During the middle ages Britain had two governments, side by side, equal in authority, the Civil Government with the King at its head, and the Church with the Pope at its head. The Church in the first instance governed itself and the religious Orders, but its rule also extended over everything outside the church which in any way had to do with religion, directly or indirectly, and these latter sometimes were at many removes from theology, as when the Church prescribed how much money women could pay for their clothing; it could levy taxes, and it had its own lawyers and law schools, had its own courts, its own trials, its own police, and its own penitentiaries-the word itself is a theological name, "place of penitence." Its rules were in general called The Ordinances of Religion; the body of its law was called Canon Law. This extended itself over the whole of Britain in the form of immovable rules which bore on almost anything a man could do, in part if not wholly, in sports, dress, trade, money, amusements, family life, calendar, and schooling. So large was this empire of the Church that at one period it and the religious Orders together owned one-third of England, it had a larger revenue than the Civil Government, it even had its own army.
This religion called itself catholic, or universal, not only because it sought to extend itself over the earth to become the only religion in the world, but also because it extended itself with an almost complete universality into men's daily affairs. It did not shut itself into one building or into one day of the week. There was nowhere a wall between the sacred and secular, not because it did not recognize a distinction between the two, for it did and the distinction was sharply drawn, but the Church believed itself to have authority to dictate to the secular at any point it desired to. It did not remain apart from politics, business, or work. Business contracts were drawn in theological language. Bankers were not permitted to charge interest because the Church condemned it as usury - one of the principal reasons for the poverty of the Middle Ages. Farmers planted, cultivated, and reaped according to a Church calendar, and had special ceremonies for each season of work. Each of the crafts, arts, trades, and professions was organized in gilds, fraternities, companies and sodalities, and wherever any of these touched upon any matter belonging to theology, faith, observance, or ceremony they were regulated in doing so by the Ordinances of Religion. Their rules and regulations were drawn in the name of the Trinity and of the Virgin Mary. Apprentices were admitted by a religious oath. Each had one or more Patron Saints, observed the Saint's Day as a holy day, and went in procession to the Saints' Chapel, and these holy days became so multiplied that as many as onefourth to one-third of the days of the year were set aside for them - another reason for Medieval poverty.
The above facts explain a difficulty which for a long time puzzled many Speculative Masons; if for four or five centuries Freemasons were all builders and architects in the literal sense, and if for two additional centuries the majority of them were operatives, how does there come to be so much religiousness in the Fraternity? Why is its oldest document begun with an invocation to the Trinity and to the Virgin Mary? Why an altar in the Lodge Room? Why a Volume of the Sacred Laws? Why a religious oath? Why prayers? It is because during the centuries of Operative Freemasonry the Fraternity was as much under the Ordinances of Religion as other crafts and gilds.
The same facts also explain many elements in the Ritual and the Ceremonies. They are there because for centuries the Ordinances of Religion required them to be there. Those Ordinances were operative over men's thoughts, beliefs, conduct, clothing, marriage, death, customs, behavior. etiquette, decorum, they made rules to require painters to paint only pictures of certain kinds and even prescribed the colors to be used, and to regulate sculptors in making statues; they censored speakers, meetings, writings, and study; they allowed some arts and sciences, prohibited others; how to walk, how to enter a room, what to wear, salutations, courtship, postures, there was nothing too minute to be controlled. The consequence was that a man's life was filled up with ceremonies, rites, and formalities, and this was true for him even while he was at work. A number of those customs and ceremonies, as thus made compulsory over the centuries, continue in practice now, in the example of our having Patron Saints, and they are therefore among the origins of our Ritual and symbols.
When Masonic books first began to be published in any number at about 1800 A. D. and until professional Masonic historical scholarship became established at the end of that same Century, a majority of the writers were faced with a dilemma. They pictured the early Operative Freemasons as having been nothing more than stonemasons and day-laborers; they construed Speculative Freemasonry as being something almost akin to a religion, at the very least as a philosophy - they believed that there is much religious mysticism in it. How, then, could this Speculative Freemasonry have grown out of Operative? A number of writers cut this gordian knot by boldly bringing in an outside origin which was some form of religion or philosophy and which, they said, had settled itself down in the old Craft, and taken it over, and had then produced Speculative Freemasonry.
It is impossible to accept such theories now after our own scholarship has learned so much about Operative Freemasonry which was not known in the Nineteenth Century. For one thing the problem no longer exists. The Operative Craft was filled with religiousness and with religious or quasi-religious rites and ceremonies because of the Ordinances of Religion; every other craft or gild also was filled with them for the same reason - even the black-smiths had old traditions and legends about King Solomon, and the carpenters had legends about Jesus of Nazareth. For another thing Freemasons never adopted any outside religion or secret cult or philosophy for the same reason; the Ordinances of Religion made it impossible, because if a Mason had taken up with astrology, or alchemy, or Kabbalism, or any other such esoteric faith or occultism he would have been arrested, tortured, and burned at the stake. When Freemasons were at work on a cathedral no priest sat in Lodge with them; but for all that, Church rules dictated most of the details of carvings, statuary, pictures, stained glass, altars, ambulatories, chapels, and it would have been impossible for the Freemasons to practice any secret cult inside their Lodges without discovery or to have embodied its ideas or symbols in the buildings; moreover the Freemasons themselves had no desire for heretical cults because they themselves were Christian men.
If this be true how were the Freemasons able to originate something new, something undreamed of before, something startlingly unlike anything else thought or believed in the Middle Ages, truths that had not been seen, and were not known in other crafts or fraternities, and yet so big, and so vital, and so powerful that Freemasonry alone has survived out of the many Medieval fraternities, and not only survived but also has grown, and increased in power, and become world-wide! It is because the truths they found were not religious or theological, nor, as the word was understood in that period, philosophical, but belonged to a different category, and stood as far apart from religion or theology as mathematics does. This may be taken as the most important of the many facts about Freemasonry and religion, that even in the period when the Fraternity was what we should now describe as very religious, it itself was not a religion; and its many religious ceremonies and observances were not peculiar to it but were the same as were enforced on every craft or fraternity by the Ordinances of Religion.
We Americans almost never see or take part in rites and ceremonies except in church, and we have therefore fallen into the habit of thinking of ritual as in some sense or to some degree a religious form; a Medieval man could not have understood such an idea because he used rites and ceremonies everywhere and every day - a farmer could not plow a field or cut his harvest or slaughter the pig without due rites, a working man in shops and factories made a ceremony out of reporting to work in the morning; they saw in ritual no necessary connection with religion. Of what worth are rites when thus used so universally? Perhaps the truest answer ever given to that question was given by Confucius, certainly the most successful answer.
Confucius was unique among the founders of religions in that where the others told men what they must believe he told them what they must do, and refused to tell them what to believe. He did not found a new religion or a new theology, organized no church, had students but neither disciples nor apostles, and sent out no missionaries; he did not even go about preaching or speaking. All he did was to write a few books, chief among them being The Book of Poetry (songs and music), The Book of History, and The Book of Rites; he did not even originate the larger part of the contents of these books but compiled them out of yet older writings, and he wrote them not to become a Bible or in any sense a collection of sacred writings but to be used as texts by his students; yet through their plain, simple, sincere pages he became the teacher, exemplar, and shaper of the most populous community in the world for 2500 years! What is even more remarkable in the eyes of us Westerners is that in his writings that which did most to shape and guide some billions of men and women after him were the rites which he recommended to his people; it is remarkable in our eyes because we neither make much use of rites nor believe much in their efficacy. What was Confucius' secret? He saw that there is a right way to do anything; find that right way, and then do it, and do it the right way each and every time you do it! There is a right way to greet a friend, to enter a room, to sit in a chair, to eat at table, to address parents or to address children, etc., etc. through hundreds of other acts or occasions which recur continually. It is this "right way to do a thing" which is the secret of our own Ritual; when a Candidate is received at the Inner Door, when he takes his Obligation, when a Mason enters the Lodge, when the Master opens the Lodge, and so on through some 200 occasions or moments always there is a right way to do it, and it is for that reason that it is done the same way each time. It is not to say that the Freemasons learned the secrets of Ritual from Confucius; they had never heard of him; rather it is to say something to ourselves in order to cure ourselves of taking a Ritual lightly, or of thinking of it as a formality; the extraordinarily long history of Confucianism makes it impossible for any man to doubt either the meaning or power of a true and sound ritual. And if any Mason has the impression that our own Ritual is a statement or teaching of religion it is either because he has missed the weight and power of the ritual itself, or because he has never examined it closely. It is neither a religious ritual nor a ritual of religion, but is wholly and solely a craft ritual.
If the phrase just used is clearly and completely understood it gives at one stroke the connection between Freemasonry and religion: there is none; that is to say, there is no more connection than between Freemasonry and science, or education, or politics, or language. It neither works for religion, nor works against it. It began as a craft, and therefore the whole subject of religion was irrelevant to it. This is an obvious fact about the building craft, because in the nature of things it is wholly separate and apart from theology, for there can be no Roman Catholic geometry, or Protestant engineering, or Mohammedan logic. It is equally true of modern Speculative Freemasonry because its Tenets, its Landmarks, its Brotherhood and Fraternalism and Charity are self-same in every country and are nowhere altered by either religion or politics.
A Freemason in the year 1200 A. D. saw this as clearly as we do, therefore while he thought of himself as a Catholic it did not occur to him to think of his art or craft as having anything to do with Catholicism. A man can have a religion; an art cannot. As long as Catholicism was the only religion he knew, as long as the civil and ecclesiastical laws compelled him to be a Catholic and threatened to hang him or burn him if he was not, he was a Catholic. After the Reformation had abolished those laws and had driven Catholicism out of the country, he was a member of the Church of England. By the time the first Grand Lodge was set up he began to be free to belong to any church or denomination. But his being a Catholic, or an Anglican, or a Methodist, or a Presbyterian concerned him only in his private capacity as a man, and he knew that it made no difference to his art of architecture, or to the fraternizing of men in the Craft, because the Craft always has been non-theological. And now, with Freemasonry having become world-wide he has a larger liberty still, for he not only can belong to any denomination of his choice but can belong to any religion of his choice.
One of the most inexplicable facts in the many centuries of the history of Freemasonry was the Roman Catholic church's abrupt, unheralded, and unwarranted condemnation of it when in 1738 A. D. the Pope Clement XII issued a Bull to excommunicate Masons. He condemned the Craft bitterly, as have also a number of Popes since, especially Leo XIII who issued Bulls and Encyclicals against it, and was an Anti-Mason almost more than he was a Pope. Historians have not yet discovered why Clement took the action he did in 1738 A. D., not even Roman Catholic historians, and especially after his church and the Fraternity had been so closely associated over so many centuries; he gave no sound reason because he had none, but he was very old and almost senile and spoke with a most un-Christian bitterness, and it is thought that he took the step because of a quarrel he had had. Once he had taken the step it was irrevocable, on the theory that the Pope is infallible, and the prohibition continues. It has accomplished no good purpose; and since in the Eighteenth Century thousands of Masons were Catholics - in Ireland there were so many that some Lodges were composed wholly of priests - it is difficult to guess why they never discovered the Fraternity to be as evil, and as atheistic, and as corrupt as Leo XIII declared it to be. If there was a quarrel it was on one side only; regular Grand Lodges do not exclude Catholics from membership; consistent Catholics could not petition for membership after their Popes have forbidden it, but the prohibiting rules are Catholic and not Masonic.
The first of the charges of a Freemason, on page 50 of the first edition of the Book of Constitutions makes this abundantly clear, because it is the Constitutional law which both Lodges and Masons must obey. It is entitled "Concerning God and Religion":
"A Mason is obliged, by his Tenure,
to obey the moral Law; and if he rightly understands the Art,
he will never be a stupid Atheist, nor an irreligious Libertine.
But though in Ancient Times Masons were charged in every Country
to be of the Religion of that Country, or Nation, whatever it
was. Yet it is now thought more expedient only to oblige them
to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular
opinions to themselves, that is, to be good Men and true, or Men
of Honor and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions
they may be distinguished; whereby Masonry becomes the Center
of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among
Persons that must have remained at a perpetual Distance."
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