Vol. XXXII No. 4 — April 1954

Ancient Usage and Custom

William Preston’s Charge, now given in a majority of United States grand lodges at the close of the ceremonies of the Master Mason Degree, originally was written to be given “at initiation into the Third Degree.” In his Illustrations of Masonry, Preston’s words from which the title of these pages is taken, are as follows:

The Ancient Landmarks of the order, which are now entrusted to your care, you are to preserve sacred and inviolable, and never suffer, by an infringement of our rites, a deviation from established usage and custom.

In general, “established usage and custom” refers to almost every practice, rite, ceremony, observance, symbol, teaching of Freemasonry. The word custom, with us being (Standard Dictionary) “an ordinary or usual manner of doing or acting,” originally had much more force. Anciently, it was “an old and general usage that obtained the force of law.” The ancient “customs” of the Middle Ages — the customs of the guilds, monasteries, companies, feudalism, were general to all and considered as “law” even if not made so by a lawmaking body.

Hence “ancient usage and custom” of the Fraternity may be considered law, whether or not legally enacted as such by a grand lodge.

Not a thousand pages this size could hope to list and explain all these, but a few may be noted, if only to give the reader a general idea of what is included under the terms, “Ancient Usage and Customs.”

These are not to be confused with the Landmarks — although the latter are “ancient” in “usage and custom,” by no means all “usages and customs” are landmarks.

Brethren assembled in open lodge do not pass between the altar and the East, except when in processional ceremonies of the degrees. This ancient custom is rooted in the thought that, as the altar and what it bears, and thus what if represents, is the special and official charge and care of the master, his view of it should never be interrupted. It has the same spiritual significance as the custom that requires men to remove head coverings in church, and women to remain covered therein; a custom that dates back to the first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (11:3-16).

The authority of the worshipful master, while circumscribed by the enactments of his grand lodge, and to some small extent by the by-laws of his lodge (i.e., dates and times of communications), has always been unquestioned. What he says within the lodge is law unto his brethren. If any differ with him, they may make complaint to the grand master or grand lodge, but must obey at the time. The form of lodges within Freemasonry is neither that of a republic nor a democracy; while the master is elected by the suffrage of his brethren, once installed as master he is no longer to be called to account by them but only by superior authority.

Reasons for this ancient usage are plain; he is charged with maintaining the peace and harmony of his lodge. Unless he can control his lodge, he cannot discharge his responsibility. He is not a mere presiding officer, as is the president of a club or association; he is the master and his word is law until overruled by his only superior — grand master or grand lodge.

Hence the salute to the master on entering or leaving lodge; an ancient custom that declares to all that he who thus pays respect recalls his obligations, among which is his agreement to respect the laws, resolutions and edicts of his grand lodge, from which flow the authority of the master.

Similarly it is the ancient custom not to speak in lodge without permission of the master; that is obtained by standing either at the familiar salute or under the sign of fidelity and waiting for recognition before speaking.

A fundamental characteristic of Freemasonry is found in the fact that men ask the privilege of becoming members of it “of their own free will and accord.” Solicitation is wholly un-Masonic and has always been so regarded. Unquestionably this ancient custom has at least the disadvantage that it puts the first selection of members in the intentions and desires of those not Masons. Doubtless, if it were Masonic to ask non-Masons to become members, the fraternity would gain some quality; many a good man has never become a Mason “because no one ever asked me.” But solicitation would take from the order one of its great bonds between its members; that each has voluntarily engaged in the search for that which was lost and that each came “unbiased by improper solicitations and uninfluenced by mercenary motives.” Men who band together for a common purpose of their own desire and will, have a completely different ground of meeting and mutual feeling than those who come together because others have persuaded them.

In theory, Freemasonry is not only completely nonsectarian, but non-race-conscious. In the words printed in many manuals, to be stated to the candidate prior to initiation, “Our ancient and honorable fraternity welcomes to her doors and admits to her privileges, worthy men of all creeds and of every race.” In this country, there has been the especial problem of the man of color. This is deep rooted and has social and economic causes of wide and deep influence. As a result, some mainstream grand lodges do not in this country accept petitions from men of “every race.”[1]

But in general, and from the worldwide standpoint, there is, in the words of Brother Rudyard Kipling, “neither East nor West, border, nor breed, nor birth” considered when a lodge chooses its members from its petitioners.

From time to time, earnest servants of both Freemasonry and the churches of their faiths have endeavored to make of the order a sectarian organization, not realizing that churches have no greater ally than the Freemasonry, which brings together “worthy men of all creeds.” Luckily for all Freemasons, the first of the "Charges of a Free-Mason” (Anderson’s Constitutions, 1723) clearly states this fundamental of the order:

But though in ancient Times, Masons were charged in every country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet, ’tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all men agree. . . .

which is, of course, the fatherhood of a Great Architect of the Universe.

Occasionally, an objection is voiced to such supposed “modernisms” as the use of a lantern and slides to exhibit the symbols of the several degrees to candidates receiving the lectures. Such objectors ask for the restoration of the older charts (still in use in many lodges).

But both lantern slides and charts are but modern adaptations of a custom as old as that of brethren gathering in lodges; the earliest records of ritual that we have, speak of “drawing the lodge,” which was done upon earthen or board floor, in chalk or charcoal, and erased after every meeting. That symbolism should be taught visually as well as byword of mouth is an “ancient usage.” Regardless of whether the symbol is drawn, or painted, or formed of beams of light through a lens and upon a screen, it is a custom of immemorial antiquity.

Universally in this country, a single negative vote[2] refuses a petitioner the right to receive the degrees from and become a member of the lodge to which he applies. Universally the ballot upon petitioners is secret, so obtained that none knows who objects to a petitioner.

This ancient usage has met strong opposition from a few, because it unquestionably does provide each lodge member with a power that — so argue those who would make two, three or more negative ballots a necessity for rejection — should not be in the hands of those who may abuse it.

It is true that the power is sometimes abused. Human beings have never learned how to make all men perfect! Guns are needed in war, by hunters, and by law officers. That a criminal may abuse society by an illegal and immoral use of the gun is never considered a reason for doing away with all guns. Fire is an essential to life that man may cook, warm, manufacture. Arson is a crime and wanton destruction of property by fire is an evil, but we cannot and do not dispense with fire.

Misuses of the secret ballot, the power that one negative vote puts in unworthy hands, are not reasons for altering an ancient custom that has its roots in the very nature of the Craft. Freemasonry is an organization in which men of all faiths, all political beliefs, all shades of opinion, may meet in peace and harmony. If the individual member cannot keep from his immediate Masonic circle that man with whom he cannot be at peace, then the harmony of a lodge will be quickly destroyed.

Occasionally, the secret ballot works a hardship, but in the main, and for a great length of time, it has proved to be the most practical, the safest and the best way of keeping harmony where harmony is essential to continued life.

The use of a sword in the Craft is an old custom, indeed. Our rituals refer to the sword that arms the tiler; to the “sword pointing to a naked heart” and many grand lodges have a “Grand Sword Bearer” as an officer.

But in none of these is the sword to be considered as an offensive weapon, but as a symbol of authority and of power.

The second edition of Andersons Constitutions set forth in 1738 that the grand master, the Duke of Norfolk, presented to the Grand Lodge of England

the old trusty sword of Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden, that was worn next by his successor in war, the brave Bernard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, with both their names on the blade, which the grand master had ordered Brother George Moody (the king’s sword cutler) to adorn richly with the arms of Norfolk in silver on the scabbard, in order to be the grand master’s sword of state in the future.

To maintain in dress as well as thought “that peace and harmony” which should be characteristics of all meetings of Masons, members of lodges do not enter lodge rooms armed. Alas, during the recent wars, this was at times forgotten, and brethren in uniform did occasionally wear their swords into lodge. But the fact that the master knew no better and so did not admonish, or the brethren in uniform did not think to leave their arms with the tiler, can only be considered excuses. Ancient brethren never wore armor in lodge; they never had to remove mailed gauntlets; they wore white gloves as “emblems of innocence.” Hence, the soldier, well instructed, leaves his sword or gun or pistol in the anteroom when he enters lodge that its peace may have no threat of lethal instrument!

It is an ancient usage and custom that Masons appear in public, clothed as Masons, only at cornerstone layings, attendance at divine worship, and funerals.

Freemasons do not attend, as Freemasons, as the tail of any kite; they do not join in military, civil, or political processions or even patriotic observances.[3]

Anciently, Freemasonry was more reserved and more private than in these modern days. Members were advised of lodge meetings by tilers, going from door to door; notices in newspapers were few and far between; the monthly trestleboard or lodge notice of today was practically unknown a few generations ago. But Masonry is held to be “a progressive science.” While keeping as much as it may of its old time flavor, clinging to its customs and its usages, observing its Ancient Landmarks (as much as may be done by a Craft that has never universally decided just what these landmarks are!) the Craft has yielded to modern ideas in many ways. The Masonic home for the aged and infirm in this country is less than one hundred years old. Our Colonial brethren met in taverns and inns. The “Moon Lodge,” which met on or before, or on or after “the full moon,” was common. The Lesser Lights had to be candles when candles were the only artificial lights; today, electric bulbs are often “symbols of symbols.” The ancient “Masonic Feast” has given way to the more easily supplied “knife and fork degree” of refreshments after lodge.

But in the main, Freemasonry remains now a private, a secret, a quiet and retiring organization; hence, the restricting of public appearances to Masonry’s own needs and the feeling, strong in grand lodges, that the Craft is the happier, the better and the more potent, at least with its members and probably with the profane public, if it clings to this ancient usage and custom.

These pages might continue indefinitely and still but scratch the surface of a large subject. “Ancient usages and customs” include all a Masons rights as well as the rites he practices. Aprons, gloves, wardens pillars, Lesser Lights, and Letter in the East the form and substance of degrees, the Hiramic Legend, the Legend of the Craft, the form and manners of a grand lodge, Masonic funerals, are among a thousand that might be cataloged as custom rather than law.

But perhaps enough has been written here to cover the outlines of the meaning of the words “ancient usages and customs” and to open to the reader at least a small gate through which he can pass easily for a greater study of an interesting history of what makes the beloved Craft the “Ancient Craft.”

⁎  ⁎  ⁎

  1. In early 21st century, this situation has been largely reversed.
  2. 1x1 early 21st century, several U.S. grand lodges require mutiple negative votes to reject a petitioner.
  3. In early 21st century, many grand lodges participate in parades and similar civic events.

The Masonic Service Association of North America