Freemasonry - the beginning of a Story

A Place To Start

Freemasonry is not a religion of any kind. For those who need to put a label on it, try thinking of it as a brotherhood that has a philosophy of life and a code of conduct that crosses most if not all religious and cultural boundaries where there is any kind of belief that mankind is more than just the intelligent animal that is now the dominant species on planet earth.

But is not Freemasonry a secret society? - and does this not imply that Freemasonry has aspects that are bad, shameful, illegal, or something else that is not "nice"?

Those who make this their starting assumption have missed the whole point of who and what we are. Freemasonry grew out of the mason's craft; the craft of stone working. In order to understand who and what we are today. It is necessary to start at the beginning... and that was a long time ago.

The Cultural Starting Point

"In the beginning the Earth was without form and void and darkness stood on the face of the deep.... and God said let there be light and there was light."

These symbolic words at the beginning of Genesis start the creation story shared by Jews, Muslims and Christians, but they are echoed in many religions and cultures. Everyone has a creation story at the heart of their culture.  The various cultural and ethnic groups forming the human race mostly accept that the Universe has an architect or builder. The difference between cultural traditions being the nature and name of this phenomenon and the way the story is depicted in words and symbols expressed to enlighten each particular culture as it stood two or three millennia ago.

But in considering the "Ascent of Man" from primitive social animal to the present day, we have to say:

In the beginning was the stone worker...

In spite of claims that may be made on behalf of "ladies of the night", stone working is in fact the "oldest profession". It was the first craft developed by mankind in which the craftsman's skill was the subject of barter or trade. When mankind developed metalworking and moved out of "the stone age", Masonry really took off with the development of tools and primitive machinery, which enabled mankind to design and build the first monumental structures.

From the earliest time, Masons tended to be God fearing, law abiding people.

Ancient MasonsConsider the status of the Mason in circa 1000 BC.

When one has the knowledge and skill to build the most fabulous and wonderful things, that will last until eternity (before acid rain that is!) it is natural to take a different view of the World, if not the Universe. The pursuit of your craft encourages it.

In the ancient world, Masons were very much in favour of law and order. If you are going to spend several decades creating a masterpiece of stone engineering, social stability and a plentiful supply of labour are essential. For these reasons Masons were generally against war, civil unrest, political intrigue and religious upheaval. They tended to support in a passive way the "government of the day", whomever that happened to be and did not take sides in political or religious disputes. After all, it is no good spending 30 years completing a castle or a temple only to find that the next head of state destroys your life's work because he disapproved of the politics of the builder! Masons therefore generally kept a low profile in matters of religion or politics. Their allegiance was to their work, which gave them a strong sense of destiny, a high status in society and encouraged the taking of a long-term view.

When one's work is the designing and building of monumental structures, it is natural to be a little "different" and to think about issues concerning the world and the nature of man, rather than the daily struggle for food and shelter. Masons always viewed their work as having a spiritual dimension as well as a practical one and it is also understandable that the focal point of their culture should be "the Architect of the Universe" however that being was viewed or named in the various cultural and ethnic groups from which we are all descended.

The Philosophical Development

From the earliest times therefore the nature of the Masons' craft influenced them towards a long-term view and a universal culture that had the following broad tenets:

  1. A belief in a Supreme Being or force in the Universe, but a considerable tolerance as to how this belief was expressed.
  2. A tendency to obey the law and passively support the government of the day.
  3. A desire to be politically neutral at all times
  4. A desire to be a force for social stability and justice
  5. A desire to apply their craft to the good of society, thereby securing their own immortality through the "eternal" nature of their work.

"To look upon the work is to know the man" is an ethos they understood and practiced and above all, Masons shared this set of standards with each other and judged each other by them. They did not evangelise their creed, unlike so many religious or political groups, both then and now. Masonry is not therefore any kind of religion or cult. It is a philosophy or a creed. It grew out of the nature of the work a mason does and the attitude he had to have in order to build lasting and sustainable structures in a world where tribal warring was the norm.

If you were a Mason, you were welcomed as a craftsman by your peers, wherever your cultural heritage lay. You behaved like a Mason and you worked with other Masons to protect the craft and the creed. You did so without any fuss and you tried to "keep good counsel with all mankind". The protection of your life's work and the continuance of your craft demanded it.

From the earliest times therefore, Masonry has been an artisan craft, which is also a moral code and a philosophy of life. It never was and is not now, any kind of religion, although it welcomes masons from all religious and cultural traditions.

The Mason - A Craft set apart

In the early Middle Ages in Europe, the Masons became the castle and cathedral builders. In the days of space travel and the microchip, we are still thrilled and astonished by the power and beauty of their work. Imagine therefore the significance and impact on society of these men and their work at the beginning of the last millennium.

Masons were a race (or rather a craft) apart. It took half a lifetime to pass through the stages from entered apprentice to master craftsman, capable of conceiving, designing and building the most amazing examples of stone engineering, every bit as impressive today as anything seen in the space programme, or the fantasy worlds of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.

Ours is not the first age of miracles and wonder. These men did indeed have awesome knowledge and skill. This encouraged them to contemplate on the true nature of mortality and the destiny of Man. They believed that their work carried a message for mankind within it, just as clearly as anything set down in the written word.

From the earliest times therefore the work of Masons has had a natural connection with the working of the Universe and the place of mankind in it.  The foundation stone of a building is placed where the sun rises, whatever cultural tradition you come from. Buildings have things of importance, such as thrones or alters, placed at the East end. Stone is worked clockwise, in the direction of the sun etc and so on.

The Ceremonial Practices

An apprentice entering the craft of Masonry did so in a ceremony where he was presented barefoot, bareheaded and simply dressed before his master, who explained the nature of the work, together with its moral significance. The apprentice was also obliged to give an obligation under oath to his master. It must have been a bit like joining the priesthood, particularly as these simple ceremonies took place at the work site, which was more often than not a place of worship under construction.

When an apprenticeship was complete, there was a ceremony for conferring the status of "Craftsman" which entailed the presentation by the potential craftsman of a "masterpiece" worthy of a master craftsman. He also had to make various undertakings concerning technical competence. These were usually given at various points of the compass within the building.

There was a prayer to bless the working tools and a further obligation was required. This was what you might call the "Quality Assurance" obligation. It mainly entailed a promise to do good quality work, to do the work again if the client was not satisfied, or to refund any payment given. Most importantly, the craftsman had to undertake not to give any ad hoc training or pass on any knowledge or skill to anyone who was not a qualified apprentice.

At this time, other crafts were proliferating and the tradition of organised craft guilds came into being. These ceremonies were probably therefore not confined to Masons in the early Middle Ages. The indentured apprenticeship contract for any trade probably has its roots in such early ceremonies. However, because of the nature of the work, the Masons teaching and obligations were likely to have had a greater moral or religious content.

Comparisons With Other Crafts

While other trades formed "guilds", the groups in each town or province through which tradesmen could be hired for a few days, or work brought in to be done; the Masons formed "Lodges". This is because their work was itinerant. One could not bring a building to a Mason, as one might bring a Wagon to a Cartwright - and even if the Cartwright went to the Wagon, he would likely be there for a day or two and no more. In those un-mechanised days a Masons' Lodge might be at a building site for a year or two and in the case of the Cathedrals, perhaps 20-30 years. The Masons were therefore an itinerant group and travelled round to building sites where their specialist skill could be used. It became a custom for Masons' Lodges to give food and shelter to craftsmen on the move between jobs.

These work related practices again set the Mason apart from other artisans. They also created a problem. As Masons travelled from place to place in the course of their work, they were not necessarily known by sight and since a Mason was a highly paid craftsman and was also in the habit of giving free board and lodging to travelling craftsmen, both his profession and his hospitality were open to abuse. Masons therefore developed signs and code words to recognise each other by and these signs and "tokens" became part of a craftsman's oath, to preserve the "knowledge of the craft" and discuss it only with properly qualified masons.

The Tradition of Secrecy

The tradition of secrecy in Masonry was therefore based on their need to protect their professional integrity and make life difficult for freeloaders or "cowans" (unqualified people). It also served to remind the Mason of the moral code that bound them all and kept the craft non-political, law abiding and "each to his own" in religious terms. With building work going on across the whole of the known world, this was a strong and useful bond in days before written contracts and identity cards.

In these days the secrecy had a practical and a symbolic purpose. It had nothing to do with the concealment of guilt, barbaric practices, subversive plots or fraud. In fact the opposite was the case. It was to remind the Mason that his craft was fundamentally against all these things. For centuries the Mason's life and work depended on him being a God fearing, law abiding good citizen, as well as a highly skilled architect and stonework craftsman. The term "secret society" usually implies the exact opposite of these things. The term "Pillar of Society" is an ancient Masonic term meant to express a Mason's view of his life, his work and his obligations to the rest of mankind. This is a far more accurate image of what Masons aspire to be.

Icons and Symbols

Every age, culture, religion and social group has its icons.

It is not surprising therefore that the Masons' icon is King Solomon, famed for his wisdom and for having contracted with Hiram King of Tyre and Hiram the Widows son (from the tribe of Naphtali) to build the Great Temple at Jerusalem. This is described in the Book of Kings and is probably the first properly chronicled account of how Masons from different places were contracted to construct a great building. Hiram King of Tyre was principally the supplier of human resources and the cedar wood for the roof and timbers.  Hiram of Naphtali was principally a metal smelter and work organiser of extraordinary genius.

However, this structure, the wisdom and truth of King Solomon, the strength and power of King Hiram and the exquisite skill of Hiram of Naphtali are important symbols in the development of the Masons' philosophy and culture. It is the standard to which all Masons have been taught to aspire for more than a millennium and probably for more than two millennia.

The Crusades

While the Crusades were a religious war and are symbolic of the religious and cultural schism that has divided Christians, Muslims and Jews for over 1000 years, for the Masons of Europe and the Middle East they had a different significance and a more serious content. They built castles and places of worship for both sides. There are more than 20 sites through Eastern Europe, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, not to mention Israel where the early Medieval Masons built fortified staging posts and places of worship which were at various times used by both sides as the wars waxed and waned.

What was also highly significant is that the Masons were used as couriers for money and documents. Because they were politically neutral and people were used to seeing Masons on the move between building sites, they could travel more safely than most in those barbaric times.  Secondly they had a "my word is my bond" attitude to taking a commission to perform a task and were generally trusted. However, thirdly and most importantly, they had the perfect process for recognising an unknown contact through the signs and tokens of the craft.

We have very little specific knowledge of how they were used by the Turks, but there is plenty of evidence that Masons were used by the Knights Templar for this and other purposes and many of the earliest Masonic signs and symbols are in buildings and on monuments associated with the Knights Templar who were formed for the purpose of the Crusades and are now an Order of Chivalry in the UK.

This then is how the Masons craft moved from being the oldest artisan craft to a position where it was not just a craft, but also a moral code, a culture and a philosophy of life.

The section titled Development of Freemasonry tells how "Freemasonry"  gradually grew out of this craft tradition and developed into what we have today.