Freemasonry and Religion

An Excerpt from Coil's A Comprehensive View of Freemasonry 

Published in 1952

Freemasonry is not a religion.  Nothing in Ancient craft masonry characterizes it as such.  It has no creed, no dogma, and no theology.  It save no souls and it does not compete with any organized religion.  It accepts good men regardless of their religious beliefs in an effort to make them better men.

Just as the members of a denomination, or sect, may not have exactly the same concept of its creed, so Masons may differ in their under­standing of Freemasonry. They do, however, in concert, perform certain religious demonstrations formalized in the ritual, manifesting be­lief in a spiritual power on whom the Mason is dependent and to whom he is responsible.

Freemasonry has been attacked on two fronts- political and religious by bigots who see the Fraternity  as a competitor  and  rival  for time energy, and money of their adherents. One group, the Christian Ministries, criticizes and say Freemasonry is not compatible with Christianity and that Masons are therefore "unbelievers." Anti-Masonic critics are, in most cases critics because the Masons are non-members of the critics' own particular group. But there are thousands of different religious sects, each expounding that they have "the truth."

Freemasonry promotes the right of the individual to think for himself and to make his own choices. It should be remembered that in the early 1700s practically the only writers were the Catholic scriveners, or monks, who were accustomed to beginning, ending and interspersing religious phrases in all documents - a practice carried out even today in many documents which are not religious. We find many such phrases in Masonic documents.

Freemasonry came into being out of the craft and science of the builders as well as from the deep divinely given instincts of man to rise above the material and to deal with the mystical and spiritual portion of existence.

Freemasonry and religion are linked by the factors of their heritage and the nature of man. All Masons believe in the Deity without reserve as to how a member thinks of the Great Architect. Freemasonry is a supplement to good living with faith in God. It is supportive of morality and virtue. It  teaches  that it is important for every man to have a religion of his own and to be faithful to it through thought and action. It is very likely that Masonry was not in­ tended in its beginning to be religious. It was basically architectural or scientific, though the ancient Charges almost invariably began with a Trinitarian invocation and charged the Ma­sons to be "true men of God and Holy Church." In the exposes of the ritual, which began to be published in 1723, we find religious symbolism.

For example in the Grand Mystery of Free-Masons Discover'd we find:
"What Lodge are you of? The Lodge of St. John.
"How many lights? Three: a Right East, South and West. "What do they represent? The Three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
"How many Pillars? Two, Iachin and Boaz.
"What do they represent? A Strength and Stability of the Church in all Ages."
The Grand Lodge of 1717 seems to have sub­merged the religious motif and employed more the architectural or scientific. Charge I, as adopted in 1723, was entitled, "Concerning God and Religion," but the name of God does not appear in the text of that or any other Charge.

Charge I reads as follows:
''A Mason is oblig'd 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 charg'd in every Country to be of the Reli­gion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet 'tis now thought more expedient to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to them­ selves: that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honor and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish'd; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must have remain'd at a perpetual Distance."

This did not mean that the founders of the Grand Lodge were irreligious, for two of the principal actors, Desaguliers and Anderson, were Christian ministers. It merely means that they did not view the Society as a religious body, but rather chose to leave that matter to the church. On the other hand, the Grand Lodge regularly held its Annual Communications on St. John the Baptist's Day and one of its Quarterly Communications on St. John the Evangelist's Day. In a Christian nation, especially one having an established church, it is hardly to be expected that religion can be excluded from a society inculcating morality as Masonry did. Accordingly, we find that of some 22 Masonic addresses delivered between 1730 and 1787, 16 mention reverence for God and 6 are silent on the subject; 5 refer to immortality of the soul and 17 do not; 8 contain Christian doctrine while 14 do not; and none of them indicates that any religious requirement was made of the candidate. This suggests that there was a period of about fifty years during which there seems to have been considerable  doubt as to the religious content of Freemasonry. Toward the end of that period, in 1772, William Preston became very influential by reason of his lectures and his authorship of Illustrations of Masonry. He definitely promoted the religious movement in the Society, saying, among other things:
"Religion is the only tie which can bind men, and that where there is no religion, there can be no Masonry ... Hence the doctrine of a God, the creator and preserver of the universe, has been their firm belief in every age."

He was, however, vague as to whether the doctrine of the Craft was Christian, averring that, where it was the religion of a country, Masons acquiesced in it, and his whole discussion was rhetorical rather than specific. The statement, repeated many times, that Preston persuaded the Grand Lodge in 1760 to adopt the Bible as a Great Light is false, for he was not then a Mason, and, after becoming such sufficient influence to accomplish any such purpose.

William Hutchinson, in 1775, with the approval of the officers of the Grand Lodge, published his Spirit of Masonry, the first book to present the philosophical aspect of Freemasonry. His theme was that Masonry and Christianity had both developed out of the patriarchal religion and that the Society, in its "third stage," was of Christian faith.

In America, Webb's Monitor, first published in 1797, contained this statement:
"and the Blazing Star, in the center, is commemorative of the star which appeared to guide the wise men of the East to the place of our Savior's nativity."

That clause was disapproved by the Baltimore Convention of 1843 but remained in re­ prints of the Monitor as late as 1869.  Dr. George Oliver, one of the most productive of Masonic writers, who published some two dozen Masonic books over a period of about forty years, positively and repeatedly insisted that the doctrine of Masonry was Christian. This theme is particularly evident in his Symbol of Glory (1850) and The Revelations of a Square (1855).

So for some years the issue seemed to be monotheistic. The three Grand Lodges of Prussia and those of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have always been Christian. At the Union of 1813 between the two Grand Lodges of England, all Christian references were stricken from the ritual and provision was made for the dedication of lodges to Moses and Solomon instead of the two Saints John. In 1815, Charge I of 1723 was amended to require the candidate to "believe in the glorious architect of heaven and earth and practice the sacred duties of morality."

The Grand Orient of France, in 1849, departed from the English position of that time by amending its constitution to provide that "Freemasonry has for its principles the existence of Deity and the immortality of the soul." In 1877 this was again amended to read: "Masonry has for its principles mutual tolerance, respect for others and for itself, and absolute liberty of conscience." Two years later the Grand Orient made the display of the Bible optional with the lodges. This aroused some resentment in England and America, though it is not true, as so often stated, that it caused many American Grand Lodges to sever fraternal relations with the Grand Orient, for the reason that most of them had done so some years previously for an entirely different cause, the invasion of American jurisdictions.

God. Masonic authorities give different interpretations of the Deity. Mackey said that the candidate must believe in "God or the Great Architect of the Universe." Some jurisdictions in this country require belief in a "Supreme Being or T.G.A.O.T.U."; "God the Father"; "a Supreme Being"; "God, the Creator, Author, and Architect of the Universe, Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent" and merely "Monotheism."

Immortality. Mackey said that belief in immortality was included in the requirements simply as subsidiary to belief in God, meaning apparently that one who believes in God must believe in immortality, but that is not necessarily so. There is considerable difference among Masonic authorities on the subject of a future life. Some are satisfied with mere immortality of the soul but others require "Resurrection to a Future Life" or "Resurrection of the Body."

V.S.L. The relation of the Bible to Freemasonry is treated in a variety of ways, and even the ritual is not clear on this point, for it is there referred to both as a part of the furniture of the lodge and also as one of the Great Lights. The Bible was first referred to as a part of the furniture of the lodge about 1730. A little later we find the Bible, Square, and Compasses described as Pillars of the Lodge. The first known reference to Great Lights is found in France in 1745 but this meant what are now called the Lesser Lights. The Ancient Grand Lodge of England made the first use of the Bible, Square, and Compasses as the Three Great Lights in 1760, which example was followed by the Moderns in 1762. While Preston's Illustrations of Masonry did not call the Bible part of the furniture, his lectures seemed to indicate that it was, but Preston never referred to the Bible, Square, and Compasses as the Three Great Lights. In 1929 representatives of the Grand Lodges of England, Ireland, and Scotland agreed that the Great Lights consisted of the Volume of Sacred Law, Square, and Compasses, though, in 1938, they seemed to consider the Bible and Volume of Sacred Law the same thing. Often the Bible is called "the Great Light," thus separating it from and elevating it above the Square and Compasses.

If the Bible is the Great Light in Masonry, obviously many Freemasons in the world do not have Masonic light and the universality of Masonry is destroyed. To avoid this dilemma, some say that, in countries where other religions prevail, the Koran, the Rig Veda, or some other sacred writings may be applied.  But no one has gone so far as to say that such other books are Great Lights even in those other lands. The better view would seem to be that some Volume of Sacred Law is necessary in the lodge as a symbol of Divine revelation, but without any requirement that it be believed or constitute a Great Light.
It is difficult to see how the Bible can be the Great Light of Masonry unless Masons believe its contents. But Jews do not believe the New Testament and many Christians do not accept most of the Old. If Masonry is non-Christian, how can the New Testament shed light upon it? Mackey said that the V. S. L. should be that which by the religion of the country was believed to contain the revealed word of the Great Architect. What is meant by the "religion of the country" where a number of diverse religions are believed? Does it mean that the majority rules and that the minorities must be satisfied with what they do not accept as revealed word?

The various concepts of a Supreme Being, a Future Life, and a V. S. L. may be arranged in many combinations, and, hence, the official doctrines of the many Grand Lodges present danger of discord if their relative merits are debated. Perhaps it would be best not to discuss such matters with too great particularity, but enthusiastic and careless writers keep the issue alive by urging their several religious concepts.

If you would like to read more, you can purchase the book here:  A Comprehensive View of Freemasonry by Henry Coil.