Who Owns Freemasonry?

A peculiar and apparently ongoing protest at an online Masonic “University,” of which a sort-of Craft-based activist group reportedly has taken over and is making demands, has raised an unexpected question: Who Owns Freemasonry?

The question came up in The Past Bastard and it’s report this week about a self-described group calling itself the SRJWs or “Scottish Rite Justice Warriors” who have somehow taken over the online “Freemason University.” The SRJWs have issued a list of oddly amusing demands that must be met before “Freemason University” – which, to my knowledge, did nothing to the SRJWs – will be allowed to continue on its way.

If you’ve never heard of Freemason University, go have a look here. It’s an online resource affiliated with the Grand Lodge of Ohio to provide “essential tools for the leaders of our craft.” Modules include leadership and management, ritual and an interesting section called “Further Light.” Much of the material is available free online, free being a very good thing for that daily progress in Masonry.

The fact that I can access the online university suggests the SRJWs need a better hacker.

“They asked us to stop serving green beans and potatoes with baked chicken, and to add some classes on such odd things as the history of the ritual,” University Chairman Doug Darjeeling (who doesn’t Google at all) was quoted by The Past Bastard. “I mean, who thinks of crazy things like that? It’s like they are asking us to teach that the UGLE doesn’t own Freemasonry.”

I can almost hear the crickets.

The Past Bastard reported that it, quite sensibly, pointed out to Darjeeling that the United Grand Lodge of England does not own Freemasonry. Darjeeling reportedly ended the interview, saying that The Past Bastard “needed to educate ourselves before we could even think about reporting on such a story.”

Uh-huh.

If you can’t tell by now, I’m not buying this story. After all, The Past Bastard – “Your Best Source for Masonic News Satire” – is like that.

However, I suppose I can understand Bro. Darjeeling’s confusion – real or otherwise – about the UGLE and it’s supposed ownership of Freemasonry. I’ve encountered quite a few wildly uninformed Brothers who think the UGLE was the first lodge of Freemasons (Edinburgh Lodge No. 1 and Mother Kilwinning respectfully object) and then act on that belief by thinking first implies ownership (proved no barrier to Christopher Columbus).

However, even if we dispense with that, it naturally follows that the true owner of Freemasonry should be named.

To get at that, Masonic scholars have for generations referred to the John F. Tolle decision, an appeal decided by the U.S. Patent Office in 1872 on those occasions when the ownership of Freemasonry has come up. Tolle was a businessman who wanted to use the square and compasses on flour in barrels.

To be clear, both the square and the compasses predate Freemasonry and are tools not exclusive to operative masonry. Thus, Tolle did not see a problem with using the tools to sell his flour. The U.S. Patent Office opined otherwise:

“If this emblem were something other than precisely what it is, either less known, less significant, or fully and universally understood, all this might readily be admitted. But, considering its peculiar character and relation to the public, an anomalous question is presented. There can be no doubt that this device, so commonly worn and employed by Masons, has an established mystic significance, universally recognized as existing; whether comprehended by all or not is not material to this issue. In view of the magnitude and extent of the Masonic organization, it is impossible to divest its symbols, or at least this particular symbol, perhaps the best known of all, of its ordinary significance wherever displayed. It will be universally understood, or misunderstood, as having Masonic significance, and therefore as a trademark must certainly work deception.”

While it does not speak to ownership of Freemasonry, the opinion does speak to who can – so far as the U.S. Patent Office is concerned – use the square and compasses as an emblem that cannot be trademarked for other purposes. Only Freemasons are entitled to it, according to the opinion.

You have to follow it a bit further to recognize who owns Freemasonry. In my opinion, the owners of Freemasonry are Freemasons, each and every one – and none of them. Freemasons, often absentee owners at best, cannot agree to what purpose we all work, but we are really darn sure we are doing it. No one really is at the wheel and all of that may, perhaps, point up the W*, S* & B* of Freemasonry. She is everywhere and nowhere, everyone’s and no one’s.

Good luck putting the chains on.

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