It is because of the antiquity and the resulting mystery surrounding our origins that Freemasonry has developed into such a unique and to the uninitiated, complicated and mysterious organisation. Many of the myths surrounding the fraternity have evolved from the reluctance of members to explain our ancient systems of moral education to those they feel would be inclined to ridicule them. In some instances, it was also due to a misguided impression that some people were simply not of sufficient intellectual or moral character to understand or appreciate our aims and objectives. In order to avoid conflict or embarrassment to either party, the Freemasons of yesteryear felt it better to say nothing. There is also the question of Masonic secrecy. Do we have secrets? Yes we do. They are however, confined principally to modes of recognition of Masonic rank or progress and are only of any real significance when used in Masonic ceremonies.
The ceremonies themselves are not strictly secret but they are of such a special significance to every Freemason we prefer to keep them private. Every Freemason remembers with great affection the uniqueness of his initiation ceremony and wants every new candidate of Freemasonry to experience the same joy of discovery and feel the same sense of privilege. However, to return to the context of the original question it is better to start (as far as is possible) from the beginning.
The exact origins or beginnings of Freemasonry are impenetrably shrouded in the mists of time. It is ancient, of that fact there is no doubt, and its history extends back into the past to a time when literacy was confined to the aristocracy and the church. So rare was a man of literacy in and prior to the Middle Ages that to call for a bible and read a passage from a page nominated by the judge was sufficient to be excused the death penalty for murder. According to law, if a man could read he must have been either a priest or of royal blood and as such was exempt from the ultimate punishment.
This is why the question “do you have anything to say before I pass sentence upon you?” was asked by the judge in British Courts before donning the black cap and passing down the death sentence.
Written records of lodge meetings were extremely rare or in the vast majority of cases totally non existent prior to the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1717.
Even within the great international brotherhood of Freemasonry itself, the question of our beginnings is the most widely researched and passionately debated topic among our scholars and almost every other member of the fraternity. Most are of the opinion that Freemasonry evolved from the lodges of operative stonemasons that spent their lives building the great cathedrals and castles of Europe in the Middle Ages. As already eluded to, literacy was almost non-existent and so the jealously guarded secrets of the mason’s trade were passed to worthy apprentices verbally. In addition to imparting the skills and trade secrets to the apprentice, the master stonemason was also responsible for the moral development of his charges.
To illustrate the moral lessons in life and the conduct required from a man of such lofty position as a stone mason, he used the most precious possessions he owned to illustrate the lessons, the tools of his trade. To each of the tools of the masons trade is ascribed a special moral significance. The square represents morality, the level equality, the plumb rule uprightness and so on. The same lessons of morality using the same operative stonemason’s tools are still used to this day in Masonic ceremony. Latterly, one of the alternative theories that is gaining in popularity is that the origins of Freemasonry began with the Knights Templar.
The theory is that the Templar’s enlisted the very finest stonemasons of the Middle Ages to join in the crusades for the purposes of building the countless Templar fortresses and churches all over Europe and the Holy Lands.
It is believed by the promulgators of the theory that it was the “Warrior Monks” as the Knights Templar were known who first devised the moral lessons using the mason’s tools for the education of the mason’s apprentices.
Either theory has never been conclusively proven or disproved but they are both, if nothing else, charming and romantic stories.
Regardless of its uncertain origins, since the formalisation and unification of Freemasonry in 1717 little of significance about Freemasonry has changed. This then brings us to the question of what are the objectives of Freemasonry and are they still relevant in modern society. The broad objectives of Freemasonry are to promote world peace and unity through love and understanding. Freemasonry works towards this lofty ideal by providing its members with an ethic for living and teaches honesty in business, courtesy towards others, dependability in work, compassion and concern for the less fortunate, tolerance towards one’s fellow beings, resistance to evil, help for the weak, and love for one another and reverence for a Supreme Being.
The Supreme Being is the One God of an individual’s religion. Freemasonry does not otherwise discriminate against any religion and Christians, Muslims Buddhists, Jews and all religions who profess a love of the one true God are welcomed into its ranks. Without a belief in God it is not possible to become a Freemason for Freemasonry encourages every member to follow and practice his chosen faith and it is that faith more than any other element that bonds us together as a brotherhood.
THE LODGE MEETING
A Freemasons’ lodge meeting can be roughly divided into three parts; business, ceremonial and festive. The business component is much the same as any club or association, the minutes of the previous meeting are passed, the Secretary reads the correspondence, the Treasurer gives his report and general business is conducted.
The ceremonial component is generally the working of one of the three Masonic degrees, which represent the three levels each member works his way through. These are commonly referred to as the first, second and third degrees or the Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master Mason’s degree.
Each of these ceremonies is like a play with the candidate for the degree taking centre stage. A number of the lodge members have walk on speaking parts and the Master of the lodge has the lead role. Each of the speaking parts is a lesson on morality, good conduct both within, and outside the lodge and many utilise the tools of the old operative stonemasons to illustrate the lesson in exactly the same way as they were in ancient times. It’s serious, solemn and as previously alluded to, rooted in antiquity. It is also fascinatingly complex and intricate which is why Freemasons never tire of performing and taking part in these beautiful ceremonies.
The festive component is a meal shared by all the brethren after the ceremonial has been completed. There are lots of toasts, speeches, clapping, singing and music but the whole banquet is conducted with both light heartedness and dignity. Some lodges have a catered five-course dinner while other lodges prefer a lighter style of supper. Some lodges serve alcoholic beverages and some lodges do not.
There is no doubt that Freemasonry is not for everyone, and Freemasonry does not make the boast that it can turn a bad man into a good one. Freemasonry is more about making good men better men in all kinds of ways; better family men, better employees or employers, better citizens and productive members of society. So, where does charity come in? Charity is a fundamental of Freemasonry and its good works are very many indeed, so many in fact that it really needs a separate discourse to do it full justice.