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religions and political discussions

by R. W. Bro. G. H. Robertson

These words, familiar to every Freemason, are taken from the Charge after Initiation; "Your obedience must be proved . . . by abstaining while there, [i.e. in the Lodge], from every topic of political or religious discussion". Through stormy years of religious and political strife these words have guarded Freemasonry from possible dissension and disruption.

In its present form the Charge after Initiation probably dates from the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England, at the Union in 1813 of the "Ancients" and "Modern" Lodges. The earliest known version of this Charge is found in W. Smith's 'Pocket Companion for Free-Masons', published in London in December 1734, or quite early in 1735. This Charge is one of the earliest authoritative specimens of Masonic ritual which we possess. It is entitled "A short CHARGE to be given to new admitted BRETHREN.

The whole Charge may be found in 'The Genesis of Freemasonry', (Knoop and Jones, 1947). The portion relevant to this paper reads:

"Religious Disputes are never suffered in the Lodge, for as MASONS we only pursue the universal Religion or the Religion of Nature".

This same Charge is found in full in the Rawlinson Masonic MSS in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Richard Rawlinson, Fellow of the Royal Society, 1714 was a member of four early Lodges, and a Grand Steward in 1734. His Masonic manuscripts are undated, probably written from 1730 onwards so that we do not know anything further about the early history of this Charge.

Anderson's Constitutions of the Freemasons, 1723

Dr. Anderson, in his Constitutions gives us a starting point in his Sixth Charge:

VI of Behaviour, viz,
1. In the Lodge while constituted, etc.,
2. Behaviour after the Lodge is over and the Brethren not gone, "no private Piques or Quarrels must be brought within the Door of the Lodge, far less any Quarrels about Religion, or Nations or State Policy we being only, as Masons, of the Catholick Religion abovementioned; we are also of all Nations, Tongues, Kindreds, and Languages and are resolv'd against all Politicks, as what never yet Conduc'd to the Welfare of the Lodge, nor ever will."

These words were written and adopted by Grand Lodge in a period of very great disturbance when people could not talk to each other, because they had different political or theological views. For early Speculative and Accepted Freemasonry they made a good beginning and a good safeguard for the growing community of Freemasonry. The Royal Society Eminent Masonic scholars, Lionel Vibert in particular, have pointed out that "it was the considered policy of Grand Lodge to prohibit all discussion on politics and religion, and in so doing they were following the example of the Royal Society."

The Royal Society was founded in 1660-61 with Robert Moray (Murray) as its first President. Robert Moray was the first recorded Initiate to Freemasonry in England. As General Quarter Master to the Army of Scotland, he was initiated at Newcastle-on-Tyne on the 20th May, 1641.

"the same being approved by the head Master of the Masons of the Lodge in Edinburgh." Moray was spoken of as the "wisest and worthiest man of his age" The Royal Society freely admitted men of different religions, countries, and professions. "This they were obliged to do, or else they would come far short of the largeness of their own declarations. For they openly confess not to lay the foundation of an English, Scotch, Irish, Popish, or Protestant Philosophy, but a Philosophy of Mankind." (Sprat, the earliest historian of the Royal Society). Robert Hooke, the first Curator of Experiments, and later Secretary of the Royal Society in his memorandum on the business and design of the Society wrote of "Its engagement not to meddle with divinity, metaphysics, morals, politics, grammar, rhetoric or logic".

When we remember how many early Masonic Worthies were active in the Royal Society, both before and after 1717, we can understand whence came the width of vision of those who laid the foundations of the first Grand Lodge. There is a paper yet to be written about these "Masonic Pioneers", who include Robert Moray first President of the Royal Society, Dr. Desaguliers, third Grand Master, the Duke of Montague, fifth Grand Master, Richard Rawlinson, Elias Ashmole, William Stukeley, Martin-Folkes, Martin Clare, and of course Dr. James Anderson himself. In 1728 at least 15 famous Freemasons were members of the Royal Society.

What is being emphasized is the continuity of outlook common to those who in 1660 founded the Royal Society (with Bro. Robert Moray as its first President), whose purpose it was to extend their researches into the hidden mysteries of nature and Science, and to those brethren, many already Fellows of the Royal Society, who were prominent in the early days of the Grand Lodge.

It was from the Royal Society that Freemasonry learned to open its doors to all creeds and to all nations, wherever a man should be found who acknowledged the one true God; however defined. Religious and Political Discussions Today We are still bound today to avoid "Piques", "Disputes", "Quarrels", but are we forbidden "Discussion"? The English Grand Lodge in 1938 issued a statement "The Aims and Relations of the Craft", since fully subscribed to by the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland. Here is an extract from this statement:

"While the individual freemason has the right to hold his own opinion with regard to public affairs, neither in any lodge nor in his capacity as a freemason, may he discuss or advance his views on theological or political questions."

That seems to be the situation as it is at present. It must be firmly binding on Craft Lodges. But are we as Freemasons so little civilized that we cannot have discussion without dispute or quarrel? For myself I do not think that we are. We have had many papers in our Transactions, some Biblical, at 3000 years remove, and some antiquarian and safely distant from our own concerns. Of us all, Bro. L. H. Southwick and Bro. A. S. Oldham only have drawn attention to the state and future of Freemasonry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Concerning Religion

The times pass and yet they do not change. We, no less than our brethren of 1717, live in an age when things seem to be falling apart: there are wars without, and divisions within. There is still the unresolved conflict between the two sides of religion. On the one hand we see religion in history as a predominantly conservative influence. We see men dreading the collapse of the meaningful pattern that gives order to their human existence. But there is another side of religion which is a dangerous force for any society to invoke. This other face of religion questions the insistence upon an established pattern of behavior and thought for its own sake. Its purpose is to lead beyond itself and to drive towards absolute moral values such as justice, love, mercy, compassion, generosity. It cannot be classified or contained under a set of moral rules by the insistence upon an established pattern of behavior. True religion must acknowledge and mediate these two sides of religion, and must contain both. Where one has prevailed we have repression by the priest, the conserver, and where the other prevails we have the fervor of the prophet (sometimes true, sometimes false). As men and as freemasons we are inevitably caught in these tensions. We are charged not to be enthusiasts, (i.e. fanatics or bigots), persecutors, or slanderers of religion. And this is in our private capacity, and in the example that we set to the world.

Concerning Politics

If religion is man working with God, then politics is man working with man. It has been well said that "Almost the whole of the Old Testament is about politics and government. It is the story of God's efforts to teach the Jews to run their community affairs with justice, integrity and intelligence. Hence the detailed provisions regarding land ownership, care for the helpless, forgiveness of debt, commercial probity and the administration of justice". In this sense these are the politics dear to a freemason's heart, whatever tensions there may be over ways of achieving them. Another view is given by Lord Radcliffe in a Lecture on "The Dissolving Society" given in London in 1966: "What matters for our future is that we should still have a philosophy of living to sustain us in pride and dignity. It will not come by political action, as the great part of population, who do not want to have to think for themselves, dimly hope that it may. Politics can be the expression of a sound public philosophy, but they cannot create it; least of all in this country which in political terms is so organized that one half of the nation is always the enemy of the other, and in which the general public increasingly regards the two parties as two football teams which it expects to play for its entertainment. It will not come through the deplorable and lazy modern cult of majority wishes and majority opinion. We shall never begin to approach the ideal of a just and defensible society unless we shake ourselves free of the notion that there is any moral sanction whatsoever behind the votes or wishes of a majority. To respect majority opinion is the duty of a civilized man in all matters in which such deference may properly be required. A democracy cannot conduct its affairs on any other working principle. But the art of political theory is hardly begun with the rules for ascertaining and enforcing the wishes of a majority: the real art lies in analyzing and expounding the circumstances and occasions upon which, whatever the wishes of a majority, they ought not to be given effect to at the expense of a minority, large or small, and of that art, so far as I can see, our public life is almost totally deficient".

Where Should the Freemason Stand?

The freemason is bound by every consideration to practice outside the Lodge all those duties which have been laid to his Charge inside the Lodge. Many of these duties are symbolized in the tools of the Craft. Others are summed up in the three grand principles of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. Truth above all, for the freemason must make a study of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic. He must not let his passions and his prejudices be carried away by jargon words of the day, "peace", "environment", "the common good", "race", "pollution", and so many other simple words once clear in meaning as a forest pool, now clogged and clotted with emotional weed. His study of arithmetic and geometry must have taught him the honest use of numbers and measures. It is all there, and much more, in our Ritual and the freemasons must take it into the outside world by nature, not by art, and by other-regarding rather than self-regarding.

The last word on this subject has been said in a Paper "THE CRAFT'S ATTITUDE TO POLITICS AND RELIGION", published in the Grand Lodge of Scotland Year Book, 1971, and reprinted in A.Q.C., Volume 83. Had this Paper been available to me I would scarcely have had the courage to write my own.


Here is part of what the Grand Lodge of Scotland Year Book has to say

"Tolerance has always been one of the tenets of the Craft. What do we mean by tolerance? Tolerance does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that one belief is as good as another, or is as true as another, or is as valuable as another. Freemasonry does not advocate a general indifference to all beliefs; nor does it hold that all differences of opinion should be melted down into a drab compromise. As brethren in toleration we, as freemasons, take the opposite position. We believe that one belief is truer than another, that one opinion is better grounded that another; and that we want the truth to prevail. But we know that the truth can never emerge unless every man is left free to seek the facts for himself, to think for himself, to speak for himself, to confront life's realities for himself. Every human mind must be left free to observe the world for itself. This, freemasonry believes, is the one way in which the truth about any of the great subjects of human life will ever be found. Tolerance therefore is a positive and constructive thing. It encourages every man to think for himself, because not otherwise will men learn in the long run to think the same things. In all our Masonic meetings we try to deal with one another, in so far as religious and political matters are concerned in the spirit of fair play. We may well disagree, but we try not to be disagreeable."

Comment on this paper drew special attention to the phrase "Natural Religion".

The author in his reply notes that the use of the term in our early documents may have been unwise. The phrase means that man can understand the wholeness of God from a study of the works of God in nature and science. The addition of the word "only" (The Genesis of Freemasonry, Pp. 236-237) as it excludes Revelations, which is an awareness of God makes this a theological heresy, as it excludes Revelation, which is an awareness of God by direct confrontation. At the time of the first Grand Lodge, the proponents of the Religion of Nature were very active, and were known as Deists. This is the origin of the charge of Deism often leveled against Freemasonry.

The Grand Lodge of England excludes Deism. The statement "Basic Principles for Grand Lodge Recognition" (Book of Constitution P.xii,CL.3) says: "That all Initiates shall take their Obligation on or in full view of the open Volume of the Sacred Law, by which is meant the revelation from above which is binding on the conscience of the particular individual who is being initiated."

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