Such is Masonry; a vast, global fraternity of free men, built upon a basis of spiritual faith, whose mission it is to make men friends, to refine and exalt their lives, to turn them into a homage for truth, righteousness, and character. Our task, and the beauty of our art, is to form a society of good men who uphold the redeeming ideals of humanity so as to make good things better by our presence.
There is scarcely a Masonic discourse within our ritual experience that does not earnestly teach these two simple, yet profound, principles-that we love God and love our fellow man mightily. Fraternalism is the Brotherly Love in the great Masonic triad of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth.
But we also know one of the great ethical teachings of Freemasonry is Charity. It is said that, of the three great rungs of the theological ladder-faith, hope and charity-charity is the greatest. These same words from the apostle are painted on the top border of the great proscenium drop in the Scottish Rite Temple at Guthrie. The reason we hold charity up as the greatest of the virtues is that faith can be lost in sight. What this means is that the thing in which one has faith may become actual, so that faith is no longer required. Hope can end in fruition, which is to say that the thing hoped for may happen, so that hope is no longer required. And it is this interesting and ubiquitous connection between fraternalism and charity that I think deserves some thought in our contemporary context of Masonry. In fact, the terms are largely synonymous in Masonic nomenclature.
I believe Masonic charity to be one of the secret words in Freemasonry. It is a derivation of the Greek word, caritas, which comes from the vulgate version of the New Testament. It is a word which means love. In its early usage, it became synonymous with fraternal love, or private charity. Thus, in our Masonic triad, it is represented by the meaning of both Brotherly Love and Relief. It is truly the "the cement which unites us into one common band, or society, of friends and brothers."
In fact, looking out after our brothers' welfare is a practice as old as the fraternity itself. The Manuscript Charges of the old operative lodges enjoined brethren to receive and cherish other brothers even if they did not know them. It was enough that they belonged to a lodge. The usual grace was to give them work for a fortnight and help with money on their journey to the next lodge. In the old Scottish operative lodges of the late medieval period, it was common to find under the charge of the Box-master (treasurer), a 'box' providing for the assistance of distressed brethren and for the education of the orphans of deceased members. For instance, in the statutes of 1670 of the Lodge of Aberdeen, we find specific regulations about the Mason Box for the support of distressed brothers. In addition, Dumfries No. 4 MS of the early eighteenth century, enjoins operative masons to relieve the poor.
And brotherly relief was not limited to the operatives. Their practice of relieving brethren in distress had also been adopted by the Accepted masons as early as the 1680's; as is evidenced by an account written in the History of Wilsthire by an author named John Aubrey, who stated that "when any of them fall into decay, the brotherhood is to relieve him." We find another reference in the Dublin Tripos of 1698 to the "help given to a reduced brother by the fraternity of Freemasons in and about Trinity College." During the early Speculative era, members who fell on hard times were often helped privately and unofficially by members of their lodge, acting independently of any official charitable action.
But as the fraternity grew in numbers, the need for charitable help grew beyond the capabilities of individual members. This was particularly true during periods of war and economic recessions. It may well be that we can make at least one distinction between fraternalism and charity by distinguishing between the aid and assistance that comes from the individual heart or obligation brother-to-brother (a private relationship, if you will) and that which is given corporately by a lodge or Grand Lodge on behalf of all its members.
The establishment of lodge charity funds became popular early on in the English lodges. Apprentice Masons were often required to pay a fee into the charity fund of the lodge as criteria for joining. We learn from the Constitutions of 1723, in the early days of the premier Grand Lodge every candidate had to make a voluntary contribution, in addition to the small allowance stated in the by-laws of the particular lodge, for the relief of indigent and decayed brethren. In fact, by 1724, the Grand Lodge came to a resolution of considering the most prudent method of collecting and disposing of money towards the relief of brethren who had fallen on hard times. The Duke of Richmond, being Grand Master, proposed that, "in order to promote the charitable disposition of Free and Accepted Masons, and to render it more extensively beneficial to the society; each Lodge should make a certain collection according to ability, to be put into a joint stock, lodged in the hands of a treasurer at every quarterly communication, for the relief of distressed brethren, that shall be recommended by the contributing Lodges to the Grand Officers from time to time." A formal Grand Lodge committee was established and, as you can well imagine, rules were created to regulate how the charity would be dispensed. In the case of the 1724 Grand Lodge committee, a brother was only eligible to receive assistance if his lodge had contributed to the quarterly fund, and he had been a member of the lodge for more than 30 days. Then, to guard against men joining for purely selfish reasons, if you had been a lodge member for less than 30 days, you were not eligible to receive a charitable gift for three years!
In any event, it appears our early speculative brothers followed in the footsteps of their operative cousins in regard to making provision for charity. That begs the question of whether charity was included as an early moral admonition within the rituals themselves. Douglas Knoop, editor of The Early Masonic Catechisms, tells us it seems not merely possible, but almost probable, that some reference to charity was made when a candidate was admitted.
Be that as it may, we have no evidence of any allusion to charity in the moral lessons found in any of the pre-1730 ritual exposures. It is not until the second decade of the Grand Lodge that we come across such a ritual reference. In a charge to newly admitted brethren first published by William Smith in his Pocket Companion of 1734-5, we find in reference to the duties which Masons should always inculcate, the admonition that "he is to be a man of benevolence and charity, not sitting down contented while his fellow creatures, but much more his Brethren, are in want, when it is in his power without prejudicing himself or family to relieve them." It seems that Masonic reverence to charity became increasingly important as the ritual workings evolved on the continent, as allusions to charity were prevalent in almost all ritual exposures from the 1740's forward.
Certainly, by the 1760's, the virtue of brotherly relief had been firmly established in ritual workings. For instance, in the 1760 exposure, Jachin and Boaz, we find in the catechism inquiry, "Why was you deprived of all Metal?" the answer, "that I should bring nothing offensive or defensive into the lodge," "Give me the second reason, Brother?" to which the response was "As I was poor and penniless when I was made a Mason, it informed me that I should assist all poor and penniless Brethren, so far as lay in my power."
By the 19th century, hardly a lodge existed in the world that did not have some savings account set aside for the aid of members when needed. Certainly, helping brothers who are in distress is something Masons have always done. In this sense, fraternalism and charity is clearly fraternal love; therefore encompassing both fraternalism and charity.
As time passed, our private charity became more and more public, even when it was focused on the relief of our brethren. In the vastness of the early American frontiers, men often found themselves isolated from the stability of stable employment; the vicissitudes of war, poverty, and conflict often left their families with no real means of economic support. We must remember that during much of the 19th century, gender roles were well defined. Most women spent their entire life in the domestic occupation of caring for the children, the gardens, and the materials needed to care for and support the family. When catastrophe struck with the injury or death of the household head, a woman was pretty much left to fend for herself with whatever resources were left her.
The need for providing relief to our poor and destitute brothers, their widows and orphans, often extended beyond the lodge. Lodges and Grand Lodges increasingly found ways to direct charitable funds into undertakings which had broad Masonic appeal. A review of Grand Lodge proceedings in the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th century gives many examples where contributions were made and directed toward educating orphans of our deceased brothers. Lodge funds were regularly expended to provide clothing needed to enable children to attend such schools as were available to them at that time. Many of the early lodges announced their interest in providing at least some schooling for children along with providing funds toward that end. And records of lodge funds expended in these efforts went far beyond any accomplishments of the present age on a comparative basis of earning power.
By the end of the Civil War, the idea of providing for Masonic Homes for widows and orphans was very much on the agendas of Grand Lodges. The war had left many widows and orphans of Masons who had fought in that conflict. The brotherhood needed a way to professionally care for family members of their deceased members. As lodges increased in numbers and their combined finances grew, a new need arose which seemed almost as important as education. Providing a home for children left destitute when their father, our brother, was taken from them became an overwhelming sentiment of our territorial fathers.
For the first time in our history, Masonry got into the business of charitable relief as a corporate undertaking through the building and expansion of Masonic homes for children and/or the elderly in many Grand Jurisdictions. The first Masonic Home in America was founded in Kentucky in 1866. By the time Oklahoma financed and built its first Masonic children's home in 1906, twenty Grand Lodges in the United States were already operating such homes. In total, 39 jurisdictions in America would eventually manage Masonic Homes for widows and orphans. By the middle of the last century, it was not uncommon for Masonic foundations to have amassed considerable endowments for the care of our brother's families and descendents. Indeed, one of the tangible benefits of joining the fraternity was the promise that our older brothers, their wives and widows would be fully cared for until the end of their days. It was an attractive option when facing the uncertainties of health and financial security that often accompany old age.
Of course, the care environment for elderly Americans changed rapidly during the last century, especially after the Second World War. More recently, a staggering increase in home health care options, advances in long term ambulatory care, and families bent on keeping their parents and grandparents in their own home as long as possible, changed the dynamics of home administration. The population of Masonic Homes declined dramatically in the 1970's, necessitating many Masonic care givers to take in the general public in order to receive government payments for elder care and pay for the Home. As the membership of the fraternity continued to decline in numbers, fewer and fewer Masons, or their families, expressed an interest in corporate Masonic charity. It is accurate to state that, in a period of less than ¼ of a century, the oldest form of institutionalized Masonic charity had become passé to most members; and; for many Grand Lodges, largely a public undertaking.
In reality, our shift away from our fraternal attentive ear and faithful breast to a more public charity was a decision made easier by an attitudinal shift that had not so quietly been weaving its way through the fraternity since the 1920's anyway. The brothers who founded the Shrine, men of big hearts and big pocketbooks, decided to eradicate orthopedic problems in children.
They introduced an outside cause into Masonry. The Shrine of North America institutionalized Masonic charity. Before then, Masons seldom looked outside the fraternity; and always took care of their brothers and families first. They understood the traditional meaning of fraternity and fraternalism. Before this new era of corporate thinking, Masonic charity had been a private and internal undertaking. Suddenly, the ideal of Masonic charity as a public good was making a lot of sense.
The Shrine made institutional charity appealing. It felt good to help others outside the lodge, and even better when that effort was directed at mitigating childhood misfortune. Besides, it was fun playing around as a Shriner inside the fraternity, while doing so much good outside of it.
The result, which anyone could have predicted, was that, on the coat-tails of the good publicity the Shrine received nationally, all of us decided to move our charitable hearts beyond the confines of our lodges. Of course, this didn't happen all at once; like some passing fad. It was a one lodge and one Masonic Body at a time inspiration which just kept growing across the landscape of communities.
And this helped us address another stubborn problem. It wasn't long until the Masons also discovered it was much easier to tell their friends about Masonry by pointing to what we did, rather than explain what we were. Too, it was much easier for the public to discover and accept us when we were doing things they could see, rather than wonder what we were up to behind our closed doors.
By the 1950's, this public charity thing had become an exciting partnership for all Bodies of Masonry. It felt good. It was convenient. And it covered a remarkable number of important causes. As a quick example, in addition to the Shrine hospitals and burn trauma centers, the fraternity, through its appendent entities, now invests in childhood language disorders, cancer centers, prevention of eye disease and eye surgery, dentistry for handicapped, medical research in the areas of schizophrenia, oncology, arteriosclerosis, geriatric concerns, Alzheimer's, Muscular Dystrophy, Diabetes, prevention of drug and alcohol abuse. And we must not fail to include our long commitment in scholarship programs for youth, aid to veterans, assistance to military troops on active duty, disaster relief programs, camps for kids, food banks, and a host of community causes too numerous to name. The list would be impressive by anyone's test of credibility. There is no question our large hearts show pride in the noble nature of our many public undertakings.
In my own state, this public statement of fraternal good now adds up to over $5 million each year in funds spent by our fraternity for causes which, by and large, don't benefit a single brother. In fact, on a national scale, nearly 58 cents of every Masonic dollar spent on philanthropy is invested in the American public. We have all heard the boast that Masons give $2.5 million away every day to causes of all kinds.
This is all well and good. I'm as proud of our outreach to the larger community and society as any Brother in this room. But it comes at a cost which cannot be measured only in dollars. In many respects, Freemasonry in our time has become more of a charitable organization than a fraternal one. In the rightness of our inherent need to do good, we have too often diverted our attention beyond the nurturing, care and feeding of the brothers in our own lodge. In too many cases, we hardly know them. We have expressed our love out in the world; yet we do not know of the human condition of those we have obligated ourselves to love the most.
This is a sad thing. And it is not anyone's fault. It is just easier to do what we are used to seeing other people do; easier to demonstrate Masonry than explain it; easier to toss a little money at a problem than to be directly engaged with our sleeves rolled up in the mitigation of it.
Unfortunately, as good as this feels (and is), it is not Masonry First. It is not the stuff from which we came. Our obligations are obligations we have taken on behalf of each other. Our moral, social and financial duties are first and foremost to our brothers, their family members and survivors. In the ties and duties we received at the altar of Masonry we swore "to help with generous care all those in sorrow hidden; the brother on the darkened square….while tears gush forth unbidden."
The admonition we get from the lodge Master in his opening charge, "let us be happy ourselves," has everything to do with our kindness and brotherly affection toward each other. We are reminded of this again in the installation of officers: "we have one aim; to please each other and unite in the grand design of being happy and communicating happiness." You see, our attention is supposed to be internally focused on the welfare and happiness of our brothers, as they are an expression of our own families. It is only after we feel certain everything is okay with our brothers and their loved ones, that we venture out into the world.
That is the old nature of fraternity. Those who are outside the lodge must come within it if they desire to share in our kind of life. And if we are going to truly strive to meet our obligations of brotherhood, then we better make darn sure those who are entering our family are worthy and well recommended. We desire to attract only those men whom we would want to be around as our brothers for the rest of our lives. If we are going to honestly live the ideals of fraternalism we teach, then we need to insist that those who join us are duly and truly prepared. Being duly and truly prepared means that a man's fitness has something to do with that which is already within him. It is not that he is merely a deserving member of society at large. He is this, of course. But it is the fact that he is to be admitted among us that he must be much more; because Masonry has an object in view respecting him-something that can be accomplished in him--and indeed in all of us--as a result of his fellowship in our Brotherhood. We are not an organization for just any man.
But I fear that too often we have been letting any man join it. I don't know how we let this happen; but I suspect that, during the growth years, we became too large too fast. And as our lodges continued to grow in numbers, it became more difficult to stay intimately connected with every lodge member. Like so many other things in America, bigger was perceived as better.
Especially in the larger urban areas, there was a kind of competition among lodges as to which would have the most members. It became nothing to boast of a lodge membership exceeding 500 brothers. The largest lodges had more than 5,000. It was no wonder outside charity became more important. It was simply much easier to apply our charitable dollars to outside causes than to stay on top of the needs of our own brothers, their widows, and children. Again, the publicity was better; and the positive public image was both appealing and tempting.
And our brothers in need didn't really know what was lost to them. The process of moving our charitable focus from inside our lodges to the outside world was so gradual, so subtle, we didn't even realize when we had corporately lost the single most important tangible benefit of being a Mason-that we and our surviving families would have the security of Masonic aid and assistance, love and compassion, understanding and friendship, empathy and attention, opportunity and connection, for as long as we lived.
Today's reality is, in many lodges, the faithful few who regularly attend meetings rarely know those who don't--let alone their human condition. Yet the lodge community charitable program is often firmly established and well known. In my own state, our 227 lodges gave $2.7 million to community causes last year. That's no small change.
In retrospect, with the increasing mobility of our society over the past few decades, who's to know whether this has been a good or bad thing. Maybe we would not have retained our intimate connections anyway. Perhaps we would not have survived without better public contact and the improved public image that good works create.
But I would personally love to know how different it may be today had we a world of Masonic lodges in our culture, each having paid attention to their west gate, generation after generation, maintaining a size small enough to intimately know all their members and their families. And all the while engaged together in the splendor of living in and affirming the world of being the best kind of men--where the practice of brotherly love, relief and truth always led their children's children to celebrate with joy and gratitude, knowing they came from such a family of men.