An Introduction to Freemasonry
When Ken Weene suggested I write a piece about Freemasonry for The Write Room Blog, I jumped at the opportunity. After all, I am an active Freemason who loves to teach people about what it is we do. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized I was overwhelmed. You see, Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons or Freemasons or simply Masons represent the largest, most complicated and dreadfully misunderstood fraternity in the world. People I know have called us a cult, a religion and a secret society. The following will explain why people think these things and will, at the same time, give you a reasonable introduction to Freemasonry.
No one is clear as to when the fraternity known as Freemasonry began. Our own, carefully preserved records claim we were around in the times of King Solomon, when the craftsman lodges of operative Masons began to turn away from the physical labour of building the temple at Jerusalem and moved towards the more speculative nature of the mind and soul, their working tools becoming symbolic tools with which to build a man with spotless morals and good character. Historical research, however, tends to suggest Freemasonry began in the 1300’s (when the first written records became available) and indicates the stories we use to teach our members are only complicated constructs.
Why the confusion? Well, originally, all the work presented to the initiate or candidate for admission to the Lodge was done strictly by memory. Vast lectures were learned word for word by one brother who would then teach it to a younger brother, and in so doing pass the knowledge along from generation to generation. Plays were put on with intricate costumes and great flair, all language being archaic in nature (and kept that way). There were no books to be passed down through the ages, just keepers of the work. If you were an authority seeking to destroy a Lodge—more about this later—all you would ever find were symbolic paintings and drawings that meant nothing to you. The real Lodge was kept safe in the minds of its members. Sometimes Lodges were even mobile, being set up wherever was safe and then taken down when the meeting was done.
There is also another reason the origins of Freemasonry are lost in the mists of time: all Lodges conduct their business behind closed and guarded doors—in secret! Why? What’s the big deal? After all, the only reason Lodges exist is to take good men and make them better. Could it be we are protecting the fact that our initiates are taught a beautiful system of morality that is veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols? No, it is generally understood that our system is taught via stories, poems, paintings and special symbols that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden, moral meaning. The problem actually goes back to the days when teaching a moral message, other than that approved by the Church, was forbidden and its purveyors persecuted.
Today, however, Masonic Lodges are not secret in and of themselves. They stand in the heart of every town of decent size in most countries of the world. You drive by these buildings every day. Some are ornate and some are plain. Almost all of them have our main symbol located somewhere on the front of the building. It is a square and compass surrounding the letter G, which stands for God …
And if our existence isn’t secret and our meeting times are usually posted on the doors, why do the rumours of secrecy still exist? Well, prejudice for one thing. Freemasonry was non-denominational long before separation of Church and State, making it a very unpopular organization. The fraternity, was, quite simply, a form of heresy. Secrecy was oftentimes all that stood between a Mason and prison time or even an untimely death. In fact, even as recently as World War II, Masons in Germany had to go underground. You see, they supported Jews like they supported all other people of the world, and because of this they were persecuted as fiercely as were the Jews. Why, until just a few short years ago, the Catholic Church wouldn’t allow any member to be a Mason. They even went so far as to create their own competing fraternity—The Knights of Columbus. I, for one, am thankful that practice has been stopped. Still, persecution persists: many religions believe an organization that doesn’t follow their particular path of salvation must by its very character be an agent of Satan. And this attitude is the big problem. For a man to be made a Mason, he must swear that he believes in a Supreme Being. We don’t care who or what that is—other than he/she/it must punish vice and reward virtue. We don’t even care what book you study from, be it the Bible, the Quran or some other written work. Freemasonry simply urges you study daily from the pages of your holy book or from the words of your religion. We want you to have a strong moral guide from which to learn. Freemasonry will teach the initiate many lessons about morality, charity, truth, upright character, brotherly love and … but he will learn much more by studying his own religion every day. Some people (religions) just don’t like these practices.
Are such problems, mostly in the past, the only reason Lodges have secrets? No, Freemasonry has always been careful about what it reveals to the uninitiated. For example, we all take an oath never to reveal the secrets or mysteries of a Freemason. Why do we do this? There are several reasons I can’t share, but I can tell you this much: some of the secrets are nothing but ways and means of identifying another Mason when in public. These methods, if revealed to you, would seem foolish. All I can say is remember Hitler. In his day if you couldn’t secretly identify yourself to another Mason, you were as good as dead! I believe these secrets that we must keep also teach us there’s a time to hold your tongue, to keep silent. They make us think about what we say and how we say it, thus helping us maintain a favourable image of ourselves (and thus Freemasonry) when out in the wide, wide world. Because, yes, we are taught to take what we learn as a Mason and use it in our daily life so as to be a leader, to be someone people look up to, to be a man people know is of good character and morals.
And finally, what about the mysteries? What are they and why are they to be kept inviolate? Here you’ll find the strongest reason Freemasonry has been deemed a secret society. Most Masons never study the stories and lectures hard enough and long enough to figure out what the mysteries are. There has been many a book written about the mysteries of Freemasonry, posing hypothesis after hypothesis. But given all the hidden meaning in our teachings it’s really no wonder the average Mason doesn’t know quite what it is he isn’t supposed to reveal. So, do you know what he does? He says nothing at all. In truth, many never even divulge their association with Freemasonry. I was in Masonry for 10 years before my favourite uncle told me he, too, was a Mason. He belonged to a different Lodge than I did and had no reason to expect me to identify myself to him as a Mason. It was just a chance remark I made one day that twigged it for him. So he challenged me with one of our forms of recognition, and I passed the test.
If we, as Masons, don’t know for certain what we can tell you about our unusual fraternity, then who are we to cry out when someone says we are a secret society, a religion or a cult? Only education, spurred on by us Masons can do that. Here’s what I tell people: We are not a secret society; we are a society with secrets. Freemasonry is not a religion; it does have religious aspects. Our fraternity is not a cult; it does teach a moral system through the relating of ancient stories and through the description of certain symbols, like the square and compass.
May I finish with a poem? It tells about our obligations and some of the ways to recognize a Mason (you can find them all on the internet, by the way, I just won’t tell you them myself); it also gives one the sense that there’s depth and goodness at the heart of this thing we call Freemasonry.
The Old Master’s Wages
I met a dear old man today
who wore a Masonic pin.
It was old and faded like the man,
Its edges were worn quite thin.
I approached the park bench where he sat,
to give the brother his due.
I said, “I see you’ve travelled east.”
He said, “I have, have you?”
I said, “I have, and in my day before the all seeing sun,
I played in the rubble, with Jubala, Jubalo and Jubalum.”
He shouted, “Don’t laugh at the work my son,
It’s good and sweet and true,
and if you’ve travelled as you said,
you should give these things their due.
The word, the sign, the token,
the sweet Masonic prayer,
the vow that all have taken,
who’ve climbed the inner stair.
The wages of a Mason
are never paid in gold,
but the gain comes from contentment
when you’re weak and growing old.
You see, I’ve carried my obligations,
for almost fifty years,
They have helped me through the hardships
and the failures full of tears.
Now I’m losing my mind and body,
Death is near but I don’t despair,
I’ve lived my life upon the level,
and I’m dying upon the square.”
Sometimes the greatest lessons
are those that are learned anew,
and the old man in the park today
has changed my point of view.
To all Masonic brothers,
The only secret is to care.
May you live your life upon the level,
may you part upon the square.