Secrecy and Freemasonry
by W. Bro. H. F. van Tongeren.
A considerable number of books and articles have been written about secrecy and freemasonry, and the subject is often mentioned or discussed by freemasons on the world-wide web. Even though the subject has been covered from many angles, it continues to come up time and again, and it remains an intriguing subject. From the various comments and points of view expressed we can say that on the one hand there are many freemasons as well as non-members who state that freemasonry has secrets, and on the other hand there are those who strongly argue we have none.
There are of course many excellent books which have well-defined and researched references about secrecy, secrets and mysteries which are difficult to improve upon: the Freemasons' Guide and Compendium by Bernard Jones, and Let there be Light by John G. Sullivan are two examples which readily come to mind.
One may well ask: Is another lecture on the subject warranted?
Probably, research has shown there are many worthy points of view and interesting aspects in difficult-to-access material which has never been summarised in a lecture form.
There has always been an association between secrecy and freemasonry and it probably will remain a controversial subject. Many books and pamphlets have been written by Masonic and non-Masonic writers with a pro- and anti Masonic bias, who have dealt with this subject in depth in one way or another. Masonic secrets have been - and still are - talked about in both Masonic and non-Masonic circles where it is alternatively stated that Freemasonry has - and does not have, secrets.
This lecture is not an attempt to provide definitive answers or to clear up this matter once and for all: that is an impossible task. Everyone has his own perceptions on this subject and sees it from his perspective. Rather, the intention of this lecture is to look at so-called Masonic secrets from different and less common points of view.
Despite the readily available and extensive literature, freemasonry for many remains shrouded in a veil of secrecy and a 1967 study of freemasonry refers to it as 'The great unknown'.
So, to provide a starting point and to make any sense of the many different notions that are held, it is best to first define the word 'secret' because one of the questions we should resolve is: Are we dealing with secrets in the true sense of the word, or simply with privacy issues?
The Government defines 'secret' as: 'Information, the unauthorised disclosure of which could be expected to cause serious damage to national security'; whereas the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as: 'to be kept private, not to be made known or exposed to view; privy'; two quite different definitions which by themselves do little to clarify the issue. We can say however that conventional secrets are secrets that conceal certain information with the objective of avoiding embarrassment, inconvenience or danger.
The Government definition makes good sense if we think in terms of 'personal security' instead of 'national security'. After all, it is well documented that, in the past as well as the present, being a freemason in some countries was and still is forbidden. Thus, to avoid incarceration and even death, Masonic membership was kept secret. Even today the need to keep one's membership secret is still necessary in some countries where Masonic membership is not permitted for political or other reasons. Thus it is clear that, unfortunately, in this context there still are many cases where this definition applies.
For a number of reasons, the Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of 'privacy' and 'not to be made known' does apply in respect of the general Masonic membership. Especially in certain circumstances - though, hopefully, few - where it is felt that, if one's Masonic membership becomes generally known, this could have an adverse influence on employment or promotion prospects. Italy is one case in point, where prejudice of freemasonry is still strong and membership is presently not permitted for those in government employ.
But freemasonry is more than just membership and includes aspects of organisation, ritual and teachings.
Organisationally there are Grand Lodges, each with subordinate lodges. Thus, since the Order's existence is well known, its meeting places are registered, visible and easily located, and 'open meetings' for the public can and are held, freemasonry obviously is not a secret organisation. Even so, the Order is still perceived by many as a secret society. One reason for this perception could be that, like every other organisation, there are private or confidential matters to be discussed and dealt with, although unlike large business organisations the Order has no trade secrets.
In this sense we can define freemasonry as a private organisation open to all thinking men who believe in an all-ordering principle called the 'Great Architect of the Universe' and who wish to learn more about the art of living in harmony with their fellow men.
Within the Order's rituals and teaching are certain traditional 'secrets' in the form of passwords, test words and modes of recognition, entrusted to brethren when they are admitted, passed and raised. We can classify these traditional secrets as having a private, confidential or personal character. But they are not real secrets because with a little effort anyone can learn the words and modes of recognition from a number of books readily available in most public libraries.
In the sense of secrets with a private, confidential or personal character, we can identify four categories:
1. Traditional secrets;
2. Hidden secrets;
3. Secrets of confidentiality; and
4. Personal secrets.
Traditional secrets - also called symbolic secrets - are 'secrets' which are entrusted to the candidate during a ritual which, in common with conventional secrets, are intended to remain strictly within a specified or designated group whose members are permitted to know them.
Masonic rituals are replete with distinct references to traditional or symbolic secrets, only some of which we will consider in this lecture. A most obvious reference to traditional secrets in ritual is found in the obligation of each degree, where a brother promises and swears he will 'always hele, conceal and never reveal any part or parts, point or points, of the secrets or mysteries of or belonging to ... the degree, etc ...' after which the traditional secrets of the degree are communicated to him.
This presents a seeming paradox, especially to a new brother: He has promised to keep secret that which is readily available to anyone in a good public library. Why should he keep secret that which already has been revealed? He may ask his new brethren and, unless he asks a 'more experienced brother', he may become even more confused and he will soon discover how few have tried to find an answer to this paradox.
This category refers to those secrets which are hidden within our rituals for a brother to discover. The discovery of these secrets manifests in the form of an expanded comprehension of some aspect of the ritual, or a deep and profound insight which a brother may and should experience during the performance of a ritual: as a candidate, but also as an officer or as a witness. The nature of these discovered secrets may differ between brethren and often have an individual character.
These discoveries or insights, unfortunately, do not always take place during the ceremony and the reason for this can frequently be ascribed to a poorly performed ritual. But participating officers and witnessing brethren often experience a meaningful and sometimes profound insight during a subsequent performance of the ritual, often many years after having been raised to the degree of a Master Mason.
Secrets of confidentiality
The third category refers to secrets which are less obvious: the secrets of confidentiality. There are two references which stand out: first in the third degree obligation where reference is made to the five points of fellowship, in particular to that part which states '... that my breast shall be the sacred repository of his secrets when entrusted to me as such, ...'. The second is during the explanation of the traditional secrets where further reference is made to the five points of fellowship, particularly to breast. to breast, and hand. over back; the details of which should be well known to all Brethren here tonight. Here we deal with a matter of confidentiality and trust: confidentiality of what a brother may have entrusted to another - and a firm trust that this confidentiality will never be broken.
This, of course, is quite different from the practice of conventional secrecy, because a brother who has made a confidential statement must be able to feel assured his fellow-brethren will not betray the intimacy of the brotherhood. It should be possible to be frank in the lodge among one's fellow-brethren. Stronger still: is an essential requirement for a well functioning brotherhood. Mindful of the five points of fellowship, no brother is permitted to betray the strict confidence provided in the lodge by taking outside the lodge that what was entrusted to him in confidence.
This demonstrates that Freemasonry is not an abstract concept, but is a reality. It teaches a brother not to criticise his fellow-brethren who honourably and conscientiously hold views that differ from his and take a different approach: because a freemason must work on his own personality and not on that of his fellow-brother, that is, unless a brother asks for his help. In this context, a relevant quote from Unto Thee I Grant, a book of ancient wisdom is: 'Do not condemn the judgement of another because it differeth from thine own. May not even both be in error?'
To be a true brother to one's fellow-brethren is not easy and this becomes more difficult as we get to know them better; but becomes easier when we can accept them - without reservation - for what they are, with all their faults and all their shortcomings. In this way a brother learns that what he practices in the lodge was taught with a purpose: to experience the benefit of brotherhood and carry it into the world.
We should never forget to lock up these secrets 'in that safe and sacred repository' before we leave the lodge.
The last category refers to personal secrets: one's private thoughts and personal perceptions. Personal secrets are of a very sensitive nature as they include personal views and opinions, profound insights and the whisperings of the 'voice of conscience'. These private thoughts cover all aspects of our daily life, including freemasonry.
They are the thoughts that 'belong to us'. Matters of the heart and mind that cannot normally be shared, except perhaps - and then only in exceptional circumstances - with one we fully trust and have a very close relationship with.
A TEST OF CHARACTER
The relationship between secrets, trust and brotherhood has already been alluded to. In freemasonry, especially in the lodges, there should be a mutual trust between the brethren: it is a vital requirement without which true brotherhood cannot exist.
The act of entrusting the traditional secrets points to a condition of trust which has been established between the lodge and the candidate, initially as the result of investigations made and recommendations received, and later on the basis of his conduct within and outside the lodge. The trust the candidate receives also places an obligation upon him to keep secret that which has been entrusted to him. As a consequence this situation places a test of strength of character upon the brother, especially when he knows these traditional secrets are not wholly restricted to his brethren but are also known outside the Craft.
Furthermore - having been told in the Charge after Raising 'Let no motive, therefore, make you swerve from your duty, violate your vows or betray your trust; but be true and faithful, and imitate the example of that celebrated artist whom you have once represented' - there is a great lesson to be learned in the fact it was the faithful keeping of a coveted secret which led to the death of HAB and the consequent loss of the 'genuine secrets'.
In freemasonry there is also a close relationship between secrets and mysteries. Our rituals refer to 'secrets or mysteries' and to 'the mysteries and privileges of Ancient Freemasonry'; and there are a number of interesting connotations to the word 'mystery' which we will briefly touch upon.
First there are the 'mysteries' of ancient times belonging to schools of thought such as the Osirian, Orphian, Eleusinian, and Pythagorean schools where ceremonies were conducted in secret and during which certain knowledge (the mysteries) as well as signs of recognition were revealed to the candidate. Dr Mackey in his Lexicon of Freemasonry speaks of a connection between these mystery schools and speculative masonry, but Masonic scholars do not generally agree upon this connection.
Second, during the time of the Guilds, all skilled work was known as a mystery (which it seemed to the unskilled man), a term later applied to trade secrets. It is easy to see its connection to operative, and later to speculative, freemasonry.
Third are the well known 'mysteries and privileges', where the mysteries refer to knowledge - moral truths - hidden within the symbols and symbolism of the rituals which must be searched for and, when found, not freely disclosed.
Last, there are the mysteries of nature and science referred to in the second degree, where the candidate is exhorted to extend his researches into the hidden mysteries of nature and science. Here we deal with education, a mighty tool in dispelling the darkness of ignorance and superstition, thus rendering us fit members of society.
In summary then, symbolically speaking, by personal application to discover these mysteries we enable ourselves to become better workers on the temple of humanity.
ORIGIN OF THE TRADITIONAL SECRETS
The origin of the traditional secrets can be found in the past. History tells us that the early operative lodges of the 14th century had their craft secrets. It was a time when only a few had received some form of education and schooling and could read or write. Members of craft lodges jealously guarded their craft secrets which were verbally passed on from father to son and from master tradesman to his apprentice. It was a necessary feature of the guild lodges to preserve their status and place in organised society.
Operative craft lodges in particular used signs and symbols which were drawn, carved or engraved, and were a means of communication. Some were used as an aide mémoire for verbal orders which were recognised by the members of the lodge, signs which everyone could understand and give meaning to; others were used to mark a mason's work as his own. These operative lodges also developed a set of ethical values of which the Regius MS is an excellent example. They are still extant in the customs and usages of present-day speculative lodges;
It is still a marvel how a group of people, a building lodge, who (with few exceptions such as the master builder or architect) could not read or write, were able to construct great cathedrals. With a minimum of directions and what for us may seem limited aids they constructed an inspiring building.
The building of a cathedral took many decades, at times more than a century. During those days men, generally, did not reach old age and at 40 years of age one was already advanced in years. So even before the work commenced the workmen knew they were unlikely to see the building completed, and that there was a good chance even his successor would not see the completed structure. So it was essential that during the construction period the inspiration and direction to complete the plan also continued, in which the use of signs and symbols played a major part.
The meanings of those signs and symbols, together with the craft secrets were kept within the lodge. When lodge members travelled to join another lodge they had to prove themselves in certain ways. Such tests included their knowledge of signs, symbols and craft secrets, that this knowledge had been regularly received and that they were admitted into a lodge as a fully qualified member.
To build a cathedral was more than just building a great structure. Because of the general inability to read, the religious beliefs were communicated verbally. It is said that the spiritual aim of the builders was to translate fundamental biblical concepts into a mighty building - 'a profession of faith in stone and light'.
Through the familiar use by the builders of symbolism, the religious concepts were translated into pictures and symbols. Expressed in stone and in glass the cathedral could be read as a pictorial story and the religious feelings of illiterate man were directed to the awe-inspiring wonder of creation and the omnipresence of the Creator. In this way the building craft was connected with religious beliefs in a manner which was visible, and permitted the experience of religious ideas without the help of learning and literacy.
The early craft lodges with their trade secrets, their association with great religious buildings, their tools and work methods were particularly suited to express and illustrate philosophical and moral ideas. The Renaissance stimulated a general surge in knowledge, particularly in the natural sciences, and man slowly freed himself from the fears brought about by ignorance.
It was also a period of decline for the craft lodges and it became the custom to admit non-tradesmen into the lodges. These 'non-operatives' were men who had an interest in and wished to perpetuate the philosophical ideas and ethical values of the craft lodges. And so, over a period of time, operative freemasonry gradually changed into speculative freemasonry, adopting the tools, the work methods and the secrets of the old craft lodges, adapting them to the needs and views of the day.
It is not precisely known when non-tradesmen were first admitted in the operative lodges. But in 1670 the Regulations of the Lodge of Aberdeen already mention that non-operative apprentices were to provide, in addition to their entry fee, a dinner with 'a speaking pint'; indicating the change from operative to speculative freemasonry gradually took place over a period of more than 100 years.
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MASONIC SECRETS TODAY
Though times have changed and man has become better educated, secrecy remains a frequently recurring subject in freemasonry. We mentioned before that new brethren in particular are often confused and ask what in freemasonry is secret, and like to know the background and justification for this secrecy. When we examine a thesaurus one possible reason for this confusion becomes clear as we find such synonyms for 'secret' as hidden, concealed, covert, secluded, clandestine, stealthy and furtive; but also: confidence, mystery, and answer.
One of the first stumbling blocks a newly made brother must overcome is a matter of trust and confidence: that the Order he has joined is a reputable and responsible organisation and his new brethren are honourable, dependable and trustworthy men.
The obligations of each degree require the candidate to "....promise and swear that (he) will always hele, conceal and never improperly reveal any of the secrets and mysteries of or belonging to ...", after which he is entrusted with the secrets, that is: the Word, Sign and Token of that degree.
Since the establishment of the first Grand Lodge in 1717, many well known and well publicised exposures of the past and the present have revealed not only the ritual but also exposed the secrets of recognition: the Words, Signs and Tokens of the degrees: the traditional secrets a brother has sworn to keep. The consequent paradox has already been referred to. It is plain that a brother must spend time, thought and effort to develop what for him is a rational concept of the traditional secrets. It is an aspect he has to come to terms with himself - in his own time and in his own way. But when new brethren are not willing to do this, then this may well become one of the many reasons why there is a problem with retaining new members. Others may simply remain indifferent to this aspect.
* * * * * * *
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
I would now like to offer the listener some insights into a quite different view of Masonic secrets: from a Dutch Masonic perspective. I will do this by drawing on material that has been translated from Dutch Masonic literature and adapted for this lecture. It contains some interesting thoughts on secrecy which require a brief introduction into some Dutch Masonic views.
Dutch freemasonry sees a mason's labour as never-ending; a labour, which is practised and carried out in the lodge, and applied in the community. The lodge is a school of learning, a place where ideas about the most diverse subjects can be exchanged unhindered among the brethren assembled and, because tolerance is practised, no one gets hurt. The search is for truth, and it is mutual trust which makes it possible to speak freely and unrestrained. The right to hold personal opinions is unconditionally respected by all and there is a willingness to look at each other's views.
In this way a freemason tries to bring order into chaos and works to 'free the Perfect Ashlar which is hidden within the Rough Ashlar of his own personality'. In such an environment the principles of freedom, equality, brotherhood, honesty, justice and a sincere desire to co-operate are evident.
Dutch freemasonry recognises that the wrong but persistent claim of its being a secret society may naturally stimulate a non-member to curiosity. Wanting to know what this secret might be does not have to be detrimental, because a stimulation to know may lead to proper and fitting interest. Therefore the Order does not shun such interest but employs it to disseminate its principles, at the same time fighting misconceptions through education.
* * * * * * *
Symbol and ritual
Masonic secrets are hidden in our ritual, are veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. They are there to be discovered. To quote from the Dutch Masonic Guide for the E.A. Freemason:
"Working with symbols and rituals is a typical Masonic practice. Masonic symbolism and ritual present a wide field of study to the inquiring freemason. It is a field of study he will never complete because of the extensiveness of the terrain, and because the development which he, as a freemason, experiences often influences his understanding of what occurs in the lodge."
This quote shows that the study of symbols and ritual has a prominent and important place in Masonic education. It is never easy, especially for a new brother, to take in and feel comfortable with Masonic symbols and rituals. But all that changes when he tries to understand what happens during the ritual and relates it to the way symbols and symbolic acts speak to him.
Symbolism and rituals speak differently to each of us and, in the end, each must find his own way. Each freemason must learn how to deal with Masonic symbolism and with symbolic language. Here our ritual books, Masonic dictionaries and so on may help, but, in the end, symbolism is a personal matter and we must assimilate it in our own way.
Working with rituals and symbols gives the freemason the opportunity to discover himself, to work on the Rough Ashlar - to become a better man. It confronts him with his spiritual potential and, in the end, he will discover the hidden meaning of Masonic symbols, and even their most difficult aspect will become a part of him. Perhaps the greatest discovery a freemason can make is that there is but one teacher: himself. In Masonic language, every freemason is at the one time a builder and a building stone.
A Dutch Masonic 'secret'
In the Netherlands, a lodge is opened and closed in the degree being worked. Thus, in the case of the third degree, the lodge is opened in that degree; and not as is the custom in our Constitution by opening the lodge in the first degree, then raising it to the second degree, followed by the third degree. Nor has Dutch freemasonry a password leading from the first to the second degree, or one leading from the second to the third degree. Instead it has a password for each of the degrees. A brother must whisper this word to the Inner Guard when entering the lodge room before the lodge is opened. These passwords are names which are communicated to the candidate during the ceremony of his entering, passing and raising; and he is known by that name in that degree. These passwords prove a brother's eligibility to participate in that degree. Thus, in a sense, they are secret words.
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A SECRET AFTER ALL?
Considering the contents of this lecture and all that has been written before in books, lectures, pamphlets and more, the question remains: Do freemasons have a real secret after all?
We have seen that since days of old, freemasons have used the expression 'a secret', but nowadays something quite different is meant, something beyond 'something kept hidden from others'. It has a much wider meaning which can be found in the understanding of - and in relation with - the concept 'Great Architect of the Universe'.
This secret is a mutual experience which cannot be explained or expressed in words because language is inadequate for that purpose. It is a profound mystery which is beautifully expressed by Dutch poet and freemason Willem Brandt, who wrote:
"He said: tell me their secret, but I who knew it for so many years
Then I said: Love, but I suddenly knew it was more than that,
It is music, a word, a gesture, a sign, and it shines in someone's
He asked me: show me their secret, but I could not point to it
Let us go back to the question asked in 'The Master's Song' quoted in the beginning of this lecture:
"Who can unfold the Royal
As Bro Brandt so eloquently explained: Who can indeed?
Brethren, may this beautiful Masonic enigma continue to inspire your labours in the Royal Art!
Anderson's Constitutions of 1723
Freemasons' Guide and Compendium by Bernard E. Jones
Let there be Light by John G. Sullivan, U.G.L.Vic., 1988
The Lectures of the Three Degrees of Craft Masonry published by
A. Lewis Masonic Publications, 1983
The Freemasons Pocket Reference Book by Pick & Knight
The Pocket History of Freemasonry by Pick and Knight
Lexicon of Freemasonry by Dr Mackey
The Regius MS
The open secrets of Freemasonry by the Rev T. E. Ruth,
19 March 1922
Vade Mecum for the Freemason (Vraagbaak voor de Vrijmetselaar) Published by
Foundation Ritus en Templebouw, 1991 - under the Grand East of the Netherlands
Freemasonry, a journey of discovery (Vrijmetselarij, een verkenningsreis)
by W. J. M. Akkermans; published by the Grand East of the Netherlands, 1988
'...to work with you...' (...om met u te werken...); published by
the Grand East of the Netherlands, 1984
Guide for the Entered Apprentice (Gids voor de Leerling Vrijmetselaar)
published by the Grand East of the Netherlands
Unto Thee I Grant published by AMORC, 1925, 24th Ed 1966
No previous permission is required for this lecture to be read at any regularly constituted/authorised masonic meeting, for the process of encouraging interest in Freemasonry, but credit should be given to the source and the specific author. Masonic students, writers and publication are invited to reproduce this article, provided the source is indicated and the Victorian Lodge of Research is provided with a courtesy copy of the reprinted materials and at least one of the Editors
being informed. Prior permission must be obtained from the Editors for use of all, or part thereof, of this lecture or any material from any volume of the Lodge Transactions by any non-masonic source.
Secrecy and Freemasonry-document With compliments of the Victorian Lodge of Research No 218, UGLV
The following is the abridged text of a lecture delivered by W. Bro. H. F. van Tongeren, PM 218, at the Victorian Lodge of Research on 25 August 1995 and published in the VLOR's transactions for 1995 entitled "Freemasonry uncovered". The full text may be obtained by email from the Correspondence Circle Secretary,
W Bro Graeme Love. Please be sure include your snail-mail address and sufficient information to identify your masonic standing.