What is Freemasonry? 5


What is Freemasonry?
Why is it important to our country and the world?

by Paul M. Bessel -- revised January 13, 1996)

Introduction

How do you answer when someone asks you, "What is Masonry? Why do you spend time 
being involved with it? What's so important about it?" There is no official 
definition of Freemasonry; each Mason must think it out himself.  Some say it is 
"a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by 
symbols", but what does that mean, especially to non-Masons? 

The Grand Lodge of Virginia teaches that Freemasonry is a "great quest for light 
and knowledge" that deals with the "intellectual, moral, and spiritual values of 
life." To attempt to achieve these goals, "freedom of thought, speech, and 
action belongs to every man." 

So, it is up to each of us to decide for ourselves what Freemasonry means to 
each of us, and to reexamine and change the description as our experiences 
change. Still every Mason should have an answer when people ask, "What is 
Freemasonry, and if it is important, why?"


Suggestions by Masonic writers and thinkers

Masonic writers help us. Some say Freemasonry is a spiritual experience, a 
system where our souls are brought closer to divinity, or a way to help improve 
all people. Some say Masonry can be defined as a fraternity, a brotherhood, an 
institution of self-improvement, charity, learning, traditions, or of the 
ancient mysteries.  

Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia provides a definition that includes references to 
oaths, fraternalism, operative Masons and their legends, loyalty to government, 
inculcating moral and social virtues by symbolic application of the working 
tools of stonemasons and by allegories, lectures, and charges, brotherly love, 
equality, mutual aid, secret modes of recognition, lodges governed by Masters, 
and admittance of petitioners in secret ceremonies based on legends. Coil's goes 
on to mention Grand Lodges exercising authority over Lodges, requiring a belief 
in God, display of the Bible in Lodges and its use in the degrees, and the 
legend of King Solomon's Temple and Hiram Abif in the Master Mason degree.  
Freemasonry can also be viewed as a simple system of morality and ethics and a 
philosophy of life, with a broad humanitarianism, spiritual quality, urging its 
members to think for and educate themselves, espousing liberty and the dignity 
of all people, permitting each individual to form and express his own opinions, 
even about what Freemasonry is or ought to be, and invites each Mason to improve 
it if he can. William Preston said Freemasonry's role was spreading knowledge. 
Masons should study and learn more about all subjects. Another idea is that 
Freemasonry's purpose is the perfection of humanity by organizing the moral 
sentiments of mankind, improving law and government. George Oliver felt 
Freemasonry is best understood in relation to the philosophy of religion, as a 
means for us to know God and his works, by handing down tradition. Albert Pike 
said that Freemasonry is a method of studying basic principles and its goal is 
to reveal and give us possession of the universal principle by which we may 
master the universe, the Absolute. We should study the allegories and symbols of 
Freemasonry until they reveal the light to each of us individually. 

Roscoe Pound and others in the early 1900's talked about a modern approach, that 
Freemasonry's goal is to preserve, develop, and transmit to posterity the 
civilization passed on to us, by insisting on the universality of mankind and 
the transmission of an immemorial tradition of human solidarity.  William E. 
Hammond talked of moral discipline, where Masonry produces the finest type of 
character and culture through fellowship and mutual helpfulness. Joseph Fort 
Newton said Freemasonry is a form of public service and public mindedness. We 
have a social duty to help our neighbors by work in our communities, to promote 
the freedoms of the mind unhampered by dictation by anyone, with education for 
all to maintain democracy, and to unite people in common service for mankind. 

Allen E. Roberts and Albert Mackey said Masonry is a system of ethics and 
brotherhood, making men better not just to themselves but to each other. It 
teaches the meaning of life and death, with the search for the lost word, 
meaning the attempt to find God's truth in our lives. We should act towards 
others as we want them to act towards us, with faith in the social, eternal, and 
intellectual progress of mankind. 

Arthur E. Waite and W.L. Wilmshurst wrote about Masonry as essentially a 
spiritual activity. Waite described it as the mysticism of a first-hand 
experience with God, with symbols for those who are not yet capable of 
understanding. Wilmshurst talked of spiritual life as the meaning of the Masonic 
ritual and symbols, all leading toward a path of life higher than we normally 
tread, an inner world where the ancient mysteries of our being are to be 
learned. J.S.M. Ward described Freemasonry as combining ideals -- political, 
social, ritualistic, archeological (historical) and mystical into the "great" 
idea.   W. Kirk MacNulty in his recent book about Freemasonry described it as 
essentially a method to learn more about ourselves, our own minds, and to 
transform our being to a higher plane where we are reborn in a higher state. He 
used recent understanding of the psychological needs of all people to explain 
the role of Freemasonry in the life of every Mason. 

H.L. Haywood said Freemasonry is a system of ethics, showing each man the way 
toward a new birth of his nature as symbolized in the Hiram Abif drama, bringing 
divine power to bear on each individual. The great teachings of Freemasonry are 
equality, which is synonymous with Masonry, meaning the equal right of all 
people to use our own minds and abilities; liberty, meaning the unhindered full 
exercise of our nature and mind; and the right of people to govern themselves, 
even if they sometimes make mistakes. He was optimistic about the human ability 
to improve through education, to enrich human life with the human family living 
happily together. 

Each of us can use some or all of these concepts in forming our description of 
what Freemasonry is. If we find some of these concepts difficult to accept, we 
are not obligated to do so.


Why is Freemasonry important to our country and the world?

The ideals of Freemasonry in the 18th century became the foundation for what the 
United States is today, through the influence of the principles of Masonry and 
the Enlightenment. Unlike other countries, ours is founded on the common 
acceptance of ideals, the ideals of freedom which are the same as those of 
Freemasonry.  In 1717, when modern Freemasonry was founded, the acceptance and 
tolerance of people of all religions was not yet accepted, nor was the idea that 
Masons in each lodge elect their officers and decide for themselves how to 
conduct their business.  Another revolutionary element in Freemasonry, which is 
now taken for granted in our society, is the right of each person to be free to 
think and speak whatever ideas he wishes.

These Masonic ideas spread throughout the world. Margaret Jacob has written that 
in the 18th century the prevailing intellectual movement was the Enlightenment, 
the individual search for truth rather than accepting what others tell us to 
think. Masonic lodges were one of the earliest modern experiments in people 
governing themselves, and this ideal was spread during the American and French 
revolutions and since, until today this is the accepted method of government 
throughout most of the world.  Stewart W. Miner, a Past Grand Master of 
Virginia, has said, "I have the impression that Masons in another day ... did 
not hesitate to promote the well-being of mankind, even to the point of putting 
themselves at the cutting edge of movements organized to achieve social and 
political change." 

The spirit of Freemasonry still stands for freedom of speech, thought, and 
religion, and freedom of speech does not mean freedom to say only what those in 
power want to hear. It means the freedom of each person to state ideas and 
beliefs even if they are very different from what leaders or even the majority 
of people believe is right, and it includes the freedom to express different 
ideas and beliefs without fear of retaliation simply for not agreeing with the 
majority. The proper response to those whose ideas we dislike is not to threaten 
them, but to counter their speech with speech of our own, trusting that the 
majority of listeners will decide whose ideas are best. 

Freemasonry has more to do in spreading democracy and equality. Just as George 
Washington fought against rule by one man or a few, and a government where some 
claimed to be above the law, there are still places where the ideal that we are 
governed by laws and not men is not practiced.  Masonry, especially the Scottish 
Rite, also teaches that separation of government and religion is an essential 
element in democracy. Some oppose this wall of separation, but Albert Pike's 
writings and Scottish Rite traditions provide reasons why the protection of both 
government and religion are insured by their separation.

Freemasonry also has a long way to go in teaching the world about brotherhood 
and the equality of all people under God. Brotherhood means far more than just 
helping our sick and distressed Masonic brethren. Masonic writers and our ritual 
describe brotherhood as looking at every person for his moral, inner qualities, 
working to erase from our minds any stereotypes with which we may have been 
brought up, eliminating from our vocabulary racial or religious attacks, and 
evaluating all candidates for Masonry on their character alone. Each man becomes 
a true Mason when he has the courage to take actions to promote true brotherhood 
even if that is unpopular. The Grand Lodge of Virginia teaches, "Whenever you 
are an enemy of bigotry or intolerance ... you live the teachings" of 
Freemasonry,"  and, "We owe goodwill, charity, tolerance, and truthfulness 
equally to all." 


What should we do to promote our concept of Freemasonry and its importance?"

Each of us should learn more about Freemasonry by reading books, using Masonic 
libraries, and talking about important issues at our Lodge meetings. This is 
easy to do, and enjoyable. Every Mason should also learn by subscribing to some 
good Masonic magazines such as the Philalethes and AQC.  They are not expensive, 
and they are very informative.  

Masons should also participate in study and discussion groups to talk about the 
meaning of Freemasonry, because this itself is a part of the meaning of 
Freemasonry. We should all spread the word to all Masons, especially new ones, 
that together we want to learn more about Freemasonry. Don't let new brethren 
wonder why they have not received explanations. Even before they ask, direct 
them to Masonic libraries and Masonic discussion groups to learn more and to 
have their questions answered, and if there are none in your area, start them.

And all of us should help create interesting Lodge education programs. Topics 
can include: why are we Masons, what did famous Masons do that affect our lives 
today, what can we accomplish now to make the world a better place, how can we 
bring Masonic enlightenment to more Masons, what facts can we use to respond to 
attacks some people make against Freemasonry, what are different interpretations 
of the meaning of our rituals, and what are different interpretations of the 
Masonic symbols. Lodge bulletins should make upcoming meetings sound too good to 
miss, and Lodge officers should prove that at the meetings. This will make 
Freemasonry a richer experience for all. Masonry means fellowship, and it also 
means making use of our meetings to learn, to expand our minds, to develop 
ourselves more all the time.

Lastly, we can spread the word to the public about what Freemasonry is, and its 
ideals. We should let the public know what Masonry has contributed to the life 
of our country and the world, and why it deserves public support. Each Mason is 
permitted to tell non-Masons "that which Freemasonry really is!  Its principles, 
its history, its spirit, its ideals, its purposes and programmes, he may publish 
to the world, and the more he publishes them the better." And, "Freemasonry does 
not keep from the public any of its aims and methods .... [O]f the purposes, 
activities, and principles of the Fraternity too much cannot be said."  

If we practice and learn more about Freemasonry, all of us will enjoy our Lodges 
more, improve ourselves, promote a better image of Freemasonry, increase 
membership and attendance, and most importantly, build a better country and 
world. 

Books to read for more information

Freemasonry: A Journey Through Ritual and Symbol, by W. Kirk MacNulty.
A Pilgrim's Path: One Man's Road to the Masonic Temple, by John J. Robinson, 
1993.
The Mystic Tie, by Allen E. Roberts, 1991.
Freemasonry in American History, by Allen E. Roberts, 1985.
G. Washington: Master Mason, by Allen E. Roberts.
A Comprehensive View of Freemasonry, by Henry Wilson Coil, 1954.
The Grand Design, by Wallace McLeod, 1991.
A Radical in the East, by S. Brent Morris, 1993.
Let Your Work Become Your Mark, by Stewart Wilson Miner, 1986.
Taking the First Step, by William Moseley Brown, published by the Grand Lodge of 
Virginia, 1987.
The Degree of Entered Apprentice, by William Moseley Brown, Grand Lodge of 
Virginia, 1969.
The Degree of Fellow Craft, by William Moseley Brown, Grand Lodge of Virginia, 
1969.
Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia, 1961.
The Builders, by Joseph Fort Newton, 1914.
Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry & Politics in 18th-Century Europe, 
Margaret Jacob, 1991.
The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans, by Margaret 
Jacob, 1981.
Masonic Addresses and Writings, by Roscoe Pound, 1953.
Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, 
Albert Pike, 1871.
The Meaning of Masonry, by W.L. Wilmshurst, 1923.
Freemasons' Guide and Compendium, by Bernard E. Jones, 1950.
What Masonry Means, by William E. Hammond, 1939.
Introduction to Freemasonry, by Carl H. Claudy, 1931.
Short Talk Bulletins on "What is Masonry?" (Sept. 1924), and "What Masonry 
Means" (Aug. 1928).
The Newly-Made Mason, by H.L. Haywood, 1948.
The Great Teachings of Masonry, by H.L. Haywood, 1923.
Freemasonry: Its Aims and Ideals, by J.S.M. Ward, 1923.
The Temple and the Lodge, by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, 1989.
Magazines: Philalethes, AQC, The Builder, The Master Mason.