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Modern Freemasonry continues a tradition of tolerance begun among operative stonemasons centuries ago.

Robert D. McNew, 32
Conway, Arkansas

That structures built some 6,000 years ago are still standing underlines the fact that architecture is one of the oldest sciences of mankind. Most early buildings were temples constructed by operative masons for religious purposes.

In all the ancient kingdoms, the king was believed to have the spirit of the people’s patron god within him. Consequently, he was not only an absolute ruler but also the chief of high priests and worshiped as such. For this reason, each kingdom had its own religion.

As with many construction workers today, ancient masons could not have a permanent residence. When one job was finished, they moved on to a new one at another location. At times, this involved moving from one kingdom to another and, in doing so, from one religion to another. Since most religions were intolerant of non-believers, as fanatics still are, these operative Masons were forced to change their religion with each move.

Such conditions naturally caused the persons involved to conclude that each person should have the right to practice his own religion, worship as his own conscience directed, and still work in harmony with his fellows even if their religions differed. This idea apparently carried through the Middle Ages in Europe during the height of cathedral building about 1163 to 1609. It was during this time that the study of the Greek philosophers became popular in Europe. With this study came a renewed awareness of democratic principles and the gradual breakdown of the Priest-King form of government.

During the 1500s, the Protestant Reformation in Europe took place, and with this came the gradual decline of cathedral building. In time, according to one well-accepted theory of the origin of Freemasonry, the operative lodges probably began accepting nonoperative men into their organization and endowing them with the wisdom and lessons they had acquired during the many years of their past history.

These nonoperative members, known as Speculative Masons, received and preserved the moral teachings of the lodge. Many became leaders in the attempt to stop the terrible bloodshed of the religious wars during the Protestant Reformation.

In 1717, when the first Speculative Grand Lodge was formed in England, Europe was still running red with blood due to conflict between competing sects. Masons, both operative and speculative, taught tolerance and the separation of religion and politics. Thus they were condemned by religious extremists on all sides of the struggle. The lesson of tolerance learned through long years of experience made an indelible impression on the philosophy of the Masonic Lodge, and this philosophy was an important motivating factor of the founders of the American government, many of whom were Masons.

To the Freemason, it is the right of every person to believe and practice any religion a person desires, but no person has the right to attempt, by force, to make any other person accept his religion.

Persuasion, not punishment, should be the limit of religious influence, and difference in religious belief should not prevent the brotherhood of mankind. To tolerate the religion of every man and still feel you are his friend and brother is a fundamental of Masonic teaching. As such Masonry is indeed the “Mother of Tolerance.”