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from "A Pilgrim's Path - Freemasonry and the Religious Right"
by John R. Robinson
ISBN 0-87131-732-X

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 Mason?"

And then questions will flow that indicate a high level of public interest or curiosity, backed by pitifully meager information.

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 govern themselves.

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 recognition.

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 brothers behind.

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. 459.

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 unauthorized.

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 initiation lectures.

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 Master Mason.

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 charitable activities.

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 and assistance.

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 or admonished.

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 of all.

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 matter."

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 away).

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.