Shall We Study Our Purpose, Meaning, and Origin?

Michael Smiley

A few weeks ago, I was asked by the Sovereign Master of my Council of Allied Masonic Degrees to prepare a paper suggesting a way that Masons might regularly come together for the explicit purpose of Masonic study. The Sovereign Master had his reason for making this request. That reason, I now suspect, was to show me the folly of my ways.

I was the one complaining in our Council meetings about there being so little agreement regarding what is the purpose of the American version of our Masonic Fraternity. One of my favorite phrases regarding American Freemasonry was from an old song, "Alfie": What's it all about?

I have been a member of the Craft for over twenty years in three different jurisdictions; also with membership in the York Rite, Scottish Rite, and the Shrine (and, yes, even membership in Eastern Star). I have done the usual little reading about Masonry that most of us do. Reading books such as "Freemasons' Guide and Compendium", "Morals and Dogma", "A Bridge to Light", "Born in Blood", and so forth. A couple of C. W. Leadbeater's books about Co-Masonry also made interesting reading, as well as five or six of Joseph Campbell's books on the connection between mythology, ritual, and religion.

I have reluctantly and sadly reached the conclusion, Brethren, that there is really not much to study or even to seriously discuss regarding American Freemasonry today. We express our concerns about our dramatically declining membership. Well, why shouldn't our membership decline? We have become a shallow organization with nothing to offer that is particularly interesting, fun, or exciting. The Shrine is a possible exception, but the Shrine is not a Masonic body, per se.

I often hear that the purpose of Freemasonry is, "To Make Good Men Better". Thank you very much. Wow. Big deal. People should be knocking at our doors clamoring for petitions so that they can be made better, right? Okay, so after the man is "made better", then what?

Fellowship, and finding friends wherever we go is another reason that is cited as an incentive for being a Freemason. Most churches, and organizations such as the International Rotary, offer much the same thing, and without any requirement for memorization.

Charity is always worthwhile, and Masonry stresses charity to our fellowman, along with the charitable attitude of tolerance. Charity in any form can be engaged in without being a Mason. Many men and women who are not a part of the Masonic community support charitable, worthwhile causes all the time.

The York Rite and the Scottish Rite have their specific charities, but these charities are not very well known outside the Fraternity and, in any case, a person does not really have to be a Mason to contribute to them, or, for that matter, to contribute to any charity.

The Shrine has its children's hospitals, burn centers, children's clinics, and the Shrine circus. These charities have a well known, high profile. Also, the Shrine down-plays ritual and has a general reputation of being an organization of members who like to get together to eat, drink, and be merry. Perhaps all this has something to do with the proposals to consider allowing non-Masons to join the Shrine. Why not? After all, the Shrine is not and was never intended to be a Masonic body. Of course allowing non-Masons to join the Shrine might, as some allege, hurt membership efforts in the Scottish Rite and York Rite, but that is off the present subject.

Back to the question of tolerance. Yes, Freemasonry claims to uphold the principles of tolerance. But are individual Masons particularly well known for their tolerant attitude? Not that I am aware of. Some Masons are indeed very tolerant, some others quite definitely are not. Pretty much the same is true of the general population.

What, really, is there to study about American Freemasonry's purpose, meaning, and origin? Nothing much that is of any real interest. The Fraternity has no particular meaning today except perhaps from a sentimental point of view. For example, remembering what it was like to be a Mason "in the old days". Or the fact that a well beloved father, uncle, or grandfather was a Mason. Or that many of our Founding Fathers were Masons. All well and good. But, where is the on-going Masonic meaning today for the potential candidate who happens not to have any sentimental reasons for becoming a Mason?

Purpose? What purpose? Performing a little ritual in Lodge once or twice a month in order to make some good men better? That is fine but let's face the fact that it is not really very much. Some folks might even be turned off by the very presumptuousness of an organization that seems to imply that men who petition for membership are those who have a need for being made better than they already are.

In other words, are we perhaps saying that the Fraternity thinks that there is something wrong with anyone who would want to become a Mason? Therefore our purpose is to try to make any new member "better"? This might sound to the uninitiated like Masonry is some form of religion. We as Masons know that Masonry is not a religion. However, many people have been taught since childhood that being "made better" will most likely involve a religion of some sort.

Many, many non-Masons have told me that they believe that Masonry is a religion. When we Masons point out that Masonry is not a religion, we are told that since there is an alter in our Lodge room with a book of holy writings upon it, and since Masons take oaths and kneel and pray at that alter, it is very hard to believe that Masonry is not a religion.

At least one good friend of mine has candidly told me that he understood that Masonry was a form of Satanism, or at least that Masonry incorporated some sort of Satanic rites in its ritual. Again, while we Masons know that there is nothing whatsoever of the Satanic in Freemasonry, we all know that the allegation that Satanism is practiced in Masonic Lodges is not an unusual comment to hear. The basis for this seems most often to be vague memories and stories concerning some of the ritual that at one time may (or may not) have been in French Freemasonry and subsequently found its way to America in what became the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. This connection becomes pretty obvious to anyone who has read "Morals and Dogma", although to the person who actually understands what he is reading, it is clear that there is nothing of Satanism advocated in "Morals and Dogma". Nonetheless, at times it seems that there are Masons who are almost frantic in their effort to portray our Scottish Rite ritual as being based strictly and solely upon the Bible, which of course is not entirely true.

What about the origins of Freemasonry? On this we have many schools of thought and agreement on none. That is why I maintain that there is nothing about Masonry to study. Certainly there are literally thousands of books that have been written concerning our Craft. But since there is no consensus of agreement about who or what is correct, then there is nothing, really, to study. The most popular origin myth, of course, is the one involving the building of King Solomon's temple. Another legend speaks of the so-called operative stonemasons of medieval Europe. Still another story has it that our Fraternity had nothing at all to do with with stonemasons and that the first Masons were some of the surviving members of the order of Knights Templar. Others will say that the first Mason was Adam. And then there is the idea about our beginnings in the Ancient Mysteries of Greece and Rome, and even in the still more ancient religious beliefs, rites, and rituals supposedly practiced at the time of the Egyptian pharaohs.

Brethren, in my opinion there is nothing in Freemasonry, especially American Freemasonry, to study. We flatter ourselves by pretending that there is. We are just a bunch of more or less good guys with a few private signs, symbols, and modes of recognition. These really have no meaning or value other than to make us feel important and different. In other words, our way of having our little ego trip.

Perhaps we in Blue Lodge, York Rite, and Scottish Rite Masonry should stop being such conservative, unimaginative stuffed shirts. Maybe we should consider following the example of this country's Founding Fathers and, as Masons, begin having our meetings in the private rooms of the modern equivalent of the old colonial taverns, with plenty of food and drink and good, thought-provoking conversation. Our noble brothers of the Mystic Shrine have done a little something of this sort with very admirable results.

We speak of getting new members into the Craft. Frankly, as things stand at the present time, I am a little embarrassed about sponsoring a candidate into Masonry because I don't want any friend of mine to have the disappointment that comes from looking around after a year or two of attending Lodge and thinking to himself, "This is it?" "This is all that there is?"

The average candidate today is initiated and might stick around, out of curiosity and politeness to his sponsor, to be passed and raised. After that, there is little or nothing offered by the American Masonic Fraternity that most men consider to be worthy of their time. If any of my Brethren doubt this, then take a thoughtful look around at all of the empty seats on the sidelines the next time that you attend Lodge.