A BOOK, A SQUARE, AND A COMPASS
by Stan Griffin
It's been described as the " ... oldest, most successful secret society in the history of the world ..." It's not a religion, but a belief in God is a principal qualification for admission. Members acknowledge a Supreme Being--they call Him the "Great Architect of the Universe." Their meetings open and close with a prayer.
The group's secrecy requirements, while an important source of "imaginative and emotional power ...", no doubt has created suspicion in the minds of many critics throughout its history.
An opposite view is that in reality it isn't a true "secret" society. Passwords and handshakes aside, it does not conceal its existence or its activities. Thousands of books have been written about it. Through those publications, we know a lot about its organizational setup.
Some very prominent Americans have been members including 13 Presidents, from George Washington to Gerald Ford. Over 4 1/2 million U. S. citizens are counted as members. Worldwide there are almost six million who belong to the society.
This is the group officially known as the "Free and Accepted Masons," sometimes called the "Ancient Free and Accepted Masons." Most often they're referred to simply as "Freemasons" or "Masons."
Exactly where and how they first appeared on the world scene is a little obscure. Theories abound, many of them vague and more than a little hazy. They range from the Garden of Eden to King Solomon to ancient Egypt and ancient Greece to the Mayans of Mexico, just to name a few.
But the best documented history, and that accepted by the present Mason leadership, traces their beginnings to Europe in the Middle Ages, more specifically London, England.
For a period of 700 years (900 A.D. to 1600 A.D.), England went through a period of cathedral building. Masons (men in construction trades who specialized in brick or stone) formed guilds or craft organizations for self protection. In current terminology we would call them "unions." At that time structures called "lodges" were used by workers as shelter. Later this became the basic unit of Freemasonry.
As the volume of cathedral construction decreased, workers began to drift away, looking for other skills that would lead to employment. Even though the numbers of working members decreased, the guilds were not dissolved. Instead of requiring new members to be masons, they began to take in non-working men; they used the term "speculative" as opposed to "operative" (from the early days when actual masons were controlling the group).
They reorganized into what could be called "social societies" or "fraternal societies." It wasn't long before entire units (lodges) existed without any skilled masons. Their origins remained in the use of building tools in rituals as symbols to teach basic principles.
Newcomers took over and refurbished the ceremonies in the Masonic lodges. They set up a complicated system based on stonemason traditions, a system that is still in use today. Most symbols and rituals are founded on the tools and practices of the building profession.
In 1717 the four lodges in London combined to form the "Grand Lodge of England." This is considered by all Masons to be a landmark event, their birth so to speak. From England, Masonry spread to mainland Europe, gaining members as prestigious as King Frederick of Prussia and the French philosopher Voltaire.
British colonists brought Masonry to North America. In what would eventually become the United States, the first lodges were set up in Boston (1720) and Philadelphia (1730). Benjamin Franklin was an early Mason; and in his profession as printer, he published the first Masonic book in this country.
The Masons are dedicated to the practice of tolerance, respect, and understanding of others. They encourage high standards of morality among its members. In addition, they urge members to perform charitable acts.
The Masons bring together men of different religious beliefs and political opinions. Tolerance of diverse religious "denominations and persuasions" was the first principle adopted.
A strong belief in universal brotherhood is another foundation of Masonic tradition, as is a feeling of fellowship and mutual assistance. Members are constantly studying, improving their skills, and serving others. They are encouraged to be kind to everyone.
They promote welfare and dignity of mankind through constructive fraternalism. Masons are strongly urged to be loyal to local governments and are taught to " ... act up in the square, keep a tongue of good report, maintain secrecy ..."
They promote good fellowship among members with emphasis on impressive titles, colorful regalia, and elaborate costumes. Their ceremonies are dramatic and often held in secrecy. Initiation of newcomers is an impressive example.
Freemasons donate millions of dollars each year to charitable projects. Some of those undertakings are: (1) hospitals (many for children, some specializing in crippled youngsters and others with special facilities for treating burn victims; (2) homes for widows, orphans, and senior citizens; (3) eye foundations; (4) blood banks; (5) medical research plants; (6) student loans and scholarships; (7) relief for people in distress (fires, floods, earthquakes, etc.)
In 1885 the Masonic Relief Association of the U.S. and Canada was formed to coordinate methods of administering charities.
Traditionally Masons are among the strongest supporters of public education.
To be considered for membership in the Freemasons, an individual must be a free-born man of legal age. He must profess belief in God, although being a Christian is not required. (However, the Masons are largely Protestant.) Women do not fall within the guidelines for membership, but there are a number of associated societies for females and others for young people.
More than 100 fraternal organizations have a relationship with Freemasonry but do not form a part of its basic structure. For example, the Order of the Eastern Star is made up of women relatives of Masons. Demolay and Job's Daughters are open to Masons' children (boys and girls respectively). Another such organization is the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Its people are commonly called "Shriners." They operate 20 hospitals for children who have been severely burned.
There are very few black men in the Freemasons as described thus far. However, there are separate associations for them. The first was established by the British in the American colonies; the year was 1775. It took the name "Prince Hall Masonry," honoring a free black Methodist minister. African Lodge 1 came into being in 1787, and African Lodge 459 came along in 1791. Before the Civil War, the concept spread through areas where slavery was illegal. After the Civil War, it moved into the South. Membership of these lodges in the U.S. is now approximately 275,000. U.S. Supreme Court Jusice Thurgood Marshall was a member of one of them.
Prospective members must apply and be elected. They usually are recommended by friends who are members; they act as sponsors.
The Freemasons are founded on a single set of principles, but they are not a single organization. There is no ONE controlling agency worldwide. There is a high degree of cooperation, but all groups are not governed by one "super" lodge.
The basic unit of Freemasonry is the blue lodge. A group of lodges unite to make up a "Grand Lodge." Members earn "degrees"; this has been described as " ... souls progressing from darkness to spiritual light and rebirth ..."
Once accepted, the new member enter a blue lodge. Three degrees can be earned there: First Degree--Entered Apprentice; Second Degree--Fellowcraft; Third Degree--Master Mason
To achieve a degree, they participate in lessons, then take part in a ceremony during which they receive masons' working tools as symbols of moral qualities to be cultivated.
After achieving those first three degrees, the new Mason is invited to one of two branches of Advanced Masonry: (1) Scottish Rite--it has 29 degrees, each with a special title; and (2) York Rite--it has 10 degrees, the highest of which is the Knights Templar. Other examples of degree titles: Secret Master; Prince of Jerusalem; Royal Master.
In most countries, all blue lodges are governed by a National Grand Lodge headed by a Grand Master. In the U.S. and Canada each state and province has its own Grand Lodge and Grand Master.
The most essential, as well as the most widely known, of the Masonic symbols are called the "Three Great Lights." No Masonic lodge can meet unless the three are present and displayed. They are: (1) the Volume of Sacred Law (In Christian countries this is usually taken to be the Bible. As you travel East, however, it is not uncommon to find Lodges displaying the Koran, the Torah, the Veda, or some other scripture which reflects the religious persuasion of the "Brethren" composing the Lodge; (2) the Square; and (3) the Compasses.
From the outset Masons feared punishment from the established state church, the government, and especially the Roman Catholics. So they adopted secrecy for mutual protection from those enemies. It also gave them " ... reassurance, ... feelings of belonging ..." etc.
Without a doubt , the Roman Catholic Church has been the Masons' most aggressive foe. They were suspicious of Masonic motives, calling them "anti-Catholic." Over the centuries, the Catholics have conducted a concentrated campaign against the Masons, one that was more vigorous than their activities against any other group or individual.
The Catholics claim that the Masons' secrecy " ... erects a basic barrier between man and his rightful guardian ..." They call Masonry " ... a monopoly that curbs individual freedoms in social and moral behavior ..." Needless to say the Catholics forbid their followers to join the Freemasons. The Knights of Columbus was formed by them in 1882 as a response to Freemasonry.
In recent years there has been a lessening of Catholic antagonism .
In the U.S. an anti-Mason political party grew up and was active during the years 1826-1836. During that period many lodges closed; and many members withdrew under pressure from newspapers, politicians, and clergy. When the anti-Masons lost a national election in 1832, their strength began to ebb. By 1840 the Masons had made a comeback.
There are Masonic establishments on all six of the world's inhabited continents: (1) Europe-- where it all began; (2) North America --U. S. and Canada; (3) South America--Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and others; (4) Africa --South Africa and others; (5) Asia--Japan, India, Philippines, and others; (6) Australia.
Besides the 13 U.S. Presidents mentioned earlier, nine of the Declaration of Independence signers as well as 13 of the delegates to the new nation's Constitutional Convention were Masons. Other prominent Masons in U. S. history were Paul Revere, Sam Houston, Will Rogers, Henry Ford, Charles Lindberg, Douglas MacArthur, John Wayne, Norman Vincent Peale, and Edwin "Buzz " Aldrin (second man on the moon).
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