Where freedom exists, Freemasonry can flourish. Director of Special Projects John Hamill explains why the Craft thrives in democratic societies
In January, National Holocaust Memorial Day passed almost unnoticed in the media, and where it was commented on there was no mention of Freemasonry. It still appears largely unknown outside the Craft that a significant number of Freemasons in Europe disappeared into Nazi labour and concentration camps never to be seen again. Nor had the attacks been confined to the Nazis. Freemasons had been persecuted in Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain and Stalinist Russia.
Freemasonry under England, Ireland and Scotland has been remarkably free from persecution at home. The closest it came to being closed down by government was in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when the 1799 Unlawful Societies Act was passing through Parliament.
In its original form the Act would have made masonic meetings illegal. Fortunately, the Earl of Moira, Acting Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge, and the Duke of Athol, Grand Master of the Antients Grand Lodge, were able to persuade the Prime Minister, William Pitt, of the moral basis of Freemasonry, its support for lawfully constituted authority and its benevolent activities. As a result, clauses were introduced into the Act specifically exempting Freemasonry from its provisions, provided that each year every lodge secretary supplied a full list of the members of his lodge together with their ages, occupations and addresses.
It is not difficult to see why totalitarian regimes hate Freemasonry. Our insistence that candidates believe in a supreme being; our basis in morality; our striving for high standards; our practice of tolerance and respect for others; our belief in equality and freedom of thought; and our caring for others in the community are all anathema to a dictatorship, and things we should jealously guard.
After the Second World War and a short period of freedom, an ‘Iron Curtain’ descended dividing western and eastern Europe. In countries in the Eastern Bloc, Freemasonry had a brief revival but was driven underground when Communism prevailed. It says a great deal about our principles that there were individuals in Eastern Europe who had come into Freemasonry, either in the 1930s or in the brief period after the war, who were willing to put themselves into real danger to keep the spirit of Freemasonry alive in their countries.
The road to freedom
It was because of their courage that when the Iron Curtain finally crumbled in 1989, Freemasonry was brought back into the open. Their road back has not always been easy but Freemasonry is flourishing. A simple statistic shows how much has been achieved: in 1990 England recognised nineteen regular Grand Lodges in Europe, today it recognises forty-three.
Those who were present at the two hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary of the Grand Lodge at Earls Court in 1992 will remember the rather diminutive, elderly figure of the Grand Master of the recently revived Grand Lodge of Hungary. He explained how from the opening of the first lodge in Hungary in 1749, Freemasonry had been regularly persecuted but now ‘in a democratic country, Freemasonry can continue its work’. As one American masonic writer wrote: ‘Where freedom exists Freemasonry can flourish and nurture that freedom.’
We, who in our long masonic history have never suffered persecution, should remember with pride those who so believed in Freemasonry’s importance that they, like that great character in our ritual, were willing to face death rather than betray their principles or the trust reposed in them.
Letters to the editor – No. 24 Winter 2013
On Saturday 5 October over twenty thousand bikers from across the country made their annual pilgrimage to the National Memorial Arboretum near Burton upon Trent to pay their respects to members of the armed forces who have lost their lives in the service of their country. Amongst these were more than sixty brethren, most being members of the Widows Sons Masonic Bikers Association, all from lodges across the country.
They travelled from the north, south, east and west and at 1pm gathered in the Freemasons’ Garden to stand together for a few moments to remember lost friends, relations and brothers who have been lost in the various armed conflicts since the Second World War. The Freemasons’ Garden, which forms an important part of the National Memorial Arboretum, was conceived and established in 2002. It is now in line for a makeover and upgrade during the coming months as part of the multi-million-pound redesign of the Arboretum Visitor Centre.
John Perridge, Compass Lodge, No. 8765, Syston, Leicestershire and Rutland
I read with interest the letter of Denis Baker (Autumn 2013) regarding the dilapidated state of the Freemasons’ memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. I am a Warwickshire Freemason residing in Staffordshire and have visited the Arboretum on several occasions since it was first formed, including a visit just recently.
I concur entirely with the comments made by Denis Baker and consider that the state of the Freemasons’ memorial reflects badly on Freemasonry in general and it needs improvement work carried out immediately.
A notice board at the Freemasons’ memorial plot informs visitors that work is ongoing but this information is over five years old and there is no sign of any such work being carried out. The whole area occupied by the Freemasons’ memorial, together with the information notices, give it an abandoned and uncared for appearance.
John Wileman, Goldieslie Lodge, No. 6174, Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire
May I assure all your readers that the concerns expressed about the Masonic Garden at the National Memorial Arboretum are shared by every member of the Staffordshire Province. For the past ten years we have not been allowed to do anything because it was expected that the new Visitor Centre would be extended over our garden and we would be relocated. The plans for the new Centre have now been agreed and we can now make some progress.
Our first plan was accepted this summer by the Arboretum but the cost of the project, £170,000, was too great and we are now finding out whether our second proposal is affordable. It is all complicated by the ground conditions: the site is a former sand and gravel quarry on a river flood plain with a high water table, and it is essential to build a concrete raft supported by piles. That alone will cost about £18,000.
Plans are already in hand to replace the yew trees with a field maple hedge. When we have an affordable plan we hope that the United Grand Lodge of England will lead our fundraising efforts, supported by all the Provinces in the country, for a National Masonic Memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum to those Freemasons who have died in the service of their country.
It would also be fortuitous if we can celebrate its completion and opening early in 2017 as part of our national celebration of three hundred years of Freemasonry in England. We are working hard to make this project a success and a credit to all concerned.
Sandy Stewart, Provincial Grand Master, Staffordshire
Letters to the editor – No. 23 Autumn 2013
On the theme of Service Remembered (summer 2013 issue), my father James Carroll was in the Royal Navy during World War II aboard the Captain Class Frigates, which carried out convoy duties not only across the Atlantic but to the Arctic on the Russian convoys. After sixty-eight years the government finally recognised the extreme conditions and sacrifices made by those who carried out what Churchill called ‘the worst journey in the world’.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Russia’s President Putin held a ceremony at Number 10 Downing Street, presenting my father with the Arctic Star and one of the highest naval decorations in Russia, the Ushakov Medal. Some thirty veterans were invited along for tea and the award was made prior to the Prime Minister and President Putin leaving for the G8 conference in Northern Ireland.
At nearly ninety, my father was very proud, as were we, at being able to receive this long overdue recognition. He was initiated into Freemasonry ten years ago, in May 2003 at the age of eighty.
Alan Carroll, Vicar’s Oak Lodge, No. 4822, London
Having visited the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire at the weekend I was greatly impressed with the many memorials located on the site.
The memorial to Freemasons who gave their lives in defence of the nation comprises two stone blocks representing the rough and smooth ashlar standing on a chequered pavement surrounded by a yew tree hedge to indicate eternity. I was surprised to see that this memorial is in a dilapidated state, with part of the yew tree hedge having died off leaving an untidy gap.
I felt that this dilapidated memorial creates a poor image of Freemasonry, particularly when compared to those of other organisations, and believe that Grand Lodge should take a lead and ensure that the memorial is repaired as a matter of urgency. The costs involved are likely to be very minor compared to the very large sums that Freemasonry gives to other causes.
I am sure that many of the brethren will agree that in this case charity should begin at home, and I look forward to hearing and seeing that Grand Lodge takes this on board and carries out the remedial work.
I understand that Staffordshire Province has undertaken work in the past but as this forms part of a national memorial, I consider that it falls more appropriately in the province of Grand Lodge.
Denis J Baker, Ravenshead Lodge, No. 8176, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire
Letters to the editor – No. 22 Summer 2013
I read with interest John Hamill’s article entitled ‘Free from Persecution’ in the spring 2013 edition of Freemasonry Today. Although the number of Freemasons who perished in the Holocaust is unknown, it is believed to be between eighty thousand and two hundred thousand.
I had been privileged to give a reading on behalf of the Freemasons at a well-attended Holocaust Remembrance Day Service in Portsmouth last year when later the same day my wife and I attended the reception preceding the masonic province of Hampshire’s Thanksgiving Service. At that reception I was approached by the Mayor of Havant. Among the guests were many dignitaries from local authorities within the Province but I had known the mayor for many years and he asked whether the Province would like to send representatives to attend the Havant Holocaust Remembrance Service. He is not a Freemason, but he is Jewish, like myself.
It was a cold January afternoon when the Provincial Grand Master, the Deputy Provincial Grand Master, an Assistant Provincial Grand Master (who had been invited to wear their chains of office), our Provincial Information Officer, our wives and I attended the sombre and fitting service. About a hundred people attended and wreaths were laid. There were readings by civic dignitaries, school children and a member of the travelling community.
At the reception that followed we were invited to give a reading and lay a wreath on behalf of Freemasons within the Province at future Holocaust Remembrance Day Services. I hope other local authorities will follow the example of Havant Borough Council and Portsmouth City Council. Both these services were extremely moving and a fitting tribute to those who perished under Nazi persecution.
Philip Alan Berman, Old Portmuthian Lodge, No. 8285, Portsmouth, Hampshire and Isle of Wight
I enjoyed John Hamill’s article ‘Free from Persecution’ in the recent edition of Freemasonry Today. However, there is always an exception to the rule. I was rather surprised on a visit to Cuba two years ago, to find that Freemasonry was well in the public domain. Our tour guide organised for me a visit to one of the temples to meet up with a few Freemasons – but alas time did not permit attendance at their meeting.
Garth Ezekiel, Richmond Hill Lodge, No. 6698, Twickenham, Middlesex