Freemasonry is seen by many people as a private activity of an elite group whose members are linked together by motives of interest. This is not true as the Masons is, above all, a citizen of the world whose main duty is not to himself but to his family, his country, and his fellow-men. Masons build their life around the moral principles that are at the heart of the Craft, and in this become examples of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. Being tolerant, he accepts the ideas of the others even if they are at the opposite of his own. Justice requires that tolerance does not degenerate in licence, and so Masons uphold the legitimate law of the land.
In a world dominated by sectarian intolerance and nationalism, Freemasonry does not make any distinction of colour, religion and social class among its members. Like all men are equal in the eyes of God, they are too in the Craft. Freemasons do not practice racial or religious hatred and, if only for this reason, men of every political and religious opinion can meet as friends in the lodges. Tolerance and brotherly love have always been part of the Craft from its origin, and are still as valid to day as before.
There has always a tendency among some masons to see the Craft as a Christian organisation, although nothing is further from the truth. Freemasonry is open to men of all creeds and beliefs as told by the Duke of Sussex in 1813. Jews have been admitted from 1721, and the Craft is one of the few organisations that are free of anti-Semitism. Hindus presented another problem in the sense that it was not accepted at first that they believed in One Supreme Being. This was settle again by the Duke of Sussex by allowing them to join the Craft as did the Muslims, Parsees, Sikhs and Jains before them in India.
Both the fascist and communist dictatorships persecuted Freemasons together with the Jews, gypsies, patriots and democrats. During the 1960’s the Catholic opposition to Freemasonry relaxed as the Church realised that the anti-clericalism of the Grand Orient of France was not representative of all Freemasonry. To day the Catholic Church has tried to reintroduce its ban on Craft membership to the practising Catholics although the regular Freemasonry has never opposed the admission of Roman Catholics into the Craft, and many did join. The Craft has always tried to help alleviate the sufferance of the prisoners of war of all nationalities.
The Masonic commitment to human improvement is seen in charitable works, educational projects, and other enterprises to improve mutual understanding between men and between nations. Propagation of education has always been a priority with the Craft through founding schools and libraries and sponsoring scholarships. As an example Henry Brougham of England founded in 1825 the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge that published literature for the working men and opened libraries.
The question of women in Freemasonry is difficult to solve. There is no dispute concerning Eastern Star that has a ritual based on the life of five biblical heroines, but it has no Masonic content. Rob Morris founded this Order in 1850 for the allegorical teaching of moral concepts to the female relatives of Freemasons. A General Grand Chapter created in 1876 governs it, and the Order has spread from the USA to Canada and Australia, and has an important social activity. The “Daughters of the Nile” (linked to the “Shriners”) is another Order for women associated with Freemasonry. Public benevolence is its main activity, but it is not truly Masonic even if it has its roots in “Adoptive Masonry”.
From the beginning of modern Freemasonry in England in 1717 and the opening of the Premier Grand Lodge, women have always been excluded in accordance with the Old Charges and the Constitution of 1723. In France and Germany some strange Orders admitting men and women came to life in the 1740’s and offered to confer “quasi-initiation” to all members. In 1774 the Grand Orient of France adopted the “Rite of Adoption” to provide something analogue to Masonry to women. Each of these lodges was linked to a regular Masonic lodge whose Master presided also the “Adoptive Lodge” assisted by a female President or Mistress. His two Wardens worked in parallel to two female Officers, an Inspectress and a Depositrix. The Adopted Lodges had four degrees: Apprentice, Companion, Mistress and Perfect Mistress. The symbolism of their rituals derived from biblical legends. Both the “Adoptive Rite” and the regular Freemasonry were closed but Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s wife, revived it and it lasted until the end of the nineteenth century in France only. It did not expand to the USA where the order of the Eastern Star filled the need. The irregular Masonic Orders that accept women were never established in the USA although they grew in England and Continental Europe, even if they are not recognised by the Grand Lodges. Most modern female lodges derive from a French lodge that accepted women, and from there spread to England.
If most people outside the Craft do not know what the Craft is, most know what it does, charitable work. The need of the brethren has always had priority but Charity has never been restricted to Freemasons. The importance of charity is one of the virtues emphasised during the initiation process, and the first Charity Committee was created in 1724 even if it was limited then to the relief of members of the Craft. To day hundred of millions of dollars are distributed each year to various charities by Masonic organisations worldwide. Medical care and research, social and cultural welfare, victims of natural and man-made disasters, as well as war victims are the main recipients. Masonic hospital and retirement homes for old Masons and their dependants have been built in many countries.
Although it is not a religion, Freemasonry teaches spiritual values to its members, and it requires that they believe in God. As a consequence, the symbolic rituals that are at the heart of the initiation ceremonies leads the initiate to look within himself and to reflect on the inner meaning of what he is going through. Although the personal spiritual experience of every Mason remains secret, as it should, it is still possible to explain something of the spiritual essence of the Craft to the outsiders. This is not easy because, among other things, the content of the ceremonies is moral rather than religious, at least in the lower degrees. In the higher degrees, greater stress is placed on the spiritual aspects of symbolism contained in the rituals. It must be clear that the Masonic writings do not have the authority of Holy Writ in relation to the psycho-spiritual content of ceremonies and symbols. They all are personal opinion and nothing else. For instance, even Albert Pike’s document “Morals and Dogmas” that contains “teachings” is not binding on members of the Craft who can have their own opinion on the subject.
A few points are however common to all Masonic degrees:
1- The candidate must be carefully prepared psychologically and spiritually for the experience he is going to go through.
2- The candidate goes through a symbolic journey, or pilgrimage, towards a spiritual goal that is gradually revealed to him. This journey involves symbolic trials and dangers as a test of his courage, integrity and commitment.
3- Some parts of the journey take place in literal or figurative darkness, followed by a dramatic restoration of light showing his change of inner state from the darkness of moral and spiritual ignorance to the light of knowledge and understanding.
4- He is symbolically clothed in robe, or regalia, to seal his change of state.
5- The content of the degree or grade is communicated through the senses (sight, touch, hearing but also by the smell and taste).
Other ritual elements can be introduced in the ceremony, but those above are required in all cases. Specific features vary from degree to degree such as colour, lights and music. Many of the legends in Masonic ceremonies are biblical in origin, as those related to the building or rebuilding of King Solomon’s Temple. This is an allegory of the creation of a more tolerant society, or of the moral regeneration of the person that is represented in the third or Master Mason degree, the legend of the death and figurative raising of Hiram Abif the Architect builder of the Temple. This is not a legend of the physical resurrection from death to life that has no place in the Masonic ritual. Beside the three basic degrees of Freemasonry there are many others based on other legends. The Royal Arch Degree, for instance, completes the Third Degree by stressing the symbolic rebuilding of the Temple. The higher degrees stress the belief in immortality, lead the candidate towards true self-understanding, and put him on the path of moral and spiritual regeneration. However these higher degrees only indicate the way to spiritual regeneration, but how to proceed on that journey is left to the individual Mason since Freemasonry is not a prescriptive religion, but a way of life.
Tolerance, honesty, charity and loyalty are the main qualities requested from the Freemasons. What binds together the Masons is their shared experience of the Craft’s ethos. They know that each time they meet brethren they will be offered friendship, moral support, and any practical help as required. Brethren identify themselves by sign, handshake and language in the lodge only; they are not used outside. Fidelity is the primary virtue of Freemasons – not only between themselves, but also in relation with any man- together with being good citizen of the world while working for the well being and stability of their community. (9)