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Morality And Secret Societies

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

Extravagant claims are advanced by some of the secret societies, that a very high degree of morality prevails among them. It is also claimed that these organizations are better than the Christian church for the purpose of inculcating moral truth and applying that truth to every-day life. It is even claimed by some of these orders that their systems are destined gradually to supplant other religions and become the accepted religion of the world ; and there can be no reasonable doubt that some of the older organized orders teach lessons of morality by means of symbols and the ceremonies of the ritual. Some of these lessons are probably very impressive and instructive. The theatrical element of human nature is very strong, and when, by the proper use of regalia and suitable emblems, united with a solemn and well executed ceremony, a moral lesson is inculcated, we can conceive of its taking a strong hold upon those who witness it. No doubt, deep and abiding impressions are made upon the minds of men in this way ; no doubt, many a soul has been invigorated and helped on to better living by the impressive moral lessons of the initiatory rites of secret orders.

Try to imagine for a moment a spacious hall, beautifully furnished, beautifully lighted ; officers and members are seated in groups, clothed in appropriate regalia, calculated to make a pleasant impression upon him who sees it for the first time. The officers are adorned with proper jewels and surrounded with appropriate emblems ; with his assistants and attend-ants, the master of a lodge-room rivals the pomp and dignity of an Eastern monarch. But now the member to be initiated enters, blindfolded, perhaps. Attended by a guide he is led to his allotted place. After receiving certain instructions and making certain pledges of fidelity to the organization, the lodge-room is revealed to him. He is charmed by the beauty of his surroundings ; he is moved by the solemnity of the proceedings; he is instructed in mysteries, grips, signs and tokens. The whole ceremonies are attended with novelty and absorbing interest. Under circumstances like these the officers instruct him, not only in the requirements of the order, but also in sublime moral truth. Lessons of fidelity, integrity and fraternal love are inculcated. The ceremonies go on with an ever increasing interest. The. proceedings are interspersed with music, and the initiate is filled from first to last with a sense of solemnity and awe. Many a man will not forget to the day of his death the high moral lessons thus inculcated. Many a man, no doubt, has been immeasurably benefited by moral instruction given under such circumstances. Far be it from the author to depreciate in any-wise, any good that may have resulted to any human being from such instruction. We repudiate in advance any wish or intention to misrepresent or underrate the benefits of any secret fraternity, and we can surely be pardoned for saying a few words upon the morality of secret societies.

We believe that the rituals of all organized societies inculcate, directly or indirectly, a high standard of morality. We believe that the maxims, and instructions of these societies contain the highest moral precepts known to mankind. We are ready to admit that the moral codes of these fraternities rival the moral teachings of the Vedas, the Zend-Avesta, and the Mosaic Scriptures; and yet, when we have said all this, we honestly believe that these orders have done comparatively little and can do comparatively little toward the actual moral elevation of the race. We believe these fraternities are utterly powerless to correct or change some of the worst elements of human character. Organized fraternities, with all their morality, cannot cure human selfishness, and they do not remedy the natural tendencies to evil inherent in the human race. Their moral teachings, like those of the heathen philosophers, have fallen upon a race permeated with selfish notions and degraded by moral evil. The moral teachings of Greece and Rome and ancient India were utterly powerless to save these nations from moral decrepitude and decay. In the fullness of time they went to pieces under .the weight of infinite moral degradation. In a similar manner do the moral precepts of secret fraternities fall upon human selfishness and greed, and they have no power to save men from either of these forces of destruction. A French writer, M. Caesar Moreau, of Marseilles, published an interesting article a few years ago upon this subject, from which we paraphrase the following: Here is an order, which, while it embraces the universality of the nations, and draws to its bosom many of the notabilities of all races, is still compelled to ignore its nature, its origin, its spirit, and its object. It is compelled to acknowledge that its traditions are forgotten, and its rituals altered. The initiated fail to perceive anything of mystery beyond the ceremonies and ornaments of the lodge. They fail to find a hidden meaning attached to the knowledge conveyed by symbols. This society, which, according to its founders, is entitled to a first place in the system of civilization, is allowed to march in the rear of that system. This author goes on to say that the order of which he speaks is one of .the most powerful human agencies for the accomplishment of any purpose, and yet he is forced to admit that " it is today utterly powerless to enlighten its own members, to say nothing of enlightening the rest of man-kind." This language from a very prominent member of one of the oldest fraternities is significant, bearing, as it does, evident signs of sincerity and conviction, and from statements like this by prominent authors, and from some considerable observation the author is led to believe that the facts will not bear out the extravagant claims of morality made by some of the organized societies. A man somewhat advanced in years, and well versed in the history and workings of at least two of our leading fraternities, made use of the following language : "Either of these societies, as a means of true moral culture, is a total failure. They are powerless to accomplish what they claim in this particular. They have no means to inculcate moral truth beyond the mere statement of it" This from a man who, has spent upwards of forty years in these fraternities, has held high office in them, and taken the highest degrees, is most significant, and goes far to disprove the notion that the morality of secret orders is as good or better than that of the Christian Church. The truth is, this kind of moral teaching fails where all abstract moral teachings fail, namely, in intellectual ascent. The mere statement of abstract moral maxims has always been powerless to stir the heart and move the will, and the moral instructions of our organized societies fail just where the moral instructions of Socrates, Zeno, Seneca, and Aurelius failed. They lack the vital element of the teachings of Jesus Christ, and, in lacking this, lack everything. We are well assured that selfishness, animosity, political preferment, and all the ambitions of life penetrate into the sanctity of the lodge-rooms of the land, We often hear it said that the teachings of this or that order are as good as those of the Christian Scriptures, and that if men would live up to the precepts of the order, they would live spotless lives. This, no doubt, is true ; but the trouble is that men do not live up to the teachings of the order. The vital element of morality is totally lacking, and men go out from magnificent ceremonies to their selfishness, their bestialty and their habitual wickedness, without being visibly affected by the high moral lessons taught in the lodge.

These facts can be partially explained by taking into account, the leading motives which prompt men to join the fraternities. In nine cases out of ten this motive is an exclusively selfish one. Men join secret orders sometimes for curiosity, simply to find out what its mysteries are. Others join to secure some kind of benefits or immunities granted to the members of the organization. There is some relief in the case. of illness, or the payment of some fund in case of death that acts as a controlling influence upon these men. The moral teachings of the order have no effect upon them. They obtain what they seek and bring reproach, perhaps,. upon the organization. They pay no heed and give no care to the high moral precepts with which the ritual of the order is filled. They join the lodge with a sinister motive and pursue that motive only. Again, men often join an organized society for the sake of using it as a stepping stone to power or the accumulation of riches. They carry with them into the order an unbounded ambition. They take advantage of the associations which they find there, to further their ambitious schemes. In the retirement of the lodge room, political plots are sometimes laid, ambitious business enterprises are discussed, and combinations are sometimes formed, whose purposes are far removed from the moral teachings with which the members are conversant in their initiatory rites. There was a time when the Stuarts of Scotland instituted new rites in some of the lodges of England and the continent. This was done with a deep political purpose, and in these small councils thus formed in the lodges of France and England great schemes of tyranny were hatched, to advance the interests of the Stuart princes and to wrest away the liberties that had been granted to the people of these countries. And there are no doubt other times in the history of the world when scheming and selfish men have turned to their advantage the opportunities offered by these secret fraternities. No man in his senses would believe the stupid slander that the older organized societies are engaged in any definite conspiracy against the state, religion or social order. Such a notion is utterly preposterous. And yet we believe the privacy of the lodge rooms is sometimes used by designing persons to further personal and political aims. We grant that this may be contrary to the avowed teaching of the orders where it is practiced ; but the fact remains and is one of the reproaches, among many excellencies of the lodges of our country. In discussing this question, Mr. W. C. Smith of England says "The celebration of the brotherhood of man and the cultivation of universal good will in the abstract seem rather indefinite objects for any society in this imaginative age, and there is a' growing tendency for these orders to degenerate into mere conviviality, or give their attention to the support of charities of a mere local nature." The morality, therefore, inculcated by secret societies, is not regarded as very wide spread or permanent in its effects. If the christian doctrine of regeneration is once allowed, then all such superficial theories of moral elevation, as these organized societies advance, fall to the ground in helplessness as a means for the moral uplifting of the race. We are not yet convinced that the accidents of paraphernalia, emblems, and ritual can add anything permanent to the moral teachings of the ancient philosophers.

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