Vol. XLI No. 5 — May 1963

What Can You Tell?

Conrad Hahn

Many Masons draw erroneous conclusions from their vow of secrecy and from the Fraternity’s rule forbidding the solicitation of new members. Some members of the Craft decide that the safest way to avoid making mistakes in these areas is to say nothing about Freemasonry to anyone — except to a brother in the safety of a tiled lodge.

Practically everyone has heard stories — one is sometimes tempted to call them legends — of the wife and family who never knew that the man of the house was a Mason, until he died and they saw an apron on the corpse in the coffin.

One of the most popular subjects for Masonic speakers is the marital unhappiness created by the husband who never tells his wife a thing about his Freemasonry. If the matter isn’t talked about reproachfully, it is often treated as a joke — to provide an attention-commanding introduction or anecdote.

For many, many years now Masonic writers and educators have been repeating the familiar definition that “Freemasonry is not a secret society; it’s a society with secrets,” which are used primarily as modes of recognition or techniques of instruction. For the same length of time, Masons have been writing and reading pamphlets on “what to tell your wife,” and how much can be told to the non-member.

But in spite of all this information and discussion, many leaders of the Craft are still troubled by the “harmful effects” of Masonic secrecy. They see a declining public interest in the Fraternity. They want some active public relations programs to counteract the “loss of prestige” created by too much secrecy. In fact, a few of them are advocating a modification of some of the basic tenets of the institution in order to secure more public attention and to interest more men to join the Fraternity.

But the real problem of Masonic secrecy is almost wholly ignored. The necessity for each individual’s self-development in the Craft is still a mystery to the majority of its initiates. Too few Masons understand what Freemasonry truly is, what its purposes fundamentally are, and what the outcomes of this “course of moral instruction by means of symbols” actually should be.

All kinds of panaceas are being suggested for improving the public image of Freemasonry; but is enough thought being given to the problem of improving the private Masonic image of the institution? Of the four million Masons in the United States today, just how does the average brother regard the Fraternity?

Considering the commonly expressed opinions about attendance and participation in Masonic activities, one is led to the embarrassing conclusion that the average brother is still in the dark about the commitments he made in his obligations. Those are a secret to him because he has never been required to perform on the level of those commitments. A man does what he has learned to enjoy doing, or what he has been challenged to perform.

As a result the average Mason lacks that pride in his Fraternity that would help to make him a living, acting demonstration of the aims and teachings of Freemasonry. In a world that is crassly immoral or ethically indifferent, there is great opportunity for a society with a high moral purpose; but the average Mason today is conformist enough to remain morally neutral. Neutrals, however, rarely affect the outcome of a struggle, spiritually as well as physically. This is one of the chief reasons why Freemasonry is enjoying less prestige than it formerly seems to have had; it is not affecting the moral decisions of the community as it should. The first thing that a Mason should “tell the world,” as an individual Mason, is where he stands on the moral questions of these times. It may cost him something, because morality is out of fashion in many areas today.

No other method “to inform the public” can take the place of the individual brother acting in every area of his private and public life “as a just and upright Mason.” This is the most important “announcement” which the Craft can make to convince the community of the worth and the value of our ancient institution. But only individuals can make such a declaration.

Grand lodges have recognized the necessity for positive moral attitudes and the active demonstration of Masonic ideals in the lives of their members. Witness the increasing emphasis on programs of Masonic information, education, or culture that are being developed for the benefit of new members especially. When these are linked to a thoroughgoing insistence on more careful selection and investigation of candidates, and to a well-coordinated program of specific activities in which new members are required to participate to demonstrate their Masonic skills and understanding, one may reasonably expect a gradual withering away of that lack of interest and pride in the Fraternity that is mistaken for “too much secrecy."

Freemasonry exists for individuals. Freemasonry depends for its worthwhile achievements on the moral and spiritual victories of individuals. When it inspires an individual to display the beauties of friendship, morality, and brotherly love, it is performing its mission well. When it succeeds in transforming the majority of its individual members into such votaries, it will have more prestige than it can handle with becoming modesty. But each individual’s life is the most important information he can give to non-Masons to show them what Freemasonry really is.

When a Mason has seen that vision of his responsibility as a Master Mason and is actively at labor to create his master’s piece, his own life of the spirit, he usually finds it very easy to talk about the Fraternity to his non-Masonic friends. He knows that the great truths of the Craft have never been a secret, and he is proud to talk about them so that he can help his friends and neighbors. Brotherly love, benevolence, and truth belong to every man. Freemasonry does not mean to keep them as a selfish secret for herself.

But a man must be proud of those spiritual gifts if he is going to talk about them naturally, without embarrassment. This is the reason why it is so important to give new members more than instruction and information. Each one must have the experience of such adventures of the spirit before he is able to feel pride in the tenets of his profession.

He should feel the appreciation of a sick brother at whose bedside he has visited. He should know the benevolent joy that comes to the individual who has helped a widow or orphan in distress. He should see the happiness and gratitude of his elderly brothers and sisters who are being cared for at the Masonic home that his dollars maintain. He should recognize the mutual love and understanding that quietly pervade every well-governed meeting of a lodge of Master Masons. He should thrill to the tightening of the mystic tie that accompanies every social contact at the pleasant festive board.

When the new member has learned these things “for keeps” (and they usually require some repetition), he knows how to interpret sensibly the obligation of secrecy that he took as an Entered Apprentice. He realizes that his promise concerns only the forms and ceremonies of his initiation, only the manner in which he is taught, only the modes of recognition, commonly called the signs and the grips. That he is expected to be an upright man morally, that he has promised to act benevolently toward every worthwhile person in distress, and that he has strengthened his belief in the great truths that make human brotherhood possible — these are not secrets. They are the facts that make him what he has now become, a symbolic Builder.

Certainly he can describe the organization ofwhich he is now a member. He can explain that Masonic meetings are dignified and reverent. They are opened and closed with prayer. They are patriotic in the fact that the nation’s flag is kept in an honored position and properly saluted with the Pledge of Allegiance. Meetings are conducted according to the great democratic principle that all men are equal because they are brothers — all sons of the same Heavenly Father. Even though the worshipful master is given more authority than is usually accorded a presiding officer, (primarily to keep all members within due bounds while at their labors) a Masonic lodge actually succeeds in creating the essence of a democratic assemblage — the recognition of the equality of all its members because of their human value, their human dignity, their human rights — not because of their social, political, or economic distinctions. This is not a secret. Those who have really experienced this brotherhood of a Masonic lodge are grateful and proud. The master who really creates that brotherly spirit in his lodge need not worry about the mistaken “secrecy” of his members. What a man is really proud of he will communicate to others.

Freemasonry’s greatest appeal to new members in the century when it became “a speculative art” was its emphasis on the ideal of brotherhood. It attracted to its lodges men of various political beliefs, of widely divergent religious views, and of every social class, because it sought to unite them in one common purpose — to understand each other and to love one another because of that understanding. By that means it hoped to bring about a universal brotherhood of men and of nations.

Consequently, it avoided espousing any idea or cause that could be labeled, even slightly, political or sectarian. Masons were to study the common beliefs of mankind to find those things that would draw men together in mutual forbearance, tolerance, and appreciation. Reduced to their simplest terms these common areas of understanding were the ideas of morality that have been accepted in every place and time, and the concept of the fraternal relationship between all men because of their sonship under God. With this new understanding, there could develop a genuine brotherly love that would improve the quality of life for everyone everywhere.

This great hope was never a secret. This great dream was never Freemasonry’s exclusive claim. But this constructive purpose, of bringing together in mutual respect and cooperation men who might otherwise remain at a perpetual distance, is still the great objective that attracts busy and serious men into its lodge rooms. This is no secret — and every good Mason is free to talk about it — although the question might justifiably be asked, “Does every Mason really know it?”

This is the most important thing that Masons can tell about their Fraternity. In spite of the cynics and the dispensers of despair, the modern world is still searching for a way in which men can live together in harmony and peace. Translated into modern terms and concepts, Freemasonry’s ideals still have a valuable program to offer the builders of civilization.

But for that very reason, Freemasonry can never be exclusively for one race or group of nations. Freemasonry, if it really has a global plan for universal brotherhood, must enlist all good men everywhere who dare to dream and work for such a goal. It must inspire and set to work those builders who know that peace and freedom are essentially the products of courageous moral action.

What can you tell about the Fraternity? All that — but especially how you are achieving your individual contribution to universal peace and brotherhood in the little community in which you live. The secrets of a Master Mason are really the incommunicable joy and satisfactions that come from such constructive labors.

The technical secrets of the ritual and initiation are maintained as such for two very good reasons. From the very beginning of society, the search for truth and wisdom, for brotherhood and peace, was the work of the few rare individuals who saw their great potentialities. But such men were “different,” and therefore to the ignorant they were dangerous. Such secrets as they developed to preserve the truths they could not reveal and to recognize each other became the marks of a fellow-believer. They were necessary to the preservation of the order. Even today, when men are free to proclaim truth, the process of initiation repeats this historic necessity to give new members certain marks of distinction, not for recognition from the outside world, but from the brothers within the Fraternity. The “secrets” help to tie the strands of the mystic tie that makes the members brothers.

The second reason may be found in the methods used for training new members, especially the apprentices in operative Masonry. The preservation of certain secrets was a discipline imposed upon initiates to test their fidelity to the order or the lodge. In the building trade it was an economic necessity. It is still such a test, and therefore has value for the development of moral courage and endurance.

What can you tell? Everything, my brother, which concerns the great hope and the noble mission of your Fraternity. Keep secret those details of your initiation that among brothers distinguish you from the rest of the world, but let the light of Masonic wisdom shine before all men. Make clear that you stand positively for the welfare of all humanity through actions that bespeak friendship, morality, and brotherly love. These are not secrets to be hidden from the world. These are the badges of a Master Mason. Wear them with pride, with dignity, with courage.

The Masonic Service Association of North America