Secrecy and Freemasonry-documentWith compliments of
the Victorian Lodge of Research No 218, UGLV
The following is the abridged text of a lecture delivered by W. Bro. H. F. van
Tongeren, PM 218, at the Victorian Lodge of Research on 25 August 1995 and
published in the VLOR's transactions for 1995 entitled "Freemasonry uncovered".
The full text may be obtained by email from the Correspondence Circle Secretary,
W Bro Graeme Love. Please be sure include your snail-mail address and
sufficient information to identify your masonic standing.
SECRECY AND FREEMASONRY
A test of character
Origin of masonic secrets
The open secrets of freemasonry
Masonic secrets today
A different perspective
A secret after all?
Who can unfold the Royal Art?
Or sing it in a Song?
They're safely kept in Mason's heart,
and to the Lodge belong.
Chorus of "The Master's Song"
in Anderson's Constitutions of 1723.
A considerable number of books and articles have been written about secrecy and
freemasonry, and the subject is often mentioned or discussed by freemasons on
the world-wide-web. Even though the subject has been covering from many angles,
it continues to come up time and again, and it remains an intriguing subject.
From the various comments and points of view expressed we can say that the one
hand there are many freemasons as well as non-members who state that freemasonry
has secrets; and on the other hand there are those who strongly argue we have
There are of course many excellent books which have well defined and researched
references about secrecy, secrets and mysteries which are difficult to improve
upon: the Freemasons' Guide and Compendium by Bernard Jones (UGLE), and Let
there be Light by John G. Sullivan (ULGV) are two examples which readily come to
One may well ask: Is another lecture on the subject warranted?
I think it is. My research has shown there are many worthy points of view and
interesting aspects in difficult to access material which have never been
summarised in a lecture form.
There has always been an association between secrecy and freemasonry and it
probably will remain a controversial subject. Many books and pamphlets have been
written by masonic and non-masonic writers with a pro- and anti masonic bias,
who have dealt with this subject in depth in one way or another. Masonic secrets
have - and still are talked about in both masonic and non-masonic circles where
it is alternatively stated that Freemasonry has - and has no secrets.
This lecture is not an attempt to provide definitive answers or to clear up this
matter once and for all: that is an impossible task. Everyone has his own
perceptions on this subject and sees it from his perspective. Rather, the
intention of this lecture is to look at so-called masonic secrets from different
and less common points of view.
Despite the readily available and extensive literature, freemasonry for many
remains shrouded in a veil of secrecy and a 1967 study of freemasonry refers to
it as 'The great unknown'.
So, to provide a starting point and to make any sense out of the many different
notions that are held, it is best to first define the word 'secret' as one of
the questions we should resolve is: Are we dealing with secrets in the true
sense of the word, or simply with privacy issues?
The Australian Government defines 'Secret' as: 'Information, the unauthorised
disclosure of which could be expected to cause serious damage to national
security'; whereas the Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD) defines it as: 'to be
kept private, not to be made known or exposed to view; privy'; two quite
different definitions which by themselves do not much to clarify the issue. We
can say however that conventional secrets are secrets that conceal certain
information with the objective to avoid embarrassment, inconvenience or danger.
The Australian Government definition makes good sense if we think in terms of
'personal security' instead of 'national security'. After all, it is well
documented that, in the past, being a freemason in some countries was forbidden.
Thus, to avoid incarceration and even death, masonic membership was kept secret.
Even today the need to keep one's membership secret is still necessary in some
countries where masonic membership is not permitted for political or other
reasons. Thus it is clear that, unfortunately, in this context there still are
many cases where this definition applies.
For a number of reasons, the COD definition of 'privacy' and 'not to be made
known' does apply in respect of the general masonic membership. Especially in
certain circumstances - though, hopefully, few - where it is felt that, if one's
masonic membership becomes generally known, this could have an adverse influence
on employment or promotion prospects. Italy is one case in point, where
prejudice of freemasonry is still strong and membership is presently not
permitted for those in government employ.
But freemasonry is more than just membership and includes aspects of
organisation, ritual and teachings.
Organisationally there are Grand Lodges, each with subordinate lodges. Thus, as
the Order's existence is well known, its meeting places are registered, visible
and easily located, and 'open meetings' for the public are held, freemasonry
obviously is not a secret organisation. Even so, the Order is still perceived by
many as a secret society. One reason for this perception could be that, like
every other organisation, there are private or confidential matters to be
discussed and dealt with, although unlike large business organisations the Order
has no trade secrets.
In this sense we can define freemasonry as a private organisation open to all
thinking men who believe in an all-ordering principle called the 'Great
Architect Of The Universe' and wish to learn more about the art of living in
harmony with their fellow men.
Within the Order's rituals and teaching are certain traditional 'secrets' in the
form of passwords, test words and modes of recognition, entrusted to brethren
when they are admitted, passed and raised. We can classify these traditional
secrets as having a private, confidential or personal character. But they are
not real secrets as with a little effort anyone learn the words and modes of
recognition from a number books readily available in most public libraries.
In the sense of secrets with a private, confidential or personal character, we
can identify four categories:
1. Traditional secrets;
2. Hidden secrets;
3. Secrets of confidentiality; and
4. Personal secrets.
Traditional secrets - also called symbolic secrets - are 'secrets' which are
entrusted to the candidate during a ritual which, in common with conventional
secrets, are intended to remain strictly within a specified or designated group
whose members are permitted to know them.
Masonic rituals are replete with distinct references to traditional or symbolic
secrets, only some of which I will consider in this lecture. A most obvious
reference to traditional secrets in the Emulation ritual is found in the
obligation of each degree, where a Brother promises and swears he will 'always
hele, conceal and never reveal any part or parts, point or points, of the
secrets or mysteries of or belonging to ... the degree, etc ...' after which the
traditional secrets of the degree are communicated to him.
This presents a seeming paradox, especially to a new brother: He has promised to
keep secret that which is readily available to anyone in a good public library.
Why should he keep secret that which already has been revealed? He may ask his
new brethren and, unless he asks a 'more experienced brother', he may become
even more confused and he will soon discover how few have tried to find an
answer to this paradox.
This category refers to those secrets which are hidden within our rituals for a
brother to discover. The discovery of these secrets manifests in the form of an
expanded comprehension of some aspect of the ritual, or a deep and profound
insight which a brother may and should experience during the performance of a
ritual: as a candidate, but also as an officer or as a witness. The nature of
these discovered secrets may differ between brethren and often have an
These discoveries or insights, unfortunately, do not always take place during
the ceremony and the reason for this can frequently be ascribed to a poorly
performed ritual. But participating officers and witnessing brethren often
experience a meaningful and sometimes profound insight during a future
performance of the ritual, often occurring many years after being having been
raised to the degree of a Master Mason.
Secrets of confidentiality
The third category refers to secrets which are less obvious: the secrets of
confidentiality. There are two references which stand out: first in the third
degree obligation where reference is made to the f... p... of f..., in
particular to that part which states '... that my b... shall be the sacred
repository of his s...ts when entrusted to me as such, ...'. The second is
during the explanation of the traditional secrets where further reference is
made to the f... p... of f..., particularly to b... to b..., and h... o... b...;
the details of which should be well known to the masonic reader. Here we deal
with a matter of confidentiality and trust: confidentiality of what a brother
may have entrusted to another - and a firm trust that this confidentiality will
never be broken.
This, of course, is quite different from the practice of conventional secrecy,
because a brother who has made a confidential statement must be able to feel
assured his fellow-brethren will not betray the intimacy of the brotherhood. It
should be possible to be frank in the lodge among one's fellow-brethren.
Stronger still: is an essential requirement for a well functioning brotherhood.
Mindful of the f... p... of f..., no brother is permitted to betray the strict
confidence provided in the lodge by taking outside the lodge that what was
entrusted to him in confidence.
This demonstrates that Freemasonry is not an abstract concept, but is a reality.
It teaches a brother not to criticise his fellow-brethren who honourably and
conscientiously hold views that differ from his and take a different approach:
because a freemason must work on his own personality and not on that of his
fellow-brother, that is, unless a brother asks for his help. In this context, a
relevant quote from Unto Thee I Grant, a book of ancient wisdom is: 'Do not
condemn the judgement of another because it differeth from thine own. May not
even both be in error?'
To be a true brother to one's fellow-brethren is not easy and this becomes more
difficult as we get to know them better; but becomes easier when we can accept
them - without reservation - for what they are, with all their faults and all
their shortcomings. In this way a brother learns that what he practices in the
lodge was taught with a purpose: to experience the benefit of brotherhood and
carry it into the world.
We should never forget to lock up these secrets 'in that safe and sacred
repository' before we leave the lodge.
The last category refers to personal secrets: one's private thoughts and
personal perceptions. Personal secrets are of a very sensitive nature as they
include personal views and opinions, profound insights and the whisperings of
the 'voice of conscience'. These private thoughts cover all aspects of our daily
life, including freemasonry.
They are the thoughts that 'belong to us' and cannot normally be shared, except
perhaps - and then only in exceptional circumstances - with one we fully trust
and have a very close relationship with. Matters of the heart and mind.
A TEST OF CHARACTER
The relationship between secrets, trust and brotherhood has already been alluded
to. In freemasonry, especially in the lodges, there should be a mutual trust
between the brethren: it is a vital requirement without which true brotherhood
The act of entrusting the traditional secrets points to a condition of trust
which has been established between the lodge and the candidate; initially as the
result of investigations made and recommendations received, and later on the
basis of his conduct within and outside the lodge. The trust the candidate
receives also places an obligation upon him to keep secret that what has been
entrusted to him. As a consequence this situation places a test of strength of
character upon the brother, especially when he knows these traditional secrets
are not wholly restricted to his brethren but are also known outside the Craft.
Furthermore - having been told in the Charge after Raising 'Let no motive,
therefore, make you swerve from your duty, violate your vows or betray your
trust; but be true and faithful, and imitate the example of that celebrated
artist whom you have once represented' - there is a great lesson to be learned
in the fact it was the faithful keeping of a coveted secret which led to the
death of HAB and the consequent loss of the 'genuine secrets'.
In freemasonry there is also a close relationship between secrets and mysteries.
Our rituals refer to 'secrets or mysteries' and to 'the mysteries and privileges
of Antient Freemasonry'; and there are a number of interesting connotations to
the word 'mystery' which I will briefly touch upon.
First there are the 'mysteries' of ancient times belonging to schools of thought
such as the Osirian, Orphian, Eleusenian, and Pythagorian schools where
ceremonies were conducted in secret and during which certain knowledge (the
mysteries) as well as signs of recognition were revealed to the candidate. Dr
Mackey in his Lexicon of Freemasonry speaks of a connection between these
mystery schools and speculative masonry, but masonic scholars do not generally
agree upon this connection.
Second, during the time of the Guilds, all skilled work was known as a mystery
(which it seemed to unskilled man), a term later applied to trade secrets. It is
easy to see its connection to operative - and later to speculative freemasonry.
Third are the well known 'mysteries and privileges', where the mysteries refer
to knowledge - moral truths - hidden within the symbols and symbolism of the
rituals which must be searched for and, when found, not freely to be disclosed.
Lastly there are the mysteries of nature and science referred to in the second
degree, where the candidate is exhorted to extend his researches into the hidden
mysteries of nature and science. Here we deal with education; a mighty tool in
dispelling the darkness of ignorance and superstition, thus rendering us fit
members of society.
In summary then, symbolically speaking, by personal application to discover
these mysteries we enable ourselves become better workers on the temple of
ORIGIN OF THE TRADITIONAL SECRETS
The origin of the traditional secrets can be found in the past. History tells us
that the early operative lodges of the 14th century had their craft secrets. It
was a time when only few had received some form of education and schooling and
could read or write. Members of craft lodges jealously guarded their craft
secrets which were verbally passed on from father to son and from master
tradesman to his apprentice. It was a necessary feature of the guild lodges to
preserve their stature and place in organised society.
Operative craft lodges in particular used signs and symbols which were drawn,
carved or engraved, and were a means of communication. Some were used as an aide
memoire for verbal orders which were recognised by the members of the lodge,
signs which everyone could understand and give meaning to; others were used to
mark a mason's work as his own. These operative lodges also developed a set of
ethical values of which the Regius MS is an excellent example. They are still
extant in the customs and usages of present-day speculative lodges;
It is still a marvel how a group of people, a building lodge, who (with few
exceptions such as the master builder or architect) could not read or write,
were able to construct great cathedrals. With a minimum of directions and what
for us may seem limited aids they constructed an inspiring building.
The building of a cathedral took many decades, at times more than a century.
During those days men, generally, did not reach old age and at 40 years of age
one was already advanced in years. So even before the work commenced the workmen
knew they were unlikely to see the building completed, and that there was a good
chance even his successor would not see the completed structure. So it was
essential that during the construction period the inspiration and direction to
complete the plan also continued, in which the use of signs and symbols played a
The meanings of those signs and symbols, together with the craft secrets were
kept within the lodge. When lodge members travelled to join another lodge they
had to prove themselves in certain ways. Such tests included their knowledge of
signs, symbols and craft secrets, that this knowledge had been regularly
received and that they were admitted into a lodge as a fully qualified member.
To build a cathedral was more than just building a great structure. Because of
the general inability to read, the religious beliefs were communicated verbally.
It is said that the spiritual aim of the builders was to translate fundamental
biblical concepts into a mighty building - 'a profession of faith in stone and
Through the familiar use by the builders of symbolism, the religious concepts
were translated into pictures and symbols. Expressed in stone and in glass the
cathedral could be read as a pictorial story and the religious feelings of
illiterate man were directed to the awe-inspiring wonder of creation and the
omnipresence of the Creator. In this way the building craft was connected with
religious beliefs in a manner which was visible, and permitted the experience of
religious ideas without the help of learning and literacy.
The early craft lodges with their trade secrets, their association with great
religious buildings, their tools and work methods were particularly suited to
express and illustrate philosophical and moral ideas. The renaissance stimulated
a general surge in knowledge, particularly in the natural sciences and man
slowly freed himself from the fears brought about by ignorance.
It was also a period of decline for the craft lodges and it became the custom to
admit non-tradesmen into the lodges. These 'non-operatives' were men who had an
interest in and wished to perpetuate the philosophical ideas and ethical values
of the craft lodges. And so, over a period of time, operative freemasonry
gradually changed into speculative freemasonry, adopting the tools, the work
methods and the secrets of the old craft lodges, adapting them to the needs and
views of the day.
It is not precisely known when non-tradesmen were first admitted in the
operative lodges. But in 1670 the Regulations of the Lodge of Aberdeen already
mention that non-operative apprentices were to provide, in addition to their
entry fee, a dinner with 'a speaking pint'; indicating the change from operative
to speculative freemasonry gradually took place over a period of more than 100
* * * * *
MASONIC SECRECY TODAY
Though times have changed and man has become better educated, secrecy remains a
frequently recurring subject in freemasonry. I mentioned before that new
brethren in particular are often confused and ask what in freemasonry is secret,
and like to know the background and justification for this secrecy. When we
examine a thesaurus one possible reason for this confusion becomes clear as we
find such synonyms for 'secret' as hidden, concealed, covert, secluded,
clandestine, stealthy and surreptitious; but also: confidence, mystery, and
One of the first stumbling blocks a newly made brother must overcome is a matter
of trust and confidence: that the Order he has joined is a reputable and
responsible organisation and his new brethren are honourable, dependable and
The obligations of each degree require the candidate to "....promise and swear
that (he) will always hele, conceal and never reveal any of the secrets and
mysteries of or belonging to ...", after which he is entrusted with the secrets,
that is: the W., S. and T. of that degree.
Since the establishment of the first Grand Lodge in 1717, many well known and
well publicised exposures of the past and the present have revealed not only the
ritual but also exposed the secrets of recognition: the W., S. and T. of the
degrees: the traditional secrets a brother has sworn to keep. The consequent
paradox has already been referred to. It is plain that a brother must spend
time, thought and effort to develop what for him is a rational concept of the
traditional secrets. It is an aspect he has to come to terms with himself - in
his own time and in his own way. But when new brethren are not willing to do
this, then this may well become one of the many reasons why there is a problem
with retaining new members. Others may simply remain indifferent to this aspect.
* * * * * * *
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
Having had a brief look at the possibilities of future of freemasonry and its
effect on our 'secrets', let us return to the present. After all, everything
happens in the present, the 'now': the time where decisions are made based on
views and lessons of the past, which will affect the future.
I now like to offer the reader some insights into a quite different view of
masonic secrets: from a Dutch masonic perspective. I will do this by drawing on
material I have translated from Dutch masonic literature and adapted for this
lecture. It contains some interesting thoughts on secrecy which require a brief
introduction into some Dutch masonic views.
Dutch freemasonry sees a mason's labour as never ending; a labour, which is
practiced and carried out in the lodge, and applied in the community. The lodge
is a school of learning, a place where ideas about the most diverse subjects can
be exchanged unhindered among the brethren assembled and, because tolerance is
practiced, no one gets hurt. The search is for truth and mutual trust makes it
possible to speak free and unrestrained. The right to hold personal opinions is
unconditionally respected by all and there is a willingness to look at each
In this way a freemason tries to bring order into chaos and he works to 'free
the Perfect Ashlar which is hidden within the Rough Ashlar of his own
personality'. In such an environment the principles of freedom, equality,
brotherhood, honesty, justice and a sincere desire to co-operate are evident.
Dutch freemasonry recognises that the wrong but persistent claim it is a secret
society may naturally stimulate a non-member to curiosity. Wanting to know that
this secret might be does not have to be detrimental, because a stimulation to
know may lead to proper and fitting interest. Therefore the Order does not shun
such interest but employs it to disseminate its principles, at the same time
fighting misconceptions through education.
* * * * * * *
Symbol and ritual
Masonic secrets are hidden in our ritual, are veiled in allegory and illustrated
by symbols. They are there to be discovered.
"Working with symbols and rituals is a typical masonic practice. Masonic
symbolism and ritual present a wide field of study to the inquiring freemason.
It is a field of study he will never complete because off the extensiveness of
the terrain, and because the development he as a freemason experiences often
influences his understanding of what occurs in the lodge."
This quote from the Dutch masonic Guide for the E.A. Freemason shows that the
study of symbols and ritual has a prominent and important place in masonic
education. It is never easy, especially for a new brother, to find his way in-
and feel comfortable with masonic symbols and rituals. But all that changes when
he tries to understand what happens during the ritual and relates it to the way
symbols and symbolic acts speak to him.
Symbolism and rituals speak differently to each of us and, in the end, each must
find his own way. Each freemason must learn how to deal with masonic symbolism
and with symbolic language. Here our ritual books, masonic dictionaries and so
on may help, but, in the end, symbolism is a personal matter and we must
assimilate it in our own way.
Working with rituals and symbols gives the freemason the opportunity to discover
himself, to work on the Rough Ashlar - to become a better man. It confronts him
with his spiritual potential and, in the end, he will discover the hidden
meaning of masonic symbols, and even their most difficult aspect will become a
part of him. Perhaps the greatest discovery a freemason can make is that there
is but one teacher: himself. In masonic language, every freemason is at the one
time a builder and a building stone.
A Dutch masonic 'secret'
In the Netherlands, a lodge is opened and closed in the degree being worked.
Thus, in the case of the third degree, the lodge is opened in that degree; and
not as is the custom in our Constitution (UGLV) by opening the lodge in the
first degree, then raising it to the second degree, followed by the third
degree. Nor has Dutch freemasonry a password (as we do in Victoria) leading from
the first to the second degree, or one leading from the second to the third
degree. Instead it has a password for each of the degrees. A brother must
whisper this word to the Inner Guard when entering the lodge room before the
lodge is opened. These passwords are names which are communicated to the
candidate during the ceremony of his entering, passing and raising; and he is
known by that name in that degree. These passwords prove a brother's eligibility
to participate in that degree. Thus, in a sense, they are secret words.
But there is an even greater secret, which is contained in the test words of the
first and second degrees which I will guardedly explain.
* * * * * * *
A SECRET AFTER ALL?
Considering the contents of this lecture and all that has been written before in
books, lectures, pamphlets and more, the question remains: Do freemasons have a
real secret after all?
We have seen that since days of old, freemasons have used the expression 'a
secret', but nowadays something quite different is meant, something beyond
'something kept hidden from others'. It has a much wider meaning which can be
found in the understanding of - and in relation with - the concept 'Great
Architect of the Universe'.
This secret is a mutual experience which cannot be explained or expressed in
words because language is inadequate for that purpose. It is a profound mystery
which is beautifully expressed by Dutch poet and freemason, Willem Brandt, who
He said: tell me their secret, but I who knew it for so many years
sought for a word,
a moment of hesitation
and in vain I tried to explain it.
Then I said: Love, but I suddenly knew it was more than that,
a mystical significance, incomprehensible but still of this earth,
for everyone as well as I.
It is music, a word, a gesture, a sign, and it shines in someone's eyes,
it is in his heart and mine,
it is the sacred covenant of all that is beautiful, bright and true.
He asked me: show me their secret, but I could not point to it
in countless conversations.
Only he who already possesses it himself can ever discover the secret.
Let us go back to the question asked in 'The Master's Song' quoted in the
beginning of this lecture:
Who can unfold the Royal Art?
Or sing it in a Song?
As Bro Brandt so eloquently explained: Who can indeed?
Brethren, may this beautiful masonic enigma continue to inspire your labours in
the Royal Art!
So mote it be.
Anderson's Constitutions of 1723
Freemasons' Guide and Compendium by Bernard E. Jones
Let there be Light by John G. Sullivan, U.G.L.Vic., 1988
The Lectures of the Three Degrees of Craft Masonry published by
A. Lewis Masonic Publications, 1983
The Freemasons Pocket Reference Book by Pick & Knight
The Pocket History of Freemasonry by Pick and Knight
Lexicon of Freemasonry by Dr Mackey
The Regius MS
The open secrets of Freemasonry by the Rev T. E. Ruth,
19 March 1922
Vade Mecum for the Freemason (Vraagbaak voor de Vrijmetselaar) Published by
Foundation Ritus en Templebouw, 1991 - under the Grand East of the Netherlands
Freemasonry, a journey of discovery (Vrijmetselarij, een verkenningsreis)
by W. J. M. Akkermans; published by the Grand East of the Netherlands, 1988
'...to work with you...' (...om met u te werken...); published by
the Grand East of the Netherlands, 1984
Guide for the Entered Apprentice (Gids voor de Leerling Vrijmetselaar)
published by the Grand East of the Netherlands
Unto Thee I Grant published by AMORC, 1925, 24th Ed 1966
A copy of the full lecture may be obtained by email from the Correspondence
Circle Secretary, W Bro Graeme Love. Please be sure include your snail-mail
address and sufficient information to identify your masonic standing.
No previous permission is required for this lecture to be read at any regularly
constituted/authorised masonic meeting, for the process of encouraging interest
in Freemasonry, but credit should be given to the source and the specific
Masonic students, writers and publication are invited to reproduce this article,
provided the source is indicated and the Victorian Lodge of Research is provided
with a courtesy copy of the reprinted materials and at least one of the Editors
Prior permission must be obtained from the Editors for use of all, or part
thereof, of this lecture or any material from any volume of the Lodge
Transactions by any non-masonic source.
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