Responding To The Critics of Freemasonry: Is Our Organization a Religion?
Distributed Freely by The Masonic Forum on America Online, July,1999
Excerpted from Articles Presented by the Grand Lodge of British Columbia.
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Responding to critics of Freemasonry
Attacks on Freemasonry are not new to our fraternity. From the early 1700s to Hitler and Mussolini’s persecution of Freemasons in the 30s, Franco’s execution of Freemasons in the 1950s and the Iranian government’s elimination of Freemasons in the 1980s, to today’s attacks by some religious organizations, one thing is evidently clear, Freemasonry has survived the test of time while most of the organizations who have attacked Freemasonry have not.
From Northern Ireland to Iran, from the Middle East to the United States, religious extremism is a growing force throughout the world. Jarred by the rapid pace of social and cultural change, especially the apparent disintegration of moral values and the break-up of the family, some people within this movement have sought refuge from the complexity of modern life by embracing absolute views and rejecting tolerance of other beliefs.
Simple, easy, seemingly stable answers bring comfort in a rapidly changing world. For example, some religious organizations have responded to the personal anguish of their members by circling the wagons, that is, by strictly defining theological concepts and insisting their members “purify” their fellowship by renouncing any other beliefs.
The next step, already taken by various religious organizations, is to yield degrees of control within their ranks to vocal factions espousing extremist views. These splinter groups focus the congregation’s generalized anxieties on specific targets. The proffered cure-all is to destroy the supposed enemy. Freemasonry has become one of these targets precisely because it encourages members to form their own opinion on many important topics, including religion.
Thus some churches have expressed concerns, even condemnations, of Freemasonry. Generally, these are knee jerk actions and are based on misunderstandings and false information. A case in point is the June 1993 report to the Southern Baptist Convention by the Convention’s Home Mission Board. This report defined eight alleged conflicts between the tenets and teachings of the masonic fraternity and Southern Baptist theology.
Let’s briefly look at those areas as representative of the thinking of some well-meaning but misinformed church members today, and see if the concerns are real or simply a matter of misinformation or misunderstanding.
Most of the issues really deal with language in one way or another. Almost every organization has a special vocabulary of words which are understood by the group. It’s hardly appropriate for someone from outside the group, and without the special knowledge of the group, to object to the terminology unless he or she fully understands it and why it is used.
If someone wants to read the Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, that is his right-but he doesn’t have a right to complain that the articles use medical terms. A person reading a cookbook had better know that terms like fold, cream the butter, or soft ball have special meanings-or he’ll make a mess instead of a cake.
The same is true of non-masons reading masonic materials. As to the critique of Freemasonry by the Southern Baptist Convention (which, incidentally, had several positive things to say about masonry), here is a brief explanatory discussion of each point.
Some don’t understand the historic source of the terms used in Freemasonry. They complain of “offensive” titles such as Worshipful Master for the leader of a lodge. This is simply a matter of misinterpretation. The leader of a lodge is called the Master of the lodge for the same reason the leader of an orchestra is called the Concert Master, or a highly skilled electrician is called a Master Electrician, or the leader of a Scout troop is called a Scoutmaster.
Masonic use of the term Master originated in the guilds of the Middle Ages when the person most skillful was called the Master. Much of the masonic vocabulary dates from this period. For instance, “Worshipful” is a term that is still used today in Canada and most Commonwealth countries to refer to such officials as mayors of cities. Worshipful John Doe means exactly the same thing as The Honourable John Doe. Some persons seem not to distinguish between “worshipful” and “worshipable”. There is certainly nothing irreligious in the title as used in Freemasonry.
“Archaic, Offensive Rituals”
Some object to the use of “archaic, offensive rituals” and what they term as “blood oaths.” There is nothing offensive in masonic rituals, at least not to anyone who understands them. They are ancient, many of them so old their origins are long lost in history. But there is nothing bad in that. Many creeds and statements of faith are far older than masonic rituals. The Lord’s Prayer is 2,000 years old, but no one suggests it be updated just because it was set down long ago. The United States Declaration of Independence is about the same age as the Master Mason degree, but few complain that it is “archaic”.
As to the allegedly “bloody oaths”, the traditional penalties associated with the masonic obligations (Freemasons take an obligation, not an oath), they have their origins in the legal system of mediaeval Europe and were actual punishments inflicted by the state on persons guilty of fighting for civil liberty and religious freedom.
They have long been a particular target for critics of Freemasonry and it cannot be concealed that, on occasion, initiates into the Craft have been unpleasantly surprised at the nature of punishments which, in theory, await those who dishonour their engagements. What our critics fail to mention is that in 1965 the Mother Grand Lodge, The United Grand Lodge of England, changed the wording, on a recommendation from Bishop Herbert, a Freemason, from “under no less a penalty” to now state “ever bearing in mind the traditional penalty, that of having” which is generally followed today.
In Freemasonry, these penalties are entirely symbolic. They refer to the shame a conscientious man should feel at the thought he had broken a promise, and they remind us of the price so many have paid for the liberties and freedoms Freemasons are pledged to protect.
Some critics of Freemasonry claim the recommended readings for some of the degrees of Freemasonry are “pagan.” Pagan, as they are using the term, simply means pre-Christian. The study of man’s moral and intellectual history allows the achievement of Freemasonry’s major purpose, the enhancement of an individual’s moral and intellectual development. Such a study has to start with the concepts of man and God as held by early cultures and evidenced in their mythologies. The ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as earlier peoples, had much of importance to say on many topics, including religion. The idea that a physician must act in the best interests of his patient comes from the pagan Hypocrites, and the concept that a government cannot break into your house and take what it wants on a whim comes from the pagan Aristotle. None of us would want to live in a world without these ideas.
The source of nearly all anti-masonic material relating to Freemasonry as being pagan evolves from the writings of Albert Pike and Dr. Albert Mackey, two American Freemasons who were devoted to the study of ancient mysteries and societies, Dr. Mackey being one of the most voluminous writers of his time. During their time they were looked upon as being scholars of their day but to a serious student of Freemasonry today they are more likely to be referred to as self-taught mystics and not the masonic authorities anti-Masonic writers would like to have you believe.
Mackey and Pike embraced the ancient mysteries avidly. Pike’s Morals & Dogma, written in 1871, is given over to ancient paganism. Mackey in Masonic Ritualist, written in 1867, and Symbolism of Freemasonry, written in 1869, carried it not only to an absurd degree, but to an extent which can hardly be less than revolting to a Christian.
In order to properly interpret Mackey and Pike on paganism, one must understand that they entered the masonic fraternity in the 1840s, when masonic literature was at its height and both walked unsuspectingly into the circle of magism, paganism and occultism before they were properly seasoned in the history of the Craft. Those things that were indisputably masonic, such as the Gothic Constitutions, the minutes of early lodges in the pre-Grand Lodge era, they ignored, but chose to follow irresponsible writers who were teaching doctrines neither then nor since approved or adopted by any Grand Lodge.
It is only fair to say that Mackey, in later years, made a retraction of his former paganistic doctrines. But that received nothing like the wide-spread publicity which had been accorded his former notions and certainly did not bar the sale and circulation of his books containing the repudiated material. It is improbable that Truth can ever keep up with Error, for there will always be those individuals who will prefer to quote Mackey as being an authoritarian source for Freemasons, failing to mention that this material was retracted by Albert Mackey who died on June 20, 1881. Without the writings of Pike and Mackey, anti-masonic authors are left with little material of notoriety to formulate their startling allegations.
A scrutiny of any of the current anti-masonic books, such as those written by John Ankerberg, John Weldon, Edward Decker, Rev. James Shaw, Tom McKenney, Rev. Ron Colson and Pat Robertson, will readily show their quoted sources as being Albert Pike, Dr. Albert Mackey or Manly P. Hall’s The Lost Keys of Freemasonry published in 1923.
In the case of Manly P. Hall, the anti-masonic writers have failed to read Hall’s preface in which he states “At the time I wrote this slender volume, I had just passed my twenty-first birthday, and my only contact with Freemasonry was through a few books commonly available to the public.” Those books were by Pike and Mackey. Hall, the founder of The Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, did not become a Freemason until 1954.
In almost every field-law, government, music, philosophy, mathematics, etc.-it is necessary to review the work of early writers and thinkers. Freemasonry is no exception. But to study the work of ancient cultures is not the same as to do what they did or believe what they believed. No Freemason is ever told what he should believe in matters of faith. That is not the task of a fraternity, nor the government. That is the duty of a person’s revealed religion and is appropriately expressed through his or her church.
The Bible as “Furniture”
Ironically, some people complain about the Bible in the lodge being referred to in Masonic ritual as the “furniture of the lodge.” Again, it’s a matter of not understanding how Masons use the word. Freemasons use “furniture” in its original meaning of “as an essential part of the lodge”. All lodges must have a Volume of the Sacred Law open during every meeting. In North America, this is almost always the Bible which is an essential part of Freemasonry and its ritual. The term Volume of the Sacred Law refers to the sacred book of the predominant religion of the particular country in which the lodge resides. Often in masonic lodges there will be more than one book of faith. Every Freemason has the right to have his particular book of faith open in the lodge should he not follow the Christian doctrine. The Bible used by Freemasons is commonly known as the authorized King James version, and not Albert Pike’s Morals & Dogma which radical fundamentalists claim as being the masonic Bible. All anti-masonic material constantly refers to the 1871 writings of Albert Pike as a source of their attacks on Freemasonry-what they fail to mention or have failed to read is the preface contained in Morals & Dogma: “In preparing this work, the Grand Commander (Pike) has been about equally Author and Compiler; since he has extracted quite half its contents from the works of the best writers and most philosophic or eloquent thinkers. Perhaps it would have been better and more acceptable if he had extracted more and written less.
Still, perhaps half of it is his own; and, in incorporating here the thoughts and words of others, he has continually changed and added to the language, often intermingling, in the same sentences, his own words with theirs. It not being intended for the world at large, he has felt at liberty to make, from all accessible sources, a compendium of the Morals and Dogma of the Rite, to re-mould sentences, change and add to words and phrases, combine them with his own, and use them as if they were his own, to be dealt with at his pleasure and so availed of as to make the whole most valuable for the purposes intended. He claims, therefore, little merit of the authorship, and has not cared to distinguish his own from that which he has taken from other sources, being quite willing that every portion of the book, in turn, may be regarded as borrowed from some older and better writer.
“The Meaning of “Light”
Other critics of Freemasonry are concerned that when Masons use “light” someone might think the word is referring to salvation rather than truth or knowledge. But that is word misinterpretation again. Light was a symbol of knowledge long before it was a symbol of salvation. Masonry uses light as a symbol of the search of truth and knowledge. It is very unlikely any mason would think masonic “light” represents salvation.
“Salvation by Works”
Some believe Freemasonry teaches that salvation may be attained by one’s good works. Masonry does not teach any path to salvation. That is the job of a church, not a fraternity. The closest Freemasonry comes to this issue is to point to the open Bible and tell the mason to search there for the path to eternal life.
Freemasonry believes in the importance of doing good works, but as a matter of individual moral and social responsibility. The path to salvation is only found in each mason’s particular house of worship, and not his masonic lodge.
There are those who claim some masonic writers teach the ” heresy of universalism.” Universalism is the doctrine that all men and women are ultimately saved. Freemasonry does not teach universalism nor any other doctrine of salvation. Again, doctrines of salvation are the province of a church, not a fraternity. In point of fact, one has to look rather hard to find those “many masonic writers” who supposedly teach universalism, but even if you could find one, he’s writing a statement of personal opinion. It’s important to remember that any masonic author writes for himself alone, not as an official of the masonic fraternity. Freemasonry simply does not have a position, official or otherwise, on salvation. Since men of all religious faiths are welcome in Freemasonry, Freemasons are careful not to offend the faith of any. Possibly, that may seem to be universalism to some critics. Freemasons call it common courtesy.
Some critics, more eager to attack Freemasonry than to put their own houses in order, allege “most lodges refuse to admit ethnic minorities as members.” Freemasonry is not a whites-only organization, as the hundreds of thousands of Black, Native American, Asian and Oriental Freemasons all over the world can testify. The petition for membership in the masonic order does not ask the race or religion of the petitioner, and it would be considered completely wrong to do so.
At the international celebration of the 275th anniversary of the Grand Lodge of England in 1992 (the most recent Masonic gathering of about the same size as the Southern Baptist Convention) there were far more people of colour present than there were at the Southern Baptist Convention in Houston, Texas, in 1993.
Is Masonry Compatible with Christianity and other Religions?
Freemasonry is compatible with religion. It may be incompatible, however, with the way a few narrowly focused people see religion. Of course, most of them feel that only they have the truth and that even many members of their own congregations are not as pure as they should be. This brings to mind a letter that appeared in a Dear Abby column:
“One of the toughest tasks a church faces is choosing a good minister. A member of an official board undergoing this painful process finally lost his patience. He’d just witnessed the Pastoral Relations Committee reject applicant after applicant for some minor fault-real or imagined. It was time for a bit of soul-searching on the part of the committee. So he stood up and read this letter purporting to be from another applicant.
‘Gentlemen; Understanding your pulpit is vacant, I should like to apply for the position. I have many qualifications. I’ve been a preacher with much success and also have had some success as a writer. Some say I’m a good organizer. I’ve been a leader most places I’ve been. I’m over 50 years of age and never preached in one place for more than three years. In some places, I have left town after my work caused riots and disturbances. I must admit I have been in jail three or four times, but not because of any real wrongdoing. My health is not too good, though I still accomplish a great deal. The churches I have preached in have been small, though located in several large cities. ‘I’ve not gotten along well with religious leaders in the towns where I have preached. In fact, some have threatened me, and even attacked me physically. I am not too good at keeping records. I have been known to forget whom I have baptized. ‘However, if you can use me, I promise to do my best for you.’
The board member turned to the committee and said, ‘ Well, what do you think ? Shall we call him?’ The good church folks were appalled! Consider a sickly, trouble-making, absent-minded ex-jailbird? Was the board member crazy? Who signed the application? Who had such colossal nerve? The board member eyed them all keenly before he replied, ‘It’s signed, The Apostle Paul.'”
The moral of the story is not to judge before you have all the facts. Unfortunately only one side, that of the anti-masonic groups who claim to be religious leaders and who have claimed to have researched the subject of Freemasonry are heard. We say only one side has been heard because none of these people have bothered to contact any of today’s recognized masonic historians, they prefer to quote from books that were written 125 years ago; a dead author cannot give a rebuttal.
They are deceitful men who have generated enough power through the publication of their various books and videos to sway decisions and have been having a field day at our expense. Their one great hope for success is that they can make accusations, knowing that no one will respond. How unfortunate it would be if we had to curtail our charitable endeavors to defend ourselves from the malicious misinformation that is spread by a few zealots who have no other interest than selling their propaganda attacking Freemasonry.
Our membership has traditionally taken the position of not responding to the ridiculous statements propounded by these zealots. Times change though, and our membership, weary of all these self styled revelations and exposures, may soon have to re-evaluate their position and take a firmer stance against these groups. Freemasonry stands, as it has always stood, with open arms, saying, “Believe as your conscience dictates.”
Freemasonry and religion
Our purpose as Freemasons is not that of a religion.
Freemasonry lacks the basic elements of religion.
Freemasonry is not a religion nor is it a substitute for religion.
Freemasonry advocates no sectarian faith or practise.
We seek no converts.
We solicit no new members.
We raise no money for religious purposes.
We have no dogma or theology. Religious discussion is forbidden in a masonic lodge thereby eliminating the chance for any masonic dogma to form.
It offers no sacraments and does not claim to lead to salvation by works, by secret knowledge, or by any other means. The secrets of Freemasonry are concerned with the modes of recognition only and not with the means of salvation.
By any definition of religion accepted by our critics, we cannot qualify as a religion.
Freemasonry supports religion. Freemasonry is far from indifferent to religion. Without interfering in religious practise, it expects each member to follow his own faith.
A man does not subscribe to a new religion, much less to an anti-Christian religion when he becomes a Freemason, any more than when he joins any political party or the YMCA. There is nothing in Freemasonry that is opposed to the religion he brings with him into the masonic lodge. Freemasonry does not assert nor does it teach that one religion is as good as another. Freemasonry admits men of all religions. Freemasons believe in religious freedom and that the relationship between the individual and his God is personal, private and sacred.
We do not apply a theological test to a candidate. We do ask a man if he believes in God and that is the only religious test. Belief in God is faith; belief about God is theology. As Freemasons we are interested in faith only and not in theology. Religion is not permitted to be discussed at masonic meetings.
Freemasonry is a completely tolerant organization. When Freemasonry accepts a Christian, or a Jew, or a Buddhist, or a Mohammedan, it does not accept him as such, but accepts him as a man, worthy to be received into the masonic fraternity.
Freemasonry stands for the values that are supreme in the life of the church and expects each member to follow his own faith and to place his duty to God above all other duties. We are sure that a member who is true to the principles he learns in Freemasonry will be a better church member because of it.