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John Hamill on the landmarks of Freemasonry

Landmark decision

Director of Special Projects John Hamill considers why the Grand Lodge has never defined the landmarks that form the basis of Freemasonry

One of the perennial questions that Freemasons ask is what are the landmarks of Freemasonry? We refer to them at various points in our ceremonies and each Master at his Installation obligates himself to uphold them.

With one exception, however, nowhere has Grand Lodge defined what the landmarks are. 

The exception is the requirement in each candidate for a belief in the Supreme Being. That first appeared in the Book of Constitutions issued in 1913, in what was then Rule 150, dealing with the admission as visitors to our lodges of brethren from other Grand Lodges, and still appears in the current edition at Rule 125(b). The rule states this belief is ‘an essential landmark of the Order’.

In Victorian times, American scholar Albert Mackey (1807-1881) produced for his Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry a list of twenty-five landmarks. These were avidly taken up by the State Grand Lodges in America, many of which greatly extended Mackey’s original list and incorporated them into their Books of Constitutions. 

When we examine those lists, however, rather than being landmarks many of them are simply good rules for the conduct of the Craft in general and the government of Grand Lodges and lodges.

In England there has been scholarly argument over the definition of what constitutes a landmark. Some believe that anything that has been done in Freemasonry from ‘time whereof the mind of man runneth not to the contrary’ should be considered a landmark. I much prefer the definition, first put on paper by the late Harry Carr, that a landmark is something in Freemasonry that would, were it removed, materially alter the basis of Freemasonry.

Using the Carr definition I would suggest that there are six landmarks:

1. Belief in the Supreme Being, that being the one thing, in a very disparate membership, that we all have in common.

2. The presence of the three great lights, particularly the Volume of the Sacred Law, which underpins our system of morality.

3. The three great principles of brotherly love, relief and truth, they being the embodiment of our basic principles and tenets.

4. The use of ritual using allegory and symbolism, as well as the allusions within the ritual to King Solomon’s temple, but not the detail of the ritual itself, which has changed over time.

5. The ban on the discussion of religion and politics at masonic meetings, which if it were removed would undoubtedly lead to dissention and disharmony.

6. The taking of an obligation to uphold the principles of Freemasonry and to preserve inviolate the signs, tokens and words used as a test of membership.

The question arises of why Grand Lodge has never defined the landmarks, other than the belief in the Supreme Being. The answer to that, in my personal view, is in two parts. 

First, Freemasonry has always been free from dogma. Grand Lodge having agreed the basic form of our ceremonies, after the union in 1813, then stood back from it, except for major principles such as the former physical penalties in the obligations, and has never entered into discussion as to what the meaning of the ritual is. This has been done in the firm belief that it is part of the individual’s personal journey to form their own understanding of the ritual. In addition, were the Grand Lodge to define the landmarks, that would be the first step on the road to establishing dogma.

Secondly, in addition to finding his own meaning of the ritual, discovering the landmarks surely forms part of the individual’s journey, providing an opportunity to make his own study and increase his own understanding of the Craft.

‘There has been argument over what constitutes a landmark… I prefer the definition that a landmark is something that would, were it removed, alter the basis of Freemasonry.’

Letters to the Editor – Autumn 2015

Pride in membership

Sir,

It has always been a great pleasure for me to read and reflect on John Hamill’s epistles in . His thoughts on the landmarks of Freemasonry were succinctly summarised in his ‘Six Pillars’ piece and were explained with admirable clarity.

Being a Freemason of 46 years, I asked myself, ‘Where has Freemasonry led me?’ In answer I have to say that it has certainly made me a better human, a better husband, a better father and, above all, a better doctor to my patients – simply because, through Freemasonry, I was reminded of and was able to achieve my ‘personal responsibility’. I shall be ever indebted to Freemasonry.

Mohamed Pasha, MBE, Thamestide Lodge, No. 8147, Southend-on-Sea, Essex