THE PURPOSE OF A MASONIC RESEARCH LODGE

JAMES DOUGLAS

Abstract

Over the past few years there has been a steady rise in the number of lodges devoted to research and study into Freemasonry in Scotland. This is indicative of the increasing interest amongst some brethren in Masonic education. Although many of the extant research lodges have produced voluminous amounts of papers and transactions on nearly every aspect of Freemasonry, more work needs to be done to disseminate these sources of knowledge amongst the brethren at large.

This paper presents an updated overview of the writer's ideas on the nature and function of a Masonic research lodge as presented at the inaugural meeting of Lodge Discovery No. 1789, Dundee, Scotland, in May 1989.

Author

James Douglas is a Past Master of The Portbello Lodge No. 226, Scottish Constitution (SC). He was formerly the Secretary of the Loretto Centenary Lodge No. 1373, SC, which was reponed in 1987 as a lodge of research and study into the Craft. He is currently the Scottish Representative of the Dormer Masonic Study Circle, and has had several papers dealing with research issues on some key contemplative aspects of the Craft published in its Transactions.

Introduction

It is always an honour for a speaker to be given the opportunity make an address to a lodge. It is even more of a privilege to be presenting this the first paper to be delivered at the first regular meeting of Lodge Discovery. I must admit that this made me a bit apprehensive at first. But in view of the special nature of the occasion I am delighted to make a contribution to the early work of the Lodge.

Given the context of this meeting I thought it would be appropriate to speak about the nature and scope of a research lodge. Over the past few years there has been, encouragingly, a steady growth in the number of such lodges in Scotland. There are at least six such lodges under the Scottish Constitution (SC). Lodge Discovery, being one of the latest, has a unique position in that it is one of the few Scottish lodges specifically founded for the purposes of research and study into the Craft. Most of the other lodges devoted to such work in Scotland are ordinary lodges that were reponed. According to Chambers 20th Century Dictionary "Repone" is an old Scots law term which means to restore to office or reconstitute (from the Latin reponere, 'to put back').

The aim of this paper, then, is to highlight the focus and work of a research lodge. It is I think important that we consider if not understand the basis upon which such a lodge can or should operate. This will enable us to more fully appreciate the benefits derived from studying and investigating Freemasonry.

Even though the thoughts presented herein are the writer's own, it is hoped that they will not be disagreeable to all brethren. The intention is not to prescribe any set of dogmatic rules on the nature and function of a research lodge. Rather I want to offer some thoughts on the scope and possibilities as well as limitations of Masonic research. Hopefully it will give some brethren a better idea as to the work of such a lodge for there is still a great deal of misunderstanding within some parts of the Scottish Craft as to the purpose of a research lodge.

As far as its charter, bye-laws and administrative structure is concerned, a research lodge in Scotland is virtually just like any other Masonic lodge. Most can, if they so wish, admit candidates. They are not meant to be lodges restricted to Past Masters, though this erroneous impression prevails in some quarters of the Scottish Craft.

Nevertheless, a research lodge has or ought to have a slightly different emphasis from a regularly constituted lodge. The latter is concerned with the ordinary business and duties of a unit within the Craft. Its main purpose of course is to initiate candidates and provide a meeting ground wherein brethren can socialise with one another as well as perform and witness the degree ceremonies.

A lodge such as "Discovery", on the other hand, is a more specialised group within the Craft. It provides a medium whereby brethren can both share information on and learn more about Freemasonry through study and discussion.

For any research lodge study is its process and knowledge is its product. A good research lodge should be able to cater for the educational needs of all its members, beginners and adepts alike. Students of every level of research into the Craft, from the newly made Mason to the more advanced Masonic scholar can both contribute to and benefit from its work.

The Meaning of Study and Research

In view of the importance of "study" and "research" as activities in lodges such as Discovery, it would be useful to clarify the meaning of these two closely related terms. The word "study" is defined in Chambers Dictionary as to apply the mind to something in order to acquire knowledge or skill; to scrutinise; to look contemplatively at; to elaborate with self consciousness; to think about; to meditate; to apply the mind closely to books, nature, acquisition of learning or skill.

The work of a research lodge will cover all of these activities and more. But the term "study", which is derived from the Latin studere ('to be zealous'), refers to the attitude to be adopted to the subject under consideration. It does not necessarily indicate any specific methodology.

In any event the basic requirements of any sound research are integrity and rigour. The approach in other words should be careful, unprejudiced and systematic, and produce results in the form of papers which fulfil the established scholarly criteria of accuracy, coherency, criticality, impartiality, legitimacy, originality, readability, relevancy, and truthfulness. Plagiarism, verbosity, wild speculations, undue bias, disingenuousness, unsubstantiated assertions, and other literary vices, are of course to be avoided.

Unfortunately, nowadays the term "masonic research" has tended to be associated predominantly with historical studies of Freemasonry. This is regrettable, for the word is meant to have a less narrower connotation than is given to it by some writers in the Craft. The late J. Mason Allan, one of Scotland's greatest Esoteric Masons, cogently made this very point when he offered a more accurate and helpful definition of the term "research":

"Research", however, has a much wider meaning than mere historical investigations. In the Shorter Oxford Dictionary it is defined as "1) the act of searching (closely or carefully) for or after a specific thing or person; 2) an investigation directed to the discovery of some fact by careful or scientific enquiry." According to the latter part of this definition, Masonic research surely includes a course of careful or scientific enquiry into the meaning and aim of Freemasonry, into the significance of its symbols and allegories, as well as an investigation directed to the discovery of the facts of its outward history. In other words, the term may legitimately be applied to careful and scientific enquiry directed to a fuller understanding of Freemasonry as a living force at the present time, to a knowledge of how the principles of the Craft can help us, individually and corporately, in the practical affairs of life, and to a clearer comprehension of those ends and ideals that may be obtained by an application of the principles inherent in the Masonic system.[1]

The emphasis of the enquiry subject-matter or investigation work of any research lodge will no doubt be influenced by the interests and inclinations of the majority of its members. Some lodges for example will be devoted solely to the study of Freemasonry's background and origins, particularly as regards lodge histories, prominent Masons, significant Masonic occasions, and so on. Others will have a wider vista in that they will also consider issues such as Masonic jurisprudence, symbolism and anti-Masonry. Still others will focus their attention on the Craft's philosophy. There is nothing inherently wrong with concentrating on any of these different aspects of Freemasonry in research terms. The danger lies in over-reacting to the excesses of writers in other research groups and ignoring or excluding the valid work of Masonic writers in these schools.

Criticisms of Research Lodges

In the writer's view research lodges and ordinary lodges are or ought to be wholly compatible with the each other. In no way should they be seen as competing against one another for candidates and visitors. On the contrary, they should complement and support one another.

The main criticisms levelled by some brethren at the existence and/or work of research lodges and study circles in Scotland are summarised as follows:

  1. Research lodges can deprive ordinary lodges of candidates and members and visitors.
  2. Members of research lodges and study circles take Freemasonry too seriously.
  3. Some of lectures presented at or papers published by research lodges are often too advanced or recondite for the newly-made Mason to understand.
  4. There is no need to study the meaning and significance of the Craft because its principles are self-evident.
  5. Masonic research can be counterproductive because the controversial views of some of its exponents provide ammunition for the Craft's critics.

In view if the seriousness of these criticisms, let us in passing examine some of them in more detail.

Regrettably some brethren fear that research lodges will inevitably, albeit inadvertently, poach candidates and members from established lodges in their area. This charge can be confuted on a number of grounds. Firstly, most of the members of research lodges are regular attenders at their mother lodge. In addition, the initiation fee charged by many research lodges is usually set relatively high to deter the casual prospective Mason who might otherwise have applied to join a local lodge. Such a practice may also of course lead to the accusation that the lodge in setting an exorbitantly high entrance fee is being elitist.

In 1987 when I was at the formation of a new English lodge in London I was taken aback when a very senior member of the consecrating team in his address to the lodge afterwards enjoined those present not to take Freemasonry too seriously. On reflection, and in fairness, I think that what he meant is that we should not let our attention to the Craft interfere with our everyday affairs. But I would argue that we do not take Freemasonry seriously enough. So long as it does not adversely affect our religious, civil and private beliefs and duties, then surely there is nothing wrong with taking the Craft seriously. Naturally our participation in the work of lodges and study circles has to be on a part-time basis, but our attention to the Craft's principles ought not to be on such a periodic basis. If anything we should strive to practise the ideals of Freemasonry regularly in our daily lives.

The Value of Research Lodges

In a way the proportion of research lodges and study circles in relation to the number of ordinary lodges is a crude measure of the degree of interest shown by brethren in Masonic education. The growth in Scotland since the mid-1980s of the number of lodges devoted to Masonic study and research is encouraging.

Probably the greatest contribution that research lodges can make to the Craft is by promoting Masonic education within the fraternity. They can provide the means whereby Masons can more readily enlarge their understanding of Freemasonry in all its varied aspects.

As speculative Masons the study of Freemasonry is necessary if we would wish to acquire a deeper understanding of the genesis, structure and philosophy of the Craft. It is an activity that covers a whole range of topics and themes relating to this great fraternity of ours. The annals of the brotherhood still have many pages to be filled. No amount of investigation, analysis, and commentary could exhaust the vast subject of Speculative Masonry. It contains many aspects of extreme interest for Masonic students of all research abilities and perspectives.

It is not incorrect to say that most of the systematic research on Freemasonry has dealt with its historical aspects. Masonic historians, though, have still not been able to explain fully the actual genesis of the Order. Even if that fundamental question were answered there would still be much research work for Masonic historians. The accurate and unbiased recording and interpretation of significant events and the lives of important participants in Freemasonry is vital for posterity if the continuity of its practices and traditions are to be maintained.

But ultimately what is the role and position of Masonic study in a research lodge? The following lengthy though informative extract from a paper published by The Masonic Service Association of the United States on this matter explains the place of study in the context of Freemasonry.

Deciding to become a Mason, participating in the ceremonies of initiation into the several Masonic degrees, and progressing to the point of becoming a Master Mason constitutes a series of adventures, which the participant always remembers. the study of Masonry in the years that follow is incumbent upon every brother and can be made a further real and continuing adventure. Unfortunately the word "study" has, for many of us, unpleasant associations, stemming from our experiences in elementary and high schools, also possibly in college and university. These associations may cause us to feel that studying and learning are matters to be avoided now that we have passed beyond the stage of formal schooling. Yet there is not one among us who is not in favour of education! Those who take this attitude of considering education a splendid idea for others and not for themselves do so because of the compulsion enforced upon us in connection with the education process as we experienced it through childhood.

It should be remembered, however, that the study of Masonry, once begun, proves not to be a chore or a burden but something which brings pleasure in making the most of one's membership of the fraternity. The answer for every Mason to the question: "What came you here to do?" must of necessity be, "to learn to subdue my passions and improve myself in Masonry." This, of course, is a "duty incumbent upon all Masons". Once begun it invariably gives us the feeling of having learned something which is not only worthwhile but is also essential to every intelligent and loyal Mason. It offers one of the finest possible opportunities for further fraternal association with other like-minded Masons. [2]

Masonic study and research, then, can expand our knowledge of the background and philosophy of the Craft as well as increase our appreciation of its fraternal and moral character. We should never lose sight of the fact that we are after all speculative Masons, which means that we should ponder on the nature and significance of Freemasonry.

Granted, each Mason must reflect for himself on the nature and purpose of Speculative Masonry (or Freemasonry to give it its modern name). Still, sensitive, careful and rigorous study of its philosophy as well as its history can, if shared with other Masons, enlarge and enrich our appreciation and comprehension of this much under-rated Brotherhood of ours.

In a speculative or philosophic sense Freemasonry can be viewed as an initiatic idiom. To put succinctly, it is an expression of the quest from darkness to illumination, using the representations of spiritual architecture to point the way for the initiate through the paths of life.

Accessibility to Masonic Literature

One of the primary functions of a research lodge is that it should act as a valuable and ready source of textual, graphical and verbal information on Freemasonry. The provision of a library within every research lodge would be one way of increasing the availability of literature on the Craft to its members.

As any student will admit, though, one of the most common difficulties to overcome in undertaking research is on obtaining sufficient background material to start one's studies. The extent of any ignorance amongst Masonic students embarking on their studies of Freemasonry is probably due more to the lack of guidance on where to seek information on the Craft rather than a dearth of sources of such information.

True, at face value the literature extant on Freemasonry is not readily available to the new Masonic student. Very few of the mainstream bookshops sell works dealing with the Craft. Furthermore there is only one prominent publisher of Masonic books in the United Kingdom, viz, A. Lewis, Shepperton. New magazines for and by Freemasons in Britain were until the early 1980s almost non-existent. In contrast there are several publishers of books on the Craft in the USA. The majority of the states in the Union have a Masonic journal. The MSA referred to earlier, for example, continues to publish a variety of Masonic literature along with its excellent monthly Short Talk Bulletins.

The main sources of Masonic material that students of the Craft in Britain may use for their researches are as follows:

The Scope of Masonic Research

As suggested earlier, the systematic and rigorous study of the Craft should not be limited to its historical aspects. Freemasonry contains a wide range of subject matter, but Masonic research has in recent years tended to be divided into two different camps, the "authentic (or historical) school" and the "non-authentic (or Esoteric) school. [3]

The former is led by the Quator Coronati Lodge No. 2076, England. As the label suggests this group concentrates on the careful investigation of the Craft's background, origins and development. Without doubt the quality of scholarly work set by members of Quator Coronati (QC) is exemplary and is now the standard by which genuine Masonic historical research can be gauged. [4] The fact that the findings and conclusions of the main papers published in ARS Coronatorum, the title of the QC transactions, are subjected to the strictures of judgment and criticism of members of the Lodge is one of its most commendable scholarly traditions.

Although there are no obvious or explicitly declared lodges in the latter school, the Lodge of Living Stones No. 4957, also in England, could be deemed to be one of its best exemplars. It has produced over forty papers dealing with a variety of esoteric aspects of the Craft for the private use of its members.

The authentic school of Masonic research deals almost exclusively with objective issues of Freemasonry's origins, where evidence is sought which can then be tested and verified or refuted. It is not unfair to say that some members of this school have been highly critical of if not hostile to the Esoteric school. This is partly because in focusing on the more speculative aspects of Freemasonry the non-authentic school often take subjective matters into consideration. Such research involves judgments that inevitably tend to be normative or value-loaded and thus more difficult to validate.

Notwithstanding the foregoing simplistic dichotomy of research schools, the Masonic research subject-matter may be classified into seven principal areas:

  1. History: the study of the Freemasonry's origins and development. John Hamill's book The Craft is a good introduction to the subject from an English perspective, whilst The First Freemasons by David Stevenson is a scholarly account of Scotland's early lodges and their members.
  2. Jurisprudence: the study of the Laws, Constitutions and Regulations of Freemasonry. Albert G. Mackey's Masonic Jurisprudence is the standard text on this important subject.
  3. Philosophy and Symbolism: the study and contemplation of the Craft's meaning and its emblems. The Meaning of Masonry by W. L. Wilmshurst remains the classic text in this area. A more recent work, released in paperback, is Kirk MacNulty's The Way of the Craftsman, a masterly treatise on the search for the spiritual essence of Freemasonry.
  4. Literature and Art: the study of works and concerning Freemasonry. Katherine Thomsons's excellent The Masonic Thread in Mozart provides a well researched and sympathetic account of the involvement in Freemasonry of one of its most famous sons. The Art and Architecture of Freemasonry by James S. Curl is a scholarly investigation of the influences of the Craft upon the arts.
  5. Anti-Masonry: the study of the works of groups or individuals opposed to or critical of Freemasonry. The Cloud of Prejudice: A Study in Anti-Masonry by Art Dehoyos provides a brilliant point-for-point rebuttal of the main religious objections to the Craft raised by certain fundamentalist Christians in the USA.
  6. Ritual: the study of lodge etiquette, practice and ceremonial. The late Harry Carr's The Freemason at Work, and Commentary on the Freemasonic Ritual by E. H. Cartwright provide informative guidance on procedural matters.
  7. Contemporary Issues: the study of the place and role of Freemasonry in contemporary society. J. J. Robinson's The Pilgrim's Path: One Man's Journey to a Masonic Lodge is an excellent review and rebuttal of recent criticisms levelled against the Craft. Alternatively, Sermons and Battle Hymns: Protestant Popular Culture in Modern Scotland, edited by T. Gallaher, contains penetrating analysis of Freemasonry in one of its chapters.

Ideally research lodges should try to cater for the educational needs of all their members regardless of the school concerned or the subject-matter. This can be done without diluting accepted scholarly research standards. It can also be achieved without the output of such work (i.e., lectures and papers) being too recondite that it discourages younger members from attending lectures or presenting papers or even reading the transactions. In addition, it will help to dispel the often encountered impression that research lodges are for and composed solely of Past Masters.

In other words:

The idea of Masonic study does not necessarily mean that it is activity restricted to Masons with "book learning" or a great amount of formal education. while the latter type of learning helps. It is by no means an essential requirement. All that is really needed is a sincere desire to learn, to exchange ideas, and to apply oneself assiduously to the attainment of this objective. Once started, it is surprising how one's interest in Masonic study grows.

The benefits of this type of activity are many. The study of Masonry obviously makes one a better Mason. No brother can be enthusiastic about an organisation which he does not understand and of which he knows little. the history, philosophy, and symbolism of the Craft are inexhaustible sources of information and inspiration to every serious student. Thus, through Masonic study diligently pursued over the years, the student is bound to obtain additional information which will prove useful to him outside as well as inside the fraternity.[5]

Basically, then, a research lodge whatever its emphasis can be said to have a number of functions and uses. It can provide a means to:

  1. act as a forum for brethren to exchange valid research findings on and ideas of Freemasonry;
  2. stimulate or re-awaken Masons' interest in the Craft;
  3. help in developing brethrens' written skills through the preparation and compilation and presentation of papers;
  4. give members an opportunity to develop the an opportunity to express themselves vocally in presenting papers at lodge meetings;
  5. inspire members to learn more about the Craft and its philosophy;
  6. help brethren to understand the genesis of the Craft and appreciate its history; and,
  7. introduce new or varied events into meetings which may provide a welcome and fruitful break from the, occasional, monotony of ordinary lodge business.

In order to achieve these ends each research lodge should consider establishing its own library for the use of its members. A modest start can easily be made in this regard if brethren were to donate any spare or unwanted books that they may have on the Craft. The publication of a newsletter or, better still, Transactions of papers read at the meetings would be a useful way of disseminating Masonic education amongst the brethren. Secondly, research lodges should offer their services to ordinary lodges in their province by conducting lectures or Masonic quizzes at meetings.

Masonic research however, if interpreted in its wider sense, is not concerned solely with historical matters. Granted, much informative and useful studies have been and are being done on the Craft's background. However, excessive attention to the dead past or on the minutiae concerning obscure or non-significant persona in the Craft does little to enlarge our understanding of Freemasonry.

Conclusions

A Masonic research lodge can have a variety of functions, but above all it should be concerned with exploring Freemasonry and encouraging brethren to more about our beloved Craft. Its concern is not with increasing the quantity of men in the Order but, rather, with improving the quality of the existing membership through encouragement, guidance and instruction.

Basically, therefore, the purpose of a research lodge in the writer's view is to promote Masonic education and inspire its members to learn more about the sublime principles of Freemasonry. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary they are interdependent. Such objectives are more usually achieved by hosting lectures or addresses on a variety of topics in open lodge. Question and answer sessions can then follow such presentations as a way of clarifying issues and highlighting disagreements.

There is no doubt that the advancement of Masonic education would be of benefit to the Craft as a whole. It would stimulate a greater interest in Freemasonry and this would undoubtable be seen in an increase in lodge attendances.

The most apposite summary of the ultimate purpose of a true speculative Masons research lodge was made by W. L Wilmshurst, the Founder Master of The Lodge of Living Stones No. 4957. Although his perspective may have been too contemplative for some brethrens liking, Wilsmhurst was very much for applying the Lodge's researches to a better understanding of the inner meanings of Freemasonry:

Our aim is to study and, I hope, to carry into effect the vital purpose of an order of initiation as it was known to and practised by the real initiates of the traditional secret science. We hope by research in many tributary fields of knowledge, by discussion and intellectual intercourse, and above all by identifying the personal life with such truths as we come to learn, to translate the work of the Craft from the stage of formality and social routine to the level of real initiating efficiency and a spiritual vitalising agency. To perform no ceremony mechanically or without prior understanding of what it signifies both as regards ourselves and those for whose benefit it is administered. And when these aims have in any measure been achieved, we may perhaps presume to offer ourselves as helpful missionary service to other brethren who are seeking the same direction as we. [6]

No one should pretend that the work of a research lodge is easy. On the contrary, it requires commitment as well as competence to prepare lectures and discourses. The rewards however far outweigh the efforts. As a starting point prospective Masonic students could do no better than to emulate the excellent scholarly standards set by the established research lodges.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to wish Lodge Discovery every success and hope that it has a long and prosperous future. The Craft needs such lodges as the best media for promoting Masonic education at the local level.

NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] Allan, J. M. (1956) "The Interpretation of Freemasonry", Transactions of the Manchester Lodge and Association for Masonic Research, Vol. XXIII, Manchester, pp. 31-32.

[2] Cerza, A. and Brown, W. M. (1981) Masonic Study Groups: Practical Suggestions for Organisation and Function, The Masonic Service Association of the United States, Maryland, preface. This booklet is an excellent introductory manual on how to operate study and research work.

[3] Hamill, J. A. (1986) "Masonic History and Historians", Ars Quator Coronatorum, Vol 99, pp. 3-4.

[4] See the Style Guide in ARS Quator Coronatorum, Vol 95, 1982, p. viii, for useful tips on how to format a Masonic research paper in accordance with scholarly quality.

[5] Cerza and Brown, op. cit., preface.

[6] Wilmshurst, W. L. (1928) "W.M.'s Address on the Purpose and Aims of the Lodge", Lodge Paper No. 2, Lodge of Living Stones No. 4957, p. 15.