What’s a Freemason?
That’s not a surprising question. Even though Freemasons (Masons) are members of the largest and oldest fraternity in the world, and even though almost everyone has a father or grandfather or uncle who was a Mason, many people aren’t quite certain just who Freemasons are.
The answer is simple. A Freemason (or Mason) is a member of a fraternity known as Freemasonry (or Masonry). A fraternity is a group of men (just as a sorority is a group of women) who join together because:
· There are things they want to do in the world.
· There are things they want to do “inside their own minds.”
· They enjoy being together with men they like and respect.
(NOTE: Freemasonry and Masonry and Freemasons and Masons are interchangeable.)
Freemasonry is the oldest fraternity in the world. No one knows just how old it is because the actual origins have been lost in time. Probably, it arose from the guilds of stonemasons who built the castles and cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Possibly, they were influenced by the Knights Templar, a group of Christian warrior monks formed in 1118 to help protect pilgrims making trips to the Holy Land.
In 1717, Masonry created a formal organization in England when the first Grand Lodge was formed. A Grand Lodge is the administrative body in charge of Masonry in some geographical area. In Canada, there is a Grand Lodge in each province. Local organizations of Masons are called lodges. There are lodges in most towns, and large cities usually have several. There are about 1,300 lodges in Canada with over 80,000 members.
If Masonry started in Great Britain, how did it get to Canada?
In the mid-19th century, Great Britain made a concerted effort to colonize British North America. It was natural that a large number of Freemasons were part of the colonization effort. The Freemasons were anxious to have Lodges in their homeland. The first Lodge in what became Canada was established in 1750 in Halifax.
Many Lodges were established in Eastern Canada by Loyalists who fled to Canada in the 1780s. Freemasonry in Western Canada was established by colonists, miners and railroad builders in the latter part of the 19th century.
What’s a lodge?
The word “lodge” means both a group of Masons meeting in some place and the room or building in which they meet. Masonic buildings are also sometimes called “temples” because much of the symbolism Masonry uses to teach its lessons comes from the building of King Solomon’s Temple in the Holy Land. The term “lodge” itself comes from the structures which the stonemasons built against the sides of the cathedrals during construction. In winter, when building had to stop, they lived in these lodges and worked at carving stone.
Today, Lodge rooms are rectangular with seating along the sides for members and visitors. There are chairs and pedestals in the East, West and North ends of the Lodge room. The Worshipful Master of the Lodge sits in the East (“Worshipful” is an English term of respect which means the same thing as “Honorable.”) He is called the Master of the lodge for the same reason that the leader of an orchestra is called the “Concert Master.” It’s simply an older term for “Leader.” In other organizations, he would be called “President.” The Senior and Junior Wardens, who sit in West and North respectively, are the First and Second Vice-Presidents. The Deacons are messengers and the Stewards have charge of refreshments.
Every lodge has an altar in the centre of the Lodge room holding a “Volume of the Sacred Law.” In Canada, that is almost always a Bible but other religion’s “holy book” is not uncommon.
What goes on in a lodge?
This is a good place to repeat what we said earlier about why men become Freemasons:
· There are things they want to do in the world.
· There are things they want to do “inside their own minds.”
· They enjoy being together with men they like and respect.
The Lodge is the centre of those activities.
Freemasonry Does Things in the World.
Freemasonry teaches that each person has a responsibility to make things better in the world. Most individuals won’t be the ones to find a cure for cancer, or eliminate poverty, or help create world peace, but every man and woman and child can do something to help others and to make things a little better. Freemasonry is deeply involved with helping people — it spends millions of dollars every year in Canada, just to make life a little easier. And the great majority of that help goes to people who are not Freemasons. Some of these charities are vast projects, like the Shriners Hospital for Childrenbuilt by the Shriners. Also, Scottish Rite Masons maintain Learning Centres. Each helps children afflicted by such conditions as aphasia, dyslexia, stuttering, and related learning or speech disorders. Some services are less noticeable, like helping a widow pay her electric bill or buying coats and shoes for disadvantaged children. And there’s just about anything you can think of in-between. But with projects large or small, the Freemasons of a lodge try to help make the world a better place. The lodge gives them a way to combine with others to do even more good.
Freemasonry does things “inside” the individual Mason.
“Grow or die” is a great law of all nature. Most people feel a need for continued growth and development as individuals. They feel they are not as honest or as charitable or as compassionate or as loving or as trusting as they ought to be. Freemasonry reminds its members over and over again of the importance of these qualities. It lets men associate with other men of honour and integrity who believe that things like honesty and compassion and love and trust are important. In some ways, Freemasonry is a support group for men who are trying to make the right decisions. It’s easier to practice these virtues when you know that those around you think they are important, too, and won’t laugh at you. That’s a major reason that Freemasons enjoy being together.
Freemasons enjoy each other’s company.
It’s good to spend time with people you can trust completely, and most Freemasons find that in their lodge. While much of lodge activity is spent in works of charity or in lessons in self-development, much is also spent in fellowship. Lodges have picnics, camping trips, and many events for the whole family. Simply put, a lodge is a place to spend time with friends.
For members only, two basic kinds of meetings take place in a lodge. The most common is a simple business meeting. To open and close the meeting, there is a ceremony whose purpose is to remind us of the virtues by which we are supposed to live. Then there is a reading of the minutes; voting on petitions (applications of men who want to join the fraternity); planning for charitable functions, family events, and other lodge activities; and sharing information about members (called “Brothers,” as in most fraternities) who are ill or have some sort of need. The other kind of meeting is one in which people join the fraternity — one at which the “degrees” are performed.
But every lodge serves more than its own members. Frequently, there are meetings open to the public. Examples are Ladies’ Nights, “Brother Bring a Friend Nights,” public installations of officers, Cornerstone Laying ceremonies, and other special meetings supporting community events and dealing with topics of local interest. Freemasons also sponsor Ladies groups such as The Order of Eastern Star and Youth Groups such as Job’s Daughters; for girls, and Order of DeMolay for boys.
What’s a degree?
A degree is a stage or level of membership. It’s also the ceremony by which a man attains that level of membership. There are three, called Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason. As you can see, the names are taken from the craft guilds. In the Middle Ages, when a person wanted to join a craft, such as the gold smiths or the carpenters or the stonemasons, he was first apprenticed. As an apprentice, he learned the tools and skills of the trade. When he had proved his skills, he became a “Fellow of the Craft” (today we would say “Journeyman”), and when he had exceptional ability, he was known as a Master of the Craft.
The degrees are plays in which the candidate participates. Each degree uses symbols to teach, just as plays did in the Middle Ages and as many theatrical productions do today. (We’ll talk about symbols a little later.)
The Masonic degrees teach the great lessons of life — the importance of honor and integrity, of being a person on whom others can rely, of being both trusting and trustworthy, of realizing that you have a spiritual nature as well as a physical or animal nature, of the importance of self-control, of knowing how to love and be loved, of knowing how to keep confidential what others tell you so that they can “open up” without fear.
Why is Freemasonry so “secretive”?
It really isn’t “secretive,” although it sometimes has that reputation. Freemasons certainly don’t make a secret of the fact that they are members of the fraternity. We wear rings, lapel pins and tie tacks with Masonic emblems like the Square and Compasses, the best known of Masonic signs which, logically, recalls the fraternity’s roots in stonemasonry. Masonic buildings are clearly marked, and are usually listed in the phone book. Lodge activities are not secret picnics and other events are even listed in the newspapers, especially in smaller towns. Many lodges have answering machines which give the upcoming lodge activities. But there are some Masonic secrets, and they fall into two categories.
The first are the ways in which a man can identify himself as a Mason — grips and passwords. We keep those private for obvious reasons. It is not at all unknown for unscrupulous people to try to pass themselves off as Masons in order to get assistance under false pretenses.
The second group is harder to describe, but they are the ones Masons usually mean if we talk about “Masonic secrets.” They are secrets because they literally can’t be talked about, can’t be put into words. They are the changes that happen to a man when he really accepts responsibility for his own life and, at the same time, truly decides that his real happiness is in helping others.
It’s a wonderful feeling, but it’s something you simply can’t explain to another person. That’s why we sometimes say that Masonic secrets cannot ( rather than “may not”) be told. Try telling someone exactly what you feel when you see a beautiful sunset, or when you hear music, like the national anthem, which suddenly stirs old memories, and you’ll understand what we mean.
“Secret societies” became very popular in North America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There were literally hundreds of them, and most people belonged to two or three. Many of them were modeled on Masonry, and made a great point of having many “secrets.” And Freemasonry got ranked with them. But if Freemasonry is a secret society, it’s the worst-kept secret in town.
Is Freemasonry a religion?
The answer to that question is simple. No.
We do use ritual in the meetings, and because there is always an altar or table with the Volume of the Sacred Law open if a lodge is meeting, some people have confused Freemasonry with a religion, but it is not. That does not mean that religion plays no part in Freemasonry — it plays a very important part. A person who wants to become a Freemason must have a belief in God. No atheist can ever become a Freemason. Meetings open with prayer, and a Freemason is taught, as one of the first lessons of Freemasonry, that one should pray for divine counsel and guidance before starting an important undertaking. But that does not make Freemasonry a “religion.”
Sometimes people confuse Freemasonry with a religion because we call some Masonic buildings “temples.” But we use the word in the same sense that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the Supreme Court a “Temple of Justice” and because a Masonic lodge is a symbol of the Temple of Solomon. Neither Freemasonry nor the Supreme Court is a religion just because its members meet in a “temple.”
What is a Masonic Bible?
Bibles are popular gifts among Freemasons, frequently given to a man when he joins the lodge or at other special events. A Masonic Bible is the same book anyone thinks of as a Bible (it’s usually the King James translation) with a special page in the front on which to write the name of the person who is receiving it and the occasion on which it is given. Sometimes there is a special index or information section which shows the person where in the Bible to find the passages which are quoted in the Masonic ritual.
If Freemasonry isn’t a religion, why does it use ritual?
Many of us may think of religion when we think of ritual, but ritual is used in every aspect of life. It’s so much a part of us that we just don’t notice it. Ritual simply means that some things are done more or less the same way each time.
Almost all school assemblies, for example, start with the principal or some other official calling for the attention of the group. Then the group sings the national anthem. That’s a ritual.
Almost all business meetings of every sort call the group to order, have a reading of the minutes of the last meeting, deal with old business, then with new business. That’s a ritual. Most groups use Robert’s Rules of Order to conduct a meeting. That’s probably the best-known book of ritual in the world.
There are social rituals which tell us how to meet people (we shake hands), how to join a conversation (we wait for a pause, and then speak), how to buy tickets to a concert (we wait in line and don’t push in ahead of those who were there first). There are literally hundreds of examples, and they are all rituals.
Freemasonry uses a ritual because it’s an effective way to teach important ideas — the values we’ve talked about earlier. And it reminds us where we are, just as the ritual of a business meeting reminds people where they are and what they are supposed to be doing.
Masonry’s ritual is very rich because it is so old. It has developed over centuries to contain some beautiful language and ideas expressed in symbols. But there’s nothing unusual in using ritual. All of us do it every day.
Why does Freemasonry use symbols?
Everyone uses symbols every day, just as we do ritual. We use them because they communicate quickly. When you see a stop sign , you know what it means, even if you can’t read the word “stop.” The circle and line mean “don’t” or “not allowed.” In fact, using symbols is probably the oldest way of communication and the oldest way of teaching.
Freemasonry uses symbols for the same reason. Some form of the “Square and Compasses” is the most widely used and known symbol of Freemasonry. In one way, this symbol is a kind of trademark for the fraternity, as the “golden arches” are for McDonald’s. When you see the Square and Compasses on a building, you know that Freemasons meet there.
And like all symbols, they have a meaning.
The Square symbolizes things of the earth, and it also symbolizes honor, integrity, truthfulness, and the other ways we should relate to this world and the people in it. The Compasses symbolize things of the spirit, and the importance of a well-developed spiritual life, and also the importance of self-control — of keeping ourselves within bounds. The G stands for Geometry, the science which the ancients believed most revealed the glory of God and His works in the heavens, and it also stands for God, Who must be at the centre of all our thoughts and of all our efforts.
The meanings of most of the other Masonic symbols are obvious. The gavel teaches the importance of self-control and self-discipline.
So, is Freemasonry education?
Yes. In a very real sense, education is at the centre of Freemasonry. We have stressed its importance for a very long time. Back in the Middle Ages, schools were held in the lodges of stonemasons. You have to know a lot to build a cathedral — geometry, and structural engineering, and mathematics, just for a start. And that education was not very widely available. All the formal schools and colleges trained people for careers in the church, or in law or medicine. And you had to be a member of the social upper classes to go to those schools. Stonemasons did not come from the aristocracy. And so the lodges had to teach the necessary skills and information. Freemasonry’s dedication to education started there.
And Masonry supports continuing education and intellectual growth for its members, insisting that learning more about many things is important for anyone who wants to keep mentally alert and young.
What does Freemasonry teach?
Freemasonry teaches some important principles. There’s nothing very surprising in the list. Freemasonry teaches that:
Since God is the Creator, all men and women are the children of God. Because of that, all men and women are brothers and sisters, entitled to dignity, respect for their opinions, and consideration of their feelings.
Each person must take responsibility for his/her own life and actions. Neither wealth nor poverty, education nor ignorance, health nor sickness excuses any person from doing the best he or she can do or being the best person possible under the circumstances.
No one has the right to tell another person what he or she must think or believe. Each man and woman has an absolute right to intellectual, spiritual, economic, and political freedom. This is a right given by God, not by man. All tyranny, in every form, is illegitimate.
Each person must learn and practice self-control. Each person must make sure his spiritual nature triumphs over his animal nature. Another way to say the same thing is that even when we are tempted to anger, we must not be violent. Even when we are tempted to selfishness, we must be charitable. Even when we want to “write someone off,” we must remember that he or she is a human and entitled to our respect. Even when we want to give up, we must go on. Even when we are hated, we must return love, or, at a minimum, we must not hate back. It isn’t easy!
Faith must be in the centre of our lives. We find that faith in our houses of worship, not in Freemasonry, but Masonry constantly teaches that a person’s faith, whatever it may be, is central to a good life.
Each person has a responsibly to be a good citizen, obeying the law. That doesn’t mean we can’t try to change things, but change must take place in legal ways.
It is important to work to make this world better for all who live in it. Masonry teaches the importance of doing good, not because it assures a person’s entrance into heaven — that’s a question for a religion, not a fraternity — but because we have a duty to all other men and women to make their lives as fulfilling as they can be.
Honour and integrity are essential to life. Life, without honour and integrity, is without meaning.
What are the requirements for membership?
The person who wants to join Freemasonry must be a man (it’s a fraternity), sound in body and mind, who believes in God, is at least the minimum age required by Masonry in his province, and has a good reputation. (Incidentally, the “sound in body” requirement — which comes from the stonemasons of the Middle Ages — doesn’t mean that a physically challenged man cannot be a Mason; many are).
Those are the only “formal” requirements. But there are others, not so formal. He should believe in helping others. He should believe there is more to life than pleasure and money. He should be willing to respect the opinions of others. And he should want to grow and develop as a human being.
How does a man become a Freemason?
Some men are surprised that no one has ever asked them to become a Mason. They may even feel that the Freemasons in their town don’t think they are “good enough” to join. But it doesn’t work that way. For hundreds of years, Freemasons have been forbidden to ask others to join the fraternity. We can talk to friends about Freemasonry, we can tell them about what Freemasonry does. We can tell them why we enjoy it. But we can’t ask, much less pressure anyone to join.
There’s a good reason for that. It isn’t that we’re trying to be exclusive. But becoming a Freemason is a very serious thing. Joining Freemasonry is making a permanent life commitment to live in certain ways. We’ve listed most of them above — to live with honour and integrity, to be willing to share and care about others, to trust each other, and to place ultimate trust in God. No one should be “talked into” making such a decision.
So, when a man decides he wants to be a Freemason, he asks a Freemason to join. The process can take 5-6 months. The Freemason will meet with him over coffee and may bring other Freemasons with him to better understand his character and reasons for joining. After several of such "meetings", the Freemason may offer the individual an application or petition to complete. The individual fills it out and gives it to the Freemason, and that Freemason takes it to the local lodge. The Master of the lodge will appoint a committee to visit with the man and his family to find out about him and why he wants to be a Mason, tell him and his family about Freemasonry, and answer their questions. The committee reports to the lodge and, if the committee believes him to be suitable, will recommend the lodge votes on his petition. If the vote is affirmative, the lodge will contact the individual to set the date for the Entered Apprentice Degree. When the person has completed all three degrees, he is a Master Mason and a full member of the fraternity.
So, what’s a Mason?
A Mason is a man who has decided that he likes to feel good about himself and others. He cares about the future as well as the past, and does what he can, both alone and with others, to make the future good for everyone.
Many men over many generations have answered the question, “What is a Mason?” One of the most eloquent was written by the Reverend Joseph Fort Newton, an internationally honored minister of the first half of the 20th Century.
Adapted from a booklet prepared by the Masonic Service Association, Silver Spring, Maryland
For more information, contact the Grand Lodge of Alberta 403-262-1149