convey, without the time, effort and cost of actually sculpting something, a mason’s level of skill and trustworthiness in a time when there was no other means to do so.
The secret works (signs, words, and rituals) used today are symbolic of this trustworthiness. If a man cannot keep a mere word or hand signal secret, how is he to be trusted with your business, your wife, or anything else of importance? The ability to know that a fellow Mason will treat you honestly in business, care for your wife or widow, keep his word, and render aid when needed: these were — and remain — important characteristics within the Lodge.
The secret words and signs also give Masons a means to identify one another, and know upon meeting that this is a brother Mason, who has taken an oath which includes helping fellow Masons or their family if needed. It may be easy to overlook the importance of this, but to those living in times or places that make it difficult to know who can be trusted, such as in Nazi Germany, these secret words and signs can mean safety or even life.
The goal of Freemasonry is, as it was in days of old, building. Today Masons are building not structures and a physical society, but rather character and a better communal society. The stated aim of the fraternity is “making good men better.” The organization seeks to meet this goal by focusing on lessons that strengthen relationships; promote honesty and brotherly love; and encourage education, tolerance, and charity.
This is accomplished by learning from the ancient wisdom of the craft of masonry, and defined by degrees, or stages of advancement within the society, which represent movement from darkness and ignorance to light and knowledge. The steps through the degrees include self-examination, determination of values, resolution to keep those values, and making all actions consistent with them. The lessons of each degree are taught through ritual dramas in which the initiate takes part in acting out various scenes from the building of King Solomon’s Temple. The continual use of signs and symbols from those dramatic rituals reinforces the lessons.
Probably the most widely recognized symbols in Freemasonry are the square and compasses. In the craft of masonry, the square is a tool with an angle of 90 degrees, and is used to ensure that the edges of a stone subtend the same angle for accuracy. In the Craft of Masonry, the square symbolizes morality, truthfulness, and honesty; the duties of a Mason to his Brothers and neighbors. Masons are obliged to square their actions by the square of virtue. The symbolism of the square has become so ingrained that it has become common to speak of “a square deal” for any honest transaction. There are many more such symbols used in the character building lessons of the Craft. These symbols remind Masons of their obligation to apply the associated value lessons in their daily lives.
The fraternity is benevolent in nature, and another time I’ll discuss this aspect. It’s truly awesome.