Any study of the beginnings of Freemasonry will clearly show that fraternalism was the first and most distinguishing characteristic of Masons and Masonry. We are, above everything else, our own brother’s keeper. This has been the raison d’ etre which distinguishes us from all other groups.
Masonic charity, in its original terminology, meant fraternal, or private, charity—and is represented by the meaning of Brotherly Love and Relief in the great Masonic triad of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. It is “the cement which unites us into one common band, or society, of friends and brothers.”
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.”
Until the Shrine of North America institutionalized Masonic charity in 1922 by introducing an outside cause into Masonry, Masons always took care of their brothers and families first. They understood the traditional meaning of fraternity and fraternalism.
But institutional charity was appealing. It felt good to help others outside the lodge, and even better when that effort was directed at mitigating childhood misfortune. So, on the coattails of the good publicity the Shrine received nationally, we decided to move our charitable hearts beyond the confines of our lodges. It didn’t happen all at once; like some passing fad. It was a one lodge at a time inspiration which just kept growing across the landscape of communities.
Of course, 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.
We should have known where all this would take us; but we didn’t pay much attention. As our lodges continued to grow in numbers, it became more difficult to stay intimately connected with every lodge member. In American Freemasonry, 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. Besides, the publicity was better; and the positive public image was both appealing and tempting.
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 for as long as we lived. The new 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, 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.
This is really not the main concern of this musing anyway. To me, the scary thing is that it took only three generations of men to change a 400 year tradition. It makes one wonder how many other Masonic traditions have been lost to time only because a current generation had not a clue about the past.