W.B. Jon Sage
Foundational Elements: Religion within the Masonic Order
In the beginning of the journey of every Freemason, each has an individual answer for the inevitable question, “What has drawn you to Masonry”? For a great many, it is the allure of a possible mystique, the ancient rites of our Order that perhaps prompted them to ask for and ultimately gain admittance into the Lodge room. Others are no doubt influenced by a Father, Brother, Grandfather, even a friend in the workplace; who were or are Masons, and for such a reason, curiosity was piqued. There are a few who may join, or attempt to join, for other reasons; possibly thinking that the secrets of our world and universe will be offered to them at some point in the initiatory process. For whatever reason, and in whatever manner our Candidates come to us, there is one common thread that binds each of them. This is the indisputable and absolute demand of the Masonic Institution that her votaries possess a firm belief in Deity.
From the Regius Poem of 1390 ca. to Preston’s Illustrations, the first commonality is belief in Deity, namely “God”, which also implicitly implies a singular, monotheistic belief. The Regius Poem, being a type of guide which was still doing business (and it was a manual for doing business as an Operative Mason), under and within the Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation was not begun until 1517, and did not reach an ultimate fruition in England until 1534, with Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, effectively creating the Church of England.
Coincidentally, the head of the English Church (Anglican), which did bear some resemblance to the Catholic Theology, was the King of England, instead of the Pope. This is important solely because even after the Reformation, and on up until Anderson in 1723, Lodges were, for the most part, Christian in their nature. This is one very important difference of opinion which eventually led to so called schism of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717, and culminated in a 126 year period in English Masonry, defined by the “Moderns”, who followed the non-sectarian guidelines of Anderson’s Constitutions; and the “Antients”, who favored a Christian, and thus more traditional, or ancient, foundation to their Ritual.
The rift was eventually settled, after heated and lengthy debate, in the formation of The United Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of England (UGLE), in 1813. After this point in time, with the exception of the “higher degrees”, i.e. York Rite, Scottish Rite, Royal Arch; the “Blue Lodge” has been nearly exclusively, by order of her landmarks, non-sectarian in the manner in which the monotheistic God is viewed and/or worshipped. In short, the belief of one God is necessary for admittance into a Lodge; but the manner in which that God is worshipped, is not to be asked, discussed, or spoken of otherwise while in Lodge assembled. This belief in God, and then the individual freedom and encouragement to seek God on our own terms, is the mystic tie which binds us; creating the platform on which we operate universally as Brethren.
Sectarian Masonry: Not Universal in Nature and Stagnant in Growth
Knowing Masonry as most of us do today, the question may well arise; “How could Masonry, with its ideals of equality, tolerate religious discussions and thus following, disagreements within the Lodge room”? The answer is multi-faceted, and lies not only in different periods of time, some overlapping; but also in differences in cultures and peoples. It is proper at this point to mention that many of our members in the Americas and in Europe are of Christian heritage. Indeed, in many Jurisdictions, the King James Holy Bible is nearly always used as THE Volume of Sacred Law (V.S.L.). Yet, the Holy Bible is but one of many “Good Books” in our world.
Necessarily, each culture, having its own religion, will also have its own V.S.L. Thus it follows that ANY and ALL V.S.L.’s are acceptable as The Greatest Light upon the Altar of any regular and well governed Lodge. However, it is equally noteworthy to put forth the over-riding understanding that, although a Brother may request his own individual V.S.L., that the Holy Bible, if it is open upon the Altar, is Symbolic of ALL Good Books of Scripture. This symbolism of goodness, embodied in the Holy Scriptures, and stated as such in Ritual and understanding, has become the true benchmark and visible sign to many around the Globe of the Universality of Masonry.
We are a truly universal organization. Masonic Lodges meet with any number of VSL’s, several of them at times, open upon her Altar. In light of these thoughts, and for the sake of brevity, we will accept them as truth; and will focus on the Grand Lodge of England (Moderns), and the Grand Lodge of the Antients (Ancients), and the eventual course of action(s) that led to a non-sectarian Masonic government for England, under the UGLE.
The Regius Poem, having a decidedly Catholic leaning, was a cause and a means of explaining away how Lodges were, and must have been Christian, more specifically, Catholic. After the Reformation, the English Crown operated as the head of the Church of England, which was Protestant. During this period, it is assumed that Lodges may have been in some kind of limbo, as to exactly how they should operate. Nevertheless, they were still emphatically Christian. After Henry VIII’s death, Edward VI at 9 years of age, assumed the Throne in 1547, and standardized the effects of the Reformation in England. Edward VI was responsible in 1549, for the publication of the Prayer Book, which was a record and justification of the elimination of the Latin Church (Roman Catholic), and hence; the establishment of the Anglican Church (Protestant), in England. And so, for a period of 174 years, the fledgling but growing Fraternity of Freemasonry in England operated through successions of Kings and Queens, outlasting various wars and coups against the crown, in a Christian and/or Protestant composition. During this period of time, due to religious confines as well as some immoveable borders and incompatible Monarchies on the European Continent, Masonry did not experience robust growth and expansion.
The Goose and the Gridiron: The Moderns and the Ancients
In 1717, a determination of Brethren to standardize and unite began to stir within 4 Lodges in London, and the Grand Lodge of England (The Moderns) was formed at the Goose and Gridiron Alehouse, on June 24, St. John the Baptist’s Day . After this, 3 other Grand Lodges formed within England, each with their own respective traits, yet ultimately, adhering to the Landmarks of the order. Exceptions and differences pertained to the 1st Landmark, the belief in one true God and/or an adherence and loyalty to the Christian faith, namely through prayers offered and some particulars of the 3rd degree (at that time, the newest, and perhaps most widely interpreted degree in the Blue Lodge). Also at stake, in the view of the Ancients, was an ill feeling in regard to the notion of an individual Lodge owing loyalty to a Grand Lodge. As such, the Grand Lodge of the Antients (The Ancients) was Grand, perhaps in name alone.
Let us be clear that to say that a Christian influence or practice was present in one Lodge, and not in another, mainly had to do with the type of prayer offered, and in some language of the Ritual. To be specific, more often than not, the difference between the Ancients and the Moderns was reference to Jesus, Christ, The Trinity, God the Father, or the Holy Mother. This was in direct contrast to the Moderns, and the now commonly heard “Grand Architect of the Universe”. These repeated differences in language, as well as the assurance that within Christian Lodges, other religions were not permitted, is the heart of the schism which occurred in 1717.
Thus, all Lodges were Christian from Edward VI until Anderson’s Constitutions in 1723. The Constitutions contained the language which defined religion as that “in which all good men agree” , effectively eliminating any semblance or necessity of Christianity within the Lodge. However, the Ancients refused to give up the Faith, and remained with it, until the formation of the UGLE in 1813; when Christianity within the Lodge was deemed prohibitive of her high ideals; namely, equality and effectiveness of Brotherly Love.
Here now follows a brief timeline of events and Lodges from 1717 up until the Lodge of Reconciliation in 1813:
- 1717- Grand Lodge of England (The Moderns) is formed consisting of 4 Lodges. This organization will remain in place until 1813, when a merger with the Grand Lodge of the Antients will form the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE).
- In 1725 The Grand Lodge of ALL England (Lodge in the City of York), was formed, and this Lodge was Christian in her conduct while assembled. This later merged with the Ancients, and is believed to be the basis of York Rite Masonry.
- 1751 Grand Lodge of the Antients (The Ancients). The term, sometimes spelled Antients, also called the Atholl Lodge, was founded on the belief that the “Modern” Lodges had left the Faith of the original Lodges behind. The Ancients also strongly resented the arbitrary power which was emulating from London. Thus, they referred to themselves as Ancient, as upholders of the Faith, and the Fraternity at large.
- 1779 The Grand Lodge of England, South of the River Trent – This Lodge was authorized by Grand Lodge of York and later consisted of a merger with the Grand Lodge of York. Coincidentally, this Union was affiliated with William Preston. This Grand Lodge lasted 10 years, and during that time constituted 2 Lodges. The Grand Lodge of England, South of the River Trent, as well as the Grand Lodge at York, passed out of existence in 1789.
- In matters not relating (at that time), directly to England, the Grand Lodge of Ireland was constituted in 1730, as was the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1736 .
- 1813 Lodge of Reconciliation, UGLE, and the Premier Grand Lodge joined with the Grand Lodge of the Antients, The United Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of England .
As things stood, after the Lodge of Reconciliation, the UGLE possessed, by necessity, a Universalist worldview concerning religion. However, there can be no doubt that many British Freemasons, perhaps most notably and surprisingly William Preston, who held an opinion that the Christian religion was at a “higher” level than other beliefs. In time, it became painfully obvious, that although acceptance of other creeds was spoken of, this was not always the practice. Although America has always been somewhat separate from the confines of the UGLE, other countries and territories were not. Throughout the 19th century, the age of British Imperialism was still in full effect. As such, there were many Lodges constituted under the authority of the UGLE, some in the farthest expanses of our planet. As these Lodges grew in membership, they naturally accumulated Masons of those native cultures. In so doing, the expansion of the British Empire would eventually lead to the true Universality and Brotherhood among Masons.
Non-Sectarian Masonry: All Inclusive and Growing
Masonry, as it is understood throughout the world today, is described as “a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols” . The key words in this description are morality and symbols. Morality, as the basis for civilized society, is to be revered, and should be endeavored to be taught. But, as each person is different; so is his morality (system of religious convictions). However, there are certain things, considered to be wrong, or immoral in nature. In part or parcel, these are present in nearly every civilized culture. To name but a few: murder, a respect for elders, and some sort of belief in the immortality of the soul of man are constant examples of wrong. These may be termed as core values… the essence of Man. They are as old as humanity, and soak the fabric of our existence, influencing all other things.
Also existent in humanity, from the earliest of times, are symbols. A symbol is ANY thing that may represent something. When a young child is learning to read, we use letters – as symbols, to accomplish the representation of thoughts, as they are then written upon paper. Symbols are crucial elements which can and DO unite men of different countries, sects, and opinions. One such symbol, which is representative of God (Deity), is the Holy Bible. The Christian Bible, simply from a geographic/socio perspective, was the most widely accepted of any Scriptures used among those in our early Fraternity. From of the Church of Rome, grew the Order; first as an operative labor organization, and then into that which is now our Free and Accepted Masonic Fraternity of today. Thus, at the beginnings of the Fraternity, it is understandable that the Holy Bible was a foundation, and the symbol of righteousness and basis for morality within the Lodge.
According to Preston, in revised versions of his works, the sacred Law should be whatever is understood to contain the word of God. Following Reconciliation and the formation of the UGLE in 1813 the term Volume of Sacred Law was formally introduced, and from that time, any number of religious text(s) may have been and were used, as they are SYMBOLIC of all that is good, and that which is found in the hearts of men. In this manner, Preston described in his Illustrations of Masonry, the conclusion of this universal acceptance: “the distant Chinese, the wild Arab, and the American savage will embrace a Brother Briton and know that besides the common ties of humanity there is still a stronger obligation to induce him to kind and friendly offices” .
In 1840, the Duke of Sussex ruled that Hindus (India) could become Freemasons, when they were previously excluded, solely on religious boundaries . Seemingly, the Hindus were previously excluded from a lack of understanding and/or acceptance of that religion. Hinduism, if not closely examined, appears to be one of polytheism. However, upon close examination, we know that Para Brahman (Supreme Brahman) is considered to be the predominant God, with the other(s) acting as extensions of the ineffable Supreme. This is the case in the main practices of Hinduism; whether it be Ganapatya, Shaivism, Vaishnavism or Shaktism. The reasoning behind this is because though terminology may be different, the comparable Gods of all sects of Hinduism – Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu or Shakti, and any others, are all descended from, and can be equated with Brahman . Interestingly enough, Prescott’s examination of this reveals that the Indian Christians were the ones so vehemently opposed to the Indian Hindu, their own Countrymen, becoming part of the Masonic Order. After the edict, the beauty of Masonry was then known and appreciated throughout the British Isles and Colonies. It may then be surmised, that between the Lodge of Reconciliation, and an order admitting Hindus into Freemasonry, was set into motion the worldwide growth of the Fraternity.
Religious Masonry: Beyond Theology
The basis of Christianity, and the ideals of that religion, cannot be denied as an impetus force in the creation of the Freemasonic Institution. If it were not for Solomon and the Hiramical Legend; the craftsmen who constructed the monumental Cathedrals at the behest of The Church of Rome; or of the story of Salvation through Jesus, and an assurance of immortality; the Fraternity might never have progressed from a wholly operative, to speculative Order. Indeed, as a basis for any organization, and especially for one which has existed since time immemorial, the eternal promises of the Holy Scriptures have provided a well laid and solid foundation for the edifice of Freemasonry. However, we are not to keep our Light hidden, but should prefer for the Light possessed to be seen and appreciated by those surrounding us! Perhaps this spirit is best conveyed in Mark 16:15, Jesus said “…Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” . Gospel, loosely and secularly defined, are “glad tidings” . As a matter of course, Masonry cannot be confined to one man– if it is true, it MUST be shared, to all who would conform to her principles.
Masonry is better, and more desirable without any particular Theology. It is not for us, as men, to define that which is Holy to other men! Surely they know, if attention is paid to the Captain of their Salvation, which way is the correct path. In that vein of thought, it must be our prerogative
to define only the beautiful ideals of Masonry, and to enact the tenets of our Profession. By the exercise of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth, we are taught well the lessons of Masonry, and given applications for those lessons in our daily lives. The dogma of any Church, or absolute Theologies can and do provide for distances to develop between men; and will also divide Brethren, if they are allowed to do so.
Masonry has utilized the concept of universality in a manner which does not generalize the human condition, but rather; focuses ON the human condition. The Masonic Order inculcates the Holy ideals of Morality and Virtue through the use of beautiful ceremonies and lectures. Our Ritual utilizes the several working tools of the Operative Mason to provide the Speculative Mason with a means and symbolism in which to better his life, and the lives of those around him. Our Institution asks that each man search his own heart, in order that he might find the plan laid down for him, by the Grand Architect of the Universe. In so doing, we may complete our daily Work, and all will benefit mightily from the fruit thereof.
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A. Prescott, “A Body Without A Soul? A Philosophical Outlook Of British Freemasonry 1700-2000,” in Cornerstone Society And Canonbury Masonic Research Centre, Brusells , 2003.
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