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Thursday, March 31, 2022

Louisiana Grand Master's Edict Requires Bible Readings For Meetings: Internet Masons Go Crazy



by Christopher Hodapp

The brand new Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Louisiana, MW Jay B. McCallum, kicked off his first week in the Grand East yesterday by issuing Edict 2022-1, and Masonic social media immediately erupted into a divisive public donnybrook. 


The edict reads, in part: 

Whereas the Holy Bible is the Great Light in Masonry; and
Whereas the Holy Bible is the rule and guide to our faith and practice; and
Whereas Freemasonry opens this Book upon its alters, with the command to each of its votaries that he diligently study therein to learn the way to everlasting life;

Therefore, by the authority vested in me as Grand Master of the grand Lodge of Louisiana, Free & Accepted Masons, I do hereby issue and proclaim the following edict:

“Effective upon the date hereof, the  Worshipful Master of each lodge shall cause a verse or passage of Scripture from the Holy Bible to be read aloud immediately after the lodge has been opened and before the reading of the minutes or any other business of the lodge shall be transacted.”

(Click image to enlarge.) 

When I first joined the fraternity in 1998, our Grand Master Robert E. Hancock issued an edict that added a new bit of business to the rubric. As the lodge was closing, instead of closing the Bible and placing the square and compass on the closed cover, the Chaplain was to turn the book to Matthew 5:16:

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

It was to remain open to that passage at all times until the next lodge meeting, when it would be turned to the degree-appropriate pages. Hancock wasn't attempting to shoehorn a deliberately Christian New Testament message into the lodge. He simply felt that the words themselves succinctly described Freemasonry's mission, along with a charge to each of us to spread Masonic Light as an example to others. It wasn't so much a religious message as it was a reminder to us as Masons about our conduct, and it was to remain visible at all times as a symbol of the duty we all have as Masons. Nevertheless, when the annual Grand Lodge session came around in May 1999, Hancock's edict went down in flames, in part because many Masons voting that day couldn't see anything beyond the fact that it was a New Testament quotation, and therefore automatically an overt Christian message.

What disturbs me about the online reaction to GM McCallum's edict is that it has resulted in a toxic wave of insults and accusations between purported Masons who seem to have a lopsided hatred of anything that even smells like Christianity creeping into lodge business. Suggestions for readings from the steamier parts of Song of Solomon or giggly recommendations of passages referring to Biblical figures "sitting on an ass" and other idiocy that was worn out in third grade Sunday Bible School all came tumbling out. Yet, many of these same online commentators are the first to whip out "Whattabout the Koran? Or the Veda? Huh? Huh?" And then, of course, comes the wave of "Can I read out of Harry Potter?" "I'm a pastafarian - can I read the ingredients off of a Creamettes angel hair pasta packsge? Huh? Huh?"

It's sort of like being trapped into sitting at a bar next to a drunk who won't shut up until you hate his ex-wife as much as he does.

And then there are the characters who actually say with a straight face (or a straight keyboard, in this case) that "If this edict is allowed to stand, I'm not setting foot in lodge ever again! I didn't join a Christian church!" 

No, you didn't. But it's been astonishing to encounter Masons who honestly claim that passages from the Bible have no business being read in open lodge. Moreover, they contend that reading scripture from the Bible means excluding Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and all other non-Christian members. A bizarre claim for members of an organization that bases its entire structure on the symbolism of Solomon's Temple as described in two books of the Old Testament, which is made up of the Hebrew Tenach. Yes, I know, there are currently more than 4,000 religious varients in the world today. But Solomon's Temple is a shared icon of the three Abrahamic religions that comprise the vast, VAST majority of the religious believers on the globe.

Put it another way: I don't see a further demands from the Grand Master that passages from the Qur'an, the Veda, the Tao Te Ching, the Bahagavad Gita, the Book of Common Prayer, Khordeh Avesta, the Tripitaka  may NOT be read in a Louisiana lodge.

Partially wrapped up in these exchanges are clear situations of Masons believing that all jurisdictions, grand lodge rules, and degree rituals are exactly the same as their own. In the case of Louisiana in particular, the history of the development and growth of Freemasonry in that state  is dramatically different than the rest of the U.S. because of its early French influences. Because of their pre-1800 French origin, ten Louisiana lodges are permitted to use English translations of Craft rituals for EAs, FCs and MMs that are not worked elsewhere in the U.S. (with a couple of noteworthy exceptions in New York and Washington DC, and – I think – California). These are sometimes referred to, somewhat improperly, as the "red lodge degrees" or "Scottish Rite Craft degrees."

It's been a long time since I've seen these degrees performed in person, but Louisiana Masons have told me that there are no biblical passages read during their degree rituals. That's a MAJOR difference in their ceremonies. With the exception of Louisiana and the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, the majority of U.S. Masonic lodges all use slight variations of Preston-Webb rituals of English origin. In each of the three Craft degrees, the circumambulation of the candidate is accompanied by the reading of a specific Old Testament Bible verse:

Entered Apprentice: Psalm 133
Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment on the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessings, even life for evermore.

Fellowcraft Degree: Amos 7: 7,8
Thus he shewed me: and, behold, the Lord stood upon a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand.
And the Lord said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, A plumbline. Then, said the Lord, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel: I will not again pass by them anymore.

Master Mason Degree: Ecclesiastes 12: 1-7
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain;
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of a bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

But lest you think the whole Masonic world uniformly includes these verses in their ritual work, that's simply not the case. Even in the U.S. I'm told some state grand lodges, including Idaho and Mississippi, do not use them. On the other hand, some states include the 133rd Psalm as an official part of their opening of all meetings. So, like so much else in Freemasonry, differences in rituals and customs are entirely jurisdictional.

The Grand Lodge of Louisiana has a different pedigree than any other grand lodge in the U.S. From the time of its formation and growth (partially by English and Irish expats in France in the late 1720s), French Freemasonry was populated by Roman Catholic members. Even the early emigres from the British Isles were Stuart supporters desperate to place James on the throne(s) back home and return the monarchy to Catholic rule. Roman Catholicism was the state religion for centuries in France, a situation that wouldn't change until the outbreak of the Revolution. By 1773 when the Grand Orient de France was officially established, there were more than 600 Masonic lodges at work in France. By the time of the French Revolution in 1789, almost 1,000 lodges had been chartered. 

The Revolution aimed to bring an end to monarchial rule in France, and almost as vehemently, the removal of Catholicism from its positions of power over government and its monopoly over the education of French children. Equally hated were the vast properties held by the Church which were untaxed by the state. And there was the usual hatred of the elite nobility that festers in almost every social uprising. The Abbé Barreul capitalized on the involvement - real and imaginary - of Freemasons in fomenting the Revolution in his book,  that helped create the modern conspiracy theory (but that's another conversation).

At the the formation of the Grand Lodge of Louisiana in 1812, numerous Masons from post-revolutionary France had turned anti-Catholic. And back in France, the Grand Orient itself would become quite politically active throughout the 19th century. In the late 1800s, Grand Orient Masons in the military brewed up a huge scandal when they went on an anti-Catholic purge of the ranks by using Grand Orient membership files to weed them out. And Grand Orient members were deeply involved in drafting France's laicité laws that vehemently banned any open show or support of any religion by government or government employees. (Laicité laws today are still in full force in France, and have been used to prevent teachers and government workers from wearing religious head scarves or veils, or crucifix jewelry on the job.  So, the early founders of Louisiana Freemasonry came from that kind of background.)

Not every grand lodge ever officially adopted a specific list of "unchangeable landmarks" (mine never did, while those who have them have a huge variety and number of them, lest anyone be under the misapprehension that The Landmarks are in any way universal). The GL of Louisiana officially adopted 24 Landmarks of the Order. Number 24 reads:

Healing Day – June 24,1813.

Moderns and Ancients had separated and formed separate Grand Lodges over one question: The religious belief of a candidate.

They agreed – June 24, 1813 on this statement:

“Let a man’s religion or mode of worship be what it may, he is not excluded from the order, provided he believes in the Glorious Architect of Heaven and Earth and practices the sacred duties of Morality.”

Many other grand lodges have differences in stated or implied policies concerning the Bible. For instance: the Grand Lodge of Texas Monitor published in 1922 contains this notation :

[The first section of the Entered Apprentice] degree teaches the candidate, by Symbols, many important lessons, and among other things, that Masonry is a moral institution, founded upon the morality as taught in the Bible, and that he has to take the Holy Bible as the rule and guide to his faith and practice; it being the great light in Masonry and the source whence we, as Masons, derive all our ethics.

Texas' Charge to the Entered Apprentice includes this:

As a Mason, you are to regard the Holy Scriptures as the great light in your profession; they are the unerring standard of truth and justice; and you are to regulate your life and actions by the divine precepts therein contained. No institution was ever raised on better principles, or a more solid foundation than that of ours, which takes the Holy Bible as its corner-stone; nor were ever more excellent rules or useful maxims laid down, than are inculcated in the several Masonic Lectures, which you will learn at your leisure, by conversing with well-informed Brethren, who will be always as ready to give as you will to receive instruction.

 The 2013 revision of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky's Constitutions has this to say:

The Supreme Being.
Masons believe that there is one God and that people employ many different ways to seek and to express what they know of God. Masonry primarily uses the appellation, “Grand Architect of the Universe”, and other non-sectarian titles, to address Deity. In this way, persons of different faiths may join together in prayer, concentrating on God, rather than differences among themselves. Masonry believes in religious freedom and that the relationship between the individual and God is personal, private and sacred.

Volume of the Sacred Law.
An open volume of the Sacred Law, “The rule and guide of life,” is an essential part of every Masonic meeting. The Volume of the Sacred Law in the Judeo/Christian tradition is the Bible, to Freemasons of other faiths, it is the book held holy by them. (2000)

The Oath of Freemasonry.
The obligations taken by Freemasons are sworn on the Volume of the Sacred Law. They are undertakings to follow the principles of Freemasonry and to keep confidential a Freemason’s means of recognition. The much discussed “penalties”, judicial remnants from an earlier era, are symbolic, not literal. They refer only to the pain any honest man should feel at the thought of violating his word.

Freemasonry Compared with Religion.
Freemasonry lacks the basic elements of religion:
(A) It has no dogma or theology, no wish or means to enforce religious orthodoxy.
(B) It offers no sacraments.
(C) It does not claim to lead to salvation by works, by secret knowledge, or by any other means. The secrets of Freemasonry are concerned with modes of recognition, not with the means of salvation.

Freemasonry Supports Religion.
Freemasonry is far from indifferent toward reli- gion. Without interfering in religious practice, it expects each member to follow his own faith and to place his Duty to God above all other duties. Its moral teachings are acceptable to all religions.

By the way, since I'm on the subject of VSL readings, I'll pass this along. More than 20 years ago, this subject was being debated on the old Philalethes Society mailing list. WB Rashied K. Sharrieff Al Bey (who, 20 years later, is now the current president of that esteemed society) gave these recommendations if the Holy Qur'an was being used on the Altar during a Muslim's circumambulations:

Entered Apprentice - Surah 3: 103
And hold fast all together, by the Rope which G-d stretches out for you, and be not divided amongst yourselves; and remember with gratitude G-d's favor on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in Love, so that by His Grace, ye became Brethren; and ye were on the brink of the Pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth G-d make clear His Signs to you: that ye may be guided. 

Fellowcraft - Surah 2: 255
G-d! There is no god but He, -- the Living, the Self-subsisting, Eternal. No slumber can seize Him, nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there that can intercede except as He permitteth? He knoweth what (appeareth to His creatures as) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He willeth. His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory).

Master Mason - Surah 85: 12-16
Truly Strong is the grip of thy Lord. It is He Who creates from the very beginning, and He can restore (life). And He is the Oft-Forgiving, full of loving-kindness, Lord of the Throne of Glory, Doer (without let) of all that He intends.

The more you read from the past, the more you learn from it. Our Founding Brethren could have picked any symbols or sources they liked when crafting our rituals. I suppose one could argue that you could just as effectively teach "wise and serious truths" using Gulliver's Travels instead of the Book of Kings (the mind reels - think of THAT initiation!)

But the greatest lesson Freemasonry was designed to teach was NOT that Freemasonry must be blanched of any whiff of religious-sounding influences. Nor must Freemasonry as an institution be dramatically changed so that MY religious faith or YOUR's (or our lack of it) get accommodated so neither you nor I be offended. No, the lesson is that YOU and I must accept its methods of teachings, and be tolerant of our brethren's beliefs, while ALL of us find the universal truths in Masonic teachings themselves. The Founders wanted lodge to be a place where men who had been quite literally killing each other for seventy years over whether they believed in seven sacraments, or three, or two could sit in the same room, break bread together, and celebrate their commonality, while happily accepting their differences. Masonic philosophy had no equal at that moment in time.

Somewhere, somehow, modern Masons got mixed up into thinking that religious faith, questions of the soul and eternity, can't be talked about in lodge. On the contrary – lodge is EXACTLY where men should be able to openly and unashamedly discuss their own beliefs with each other without reproach or scorn. Even goldfish desperately want to know who changes the water in the bowl. These are questions that have haunted every single one of us since the Dawn of Man. And if we can't freely exchange our thoughts and fears and joys and heartbreaks with our Brothers, we're a piss-poor excuse for the dream our Founders expected us to fulfill.

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