SHORT TALK BULLETIN - Vol.VII December, 1929 No.12
THE LAWS OF MASONRY
It is impossible to abide by any laws if we do not know what they
are. The American automobile driver who attempts to negotiate a
London street without knowing the peculiarities of English law will
be arrested in the first block; he must there drive on the left and
pass on the right; not drive on the right and pass on the left, as in
The laws of Masonry, like the laws of nations, are both the unwritten
- "Common Law" - and written. The written laws, based on the
"General Regulations" and the "Old Charges," are the Constitution and
By-Laws of his own Grand Lodge, its resolutions and edicts; and the
By-Laws of his particular lodge. The Ancient Landmarks are written
in some Jurisdictions; in others they are a part of unwritten law.
In a foreign Jurisdiction, a Mason is amenable to its laws, as well
as those of his own Jurisdiction. In this duality of allegiance
Masonry follows civil law; thus, am American residing abroad is
amenable to the laws of the nation in which he lives, but is also
expected to obey the laws of his own nation; for instance, an
American residing abroad is not exempt from the United States income
tax laws. Neither is a Mason from California exempt form the laws of
the Grand Lodge of that State, merely because he happens to be
sojourning in Maine, or some foreign country.
The "General Regulations" as set forth in "Anderson's Constitutions
of 1723" have a curious history, into which it is not necessary to go
here; suffice it that they were adopted shortly after the formation
in 1717 of the First or Mother Grand Lodge in England. The work was
first published under the date of 1723. Unquestionably it embodied
the laws of Masonry as they were known to the members of the four
lodges which formed the first Grand Lodge, and hence have the
respectability of an antiquity much greater than their printed life
of two hundred and six years (in 1929).
In general, it may be said that the "Old Charges" are concerned with
the individual brother, and his relations to his lodge and his
brethren; the General Regulations with the conduct of the Craft as a
whole. The General Regulations permit their own alteration by Grand
Lodge - the Old Charges do not!
The Old Charges very evidently deal with both the operative and
speculative sides of Masonry; some of the phrases are concerned with
"The Lord's Work." The context shows that it is not the Lord God who
is here meant, but the particular nobleman for whom building
construction is undertaken
Law in Masonry is so much more a matter of the heart than of the
head, so much more concerned with setting forth conduct than in
assessing penalties, that, to thoroughly comprehend it, we must be
willing to revise our ideas of law, as we understand the enactments
many civil laws are provided with measures of enforcement and
penalties for infringement. Masonic law knows but four penalties;
reprimand, definite suspension, indefinite suspension and expulsion
or Masonic Death. These Masonic penalties for serious infractions of
Masonic Law may be ordered after a Masonic trial, and a verdict of
guilty; but the punishment is usually made to fit the crime, and
mercy is much more a part of Masonic than civil law. Infractions of
Masonic Law resulting in trial and punishment are rare, compared to
the number of Masons, the vast majority of whom are so willing and
anxious to obey the laws that "enforcement" is seldom required.
There is no universality in Masonic law in all Jurisdictions.
Different latitudes. different characters of people, different ideas
have all left their marks upon our forty-nine Grand Lodges and their
enactments. In the majority of essentials, they are one; in some
particulars, they hold divergent views. A very large majority of
Grand Lodges in the United States adhere to the spirit of the "Old
Charges," and - so far as modern conditions permit - to the sense of
the "General Regulations."
It is, therefore, of real importance that Masons desiring to
understand the law by which the Craft is governed, and the legal
standards by which Grand Lodge measures its "laws, resolutions and
edicts;" should read both the "Old Charges" and the "General
Regulations of 1723." When he reaches the last (thirty-ninth) of the
"General Regulations," he will read: "Every Annual Grand Lodge has
an inherent Power and Authority to make new Regulations, or to alter
these, for the real benefit of this Ancient Fraternity; provided
always that the Old Landmarks be carefully preserved," etc.
The "Old Landmarks" or the "Ancient Landmarks" as we customarily call
them, are thus stated to be the foundations of the law of Masonry
which are not subject to change. Had the Grand Lodge which first
adopted these "General Regulations" formulated the "Ancient
Landmarks" it would have saved much trouble and confusion for those
newer Grand Lodges which came after. Apparently, however, the
unwritten law of Masonry - the common law - was so well understood
and practiced then that it was not thought necessary to codify it.
There is still a great body of unwritten law which Masons customarily
observe - our "ancient usages and customs" - which are not specified
in print now, any more than they were then. But the Landmarks have
been reduced in print and made a part of the written law in many
Jurisdictions. Mackey's list of twenty-five Landmarks (thirty-nine
in Nevada) has been adopted as official in many American Masonic
Jurisdictions; others have condensed his list into a lesser number,
still keeping all his points; a few Jurisdictions have a greater
number, including some not specified on Mackey's list. Those
Jurisdictions which do not include a printed list of the ancient
Landmarks in their written law, usually follow and practice them as a
part of their unwritten law. In a few instances, some of the
Landmarks as listed by Mackey are not recognized as such; for
instance, Mackey's Eighth Landmark, the inherent right of a Grand
Master to "make Masons at sight" was specifically abrogated by an
early Grand Lodge in California. In general, however, whether written
or unwritten, Grand Lodges adhere to the spirit of all of Mackey's
The Landmarks may be regarded as bearing the same relation to Masonic
law in general, including the "Old Charges" and the "General
Regulations," as the provisions of the Magna Charta bear to modern
constitutional law. Just as the Magna Charta specified some of the
inherent rights of men which all laws of all governments should
consider and respect, so the Landmarks crystallize in words the
inherent characteristics of Masonry - those fundamentals which make
Freemasonry, and without which it would be something else.
Mackeys' explanations of several of the Landmarks are too long for
inclusion here, but his twenty-five statements are short and are
herewith printed. His list is chosen to appear here because it is
the most universally used. Juris-dictions which have lesser, or a
greater number, with very few exceptions, include all of Mackey's
Mackey states that the Landmarks are:
1. The modes of recognition.
2. The division of Symbolic Masonry into three degrees.
3. The legend of the Third Degree.
4. The government of the Fraternity by a Grand Master.
5. The prerogative of the Grand Master to preside over every
assembly of the Craft.
6. The prerogative of the Grand Master to grant dispensations for
the conferring of degrees at irregular intervals.
7. The prerogative of the Grand Master to give dispensations for
opening and holding lodges.
8. The prerogative of the Grand Master to make Masons at sight.
9. The necessity for Masons to congregate in lodges.
10. The government of the Craft when congregated in a lodge, by a
Master Mason and two Wardens.
11. The necessity that every lodge, when congregated, should be
duly tiled (tyled).
12. The right of every Mason to be represented in all general
meetings of the Craft.
13. The right of every Mason to appeal from his brethren in lodge
convened, to the Grand Master.
14. The right of every Mason to visit and sit in every regular
15. That no visitor, unknown to the brethren present, or some one
of them, as a Mason, can enter a lodge without first passing an
examination according to ancient usage.
16. No lodge can interfere with the business of another lodge.
17. Every Freemason is amenable to the Laws and Regulations of the
Masonic Jurisdiction in which he resides.
18. A candidate for initiation must be a man, free born,
unmutilated and of mature age.
19. A belief in the existence of God as the Grand Architect of the
20. Belief in the resurrection to a future life.
21. A "Book of the Law" constitutes an indispensable part of the
furniture of every lodge.
22. The equality of all Masons.
23. The secrecy of the institution.
24. The foundation of speculative science upon an operative art.
25. These Landmarks can never be changed.
With these as a foundation, the "Old Charges" for precedent, the
first "General Regulations" for organic law, Grand Lodges write and
adopt their Constitutions and by-laws, which are usually subject to
approval by the Grand Lodge, a Grand Lodge Committee or the Grand
Master, Grand Masters, "ad interim," formulate and issue edicts and
make decisions; often these are later incorporated by the Grand Lodge
into the written law of the Jurisdiction. All of these together,
except where they conflict (as some of the early "General
Regulations" necessarily conflict with later enactments made to
supersede them) form the legal structure of Freemasonry.
Undeniably it is looser than the similar body of law for the
government of a nation. If Masonic Law were interpreted wholly by
the letter - as is necessarily the case of civil law - the government
of the Craft might often be as loose as its statutes. But as a
matter of fact, the Craft is well governed. Its "Ancient Usages and
Customs" so soon win their way into the hearts of new brethren that
there is a great resistance to any attempt to change the old order,
unless necessity shows that it is inescapable. Masons much prefer to
whisper good counsel to an erring brother, rather than subject him to
Masonic trial, whenever the gentler method can be made effective.
The Fraternity in this nation deals, yearly, with very large sums of
money. The Craft erects and maintains numbers of expensive Temples,
and Homes for the helpless Mason and his dependents. The Institution
disburses a very large amount in charity. The vast majority of its
executives and officers serve long and arduous apprenticeships,
giving their services for love, not money. These very practical
matters are all conducted in accord with a more or less loosely woven
body of law - and yet the Fraternity as a whole can take great pride
in the undoubted fact that it is orderly, well governed, almost
completely law abiding and very reluctant to make any more new laws
for itself than are absolutely necessary.
The reason, of course, is found in the answer to the classic
question: "Where were you first prepared to be made a Mason?"