That's not a surprising question.
Even though Masons
(Freemasons) are members of the largest and oldest fraternity in the world, and even though almost everyone has a father or
grandfather or uncle who was a Mason, many people aren't
quite certain just who Masons are.
The answer is simple. A Mason
(or Freemason) is a member of a fraternity known as Masonry (or Freemasonry).
A fraternity is a group of men (just as a sorority is a group of women) who join together because:
There are things they want to do in the world.
There are things they want to do "inside their own minds."
They enjoy being together with men they like and respect.
(We'll look at some of these things later.)
Since Masonry came to America from
England, we still use the English
floor plan and English titles for the officers. The
Worshipful Master of the Lodge sits in the East ("Worshipful" is an English term of respect which means the same thing as
"Honorable.") He is called the Master of the lodge for the same reason that the leader of an orchestra is called the "Concert Master." It's simply an older term for "Leader." In other organizations, he would be called "President." The Senior and Junior Wardens are the First and Second Vice-Presidents. The Deacons are messengers and the Stewards have charge of refreshments. Every lodge has an altar holding a "Volume of the Sacred Law." In the United States and Canada, that is almost always a Bible.
For members only, two basic kinds
of meetings take place in a
lodge. The most common is a simple business meeting. To open and close the meeting, there is a ceremony whose purpose is to remind us of the virtues by which we are supposed to live. Then there is a reading of the minutes; voting on petitions (applications of men who want to join the fraternity); planning for charitable functions, family events, and other lodge activities; and sharing information about members (called "Brothers," as in most fraternities) who are ill or have some sort of need. The other kind of meeting is one in which people join the fraternity -- one at which the "degrees" are performed.
But every lodge serves more than its own members. Frequently, there are meetings open to the public. Examples are Ladies' Nights, public installations of officers, Cornerstone Laying ceremonies, and other special meetings supporting community events and dealing with topics of local interest.
A degree is a stage or level of
membership. It's also the
ceremony by which a man attains that level of membership. Thereare three, called Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. As you can see, the names are taken from the craft guilds. In the Middle Ages, when a person wanted to join a craft, such as the gold smiths or the carpenters or the
stonemasons, he was first apprenticed. As an apprentice, he
learned the tools and skills of the trade. When he had proved
his skills, he became a "Fellow of the Craft" (today we would
say "Journeyman"), and when he had exceptional ability, he was known as a Master of the Craft.
The degrees are plays in which the candidate participates. Each degree uses symbols to teach, just as plays did in the Middle Ages and as many theatrical productions do today. (We'll talk about symbols a little later.)
The Masonic degrees teach the great
lessons of life -- the
importance of honor and integrity, of being a person on whom
others can rely, of being both trusting and trustworthy, of
realizing that you have a spiritual nature as well as a physical
or animal nature, of the importance of self-control, of knowing how to love and be loved, of knowing how to keep confidential what others tell you so that they can "open up" without fear.
It really isn't "secretive,"
although it sometimes has that
reputation. Masons certainly don't make a secret of the fact
that they are members of the fraternity. We wear rings, lapel
pins and tie tacks with Masonic emblems like the Square and
Compasses, the best known of Masonic signs which, logically,
recalls the fraternity's roots in stonemasonry. Masonic
buildings are clearly marked, and are usually listed in the
phone book. Lodge activities are not secret; picnics and other
events are even listed in the newspapers, especially in smaller
towns. Many lodges have answering machines which give the
upcoming lodge activities. But there are some Masonic secrets, and they fall into two categories.
The first are the ways in which
a man can identify himself as a
Mason--grips and passwords. We keep those private for obvious reasons. It is not at all unknown for unscrupulous people to try to pass themselves off as Masons in order to get assistance under false pretenses.
The second group is harder to describe,
but they are the ones
Masons usually mean if we talk about "Masonic secrets." They are secrets because they literally can't be talked about, can't be put into words. They are the changes that happen to a man when he really accepts responsibility for his own life and, at the same time, truly decides that his real happiness is in
It's a wonderful feeling, but it's
something you simply can't
explain to another person. That's why we sometimes say that
Masonic secrets cannot ( rather than "may not") be told. Try
telling someone exactly what you feel when you see a beautiful sunset, or when you hear music, like the national anthem, which suddenly stirs old memories, and you'll understand what we mean.
"Secret societies" became very popular
in America in the late
1800s and early 1900s. There were literally hundreds of them, and most people belonged to two or three. Many of them were modeled on Masonry, and made a great point of having many "secrets." And Masonry got ranked with them. But if Masonry is a secret society, it's the worst-kept secret in town.
The answer to that question is simple. No. We do use ritual in the meetings, and because there is always an altar or table with the Volume of the Sacred Law open if a lodge is meeting, some people have confused Masonry with a religion, but it is not. That does not mean that religion plays no part in Masonry -- it plays a very important part. A person who wants to become a Mason must have a belief in God. No atheist can ever become a Mason. Meetings open with prayer, and a Mason is taught, as one of the first lessons of Masonry, that one should pray for divine counsel and guidance before starting an important undertaking. But that does not make Masonry a "religion."
Sometimes people confuse Masonry with a religion because we call some Masonic buildings "temples." But we use the word in the same sense that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the Supreme Court a "Temple of Justice" and because a Masonic lodge is a symbol of the Temple of Solomon. Neither Masonry nor the Supreme Court is a religion just because its members meet in a "temple."
In some ways, the relationship between
Masonry and religion is like
the relationship between the Parent-Teacher Association
(the P.T.A.) and education. Members of the P.T.A. believe in
the importance of education. They support it. They assert that no man or woman can be a complete and whole individual or live up to his or her full potential without education. They
encourage students to stay in school and parents to be involved with the education of their children. They may give
scholarships. They encourage their members to get involved with and support their individual schools.
But there are some things P.T.A.s
do not do. They don't teach. They
don't tell people which school to attend. They don't try
to tell people what they should study or what their major should be.
In much the same way, Masons believe
in the importance of
religion. Masonry encourages every Mason to be active in the
religion and church of his own choice. Masonry teaches that,
without religion, a man is alone and lost, and that without
religion, he can never reach his full potential.
But Freemasonry does not tell a
person which religion he should practice
or how he should practice it. That is between the individual
and God. That is the function of his house of
worship, not his fraternity. And Masonry is a fraternity, not a
Bibles are popular gifts among Masons, frequently given to a man when he joins the lodge or at other special events. A Masonic Bible is the same book anyone thinks of as a Bible (it's usually the King James translation) with a special page in the front on which to write the name of the person who is receiving it and the occasion on which it is given. Sometimes there is a special index or information section which shows the person where in the Bible to find the passages which are quoted in the Masonic ritual.
Many of us may think of religion
when we think of ritual, but
ritual is used in every aspect of life. It's so much a part of
us that we just don't notice it. Ritual simply means that some
things are done more or less the same way each time.
Almost all school assemblies, for
example, start with the
principal or some other official calling for the attention of
the group. Then the group is led in the Pledge of Allegiance.
A school choir or the entire group may sing the school song.
That's a ritual.
Almost all business meetings of
every sort call the group to
order, have a reading of the minutes of the last meeting, deal
with old business, then with new business. That's a ritual.
Most groups use Robert's Rules of Order to conduct a meeting. That's probably the best-known book of ritual in the world.
There are social rituals which tell
us how to meet people (we
shake hands), how to join a conversation (we wait for a pause,
and then speak), how to buy tickets to a concert (we wait in
line and don't push in ahead of those who were there first).
There are literally hundreds of examples, and they are all
Masonry uses a ritual because it's
an effective way to teach
important ideas-- the values we've talked about earlier. And it
reminds us where we are, just as the ritual of a business
meeting reminds people where they are and what they are supposed to be doing.
Masonry's ritual is very rich because
it is so old. It has
developed over centuries to contain some beautiful language and ideas expressed in symbols. But there's nothing unusual in
using ritual. All of us do it every day.
Everyone uses symbols every day, just as we do ritual. We use them because they communicate quickly. When you see a stop sign , you know what it means, even if you can't read the word "stop." The circle and line mean "don't" or "not allowed." In fact, using symbols is probably the oldest way of communication and the oldest way of teaching.
Masonry uses symbols for the same
reason. Some form of the
"Square and Compasses" is the most widely used and known symbol of Masonry. In one way, this symbol is a kind of trademark for the fraternity, as the "golden arches" are for McDonald's. When you see the Square and Compasses on a building, you know that Masons meet there.
And like all symbols, they have a meaning.
The Square symbolizes things of
the earth, and it also
symbolizes honor, integrity, truthfulness, and the other ways we should relate to this world and the people in it. The Compasses symbolize things of the spirit, and the importance of a well-developed spiritual life, and also the importance of
self-control -- of keeping ourselves within bounds. The G stands for Geometry, the science which the ancients believed most revealed the glory of God and His works in the heavens, and it also stands for God, Who must be at the center of all our thoughts and of all our efforts.
The meanings of most of the other
Masonic symbols are obvious. The gavel teaches the
importance of self-control and
self-discipline. The hourglass teaches us that time is always
passing, and we should not put off important decisions.
Yes. In a very real sense, education
is at the center of
Masonry. We have stressed its importance for a very long time. Back in the Middle Ages, schools were held in the lodges of stonemasons. You have to know a lot to build a cathedral -- geometry, and structural engineering, and mathematics, just for a start. And that education was not very widely available. All the formal schools and colleges trained people for careers in the church, or in law or medicine. And you had to be a member of the social upper classes to go to those schools. Stonemasons did not come from the aristocracy. And so the lodges had to teach the necessary skills and information. Freemasonry's dedication to education started there.
It has continued. Masons started
some of the first public
schools in both Europe and America. We supported legislation to make education universal. In the 1800s Masons as a group lobbied for the establishment of state supported education and federal land grant colleges. Today we give millions of dollars in scholarships each year. We encourage our members to give volunteer time to their local schools, buy classroom supplies for teachers, help with literacy programs, and do everything they can to help assure that each person, adult or child, has the best educational opportunities possible. And Masonry supports continuing education and intellectual growth for its members, insisting that learning more about many things is important for anyone who wants to keep mentally alert and young.
Masonry teaches some important principles. There's nothing very surprising in the list. Masonry teaches that:
Since God is the Creator, all men
and women are the children of God.
Because of that, all men and women are brothers and
sisters, entitled to dignity, respect for their opinions, and
consideration of their feelings.
Each person must take responsibility
for his/her own life and
actions. Neither wealth nor poverty, education nor ignorance,
health nor sickness excuses any person from doing the best he
or she can do or being the best person possible under the
No one has the right to tell another
person what he or she must think
or believe. Each man and woman has an absolute right to
intellectual, spiritual, economic,
and political freedom. This
is a right given by God, not by man. All tyranny, in every
form, is illegitimate.
Each person must learn and practice
self-control. Each person
must make sure his spiritual nature triumphs over his animal
nature. Another way to say the same thing is that even when we are tempted to anger, we must not be violent. Even when we are tempted to selfishness, we must be charitable. Even when we want to "write someone off," we must remember that he or she is a human and entitled to our respect. Even when we want to give up, we must go on. Even when we are hated, we must return love, or, at a minimum, we must not hate back. It isn't easy!
Faith must be in the center of our
lives. We find that faith in
our houses of worship, not in Freemasonry, but Masonry
constantly teaches that a person's faith, whatever it may be, is
central to a good life.
Each person has a responsibly to
be a good citizen, obeying the law.
That doesn't mean we can't try to change things, but
change must take place in legal ways.
It is important to work to
make this world better for all who
live in it. Masonry teaches the importance of doing good, not
because it assures a person's entrance into heaven -- that's a
question for a religion, not a fraternity -- but because we have
a duty to all other men and women to make their lives as
fulfilling as they can be.
Honor and integrity are essential
to life. Life, without honor
and integrity, is without meaning.
The person who wants to join Masonry
must be a man (it's a
fraternity), sound in body and mind, who believes in God, is at
least the minimum age required by Masonry in his state, and has a good reputation. (Incidentally, the "sound in body"
requirement -- which comes from the stonemasons of the Middle Ages -- doesn't mean that a physically challenged man cannot be a Mason; many are).
Those are the only "formal" requirements.
But there are others, not
so formal. He should believe in helping others. He should
believe there is more to life than
pleasure and money. He should
be willing to respect the opinions of others. And he
should want to grow and develop as a human being.
Some men are surprised that no one has ever asked them to become a Mason. They may even feel that the Masons in their town don't think they are "good enough" to join. But it doesn't work that way. For hundreds of years, Masons have been forbidden to ask others to join the fraternity. We can talk to friends about Masonry, we can tell them about what Masonry does. We can tell them why we enjoy it. But we can't ask, much less pressure anyone to join.
There's a good reason for that.
It isn't that we're trying to
be exclusive. But becoming a Mason is a very serious thing.
Joining Masonry is making a permanent life commitment to live in certain ways. We've listed most of them above -- to live with honor and integrity, to be willing to share and care about
others, to trust each other, and to place ultimate trust in God.
No one should be "talked into" making such a decision.
So, when a man decides he wants
to be a Mason, he asks a Mason for a petition or application.
He fills it out and gives it to the
Mason, and that Mason takes it to the local lodge. The
Master of the lodge will appoint a committee to visit with the
man and his family, find out a little about him and why he wants to be a Mason, tell him and his family about Masonry, and answer their questions. The committee reports to the lodge, and the lodge votes on the petition. If the vote is affirmative -- and it usually is -- the lodge will contact the man to set the date for the Entered Apprentice Degree. When the person has completed all three degrees, he is a Master Mason and a full member of the fraternity.
an on-line version of a pamphlet "What's a Mason?",
by the Masonic Service Association)
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