En: What is Freemasonry?
This is a question frequently asked by ladies and non-masons!
The following text was written and presented to a public audience by W. Bro. David Lewis, founder and Past Master of Lyceum Lodge of Research No. 8682 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The meetings of this lodge are in the Freemasons Hall, 6 Park Lane, Parktown, Johannesburg. The presentation was adapted from a document originating from the Grand Lodge of South Africa which was given to the author by W.Bro. Ivor Appleton.
This presentation is intended, in some measure, to answer that question, as this evening, we will introduce you to Freemasonry, or the Craft as we term it. We will provide you with some historical background, outline our aims and objectives and give you a glimpse of what we do and who does what in a lodge.
Freemasonry is the world’s oldest and largest secular, fraternal and charitable society with several million members spread throughout the world. It is a universal society of men who seek to improve themselves through their association with one another and their families. It promotes the basic precepts of Truth, Morality and Brotherly Love. It is, in fact, probably the only institution where ‘good men and true’ can meet anywhere in the world regardless of rank, colour and creed. It brings good men of all persuasions together for fraternity and the promotion of integrity and good citizenship.
It encourages charitable activity and social awareness and strives, through its teachings, to uplift its members and assists them in their efforts to apply high moral standards, to live decent lives and to conduct themselves to the benefit of those with whom they come into contact.
No freemason is ever asked to perform any task or take any oath which may conflict with his duties to his God, his family or as a citizen.
Freemasonry is not a religion but it does demand that every member believes in a Supreme Being and encourages them to continue to practice his own beliefs. It strongly promotes charitable activities to assist those less fortunate than themselves. It is certainly not politically motivated as political (and religious) discussion is strictly forbidden in Masonic lodges. It follows that Freemasonry does not exist in countries where free speech is not allowed. Consequently no Freemasonry existed in Nazi Germany, Franco’s Spain , Salazar’s Portugal or the Soviet Union. It also is not allowed in many countries in the Middle East for the same reason.
In brief, its aim is to try and improve the world in which we live by uplifting moral and spiritual values. Masonic activities may broadly be split into ceremonial, social and charitable areas. In the formal ritual as practiced in ceremonial workings, a candidate is taught values and philosophies which will stand him in good stead in his life and community. These rituals are divided into three degrees and use symbolism to illustrate and explain the powerful teachings which are conveyed in a somewhat theatrical manner.
The social activities allow brethren to get to know one another and their families better by encouraging the concept of brotherhood and harmonious support each tries to achieve whilst also promoting charitable activities. After each ceremony the brethren gather for a festive board where they can relax and enjoy each others’ company. This is a very important aspect of the whole organization and this evening we will also do the same.
Tonight’s presentation will not in any way demonstrate our ceremonies but will give you some idea of what goes on in a lodge.
It is customary that we commence all our proceedings with a prayer which I will ask our chaplain to conduct. All the brethren will stand with the sign of reverence.
Chaplain: Let us invoke the assistance of the Great Architect of the Universe in all our undertakings: may our labours thus begun in order, be conducted in peace and closed in harmony. S.M.I.B.
We will now sing three verses of our opening hymn (as printed in our programme)
W.M.: (Worshipful Master) Brother Senior Warden. Where did Freemasonry originate?
S.W.: (Senior Warden) Freemasonry is many centuries old and many learned scholars cannot agree precisely where and when it began. There are many theories ranging from the Temple in Jerusalem, the medieval stone-masons, ancient trade guilds and the closing of the monasteries in England, but none of them have been proved conclusively despite extensive efforts to research them. However we use the symbolism of the ancient stone-masons to illustrate our teachings.
The first recorded initiation of a mason in England was in 1646 in Warrington when Elias Ashmole (famous for establishing the Ashmolean Museum) was inititated. Subsequently four lodges in London formed the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. In South Africa the Dutch introduced Freemasonry and formed Lodge de Goede Hoop in 1772 in Cape Town. This lodge is still extant and their members played leading roles in the early history of the Cape. English freemasonry was introduced in the early 1800’s and has since spread all over the country.
W.M.: Bro. Junior Warden. It is often said that Freemasonry is a secret society. How valid is this accusation?
J.W.: (Junior Warden) In recent times one of our main challenges has been to dispel this false impression. It is most certainly not and the reality is that the rules and aims of the order are available to the general public, its meeting places are known and its members are encouraged to talk about Freemasonry. Many books have been written on the subject and can be found in bookshops and libraries.
In the past we have not advertised ourselves or drawn attention to its many good works. This, possibly, has contributed to suspicions but more recently a more open approach has been introduced by the leaders of the craft. It is a reality that we have certain secrets but these are limited to some signs, grips and words which enable members to recognize one another. This is hardly unusual in modern society. After all, we have pin numbers at our banks, membership numbers in our clubs and fingerprints recorded in our ID documents. It is often necessary for people to prove who they are and Freemasonry is no different. We do not publicize the content of our ceremonies for the various degrees but you could read them if you wish. There I nothing humiliating or offensive in any of them and each degree is a unique and unforgettable experience which one cannot appreciate by just reading them
W.M.: Brother Chaplain. At the commencement of our proceedings you offered up a prayer to our Creator. Could this be interpreted as offering an alternative to formal religion?
Chaplain: Freemasonry demands that every member believes in a Supreme Being, but leaves each individual to determine his own religious beliefs. When I took my obligation my prayers were offered to the GAOTU and each brother is entitled to determine who he deems this to be. In accordance with my personal beliefs I placed my hands on my own Volume of the Sacred Law which happens to be the Bible. We have members of many different beliefs and their Holy Books will also be displayed in the lodge when they are obligated.
We have no theological doctrine, offer no sacraments and do not claim to lead to salvation by works or any other means. In fact we actively encourage our members to adhere to their own faiths. We do offer up prayers at our meetings but these are non-denominational and are acceptable to all those who believe in a Supreme Being. Our position is quite clear despite misinterpretations which have occurred between Freemasonry and some churches. Religious leaders of all faiths have participated in our ceremonies without prejudice to their own beliefs.
W.M.: Brother Director of Ceremonies: How are we constituted and what happens at Masonic meetings?
D.C.: (Director of Ceremonies) We are affiliated to the United Grand Lodge of England and our district, South Africa North, is a part of that organization. It is the largest district outside of the U.K. It was established in 1895 and now consists of over 100 lodges spread over four countries, Botswana, Swaziland, Mauritius and the area which was formerly the Transvaal.
At our ceremonial workings, the lodge confers basic degrees on candidates or installs a new master, usually annually. The three degrees are 1st, the entered apprentice, 2n,d, the fellowcraft and 3rd the master mason and are conferred on candidates at three separate meetings over a period, during which time he has the opportunity to acquaint himself with the various teachings of each degree. They use the symbolism of tools used by ancient stonemasons and are an enlightening experience opening their minds to our philosophy of living a good and moral life. We also encourage them to visit other lodges to widen their experience and acquaintance with other brethren.
W.M.: I would now like to introduce to you some of the officers of the lodge and explain their roles.
(As each officer is named he should rise and give a court bow and remain standing until the next officer is named)
The Worshipful Master, during the ceremonial working is seated here. He governs his lodge and confers degrees on candidates. He has ultimate responsibility for everything which occurs within the lodge during his term of office. He normally also chairs the committee meetings.
The Immediate Past Master sits on the Worshipful Master’s left and assists him , where necessary, in the execution of his duties. If the Master is absent he assumes responsibility in the interim.
The Senior Warden is one of the two principal officers of the lodge and assists in opening and closing of the lodge.
The Junior Warden, the other principal officer, also assists in the opening and closing of the lodge and is also responsible for organizing the festive board and all catering arrangements. He is also responsible for the examination of visitors.
The Secretary records the proceedings of all meetings and produces minutes for confirmation by the lodge. He also attends to all correspondence.
The Treasurer manages the finances of the lodge, collects subscriptions and presents an annual balance sheet.
The Director of Ceremonies supervises the workings in the lodge and, usually,the festive board as well. He is responsible for the introduction and accommodation of visitors.
The Chaplain conducts all prayers in the lodge.
The Almoner, usually a senior brother, is charged with keeping in touch with the brethren and reporting any good news, sad news and cases of ill health amongst the brethren and their families.
The Senior Deacons and Junior Deacons are charged with carrying messages from the Worshipful Master to the Wardens and assisting in the ceremonies.
The Inner Guard reports on all movements through the door of the lodge and prevents unauthorized persons from entering.
The Organist provides music for the opening and closing odes and during the evening.
The Charity Steward is responsible for organizing and coordinating all charitable fund-raising activities.
The Tyler, armed with a drawn sword, remains outside the door of the lodge to keep off any intruders and to prepare the candidates.
W.M.: Brother Inner Guard. Please explain why we are attired as we are and what is the significance of our various items of regalia.
I.G.: As you are aware, we adhere to a basic dress code, which in this District, is usually dress suit but some lodges wear morning suits or dark suits. This standard satisfies several needs. It is smart and formal and reminds us of the seriousness of our activities. It also removes and differences which may arise from non-standard garb. Similarly the wearing of white gloves avoids any differences between the hands of hard-working men and the more privileged members whose hands are not calloused.
You will note that the brethren wear aprons, symbolic of the operative masons’ art with various designs and colours to identify and individual’s rank and position in our order. The apprentices wear plain white aprons which are further embellished as they proceed on their Masonic careers. Collarettes and jewels are also worn to indicate their offices in the lodge.
W.M.: I will now point out to the audience some of the items and furniture found in every lodge
(mention VSL, Charter, S&C, chequered carpet, ashlars and Doric , Ionic and Corinthian columns- also show lists of GMs and DGMs)
W.M: Brother Treasurer. Please provide us with some thoughts on Masonic symbolism.
Treasurer: Freemasonry uses symbolism to promote the moral and ethical principles it endeavours to inculcate in its members. Most symbols revolve around the working tools of the ancient stonemasons. For example, the square and compasses which is the universal sign of a freemason. Many Masonic expressions have found their way into common language. “on the square and “on the level “ are good examples.
The white lambskin aprons, worn by Entered Apprentices, symbolize the innocence and purity of our noble intentions, and the Volume of the Sacred Law which reminds us that everything we do must be to the honour and glory of our Great Creator. The checkered floor, found in every lodge, symbolizes good and evil, light and darkness and the different paths we all follow in our lives.
I could mention many more but that would be at the expense of the patience of our audience.
W.M.: Brother Almoner. How do masons apply charity?
Almoner. Charity is derived from the Greek word Caritas which indicates “caring” and indeed charity in Masonic terms encompasses more than simply providing financial support for worthy causes. It also involves emotional support and encouragement to sick or distressed members and their families. This mutual support that promotes brotherhood is practiced by masons world-wide. We help support both non-masonic and Masonic recipients as evidenced by the list attached to our programme this evening. We also run Masonic homes for the elderly and indigent here and world-wide. Indeed freemasons are exhorted to practice charity in thought , word and deed for the benefit of society in general.
W.M.: Brother Secretary. What makes a man eligible for membership of our order.??
Secretary: We accept, according to our rules, “Free men of good report”- good reputation. Apart from this he has to believe in a Supreme Being of whatever religions he affirms. We do not accept atheists, men with a criminal record or unrehabilitated insolvents. We strongly recommend that, if married or in a relationship, he should have the support of his partner and one’s family must always be a major priority.
He may be attracted to various aspect of the order, charity ,fellowship, history, symbolism or the ceremonies but most importantly he will contribute his time and efforts in whichever area he prefers subject to his ability.
Freemasonry has attracted many highly respected men of all sections of society, including, I must stress, some very senior religious leaders. Thus, whether you are a monarch, president, explorer, musician, writer or journeyman there is a place for you in our order.
W.M.: Brother Immediate Past Master. What does freemasonry expect of its members?
I.P.M.: (Immediate Past Master) On joining a lodge you would be expected to attend regular meetings, without prejudice to your family or business connections and participate in social and charitable activities. You must, of course, be financially able to afford the joining fee and annual subscription which will be detailed to you before joining and remain in good standing thereafter.
It is customary to have a collection for charity at every meeting, but as this is not an official Masonic meeting we will not do so this evening. However when you leave our Brother Deacons will be pleased to accept any voluntary donation outside the door of the lodge.
W.M.: You may ask why we go to lodge. There are many reasons, largely personal, for attending. Some enjoy the rituals, others are deeply involved in charitable functions, and most enjoy the fellowship. Some just enjoy having a few drinks over dinner with their brethren. Whatever their inclination there is something in it for all of them and there is no compulsion to do more than they wish or can afford.
One thing is clear. In difficult times a brother can come into lodge and find an oasis of tranquility from the outside world and put aside, even if temporarily, all tension and problems. It is, therefore, in a way, a sanctuary which relieves the pressures of daily life.
From all this you can appreciate that Freemasonry does have a great deal to offer and contributes to making the world a better place and good men better.
I hope you have found this interesting and illuminating and worthy of the time you have spent with us.
We will now entertain some questions and after that we will sing our closing ode (Abide with Me) and repair to the festive board which I am sure you will enjoy. Anyone who has booked and not yet paid, please see our Brother Treasurer who will be happy to assist you.
Thank you for joining us this evening.
Bro Deacons: Take post.
More from David Lewis:
- En: Freemasonry under the Nazis: long version 2012
- Die Freimaurerei Europas unter den Nazis: translated from "The Square" (shorted version published in June 2015)
- One of the lodges founded by David Lewis in Johannesburg: http://www.lyceumlodge.com/index.php