The Meaning of Masonry

by Walter Leslie Wilmshurst
Past Provincial Grand Registrar in West Yorkshire
United Grand Lodge of England

A philosophical exposition of the character of the Craft

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5


The Position And Possibilities Of The Masonic Order

The papers here collected are written solely for members of the Masonic Order, constituted under the United Grand Lodge of England. To all such they are offered in the best spirit of fraternity and goodwill and with the wish to render to the Order some small return for the profit the author has received from his association with it extending over thirty-two years. They have been written with a view to promoting the deeper understanding of the meaning of Masonry; to providing the explanation of it that one constantly hears called for and that becomes all the more necessary in view of the unprecedented increase of interest in, and membership of, the Order at the present day.

The meaning of Masonry, however, is a subject usually left entirely unexpounded and that accordingly remains largely unrealized by its members save such few as make it their private study; the authorities of what in all other respects is an elaborately organized and admirably controlled community have hitherto made no provision for explaining and teaching the "noble science" which Masonry proclaims itself to be and was certainly designed to impart. It seems taken for granted that reception into the Order will automatically be accompanied by an ability to appreciate forthwith and at its full value all that one there finds.

The contrary is the case, for Masonry is a veiled and cryptic expression of the difficult science of spiritual life, and the understanding of it calls for special and of informed guidance on the one hand, and on the other a genuine and earnest desire for knowledge and no small capacity for spiritual perception on the part of those seeking to be instructed; and not infrequently one finds Brethren discontinuing their interest or their membership because they find that Masonry means nothing to them and that no explanation or guidance is vouchsafed them. Were such instruction provided, assimilated and responded to, the life of the Order would be enormously quickened and deepened and its efficiency as a means of Initiation intensified, whilst incidentally the fact would prove an added safeguard against the admission into the Order of unsuitable members--by which is meant not merely persons who fail to satisfy conventional qualifications, but also those who, whilst fitted in these respects, are as yet either so intellectually or spiritually unprogressed as to be incapable of benefiting from Initiation in its true sense although passing formally through Initiation rites.

Spiritual quality rather than numbers, ability to understand the Masonic system and reduce its implications into personal experience rather than the perfunctory conferment of its rites, are the desiderata of the Craft today. As a contribution to repairing the absence of explanation referred to these papers have been compiled.

The first two of them have often been read as lectures at Lodge meetings. Many requests that they should be printed and made more widely available led to my expanding their subject matter into greater detail than could be used for occasional lectures, and accordingly they are here amplified by a paper containing fuller notes upon Craft symbolism.

To complete the consideration of the Craft the system it was necessary also to add a chapter upon that which forms the crown and culmination of the Order Craft Degrees and without which they would be imperfect: the Order of the Royal Arch.

Lastly a chapter has been added upon the important subject which forms the background of the rest of the relationship of modern Masonry to the Ancient Mysteries, from which it is the direct, though greatly attenuated, spiritual descendant.

Thus in the five papers I have sought to provide a survey of the whole Masonic subject as expressed by the Craft and Arch Degrees, which it is hoped may prove illuminating to the increasing number of Brethren who feel that Freemasonry enshrines something deeper and greater than, in the absence of guidance, they have been able to realize. It does not profess to be more than an elementary and far from exhaustive survey; the subject might be treated much more fully, in more technical terminology and with abundant references to authorities, were one compiling a more ambitious and scholarly treatise. But to the average Mason such a treatise would probably prove less serviceable than a summary expressed in as simple and untechnical terms as may be and unburdened by numerous literary references.

Some repetition, due to the papers having been written at different times, may be found in later chapters of points already dealt with in previous ones, though the restatement may be advantageous in emphasizing those points and maintaining continuity of exposition. For reasons of explained in the chapter itself, that on the Holy Royal Arch will probably prove difficult of comprehension by those unversed in the literature and psychology of religious mysticism; if so, the reading of it may be deferred or neglected. But since a survey of the Masonic system would, like the system itself, be incomplete without reference to that supreme Degree, and since that Degree deals with matters of advanced psychological and spiritual experience about which explanation must always be difficult, the subject has been treated here with as much simplicity of statement as is possible and rather with a view to indicating to what great heights of spiritual attainment the Craft Degrees point as achievable, than with the expectation that they will be readily comprehended by readers without some measure of mystical experience and perhaps unfamiliar with the testimony of the mystics thereto.

Purposely these papers avoid dealing with matters of Craft history and of merely antiquarian or archaeological interest. Dates, particulars of Masonic constitutions, historical changes and developments in the external aspects of the Craft, references to old Lodges and the names of outstanding people connected therewith, these and such like matters can be read about elsewhere. They are all subordinate to what alone is of vital moment and what so many Brethren are hungering for knowledge of the spiritual purpose and lineage of the Order and the present day value of rites of Initiation.

In giving these pages to publication care has been taken to observe due reticence in respect of essential matters. The general nature of the Masonic system is, however, nowadays widely known to outsiders and easily ascertainable from many printed sources, whilst the large interest in and output of literature upon mystical religion and the science of the inward Order life during the last few years has familiarized many with a subject of which, as is shown in these papers, Masonry is but a specialized form.

To explain Masonry in general outline is, therefore, not to divulge a subject which is entirely exclusive to its members, but merely to show that Masonry stands in line with other doctrinal systems inculcating the same principles and to which no secrecy attaches, and that it is a specialized and highly effective method of inculcating those principles.

Truth, whether as expressed in Masonry or otherwise, is at all times an open secret, but is as a pillar of light to those able to receive and profit by it, and to all others but one of darkness and unintelligibility. An elementary and formal secrecy is requisite as a practical precaution against the intrusion of improper persons and for preventing profanation. In other respects the vital secrets of life, and of any system expounding life, protect themselves even though shouted from the housetops, because they mean nothing to those as yet unqualified for the knowledge and unready to identify themselves with it by incorporating it into their habitual thought and conduct.

In view of the great spread and popularity of Masonry today, when there are some three thousand Lodges in Great Britain alone, it is as well to consider its present bearings and tendencies and to give a thought to future possibilities. The Order is a semi-secret, semi-public institution; secret in respect of its activities intra moenia, but otherwise of full public notoriety, with its doors open to any applicant for admission who is of ordinary good character and repute. Those who enter it, as the majority do, entirely ignorant of what they will find there, usually because they have friends there or know Masonry to be an institution devoted to high ideals and benevolence and with which it may be socially desirable to be connected, may or may not be attracted and profit by what is disclosed to them, and may or may not see anything beyond the bare form of the symbol or hear anything beyond the mere letter of the word. Their admission is quite a lottery; their Initiation too often remains but a formality, not an actual awakening into an order and quality of life previously unexperienced; their membership, unless such an awakening eventually ensues from the careful study and faithful practice of the Order's teaching, has little, if any, greater influence upon them than would ensue from their joining a purely social club.

For "Initiation"--for which there are so many candidates little conscious of what is implied in that for which they ask--what does it really mean and intend? It means a new beginning (initium); a breakaway from an old method and order of life and the entrance upon a new one of larger self knowledge, deepened understanding and intensified virtue. It means a transition from the merely natural state and standards of life towards a regenerate and supernatural state and standard. It means a turning away from the pursuit of the popular ideals of the outer world, in the conviction that those ideals are but shadows, images and temporal substitutions for the eternal Reality that underlies them, to the keen and undivertible quest of that Reality itself and the recovery of those genuine secrets of our being which lie buried and hidden at "the centre" or innermost part of our souls. It means the awakening of those hitherto dormant higher faculties of the soul which endue their possessor with "light" in the form of new enhanced consciousness and enlarged perceptive faculty. And lastly, in words with which every Mason is familiar, it means that the postulant will henceforth dedicate and devote his life to the Divine rather than to his own or any other service, so that by the principles of the Order he may be the better enabled to display that beauty of godliness which previously perhaps has not manifested through him.

To comply with this definition of Initiation, which it might be useful to apply as a test not only to those who seek for admission into the Order, but to ourselves who are already within it, it is obvious that special qualifications of mind and intention are essential in a candidate of the type likely to be benefited by the Order in the way that its doctrine contemplates, and that it is not necessarily the ordinary man of the world, personal friend and good fellow though he be according to usual social standards, who is either properly prepared for, or likely to benefit in any vital sense by, reception into it. The true candidate must indeed needs be, as the word candidus implies, a "white man," white within as symbolically he is white-vestured without, so that no inward stain or soilure may obstruct the dawn within his soul of that Light which he professes to be the predominant wish of his heart on asking for admission; whilst, if really desirous of learning the secrets and mysteries of his own being, he must be prepared to divest himself of all past preconceptions and thought habits and, with childlike meekness and docility, surrender his mind to the reception of some perhaps novel and unexpected truths which Initiation promises to impart and which will more and more unfold and justify themselves within those, and those only, who are, and continue to keep themselves, properly prepared for them.

"Know thyself!" was the injunction inscribed over the portals of ancient temples of Initiation, for with that knowledge was promised the knowledge of all secrets and all mysteries. And Masonry was designed to teach self-knowledge. But self-knowledge involves a knowledge much deeper, vaster and more difficult than is popularly conceived. It is not to be acquired by the formal passage through three or four degrees in as many months; it is a knowledge impossible of full achievement until knowledge of every other kind has been laid aside and a difficult path of life long and strenuously pursued that alone fits and leads its followers to its attainment.

The wisest and most advanced of us is perhaps still but an Entered Apprentice at this knowledge, however high his titular rank. Here and there may be one worthy of being hailed as a FellowCraft in the true sense. The full Master--The Mason--the just man made perfect who has actually and not merely ceremonially travelled the entire path, endured all its tests and ordeals, and become the raised into conscious union with the Author and Giver of Life and able to mediate and impart that Order life to others--is at all times hard to find. So high, so ideal an attainment, it may be urged, is beyond our reach; we are but ordinary men of the world sufficiently occupied already with our primary civic, social and family obligations and following the obvious normal path of natural life! Granted.

Nevertheless to point to that attainment as possible to us and as our destiny, to indicate that path of self-perfecting to those who care and dare to follow it, modern Speculative Masonry was instituted, and to emphasizing the fact these papers are devoted. For Masonry means this or it means nothing worth the serious pursuit of thoughtful men; nothing that cannot be pursued as well outside the Craft as within it. It proclaims the fact that there exists a higher and more secret path of life than that which we normally tread, and that when the outer world and its pursuits and rewards lose their attractiveness for us and prove insufficient to our deeper needs, as sooner or later they will, we are compelled to turn back upon ourselves, to seek and knock at the door of a world within; and it is upon this inner world, and the path to and through it, that Masonry promises light, charts the way, and indicates the qualifications and conditions of progress. This is the sole aim and intention of Masonry.

Behind its more elementary and obvious symbolism, behind its counsels to virtue and conventional morality, behind the platitudes and sententious phraseology (which nowadays might well be subjected to competent and intelligent revision) with which, after the fashion of their day, the eighteenth-century compilers of its ceremonies clothed its teaching, there exists the framework of a scheme of initiation into that higher path of life where alone the secrets and mysteries of our being are to be learned; a scheme moreover that, as will be shown later in these pages, reproduces for the modern world the main features of the Ancient Mysteries, and that has been well described by a learned writer on the subject as "an epitome or reflection at a far distance of the once universal science."

But because, for long and for many, Masonry has meant less than this, it has not as yet fulfilled its original purpose of being the efficient initiating instrument it was designed to be; its energies have been diverted from its true instructional purpose into social and philanthropic channels, excellent in their way, but foreign to and accretions upon the primal main intention. Indeed, so little perceived or appreciated is that central intention that one frequently hears it confessed by men of eminent position in the Craft and warm devotion to it that only their interest in its great charitable institutions keeps alive their connection with the Order.

Relief is indeed a duty incumbent upon a Mason, but its Masonic interpretation is not meant to be limited to physical necessities. Theoretically every man upon reception into the Craft acknowledges himself and as within the category of the spiritually poor, and as content to renounce all temporal riches if haply by that sacrifice his hungry heart may be filled with those good things which money cannot purchase, but to which the truly initiated can help him.

But if Masonry has not as yet fulfilled its primary purpose and, though engaged in admirable secondary activities, is as yet an initiating instrument of low efficiency, it may be that, with enlarged understanding of its designs, that efficiency may yet become very considerably increased. During the last two centuries the Craft has been gradually developing from small and crude beginnings into its present vast and highly elaborated organization. Today the number of Lodges and the membership of the Craft are increasing beyond all precedent. One asks oneself what this growing interest portends, and to what it will, or can be made to, lead?

The growth synchronizes with a corresponding defection of interest in orthodox religion and public worship. It need not now be enquired whether or to what extent the simple principles of faith and the humanitarian ideals of Masonry are with some men taking the place of the theology offered in the various Churches; it is probable that to some extent they do so. But the fact is with us that the ideals of the Masonic Order are making a wide appeal to the best instincts of large numbers of men and that the Order has imperceptibly become the greatest social institution in the Empire.

Its principles of faith and ethics are simple, and of virtually universal acceptance. Providing means for the expression of universal fraternity under a common Divine Fatherhood and of a common loyalty to the headship and established government of the State, it leaves room for divergences of private belief and view upon matters upon which unity is impracticable and perhaps undesirable. It is utterly clean of politics and political intrigue, but nevertheless has unconsciously become a real, though unobtrusive, asset of political value, both in stabilizing the social fabric and tending to foster international amity. The elaborateness of its organization, the care and admirable control of its affairs by its higher authorities, are praiseworthy in the extreme, whilst in the conduct of its individual Lodges there has been and is a progressive endeavour to raise the standard of ceremonial work to a far higher degree of reverence and intelligence than was perhaps possible under conditions existing not long ago.

The Masonic Craft has grown and ramified to dimensions undreamed of by its original founders and, at its present rate of increase, its potentialities and influence in the future are quite incalculable. What seems now needed to intensify the worth and usefulness of this great Brotherhood is to deepen its understanding of its own system, to educate its members in the deeper meaning and true purpose of its rites and its philosophy.

Were this achieved the Masonic Order would become, in proportion to that achievement, a spiritual force greater than it can ever be so long as it continues content with a formal and unintelligent perpetuation of rites, the real and sacred purpose of which remains largely unperceived, and participation in which too often means nothing more than association with an agreeable, semi-religious, social institution. Carried to its fullest, that achievement would involve the revival, in a form adapted to modern conditions, of the ancient Wisdom teaching and the practice of those Mysteries which became proscribed fifteen centuries ago, but of which modern Masonry is the direct and representative descendant, as will appear later in these pages.

The future development and the value of the Order as a moral force in society depend, therefore, upon the view its members take of their system. If they do not spiritualize it they will but increasingly materialize it. If they fail to interpret its veiled purport, to enter into the understanding of its underlying philosophy, and to translate its symbolism into what is signified thereby, they will be mistaking shadow for substance, a husk for the kernel, and secularizing what was designed as a means of spiritual instruction and grace.

It is from lack of instruction rather than of desire to learn the meaning of Masonry that the Craft suffers today. But, as one finds everywhere, that desire exists; and so, for what they may be worth, these papers are offered to the Craft as a contribution towards satisfying it.

Let me conclude with an apologue and an aspiration. In the Chronicles of Israel it may be read how that, after long preparatory labour, after employing the choicest material and the most skilful artificers, Solomon the King at last made an end of building and beautifying his Temple, and dedicated to the of service of the Most High that work of his hands in a state as perfect as human provision could make it; and how that then, but not till then, his offering was accepted and the acceptance was signified by a Divine descent upon it so that the glory of the Lord shone through and filled the whole house.

So, if we will have it so, may it be with the temple of the Masonic Order. Since the inception of Speculative Masonry it has been building and expanding now these last three hundred years. Fashioned of living stones into a far reaching organic structure; brought gradually, under the good guidance of its rulers, to high perfection on its temporal side and in respect of its external observances, and made available for high purposes and giving godly witness in a dark and troubled world; upon these preliminary efforts let there now be invoked this crowning and completing blessing:

"that the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding may descend upon the work of our hands in abundant measure, prospering it still farther, and filling and transfiguring our whole Masonic house."

The Meaning of Masonry

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5


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