What Is the 'Mature Age' for a Freemason?
WB J. M. Hamill, PJGD
Librarian and Curator of Grand Lodge
In the questions between the First and Second Degrees in the English Craft rituals the candidate is asked:
Who are fit and proper persons to be made Masons?
to which he responds:
Just, upright and free men, of mature age, sound judgement and strict morals.
In various other parts of the three Craft ceremonies there are references to "mature age" but nowhere is a definition of that phrase given, although the candidate signs a declaration stating that he is of "the full age of twenty-one years" and verbally confirms that fact in lodge. To my mind that is correct, and the phrase "mature age" forms what might be called a calculated ambiguity, something which occurs with great regularity in the Constitutions and other official documents in England. Why calculated ambiguity? I think because there has always been a recognition in English Freemasonry that whilst our basic principles and tenets - our essential nature - cannot be changed, there are many customs and practices which can be changed, and at times must be changed if Freemasonry is to remain a valid and contributing part of the society in which it exists. What often appear to be tablets of stone are usually man made rules susceptible to change as society changes. Ambiguity may be anathema to Masonic constitutionalists but often is the means of saving a great deal of Grand Lodge and Committee time in changing those tablets of stone into workable rules.
Mature age is a perfect example of changeable custom in Freemasonry, not an immutable landmark. From the evidence of surviving By Laws of English lodges in the 18th century it would appear that then mature age was 25 years. At some point in the 18th century the Constitutions and Minutes of both of the English Grand Lodges then existing are silent on when - the age for candidates' entry dropped to 21 years, and has remained at that point ever since, although the MW The Grand Master has always had authority to grant dispensations to initiates under 21 years of age in special circumstances.
In other Grand Lodges the age of entry for candidates has settled at 21 years, though in some with the change in the legal age of majority their Constitutions have been altered to allow entry, without dispensation, at 18 years, the new age of majority. This has often been done on the basis that as 18 year olds have the right to vote, are capable of being taxed, and may be called up into the armed services in time of war they should therefore be entitled as a right to petition for admission into Freemasonry at that age. Those are false analogies.
When Freemasonry was organising itself there was no universal suffrage; England was in the happy situation of being ignorant of income tax (a ruse by William Pitt the Younger to pay for the Napoleonic Wars); anyone could be conscripted into service in time of war, and with life expectancy being short it was not unusual for 14 and 15 year old boys to be pressed into service. Nor does seeking for analogies in our operative forebears work. Apprenticeship in any craft usually started at 14 years and lasted for a period of seven years, the apprentice being at 21 years well trained and mature enough to work as a craftsman himself.
Concepts of maturity, then, are subject to change according to society's views. How then would we define maturity in Masonic context? The Oxford English Dictionary defines mature as being "complete in natural development, ripe; with fully developed powers of body and mind, adult; (of thought, intentions, etc) duly careful and adequate".
What Freemasonry requires of candidates is that they not only be physically adult but should also have sufficient intellectual maturity to be able to comprehend:
- the seriousness of the step that they are taking
- the principles and tenets of the Craft.
- moral standards
- the relationship between their duty to Freemasonry and their duties to God, the law, and society in general.
Any specialist in human biology or sociology can demonstrate how the average age for physical maturity has been dropping in this century. The same cannot be said for intellectual or moral maturity. There are some who are physically mature who may never be mentally mature, others may be physically mature in their teens but not reach mental maturity until their mid or late twenties.
A base line obviously has to be established to act as bar to over eager fathers introducing their sons at too early an age. Twenty one years of age would seem to be the ideal average as that is the age at which most have completed their education and should therefore have the maturity of mind to make serious decisions. But the arbiters of "mature age" are surely the lodge committee who interview the candidate. By their questions they should be able to assess not only the candidates innate worth but also whether or not he is mature enough to comprehend what Freemasonry means and how he will be expected to act as a Freemason.