Freemasonry has done more for the world in which we live than most people - even most Masons - realize.
Historians have generally paid little attention to the Fraternity in the past. In the last few years, however, academics and historians have begun to realize that Freemasonry runs as a thread through many of the events which have shaped the political, economic, cultural and social world we know today.
An exciting story is unfolding.
For the most part, the men and women quoted here are not associated with the Masonic Fraternity. Rather, they are historians, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, professors of architecture and music, and representatives of other disciplines. Their studies in their own areas of research have led them to the Lodge as a "major player" in shaping the world.
We take our individualism for granted today. We dress the way we want, fix our hair the way we want, say what we want, eat what we want and read what we want. But it wasn't always that way. A major first step towards individualism was taken in A.D. 1230, when the stone masons were ordered by the church to shave off their beards and cut their hair short. One of the first sit-down strikes in Europe was the result, with the Masons insisting on the right to dress as they wished. The Church finally had to give in, and the first blow for individualism had been struck.
Throughout the Enlightenment (late 1600s through mid 1700s) the fraternity actively pressed for and taught its members the revolutionary idea that each man and women was entitled to respect as an individual. That idea spread from Masonic Lodges to the society as a whole.
Historians now realize that Masonic Lodges in Europe served as the first models of democracy, models which later spread to governments. members in Lodges made their own by-laws and elected their own leaders. No place else in society was that true. The very idea of elections, unsupervised by religious or civic authority, was unheard of - except in the Lodge. It is not too much to say that the model of democracy which later was finalized in the United States and now exists in many nations of the world was an invention of the Masonic Lodge.
Masonry came to North America in the early 1700's. Many of the political debates about America's future took place in Masonic Lodges, involving such Masons as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, and Joseph Warren.4 Those men were not only involved as individuals in the founding of America, but their Lodges were deeply involved in creating the new nation, ratifying the Bill of Rights and establishing democracy as we know it today.
Again, most of us think of Human Rights as something which has always been obvious. But that is not so. Throughout the great majority of history, people were valued on the basis of their wealth and social position. There were no "rights" as we think of the term. The social classes were strictly divided, even subject to different laws, and it was normal for each class to exploit the classes below.
Even in the churches, there were separate seating areas for the upper and lower classes.
Masonic Lodges were the first organization to break down these barriers. The Fraternity taught the revolutionary concept that "all men are equal in Lodge". There are Lodge records of members of the British royal family sitting in Lodges with their servants. Mozart's Lodge in Austria had members who belonged to the aristocracy, members who were leaders of the scientific establishment, musicians, merchants, and even actors (regarded as near the bottom of the social scale), all sitting together as equals.
The idea of the equality of women also first appeared in Masonic Lodges. In Belgium, in the 1700's their were Lodges for both men and women, with women taking fully equal parts.6 While Masonry was ultimately established as a fraternity rather than a co-fraternity, it has always taught respect for women as equal human beings, entitled to equal consideration.
Rights of Workers
If you enjoy working an 8-hor day rather than a 16-hour day, thank Masonry. Earlier, workdays were from sunrise to sunset, and were extended even further when gaslight made it possible to artificially illuminate the workplace. But the Masonic ritual taught another revolutionary concept - that men and women were entitled to part of the day as their own. It taught that the day should be divided in 3 8-hour parts, with 8 hours going to work, 8 hours going to the service of God and others, and 8 hours for rest and relaxation. Masons like Samuel Gompers helped make that a reality. The Masonic author Albert Pike taught in the rituals of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry that an employer had a responsibility to employees to see them well housed and well fed, that exploitation of workers or paying the lowest wage possible was morally indecent, and that the exploitation of woman and children in factories was criminal.
The Arts and Architecture
Freemasonry has had a strong influence on the art and architecture of the United States, especially on large public buildings and parks. Sir Christopher Wren, the architect responsible for the rebuilding of London after the great fire of 1666, is recorded as a Grand Master of Masons and many of the themes of the Masonic ritual and culture can be found in his designs. Those designs heavily influenced architecture for 150 years.
Basic Masonic themes which appear in architecture include basic design elements in groups of three, the use of equilateral triangles, the obelisk, and the vertical division of a building into three sections.
In music the works of Mozart, Haydn, Sibelius, John Philip Sousa, and W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan may be best known, but there are hundreds of Masonic composer in every genre from opera to rock. Organ builders recognize a "Masonic pipe organ" as a type of instrument in itself.
In literature, works by Masonic authors or featuring Masonic themes as War and Peace, The Man Who World Be King, Kim, and the poetry of Robert Burns are well known. Contemporary works with Freemasonic themes (not all written by Masons) includes science fiction such as The Artificat, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, and the Star Wars movies. Masonry and its lessons have helped to shape the cultures of the world.
Education has always been important to the fraternity. In the Middles Ages, Masons trained in geometry and architecture using an apprenticeship system. Masonry was one of the very few occupations in which literacy was required, and apprentice masons were taught reading and writing as well as arithmetic and geometry.
At the founding of America, Masons helped to establish the first non-sectarian public schools and worked for tax-supported, compulsory education for all children. The movement grew and strengthened throughout the 1800's. There are many cases on record in which the local Lodge built the schoolhouse, bought the school books, and paid the teachers salary until the community could organize to take over. In 1808, the Masons, under Grand Master DeWitt Clinton, helped to organize an educational system for the city of New York. When a bill was first introduced in Congress to establish land-grant colleges, it failed to gain support. The bill was reintroduced, and letters were sent to Masonic Lodges across the United States, asking Masons to contact their Senators and Representatives and urge support of the bill. At the official signing ceremony, the Masonic Fraternity was credited with securing the passage of the legislation which today is helping to bring higher education within the reach of all Americans.
Some of the first hospitals and the first programs to provide income for families whose breadwinner was killed or disabled arose among the masons of the Middle Ages (building sites give rise to many accidents!). In the United States, Masonic Lodges started many hospitals, most of which were later turned over to the communities as the population grew large enough to support them without Masonic assistance. Today, of course, Masonic involvement in health, especially the health of children is well known.
What Have We Done For You Lately ?
As we've seen, Freemasonry has been a strong influence in the development of democracy, human freedom and dignity, education, and the equality we enjoy.
In Public Education - Masonry is a partner with education in some important programs. Grand Lodges have established foundations on various college campuses which specialize in leadership training, in historical research, in gender studies, and in training for government. Across America, Lodge and Grand Lodges give thousands of college scholarships each year. Clinics supported by the Scottish Rite treat children with dyslexia and other learning challenges, and teach teachers how to help children learn to read more effectively.
In Health - In some states, Masons have partnered with Prevent Blindness to support vision screening for school children and seniors. The Shrine's Children's Hospitals treat children who have orthopedic problems or serious burns. Research done at these facilities has helped many thousands of children live normal lives. Other bodies in the Masonic family support major research in diabetes, dementia, schizophrenia, cancer, and many other medical problems. The Masonic Drug Prevention Program has been hailed by officials of the federal government as one of the very few drug abuse prevention programs which actually works. One Grand Lodge has recently funded an Alzheimer's Disease Laboratory at a major medical research facility.
In Personal Development and Fulfillment - We not only offer the traditional paths of self-discovery and self-development which have been the essence of Freemasonry for centuries, we offer training and classes in leadership, problem-solving, and other skills, which make differences in the daily personal and professional lives of our members.
-Special thanks to Mount Washington Lodge No. 614, A.F. & A.M. located in Independence, MO for this narrative.