The duty of aiding and assisting, not only all worthy distressed Master Masons, but their widows and orphans also, "wheresoever dispersed over the face of the globe, " is one of the most important obligations that is imposed upon every Brother of the mystic tie by the whole scope and tenor of the Masonic Institution.
The regulations for the exercise of this duty are few, but rational. In the first place, a Master Mason who is in distress has a greater claim, under equal circumstances, to the aid and assistance of his brother, than one who, being in the Order, has not attained that Degree, or who, is altogether a profane. This is strictly in accordance with the natural instincts of the human heart, which will always prefer a friend to a stranger, or, as it is rather energetically expressed in the language of Long Tom Coffin "a messmate before a shipmate, a shipmate before a stranger, and a stranger before a dog''; and it is also strictly in accordance with the teaching of the Apostle to the Gentiles, who has said: "As we have therefore opportunity, Let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith" (see Galatians vi, 10). But this exclusiveness is only to be practiced under circumstances which make a selection imperatively necessary. Where the granting of relief to the profane would incapacitate us from granting similar relief to our Brother, then must the preference be given to him who is "of the household." But the earliest symbolic lessons of the ritual teach the Freemason not to restrict his benevolence within the narrow1imits of the Fraternity, but to acknowledge the claims of all men who need it, to assistance. Linwood has beautifully said: "The humble condition both of property and dress, of penury and want, in which you were received into the Lodge, should make you at all times sensible of the distresses of poverty, and all you can spare from the call of nature and the due care of your families, should only remain in your possessions as a ready sacrifice to the necessities of an unfortunate, distressed brother. Let the distressed cottage feel the warmth of your Masonic zeal, and, if possible, exceed even the unabating ardour of Christian charity. At your approach let the orphan cease to weep, and in the sound of your voice let the widow forget her sorrow" (Sermons, page 18).
Another restriction laid upon this duty of aid and assistance by the obligations of Freemasonry is, that the giver shall not be lavish beyond his means in the disposition of his benevolence. What he bestows must be such as he can give "without material injury to himself or family." No man should wrong his wife or children that he may do a benefit to a stranger, or even to a Brother. The obligations laid on a Freemason to grant aid and assistance to the needy and distressed seem to be in the following gradations, first to his family; next, to his Brethren; and, lastly, to the world at large.
So far this subject has been viewed in a general reference to that spirit of kindness which should actuate all men, and which it is the object of Masonic teaching to impress on the mind of every Freemason as a common duty of humanity, and whose disposition Freemasonry only seeks to direct and guide. But there is another aspect in which this subject may be considered, namely, in that peculiar and technical one of Masonic aid and assistance due from one Freemason to another. Here there is a duty declared, and a correlative right inferred; for if it is the duty of one Freemason to assist another, it follows that every Freemason has the right to claim that assistance from his Brother. It is this duty that the obligations of Freemasonry are especially intended to enforce; it is this right that they are intended to sustain.
The symbolic ritual of Freemasonry which refers, as, for instance, in the First Degree, to the virtue of benevolence, refers to it in the general sense of a virtue which all men should practice. But when the Freemason reaches the Third Degree, he discovers new obligations which restrict and define the exercise of this duty of aid and assistance. So far as his obligations control him, the Freemason, as a Freemason, is not legally bound to extend his aid beyond the just claimants in his own Fraternity. To do good to all men is, of course, inculcated and recommended; to do good to the household of faith is enforced and made compulsory by legal enactment aud sanction.
Now, as there is here, on one side, a duty, and on the other side a right, it is proper to inquire what are the regulations or laws by which this duty is controlled and this right maintained. The duty to grant and the right to claim relief Masonically is recognized in the following passages of the Old Charges of l722:
"But if you discover him to be a true and genuine Brother, you are to respect him accordingly; and if he is in want, you must relieve him if you can, or else direct him how he may be relieved. You must employ him some days, or else recommend him to be employed. But you are not charged to do beyond your ability; only to prefer a poor brother, that is a good man and true, before any other poor people in the same circumstances.''
This written law agrees in its conditions and directions, so far as it goes, with the unwritten law of the Order, and from the two we may deduce the following principles:
1. The applicant must be a Master Mason. In 1722, the charitable benefits of Freemasonry were extended, it is true, to Entered Apprentices, and an Apprentice was recognized, in the language of the law, as "a true and genuine brother." But this was because at that time only the First Degree was conferred in subordinate Lodges, Fellow Crafts and Master Masons being made in the Grand Lodge.
Hence the great mass of the Fraternity consisted of Apprentices, and many Freemasons never proceeded any further. But the Second and Third Degrees are now always conferred in subordinate Lodges, and very few initiates voluntarily stop short of the Master's Degree. Hence the mass of the Fraternity now consists of Master Masons, and the law which formerly applied to Apprentices is, under our present organization, made applicable only to those who have become Master Masons.
2. The applicant must be worthy. We are to presume that every Freemason is "a good man and true'' until a Lodge has pronounced to the contrary. Every Freemason who is "in good standing," that is, who is a regularly contributing member of a Lodge, is to be considered as worthy, in the technical sense of the term. An expelled, a suspended, or a nonaffiliated Freemason does not meet the required condition of ''a regularly contributing member.'' Such a Freemason is therefore not worthy, and is not entitled to Masonic assistance.
3. The giver is not expected to exceed his ability in the amount of relief. The written law says, "you are not charged to do beyond your ability"; the Unwritten law requires that your relief must be "without material injury to yourself or family." The principle is the same in both.
4. The widow and orphans of a Master Mason have the claim of the husband and father extended to them. The written law says nothing explicitly on this point, but the unwritten or ritualistic law expressly declares that it is our duty "to contribute to the relief of a worthy, distressed brother, his widow and orphans."
5. And lastly, in granting relief or assistance, the Freemason is to be preferred to the profane. He must be placed "before any other poor people in the same circumstances."
These are the laws which regulate the doctrine of Masonic aid and assistance.
They are often charged by the enemies of Freemasonry with showing a spirit of exclusiveness. But it has been shown that they are in accordance with the exhortation of the Apostle, who would do good "especially to those who are of the household of faith," and they have the warrant of the law of nature; for everyone will be ready to say, with that kindest-hearted of men, Charles Lamb, "I can feel for all indifferently, but I cannot feel for all alike. I can be a friend to a worthy man, who, upon another account, cannot be my mate or fellow.
I cannot like all people alike.'' So also as Freemasons, while we should be charitable to all persons in need or in distress, there are only certain ones who can claim the aid and assistance of the Order, or of its disciples, under the positive sanction of Masonic law.
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