The following article comes from the book Alberta Workshop which is a compilation of the theme speeches of the first 25 years of the Masonic Spring Workshop held each April in the Mountains west of Calgary, Alberta. Bro. Tom Jackson (Pennsylvania) called this the best workshop available to rank and file Masons anywhere.


Bro. Ralph Johnstone

Dwight Smith in his little booklet, Whither Are We Traveling?, suggests that if we ask the average Mason about Masonic Charity he will rattle off an impressive list of organized, institutional projects of a benevolent nature. Press him as to his level of personal benevolence or charity, and he will tell you of the cheques he has written to this, that, and the other organization. But Smith says, “nail him to the mast and ask him, ‘Is that all? How long has it been since you went on foot and out of you way to succour a needy brother?’ Chances are his look will be of astonishment; then of pity; then he will mark you down as well meaning, but slightly off your rocker”.

If he was an Albertan, he may tell you of the Masonic Higher Education Bursary Fund, of the benevolence distributed to Masons through the Grand Lodge Benevolence Committee. He may also mention the Shrines’ contributions to the Burn Treatment Hospital for Children or the Scottish Rite’s Charitable Foundation which assists in research into the causes of Alzheimer disease.

In Alberta, our major fund raising is for the Masonic Higher Education Bursary Fund, and last year we were able to award forty-three $1000.00 bursaries. Brethren, this represented a contribution of less than THREE DOLLARS FOR EVERY MASON IN ALBERTA. To add to this miserable showing, let us assume that if each donation ranged from $10.00 to $20.00, then only 1 in 6 of us recognised and acted on the lesson taught, that Charity is the summit of Freemasonry. Have we really heard the message of the ritual?

Our concern this weekend is to address the problem of why we, as Freemasons who espouse certain principles, do not support to any extent, charitable fund raising both within our own lodges, and at the Grand Lodge level. It seems to me that if we subscribe to and support Masonic teachings, it is encumbent upon us to also support Masonic Charity. Tomorrow we will talk about charity in other jurisdictions, some thoughts about the future and suggest some small projects which could change our seemingly poor image as it relates to charity. But tonight let us examine the meaning of charity, its history and how charity is generally viewed today. Let us think about what was, what is and what changes may be required in the future. Brethren, let’s talk charity.


What is charity? Is it benevolence, love, relief, assistance, or even a hand-out? An indexed Bible, published in 1923 by the John A. Dickson Company of Illinois, defines charity as, “that kindly state of mind or feeling which renders a person full of such good will or affectionate regard towards others, that he is always ready to manifest it in word or action. This virtue, implies every Christian grace. It is that noble impulse promoted by love and sympathy, and a burning desire to aid the distressed and to lend encouragement and good cheer. It is liberality to the poor, or to a benevolent institution, by any act of kindness, good will or alms and by giving money or substance or words of encouragement to those who need help.” The present day perception of charity, usually appears to be seen as the giving of money, and in today’s busy society it may be the only viable alternative you and I have to dispense charity.


The Jewish faith uses the first five books of the Old Testament, or Torah, as their sacred law yet no mention of charity is made. The Hebrew word “Chesed”, is closest in meaning to charity, and loosely translated means Merciful, and is defined as “affectionate pity to such as are in misery and distress, and as the readiness to do them good..... Kind acts which proceed from inward compassion and the desire to relieve such as are in want”.

Some Jewish Philosophers claim that the act of bestowing Chesed is greater than charity, since charity is performed only with one’s money. Chesed is exercised with one’s money and person, such as delivering a eulogy over the dead; bringing joy to a bride and groom; escorting one’s neighbour on a journey. Charity is given to the living, while Chesed is given to the living and to the dead. Do we not also espouse “Chesed” in one of our lectures which says......Masonic charity extends beyond the grave through the boundless realms of eternity?

Moses ben Maimonides, who lived from 1135 to 1204, and is considered to be one of the greatest Jewish Philosophers, said, “There are eight degrees of giving alms. Supreme above all is to give assistance to a fellowman who has fallen on evil times by presenting him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or procuring him work, thereby helping him to become self-supporting”. Does this not sound like one of the ancient charges of the operative Mason which has come down to us as part of our Masonic ritual?

Another degree is to give alms in such a way that the donor and recipient are unknown to each other. This was, indeed, the performance of the Institution of the Silent Chamber which existed in the Ancient Temple. It allowed the righteous to secretly deposit their alms for the poor. Next, comes the donation of money to the charity fund of the Community, provided the administration is honest and prudent. Are not these two aspects reflected in our Benevolent Fund?

However, it appears that chesed, may be interpreted as being directed to those of the Jewish faith rather than dispensed outside of it. This attitude is by no means unique. Do you recall? “Do good unto all but remember it more especially to the household of the faithful”.

The Buddhist, describing the doctrine of the compassionate saviour says, “Give the best food to those who are hungry. Protect those who are afraid. Strive for the healing of the sick. Delight the poor with your riches and bear the burdens of those who are tired and weary”.

The Muslim is exhorted to be charitable, and one of the “pillars”, or obligatory duties of Islam, is the payment of the zakat tax. Zaka, means “pure” and connotes that by exercising this duty the donor will, in the eyes of God, be made pure. As early as 707 A.D., 70 years after Mohammed’s death, Muslim countries had set up hospitals, which were staffed by Muslim, Christian and Jewish Doctors.

The teaching of the Christian faith implies that charity is the virtue of every Christian grace. All major religions, stress that the well-to-do have duties to the unfortunate and direct that Charity, Mercy, Philanthropy are basic tenets. All express what has become known as the Golden Rule, — “Therefore all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them.”


The quality of life in earlier times was certainly not like our affluent society of today. People, especially those in the cities, lived in poverty and squalor and the act of giving even a penny to a needy person, could have been the act which saved that person from starvation and possibly death. Some of the more affluent visited the poorhouses and slums to minister to the needy. These were the true acts of charity and epitomise charity in the Christian sense. When we talk about charity in the “good old days” the impression is that people looked after their fellow man. I would suggest to you, that in fact, the instances of true and continuing charitable acts were limited and probably confined to one’s family, household domestics, and others who looked after the family’s well being.


Service clubs have no hesitation in raising funds and claim that usually over 90% of these funds reach the end user. When I became a member of a Kiwanis Club I knew exactly what it was that was expected of me. The Motto “We Build” pointed directly to the main goal of the organization, that of raising funds for projects that would materially assist someone or some group to improve their lot in life. The organization had high public exposure through it’s “Apple Day” but I would point out that we constantly looked for projects where we could be personally involved and not necessarily at a financial level. For example, one annual project was to organize a Klondike party for the ladies of a Salvation Army Sunset Home. The task for the members was simple. Go to the Home in Klondike clothing, serve the evening meal in the garden, weather permitting, and mix and talk to the ladies. No great fund raising project but for a brief moment our involvement brought something different into these elderly ladies’ lives.


As the welfare of the general population became a concern, Philanthropic Societies were formed. Organizations such as the Salvation Army attempted to alleviate poverty and need using Christian principles. The large so called Charitable Organizations of today, Heart Fund, Cancer Society, Oxfam and Foster Parents, to name but a few, employ many people to administer the funds collected. It can not be denied that because of the requirement to pay for its administration, charity has in fact become Big Business.

Has this Big Business changed the way we now perceive charity? Perhaps we do not trust all Big Charities. We hear horror stories of only small amounts of each contribution reaching the needy. We witness TV religious groups scrambling for contributions for charitable works only to hear of misappropriation and theft of donations. We are inundated by appeals from large well known groups, by phone solicitations, someone at work asking for a financial commitment, all in the name of charity. The list is endless.


How many of you remember the Irish Sweepstakes? You may also remember that only 15 years ago it was illegal to buy and sell these tickets in this country. I can remember how people from the United Kingdom obtained tickets for relatives in Canada, and sent them in plain envelopes, in order to outwit the authorities. The Irish Sweepstakes fully supported the cost of all the Southern Irish Hospitals and can only be described as the largest and most effective method ever devised, to that time, to raise money for charity.

Today we think nothing of spending a few dollars on LOTTO 6/49, The Provincial, and “Dream Home” raffles. The profits are used to support amateur sports and other charitable pursuits. Do we buy a lottery ticket with the thought in mind of supporting charity? Or do we do so in hope of sudden riches? Locally run Casinos, in Edmonton, over a two day period, often make profits of $20,000 or more; about $4,000,000 per year. Need I ask the rhetorical question; Are people motivated to go to the Casino to make a donation to charity? What about the charity dollars contributed by “Bingo” players?.

In only 15 years, we have been conditioned to the premise, that spending our money for ever increasing jackpot prizes is the most expedient way to raise charitable dollars. All this has resulted in the acceptance of, what was once considered to be a cardinal sin, avarice, and the once illegal activity of social gambling.

How would you react if Grand Lodge announced that for each $10.00 donated to the Masonic Higher Education Bursary Fund, the donor’s name would be placed in a draw for a chance of an all-expense paid trip to the Banff Spring Workshop? Would you give more to the Bursary Fund as a result? If the prize was a free trip to Australia, or New Zealand, would this motivate you to make an even higher contribution?


Have you found that there are people who appear to be naturally charitable? The type of person described in the Installation, General Charge, .....”who without courting applause will lay hold with dispassionate courage and indefatigable exertion until he has accomplished his work and then, without pretension, retire into the multitude, because he did the good act, not for himself, but for the cause of good”. That man, brethren, has been taught to be charitable probably at his father’s knee and in church. I would guess that his family, as a way of life, helped and assisted relatives, friends, and neighbours. The success of charity begins with education and then with its practice.

The assumed role of charitable education in the family unit and church has been drastically eroded because of societal changes. Because of these changes, does the Mason now have an even greater responsibility to its members to engage in education relative to charity and its applications?


In my Masonic career seldom have I been involved in discussions or lectures on the requirements of personal and financial charity as espoused by the order. Never forget that this Order, when initially founded, was probably a benefit society. Bernard Jones in his Compendium says, “While one of the four (original) lodges consisted of well-to-do men, the other three consisted of artisans and craftsmen in whose mind, there might well have been the idea of forming a friendly society, which would watch over its members and their families in time of illness. In fact a private society, of a strongly Masonic nature, was founded in 1737 whose members were exclusively freemasons under forty and willing and able to pay their debts. This society developed into Vacation Lodge number 55. However, all traces of the benefit society had disappeared by 1753.”

The requirement for Charity expressed in the Masonic workings, is clearest from the North East Corner lecture. There we are called upon to put our principles to the test by exercising the virtue of charity, which is justly denominated a __________ heart. We are also clearly exhorted to practice charity, by the reference to the final rung of Jacob’s Ladder which is also denominated ___________,”and he who is in possession of this virtue, in its most ample sense, may justly be deemed to have arrived at the summit of _________ “.

However, the York Rite workings hint that this charity is restricted to some extent to the brotherhood. In the opening charge we hear this statement. “Remember that at this ___________ you have promised to be-friend and relieve every Bro. who may need your assistance. Let the world see how ___________ love one another”. But the charge continues, “these general principles are to extend further, for every human being has a claim on your kind offices”. If the first statement meant Mason and non-Mason alike then the second statement would not be necessary. Is the interpretation taken as — look to your own first, then to those not of the Craft?


At the Conference of Grand and District Grand Lodges of Canada in 1967, Bro. D.L. Gibson gave a paper entitled “Why Should Freemasons Not Undertake Community Projects Outside of the Craft”. It was his opinion that.. “the lodge’s prime responsibility, is to itself and to its members as individuals, it should not embark upon adventures beyond the organization and design of its peculiar system”. Bro. Gibson stressed the importance of Masonry in concentrating on its main objective of intellectual guidance and spiritual instruction. Freemasonry was likened to a University in that it should teach certain principles which are then applied by the graduates in the world outside. He felt that the Masonic ritual had created a veil through which few had penetrated and behind which was the mystery of the “living temple”. He felt that if the lodge fulfilled its task of Masonic education the understanding of the mystery behind the veil would become apparent and lodge members would automatically become enthusiastic supporters of worthwhile causes in their communities.

Can we agree with the premise that only education is necessary? Can charity be taught by mere words? Are we motivated by the example of others who, as Masons, put into practice the lessons inculcated in the several Masonic lectures and charges?


One of the corner stones of our Order stresses the requirement to contribute liberally to the relief of distressed Master Masons, their widows and orphans. Let us now consider whether the need for relief for widows and orphans is a pressing problem today? In Canada a widow could be eligible to receive Canada Pension Plan survivor benefits, and each child under 18 would be covered as well. At age 65, she would be in receipt of O.A.S. payments, and if her assets are sufficiently low, receive the Federal Guaranteed Supplement, and the Alberta Assured Income payment. Agreed that, not withstanding anything put away privately, the amounts could still be below the poverty line, but she would have sufficient for the basic needs of life, and unlike earlier times, not be reduced to abject poverty. Also, widows in the old days did not have the same access to the job market as they have today. Any other assistance given now, would increase the standard of living and, not as happened in the early days of Masonry, simply protect the widow and orphan from begging in order to survive.

Since the relief of widows and orphans has been largely assumed by the state, let us reflect on another problem which presses in on us. Consider for a moment the enormous increase of single-parent homes, usually fatherless, because of the divorce rate and not the death rate. Should we focus our concerns to the single parent home, and perhaps direct our assistance there? The aspect of helping the fatherless youth of the country in parallel to programmes in existence, such as “Uncles at Large”, and “Big Brothers”, would address a far greater need than the present focus we now have on the Masonic widow and orphan. I would suggest that the thrust of charity should change with societal needs and not be inflexibly maintained because of our historical precedents.


In many parts of the world we encounter hordes of beggars, yet after the initial shock of confrontation, we learn to ignore them and they fade into the background and become invisible. The panhandler and derelict of our own streets are equally shunned. The constant appeals from big business charities and daily exposure to poverty overwhelms us. We learn to say no as an immediate response.

We are now faced with the problem of where to give our limited resources, and to which charity we shall contribute. Being a Mason, I quickly reached a decision after I asked myself, only recently, why if Masonry is so important in my life did I give my few available dollars to other causes. If I embrace Masonic thought, then I feel that I must give expression, or action, to it. I now make Masonic giving, small as it is, my priority and consider donations to other charities as secondary.

While listening to this talk you may well feel that I think charity is only “money”. This is not so. Only because of time restrictions for this talk has this focus been chosen for discussion. I’m sure the examination of the noble acts of love, support, and personal involvement would easily require another workshop. Perhaps some of the points being made concerning the “money” side of charity could just as easily apply to love, support and personal involvement.


Anyone who has been given the task of preparing a paper or lecture will tell you that, after completing the research and compiling the information on the subject, a certain viewpoint will emerge. Unexpectedly, during my research, some of my own preconceived notions and pronouncements concerning charity changed, others held true. To test the results it is important to consult with others, enter into meaningful dialogue, to confirm that you are on the right track. If you personally conclude that some changes are needed you may encounter resistance to any proposed change. Differences of opinion are not always reconciled but it is important to engage in the discussions so that all points of view are heard. Because of this dialogue, personal attitudes may change, as may the attitude of others, who may be persuaded to modify their positions. This is the essence of education.

My conclusions are summarized below. Whether you agree with them or not they provide a basis to talk about charity.

  1. Charity is advocated by all major religions and it must be continuously re-affirmed as a corner stone of Freemasonry.
  2. Espousing wonderful sounding concepts in lodge does not guarantee that a charitable Mason will be the result.
  3. Our perceptions of charity will depend on our social backgrounds and the extent of education and practise of charity in the home, church and community.
  4. Societal changes and new perceptions of charitable giving require us to continually question whether the “good old days” and the “good old ways” are still relevant today.
  5. It is sometimes necessary to change the direction and/or emphasis in which charity is to be proclaimed and exercised.
  6. Even though much publicized charitable and TV evangelical scandals have created cynical attitudes towards charity, we should continue to contribute towards good causes by using intelligence and not emotion as our basis for giving.
  7. A Mason has an obligation to place Masonic charity first in his priorities for giving.

I have prepared some questions which you will find attached to the reprint of this talk. I hope these questions will start you re-thinking charity within the Masonic Order and will provide the basis for on going education and discussion in your lodges; Please each of you try to answer the questions with a YES or NO. If you find your answer is a MAYBE try to weight your answer so that it will be either YES or NO. Tomorrow we’ll have a voting session to see how we feel about the questions posed and this will provide you with some feed back.

Think well on the questions and have some good, lively discussions.



  1. Do you agree that because charity has become more impersonal the Mason is less charitable today?
  2. Do you agree that the size,(few or many members),location (isolated, small town, large city) and historical precedents of a lodge will affect the manner in which charity is practised by a Mason from that lodge?
  3. If you learned that one of your brothers was unable to meet the obligation of paying his dues would you pay them if:—
    1. he was wiped out by a tornado?
    2. he had had to declare personal bankruptcy?
    3. he had become addicted to alcohol?
    4. he had become addicted to street drugs?
    5. he had become mentally ill(e.g. depression, suicidal)?
  4. Is the feeling of charity so strongly embraced in your lodge that you would feel completely comfortable in asking for assistance if your own circumstances required it?
  5. Should Masons practise charity to enhance their public image? (Discuss and answer in the context of a higher image attracting suitable candidates for your lodge)
  6. Would your attitude and actions towards Masonic charity improve if more education was presented on the subject in your lodge?