Home > Masonic, Shrine > The Freemasons vs. Freemasonry – A Complicated Web of Men

The Freemasons vs. Freemasonry – A Complicated Web of Men

FORWARD: The following is an opinion presentation I gave to my lodge on February 11, 2013.  This paper was turned in for credit to the Pennsylvania Academy of Masonic knowledge.

The Freemasons vs. Freemasonry  – A Complicated Web of Men

square_compassA lot can be said about the Masonic fraternity.  It’s an odd monster.  There are so many different aspects of the fraternity that a man could literally read a new book every day for the rest of his life trying to understand it and still not be an expert on all things Masonic.  Being that there are so many faces of Freemasonry, it can sometimes be difficult to explain any one particular avenue of the Craft without at least touching on the many other facets of the fraternity.  One could break down Masonry into categories of history, tradition, morals, practices, ritual, or knowledge to try and cover all the basic aspects of the Craft and there would still be more to talk about.

Along with such a large and complicated organization comes a plethora of men making the wheels turn.  These men come from all different backgrounds and professions.  These men all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Every man in the fraternity can bring something to the good of the group if he chooses.  Likewise, it’s important for even the most organized of men to understand that any man who tries to run everything himself can cause ripples in the harmony of the order.  It is important for us to all participate where we can and at the same time also invite and include others.

It is first important to understand that no one man can run a hall or operate their lodge by themselves.  It takes many people performing numerous unrelated tasks to keep everything running smooth. Separately, tasks may seem as though they vary in difficulty and importance, but collectively the slightest oversight could lead to major problems.

There is a business side of the fraternity, as well as a social side of the fraternity.  There is a charitable aspect, and there is a ritualistic aspect.   There are very public faces of the fraternity, and there are also very private dealings within the lodge. There are old members and there are young members.  There are active members and there are men who rarely attend.

It is often assumed that at the top stand a handful of all powerful figures.  This is true in some regard as there is in fact a hierarchy of men with titles such as Grand Master,  Worshipful Master, Senior Warden, and Junior Warden.  Although a lot of responsibility rests with these men, it’s necessary to understand that these men are not always responsible for everything that happens with the lodge or hall.

On the contrary, many times these guys have little to no understanding about the majority of the day to day tasks of building upkeep.  Things like hall rentals, keeping the electricity on, making sure mail goes to the correct people, and making sure the bathrooms are stocked with toilet paper are just a few items that are not often on the minds of the supposed “guys at the top.”

This Brings us to the Lodge and the Hall.

A lodge needs to have meetings which require a building or space. Some lodges have their own building, some lodges meet within a shared hall at different times.  A building or hall requires some sort of hall association to perform maintenance.  In cases where more than one lodge meets in the same building, the individual lodges are required to rent the building from the hall association to fund upkeep and general maintenance.  Members from all renting lodges can be elected to the hall association to act as a governing body of the hall.

Although it is true that there can be great profit in a well run building available for public rental, the main purpose of a Masonic hall is to simply act as a place where individual lodges meet to conduct business.

Individual lodges are run by elected officers.  These officers are charged with upholding the constitution of their Grand Lodge, and the bylaws of their individual lodges.  In addition to elected officers, each lodge also has appointed officers.  Many times these men are any member who shows a desire to advance in Freemasonry and possibly become Worshipful Master in the future.

A common phrase heard in lodge is “advancing through the chairs.”  What follows is the general gist of what is meant by this phrase, although it must be understood that this is NOT necessarily the official practice of any lodge and should never be assumed that this is what will happen with any member.

While these is no guarantee that any man will be appointed to any chair by the Worshipful Master, typically if a man shows desire, he  is first appointed as the lowest officer, who sits in a specifically designated chair on the floor of the lodge. In a perfect world, the following year the same man is again appointed to the next highest office, and consequently sits in a new physical chair on the floor.  This usually continues from year to year until the man is ready and certified to be elected Junior Warden.  If the man is fortunate enough to be elected by the brethren, the following year he is usually elected Senior Warden, and after another year he may be elected Worshipful Master.

There are many exceptions to this unofficial chair progression.  Often time’s men have no desire to advance to an elected position, but enjoy sitting in a minor chair, and so, may spend years being appointed to the same chair as men pass around them.  Sometimes men wait for years in anticipation of being coming Worshipful Master, but fail to fulfill the necessary qualifications and certifications to even be considered for the office.  Sometimes a man spends years being appointed to every chair, learns all the work, passes all his certification, but is not elected by the lodge to be Master for one reason of another.  This is rare, but it does happen.  There is no guarantee a man will become Master, no matter how hard he works.

On the other hand, especially in lodges where there is limited interest from the membership to be an officer, a new Mason may find himself thrust very quickly into a higher appointed chair.  In many jurisdictions a man cannot be elected as a Warden until he is certified and proven to be capable of reciting a degree and covering the business of the lodge. The business of the lodge can be just that, any business of the lodge; opening, closing, memorials, welcoming guest, approving treasurer and secretary reports.   If any member holds this certification he can be considered qualified to be an elected officer. This is true even of a new member who has never sat in an appointed chair. It is rare, but on occasion a man can be elected as a Warden within a year of joining the lodge, and in some cases even become Master the following year.  This is an extremely rare occurrence, and it should go without saying that the value of such a Master who attains this office would most likely not be very beneficial to the order.

From the newly raised Mason, to the fifty year member, we all have the privilege of walking through the west gate to be seated as brothers.  These are just a few faces of the fraternity, there are countless more. The point is; it takes different types of men to control the different faces of the fraternity.

What is Freemasonry? 

That is such an open ended question that it cannot be defined completely in one paper.  There is a classic phrase often used by Masonic historians to explain Freemasonry that goes as follows:

“Freemasonry is a system of morality, veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols.”

This phrase is original credited to a man named Dr. Samuel Hemming.1 Take a moment and reread that phrase.  “A system of morality veiled in allegory, and illustrated by symbols.”  It is a beautiful sentence.  It is very poetic.  It flows like literary water.   Although it is a simple definition, it is a very clear one. You cannot, however, expect to gain an understanding of the Craft based on this one phrase.  It is here that the student should look past the poetic charm of this simple phrase and dig a little further.   It is up to the student to expand on this phrase and look into what exactly it means.

Just as often the case that men will not ask for directions, men tend to also not admit they don’t understand something. This is especially the case when they feel everyone around them completely understands the subject and that they somehow are the odd man out.  Because of this, a man will chose to sit in the dark rather than seek enlightenment or education.   For those of you who undoubtedly have sat in an auditorium during a question and answer session, but did not ask your question because you thought your question was too simple or not intellectually stimulating enough to complete with the deeper questions being tossed around, the following is for you. For educational purposes, let’s blow this simple phrase up and complicate it a little.

We start with the first part.  Freemasonry is a system of morality.  This seems simple enough on the surface.  You have to first define what a system is.  Simply put, a system is a set of smaller things connected together to form a complex whole.  This can be an assembly line, or many items working together to create a network or streamline an action.  We move from here to morality.  Morality can be defined as distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong.  We know there are some folks who are morally upstanding, and there are some folks who are morally corrupt.  A man’s morals are his actions and how he chooses to make them either positive or negative.

Because Freemasonry is to be a positive journey for a man, when armed with the above definitions we can safely say that the system of morality we are talking about is the combined items of rules, directions, suggestions, recommendations, and instructions that will positively influence our daily lives.  Simply put, it can be orders to function in such a manner that is beneficial.

How does it give us these orders to function?  This brings us to the second portion of this phrase; “veiled in allegory.”  From my own experience, and asking around in a test pool of friends, I have come to the conclusion that this part is more difficult for most people to explain.    Veiled simply means; covered or hidden behind.  Veiled is a way of saying concealed, disguised, or obscured.  Allegory on the other hand is the word that many men, for some reason, won’t admit they may not fully be able to define.  The words “allegory” and “veiled” go and hand in hand as allegory is usually a story or poem or art form that can be interpreted to reveal a deeper meaning.  Many times allegories contain characters or events that represent or symbolize ideas and concepts. To break this down as simple as possible, with caution, this portion can be described as “art with things hidden in it.”

How can we find what is hidden?  The latter portion of our simple poetic phrase tells us that Freemasonry is illustrated by symbols.  A symbol can be anything that represents something else.  It can be a material object that reminds you to do something.  It can be a mark, character, color, or anything used to help us think, function, or process.

When we put all of the above together what we have is an organization that will give us positive direction in life by telling us stories that will make us better people.  It seems very simple, but it is not for everyone, and not everyone is fit for the fraternity.

It is also worth pointing out that a man can improve himself without being a Freemason.  A man can be perfect without the Freemasons in his life.  One does not need symbolism and allegory to become a good person.  This just happens to be our method of personal enlightenment and betterment of character.

Why the Symbols?

Any Masons, be it the general card carrier or the 50 year Past Master, can tell you that one of the most dominant aspects of Freemasonry is the use of symbols and symbolism.  The important thing for Freemasons to understand is that almost everything is symbolic in a Masonic lodge.  This is not just true of physical items like the square and compass, or the other working tools, but all things, down to the manner in which we are to stand, sit, turn, address one another, shake hands and carry our regalia in lodge.

Symbols are used as reminders for us.  The symbols found in our lodge are also found in our daily lives.  Being familiar with them in lodge will help you recognize them while running about in our daily lives.  The effect of understanding the working tools of Freemasonry and ability to recognize symbols if our daily lives will no doubt make a Mason a better man, and as a result, improve the world around him.

To the unenlightened Mason, or non-Mason, much of our symbolism is lost with them because they are not educated.  This can be one of the main reasons that not all men benefit the rewards of the Craft.  Men come to lodge, men go through the motions, leave lodge, but rarely ask or possibly do not care the reason or meaning behind the many aspects of the fraternity they are a part of.  An argument could then be made that perhaps these men should have chosen a different fraternity, as it is clear that they are not getting the most out of the ancient system of which they are a part of.

What then makes you a Freemason? 

Paying your dues?  Many men think so.   Does perfect attendance make you a Freemason?  Many men think this as well.  Does volunteering, fundraising, or memorizing the ritual make you a Freemason?  Again, many men think so.

These are all noble characteristics of a great Mason.  The fraternity absolutely needs men to do all the above and move.  Why then, question whether any of this stuff makes a man a Freemason?

The answer is because we have lost the concept of what it means to be in the Freemasons, and what it means to be a Freemason.  Think about this for a moment.  Does perfect attendance mean anything if you are not living by the working tools?  If you pay your yearly dues, but have no idea what the working tools are, can you truly call yourself a Freemason?

While “the Freemasons” as a whole can be considered a club by some, Freemasonry definitely is not.  Freemasonry is much more.  Freemasonry is a system of living.  Freemasonry is a living system.  It’s true.  Freemasonry, when practiced correctly, is a system of life that teaches self improvement.  A Freemason is supposed to practice Masonic virtues.  A Freemason is taught to make use of the working tools of the Craft as symbols to aid and improve their daily lives.

How can a man be a Mason?

Well, for starters, it cannot be accomplished through any amount of memorization, volunteerism, charity, or good deeds.  All of the above will certainly make you a great person, and a true Freemason should have all of the above qualities, but these items cannot on their own make you a Freemason.  After all, a person outside our fraternity can volunteer, give to charity, do nothing but good deeds, and if he somehow stumbles upon our ritual, could also memorize the entire thing.

Let’s assume for a moment that a man, outside our west gate, was to do all of the above.  Does that make him a Mason?  If you have any other thought in your head other than a very loud and clear NO, then perhaps it is time for some basic Masonic education.

What then, makes the Masons stand out?  Why are they any different than the Moose or the Elks or the Rotary?  Why does one need to join the Masons to do charitable things?   The short answer is, you don’t.  If you wanted to do charitable things, then any of these great organizations will be able to fulfill your desire to do so.

Perhaps if all you want to do is volunteer and do charity, then maybe the Masons are not a great fit for you.  Not because you are not a good person, but because that is not what Freemasonry is solely about.

To put it in other words, the great list of positive things the Masons can lay claim to are not necessarily a result of us being a so called civic club.  On the contrary, one could argue that the “club” many see is a side effect of the members just practicing Masonic virtues.

Here lies the problem.  In today’s world, unfortunately, many Masons cannot tell you why we are different from other fraternal organizations.  Some men will sit on the sidelines for years and complain about “never doing anything.” They will follow with comparisons of other civil organizations who are doing overwhelmingly well in attendance and charity and ask why we do not do these things.    Others will avoid meetings because they are “boring.”  There is always a reason to find fault in any organization, but for some reason in Freemasonry we have an overwhelming number of men who have no clue what Freemasonry is about, but yet insist we should be “out there” doing things.

This may be difficult for some to listen to, but as stated above, those who truly live by Masonic virtues and make use of the working tools in their daily lives will, by default, not only see the great benefits of Freemasonry, but will also gain an understanding of what Freemasonry is.  They will understand why just “being in the Freemasons” is not enough to actually BE a Freemason.

Freemasonry is about Self Improvement

We are supposed to gain an understanding of the seven liberal arts.  Listen to that again.  We are to gain knowledge of the seven liberal arts.  Grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy are not just words found in a ritual.   They are not just a string of text meant to be regurgitated to a candidate.   They are to be understood.  If the general member took 2 days to crack a book like “The Exemplar” or “The Builders” by Joseph Fort Newton they would realize that Freemasonry is not just a civic club.

Too many members today seek no education.  They are asking what Freemasonry offers, but yet they are not taking the Craft up on what it is freely giving them.  They ask; “What can we do?” even though it is clearly told to them in the three symbolic degrees.

Where do we go from here? 

We can start by going to the lodge.  Those who seek answers will find them there.  Even if your lodge is complacent and has no form of mentoring or Masonic education chair, you will find resources in your lodge.  You will find books.  You will find minutes.  You will find a likeminded person if you seek them out.  Nothing will come to you until you seek it out.   When you are ready to advance, there will be opportunity.  It is important to state very clearly that nothing will be handed to you.  It will take time and dedication to understand the Craft and benefit its rewards.  No amount of donating to charity or paying your way will lead to true Masonic understanding or benefits.  Remember, wealth cannot purchase your admission.  This is another phrase that actually means something during your initiation.   Until you understand the working tools and symbolism behind the ritual, you will not understand the Craft.

It is important to understand that Freemasonry is a system of moral living and self-improvement.  It is important to understand that Freemasonry is found in the symbolic degrees, or in your blue lodge.  The symbolic lodge is the most important body in Freemasonry.   This foundation is where you are taught about the working tools.  The symbolic degrees are where you learn what it means to be a Freemason.

What about the other orders of Freemasonry? 

You never have to look far to find a man with a blank petition to the York Rite, Scottish Rite, Shrine, or any number of organizations that claim a Masonic connection. So what about them? They exist. They do great things.  There is probably a body very close to you, and they probably want you to become a member.  You see them out in the public.  They are civic and social.  The list goes on and on about what these other fraternities do.   Most of these organizations claim to be founded upon Masonic principles too.  That almost seems like all the more reason to run right out and join, right?  After all, we have all heard about how old Uncle Jim was a 32nd degree Mason.  He must have been pretty high up and powerful, right?

Why is any of this relevant? 

The answer is because we as Freemasons need to understand that these other bodies are completely separate fraternities.  While they are Masonic in nature, and often have degrees and further education, they alone cannot make you a Freemason.  They are not meant to be the foundation of Masonic education.  These orders were designed to piggyback off Freemasonry by taking men who knew Masonic virtues and understood things like working tools and cable tows, the three great lights, the three lesser lights, and all things Masonic and offer them a place to see these things practiced.

These bodies can take a Mason and give him “something to do.”  These bodies can give hours of entertainment and life lesson degree work that illustrates Masonic principles.  Perhaps this is why they are still very popular.  Many of these bodies are very public and very well known as positive organizations in society.  They do a lot of great things.  They can expand your Masonic understanding through pageantry and other degrees. They cannot, however, make you any more of a Freemason than you can become in the first three degrees of the Symbolic Lodge.

Is that a bad thing?

That would depend on who you ask.  Of course these organizations are not bad or sinister in any way.  They help millions of people every day.  They are noble in their mission and popular with their participating members.  So, what’s the downside then?   When dealing with the subject of Freemasonry, the downside to these appendent bodies is that they can too often act as a distraction to the original purpose of Freemasonry.

This is in no way an attempt to degrade of put down these great organizations, but rather point out the fact that these organizations are separate from the symbolic lodge.  You can probably go to any Lions Club, Rotary Club, Elks, Moose, Odd Fellows, or other Fraternity and find many men who also hold membership in a Masonic lodge.  These other organizations do not make you a more powerful Mason, and no one would ever claim that they would.  It may benefit the new Mason to view appendant Masonic bodies as the same.  While requirements for membership in the Shrine include being a Freemason, the Shrine cannot make you any more of a Freemason.  You can rise to the highest office of Imperial Potentate of the Shrine International and you still would not be any more of a Mason than someone who has never held an office in blue lodge, but happens to understand the working tools.

This is where interest is born.  This is where tomorrow’s leaders take their first steps into the Craft.  Maybe it’s time we come back to the basics.

  1. History of Freemasonry, Volume 4, Macky, Cleg, Hughan, page 1264

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Categories: Masonic, Shrine
  1. 15 February 2013 at 3:48 pm

    Great post, almost an abbreviated Freemasons for Dummies. Thanks for following my blog by the way.

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