from "A Pilgrim's Path - Freemasonry and the Religious Right" |
by John R. Robinson
What Is a Mason?
It's a very simple question, but one commonly asked on radio call-in
shows. The station carries advance announcements that there will be a
program "about the Masons." At the opening of the show the host will
announce, "Today, we're going to talk about the Masons." Then when calls
start coming in, almost always someone will ask, "Just what is a
And then questions will flow that indicate a high level of public
interest or curiosity, backed by pitifully meager information.
- "What's the difference between the Masons and the Freemasons?"
- "I usually hear someone referred to as a '32nd degree Mason,' but
are there other kinds?"
- "Is there any truth to what I've heard-that the Shriners are
somehow tied in with the Masons?"
- "I think my grandfather was a Mason. I know that he had a uniform
with a sword and a big plume on his hat. What was he?"
- "I've heard that they swear to kill any Mason who breaks his oath.
Isn't that against the law?"
- "My pastor says that the Masons have their own religion. What is
- "Why do Masons call their buildings 'Temples'?"
- "The Masons have an orphanage here. Do they just take in the
orphaned children of other Masons?"
- "Why do the Masons have secret meetings? Are they afraid people
will find out what they're really doing?"
- "What is a Prince Hall Mason?"
- "If I wanted to become a Mason, how would I go about it? How much
does it cost?"
- "Someone at work told me that the Masons worship Satan. Is that
And the questions could go on page after page. Most people lack even
rudimentary knowledge of the Masonic fraternity, which makes them prime
targets for those eager to hand out misinformation. Most organizations
feel the need for public information offices as do even religions and
governments -- but Freemasonry has traditionally regarded itself as a
private fraternity that does not need or desire to disseminate
information or increase public awareness.
That situation appears to be changing, but a centralized information
service will be difficult to implement, since there is no national
governing body. To understand why, since not every reader of this book
can be expected to be a Mason, it may be helpful to look at the
structure of Freemasonry in the United States.
No matter where a man fits in the complex system of Freemasonry, he
can only have entered Masonry in the basic local Masonic lodge, of which
there are over thirteen thousand in the United States. The local lodge
is sometimes called a "blue lodge," for reasons long lost, while others
refer to it as a "symbolic lodge" (the term I will use in this book).
The symbolic lodge confers just three degrees: the entrant, or Entered
Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason. Not until he is a
Master Mason can a member join any of the other aspects of the
fraternity. There are about five million Master Masons throughout the
world, of whom about half are in this country.
In the rest of the world the Masonic fraternity is often governed by
a single Grand Lodge for the whole country, such as the United Grand
Lodge of England. American Masonry grew during the American Revolution,
which was fought collectively by thirteen colonies, each of which
thought of itself not as a province, but as a separate country, a
sovereign state. When the colonies put together a common meeting ground
for what would be called the United States of America, most of them used
the term "state" in that sense of a sovereign power. Strictly speaking,
they didn't have a union, but rather a cooperative agreement to deal
with matters of common interest. That agreement was called the Articles
of Confederation, which bestowed little authority on the central
body. The Freemasons in each of the states felt similarly inclined to
As the weaknesses of the confederation manifested themselves, a
growing party opted for stronger central control. The final result of
their efforts, years later, was the Constitution of the United States,
ratified only after months of angry debate and compromise, most of which
stemmed from the problem of giving up authority to a central control.
The Freemasons did not make that change in their own administration,
choosing rather to have a Grand Lodge for each state, with no central
governing body. In the Masonic tradition the Grand Lodge is supreme.
There is no control above it, and no Grand Lodge can tell any other
Grand Lodge what to do.
There was just one time when the United States came close to having a
central Grand Lodge. Back in 1779, while his army was in winter
quarters, Freemason George Washington was approached by the American
Union (Military) Lodge, saying that they wanted to propose him as the
General Grand Master of Masons for the whole country. The nearby Grand
Lodge of Pennsylvania agreed. Had Washington expressed any enthusiasm
for the position, it would undoubtedly have been his, and today there
would be a Grand Lodge of the United States. As it is now, it is highly
unlikely that this country will ever have a Master Grand Lodge,
especially since several Grand Lodges are now in serious disagreement
about the wisdom of changing any aspect of ancient ceremonies.
By no means are all the Grand Lodges in the rest of the world free of
material disagreements with each other. In most cases, the Grand Lodges
may "agree to disagree," as on a point of ceremony or on meeting rules.
The only disciplinary action available in the event of a serious dispute
is for one Grand Lodge to simply decline to "recognize" the other. This
usually means cutting off visitation rights (the right of a Mason to
attend a meeting of a lodge other than his own), between the lodges
involved and rejecting any common effort of any kind.
In the case of the Grand Orient (Grand Lodge) of France in the late
nineteenth century, a dispute arose when the Grand Orient declared that
it would accept atheists as members, in direct violation of what is
probably the most fundamental membership requirement: a professed belief
in God. In response, the Grand Orient was disavowed and declared
clandestine by all the Grand Lodges of Great Britain, Canada, and the
United States. So was the Prussian Grand Lodge rejected when it decided
to stop admitting Jews. That decision against Jewish membership was
quickly withdrawn by the Berliners, who preferred to abandon their
prejudices in favor of re-establishing their worldwide fraternal
That recognition is exactly what is being sought by separate Masonic
lodges maintained by about a quarter of a million black Americans. The
organization is called Prince Hall Masonry, after its founder.
Prince Hall was a free black living in Boston, where he and fourteen
of his black friends were made Freemasons in 1775 by a traveling
military lodge, No. 441, of the British 38th Regiment of Foot. The
Revolutionary War broke out soon after their initiation, and Prince Hall
is said to have fought with the army of the rebelling colonists. The war
pulled the British regiment out of the Boston area, leaving its black
The regiment and its Masonic lodge never did come back to Boston, and
the local American Masonic lodges showed no desire to take in the black
Masons, so Prince Hall finally made application to the Grand Lodge in
England for a charter to a new lodge. After much delay, it was issued on
September 29,1784, authorizing the formation of African Lodge No.
African Lodge was not welcomed by the other American lodges, and its
efforts to stay in communication with the English Grand Lodge were
unavailing. Ultimately, it declared itself an independent Grand Lodge
(much as the American lodges had done during the Revolutionary War) and
began warranting other lodges for African-Americans. It even warranted
military lodges, which existed within black military units in the Civil
War (although they are never even mentioned in the much-acclaimed movie
and television shows about those units). It even expanded into appendant
degrees, in much the same manner as white Masonry, which had condemned
the black Prince Hall Masonic system as "clandestine," or
When I began looking into Masonry, not one-single Grand Lodge had
given its recognition to the Prince Hall Masons, a status which would
grant visitation rights and permit both systems to clasp hands in
brotherhood. That's what the Prince Hall Masons want not a merger,
which they do not favor, but the recognition that removes that
denigrating "clandestine" status.
Times are changing, and as I write this, eight state Grand Lodges in
the United States have extended that recognition to Prince Hall, as have
two Grand Lodges in Canada. The subject is still controversial, but
everyone, including the Masons, is learning to live with change. And
"universal brotherhood" is a strong teaching of the Master Mason's
In Masonic tradition, a man can get no "higher" than his status as a
Master Mason. Therefore, the other Masonic systems are never called
"higher" orders, but are designated "appendant." All of these appendant
orders were created after Freemasonry revealed itself in London in 1717,
and many of them function in just one country. Although there are
numerous orders, the two best known which are open to a Master Mason in
America are the York Rite and the Scottish Rite.
The York Rite order has a system of advancement that culminates in
the York Rite Mason being made a Knight Templar. There are about two
hundred and fifty thousand York Rite Templars in the United States. Even
more popular is the system known as Scottish Rite, which has two
separate sovereign territories. The Northern Jurisdiction covers fifteen
states in the northeastern United States. The Southern Jurisdiction
covers the other thirty-five states.
These Masonic bodies are totally separate, and neither the Northern
nor the Southern Jurisdiction has any authority or control over the
other. Each Jurisdiction determines independently the ritual dramas it
performs in connection with each degree awarded, although both award
degrees from the 4th through the 32nd the latter being the degree most
familiar to non-Masons. Both Jurisdictions award a 33rd degree, which is
not earned for having completed a given body of work and learning but is
bestowed for meritorious service. There are approximately one million
Scottish Rite Masons in North America.
Once a man has achieved the status of York Rite Knight Templar, or
Scottish Rite 32nd degree Mason, he may apply for membership in the
Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine and become a
Shriner. The Shrine, which numbers about three quarters of a million
members, also accepts eligible Masons in Canada and Mexico. (If we
rearrange the initials A. A. O. N. M. S., they turn into "A Mason.")
The Shrine was founded as an organization dedicated to having fun,
which led to local Shrine groups forming brass bands, oriental bands,
bagpipe bands, motor patrols, motorcycle patrols, horse patrols, and the
famous Shrine clown units and that list doesn't cover them all. Over
time, the dedication to personal enjoyment took a more serious turn, and
the outcome was the twenty-two free Shrine hospitals for burned and
crippled children, a great charity that earns praise everywhere. These
unique medical centers, combined with Shrine parades and circuses, and
Shriners wearing their red fezzes in public, have made the Shrine far
and away the most visible aspect of American Masonry. Not so visible is
the Shrine's Masonic roots. In talking to non-Masons across the country,
I have rarely come across one who knows that every Shriner is also a
Another aspect of Freemasonry that is frequently misunderstood is the
popular Order of the Eastern Star. This is not a "Masonic" order in the
sense that it is part of Freemasonry, but it is made up of men and women
with a Masonic connection. Men who join must be Master Masons. A woman
who joins must be the wife, mother, sister, daughter, or granddaughter
of a Master Mason. About eight hundred thousand men belong, and well
over a million women. With that total membership of over two million,
Eastern Star is easily the largest "coed" fraternal society in the
world. To the best of my knowledge, Eastern Star has the approval of
every Grand Lodge in the United States both for its aims and its
There are other related bodies, and among them are the Order of
Demolay. for young men ages thirteen to twenty-one, Job's Daughters,
and Rainbow for Girls. Members of those groups do not have to have a
family connection to Freemasonry, but they do enjoy Masonic sponsorship
Most important of all to an understanding of Freemasonry, perhaps, is
an understanding of what its members believe and of their avowed
purposes. It is, apparently, very confusing for non- Masons to learn
that Freemasonry doesn't tell men what they are supposed to
believe. Rather, the fraternity attracts men who already adhere to a set
of beliefs about the nature of God, their relationship with Him, and the
moral conduct their God requires.
The most important common ground of Freemasons is asserted before
they ever become members of the fraternity, before they take part in any
ceremony, before they take any oath. That common ground is established
when a man applies for membership. The application, or "petition,"
signed by the candidate affirms that he believes in God and in the
immortality of the soul. So when anyone meets a Mason, he can be certain
that he is talking to a God-fearing man. Among the first words a new
Freemason hears are that how he worships God is his own business, that
how his Masonic brothers choose to worship God is their business, and
that there will be no discussion of religion in his Masonic lodge. No
Mason is to criticize any brother's religious convictions or try to
persuade him to change them. Clearly then, every Freemason believes in
freedom of religion.
That belief has allowed Freemasonry to become a system that permits
men of all religious faiths to come together, to meet, to mix, to work
together on projects that will benefit the whole community. Each Mason
shares the belief that charity and love are in keeping with the wishes
of his God, whether he calls his God Jehovah, Yahweh, or Allah.
It is important to Freemasons that the great coming together of men
of all creeds must take place in an atmosphere of dedication to common
standards of moral behavior. Each applicant is investigated by a lodge
committee before the first degree is granted. How does this man treat
his family? What is his pattern of behavior in his neighborhood and
workplace? Has he ever had problems with the law? Will he fit into a
fraternal society based on a strong sense of right and wrong? Once a man
is inside the lodge as a Freemason, the importance of moral conduct as a
condition of ongoing membership is repeatedly emphasized.
The fundamental ritual of Masonry centers on the building of the
Temple of Solomon and on the fate of its master builder, so the lodge
has become infused with the tools and symbols of the medieval
stonemason. The traditional masons' tools the square, compasses,
setting maul, plumb line, and so on are used to illustrate points of
moral behavior. Some of those lessons have entered the language with
such Masonic terminology as "on the level" and "on the square."
With over five million members, unsuitable men undoubtedly slip
through the screening process. Some members will fail to live up to the
standards they followed at the time they joined the fraternity and
become guilty of conduct that would have barred them from membership in
the first place. Masonic teaching advises that a man who seems to be
straying from decent behavior be approached privately, to be questioned
For those who stray too far there is provision for indictment,
investigation, and a hearing. Minor offenders may be suspended for
periods of time based on the gravity of the offense. Serious offenders
may be ejected from Freemasonry. Some men meet that fate and become
embittered. Masons know that such a man may become an aggressively vocal
anti-Mason, sometimes willing to help other anti-Masons by twisting the
truth of his own Masonic experience, or engaging in outright lies to
"get even" with the brotherhood that would not tolerate his behavior.
Others who follow that path were not ejected but resigned in anger
because they had not prevailed in some issue, or were not elected by
their brothers to a coveted post. Their numbers are very few, but their
voices can be very loud.
It is important to understand that Freemasonry does not teach a man
to believe in God, or in religious freedom, or in moral conduct, or in
acts of charity. He must bring those beliefs with him into the
brotherhood, where he will find them encouraged and reinforced. George
Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere were not taught to love
liberty in their Masonic lodges. They joined because the beliefs they
already cherished were shared by other Masons and encouraged by the
brotherhood. They became Masons in order to be with like-minded men.
Any man who joins a Masonic lodge expecting to learn the true pathway
to God will be disappointed. He will hear no description of heaven, no
description of hell, nor will he be handed a prescription for salvation.
He must learn about such things from his minister, priest, or rabbi:
They are not taught in the lodge.
The reason is simple: Religious differences drive men apart They
always have and always will, and so they work against the concept of a
fraternity where men of common moral convictions, but disparate
religious convictions, can meet to live and work together for the good
Some will say, "If that's all they are doing, why do they have to do
it in secret meetings? That makes me suspicious."
The difference between secrecy and privacy is in the eyes of the
third party. Rumors came from a church in our city about the conflict
between a minister and his congregation. There was obviously excitement
in the air, but the general public didn't know why. Finally, an
announcement was issued, saying that the minister had been asked to
resign. A few weeks later, at a table with a local minister from a
different church of that same denomination, curiosity made me ask just
what the problem was that got the other minister fired. The answer came
after a momentary pause, in the form of a question "Are you a
contributing member of our church?" When I answered that I was not, the
minister replied, "Then you have no right to know. It is a private
He was right, of course, and I changed the subject, but there are
countless people who respect no privacy but their own. When they learn
that something which has piqued their interest is none of their
business, it only serves to intensify their curiosity and frequently
arouses their suspicions as well.
Yes, the Freemasons do hold private meetings to conduct their own
lodge business, but so do churches, government agencies, boards of
education, and individual families. Privacy is a basic right in a free
society (although we must admit that it is constantly being chipped
One might look at all this and say, "What's so unique about
Freemasonry? Everyone believes in those things, don't they?" Does
everyone believe in freedom of religion? No. In religious and ethnic
tolerance? No. In every man's right to privacy? No. Individual freedom
is a recent condition in human history and by no means universal, not
even within the borders of our own country, where the greatest thrust to
establish personal freedom in all of history was achieved.
So what does that have to do with Masonry? It takes a little
knowledge of American history, and of the role of Freemasons in that
history, to find the complete answer to that question. Without the
answer, one cannot grasp the full importance, purpose, and contributions
of Freemasonry in America.
It took me a while to see it, because originally I didn't know
anything about Masons in American history. My motivation came from
questions put to me that I felt I couldn't fully answer, and from
debates with anti-Masonic evangelists that taught me that I should dig a
bit deeper and think a little harder.
What I found was exciting. It enhanced my feelings about the
fraternity and its value to society. Most Masons already know what I had
"discovered," but for those who do not I'd like to pass on what I
learned, an important step to understanding just what Masons are and
what they believe.
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