Vol. XX No. 4 — April 1942

Dignity of Freemasonry

The Standard Dictionary thus defines “dignity”:

Grave or noble bearing; impressiveness of character or manner; repose and serenity of demeanor; the state or quality of being excellent, worthy or honorable.

The general conception of the word is that of consciousness of worth, shown by simple, unostentatious bearing. Like so many other intangibles it is as difficult to define as it is easy to understand.

Freemasonry is built around: (1) belief in and reverence toward a Great Architect of the Universe; (2) a story from the Old Testament; (3) universal brotherhood and its component parts of brotherly love, relief and truth. Its sole mission in the world is the building of character in men.

Surely these are wholly compatible with “the state or quality of being excellent, worthy, honorable.” The public conception of Freemasonry is that of a society of men who meet and act in secret; devoted to good works and the care of the widow and the orphan; men of character and standing.

That, too, is wholly in consonance with the definition “impressiveness of character.”

The fact that Freemasonry in its very nature, structure and performance is inherently dignified seems hardly to need exposition. All sorts of men make up the world, and all sorts of men become Freemasons. Many a good man and true has little natural dignity.

Lack of dignity is not, of itself, either a crime or an injury to others. Only when lack of personal dignity affects the aim and accomplishments of others does it become of moment.

Freemasonry appears dignified or the reverse (1) in public; (2) in lodge meetings; (3) during degrees.

Public appearances of Freemasonry are usually confined to cornerstone layings, funerals, attendance in a body at church, occasionally in a lodge picnic or outing. The latter is not an occasion when the dignity of Masonry need be considered, except in the proper behavior of individuals, which of course needs no mention here. Cornerstone layings and funerals are dignified or not according to (1) the dress and demeanor of the brethren, (2) their knowledge of a proper performance of the required ritual.

The spectacle of a master in yellow shoes, blue shirt, red tie, rumpled hair and decrepit felt hat delivering the funeral ritual at a grave is seldom seen; it should, of course, never be seen. Most grand lodges rule that dress at funerals should be “dark clothing.” Not all masters enforce such regulations and perhaps it might cause more trouble than it is worth to suggest to a too informally dressed brother that he refrain from marching in the procession. But there is never any excuse for a master or grand lodge officer to make an undignified spectacle of Freemasonry by wearing improper dress at a funeral.

A funeral service read in a slovenly manner by one who has not taken the time to go over the ceremony often enough to know how to pronounce the words is highly undignified, and cannot be but a reflection on the lodge which permits it, the fraternity to which such a lodge and master belong.

All this is true of a cornerstone laying; as more of the general public usually attend cornerstone layings than turn out at funerals, perhaps it is even more important that Masonry be dignified at such ceremonies.

A lodge delegated to lay a cornerstone is highly honored by the grand master; it undertakes to perform a very old, symbolic and beautiful ceremony for the benefit of those who have built and will use the building. It is a free-will offering; no charge is ever made for the ceremony. Because it is a gift; because Freemasonry assumes the responsibility of beginning the new structure, it is of vital importance that the task be performed with dignity. If Freemasonry value not her own ceremonies, who among the general public can be expected to hold them dear?

Hence some practice in the ritual, proper dress, decent decorum, are essential in such public appearances.

Freemasonry provides certain forms and ceremonies for the opening and closing of a lodge. These ceremonies are deeply symbolic. They serve to remind the brethren of mans dependence upon Deity; of the authority of the officers; of the obligations of all Freemasons. Performed with respect in the silence of the brethren present; done unhurriedly and with reserve, the closing ceremony becomes beautiful. Rushed through in a hurry, to get downstairs to the "feed”; done in the presence of brethren busily untying aprons, talking among themselves, even laughing at some out-of-place witicism, it is definitely ruined as to accomplishment of its purpose, and becomes an agent for harm, not good, for those who thus make a mock of what should always be done with “repose and serenity of demeanor.”

It is not given to all lodges to meet in beautiful rooms, in decorated lodge halls, with expensive church organs for music and vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows to impress those who attend.

But there was never the lodge hall, no matter how small, no matter how ill-furnished, no matter how poor, which could not show the dignity of cleanliness and order. Those who are old in the Craft and have visited much will tell any younger Mason who inquires of beautiful and impressive Masonic events which have been held in little and unostentatious country lodge halls. When the spirit of Freemasonry pervades a consecrated lodge room, no further decorations are needed; many have seen the dignity and worth of a Masonic ceremony in the poorest and meanest of surroundings, and found both lovely, because of solemnity of the underlying spirit.

Occasionally dignity is confused with stiffness and formality. The cry that Masonic meetings should always be dignified meets with the answer “But then there is no good fellowship, no fun, no laughter, and men won’t come to lodge.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. The church is normally dignified and formal in worship, but all know of friendly churches, where human contacts and the smile and handclasp of friendship help carry the message of the pulpit. Freemasonry can be, should be, invariably dignified in form and ceremony, but it should cherish equally the good fellowship and the friendly contact which make for a real, not a theoretical brotherhood.

A never-ending discussion as to proper Masonic dress in lodge will neither be continued nor settled here. Men dress according to the fashion of their location. There is nothing in any dress which is of itself either dignified or the reverse; dignity in dress is concerned only with the appropriateness of the costume.

A full dress swallow tail, white shirt, white tie, kid gloves, would be extremely undignified as a bathing costume at the seaside; a red bathing suit with green slippers would be equally undignified in church. If all lodge officers put on dinner clothes for lodge meetings, the officers who dressed in overalls would be undignified; if overalls for all officers was common dress, he who interjected evening clothes would lack dignity. It is conformity to local custom and a due regard to the general fitness of things which make dress in a lodge dignified or the reverse. A straw hat for the master dressed in full evening clothes is as undignified as a silk hat on a master who must preside in his every-day working costume!

More important by far than dress is decorum. The Standard Dictionary defines the word as "propriety or becomingness.” Decorum in lodge, then, is that which is becoming the location, the occasion, the purpose of the meeting. If a lodge hall be used for an evening’s entertainment with lodge closed — as, for instance, in a “father and son night” — the laughter, jokes, talking, fun, amusement, offend no idea of decorum, whereas the same conduct during the conferring of a degree would be wholly out of place.

Lodge activities with lodge opened are (1) business meeting, (2) opening and closing and degree work and (3) refreshment and social hour.

Primarily, decorum in all three must be based on the thought that a Masonic lodge is open; it has been opened and will be closed with prayer; the Great Light lies open upon the altar.

But there is nothing in a reverent attitude toward Bible and open lodge which precludes good nature and humor in a business meeting; there is everything in the fact that lodge is open to preclude lack of respect to officers, to ceremonies, to Great Lights.

During refreshment periods, good fellowship, the meeting of friends and the clasp of hands, and calling of ones fellows by first name or nickname, are wholly proper. It is certainly less than dignified during even so informal a ceremony as the welcoming of a visitor or a past master by a master. Your minister may be the friend of your heart, but you do not expect him to stand in the pulpit and say “Hello, John, glad you got out of bed in time to come to service!”

Neither should a master so address a past master; much more in keeping with the dignity of an open lodge is “Past Master Smith, I welcome you to this communication and invite you to the East” even if Past Master Smith happens to be the youngest son of the house, who is “Bill” or “Bidge” or “Skeesicks” to the master at home.

Some lodges permit smoking during business meetings; some do not. What is customary and usual, or according to grand lodge law or custom, is the dignified thing to do. But there can be no defense of smoking during the conferring of a degree, unless by those who would also defend smoking in church during the sermon!

In lodges which permit smoking during business meetings, occasionally a careless brother approaches the altar with a cigar or cigarette in his mouth. The master who does not suggest that a salute before Freemasonry’s altar and God’s holy word is more respectful if made without the accompaniment of tobacco is less than regardful of his own dignity as master and that of the lodge over which he presides. Lodges fail most in dignity through the unfortunate actions of well-intentioned but ignorant officers who permit the preparation of candidates to degenerate into a witless attempt to "frighten" the man who has petitioned the lodge for Freemasonry. The “lodge goat” has done incalculable harm by sending candidates into the lodge room apprehensive of what is to happen, when they should go into it in reverent and humble but a wholly confident attitude of mind.

Let one of America’s greatest living Freemasons speak. The following is from the pen of M.W. Melvin M. Johnson, past grand master of Massachusetts, sovereign grand commander of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction:

Altogether too many candidates present themselves at our doors expecting to be made sport of — that the ceremonies are to be characterized by fun and frolic, if not by farce and buffonery. Part of this is gathered from the comic papers, part from idle jest, and part, I regret to say, from the insinuations and pretended intimations of brethren. Part of this cannot be helped, but certainly that part which comes from the thoughtless remarks of our brethren themselves can, and ought to be, prevented. Little does the average candidate dream that he is about to receive serious and solemn instruction, that he is, by symbolism, to be taught a moral philosophy based upon monotheism, the belief in one God, the Creator, Preserver and Benefactor of the world and all therein contained, and developed to the climax of teaching that greatest and most expansive concept which God has permitted the mind of man partially to comprehend — the immortality of the soul. With no admixture of sadness, but with all the joys of righteous and happy living do we embellish the symbolisms by which we develop and unfold this moral philosophy to the candidate. How unlikely indeed are we to succeed in our services to him if, even though the surroundings savor only of dignity, the candidate momentarily expects sudden mirth at his expense. How much more our teachings will sink into his heart and mind if he has no thought except that he is to be received as a gentleman into the company of gentlemen; nay more, as a neophyte into the company of those who are about to take him by the right hand and call him their brother. Bantering and baiting of candidates is all wrong. It injures the reputation of Masonry; it decreases our opportunity of service to the candidate; it reacts upon the thoughtless brother who utters the ill-timed jest; it lowers tire moral tone of all concerned.

It is almost impossible to make ritual and degree work undignified except by ignorance; officers who “know the work” achieve dignity by the mere fact of proficiency. But slovenly work, work ill memorized, work which cannot impress a candidate, cannot be dignified.

As for the second section of the Master’s Degree, it may be said without fear of successful contradiction that it will be dignified if the lodge knows the inner meaning; it becomes something unbecoming a high school fraternity when it is performed and witnessed without such knowledge.

The master who will take five minutes before every Master’s Degree to expound the esoteric of the meaning of the tragedy; to show that it is at once the hope, the assurance, the certainty of immortality made manifest- that it is the teaching of the Most High of the immortality of the soul and the life everlasting, cast into a Masonic mould of an antiquity no man knoweth — he will have no trouble with lack of dignity among either officers who confer the degree or brethren who witness it.

It is the sublime degree because what it teaches is the sublimest conception of the sons of God.

Let the brethren fully understand that, and it becomes sublime to those who do, and see, the story.

Nothing really sublime can be undignified.

Freemasonry is a great heritage of the race. It has been, is now, can be to a great multitude a power in fife, a comfort in affliction, a glory of hope.

Freemasonry can be belittled, mocked, derided by men who think of her not in terms of dignity.

She can be ennobled, raised up, and honored by men who understand that the dignity of the order is found in “grave or noble bearing, impressiveness of character and manner, repose and serenity of demeanor.”

The Masonic Service Association of North America