The Landmarks of Freemasonry

In his book entitled, “The Historical Landmarks”, first published in 1846, Bro. Rev. George Oliver cites a passage from the Bible as a guiding principle for Freemasonry: “Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.” (The Koren Jerusalem Bible, Mishle/Proverbs 22:28). Bro. Rev. Oliver’s book was an attempt to derive an understanding of the central teachings of Freemasonry by examining its apocryphal writings concerning the fabled history and legendary origins of the Craft. What is therefore, implied by this reference is that there are certain distinguishing features of Freemasonry that represent its essential character. The absence of which, would render Freemasonry indistinguishable from other civic societies. It was therefore, thought to be incumbent upon every Freemason to preserve those basic tenets, without change or corruption so that the so-called “original plan” of Freemasonry might persist from one generation to the next. This is not to imply however, that the rules and laws by which the institutions of Freemasonry are governed cannot be amended for the benefit of the Craft. On the contrary, the first Constitution of the Premier Grand Lodge of England, written by Bro. Rev. James Anderson in 1723 states that:

Every Annual Grand-Lodge has an inherent Power and Authority to make new Regulations, or to alter these, for the real benefit of this ancient fraternity: Provided always that the old Land-Marks be carefully preserv’d (Anderson 74)

However, Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723 mention neither the contents of those “old Land-Marks” nor where they may be found. As such, there is much discrepancy in Freemasonry as to what constitutes a masonic landmark. This paper will investigate the history, the significance and the veracity of historical masonic landmarks to determine how they have shaped our understanding of Freemasonry today and what role they might play in its future.


The most well known and influential set of landmarks ever compiled was written by Bro. Albert Mackey. These landmarks were published in a treatise entitled, “The Principles of Masonic Law” published in 1856. In it, he specifies that a landmark is:

All those usages and customs of the craft – whether ritual or legislative – whether they relate to forms and ceremonies, or to the organization of the society – which have existed from time immemorial, and the alteration or abolition of which would materially affect the distinctive character of the institution or destroy its identity. (Mackey 5)

In his view, these landmarks were to be held inviolate. He further suggests in this text, that in his opinion, not even a Grand Lodge is empowered with the requisite authority to amend such landmarks (18). It is of course, a logical fallacy to make such claims regarding the limitations of the powers of a Grand Lodge, to amend certain landmarks, when such landmarks were never defined by the Premier Grand Lodge of England; the masonic body to which many modern Grand Lodges owe their heritage. Nor were they defined in older masonic documents such as the so-called “Gothic Constitutions”; those manuscripts dated between 1150 and 1550 that pertained to the governance of the operative craft. Adding insult to injury, Bro. Mackey then, alluding to Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723, falsely claimed that: “It is not in the power of any man, or body of men, to make any alteration or innovation in the body of Masonry” (Mackey 65). This phrase cannot be found in Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723 but rather, is found in part, within the amendments to Anderson’s Constitutions that were incorporated by the Premier Grand Lodge of England on June 24, 1723 at its Annual Assembly (Songhurst). However, Bro. Mackey published this excerpt entirely out of context, thereby subverting its original meaning; the truth of which had been:

It is not in the Power of any Man or Body of Men to make any Alteration or Innovation in the Body of Masonry, without the Consent first obtain’d of the Grand Lodge” (“The Constitutions of the Right Worshipful Fraternity” 175)

Instead of limiting the powers of Grand Lodge to make amendments to its practice of Freemasonry, as Bro. Mackey suggests; the 1738 amendments were introduced to strengthen the powers of Grand Lodge and make them exclusive. In other words, it is not in the power of any individual Grand Officer, nor any Grand Committee to make any alteration or innovation in the body of Masonry, unless it be the will of the deliberative assembly of Grand Lodge at its Annual Communication. Despite the obvious bias in his interpretation of Anderson’s Constitutions, Bro. Mackey’s sentiments largely persist in Freemasonry today. In fact, in many Grand Jurisdictions, including our own, the Master-Elect at his ceremony of installation is made to perpetuate this falsehood by agreeing to uphold this fictitious principle of perpetual stasis that has afflicted our noble Craft for the last 150 years.


Instead of contributing to the richness, the purity and the nobility of our masonic heritage, the very concept of a “masonic landmark” has been wielded as a weapon against those stalwart agents of progressive change in Freemasonry. During the Age of Enlightenment, Freemasonry was that stalwart agent of progressive change, espousing democratic, egalitarian values and humanist beliefs. Today, the so-called “ancient landmarks” are cited as reasonable justification for the pursuit of discriminatory practices against society’s oppressed, against women, the physically challenged and followers of non-Abrahamic faiths.

Landmarks and Slavery. In his treatise on masonic law, Bro. Mackey suggests that according to ancient custom, every candidate must be a man, freeborn – of no slave ancestry, not deformed, dismembered, in possession of all his senses, “as a man ought to be” (Mackey 159), and a believer in God and the promise of a resurrection to a future life. In truth however, slavery was first outlawed in England and Wales in 1772 (1.) and completely abolished throughout the British Empire by 1833 (Public General Act, 3&4 William IV, c. 73. 1833); twenty-three years before Bro. Mackey first conceived of the idea of his masonic landmarks. It should also be noted that the United Grand Lodge of England (“UGLE”), formed in 1813, considered to be the “Mother” Grand Lodge of worldwide Anglo-Freemasonry, removed all “freeborn” language from their constitution and ritual, fourteen years after the abolition of slavery and nine years before Bro. Mackey’s first published landmarks. Our own Grand Lodge, whose lodges were previously chartered by the UGLE and subject to its post-abolition constitution and rituals; reintroduced the “freeborn” requirement along with the new terminology of “free by birth”, into its very first constitution of 1856, and it remains in our constitution and rituals to this very day. If Freemasonry truly is “the most moral institution that ever subsisted” (Cole 145), as proclaimed by many in our fraternity, then why has it been beholden to the injustices of a profane society?

Prejudicial Landmarks. The errors of Bro. Mackey’s landmarks are further compounded by the fact that the medieval book of English common-law; Liber Albus, permitted married women to adopt the trade of their husbands (Riley) and in so doing, were admitted into the operative crafts at London and York. In other words, from the earliest days of the operative building crafts, women were admitted alongside men into guilds (Kowaleski and Bennett 474) to work together “as sister and brother”; a phrase written three times in the poem of the Regius Manuscript (Halliwell and Woodford 45) of the Old Gothic Constitutions. There can, therefore, be no doubt that the preclusion of women from the speculative craft of Freemasonry is a modern innovation that bears no semblance to the traditional practices of the operative craft guilds of medieval Britannia. That said, the birth of speculative Freemasonry heralded a new era of thought where traditional beliefs were uprooted in the light of philosophic reason. As such, its practices only nominally reflected the traditions of the operative craft. The working tools of the stone mason retained no practical value in a speculative lodge. Instead, they became part of the symbolical framework of the speculative craft and were used by the Freemasons to moralise upon.

Therefore, it stands to reason that the physical demands of the operative craft of masonry were then superfluous to the study of ethics, the practice of morality and the pursuit of philosophical truth; the mainstay activities of a speculative lodge. As such, any landmark that discriminates against a candidate for initiation on the basis of gender prejudices, or some physical impairment or challenge must be considered a false doctrine that does not accord with historical fact.

Religious Landmarks. Freemasonry can only be said to wield the power to “make good men better”, if and only if, its own beliefs can be readily amended in the light of reason and truth. Therefore, it is alethiology, or the study of the nature of truth that is the adogmatic faith of the Freemason; the practice of which, guides its followers towards goodness and right action. This being, the only precept concerning religion and belief that was written in the founding constitution of speculative Freemasonry:

[…] ’tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish’d” (Anderson 48).

It is the opinion of this author that the good Presbyterian Minister, Bro. Rev. James Anderson wrote these words in his Constitutions of 1723, to ensure that religion would never again define that dividing line between brothers or sisters that caused so much bloodshed in humanity’s past. From its humble beginnings, Freemasonry departed from sectarian bigotry and laid the early foundations of the modern doctrine of interfaith pluralism.


The concept of a masonic landmark remains as elusive today as ever before. While it is vaguely referenced in Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723, it cannot be found in any older tome of written laws concerning the craft of Freemasonry. This fact lends itself to the belief that the term “old Land-Marks” might have been a reference to the unwritten usages and customs of operative lodges. Such usages and customs would have constituted those common practices of masonry that existed from time immemorial. It is reasonable to suggest however, that if such ancient customs remained in use, their interpretation would likely have been revised in accordance with the needs of each generation of masons. Otherwise, their utility would not have been preserved and they would have fallen into disuse until no trace or memory of them remained (Pocock 34). From this, we can infer that it is entirely appropriate to examine those commonly held values, principles, practices and beliefs that stem from our masonic heritage and codify them into stated landmarks. However, they must be evaluated against the values, principles, practices and beliefs of our present age. That said, it is the belief of the author that Freemasonry must not merely reflect the spirit of our times but rather it must be at the vanguard of progressive social change as it was during the Age of Enlightenment. Freemasonry’s most basic teachings must always remain open to improvement and revision. In other words, the practice of Freemasonry must be applied to Freemasonry itself. We must observe our practices and beliefs with a critical eye and begin to chip away at its imperfections. A new, more enlightened set of masonic landmarks is desperately in order. Freemasonry is at grave risk of losing all relevance in our present day and age if we continue to espouse the prejudices and enmities of a bygone era. Reason and Tolerance must once again, be our guide as we gaze upon tomorrow’s horizon.


(1.) “The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.” (the judgment of Lord Chief Justice William Murray concerning R vs. Knowles, ex parte Somersett, 22 June 1772)


Anderson, James. The Constitutions of the Free-Masons. Philadelphia: Benjamin Franklin, 1734. Print.

Mackey, Albert Gallatin. The Principles of Masonic Law: A Treatise on the Constitutional Laws, Usages and Landmarks of Freemasonry. New York: J.W. Leonard & Company, 1856. Print.

Songhurst, W.J. AQC Proceedings, Volume X. London: AQC, 1913. Print.

Anderson, James. The Constitutions of the Right Worshipful Fraternity of the Free and Accepted Masons. London: Premier Grand Lodge of England, 1738. Print.

Public General Act, 3&4 William IV, c. 73. 1833. Print.

Cole, Samuel. The Freemasons’ Library and General Ahiman Rezon. Baltimore: Benjamin Edes, 1817. Print.

Riley, Henry Thomas. Liber Albus: The White Book of The City of London. London: Richard Griffin and Company, 1861. Print.

Kowaleski, Maryanne and Kowaleski, Judith M. Crafts, Gilds and Women in the Middle Ages. Chicago: Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 1989. 474-488. Print.

Halliwell and Woodford, A.F.A. A Poem on the Constitutions of Masonry. London: The Old Royal Library, 1838. Print.

Pocock, J.G.A., The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1957. Print.

4 December 2012