Vol. XX No. 10 — October 1942


Freemasonry is the oldest society in the world.

Many people believe that it is the oldest institution in the world.

It is older than any country any flag, any organization except the church, and those who point to undoubted ancestries of Freemasonry in Rome and Egypt have some reason for their belief that it is older than the church.

Long life denotes great vitality. The elephant, the great redwood tree, certain turtles which live long compared to man’s three score years and ten, all possess unusual vitality. Long life in any human institution presupposes a life spark of strong virility; some governments, and the idea of human liberty in Magna Carta are instances.

Freemasonry, then, must have a vitality, a potent virility, otherwise it would not have lived its five hundred and fifty years since the Regius Poem (our oldest document, dated 1390) or its two thousand years, if we believe that the Comacines were children of the Roman Collegia who in turn were children of a philosophy and a teaching of builders and masons of a still more hoary age.

The great mystery of Freemasonry is its length of fife. What is the secret which has kept it alive all these years, when almost all other institutions of human origin have passed away?

It is difficult to discuss any subject intelligently without first agreeing on the meanings of its terminology. And all who read know the difficulty of defining Freemasonry, except with some such poetic phrase as “a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” That definition is good enough as far as it goes, but as it can also be applied to other philosophies and beliefs, it does not go very far.

Yet some definition is necessary if we are to get anywhere in an inquiry, since it is obviously impossible intelligently to discuss the spark of life of something if we cannot say what that thing is.

So for the purpose of the moment, let us agree that Freemasonry is a philosophy by which men live. The dictionary defines philosophy: “the general principles, laws or causes that furnish the rational explanation of anything; the rationals by which the facts of any region of knowledge are explained.”

So we have “Freemasonry is a system of thought which furnishes a rational explanation of life.”

Now we have to define “life” and here each brother must supply his own reading. To some, life is eating, sleeping, working, loving, dying. To others, life is a quest, a battle, a struggle, a contest against nature or circumstances. To yet another life is that which provides a home for the spirit.

But the definition of life seems to matter little since all fit with “Freemasonry is a system of thought which furnishes a rational explanation of life.”

It furnishes a rational explanation of the life which is purely physical; man eats to live, lives to eat, works a while, dies in the hope of a life hereafter. Freemasonry dignifies and exalts labor, teaches a life everlasting, and of helping hands to others on the way.

It furnishes a rational explanation to him to whom life is a contest, a quest, a battle. Those who hunt for that which is lost, those who compete with nature, those who fight circumstances and call it life, find in Freemasonry a promise of success for the quest, a staff of knowledge for the competition, a strong arm of virtue taught for use as armor in the fight.

It furnishes a rational explanation to him to whom life of the body is for the sole purpose of providing a vehicle for the spirit. Freemasonry is concerned with things of the spirit; of mens relations to Deity, of his duties to God, to country, his fellow man.

But even with an agreed upon terminology which is understandable, we must delve deeply indeed if we are to find the vital spark which has kept this particular philosophy alive while a thousand others were born, lived their allotted span and passed into the limbo of forgotten things.

Note that the question is not why men become Freemasons, but why they remain Freemasons, cherish Freemasonry, pass it on to their sons and their sons’ sons forever. Men become Freemasons for the same reason that they join in a hundred other activities; from curiosity, from a desire to serve, from a hope of material and business success, because a revered father was a Mason, because of loneliness and the desire for company, because their friends are Freemasons, and so on world without end.

They remain Freemasons and love and revere Freemasonry also for many reasons. But only one, in all likelihoods, is that which contains the vital spark of life which has kept Freemasonry alive for uncounted years.

Is it ritual? The essential human need for ritual is in itself a mystery, but it is too much a commonplace to seem so. Psychologists have worked out many chains of thought intending to explain man’s fondness for making and using ritual. None of them seem wholly satisfying; perhaps the reason for the deeply human need of ritual is too far buried in the ancient history of the race for resurrection. One “reason” explains it as our human desire to connect a cause with an effect. Man sees lightning, hears thunder, watches the storm. There must be a cause; he tries to invent one and, behold, the early religion of nature worship is born. Ritual preserves, amplifies, explains. Quoting Right Worshipful Brother Joseph Fort Newton: “Ritual is the desire, if we may not call it instinct, by which man is led to ‘seek to complete the sequence of cause and effect when an effect is experienced.’ In other words, in his rituals man is seeking to spin and weave a tie uniting cause and effect; that is, trying to find the connection in things. It is a quest after the sequence of facts, the relation of events, as over against the awful miscellaneousness of mere chance, in which forces move haphazard. Even Fate is better than Chance; at least it implies order, direction, control in the nature of things which, if men follow it, leads to freedom and power. Ritual, then, is man trying to interpret his experience, flinging across the gap of life a network of meaning — his effort to escape from the most terrifying of all fears, that his life is at the mercy of caprice, the sport of whim. In his ritual he dramatizes what he thinks the meaning of life is, acts out its law as he knows it, endeavoring to bring himself into harmony with the order of the world, and thus to be at home in it.”

Masonic ritual is so permeated with the idea of the Great Architect that no argument is needed to convince that it explained to its originators the relation between Deity and building for, and in honor of, Deity. Masons built Cathedrals; in ashlar and square, in rule and plumb, in gavel and maul they saw symbols of the moralities they practiced in the name of the Most High — the result was expressed in ritual.

But to assign ritual as the reason for Freemasonry’s vitality is to enter a contradiction. A thousand cults, religions, societies, ideas, philosophies have had ritual, all, doubtless springing from the same inner human need of formal expression of the inexpressible. If ritual is Freemasonry’s spark of life, why have other institutions, also with rituals, not survived as long?

Men love Freemasonry for so many reasons they cannot be cataloged. To many it is a chance to dress up and wear a jewel, a satisfaction to be of worth and value in a small field when life has denied them prominence in larger spheres. To others it is a garden of friendship, where a man may pick and wear the flower of personal intimacy with others of his kind. Some like Freemasonry for its fellowship and “big nights,” its joyful “eats” after lodge, its social features. Others enjoy its touch with antiquity. To many it brings a sense of importance to belong to that in which Washington believed, which Lafayette revered, which Benjamin Franklin embraced. Some men belong to Freemasonry as a duty to father, grandfather, great grandfather, all of whom were Masons.

But none of these reasons explain in the remotest degree the persistence of Freemasonry — Freemasonry which has been “killed” or “died” so many times in history, always to spring alive again at the first opportunity.

Persecutions have disrupted Freemasonry; laws have forbidden it; dictators have stamped it out — for the time. But always in the secret recess of men’s hearts it lived, to come into the open and vigorous growth again at the first chance. Be sure its rebirths were for no simple reasons explaining why men love and cherish the Ancient Craft.

May the secret be found by differentiating between the Freemasonry which is organized as a Craft, and that which is a spirit in men’s hearts? For there is the Freemasonry of lodges and Temples, grand lodges and Homes, Proceedings and records, bills and dues, banquets and entertainments, books and charts, regalia and charities. Behind these is the Freemasonry of the spirit, just as there is religion behind theology.

Obviously we must have a line between religion and theology. One is the train of life in its warmth and radiance, its joy and pathos; the other is a system of reasonings and conjectures, symbols, and traditions by which man seeks to justify, clarify, and interpret the faith by which he lives. Religion is poetry; theology is prose. It is the difference between a flower garden and a book of botany, a manual of astronomy and a sky full of stars. Theology is valuable but not indispensable. As one need not know the facts of botany in order to enjoy a bed of violets, as we do not have to fathom the mysteries of theology in order to live the religious life. Many a man who has only a dim idea of what it means to love God is really doing it all the time, in the best of all ways, by lending a hand to his fellow along the road. (J. F. Newton, Religion of Masonry.)

If the last sentence may be paraphrased: Many a man who has only a dim idea of what it means to practice Freemasonry is really doing it all the time, in the best of all ways, by being a brother in fact to those who are brothers in the Craft.

Yet even if we settle on the spirit of Freemasonry, its inner meaning, its deepest truths as the cause of its long life, yet have we not explained it, for we have not tied these in with an urge so powerful that life without its satisfaction is not possible. Men by the thousands have lived and worked and accomplished and died who never heard of Freemasonry, let alone belonged to it! Whatever it is of Freemasonry which is immortal, fundamental without which some men cannot live, it is not universal.

And here, perhaps is the clue — it may be the only clue — by following which we may arrive at a conclusion which satisfies both mind and heart. Freemasonry possesses something which some men cannot live without- therefore these men have preserved and cherished it for all its long life. But others need it not, or, if they have the same need, satisfy it in other ways.

There is in human nature a spiritual quality, by whatever name it is described, to express which some contrive theologies, others write rituals, and others sing anthems. It is a part of our human endowment, at once the fountain of our faith and the consecration of our labor. It emerged with man, revealing itself in love and birth, joy and woe, pity and pain and death, in the blood in the veins of men, the milk in the breasts of women, the laughter of little children, in the ritual of the seasons — all the old, sweet, sad, happy human things adding a rhythm and a pathos to mortal life. Older than all creeds, deeper than all dogmas, it is a voice out of the heart of the world, the account which life gives of itself when it is healthy, natural, and free. (Newton.)

If the answer to our question is anywhere to be found, it is here; in this deeply buried, fundamental, continuous yearning hunger of all men for God.

Uncounted millions find satisfaction for this spiritual need in the faith of their choice, the church of their fathers. But there are other millions who either embrace no church, or have found their church too formal or too much a matter of course, to be wholly a satisfaction. In many men is an unwillingness to have others tell them of God.

Freemasonry leads her sons to tell themselves about God.

Freemasonry preaches no religion, has no theology, offers no doctrine, writes no dogma. And in this she is wiser than a seer. The spirit of Freemasonry seems to recognize that there are truths of God which no man may tell another.

Freemasonry’s symbols; Freemasonry’s gentle teachings; Freemasonry’s spirit, all lead her brethren to think of these things and to preach and teach of the Great Architect, each brother to himself, not another.

Freemasonry’s vital spark of life is here; she causes those who love her to tell themselves these truths of Deity which no man may tell another.


They ask of me, who know not, that I tell
Why free men, willing, love the Mystic Tie.
A task more easy, did they bid me try
To paint the deep-toned ringing of a bell,
The perfume of a rose. Though I know well
The love song of a bird, the violet sky,
The sunset’s golden glory, yet awry
My words phrase but a husk, a hollow shell.
Until men ask, I know. But then words fail.
Too clear for reason, as too plain for speech,
Though worn above the heart for all to see,
To none may one the secret bond unveil;
I read alone, as each reads but for each
The inner meaning of the mystery.

The Masonic Service Association of North America