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What's it all about?
Reading about Freemasonry's initiations on the web, one quickly encounters the tales of rolling up one's trouser leg and being led around blindfolded. It seems strange at best and totally bizarre if one ponders it without a frame of reference. This page has been created to explain a bit about the Masonic initiation ceremonies which seem so very peculiar.
The 'degrees' in Freemasonry are achieved through participatory action by the candidate. He makes application to a local lodge and then, after investigation, is balloted upon. Assuming the vote of the membership is favorable (in most jurisdictions, this requires a unanimous affirmative ballot by all present but some allow one negative vote - a 'black ball' - to be cast), the candidate is advised of the time he will receive the first of the three degrees of Freemasonry and presents himself for initiation.
Each degree is a 'step' in that initiation process. Jurisdictional differences exist so in some jurisdictions a man is a Mason after completion of the Initiatory (first) Degree while in others, he must have received all three (Fellowcraft and Master Mason) to be considered such. Regardless of these differences and the claims that one might make as to being a Mason even if they've only received the first degree, virtually everyone who takes the Initiatory Degree will, at some later point, continue through the other two. A Mason is generally considered one who has passed through all three degrees achieving the title of "Master Mason".
What are these 'degrees'?
They're the presentation of ritual - a ceremony which is done the same way each time. Ever since society first began, mankind has had rituals which helped establish a commonality of experience and convey information. A child might be required to memorize a particular tribal story before being allowed to go beyond the area of the tents; an adolescent might be required to show hunting proficiency before being considered a 'man'; a physical procedure might take place (a piercing of one's body, for example) before another level of recognition within the community was granted. Rituals - ceremonies - abound and are with us each day. We get up in the morning and will shower and brush our teeth (although some have a ritual in which the shower occurs in the evening). We have rituals for marriage, death, dinner at a restaurant, and - importantly - for expressing our homage to Deity. There are far more rituals which surround our daily existence than we ever realize.
Because society deemed it important to mark a 'passage' or movement to a different stage in life, organizations within it have developed certain ceremonies that coincided with that step. A knight endured fasting and prayer; he might have gone on a quest to test his mettle. Before being recognized as a citizen, a person swore allegiance to the country. All of these things - and so many more - were deemed important enough that ceremonies emphasizing the lessons learned by that step were formalized into ritual.
Freemasonry is no different. When it first began, it is likely that there were two 'steps' to full membership. Later a third was added. The content and form has changed somewhat throughout the subsequent three centuries and some differences accounting for national taste have occurred as well. In the final analysis, though, the similarities far outweigh the differences and each Mason can recognize how another jurisdiction's ritual relates to their own.
So what are the Degrees all about?
They're ceremonies designed to impart certain knowledge to the initiate. Freemasonry uses allegory, with particular emphasis on the tools and implements of architecture to encourage its members to consider great moral truths. Because its members share a belief in Deity, the commonality which underlies this helps to make the lesson more meaningful.
In the Initiatory Degree, the candidate is exposed for the first time to the lodge and its outline. He makes promises from which no good man would ever be false. He is - as Masonic critics assert - unaware of the specific wording of the obligation before taking it but is assured before he does so that nothing contained therein will interfere with any duty he owes to God, his country, his neighbor/family, or himself. He is asked if, with that assurance, he is willing to proceed and, if he gives his assent, does so. He is free to stop and remove himself at any time in the proceeding without any threat or harm whatsoever.
Some Masonic critics attempt to make great hay out of this so-called secrecy, asserting that no one in their right mind would make a promise before knowing what it is. The charge, however, is totally ludicrous. A child will make another promise to 'cross my heart and hope to die' before being told some trivial bit of gossip. A member of the military or an employee of a defense contractor takes an obligation to keep inviolate whatever secrets they may encounter in their daily jobs before they become aware of the exact nature of those secrets. And, the secrets which a couple share are expected to be amongst them alone if the partners have a sense of honor. The argument of not knowing the obligation's contents are, in fact, a straw-man argument. If one wanted to seriously join an organization; if the organization was held in high esteem throughout the world; if the organization had existed for more than three centuries; if friends and perhaps even members of one's own family had been (or are) members; why should there be any undue concern? It's just one more ruse used against anti-Masons by those whose apparent mission in life is to be a 'spoiler'.
But I've heard about those trouser legs and blindfolds....
As noted above, Masonic ritual is taught
through the use of allegories. There is a purpose for each and every thing done during the
ceremonies, some of which is not readily apparent to the outside world. The ritual, however, has withstood the test of both time and numbers. Over three centuries, tens of millions of men have become members; while a small handful might have left, scoffing at the ceremony as foolishness, the fact that SO many have not should give the potential candidate assurance of its
If you are of a mindset that encourages ridicule of anything that is strange or different to you, we suspect that you will not enjoy Freemasonry and we encourage you to consider it no further. Freemasonry teaches TOLERATION - and
ridicule is not a part of that in any way. Freemasonry does not subject its members to scorn or foolish pranks; no initiate need fear any humiliation or
embarrassment. All members have passed through essentially the same ceremonies - and when we attend that of a new member, we all remember our own initiation and review in our own minds how much more we have to learn in the betterment of our own lives.
We are sometimes asked by those who are about to join whether they should read through the ceremonies as are found on the internet. Perhaps they have seen the ritual (Duncan's - an exposure from the early 1800s, although most don't realize that) in a rack at their local supermarket. They think they may be better prepared by some prior study. Untrue!
The ceremonies of Freemasonry are designed to be assimilated 'as is / where is', so to speak. They are free-standing and require no prior preparation other than a receptive mind. On a separate page, a Masonic author has written what we think is an eloquent essay on the preparation of a candidate. We believe that - although from a MUCH earlier time - it still will resonate with those whose heart and mind looks forward to his membership.
Will reading the ritual before the ceremony ruin the experience? Probably not, since what you find in black and white text is SO far removed in format from the actual initiatory experience that they're barely comparable. However, to use an analogy: it's like hearing about a GREAT movie but before going to the theatre, reading the book. You're so involved trying to figure out why this or that piece isn't exactly where it was in the book and you're jumping ahead (or back) to sort it all out that you miss the full impact of the show. We'd encourage you to pass by reading the rituals beforehand - but as an adult, you're certainly free to do whatever you wish. We can only tell you that with the free availability of exposure rituals on the web, a number of men have read them becoming members - and unanimously have regretted it, even if only to a small degree. We have yet to find anyone who was pleased that they had done so.
13 March 2004
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