Freemasonry has thrived for centuries because it adapts while staying true to its principles, as Director of Special Projects John Hamill explains
As we begin the countdown to the tercentenary celebrations of Grand Lodge in 2017, a great deal of research is being undertaken to establish how Freemasonry has developed and what we have contributed to society. Despite nearly one hundred and fifty years of serious masonic research, we have yet to answer the questions of why, when and where Freemasonry as we understand it originated. Even with the great amount of work going on now, I doubt if those answers will be found by 2017.
There is another question, to my mind, as important and interesting as that of our origins: why has Freemasonry survived on the scale to which it exists today? Those four London lodges that came together in 1717 cannot in their wildest imaginings have thought that three hundred years later their Grand Lodge would have in excess of 250,000 members in more than 8,000 lodges across the world.
We regard Freemasonry as being something special and different. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, it was only one of a myriad of fraternal and benevolent societies and associations. Many of them copied Freemasonry in their organisation and use of ceremony and regalia. For the majority, the benevolent and charitable aspects predominated and the ritual became less important. Most of them completely disappeared in the twentieth century as the developing welfare state began to offer the safety net they had provided. Freemasonry, however, flourished.
For much of the eighteenth century Freemasonry was not so different from many other organisations. The ceremonies, while they attempted to instil a basic moral code, were often seen as simply a curious means of entering what was basically a social and benevolent association. The watershed came in the aftermath of the of the two Grand Lodges on 27 December 1813. A great deal of reorganisation and standardisation took place that resulted in the ceremonies, and above all the meaning behind them, becoming the basis of the institution itself.
This fundamental shift in emphasis was the first step in ensuring the survival of Freemasonry. It demonstrated an ability – sometimes deliberate and almost accidental at others – to adapt Freemasonry to its era. Changes were always made to the outward customs and never to the basic principles, tenets and landmarks of the Order. These are rightly seen as the essence of Freemasonry and are inalienable.
There are, however, deeper reasons as to why we are still a living organisation. Grand Lodge has always refused to define or explain the meaning of the several ceremonies. This has prevented the rise of any form of dogma. It is up to the individual to make their own journey and to find their own understanding. Hence, the membership forms a wide spectrum, from those who simply view it as a social opportunity to those who, wrongly, believe it will provide the answer to all of life’s questions!
Freemasonry has a breadth that appeals to those who are seeking friendship and moral guidance; an opportunity to be of service within the community; a quiet haven for a few hours from the troubles of the world; or just the pure, simple enjoyment in being in the company of like-minded people.
After forty years of study I remain convinced that, whatever fate may throw at Freemasonry – and provided we remain true to our principles yet adaptable to our times, and retain the breadth of our membership – the Order will survive. It will continue to give to future generations the pleasure that we and our predecessors have found in it.
Letters to the Editor – FreemasonryToday No.18 – SUMMER 2012
There is nothing wrong whatsoever in maintaining a building and using lodge non-charitable funds for this end. I believe that if a particular building suddenly requires major expenditure then that lodge should be allowed to say to the Province that their charitable donations for a short period of time may well be diminished while they give attention to whatever problem has arisen. This should be perfectly acceptable because it secures the lodge building for future generations. The lodge can return to charitable giving in due course and this further ensures that future generations also give to charity.