What is Freemasonry? 5

Why is it important to our country and the world?

Paul M. Bessel

(Revised January 13, 1996)


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.