What then is Freemasonry, and what is it trying to do in the world? According to one of the Old Charges Masonry is declared to be ‘an ancient and honourable institution’. Ancient no doubt it is, having subsisted from time immemorial; and honourable it must be acknowledged to be, as by natural tendency it conduces to make those so who are obedient to its precepts. To so high an eminence has its credit been advanced that in every age monarchs themselves have been promoters of the art, have not thought it derogatory from their dignity to exchange the sceptre for the trowel, have patronised our mysteries and joined in our assemblies.
While that eulogy is more than justified by sober facts, it does not tell us what Freemasonry is, much less its mission and ministry to mankind. If now we turn to the old, oft quoted definition, we learn that Masonry is ‘a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols’. That is, in so far, true enough, but it is obviously inadequate, the more so when it uses the word ‘peculiar’ as describing the morality of Masonry; and it gives no hint of a world-encircling fellowship and its far ramifying influence.
Another definition has it that Masonry is ‘a science which is engaged in the search after Divine truth’, but that is vague, indefinite and unsatisfactory, lacking any sense of the uniqueness of the Order, and as applicable to one science as to another. For surely all science, of whatever kind, is a search after Divine truth, and a physical fact, as Agassiz said, is as sacred as a moral truth – every fact being the presence of God.
Still another writer defines Masonry as ‘Friendship, Love and Integrity – friendship which rises superior to the fictitious distinctions of society, the prejudices of religion, and the pecuniary conditions of life; love which knows no limit, nor inequality, nor decay; integrity which binds man to the eternal law of duty.’ Such is indeed the very essence and spirit of Masonry, but Masonry has no monopoly of that spirit, and its uniqueness consists, rather, in the form in which it seeks to embody and express the gracious and benign spirit which is the genius of the higher life of humanity.
Masonry is not everything, it is a thing as distinctly featured as a statue by Phidias or a painting by Angelo. Definitions, like delays may be dangerous, but perhaps we can do no better than to adopt the words of the German Handbuch as the best description of it so far given.
“Masonry is the activity of closely united men who, employing symbolical forms borrowed principally from the mason’s trade and from architecture, work for the welfare of mankind, striving morally to ennoble themselves and others, and thereby to bring about a universal league of mankind, which they aspire to exhibit even now on a small scale.”
Civilisation could hardly begin until man had learned to fashion for himself a settled habitation, and thus the earliest of all human arts and crafts, and perhaps also the noblest, is that of the builder. Religion took outward shape when men first reared an altar for their offerings, and surrounded it with a sanctuary of faith and awe, of pity and consolation, and piled a cairn to mark the graves where there dead lay asleep.
History is no older than architecture. How fitting, then, that the idea and art of building should be made the basis of a great order of men which has no other aim than the up-building of humanity in Faith, Freedom and Friendship. Seeking to ennoble and beautify life, it finds in the common task and constant labour of man its sense of human unity, its vision of life as a temple ‘building and built upon,’ and its emblems of those truths which make for purity of character and the stability of society. Thus Masonic labours, linked with the constructive genius of mankind, and so long as it remains true to its ideal, no weapon formed against it can prosper.
One of the most impressive and touching things in human history is that certain ideal interests have been set apart as especially venerated among all peoples.
Guilds have arisen to cultivate the interests embodied in art, science, philosophy, fraternity and religion; to conserve the precious hard-won inheritances of humanity; to train men in their service. To bring their power to bear upon the common life of mortals, and send through that common life the light and glory of the Ideal – as the sun shoots its transfiguring rays through a great dull cloud, evoking beauty from the brown earth. Such is masonry, which unites all these high interests and brings to their service a vast, world-wide fraternity of free and devout men, built upon a foundation of spiritual faith and moral idealism, whose mission is to make men friends, to refine and exalt their lives, to deepen their faith and purify their dream, to turn them from the semblance of life to homage for truth, beauty, righteousness, and character.
More than an institution, more than a tradition, more than a society, Masonry is one of the forms of the Divine Life upon earth. No one may ever hope to define a spirit so gracious, an order so benign, an influence so prophetic of the present and future up-building of the race.
There is a common notion that Freemasonry is a secret society, and this idea is based on the secret rites used in its initiations, and the signs and grips by which its members recognise each other. Thus it has come to pass that the main aims of the order are assumed to be a secret society or teaching, whereas its one great secret is that it has no secret. Its principles are published abroad in its writings, its purposes and laws are known, as are the times and dates of its meetings.
Having come down from dark days of persecution, when all the finer things sought the protection of seclusion, if it still adheres to secret rites, it is not in order to hide the truth, but the better to teach it more impressively, to train men in its pure service, and to promote unity and amity upon earth.
Its signs and grips serve as a kind of universal language, and still more as a gracious cover for the practice of sweet charity – making it easier to help a fellow man in his dire plight without hurting his self respect. If a few people are attracted to it by curiosity, all remain to pray, finding themselves members of a great historic fellowship of the seekers and finders of God. It is old because it is true; had it been false it would have perished long ago. When all men practice its simple precepts, the innocent secrets of Masonry will be laid bare, its mission accomplished, and its labour done.
Written by Brother Joseph Fort Newton, and published in his book, The Builders.