Masonic Morality & Temperance

October 15, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Back in July of 2006 I wrote about a website with a collection of pictures of tattoos with a Masonic theme; generally some versions of the traditional Square & Compasses, but many we very elaborate examples of well-designed skin art. That site, Masonic Ink, now has dozens of pages of such artwork, and hundreds of pictures of various tattoos sent in by readers ranging from young, new Masons up to Grand Masters of the craft. In the last six or eight months it’s become one of the most popular pages on this blog, judging by the Google and other search engine hits. Obviously, the desire to display one’s Masonic affiliation has, for many of us, gone far beyond deciding what kind of ring or pin to buy.

That is why I was surprised and admittedly, a little irritated to read this recent anonymous comment on that post:

An “oxymoron” is a thing which is characterized by inherently incongruous or contradictory elements. For instance, a “smart fool,” a “salty candy,” a “soggy desert,” etc.

A Masonic tattoo is what many would consider an oxymoron because the wearer has chosen to do something that demonstrates a certain lack of the kind of prudence, restraint, moderation and temperance that is taught in Masonic degrees.

Of the three great duties that you, as a Mason, are taught to inculcate, the third charges you to avoid “all irregularity and intemperance, which may … debase the dignity of your profession.” We are assured that “a zealous attachment to these duties will insure public and private esteem.”

But, a Masonic tattoo says to the casual observer, “I’m enthusiastic about being a Mason, even to the point that I am willing to do something incredibly tasteless and intemperate to display my membership, therefore also demonstrating that I have learned nothing of Masonry’s lessons.”

Other examples of this kind of misplaced enthusiasm would include a minister who is so enthusiastic about being a minister that he would would wear his collar anywhere he went, including wearing it into a house of ill repute; or an Eagle Scout who is so proud of being an Eagle Scout that he wears his uniform all the time, even when he is doing something that he should not.

Would you want to be a member of a fraternity whose members do not frown upon, say, eyebrow rings with the fraternity logo? I wouldn’t.

Wow.

I have to admit that my first thought after reading this was “Who died and left you in charge of what is acceptable and tasteful around here?” After a few moments, however, I managed to subdue my passions and read it again. What struck me was how this person – who I’m assuming is a brother – ascribed a “wrongness” to tattooing, without explaining his reasoning behind it. The central theme of his opinion, that a tattoo is “incredibly tasteless” and proves that one has learned “nothing of Masonry’s lessons,” is, I’m sure, based upon some kind of previously held perspective on morality; and truth be told, most of us have some kinds of prejudices and biases based on nothing more than our constant exposure to stereotypical attitudes in our local culture. Further thinking on this led me to wonder what it is about tattooing and other body modification that – supposedly – belies one’s Masonic prudence.

Indeed, it made me wonder about the entire concept of Masonic morality. After all, we purport to teach moral lessons through metaphor, allegory, and symbolism. But what, exactly, is the basis of that morality? And what, exactly, are those ethical principles? And how do we manage to go from general principles of morality to those things that belong within the realm of the individual – tattoos, clothing, piercings, hair length?

In the US, the charge to a Fellowcraft – the second degree of Masonry – one learns that it is “the internal, and not the external qualifications of a man that Masonry regards.” One can’t get much more “external” than a tattoo or an eyebrow piercing. Indeed, I’m reminded of one of those old Carl Claudy-esque tales in which a young, long-haired, scruffily dressed Mason shows up at a crowded lodge meeting, and finding no seat sits on the floor. An older, respected Past Master sees this and walks (slowly, because of of his age, of course) down the aisle. Everybody in the room expects that the PM is going to give the scruffy youngster a stern talking-to, but they are surprised when he – carefully – sits down on the floor next to the young man and introduces himself, and welcomes him to the lodge. Apocryphal as this story most likely is, it demonstrates that some of our members actually do that that part of the charge to heart. Masonry has everything to do with being a good man and true, and little or nothing to do with what amount to individual preferences or tastes.

Coincidentally, there is a recent post over at Beacon of Masonic Light about homosexual lodge members, and personally I’m astounded that this topic even warrants any discussion. Again, as with tattoos or piercings or hair length, where in any of our obligations, allegories or any other part of our teachings does a person’s sexuality have any bearing on their being good, honest, and upright men? Judging from the comments left there, however, it apparently does make a difference to some members. Bro. Dunn’s excellent response to a comment sums up my own perspective on Masonic morality rather succinctly:

Its not about me changing them, its about ME changing ME.

We need to keep this in mind in lodge. Morality is not about what people do with consenting adults in private, its what we do to and for society that shows our morality.

Indeed. Those of us with ashlars needing to be perfected would do well to remember this.

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  1. March 2, 2008 at 9:17 pm | #1

    Hi Brother
    Thanks for the good words

    Of course, anyone who doesn’t like tattoos doesn’t have to get one! I don’t care what they say anyhow.

    Most Fraternally,

    Drew

  2. September 21, 2008 at 8:15 pm | #2

    I have to agree, without exception, to your assessment of the poster’s thinking about the dichotomy of Masonic Tattoos. Oddly, I came across your article in a search for Masonic Tattoo art, as I am considering one.

    Eventhough this posting is nearly one year old, it is still as true today.

    And as much as I do not agree with the original comments, I am moved by your final words, so much I am going to share this with my officers tomorrow night.

    God Bless!

    Fraternally,

    Wor. Scott Ramgoolam

  3. September 21, 2008 at 9:10 pm | #3

    Hi Bro. Scott –
    I’ve done several posts about the Masonic Ink website, and so The Tao of Masonry comes up during searches on Masonic tattoos. I, myself, have been promising myself to get one. I have a bro in my lodge who is a bit of a graphic artist and he’s been working on one for me, but he’s been busy, plus he has a new girlfriend, so it’s been taking longer than we anticipated.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Jason Hitchcock
    September 25, 2008 at 10:49 am | #4

    I’m amazed that he would feel so strong about masonic tattoos. But yet he is entitled to his views about whatever subject he feels passionate about. Also brothers Scott and bros. Drew are also valid in their points we must not look at the outwards appearance of our brothers but look to the inside. thorugh understanding ourselves is what its all about, seeking the light to better mankind and ourselves.

    I personally have tattoos before i was raised to Master Mason and feel that there is no issue with showing the world who and what we are. We should be happy that each and everyone of us is seeking the light in their own way.

    God bless!

    Brother Hitchcock

  5. sjburnt
    October 1, 2008 at 1:03 pm | #5

    Great post, Tom. Well said.

  6. Brother Newsted
    November 28, 2008 at 11:46 am | #6

    I believe the distaste for Masonic tattoos may come from a Biblical verse. Leviticus 19:28 – “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.”

    In my grandfather’s Masonic Bible there is a reference in the front section cautioning initiates to avoid tattoos referencing that passage.

    I’m old enough to remember when tattoos were associated with drunken sailors, prison inmates, and more recently gang association. Of course many drunken sailors became outstanding members of the fraternity but, of course, not by the merit of their tattoos.

    Still I think it is mistaken to assume that just because tattooing is more common to day that it is broadly accepted, much less respected, by mainstream society in most cultures. Perhaps in the minds of older members Masonic tattoos diminish the appearance of the craft through these negative associations.

    No personal comments here, just reporting.

  7. November 30, 2008 at 7:18 pm | #7

    I understand the concern, especially with older members who retain the associations with tattoos and bikers or other questionable characters.

    Except… I probably don’t need to point out the various Freemason “bikers” who ride fro the Shrine parades, the Widow’s Sons clubs, etc. Once again, some people place a higher value on the perception, as a clear contrast to what we are told as a Fellowcraft (at least, in the US).

  8. george blanton
    March 15, 2009 at 10:19 pm | #8

    hello brothers, I’m a past master as well as a member of all the affiliate bodys. I am heavily tatooed as well as some of my brothers in our lodge. These have all been good comments and all with their own merits, the biggest thing to remember other than what the charges and lectures teach us and i give all three to new canidates, is that masonry has survived through the ages and individual ideas of man and members. as masonry stays the same in depth it must change to appeal to new members. the thought of tattoos in our fraternity is no different than these so called one day classes. I understand that the older generations have held the craft together for centuries before me, but I feel that masonry is the most important thing I have ever got in volved in in my life. I spent 4 years in the Marine Corps and 4 years in college and like most young men of my time I got a few tattoos. I guess more than most,lol. my brothers at my lodge have taught me true masonry, they do not regaurd my tattoos as any thing but me. They encourage me to be myself and to strive to be the best mason I can be. They know the real me and that the tattoos are just an expression of me the same way that my helping a homeless person or less fortunate creature reflects my masonic spirit in general. The craft teaches all of us not to let our zeal for the institution to lead us into argument with those who through ignorance may ridicule it. Unfortunately sometimes this happens to be fellow masons. But at the same time we are not to palliate the offenses of our brothern. So i say this brother you are my brother and if my tattos happen to offend you then im sorry you feel that way, but i am not mad or even upset. For you are my brother and my tattoo will not change the way i feel about you, and i can only hope that one day brother you will look past this worldy dump and see inside where the real being of a man resides.

    Fraternally, George Blanton, Past Master Rome Lodge 535

  9. March 16, 2009 at 9:58 am | #9

    Bro. George –

    I now have met quite a few younger Masons who are pierced and inked. I try to regard it as a personal style. Back in the 60s, there were huge arguments over hair length. Why? Because nobody had done it before.

    You do know about the website Masonicink.com, right? Do you have any Masonic tatts, and have you thought about putting them up?

  10. George W. Black
    June 25, 2009 at 2:02 pm | #10

    Our lodge just passed a young Brother and will raise him before he goes to Kosivo with his unit. I was interested in his tatoos and noted my own thoughts as he was presented. ( I wouldn’t do this to myself and those are really interesting tatoos). I also remembered that there are other Brothers with some very interesting designs. All of this brought my attention to the fact that things do change – it’s a constant – and we always have the choice to accept or reject. I’m a 50 year Mason and have seen qiuite a bit of change. Brother Dunn said it all ” It’s all about changing me.”

  11. September 9, 2009 at 2:16 pm | #11

    Hi Brothers,
    I can’t believe how popular that Masonicink page has become, we are constantly updating new images and are actually working on it right now as I post this. There are hundreds of brothers in the gallery now. It gets more traffic than my other site…. I guess there will always be resistance to the idea, some feel it’s breaking our obligations by actually printing or imaging these symbols, or displaying them, and others think just having a tattoo is irresponsible and immoral. I’m not a tattoo evangelist, I think they are neat and have a couple of my own, but mainly they are there for me to cement and reinforce the great concepts learned through freemasonry. In answer to criticism I often suggest that a tattoo is not a lapel pin or ring that can be removed after lodge night, it’s a bold statement about your determination to stay true to the ideals and tenets of Freemasonry!! As it is said – a Freemason should be recognized by his behavior and therefore form a favorable opinion of the fraternity and craft. If it is blatantly recognizable that a man is a Freemason then there’s no denying his behavior.

    oh well, neat to see it all.

  12. David Coss
    September 26, 2009 at 2:06 pm | #12

    Brothers,
    With regards to these posts, my thoughts lean towards many areas. Primarily following up on what Brother Horn mentioned. A tattoo is a permanent testament to our love and passion for our chosen Craft. Taking a look throughout history, Masons have tattooed many things. Not only their bodies, but buildings, monuments, and the very money we carry in our pocket. While we must hold many things secret only to the initiated, and outward sign of our love and passion only solidifies the oath that we each took as an EN and continue to hold true today.

  13. John D. Conley
    October 6, 2009 at 10:27 am | #13

    History shows clearly that those secrets entrusted to us, allow us to be a moderate voice, to look beyond the narrow limitations of institutions, and to embrace a wide swath of me, regardless of their beliefs.

    We can, if properly prepared, go underground. We then can still influence in a positive manner, society. In Mozart’s time, Lodges were closed, members forced to disclose their affiliation, and their ties to the Mother Lodges were severed.

    Once you adorn your skin with a permanent sign that are a Mason, you cannot turn back. In order for the organization to survive the fanatics, and their attempts to control society there needs to be some, who rather than martyr themselves, sit quietly amongst the brethren, and are prepared to take an ‘underground’ role.

    Some jurisdictions still have prohibitions regarding stickers on cars, rings, and other marks of membership. A good friend of mine from a Bible Belt area told me such a story, and punctuated it with the fact that if a local person was known as a Mason, he could kiss goodbye local government, police department, fire department, etc. due to the evangelical opposition to the craft.

    Adorning ones arm with ink to mark your body in a permanent manner requires careful thought. Contemplate the past, the future, and the consequences.

    As a past master of a lodge I would never tell a member that they should not acquire a masonic tattoo, however I would urge caution.

    Masonry, like society has evolved. The pre-victorian era of the Lodge as a party and meeting of enlightened people (aka Robbie Burns), transformed itself into a temperance movement of sorts near the end of the Victorian Era, and in the US, this was the case until close to the end of the First Great War.

    Perhaps a contemplation of our history through the Music of the early Masons, and an examination of our objectives need to be included in the introspection each Mason should make as they make their ‘Daily Advancement in Masonic Knowledge.’

    Our organization began as a light in a Dark Age, where ordinary men were exhorted to rise up and study the liberal arts and sciences. They bonded over a few glasses of spirits, toasted their brothers, and made society much of what it should be, not only in the late 1700′s but through the ages to this day.

    Many would do well to understand that the celebration of the establishment of Masonic Charity was sung at the trestle board after Lodge, the song To Old Hirim in Heaven where he sat in full glee…was penned before 1800, and sung in England, Canada, and the US. In the US the tune became popular, published in Masonic Songbooks in the 1850′s with new words, until a point during the great war the new words were adopted with the same tune, as “The Star Spangled Banner.”

    In summation, at your initiation you were taught to be cautious..take those words and examine them, and do what you will..

  14. May 28, 2010 at 8:19 am | #14

    If only I had a dime for every time I came here! Amazing post!

  15. August 20, 2010 at 10:41 pm | #15

    an extrememly well thought out response to what i see as a closed minded individua. you did well to remind him in a ‘friendly manner’

  16. Catarax
    October 7, 2010 at 8:20 am | #16

    bigmac :
    an extrememly well thought out response to what i see as a closed minded individua. you did well to remind him in a ‘friendly manner’

    the kettle is calling the pot black..

    • Catarax
      October 7, 2010 at 8:30 am | #17

      switch pot and kettle.. i’m tired..

  17. Catarax
    October 7, 2010 at 8:27 am | #18

    Matthew 73 – “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

  18. Catarax
    October 7, 2010 at 8:27 am | #19

    7:3

  19. brian
    September 14, 2011 at 7:32 pm | #20

    as a proud master mason i have to say i want my masonic tattoo for my own personal reasons . Some want rings hats pins stickers a tattoo is different only because it is always with you and a part of you . Me getting one is not for the purpose of upsetting brothers or to prove anything to anyone outside the fraternity but for me and me alone if they dont like it then that is up to them the good book does say judge ye not till you yourself have been judged so just so show brotherly love morality and relief and all else will work its self out

  20. September 14, 2011 at 8:43 pm | #21

    Groovy, the tattoos keep a comin’ As long as Brothers are still taking their Masonry seriously. It’s a bit of a debate but I guess all things in moderation. I’m not a walking billboard for Freemasonry, my tattoos are hidden in daily clothes, only on my upper shoulders. I do think caution is smart and valuable thing, but again it could be said, having a permanent mark of the Craft shows dedication and resolution to live the ideals. And for me, seeing them every day reminds me of who I am.

    (great thread on your Blog Bro. Tom)

  21. Thomas Payne
    December 27, 2011 at 10:33 am | #22

    I know a bit about the Masons, but am not one yet. Are not great temples adorned with bas relief? I see no issue with tatoos. They are, in most cases, very personal and important to the individual. In the end, what it comes down to is the character of the individual.

    Thomas

  22. May 27, 2012 at 4:23 am | #23

    Mate! This website is amazing! How did you make it look this good ?

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