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.

Rare Manuscript in Jeopardy: The Future of The York Manuscript No. 4

A painfully rare and important treasure of Freemasonry is in trouble.

The York Manuscript (MS) No. 4, long in the care of York Lodge 236, itself well within sight of the York Minister, is deteriorating.

There are breaks and cracks along the edges of this precious document, and it can no longer bear close inspection. Very good copies of York MS No. 4 exist, but the original itself is in real danger of passing away. The Brothers of York Lodge 236 are actively looking for advice about how best to conserve the roll.

York MS No. 4 is important to Freemasonry because it is a rare document that describes the ritual and history of operative masonry, to which Freemasonry can claim at least some connection. The roll, however, is also of great importance for the history of women in Freemasonry because this document contains a very critical word that has for generations caused discomfort for a large number of male-only Freemasons.

That word is “shee.”

The manuscript itself, a copy taken from a far older document, dates to 1693 and tells the story of how Edwin, King of Northumbria, was made a Mason at York. While doing that, the document also described how it was done in that assembly.

A crucial portion of those instructions reads (with my italics; please see copy above):

“The one of the elders takeing the Booke and that hee or shee that is to be made mason shall lay their hands thereon, and the charge shall be given.”

The journey to see this document with my own eyes began in March of 2008 when I viewed a very good copy at the Provincial Grand Lodge of East Lancashire in Manchester.

That copy, an image of which is reproduced here, was so good that I mistook it for the original and so described it in my first book

I was alerted to my error earlier this year and soon had an invitation to come to York and see the York MS No. 4 for myself.

Senior Warden Joe Postill, along with Junior Warden and Acting Librarian Graham Kaye, BEM, were my hosts that beautiful spring day in May. York Lodge 236 has been in possession of the roll since it was donated to the Lodge in 1736 by Francis Drake, York’s first historian and author of his own “History and Antiquities of Yorkshire.”

York Roll unrolled a little

York Roll No. 4 is not the only treasure preserved by York Lodge 236. The Lodge also holds portions of York Rolls No. 1 and No. 2, which together provide the earliest references to nonoperative masons in the guild at York. The Lodge also preserves splendid old tracing boards, other artifacts, and even has beautiful editions – with hand illuminated frontispieces – of Robert Gould’s “History of Freemasonry”.

Of course, I was there to see York Roll No. 4, and my hosts did remove it for me from its container and unrolled it a little ways. However, it soon was clear the roll simply cannot bear too much handling, and it was safely returned to its container. I didn’t get to see that critical sentence, detailed above, for myself but I’ve no doubt it’s there. Perhaps, one day, after it is somehow conserved, I will have a chance to do so.

York MS No. 4’s importance to the history of women in operative and speculative masonry in particular, and modern Freemasonry in general, cannot be overestimated.

This crucial roll, along with other very rare old documents, points up a fact that some male-only Masons would prefer be otherwise: that there was no bar to women’s membership in the old operative guilds.

In fact, the exclusion of women was an innovation introduced by male-only Masons eager that there be no women not only in male-only lodges but also none in their own female-only lodges or in mixed lodges elsewhere. While there is no period in modern Freemasonry in which there is not at least one woman Freemason documented somewhere in the world, the Craft was well into its second century before the lodge doors became more generally open to women. It remains a difficult struggle in many parts of the world even to the present day.

For this reason, York MS No. 4’s deteriorating condition amounts to an emergency that needs to be addressed by those who know how. I most certainly hope that happens.

Co-Masonic Order Resumes “Universal” as Part of its Official International Name

The Order for decades called “The Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry” now is “The Honorable Order of Universal Co-Masonry.” The decision follows a vote by the Order’s Grand Consistory and Lodges, with 95 percent of the Lodges and 100 percent of the Consistory approving the proposition. The vote was ratified by a unanimous vote of the Supreme Council on April 25th, 2017. 

“Universal has a geographical implication of being all over the globe, but also that we allow membership of all races, creeds, religions, sexual orientations, etc.,” Matias Cumsille, President of the Order’s Corporate wing, the American Federation of Human Rights, said in an email.

The corporate name remains the same.

The word “Universal” was part of the Order’s original name during its beginnings in North America, where the first Co-Masonic Lodge on the continent was founded in 1903. The word “Universal” first appears in Co-Masonic history with the founding of “The Order of Universal Co-Freemasonry in Great Britian and the British Dependencies” by Annie Besant in 1902.

That Order operated under the umbrella the French-based “Maçonnerie Mixte”, today know as The International Order of Freemasonry for Men and Women, Le Droit Humain. The North American Order then was Le Droit Humain’s American Federation.

“Universal” likewise became part of the North American Federation’s name and seems to have intermittently continued into the 1940s. An investigation into why the word “Universal” ultimately was replaced turned up no certain answers. North American Co-Masonry remained part of Le Droit Humain until a separation during a protracted and often contentious legal proceeding in the 1990s.

The Order in North America has since operated as an independent Masonic body, “The Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry,” operating out of its long-time headquarters in Larkspur, Colorado. Le Droit Humain, for its part, established a new American Federation chartered in Delaware.

Over the past decade, American Co-Masonry expanded outside its traditional North American boundaries and today includes Lodges in South America. That expansion made the time right to assume a visibly international identity and resume use of the word “Universal” in place of “American,” Cumsille said.

Photo: Cover of one of the first ritual books used in American Co-Masonry, including the original use of “Universal” as part of the Order’s original name.

Welcome

Welcome to the blog.

Look for a new post here at least once a week on topics of interest to Freemasons in general, to Co-Freemasons in particular. This blog is hosted and sponsored by the Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry, the American Federation of Human Rights, so expect lots and lots of news from and about that Order.

It is the intent of this blog to share news, articles and other Masonic information that you won’t necessarily find on other U.S.-based Masonic blogs, websites and news outlets. That need has gone unfulfilled way too long. Rectifying that is the most important thing this blog can do, to broaden the amount of Masonic news and information available to rank-and-file Freemasons, regardless of jurisdiction.

That effort will be brought to a grinding halt if we don’t, right away and right up front, address the topic that just won’t to quit. Currently, the only online topic of discussion about Co-Masonry, at least in the U.S., seems to be about whether it exists (yeah, it has, for well more than a century). There generally follows the ever – forever – tiresome talk about “regularity” and “amity”. Then the word “clandestine” gets tossed into the conversation and what follows usually puts off way more heat than light, especially if no Co-Mason is present to speak truth to ignorance.

I am heartily sick of that topic. I won’t blog about it, unless it somehow becomes news, and any posts about it in the comment section will be deleted. Don’t bring it here and don’t expect me to be moved by any mention of 1st Amendment Rights and etc. This is a private blog, not a public access, and there are plenty of other places online to talk about that worn-thin topic that never goes anywhere.

This blog will do its humble best to go somewhere, to push past that topic and try to move the conversation forward onto other topics.

Make no mistake, there’s a need for that. For instance, most on this side of the pond, Mason and otherwise, don’t know about news in Co-Masonry and female-only Masonry because it isn’t much reported.

For instance, the Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry has darn near tripled in size during the last decade and a new Lodge building is expected to be consecrated later this year.

Oh, and the Order’s name is about to change.

Expect all that in future blog posts.

It isn’t just news about the Honorable Order of American Co-Masonry Masonic that goes unreported. News and information about Freemasonry in Europe seldom falls on our ears. For instance, the Mixed Grand Lodge of France got a new Grand Master last year. In November, Marie-Thérèse Besson, Grand Maîtrese of the of the Feminine Grand Lodge of France gave a lecture in Saint-Gaudin .

Last spring, the Irish Times published an article about the history of women Freemasons and Co-Masons in that country.

Closer to home and earlier this month, there was – in my opinion – an incredibly important and ground-shaking discussion in Philadelphia about the misconceptions between Prince Hall Freemasonry and traditionally African American churches. That event hasn’t been reported much outside of Philadelphia.

Sure, all those events, foreign and domestic, got some attention in the local, nonMasonic press but they warranted not so much as a whisper in the established U.S.-based male-only blogs, websites and news outlets. And there’s no reason why it should. Those sites and outlets prefer to serve only a portion of the Masonic audience. And that’s OK, they have every right to do so.

However, that partial coverage is a very crooked way to navigate through news, articles and information about Freemasonry. It leaves the reader with the inevitable impression that there are only male-only Masons and, therefore, only their news is relevant.

That hasn’t been true for a very long time.

With this blog, I hope to make that crooked way straight. This blog has every right to do that, or to at least try. In any case, the quiet time is over.

Booger.