By a blog reader
Note – the main image depicts the crest of the medieval guild the ‘Worshipful Company of Masons’ – registered with the College of Arms in 1472.
Despite the repeated objections of Freemasonry, its critics continue to accuse it to be a Deistic religion, or a cult or that it engages in esoteric rituals and practices the ‘occult’, that it promises its adherents ‘secret knowledge’.
I will address all of these claims.
But before I proceed I must insist once again on the difference between regular and irregular Freemasonry. That irregular freemasonry is not a religion should be self-evident given that it has long dispensed with the need for a belief in Deity and even admits atheists among its ranks as I have explained in the previous article.
It is pointless to speak of self-styled pseudo-masonic bodies as they are not recognized to be Freemasons at all by any regular lodge and thereby there is no system to control what they practice or believe.
Here, therefore, I will speak only of Regular Freemasonry, as espoused by the United Grand Lodges of England, universally acknowledged to be the Mother Grand Lodge of organized Freemasonry and which is adhered to by all other Grand Lodges recognized by it as being regular – that is in conformity with its principles.
So is Regular Freemasonry a religion? The short answer is a categorical no.
Freemasonry does not even meet the basic prerequisites that define a religion: It has no dogma or theology, no wish or means to enforce religious orthodoxy. It offers no sacraments. It makes no claim to salvation either by works, by secret knowledge, or by any other means. It has no eschatology, which is to say, it has nothing to say about death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.
So why do critics continue to persist in their accusations? That story is complex and these accusations are grounded in misinformation.
First of all, and I have to repeat this ad nauseum – one CANNOT understand Freemasonry without having a deep understanding of the craft guilds particularly those that operated in medieval Europe and to an extent even the modern age right until the dawn of the 20th century. Self-styled experts not least on this website continue to insist they know it all when evidently they have absolutely no idea whatsoever on the subject and that their so-called expertise is simply an accretion gleaned from a cacophony of incoherent sources in which they waste so much time on, not to learn but simply to reinforce their own preconceived prejudices. Real knowledge on the other hand is acquired from serious academic research.
A serious study of these craft guilds, immediately reveals that what most of Freemasonry is accused of was common to all the craft guilds throughout history.
The word guild in Old English and other Germanic languages comes from geld (meaning ‘payment’, ‘service’, ‘tribute’) and is related to yield (or yauld): hence a geguild was a collective of those whose labor yielded similar goods or services. On the Continent, the word most frequently in use for such associations was confraternitas or caritas—‘confraternity’, ‘brotherhood’; or carité, ‘charitable organization’.
To an extent, the emergence of self-regulating guilds was an extension of a medieval town’s own corporate status. Many of these towns were fiercely independent, formed around a sworn association of free citizens whose mutual oath, the coniuratio, constituted a political, social, and economic bulwark against the predations of local lords and the meddling of emerging monarchies.
Protecting the integrity and quality of a product was the trade guild’s most essential purpose, together with the protection of its members’ legal rights and welfare. From what we can determine, this was also the function of guilds in antiquity, which were called collegia (meaning collectives, from which we get colleges) or simply, bodies—in Latin, corpora, from which we get corporations.
In all cases, guilds fostered a sense of group identity and mutual responsibility—and, as such, could be perceived as threatening to established authorities and hierarchies. There were efforts on the part of both ecclesiastical and secular rulers to outlaw guilds, especially if their meetings or holiday festivities became unruly, but these efforts were constantly thwarted.
Thus, one can say that later medieval guilds were occasionally powerful enough to spearhead urban uprisings. They also organized general strikes that were remarkably successful, even though, ultimately, temporary. Guilds were complete micro societies unto themselves – they regulated the craft and acted as both proto-trade unions and welfare societies.
“All these guilds had extensive membership rules, which did not make it easy for guild members to stay on the path of honourableness, and gave the guild numerous opportunities to corroborate distinctiveness from other social groups. Thus, all of these rules had the purpose of maintaining professional honour, distinguishing the guild from the outside world, and protecting the solidarity of the guild members. The guilds were imbued with rituals, myths, and symbols. Their core symbol was the chest in which documents such as seals, privileges, the constitution of the guild, and register of members were kept. It was a cultic shrine like the altar of a church, which it closely resembled. During ceremonial acts such as judicial hearings, entry of apprentices, the appointment of fellowcraft or journeymen and master craftsmen, it was opened and, while open, hats had to be raised according to the regulations of the constitution and any weapons put down; not a word could be spoken. Violators of these rules were harshly penalized. Dances and plays were performed during the numerous guild festivities, allegorically portraying the beginnings of the guild as well as highlighting important phases of its development. These rituals emphasized the guild’s tradition. Extensive initiation rituals took place for the admission of apprentices and promotions from apprentice to journeyman (or fellowcraft) and journeyman to master. The initiation ceremony for the journeyman was, for example, precisely written down and lasted hours. It was interspersed with rituals of degradation, soiling, and death, each time followed by rituals of purification, baptism, and resurrection. Journeymen-to-be were given a new name that symbolically bestowed on them a new identity. Rule-abiding and rule-breaking behavior of journeymen was drastically depicted through role playing. All of those rituals were kept confidential within the guild.“
Here’s a bit of information on the Guild of Barbers (follow this link for extensive information on the practices of other guilds in Britain):
“An apprentice wishing to set up shop was first to dine the master and wardens and pay 1 lb. of wax: the officers and three other members should then present him to the chancellor ‘on their shoulders’, and after taking the oath and paying 1s. 4d. he would be admitted. Foreigners wishing to set up shop were to dine the whole company, pay 1 lb. of wax, 26s. 8d. to ‘Our Lady’s box’, 8s. to the chancellor and proctors, and 3s. 4d. to the regent masters for wine. It was forbidden to shave men on Sundays, except on market Sundays in harvest or if a customer needed to preach a sermon; special fees were charged for shaving men in their houses; and it was forbidden to divulge customers’ secrets, such as an ‘abomination of stinking breath’. None were to entice customers from, or serve anyone who was indebted to, other members. None were to teach unapprenticed persons, on pain of a fine of 6s. 8d., The pupil to swear not to work in the craft within 20 miles of the town. Most fines were to be divided between the chancellor and the proctors“
In all of these guilds, A Master Craftsman would have apprentices who would learn the secrets of their trade. The apprentices would be in early adolescence, about 14 years of age, and would complete an apprenticeship of between five and nine years. Once he qualified as a Master craftsman in his own right the apprentice would become ‘free’, that is a person who was not bound to a feudal overlord and could practice the craft with the permission of the guild.
Apprentices received no pay but were given food and lodgings. In fact, some families paid the Master Craftsman for their son to serve an apprenticeship with them.
Maintaining a good reputation as a man, as well as a Master Craftsman, meant there was work. Living with the Master Craftsman, the apprentice was taught to respect the Master’s wife, his daughter, and his maid.
He would be dressed appropriately at the meal table and be prompt. He would treat all the Master’s clients courteously for that would bring in the work.
If he did not keep to this professional and personal standard he was sent back to his own family, unqualified.
If Freemasonry is to be condemned for its rituals, secrets and mutual obligations then you might as well condemn the entirety of medieval society and all the craft and fraternal organizations that preexisted the advent of the welfare state.
What made Freemasonry stand out from other guilds, was not the rituals based on legend or the oaths or the need for mutual obligations (of which we will speak more in another article) but the fact that unlike other guilds the stone-masons craft guilds, for reasons which are still yet not totally clear it attracted among its membership people who were not professional masons – and who were therefore considered to be ‘Accepted Masons’ and who were to ultimately influence the transition from operative masonry to speculative masonry.
The other major difference was that contrary to other guilds operating at the time. The free masons made ecumenical space for denominational differences. Just contrast the oath taken by merchant and craft burgesses in Aberdeen in the last century:
With the principles enshrined in the Anderson constitutions of the ‘free masons’ over a century earlier:
In the next article, we will start to delve deeper – we will go into masonic symbolism and ritual that is supposedly religious or worse anti-Christian when it is anything but – we will talk about subjects such as the Great Architect of the Universe, Hiram Abiff and the All Seeing Eye.