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THE CHARGES OF A FREEMASON
In many installation services is to be found the instruction to a Master to "cause the Book of Constitutions to be read in your Lodge." The "Book of Constitutions, guarded by the Tiler's Sword" is found in practically all Masonic rituals. A very large part of the content of Masonic teaching, and much of our degree philosophy, comes from the Constitutions, both the Old Manuscript, and the "modern" (sic!) adaptation of them made by Anderson. Yet - how many brethren have ever read Anderson for themselves? How many Masters have "caused them to be read" in their Lodges?
Doubtless every Craftsman would be the better informed if he read Anderson's Constitutions of 1723, knew the "Old Charges", and was familiar with the "General Regulations", but unfortunately the book is hard to get, for many, and rather forbidding in length and old style print. A few modern codes of laws in certain Jurisdictions reprint some or all, but the average member of a Lodge seldom reads, let alone possesses, a copy of his Jurisdiction's Code! A facsimile reprint of the ancient, rare and valuable book is the first volume of the Little Masonic Library, and of course the larger Masonic libraries of the nation have originals, but even so, the work is unfamiliar to the great majority.
As a whole the book is too long for even a brief review. The General Regulations occupy many pages, as does the fanciful, romantic and wholly inaccurate history of the Craft which forms its beginning. From the standpoint of the average Mason, the heart of the whole is found in the Charges - the "Old Charges" as they are customarily called, the "Charges of a Freemason" as they are denominated in the book itself.
These purport to give the whole duty of a Mason to himself, his country, his fellows, his Lodge, and the people with whom he lives. That is rather a large order to pack under six headings, and Freemasonry as we know it has amplified, enlarged and stressed much more than is set forth in the Old Charges. But the basis, the foundation, of many of the philosophies and high teachings of the Ancient Craft are here to be found. They are not less, rather are they more, interesting and romantic when thought of in connection with the formal age in which they were first reduced to print by the eminent, hard working, if somewhat inaccurate Dr. James Anderson.
Anderson was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and was a Master of Arts of the Marischal College of that city. In London he was a minister in a Presbyterian Chapel for almost a quarter of a century. Just where Anderson was made a Mason is not known; nor do we know just when he joined in London, nor the name of the Lodge of which he was Master. Although he himself gives other reasons for the writing of the "Constitutions" it seems probable that it was largely a private venture, even if it was sanctioned by Grand Lodge. What Grand Lodge apparently did not sanction was the liberties he took with Payne's regulations, and probably with some of the Charges.
As printed by Anderson the Old Charges are set forth under six "General Heads" which are, "Of God and Religion", "Of the Civil Magistrate Supreme and Subordinate", "Of Lodges", "Of Masters, Wardens, Fellows and Apprentices", "Of the Management of the Craft in Working" and "Of Behavior, (1) In the Lodge while constituted, (2) After the Lodge is over and the Brethren not gone, (3) When the Brethren meet without strangers but not in a Lodge, (4) In the presence of strangers not Masons, (5) At home and in the neighborhood, and (6) Towards a strange Brother."
"Of God and Religion" sets forth the duty of a Mason to obey the moral law, and also includes that passage on which Masonic religious tolerance is based: "But though in ancient times Masons were charged in every country to be of the religion of that country of nation, whatever it was, yet 'tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all men agree."
Here also is the fount from which springs the admonition that by the association of good men and true, Masonry becomes "the means of conciliating true friendship among persons that must have remained at a perpetual distance."
"Of the Civil Magistrate, Supreme and Subordinate" is along paragraph concerned with the relation of a Mason to the "Civil Powers". It forbids rebellion, plots and conspiracies, and states that Masonry flourishes in peace and is injured by war, bloodshed and confusion. Here again toleration is stressed, for although "a loyal Brotherhood" must not countenance a brother in rebellion, yet if he is a real rebel, the brethren cannot expel him from the Lodge because of that crime alone, "his relation to it remains indefeasable."
"Of Lodges" exhorts the brother always to belong to one - i.e., not be an unaffiliated Mason. It also speaks of the need of obeying a summons, and closes with the statement, in which all Jurisdictions now concur, that "The persons admitted members of a Lodge must be good men and true, freeborn, and of a mature and discrete age, no bondmen, no women, no immoral or scandalous men, but of good report."
The fourth Charge "Of Masters, Wardens, Fellows and Apprentices" might easily be more observed than it is in these days when "the line" is almost sacrosanct and many a Lodge suffers because some careless or indifferent brother is "advanced" from year to year, merely because he started, not because of a fitness for being a Warden or Master. This Charge begins: "All preferment among Masons is grounded upon real worth and personal merit" and states that "no Master or Warden is chosen by seniority but by merit." It reiterates the necessity of physical perfection - indeed, we have named that requirement the "doctrine of the perfect youth" from words used in this Charge. It goes on to hold out to the diligent brother the possibility of his becoming a Warden, Master, Grand Warden and finally Grand Master. The qualifications of a brother to be elected Grand Master are set forth; he must have been a Fellow-Craft before his election, be nobly born, or a "Gentleman of the Best Fashion" or an eminent scholar, curious architect or other artist, descended of honest parents and possess "singular great merit" in the opinion of the Lodge. It is roundly stated that the Grand Master "has power to chuse his own Deputy Grand Master" - which, by the way, is done in but three Grand Jurisdictions in this country. Finally, the Charge abjures all brethren to obey their rulers "with all humility, reverence, love and alacrity."
"Of the management of the Craft in Working" demands honest labor on working days, that the most expert be chosen Master or Overseer of the Lord's work, that Craftsmen avoid bad language and call no names, but behave courteously, that the Master be reasonable in his charges and pay only honest wages. It forbids envy of a brother and commands that no one "supplant him or put him our of his work if he be capable of finishing the same"; requires honesty and loyalty and satisfaction with wages, forbids mutiny (strikes?), enjoins proper instruction for younger brethren, sets forth that working tools must be approved by Grand Lodge and ends with an admonition that no laborer is to be employed where Masons may be used, and that Freemasons shall not work with those not free, nor teach laborers and unaccepted Masons as they should teach a brother or fellow.
The final charge "Of Behavior" is most explicit. Brethren are not to hold private committees without leave of the Master nor interrupt any one speaking to the Master. No jesting behavior is to be tolerated when the Lodge is engaged upon solemn business. Masters and Wardens are to receive reverence and be "put to worship". Brethren must submit to the determination of the Lodge in any case of complaint unless appeal is carried to the Grand Lodge, and "you must never go to law about what concerneth Masonry, without an absolute necessity apparent to the Lodge."
After Lodge is over brethren may enjoy themselves "with innocent mirth". No one is obliged to eat or drink if he does not wish to, and harmony is to be preserved. Private quarrels are forbidden, and especially are the brethren enjoined against quarrels about religion, politics and state policy.
Masons who fleet each other outside the Lodge are to be courteous to one another, and it is especially noted that while brethren are upon the same level, yet Masonry does not take from a man the honors which are his before he became so; the brethren are to "give honor to whom it is due and avoid ill manners."
All brothers are to be cautious in words and carriage before strangers "and sometimes you shall divert a discourse and manage it prudently for the honor of the worshipful fraternity."
A good brother acts as a moral and wise man; he does not let family, friend or neighbors know of the Lord's business, and he conserves his health by not staying out late after Lodge is closed and "avoiding of gluttony or drunkness, that your families be not neglected or injured, nor you disabled from working."
The strange brother is to be cautiously examined, "that you may not be imposed upon by an ignorant false pretender." But when a true and genuine brother is found in want, "you must relieve him if you can or else direct how he may be relieved, but not beyond your ability, only to prefer a poor Brother, that is a good man and true before any other poor People in the same circumstances."
The final long paragraph commands the cultivation of brotherly love 'the foundation and capestone, the cement and glory of this ancient fraternity." It forbids slander and enjoins defense of the character of an honest brother. It again suggests that Lodge and Grand Lodge are better mediators for the adjustment of disputes than law so "that all may see the benign influence of Masonry as all true Masons have done from the beginning of the World and will do to the end of time."
Such, in brief sketch, are the Ancient Charges, Old Charges or "Charges of a Freemason" as they were printed for the Mother Grand Lodge in 1723. They were not inventions of Anderson. Discredited as is his accuracy in many matters, particularly when he writes what he called history, and, apparently, wilfully inaccurate for personal purposes in some, things, he nevertheless must have set down the underlying principles of the fraternity as they were known in his day and age. Many of these ideas are based upon provisions in the oldest manuscript Constitutions, especially the Cooke. Anderson never saw the Regius manuscript, but many of the statements in that oldest Masonic document are repeated in later manuscript Constitutions, some of which Anderson had.
Doubtless Anderson added somewhat of himself, indeed, he is known to have altered texts and even Grand Lodge actions, in reporting them in print! But whether or no the Old Charges as he printed them are wholly accurate reflections of the theory and practice of Freemasonry in 1723, they are, to us of the modern Masonic world, revered as law, revered, even when we break them, as when we elect, instead of appointing, a Deputy Grand Master !
Much of the instruction and admonition is of an operative character, such as the "supplanting" of a brother, the honest work on a working day, the requirement to pay only fair wages and make but a fair profit. As Speculative Masonry was far younger in 1723 than operative Masonry, the brethren of London two centuries ago were much closer in thoughts to actual cutters and setters of stone than are we, who do no operative work whatever. Yet we keep in our system some operative practices - notably the physical perfection requirement and the instruction not to "supplant" a brother in his work.
As a whole, however, the Old Charges are concerned with a man's relations with his God, his fellowman and his own conscience. They are a body of spiritual teachings, of admonition and exhortations designed to keep Masons on friendly terms with Masons, and to make of the fraternity a living, moving vehicle in which man may travel happily with his fellowman.
As such, as well as because they are fundamental to all modern Masonic "faith and practice", they can be studied and loved, learned and lived, with profit to the reader and benefit to the Fraternity.
Last modified: March 22, 2014