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By Giles Morgan
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2007 Giles Morgan
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What is Freemasonry?
Attempting to answer the basic question of what Freemasonry actually is and the associated one of how it originated has proved a surprisingly complex and difficult task for both Masons and non-Masons alike. In 1984, following a flurry of interest in the Brotherhood, a leaflet was produced by Freemasons and issued by a group with the slightly Pythonesque title of the 'Board of General Purposes'. The leaflet, entitled What Is Freemasonry?, describes Freemasonry as:
one of the world's oldest secular fraternal societies ... a society of men concerned with spiritual values. Its members are taught its precepts by a series of ritual dramas, which follow ancient forms and use stonemason's customs and tools as allegorical guides.
(The Craft, John Hamill, p.12).
The simplest definition of Freemasonry then is that it is a fraternal organisation found in one form or another in a wide and varied range of countries around the world. However, Freemasonry can also be regarded as a secret society in that many of the inner workings of the organisation are not revealed to the general public. Freemasons aim to improve themselves by learning moral and spiritual lessons taught within the fraternity, not only to develop and benefit their own characters, but also in order to contribute in positive ways to the fraternity and to wider society.
Its members traditionally share a moral code and value system with a belief in a single Supreme Being or deity. It is essential that prospective Masons have a belief in a Supreme Being or deity in order to pursue a course of spiritual growth. Providing that this criterion is met, the candidate is free to adhere to more or less any religion that they choose. One of the tenets of Freemasonry is that its members are at liberty to follow their own separate beliefs but it safeguards this freedom by forbidding religious discussion within its meetings. Similarly, discussion of political issues is prohibited within Masonic meetings in order to promote unity and harmony amongst its members. As we shall see, this has not always been the case but, none the less, it is an ideal that is central to Freemasonry.
The vast majority of Freemasons belong to what is called 'Craft' or 'Blue Lodge' Freemasonry. Its members usually meet together under the guidance and leadership of a Worshipful Master and other Masonic officials at a local level. The officers of the lodge, led by the Worshipful Master, will initiate new members and deal with issues relevant to the lodge or local area. An impor-tant aspect of Freemasonry is that its members should contribute actively towards charitable and worthwhile causes. There are three levels or ranks within Craft Masonry: the Entered Apprentice referred to as the first degree; the Fellowcraft which is the second degree; and the third degree of Master Mason.
It is also important to recognise that Freemasonry cannot be regarded as one coherent and single body. Rather Freemasonry today is the culmination of differing historical traditions and trends that will be discussed in greater detail in later chapters. Individual Masonic Lodges are governed by a Grand Lodge that varies from territory to territory. For example in Britain there are different Grand Lodges for each country within the United Kingdom. English Masonry is presided over by the United Grand Lodge of England whilst the Grand Lodge of Ireland and the Grand Lodge of Scotland preside over their member's activities. The central image or symbol around which Freemasonry is organised and teaches its spiritual and moral lessons to Masons is the building of the Temple of Solomon. Just as the Temple was intended to be perfect in its form and function in providing an earthly home for God, so Masons are taught that they must strive to perfect themselves and thus contribute to wider society.
The basic principles on which Freemasonry is said to be based and which are intended to inform the thoughts and actions of Masons are Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. The principle of Brotherly Love emphasises tolerance and mutual respect and working towards a harmonious and productive society. Relief is widely interpreted as offering assistance and aid to those who require it within society through charitable donations and aid. The principle of Truth requires that a Mason should strive to attain high moral standards and aim to fulfil his responsibilities as a Mason and as a citizen.
Freemasonry instructs its members through a series of symbolic and allegorical moral lessons that are described as degrees. It has been argued that these Masonic principles played a major part in determining the idealised qualities and beliefs upon which the Constitution of the United States of America is claimed to have been founded. As we shall see, the Masonic principles of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth also had a considerable influence upon the ideals of the French Revolution, one which can be recognised in the famous Republican rallying call of 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity'.
A Masonic lodge is the term given to a group of Masons and does not denote the meeting place in which they attend. The lodge rooms where Masons meet may vary in size or relative grandeur but they do share a core set of characteristics. Within Freemasonry it is important that the room in which the lodge meets should have an alignment running from east to west. Essentially, and as we shall discover significantly, the Worshipful Master is always seated in the East corner of the lodge room. Lodge members are seated on benches along the south and north walls that are themselves split into east and west groupings. One of the most distinctive and recognisable characteristics of the lodge room is usually the floor upon which a black and white chequered pattern of squares features prominently either as a carpet, tiles or mosaic. Conversely the ceiling often has a depiction of the sun or the heavens. On a practical level the lodge will generally have its warrant from its Grand Lodge visible, that demonstrates its right to assemble and function as a Masonic lodge.
The personnel at the core of a lodge hold seven positions; the Tyler, the Inner Guard, the Junior Deacon, the Senior Deacon, the Junior Warden, the Senior Warden and the Worshipful Master. The Tyler has the role of standing outside the doors that lead into the lodge and is required to prevent any unlawful entry into the inner chamber and to make sure that the business of the lodge is not being overheard by outsiders. The Tyler also greets all those entering the lodge and must ensure that Masons are properly dressed (usually in black suits with black ties and white shirts) before allowing them entry to the lodge room. Traditionally the Tyler stood guard with a ceremonial sword to stop eavesdropping or forced entry to the lodge. The Tyler's Sword often has a wavy blade because, in the Book of Genesis, a flaming sword was placed in the east of the Garden of Eden to guard the Tree of Life.
The Inner Guard performs the same role as the Tyler but within the lodge room. Ceremonially, the Inner Guard will check that the Tyler is performing his duties by knocking on the door of the lodge to which the Tyler must reply by knocking the outside of the door.
Initiates are met within the lodge by the Inner Guard who then escorts them to meet the Junior Deacon. The Junior Deacon helps candidates to prepare for ceremonies of initiation and monitors those who enter and leave the room during a lodge session. He must ensure that any that do leave or enter do so only with the permission of the Senior Deacon or Worshipful Master. He carries messages on behalf of the Senior Deacon.
The Senior Deacon performs the same function for the Worshipful Master and has responsibility for the introduction of Masons from other lodges to members of his own. Within the lodge the Senior Deacon plays a significant part in initiation ceremonies, leading candidates and participating in ritual speeches. The Senior Deacon will generally progress within the hierarchy of the lodge and so must undergo training to prepare him for his next role in a 'lodge of instruction'. The role of the Junior Warden is to arrange the business of the lodge in terms of liaising with visitors from other lodges and (importantly) of covering the duties of the Senior Warden and Worshipful Master if they are absent. The Senior Warden is second in command and must be able both to help the Worshipful Master and to take his place in his absence and prepare for his own ascension to that role.
The Worshipful Master is the highest-ranking position within a lodge and he must govern its business and ceremonies and play a central part in its rituals. The Worshipful Master is the most important point of contact between the lodge and its respective Governing Grand Lodge. The Worshipful Master is responsible for the opening and closing of lodge sessions and for maintaining order and appropriate behaviour within it.
There are a number of other non-ceremonial officers who operate within the framework of the lodge. Typically there would be around eight such officers although, in some lodges, there are more. The least senior of these is the Junior Steward and his primary purpose is not to participate in the rituals and ceremonies of the lodge but to assist with lodge activities before sessions are opened and when they are closed. The Junior Steward would provide assistance to the Senior Steward and help the Junior Warden with the provision of food and drink. Those serving as Junior Steward are seen as gaining experience and knowledge in order to progress within the framework of the lodge. The Senior Steward also plays an important role during meals, checking that everything is running smoothly whilst also providing support and assistance to the lodge officers. All lodge meetings begin and end with prayer and it is the responsibility of the Chaplain to lead the lodge in this activity. He is also responsible for the safekeeping of the Volume of the Sacred Law. The Chaplain must also attend the funerals of Masons where he would be expected to say prayers for the deceased.
Contact between the lodge and its members is the responsibility of the Almoner. It falls to the Almoner to alert lodge members to any of their number who may need assistance due to ill health. Donations and links to external charities are maintained by the Charity Steward and he coordinates charitable fundraising within the lodge. The financial affairs of the lodge are the preserve of the Treasurer who is expected to maintain exact and honest records of the income and outflow of the lodge's monies. The Worshipful Master will also receive help and assistance from the Immediate Past Master who will be the predecessor of the current master. The administrative needs of the lodge are largely met by the Secretary who deals with paperwork generated through meetings and links with other lodges. The Secretary is responsible for maintaining an accurate and up-to-date list of lodge members.
Freemasonry today is often viewed as a homogenous single global entity but, in reality, there are many different Masonic organisations that have developed over time and through diverse circumstances. An important issue to arise from this is the question of regularity. Put simply, the Grand Lodge of a particular territory or jurisdiction must give its approval for a lodge to be considered 'regular'.
There is an obvious need for Freemasonry to monitor both its own activities and any potentially fraudulent organisations claiming an unjustifiable link with the fraternity. Together with the central principles on which Freemasonry is said to be founded, the question of regularity and whether a lodge is recognised or not is widely regarded as one of the fundamental issues of Freemasonry. Participating in irregular lodges would be punishable by expulsion from Freemasonry and so, of course, is perceived as an issue of some considerable gravity. Different Grand Lodges are described as being 'in amity' when they are in a state of mutual recognition and members are permitted to interact officially at lodge level.
The First Degree
In order to become a Mason, individuals must fulfil a number of basic requirements. They are usually recommended for membership by other Masons and must be of legal age. (Depending on the jurisdiction, that may be 18 or 21 years of age.) They must be without criminal convictions and be observed to be of good moral character. It is often stated that they should be 'free-born', an archaic survival that would originally have meant that they were not slaves. Importantly, they must also hold a belief in a single Supreme Being with an associated belief in an afterlife. On this point Freemasonry claims to be non-specific and would be open to any monotheistic religion such as Christianity or Islam. The suitability of candidates is voted on by a secret ballot of the lodge to which they are attempting to gain entry. In order to be successfully accepted all members of the lodge must agree to the suitability of the candidate. Traditionally, during the vote, black and white balls (or sometimes cubes) are used to register votes. A white ball signifies a 'yes' vote and a black ball registers a 'no'. The common term of 'blackballing' someone (usually in connection with membership of an organisation) is thought to derive from this Masonic process.
As has already been mentioned, Freemasonry is most commonly divided into what is known as the 'Three Degrees' or 'level' of Mason. Many other higher levels within Freemasonry can be achieved but, for the vast rank and file of the Brotherhood, these Three Degrees are the norm. The first degree or step in Freemasonry is that of the 'Entered Apprentice', the second degree is known as 'Fellowcraft' and the third degree is that of 'Master Mason'. The first degree of the Entered Apprentice is marked by a ceremony known as the 'Rite of Destitution' in which initiates symbolically take their first step into the world of Freemasonry. Initiates are required to wear simple clothes such as white cotton trousers and a shirt provided for the occasion that are intended to focus their attention on their inner selves rather than on worldly status or wealth. They are typically blindfolded or 'hoodwinked' and all money and metal objects on their person are removed. One foot is fitted with a slipper, a state that is referred to as being 'slipshod'. Each initiate has his left leg bared to the knee and his left breast exposed. A rope or hangman's noose called a cable tow is fitted loosely around his neck and a sword or dagger is held to his left breast.
After the guard has knocked on the door of the Temple, the candidate is led into the room. The initiate undertakes a vow of secrecy during the ceremony and he is led by the cable tow around the floor of the Temple. The reasons for the candidate being led around the Temple in this way are a mixture of practical and metaphorical concerns. Being led around the Temple in a system of ritual patterns gives the other members of the lodge the opportunity to see the candidate and that he is ready to undertake this next phase of his development within Freemasonry. It also has symbolic value. The candidate can be imagined as undergoing the process of threading his way through a labyrinth and being orientated within the world of Freemasonry. He is referred to as 'a poor candidate in a state of darkness' and introduced to the Lodge.
During this symbolic ritual the hoodwinked apprentice asks to be shown 'the light' and is brought before the Worshipful Master who stands at the altar. When the blindfold is removed the candidate's attention is drawn to what are referred to as the 'Great Lights' of Freemasonry that have been laid upon the altar. These include the volume of sacred law, which is typically the Bible, but could be another text related to the candidate's faith system, the Square and the Compasses. The Bible is the guide by which Masons should live their lives whilst the square symbolises truth and the compasses represent knowledge and expertise.
It is interesting to note how many concepts and phrases that are commonly in use today derive from Freemasonry and its attendant imagery. For example, an individual who is believed to be reliable, honest and trustworthy may be described as a 'four -square fellow' or equally as being 'on the level'. Similarly, a commitment or deal might be described as being 'fair and square'. As we shall also see, people commonly describe an individual who has been put through a rigorous or testing ordeal of some kind as having been subjected to or given 'the third degree', a reflection of the gravity and seriousness which the process of becoming a Master Mason is perceived to have.
Candidates take a solemn oath of allegiance at the altar that lays out what their fellow Masons expect from them and what their responsibilities and status within the lodge are. Because the oath is sworn at the altar in the presence of the Bible or other sacred text, it is seen as a sacred promise sworn within the sight of God. At the next stage of the first degree ceremony the initiate will be presented with a white apron made from lambskin. This symbolises the innocence of the entered apprentice. (Different degrees within Freemasonry are represented by different apron designs.) It is expected that the entered apprentice will fulfil his duties to the Brotherhood and society and conduct himself in a moral and upright manner.
Excerpted from Freemasonry by Giles Morgan. Copyright © 2007 Giles Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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