Masonic Traditions in Our Past and Our Future
by Paul M. Bessel
Presentation at La France Lodge #93, F.A.A.M., Washington, D.C., September 8, 2000
The subject we are discussing this evening is the most important one in Freemasonry, for we will be exchanging ideas about what Freemasonry has been in the past, what it is today, and what it can and will be in the future.
This does not mean that we must follow our traditions simply because they have existed. We could say that some of them were wrong and should end, just as the traditions of slavery, or of women having no rights, were traditions that properly ended. Or we could say that some traditions made sense in the past, but no longer. But we should be honest with ourselves in examining what Freemasonry has been in the past and what it is today, so we can make better choices about what we want to make it in the future.
I believe we can place Masonic traditions -- what Freemasonry has been, what it is today, and what it can be in the future -- into 5 categories.
We do not know much about the origins of Freemasonry, as we know it today, in the 1600s and 1700s, and maybe that is good because it allows those interested in Masonic history to explore all sorts of threads of events in that era.
We do have a pretty good idea that men who were interested in learning were among the leaders who founded and promoted Freemasonry in the early days, particularly the 1700s. Scientists, philosophers, members of the Royal Society, explored knowledge and sought to expand it. Benjamin Franklin was an archetype -- scientist, publisher, writer, explorer, statesman, philosopher, and at the same time a man who enjoyed having a good time, he was just the type of man who was intrigued by a fraternity of men who could meet in private and talk about the wonders of the world and humanity.
What happened with this tradition of learning in Freemasonry. Today, are the great men of science and thought found among the members of Masonic lodges? No, and we generally no longer have stimulating discussions about educational topics at most of our meetings, do we?
What is likely to happen with this tradition in the future? Men who love to learn tend to associate with others who have similar feelings. Is it likely that those who would like to learn about the great philosophers of the world will want to sit and listen to minutes being read and bills being paid, and possibly hearing that ours is a great fraternity, or a great country, or see a program about our flag that is filled with misinformation?
And let be clear -- this is not an elitist point. Men of all backgrounds and in all occupations are interested in broadening their knowledge, and Masonic meetings could be a wonderful place to accomplish this. But are we doing it now? Will we start doing it? If not, learning is a tradition that will die out in our Lodges. To some extent it already has in many places. Should it be allowed to continue to disappear, or is there something we want to do about this?
Social Standing and Social Interactions
Another Masonic tradition of long standing is social standing, or social interactions. It seems this is what drew George Washington to Freemasonry, and it worked for him.
This tradition went further back than Washington. Shortly after the start of the premier Grand Lodge in 1717, Masonic leaders were able to attract the English nobility, even the Royal family, to join. Freemasonry became the mark of men of distinction, and thus something to be strived for.
This had both good and bad effects. It led to a degree of snobbery, and thus led to the Antimasonic movement of the 1820s and 1830s that almost destroyed Freemasonry in the United States. The primary reason the American populace turned against Masons was that Freemasonry had come to represent the opposite of democracy. Masons were viewed as having too much control over politics and society, so average men and women worked hard to destroy this institution that they viewed as a threat to everything our country was supposed to stand for. Many Masons then and now cannot understand this attitude, but when an organization goes out of its way to talk about how the best people in society are its members, it should not be surprising that those who are excluded might become angry and fearful about its power.
But this attitude of society involvement had its good side. While some Freemasons were promoting the idea that they were a society of the upper classes, another group of Masons founded a new Grand Lodge with just the opposite philosophy. The Antients, as opposed to the Moderns in England, promoted the concept of bringing men of different backgrounds together. They used the words in Anderson's Constitutions to prove that they were the ones following the real traditions of Freemasonry, and to an extent they have won the battle over time. We proudly speak of how Masonry is the means of bringing about friendship among persons who would otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance.
Today, Masons proudly talk about universalism, tolerance, and Masons meeting on the level. This is a wonderful concept, but is it true? With some exceptions -- happily, our Grand Lodge among them -- do Freemasons really practice tolerance and equal feelings towards all, and have they in the past? Did Freemasonry, and does it today, treat African Americans the same as Caucasians, Jews and Moslems the same as Christians, women the same as men? Can we truly say there is no bigotry in Freemasonry? Has anyone here ever heard a racist or antisemitic "joke" from another Mason? Has anyone not heard such comments?
Let's leave this subject for now, but we'll come back to it.
Another thread in the traditions of Freemasonry is esotericism, or mysticism, the occult, magic, alchemy, tarot, or any similar word to describe this. Some Masons are fascinated by this type of subject, and feel that anyone who does not get equally misty-eyed about it does not understand what Freemasonry is really about. They see Freemasonry as a system for the transmittal of secret knowledge, or as Albert Pike said it, the goal of Freemasonry is to give us possession of the universal principle by which we may master the universe.
There are two levels to this. One is typified by those who may talk about King Solomon meeting with Hiram King of Tyre and Hiram Abif in the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Temple, not knowing that no one was permitted to meet there, or by those who see all sorts of proof that the Knights Templar consciously decided to become the Freemasons of today, or that Roslyn Chapel in Scotland has proof of all sorts of things, including the discovery of America long before Columbus.
Arthur E. Waite wrote of Masonry as the mysticism of a first hand experience with God. W.L. Wilmshurst talked of an inner world where the ancient mysteries of our being are to be learned.
This may be an interesting tradition, and who knows, some of these theories may be correct, but the beauty of these theories, for those who support them, is that no one can prove them wrong, just as no one can prove them right. Either you get it or you don't.
There is another level to this tradition. There are some, and there have always been, who feel that reciting the words of the Masonic ritual is the most important thing that can be done, and that this is the key to the meaning of what Freemasonry is for. As Jeremy Ladd Cross, one of the originators and propagators of our ritual in the early 1800s said, he could not tell Masons anything other than the words of the ritual, and did not care to. He said he was just a great memorizer, and he could teach others to memorize the words.
Again, those who believe in this Masonic tradition may or may not be right, and no one can prove it either way. But does anyone in this room think that Freemasonry will prosper in the future if we encourage men to join by telling them that if they do, they can spend a great deal of time learning to memorize our ritual? Please do not misunderstand -- some of our members see this as a means to an end. They feel that men who learn these words and floor work perfectly, and practice it over and over, will in the process become better and help others become better. Perhaps, but let us look at some other traditions, too.
Political, or Involvement in Society
A fourth tradition can be described as political, but in the best sense of the word. Even today, we proudly say that Freemasonry has always supported democracy, freedom, and individual rights. You will often hear some Masons say the reason Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Khomeini opposed Freemasonry is because they realized that our philosophy was opposed to all tyranny and that we would always fight for the rights of the people.
Is there evidence to support these statements? Did all Masons in the 1770s and 1780s support the American Revolution as the path to freedom? Did Masons in France support the French Revolution, even in its early, pre-terror years? Were there Masons among the slaveowners, as well as among those who opposed slavery? What did Masons in Germany do when Hitler came to power? Did they oppose his tyranny, or did they do all they could to try to prove their support of his policies?
Ironically, while most Freemasons talk proudly of our support of democracy and freedom, the same ones argue most strongly that Freemasonry must not be involved in politics in any form. This is not talking about whether anyone should vote for Gore or Bush, but even such things as whether we should support freedom of speech and thought. It is easy for anyone to say he supports freedom of speech, but what does that mean? Freedom to say what we like to hear, freedom to say what the majority are willing to tolerate, or freedom to say anything, even to express thoughts that almost everyone hates? And what about the freedom of each person to express dislike of American policies, or even America itself, or the freedom of each Mason to express opposition to a Grand Master? Do Masons support that, or do we make it a Masonic offense? Do most Masons really support the freedom of each person to be different from the majority?
The Grand Orient of France proudly says it is involved in society, urging its members to support individual rights and freedoms, and our branch of Masonry condemns them. Are we right, or is their tradition a valid Masonic one? And what would be best for the future of Freemasonry?
We do know that Freemasons were actively involved in the Dreyfus Affair in France in the 1890s, strongly supporting justice for a man unjustly convicted, even at the real risk of physical harm because they stood up for that cause. And Freemasons were among those most hunted by the Vichy regime in France in World War II, and we can be proud of these Masons who fought for freedom under these harsh circumstances.
This idea of Masonry's role being to uplift society, and support democracy and freedom, is not such a radical concept. In the early 1900s it appears to have been a dominant concept in American Freemasonry. Mainstream Masonic writers spoke about Freemasonry working for the good of society, bringing men of all races, religions, and backgrounds together and promoting world peace.
Roscoe Pound in the early 1900s said Masonry's goal is to insist on the universality of mankind and the transmission of a tradition of human solidarity. Joseph Fort Newton said Freemasonry is a form of public service and public mindedness, pointing out that we have a social duty to help our neighbors by work in our communities, to promote democracy by education for all, and to unite people in common service for mankind. H.L. Haywood said the great teachings of Freemasonry are equality - the right of all people to use our own minds and abilities, liberty - the unhindered exercise of our nature and mind, and democracy - the right of people to govern themselves even if they sometimes make mistakes. We should improve the human condition through education, and use Freemasonry to help the human family live happily together.
Should we look to this as a valid Masonic tradition now, and in the future?
Friendliness - Social and Charitable Activities
The fifth and final Masonic tradition to discuss can be called friendliness. It can be described as the idea that Masons help each other, especially brethren who are in need, and that we enjoy each others' company.
In one sense this describes Masonic groups such as the Shrine, but it also describes many, probably most lodges and Masons today. Most Masons probably look to our organization primarily as a place to meet friends. This is fine, but I sometimes ask such Masons why, if this is the case, do we open and close our meetings with ritual, and have degree work. If our goal is simply to meet with friends, we should just open our meeting, talk about who is ill and needs help, plan picnics and such, and then have refreshment together. I am not trying to be negative about this, for I fully realize how important these activities are to Freemasonry. William E. Hammond spoke of Masonry producing character and culture through fellowship and mutual helpfulness.
And we must remember that this tradition of friendliness, among ourselves and toward others, leads directly to what Europeans see as the best thing about American Freemasonry -- our charity work. Masonic leaders often boast that we give more than $2,000,000 each day to charity, and that we have blood drives, support lots of charities, and help to prevent drug abuse. But again, if this is what Freemasonry is all about, why do we have ritual and Masonic education? And if this is the basic importance of Freemasonry, why is there antagonism toward the Shrine, which supplies the vast bulk of the $2,000,000 a day in Masonic charity about which we speak?
What does this tell us for the future of Freemasonry? Do we think lots of men will join Masonic lodges if we say this is a place where you can find new friends, good friends, and also work for charity? The answer may be "yes," but is this is the primary purpose of Masonry, we have to consider the fact that there are other organizations that appear to be better at this function than us.
It would be easy to say that there is room for all five of these traditions in Masonry, and we should continue each of them to make the Craft a well rounded institution. That is true, to an extent, and none of us has the right to say authoritatively that someone who believes Masonry is about any one of these traditions is wrong, since there is no official definition of what Freemasonry is.
But we can try to form a consensus among some of us about which traditions are most useful to Freemasonry now, and which teach us what we should be doing now and in the next few years if we want Freemasonry to become an important organization, or even to survive. One hundred years from now, what do we want people to remember about Freemasonry in the early 2000s? What do we think about our forebears of a hundred years ago, or even 50?
As much as I support such things as learning, improving Masons' image and standing in society, the meaning of words that many feel are poetic, and friendship and charity, I seriously wonder if these traditions would, if continued and emphasized, lead to success for Freemasonry. They are useful, and to some of our brethren they are exciting and even critical to their lives, but are they the things that we really think will cause people to become excited and beat down our doors to join us?
Rather than say all these traditions are equally important, I would like to suggest that there is one thing that Freemasonry is uniquely equipped to do, that it can do, and for which it would be viewed by the vast majority of the population as a leader, and important part of our world.
Throughout the history of Freemasonry, even when our brethren of the past did not always prove it by their actions, the tradition of tolerance has been a constant. Anderson in the 1700s said Freemasonry brings men together who would otherwise remain at a perpetual distance. Joseph Fort Newton and his generation of Masons in the 1900s said Freemasonry could promote world peace through human understanding.
Isn't this the fundamental problem throughout the world today, as it has been in the past? The United States has been plagued by racial injustice and problems with different groups living together since our earliest colonial days, and this is not unique to our country. The experience of people, including Freemasons, in places such as Ireland, Cyprus, Africa, the Middle East, Cambodia, Germany, and even England and France, shows that humanity needs to learn how to deal with differences in race, color, religion, nationality, language, ethnic background, lifestyle, gender, and political differences if we are going to survive and progress as a human species.
Freemasonry could be, and could have been in the past, the only institution in the world that at all times in every way promotes tolerance and meeting on the level. We could be the leaders in seeking racial harmony, religious ecumenism, cooperation among men and women, civility between people who believe in different political philosophies, and friendliness among those who choose to live their lives differently from others. We could be better than the United Nations, Amnesty International, and interfaith organizations, all together, because we could be the prime organization supporting tolerance for all, everywhere, in all circumstances. This would be a unique role for Freemasonry.
But let us be honest with ourselves. If Freemasonry is going to be defined as the greatest institution for tolerance, it will not be easy. Intolerance must be ended in Freemasonry, immediately and without waiting for anyone to change, or die. It must be ended completely, and right away. We need to say this clearly in our Codes, and demonstrate it in all our actions in Lodges -- recognitions, balloting, and friendship with all people regardless of race, color, religion, gender, politics, choices in life, or anything else other than the content of their character.
This Masonic tradition or ideal -- tolerance, bringing all people together in unity, promoting equality of all, and supporting individual rights -- could be what Freemasons and all people in the year 2100 look back on when they think of Masons of 2000, and say that we Masons of our day made Freemasonry something to cheer about, something that made a tremendous difference in world history. Wouldn't that be a great tradition?
Adams, George R. A Trilogy: Inner Journey to the East; Meditations of a Master Mason Along the Way; Masonry for the Millennium. 1999.
Anderson, James. Constitutions of the Free-Masons. 1723
Claudy, Carl H. Introduction to Freemasonry. 1931
Coil, Henry Wilson. A Comprehensive View of Freemasonry. 1954
Coil, Henry Wilson. Conversations on Freemasonry. 1976
Hammond, William E. What Masonry Means. 1952
Haywood, H.L. The Great Teachings of Masonry. 1923
Newton, Joseph Fort. The Builders. 1914
Pike, Albert. Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. 1871
Pound, Roscoe. Masonic Addresses and Writings. 1953
Ward, J.S.M. Freemasonry: Its Aims & Ideals. 1923
Wilsmhurst, W.L. The Meaning of Masonry. 1927
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