E. R. Johnston on the Religious Character of Freemasonry

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This is an extraordinary piece and derives from:

E. R. Johnston and A. C. Monette, editors, Masonry Defined: A Liberal Masonic Education: Information Every Mason Should Have (Shreveport, LA: National Masonic Press, 1930; appendix & dictionary, 1939; 935p., answering 1,025 questions; compiled from the writings of Albert G. Mackey and many other authorities): 442-445.

I have only edited it here with respect to a few formatting items. I start with how it is presented in the book itself, by the question’s number, which reflects how the book was laid out in alphabetical form (here on religion). And I placed in bold the references to the definitions of religion. I wish that the language had been smoother and easier to read.


Question 787—In what sense, if any, is Masonry a religion?

Religion of Masonry. There has been a needless expenditure of ingenuity and talent, by a large number of Masonic orators and essayists, in the endeavor to prove that Masonry is not a religion. This has undoubtedly arisen from a well-intended but erroneous view that has been taken of the connection between religion and Masonry, and from a fear that if the complete disseverance of the two was not made manifest, the opponents of Masonry would be enabled successfully to establish a theory which they have been fond of advancing, that the Masons were disposed to substitute the teachings of their Order for the truths of Christianity.

Now I have never for a moment believed that any such unwarrantable assumption as that Masonry is intended to be a substitute for Christianity, could ever obtain admission into any well-regulated mind, and, therefore, I am not disposed to yield, on the subject of the religious character of Masonry, quite so much as has been yielded by more timid brethren. On the contrary, I contend, without any sort of hesitation, that Masonry is, in every sense of the word, except one, and that its least philosophical, an eminently religious institution—that it is indebted solely to the religious element which it contains for its origin and for its continued existence, and that without this religious element it would scarcely be worthy of cultivation by the wise and good.

But, that I may be truly understood, it will be well first to agree upon the true definition of religion. There is nothing more illogical than to rea­son upon undefined terms. Webster has given four distinct definitions of religion :

1. Religion, in a comprehensive sense, includes, he says, a belief in the being and perfections of God—in the revelation of his will to man—in man’s obligation to obey his commands in a state of reward and punishment, and in man's accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties.

2. His second definition is, that religion, as distinct from theology, is godliness or real piety in practice, consisting in the performance of all known duties to God and our fellowmen, in obedience to divine command, or from love to God and his law.

3. Again, he says that religion, as distinct from virtue or morality, consists in the performance of the duties we owe directly to God, from a principle of obedience to his will.

4. And lastly, he defines religion to be any system of faith or worship ; and in this sense, he says, religion comprehends the belief and worship of Pagans and Mohammedans as well as of Christians—any religion consisting in the belief of a superior power, or powers, governing the world, and in the worship of such power or powers. And it is in this sense that we speak of the Turkish religion, or the Jewish religion, as well as of the Christian.

Now, it is plain that, in either of the first three senses in which we may take the word religion (and they do not very materially differ from each other)

[On the first definition] Masonry may rightfully claim to be called a religious institution. Closely and accurately examined, it will be found to answer to any one of the requirements of either of these three definitions. So much does it “include a belief in the being and perfections of God,” that the public profession of such a faith is essentially necessary to gain admission into the Order. No disbeliever in the existence of a God can be made a Mason. The “revelation of his will to man” is technically called the “spiritual, moral, and Masonic trestle-board” of every Mason, according to the rules and designs of which he is to erect the spiritual edifice of his eternal life. A “state of reward and punishment” is necessarily included in the very idea of an obligation, which, without the belief in such a state, could be of no binding force or efficacy. And “true godliness or piety of life” is inculcated as the invariable duty of every Mason, from the inception of the first to the end of the very last degree that he takes.

So, again, in reference to the second and third definitions, all this practical piety and performance of the duties we owe to God and to our fellow-men arise from and are founded on a principle of obedience to the divine will. Whence else, or from what other will, could they have arisen? It is the voice of the G. A. O. T. U. [Great Architect of the Universe] symbolized to us in every ceremony of our ritual and from every portion of the furniture of our lodge, that speaks to the true Mason, commanding him to fear God and to love the brethren.

It is idle to say that the Mason does good simply in obedience to the statutes of the Order. These very statutes owe their sanction to the Masonic idea of the nature and perfections of God, which idea has come down to us from the earliest history of the Institution, and the promulgation of which idea was the very object and design of its origin.

But it must be confessed that the fourth definition does not appear to be strictly applicable to Masonry. It has no pretension to assume a place among the religions of the world as a sectarian “system of faith and worship,” in the sense in which we distinguish Christianity from Judaism, or Judaism from Mohammedanism. In this meaning of the word we do not and cannot speak of the Masonic religion, nor say of a man that he is not a Christian, but a Mason.

Here [in the fourth definition] it is that the opponents of Freemasonry have assumed mistaken ground, in confounding the idea of a religious institution with that of the Christian religion as a peculiar form of worship, and in supposing, because Masonry teaches religious truth, that it is offered as a substitute for Christian truth and Christian obligation. Its warmest and most enlightened friends have never advanced nor supported such a claim.

Freemasonry is not Christianity, nor a substitute for it. It is not intended to supersede it nor any other form of worship or system of faith. It does not meddle with sectarian creeds or doctrines, but teaches fundamental religious truth—not enough to do away with the necessity of a Christian scheme of salvation, but more than enough to show, to demonstrate, that it is, in every philosophical sense of the word, a religious institution, and one, too, in which the true Christian Mason will find, if he earnestly seeks for them. abundant types and shadows of his own exalted and divinely inspired faith.

The tendency of all true Masonry is towards religion. If it makes any progress, its progress is to that holy end. Look at its ancient landmarks, its sublime ceremonies, its profound symbols and allegories,—all inculcating religious doctrine,[1] commanding religious observance and teaching religious truth, and who can deny that it is eminently a religious institution?

But, besides, Masonry is, in all its forms, thoroughly tinctured with a true devotional spirit. We open and close our lodges with prayer; we invoke the blessings of the Most High upon all our labors; we demand of our neophytes a profession of trusting belief in the existence and the superintending care of God; and we teach them to bow with humility and reverence at His awful name, while His holy law is widely opened upon our altars. Freemasonry is thus identified with religion; and although a man may be eminently religious without being a Mason, it is impossible that a Mason can be “true and trusty” to his Order unless he is a respecter of religion and an observer of religious principle.

But the religion of Masonry is not sectarian. It admits men of every creed within its hospitable bosom, rejecting none and approving none for his peculiar faith. It is not Judaism, though there is nothing in it to offend a Jew; it is not Christianity, but there is nothing in it repugnant to the faith of a Christian. Its religion is that general one of nature and primitive revelation—handed down to us from some ancient and patriarchal priesthood—in which all men may agree and in which no men can differ. It inculcates the practice of virtue, but it supplies no scheme of redemption for sin. It points its disciples to the path of righteousness, but it does not claim to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” In so far, therefore, it cannot become a substitute for Christianity, but its tendency is thitherward; and, as the handmaid of religion, it may, and often does, act as the porch that introduces its votaries into the temple of divine truth.

Masonry, then, is, indeed, a religious institution; and on this ground mainly, if not alone, should the religious Mason defend it.





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[1] The operative word here is inculcating which means to “teach and impress by frequent repetition or admonitions” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1989). A vast distinction must to be made for the late 20th and 21st century evangelical and most especially in the light of some modern-day anti-mason efforts. A non-theologian may use the term doctrine to refer to any decidedly religious teaching, like God being the Great Architect of the Universe and like brother love being biblical. But a theologian would use doctrine more formally to refer to a specific religions unique belief structure. Freemasonry inculcates religious teaching on God in general, but not God specifically, leaving the Freemason room. Freemasonry inculcates not a set of doctrine on, say, the Holy Spirit or the nature of Jesus Christ, but does inculcate the moral values and ethical code and essential sovereignty of God over human affairs. That is why there is no theology of Freemasonry, and in part why some have confused Albert Pike’s Morals and Dogma with a theology. Times have changed, and Pike’s use of dogma did not mean he was teaching Freemasonry theological dogma any more than the computer giant Hewlett Packard was teaching theological dogma to reference to its operating and human resource philosophy in use of management dogma.