By: Bro. J. M. Hamill
Bro. Hamill is a member of QUATUOR
CORONATI Lodge No. 2076, the premier
Research Lodge in Freemasonry. This STB is
taken from Bro. Hamill's Prestonian Lecture
for 1993 and was published in Vol. 108 of Ars
Quatuor Coronatorum in Oct. 1996.
The full article has been condensed to give
the reader an idea of how Masonic Charity
developed from its earliest beginnings and
concludes with an insightful look at the ques-
tion "Is there a future for Masonic Charity? "
Freemasonry, we say, is founded upon three
Grand Principles--Brotherly Love, Relief
and Truth. It is with the second of these Grand
Principles--Relief--that this Prestonian
Lecture is concerned. In simple terms our
early brethren understood Relief to mean the
alleviating of the suffering of a brother, or the
dependents of a deceased brother, by giving
money or sustenance until circumstances
improved. In modern terrns we see Relief
in its wider context of Charity, that is not
simply providing money to relieve distress but
actually caring and giving of our time and
talents in the service of our communities as
a whole and not just to our brethren and
their dependents.
The practice of Charity has been so inextri-
cably linked with our Institution that I would
claim it as a landmark of the Order. If we
define a landmark as being something in
Freemasonry which if it were removed its
removal would materially alter the essence of
our Institution then Charity is certainly a
landmark. Without the second of its three
Grand Principles Freemasonry would be a
different organization.
That Charity was important is clearly
shown in our earliest surviving documents.
The manuscript Old Charges or Gothic
Constitutions are a marvelous series of docu-
ments comprising a 'history' of the mason
craft followed by a series of Charœ,~es in
which were outlined a masons' duties to his
God, his master, his family and society in
general. It was from these Old Charges that
the Rev. Dr. James Anderson 'digested' the
Antient Charges which prefaced the 1723
Book of Constituti(Jns, and all of its subse-
quent editions. Over one hundred versions of
the manuscript Old Charges survive today,
dating from circa 1390 to the mid-18th cen-
tury. The earliest versions are clearly opera-
tive in character but the later have a much
greater speculative content. In operative
terms the Old Charges enjoined the stone
masons to assist a strange mason with up to
two weeks' work and lodging. In speculative
terms they enjoined a mason to succor the
needy and act with Charity towards all
This is not the occasion to discuss the ori-
gins of Freemasonry but it has been sug-
gested in recent years that charity might have
been one of the reasons for the founding of
Freemasonry. Box Clubs were known to have
existed in many trades and crafts in the
1600s. Members of a particular trade or craft
would meet on a regular basis in a local inn or
tavern to socialize and discuss the affairs of
their craft.
Prominent at their meetings would be a box
into which the members would pay their dues
at each meeting and into which would go the
fines levied on members for misdemeanors
occurring during their enjoyment of 'inno-
cent mirth' at their meetings. If a member
became sick, had an accident or was pre-
vented from working for lawful reasons he
could claim sustenance from 'the box' until
he recovered his health or regained employ-
ment. Many of these box clubs are known to
have had primitive entrance ceremonies and
to have begun to admit as members men who
had no connection with the particular trade or
craft. It has been suggested that Freemasonry
may have developed out of just such a series
of box clubs originally limited to operative
Whatever its origins, it is certain that even
after the formation of the premier Grand
Lodge of England in 1717, Masonic Charity
was carried out on a very casual basis, and
that casual relief of necessity has continued to
be an important function of Masonic Charity.
In 1725 the Immediate Past Grand Master,
proposed that Grand Lodge should set up a
central Fund of Charity to provide financial
relief to brethren or their dependents. A
Committee was set up to investigate ways and
means and like many good Masonic
Committees it met regularly, argued long,
presented an unworkable scheme and was
sent back to think again. Their new scheme
was accepted in 1727 and resulted in the for-
mation of the Committee of Charity. To be
comprised of the Grand Officers (then only
the Grand Master, his Deputy, the Grand
Wardens and Past Grand Masters) and the
Masters of Lodges 'within the Cities of
London and Westminster' the Committee of
Charity was empowered to receive and delib-
erate on petitions and to grant assistance of
up to five guineas to each case. If they
believed that a case warranted greater assis-
tance it could be recommended to a meeting
of the Grand Lodge itself. Lodges were
invited to make voluntary contributions to the
Charity Fund and a Treasurer-to become the
Grand Treasurer in 1727--was appointed to
receive the money, invest it, make disburse-
ments and keep accounts which had to be
submitted to the Grand Lodge for approval.
The Charity Fund proved popular and
throughout the 18th century much time was
taken at Grand Lodge meetings in calling
over the list of lodges to enable their Masters
to pay over to the Treasurer their contribu-
tions to the Fund. Contributions from lodges
overseas occasionally caused problems for
the Treasurer. Usually paid in gold it would
have to be assayed, which occasionally
revealed that the gold was not as pure as it
should be. The Treasurer's accounts would
include on the credit side the supposed value
of the gold and on the debit side a deduction
for 'short gold' to the difference between the
supposed and actual value of the gold.
In the late 1730s the work of the
Committee of Charity was greatly extended.
Compared with loday's meetings of the
Grand Lodge those in the 18th century were
much less structured and all manner of sub-
jects and proposals would be raised from the
floor and complaints and quarrels would be
aired at great length. Not surprisingly this led
to lengthy meetings and on a number of occa-
sions the minutes end with the statement that
'the hour being late the Grand Lodge was
adjourned without the business being com-
pleted'. The Committee of Charity having
proved its worth began to be used as a general
committee of the Grand Lodge having
reterred to it for investigation, report and rec-
ommendation, complaints, discipline cases,
proposed amendments to the Book of
Constitutions and many other matters of gen-
eral policy. In effect from the late 1730s to the
Union of the two Grand Lodges in 1813 the
Committee of Charity had a dual function of
looking after Grand Lodge's charitable affairs
and being a forerunner of the Board of
General Purposes and its Committees.
Is there a future for Masonic Charity? In
what seems to be an increasingly selfish and
materialistic world constantly at the mercy of
economic torces over which no one seems to
have any real control I think that the answer
to that question is not only a resounding
YES, but a yes carrying with it the implica-
tion that we will have to dig even deeper into
our pockets.
One thing that is often forgotten is that
charity in its widest sense is more than just
collecting and disbursing money. It is also
the giving of time and talents selflessly in
service of the community. One of the things
that came through in the evidence to the
Bagnall Committee in the early 1970s was
the unquantifiable evidence of lodges,
groups of brethren and individuals adopting
the local hospital, children's or old people's
home and in addition to providing money
and equipment doing the simple things such
as providing a new face, a new ear to hear
someone's troubles and in many cases pro-
viding the only social life that long stay resi-
dents ever have.
That non-financial aspect of Charity is one
which I think that we will see emphasized
more and more in the future.
Over the last decade Freemasonry has
come under considerable attack from out-
side. Many brethren have asked how they can
help to counter the misinformation peddled
by the media. Surely the best counteraction is
to show by example that we live by those
principles and tenets which we obligate our-
selves to uphold as we go through the three
ceremonies to become Master Masons. By
showing the world that we do not just give
iip-service but put into practice those three
Grand Principles--and in particular, the
greatest of all: CHARITY.