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The Freemasons:
Exploring their Values from a Unitarian Viewpoint

by Chris Vessey

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Freemasonry has been called "a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols" Most any Mason would recognize these words immediately. They are a somewhat florid, enigmatic and strangely succinct way to describe an organization which is otherwise quite difficult to define and express, at least for those who are not members.

Freemasonry seeks to teach its members how to live a moral and just life. It has been said that, "Freemasonry makes good men better." This is true, but the way in which this is done specifically relates to moral teachings. In Masonry, we are taught to regard all humans, regardless of their wealth or status in life, as valuable members of our society. Whether weak, strong, rich, poor, sick, healthy, popular or unpopular, each has something to contribute, something of value, and each person is intrinsically valuable. Stripped of his riches, worldly wealth, honours and medals, and the approval and support of friends, the truly moral man can still hold his head up high, knowing that his true value comes from within, not without.

We utilize allegory as the basis of our moral teaching. Allegory is, of course, nothing more than a story which illustrates a point. Holy books of many religions utilize allegory. Since I am most familiar with the Christian Bible, I quote the story of David and Goliath. This story tells us that even a relatively weak and helpless person can, through strength of will and faith, overcome great obstacles. It is an allegory for the classic struggle of the weak against the strong, but the concept veiled within that allegory can be applied to any type of adversity where one is made to feel subjugated. In a similar fashion, Freemasonry teaches using allegory.

Our allegories are given in the form of a degree, or drama, some of which directly involves the new members (called candidates), and some of which is portrayed for their instruction. As with any drama, it requires an open and willing mind on the part of the candidate, as well as a lot of hard work and preparation on the part of the Lodge members in presenting the work. This hard work is just one of the benefits that we, as Masons, enjoy, for it improves our minds and reinforces our own understanding of the moral teachings.

Finally, these allegories are illustrated by symbols. Symbolism is important in virtually every major human organization, regardless of its type. The International Red Cross / Red Crescent movement has the two symbols which form its name, symbols which represent the humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality which are the essence of that organization. The Unitarian faith has as a central symbol the Flaming Chalice, and the Unitarian Universalist Association suggests that the chalice represents sharing, generosity, sustenance, and love, among other interpretations. The flame symbolizes witness, sacrifice, testing, courage, illumination and more." In the end, true to its nature, Unitarianism steadfastly refuses to assign to that symbol a singular meaning – each must find it for themselves.

- show symbol -

For Freemasons, there are many symbols given to us. To go through the multitude of them would be a lengthy exercise, and one I shall spare you. The most prevalent symbol is the Square and Compasses which enclose the letter G. The square is, of course, an instrument used by operative stonemasons to make sure that the stones they were finishing were square at all angles, thus ensuring the quality and integrity of the structure to which they belong. Today, speculative masons, or "freemasons", use that symbol to represent the efforts of each member to make himself morally fit, so that he may become a component of societal structure that is of high quality and unquestionable integrity. The compasses were used by stonemasons to inscribe circular boundaries, dividing space into two regions: that within the circle, and that without – this was often the case as specific ornaments were added to stones within circular regions. For the freemason, the compasses are a symbol of boundaries as well: they teach us to keep our passions (such as anger, jealousy, and intolerance, to name a few) within specific limits, so that we do not impose ourselves upon others, or act basely towards them.

The letter G refers to God, but not specifically in the Christian sense: it refers to the supreme being or force which is the basis of all world religions.

So, freemasonry is a method of teaching morality using drama and symbolism. What are the requirements to join freemasonry?

First of all, freemasonry is an ancient fraternity. The term "fraternity" is defined as the quality or condition of being brothers" or "brotherliness." In the ancient sense, a fraternity was a mens' organization, and as freemasonry has grown from ancient times, it is a mens' organization. Doubtless there are some who would argue that it should be open to all, but there are equally many ladies' organizations in the world as well. The custom of having men only is not to exclude women from something special; there are other groups that serve the same function for women. Rather, it is to provide the opportunity for men to share something special amongst themselves, to develop a mutual respect within the context of one's gender. Any freemason would vehemently argue for the equal treatment of his spouse, or any other woman, within society, and would strenuously support women in pursuit of their own sororal affiliation.

Freemasons must be "free-born." This term exists from the days of slavery in Europe and North America. No slave was permitted to be made a freemason, because to be a freemason, one must be able to be a free thinker. In those dark days of human bondage, a man held in thrall could be coerced to think according to the wishes of his master, and not his conscience. This coercion could lead to immoral behaviour, and thus slaves could not be masons. Today, the term is still intact in our ritualistic requirements, but has no modern context in North America, at least.

To petition a Lodge, one must be of "lawful age", which is interpreted as 21 years. Until one is of lawful age, one does not have the full ability to govern himself; he is not yet a full member of society. Freemasons must also be free to govern themselves, for without that freedom, the teachings of Masonry would have little function. The very basis of Masonry is learning to govern oneself in an acceptable manner.

The last requirement is that a candidate for Masonry be "well recommended." This means that he must be recommended for membership by two Freemasons. Many men over the years have interpreted this as meaning that Freemasonry is by invitation only. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although a candidate must be recommended, Freemasons are specifically prohibited from solicitation for membership. A prospective candidate must ask to be recommended. This differs greatly from several other organizations who accept new members on an invitation-only basis.

Freemasonry was originally based upon the teachings of the Old Testament, and remains so in North America and Europe. It uses the stories of the building of King Solomon's Temple as its foundation. Nevertheless, Freemasonry is not a religion. Other religious texts are considered of equal value in our meditations upon morality. Masonry does not prefer one religion over another – rather, it teaches tolerance for all religions, and the recognition of truth wherever it may be found.

Masons do not pray to any specific deity; rather, we use the term "Supreme Architect of the Universe" or "Great Architect of the Universe" to refer to each man's individual relationship with deity. We may pray together, but each prays, individually, to his own concept of deity. No Mason is required to worship another's deity, and there is no "god of Masonry" since Masonry is not a religion.

Freemasonry is, however, religious in nature, and encourages each and every member to be active in his own church, synagogue or temple. The last principal requirement for a man to be a candidate for Masonry is that of belief in a Supreme Being.

A Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons is led by a Worshipful Master – the term "worshipful" is an archaic word meaning "honourable", used in the same sense as "his Worship the Mayor". It has nothing to do with being worshiped. The Master's two principal assistants are the Senior and Junior Wardens, who help with the organization of Lodge events and activities. There are also Deacons (who assist with the drama portrayals) and Stewards (who assist with food and beverages), plus other officers such as the Treasurer and Secretary. In short, with the exception of the strange-sounding titles, it is organized much like any other social club.

There are, of course, other branches of Freemasonry. Principally, these are broken into the York and Scottish Rites, and contain degrees which expand upon the values already presented, and provide the basis a more in-depth self-examination of the man who takes those additional degrees. The principal aim of Masonry is introspection and self-improvement, within the context of the society in which one lives.

There is one further body worthy of mention. Although it has, as a qualification for membership, a requirement to first be a Mason, this group does not focus on self-development; it focuses on charity, one of the laudable tenets that all Masons are expected to exemplify. This organization, by its nature, is also well-known. Almost anyone knows what a Shriner looks like, in terms of dress, and is familiar with their sponsorship of hospitals for sick children. What many do not know is that all Shriners must first become Masons; it is upon the new moral foundation of Freemasonry that the charitable reputation of the Shrine is built.

At this point, we should now have enough information to form a basic comparison of Unitarian beliefs and the philosophical aims and goals of the Masonic fraternity.

Unitarianism, as a religious choice, is similar in its philosophy to the personal beliefs of Freemasons, remembering that Freemasonry itself is not a religion. By its nature, Freemasonry encourages religious tolerance and the acceptance of the individual based upon his own merits and conduct, and not upon his religious beliefs or worldly wealth or honours. We are more interested in what makes a man "tick", than what possessions he has or what status he holds in the community due to his station. We hold that all people are created equal, and though our titles and offices sound very intricate, we are all considered equals. Even the Master is merely the temporary leader of a group of equals.

Freemasons believe in the sanctity of life, and its preservation – although we have degrees that are characterized by military orders of bygone eras, those orders are symbolically used: they represent the struggle against tyranny over mind and body, wherever found, and the effort to relieve the world of the oppression of the weak and helpless. We do not glorify armed conflict; we vilify it. We seek, through the gradual tide of moral education, to eradicate it at its source – by eliminating human iniquity and replacing it with human equity.

Freemasonry is, however, highly structured. With all of those impressively-titled offices comes an order which exceeds that found in many other organizations, governments included. In some ways, I find Unitarianism to be relatively unstructured, and this observation is meant in the kindest sense. It is the ability to be spontaneous and adaptive with its congregations that makes Unitarianism different - unique, to be exact. I enjoy the rigorous requirements of Freemasonry, but I also really like to relax amongst my friends in the Unitarian fellowship.

That, my friends, is the crux of the matter - Fellowship. This simple word is the focal point of all Masonic meetings. We are a band or society of friends and brothers, and we meet to promote harmony and fellowship among us. This is no different than Unitarianism, at least as it is expressed here in Prince Edward Island. In this aspect, there is no argument possible – fellowship, that feeling of togetherness, belonging and family, is central and essentially vital to both organizations. Should either ever lose its fellowship aspect, then we would have lost a principal ideal so fundamental that it would render either organization ineffectual. Masons would not be Masons without fellowship; Unitarians would be likewise without definition.

Interestingly enough, I was drawn to Masonry first. I was a self-proclaimed agnostic at the time when I sought information about Masonry. I learned, through my fellowship with Masons, that my thoughts and feelings were most important. I also learned that those that were "fed" to me from a pulpit were of limited value unless I actively meditated upon those ideas, sifting them as I chose what to accept and reject. To simply accept all that was said blindly would be a futile endeavour, for without free will we, as humans, are nothing. Unitarianism gave me the outlet to express this belief in a religious context. You could say that Masonry prepared me to become a Unitarian.

I am honoured to be a member of the Masonic Fraternity. I have met some truly excellent men in my travels through the brotherhood. I am also honoured to be a member of the Unitarian congregation, and I have met some truly extraordinary people there too.

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