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WHAT IS FREEMASONRY?
Freemasonry is one of the world's oldest fraternal societies. The lessons Freemasonry teaches in its ceremonies are to do with moral values (governing relations between people) and its acknowledgement, without in any way crossing the boundaries of religion, that everything depends on the providence of God. Freemasons feel that these lessons apply just as much today as they did when it took its modern form at the turn of the 17th century.
Despite what many people claim, Freemasonry is not in any way a secret society. Freemasonry's so-called secrets are solely used as a ceremonial way of demonstrating that one is a Freemason when in Lodge meetings. In any case, they have been exposed by the media for almost as long as Freemasonry has existed and are not important information anyway. The real point of a Freemason promising not to reveal them is basically a dramatic way of promising to keep one's promises in general.
Other reasons why Freemasonry cannot be called a secret society are that Freemasons do not promise to keep their membership secret (they can tell anyone they wish), where and when Freemasons meet are matters of public record (you can look up masonic centres in telephone directories) and our rule book, the Book of Constitutions and our aims are readily available to anyone.
It is ironic that because Freemasons used to be reticent about their membership (because they were and still are taught never to use it to advance their own interests), critics have taken this the wrong way round and think that there is something secretive and nasty going on. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Masonic ceremonies are secular morality plays which are learned by heart by members of the lodge for the benefit of the person who is becoming a Freemason or who wishes to explore Freemasonry further. Each ceremony has a message for the candidate. A further reason why Freemasons do not go around broadcasting their contents is simply because it would spoil it for the candidate - exactly as in the same way you would not tell someone the ending of a book or a film.
Under the English Constitution, basic Freemasonry is divided into two parts, called the Craft and the Royal Arch [o Royal Arch]. For Freemasons who really want to explore the subject in more depth there is a host of other ceremonies, which, for historical reasons, are not administered by the United Grand Lodge of England.
All English Freemasons experience the three Craft (or basic) ceremonies unless they drop out from Freemasonry very early on. These three ceremonies (or degrees as we call them) look at the relations between people, man's natural equality and his dependence on others, the importance of education and the rewards of labour, fidelity to a promise, contemplation of inevitable death, and one's duty to others. A fourth ceremony - the Royal Arch emphasises man's dependence on God.
Although all Freemasons are required to profess and continue in a belief in a Supreme Being, and their ceremonies include prayers, Freemasonry is not in any way a substitute for religion. It has and can have no theological doctrines, it offers no sacraments, and it does not claim to lead to salvation. By having prayers at its meetings Freemasonry is no more in competition with religion than, say, having a meal at which grace is said.
Furthermore, Freemasons are not allowed to discuss religion at meetings. English Freemasonry is also strictly non-political and the discussion of politics at masonic meetings is expressly forbidden. These rules both stem from Freemasonry's aims to encourage its members to discover what people from all different backgrounds have in common. As is all too well known, debate about religion and politics has all too often led, when allowed to run riot, to discrimination, persecution and war.
A Freemason is thus basically encouraged to do his duty first to his God (by whatever name he is known) through his faith and religious practice, and then, without detriment to his family and those dependent on him, to his neighbour through charity and service.
None of these ideas is exclusive to Freemasonry, but all should be universally acceptable and Freemasons are expected to follow them.
Masonic ceremonies are a means to an end. In Freemasonry the ceremony (or ritual as it is often known) is the means by which the principles of Freemasonry are passed on to the candidate in a dramatic way. Even though prayers are used at certain points, the ritual is quite categorically not a religious ceremony. It is merely a formalised set of dramas used to introduce new members into Freemasonry and explain to them what it is they are joining and what will be expected of them.
Freemasons have traditionally kept the ceremonies to themselves for a very simple reason. If someone wishing to become a Freemason knew how the stories went it would ruin the effect, much as in the same way as being told the end of a book or a film ruins them. Freemasons do not make some dreadful oath not to reveal anything they do in lodge meetings.
So why use ritual? There are two reasons. First, by using formalised ceremonies everyone enters Freemasonry on an equal basis and shares the same experience, whatever their position or status outside the Craft may be. Secondly, by continuing to use ceremonies which incorporate drama, allegory and symbolism, the principles of Freemasonry are very forcibly impressed upon the candidate's mind.
The origins of the ritual, like the origins of Freemasonry itself, have not yet been discovered. Other than that they had a 'mason word' we have no idea what ceremonies were used in Scottish operative lodges. The earliest evidence we have comes from two sources: a set of over one hundred versions of a document now known as the Old Charges and Dr Robert Plot's Natural History of Staffordshire.
Although the versions of the Old Charges differ in detail they conform to a pattern. This is largely a legendary history of the mason craft followed by a set of rules (or 'charges') by which they were to conduct themselves both at work and in life in general. The various versions dating from the second half of the 1600s give an inkling of ritual practice. An obligation was taken, on the Bible, to preserve the mysteries of the Craft; the mason word and sign were communicated; the charges were read, telling the new mason of his duty to God, his master and his fellow man; and the legendary history was read. Dr Plot adds one or two minor details including the wearing of aprons and the presentation to the candidate of two sets of white gloves, one for himself and one for his wife.
It is not until 1690 that we get evidence of ritual content with the Edinburgh Register House manuscript - a set of questions and answers describing a simple ceremony and the signs. From 1690 to 1729 a number of manuscript and printed questions and answers of varying states of completeness have survived. These show a simple two-degree system (Entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft), the taking of an obligation on the Bible (sometimes including a physical penalty), the communication of signs and words for each degree and a very simple symbolism based upon stonemasons' tools.
The earliest reference to a third degree, so far discovered, comes in 1725 but it is not until 1730 that we have any idea of its content. In that year Samuel Prichard published his exposure Masonry Dissected.
This shows a system of three separate degrees - Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason - each with its own sign and word but with only an obligation in the first degree. The ceremonies were in two parts: the communicating of the sign and word, in each case followed by a short set of questions and answers in which the ceremony and the purpose of the degree is explained, again using simple symbolism based on the stone masons tools.
From the 1770s onwards the lectures based on questions and answers began to be expanded, incorporating symbolical explanations of the way the candidate was prepared for each degree. They also included additional stonemasons tools to illustrate virtues expected to be practised by Freemasons and symbolical explanations of the furniture of the Lodge room and the regalia worn by the members.
Under the rival Grand Lodges in England, there had been differences in the way of carrying out the ceremonies in lodges. When the two Grand Lodges united in 1813, a Lodge of Reconciliation was set up to produce a standard form of ritual to be used by all lodges. The Lodge of Reconciliation spent two years deliberating and in 1816 its recommendations were accepted by Grand Lodge and ordered to be adopted by every lodge. In essence the Lodge of Reconciliation expanded the simple 18th century ceremonies by incorporating material from the lectures, which gradually dropped out of use, except in the Emulation Lodge of Improvement.
As Grand Lodge refused to allow the new ritual to be printed or circulated in manuscript, arranging instead for it to be demonstrated and passed on by word of mouth, the aim of producing a standard working to be carried out in every lodge was never in fact achieved. The methods of promulgation of the new system together with a refusal to give up idiosyncratic local differences has led to a wide variety of workings being practised in English lodges. The basic framework of the ceremonies is the same but there are differences of wording and of the manner of carrying out the ceremonies and in some workings there are additional or extended charges and lectures.
The ritual for each of the three Craft degrees today falls into two parts. The first is a rather dramatic play in which the candidate is introduced, demonstrates his qualifications for the degree, takes his obligation, and has the signs and words communicated and explained to him. The second part of each ceremony is a formal charge or lecture in which the purpose of the degree and a Freemasons' duties are explained. The Charge to the Initiate is possibly one of the most succinct explanations in the English language of how to live a good and useful life.
The ritual is not set in tablets of stone and has changed and developed over the nearly three hundred years for which evidence exists. A comparison of the earliest simple sets of questions and answers with the ceremonies of today shows how extensive the development has been.
Sometimes the changes have been imperceptible, while at others they have been highly publicised. Although changes have occurred they have not altered the basic nature of the Craft. One of the major changes, which began imperceptibly, had been the de-christianising of the ritual. In the early days much of the simple symbolism used could have given a distinctly trinitarian christian explanation and the two Saints John (the Baptist and the Evangelist) were claimed as patrons of the order. In the 18th century, as non-christians began to seek admission, the christian references began to be softened and then gradually removed, so that men of different faiths could meet in amity. The process was completed by the Lodge of Reconciliation in 1814-1816, resulting in the Craft becoming truly universal and able to accommodate anyone with a belief in a supreme being, however he expressed that belief.
In the firm belief that the ritual is self-explanatory, Grand Lodge has always refused to issue handbooks further explaining the meaning of and symbolism in the three Craft degrees. Enthusiastic masonic writers, however, have produced books in which they have given personal, and often very idiosyncratic, interpretations of the ritual. In some cases the religious gloss writers have put upon the ritual is deeply offensive to the great majority of Freemasons. It cannot be too highly stressed that these interpretations are entirely personal to their authors and neither have the sanction of Grand Lodge nor do they reflect either Grand Lodge's views or those of the Craft in general.
HOW FREEMASONRY STARTED
In the ceremonies Freemasons are told that Freemasonry was in existence when King Solomon built the Temple at Jerusalem and that the masons who built the Temple were organised into Lodges.
Freemasons are also told that King Solomon, King Hiram of Tyre and Hiram Abif ruled over those lodges as equal Grand Masters. The ceremonies, however, are built up of allegory and symbolism and the stories they weave around the building of the Temple are obviously not literal or historical facts but a dramatic means of explaining the principles of Freemasonry. Freemasonry neither originated nor existed in Solomon's time.
Many well-meaning but misguided historians, both Masons and non-Masons, have tried to prove that Freemasonry was a lineal descendant or a modern version of the mysteries of classical Greece and Rome or derived from the religion of the Egyptian pyramid builders. Other theories reckon that Freemasonry sprang from bands of travelling stonemasons acting by Papal authority. Others still are convinced that Freemasonry evolved from a band of Knights Templar who escaped to Scotland after the order was persecuted in Europe.
Some historians have even claimed that Freemasonry derives in some way from the shadowy and mysterious Rosicrucian Brotherhood which may or may not have existed in Europe in the early 1600s. All of these theories have been looked at time and again but no hard evidence has yet been found to give any of them credibility.
The honest answers to the questions when, where and why Freemasonry originated are that we simply do not know. Early evidence for Freemasonry is very meagre and not enough has yet been discovered - if indeed it even exists - to prove any theory. The general agreement amongst serious masonic historians and researchers is that Freemasonry has arisen, either directly or indirectly, from the medieval stonemasons (or operative masons) who built great cathedrals and castles.
Those who favour the direct descent from operative masonry say there were three stages to the evolution of Freemasonry. The stonemasons gathered in huts (lodges) to rest and eat. These lodges gradually became not the hut but the grouping together of stonemasons to regulate their craft. In time, and in common with other trades, they developed primitive initiation ceremonies for new apprentices.
As stonemasons could easily travel all over the country from one building site to another, and as there were also no trade union cards or certificates of apprenticeship they began to adopt a private word which a travelling stonemason could use when he arrived at a new site, to prove that he was properly trained and had been a member of a lodge. It was, after all, easier to communicate a special word to prove that you knew what you were doing and were entitled to the wages it deserved that to spend hours carving a block of stone to demonstrate your skills.
We know that in the early 1600s these operative lodges began to admit men who had no connection with the trade - accepted or 'gentlemen' masons. Why this was done and what form of ceremony was used is not known. As the 1600s drew to a close more and more gentlemen began to join the lodges, gradually taking them over and turning them into lodges of free and accepted or speculative masons, no longer having any connection with the stonemasons' craft.
The only problem with this theory is that it is based solely on evidence from Scotland. There is ample evidence of Scottish operative lodges, geographically defined units with the backing of statute law to control what was termed 'the mason trade'. There is also plenty of evidence that these lodges began to admit gentlemen as accepted masons, but no evidence so far that these accepted members were other than honorary masons, or that they in any way altered the nature of the operative lodges. No evidence has come to light, after more than a hundred years of searching building archives, for a similar development in England. Medieval building records have references to mason's lodges but after 1400, apart from masons' guilds in some towns, there is no evidence for operative lodges.
Yet it is in England that the first evidence of a lodge completely made up of non-operative masons is found. Elias Ashmole, the Antiquary and Founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, records in his diary for 1646 that he was made a Free Mason in a lodge held for that purpose at his father-in-law's house in Warrington. He records who was present, all of whom have been researched and have been found to have no connection with operative masonry. English evidence through the 1600s points to Freemasonry existing apart from any actual or supposed organisation of operative stonemasons.
This total lack of evidence for the existence of operative Lodges but evidence of 'accepted' masons has led to the theory of an indirect link between operative stonemasonry and Freemasonry. Those who support the indirect link argue that Freemasonry was brought into being by a group of men in the late 1500s or early 1600s. This was a period of great religious and political turmoil and intolerance. Men were unable to meet together without differences of political and religious opinion leading to arguments. Families were split by opposing views and the English civil war of 1642-6 was the ultimate outcome. Those who support the indirect link believe that the originators of Freemasonry were men who wished to promote tolerance and build a better world in which men of differing opinions could peacefully co-exist and work together for the betterment of mankind. In the custom of their times they used allegory and symbolism to pass on their ideas.
As their central idea was one of building a better society they borrowed their forms and symbols from the operative builders' craft and took their central allegory from the Bible, the common source book known to all, in which the only building described in any detail is King Solomon's Temple. Stonemasons' tools also provided them with a multiplicity of emblems to illustrate the principles they were putting forward.
A newer theory places the origin of Freemasonry within a charitable framework. In the 1600s there was no welfare state, anyone falling ill or becoming disabled had to rely on friends and the Poor Law for support. In the 1600s many trades had what have become known as box clubs. These grew out of the convivial gatherings of members of a particular trade during meetings of which all present would put money into a communal box, knowing that if they fell on hard times they could apply for relief from the box. From surviving evidence these box clubs are known to have begun to admit members not of their trade and to have had many of the characteristics of early masonic lodges. They met in taverns, had simple initiation ceremonies and pass-words and practised charity on a local scale. Perhaps Freemasonry had its origins in just such a box club for operative masons.
Although it is not yet possible to say when, why or where Freemasonry originated it is known where and when "organised" Freemasonry began. On 24 June 1717 four London lodges came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House in St Paul's Churchyard, formed themselves into a Grand Lodge and elected a Grand Master (Anthony Sayer) and Grand Wardens.
For the first few years the Grand Lodge was simply an annual feast at which the Grand Master and Wardens were elected, but in 1721 other meetings began to be held and the Grand Lodge began to be a regulatory body. By 1730 it had more than one hundred lodges under its control (including one in Spain and one in India), had published a Book of Constitutions, began to operate a central charity fund, and had attracted a wide spectrum of society into its lodges.
In 1751 a rival Grand Lodge appeared, made up of Freemasons of mainly Irish extraction who had been unable to join lodges in London. Its founders claimed that the original Grand Lodge had departed from the established customs of the Craft and that they intended practising Freemasonry 'according to the Old Institutions'. Confusingly they called themselves the Grand Lodge of Antients and dubbed their senior rival 'Moderns'. The two rivals existed side by side, both at home and abroad, for 63 years, neither regarding the other as regular or each other's members as regularly made Freemasons. Attempts at a union of the two rivals began in the late 1790s but it was not until 1809 that negotiating committees were set up. They moved slowly and it was not until His Royal Highness Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex became Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge and his brother, His Royal Highness Edward, Duke of Kent, became Grand Master of the Antients Grand Lodge, both in 1813, that serious steps were taken.
In little more than six weeks the two brothers had formulated and gained agreement to the Articles of Union between the two Grand Lodges and arranged the great ceremony by which the United Grand Lodge of England came into being on 27 December 1813.
The formation of the premier Grand Lodge in 1717 had been followed, around 1725, by the Grand Lodge of Ireland and, in 1736, the Grand Lodge of Scotland. These three Grand Lodges, together with Antients Grand Lodge, did much to spread Freemasonry throughout the world, to the extent that all regular Grand Lodges throughout the world, whatever the immediate means of their formation, ultimately trace their origins back to one, or a combination, of the Grand Lodges within the British Isles.