Project Canterbury

The Plumb Line

A Sermon by the Rev. George R. Van de Water, D.D. Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge, F. & A. M. of the State of New York.

Preached in St. Andrew's Church on Sunday Evening, December 1st, 1912.

New York: no publisher, 1912.


To an organization so old that none can say how old it is, known all over the civilized world, traces of which can be found even in places yet uncivilized, that has consistently and persistently taught men to be true to themselves, true to their country, and true to their God, that offers a common altar to all who believe in a Supreme Being and in Immortal Life,





"And the Lord said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, a plumbline. Then said the Lord, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel."--Amos VII, 8 v.

A sermon prepared and preached at the request of Napthali and Republic Lodges, Free and Accepted Masons, in St. Andrew's Church, by R. W. George R. Van De Water, D. D., Grand Chaplain Grand Lodge, State of New York, on Sunday, December the first, Nineteen Hundred Twelve.

The Plumb Line.

I am not unmindful of a personal note that to me seems dominant in this notable assembly of Freemasons. There are few things dearer in this life than friendship. No experience that elicits its manifestation can be without some blessing. I value Freemasonry for the friends I have found in it, and my heartfelt gratitude for complete recovery of vision, of which I was either wholly or in part deprived for the last two ears, is closely associated with the constant joy your friendship and encouragement gave me throughout the ordeal. I recognize in this large assemblage another expression of it, and I feel, my dear brethren, that I am your debtor in love.
I have been asked by two lodges of this metropolitan jurisdiction, Naphtali No. 752, of which I am an honorary member, and Republic No. 690, of which I have been an active member nearly twenty-five ears, to preach a sermon at this service to Freemasons and their friends. Both custom and personal predilection suggest that I take a text from the Holy Scriptures, and consider it both for your instruction and spiritual benefit. A sermon that does nothing to make a man better ought never to be preached, but one is made better by other means than constant exhortations to incline in the direction of his head, action will accord with thought, duty will be the outcome of doctrine, and love will attest learning. There are all sorts of was to teach truth. Perhaps the least persuasive though not the least positive method is that which we call dogmatic. Interesting and valuable as are the Ten Commandments, they have never moved men to obedience and righteousness as have the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. Calamitous as seem the lightings, thunder and earthquake at Sinai, this world has been more moved by the "still, small voice" and tender love accents of Calvary. The utterances of the prophets, major or minor, valuable as they have been and are, hailing trumpet tones out of the wilderness, are not after all as forceful as he simple teaching of the parables, that spoken by seaside or wayside, in ship or in houses, seem to lead you along by a natural attraction until you are irresistibly compelled to conviction, moved to conversion, and yielding your wills in obedience to the Divine, have assurance of salvation. There is such a thing as teaching by symbol and illustration. It often happens that truth refusing to yield its treasures by any process of syllogism will readily reveal itself by process of suggestion. It is a characteristic of the teaching of this world's greatest teacher that he spake by parables. It seems to have been his constant effort to make men see in every common thing and event of life some valued truth, to make things temporal tell of things eternal. The grass and lily of the field, the valley and mountain, the grain and the bread, the water and the wine, the wind and the storm, the river and the sea, the talents and the tribute money, the wedding at Cana, or the funeral at Nain, each in its way and all combined taught infallibly that the life that now is will emerge into a fuller life that is to be, and that every child of man has it in him to become a child of God, and to attain to the life everlasting.

Sometimes a compendium is valuable to concentrate truth that elsewhere is dispersed. The contents of a book, or an index will not infrequently emphasize the teaching of the book better than a detailed perusal of its pages.

I have always regarded it as very significant that when our Lord was asked which was the great Commandment of the Law, his answer was very brief and merely a digest, so to speak, of the law itself--"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and soul, and mind: this is the first and great Commandment, and the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two Commandments hang all the Law and the prophets." Ten Commandments are here reduced to two, and these are declared to be not only the summary of the Law but the epitome in effect of all the Law, and the prophets. Now only see what this means, and how much it involves. He who spake as never man spake, because he spake better than any man spice, distinctly tells us that were we to lose from our possession the first five books of the Bible, and also never again see the writings from Isaiah through the range of sixteen prophets to the end of Malachi, if only we had these two Commandments, Love of God and love of our fellow men, we would have sufficient guide left both for faith and practice, because on these two Commandments hang all the Law and the prophets. This being so, it is easy for me to understand the amazing vitality and undeniable perpetuity of an organization in human history, so old that While none can tell its origin none can deny its antiquity, so honored that though in its constituency it is eminently democratic, the best men, and the most notable men in the world, of all nations in the world, have always and do now belong to it. It is because Freemasonry, in its use of symbolism for the teaching of truth, has taught nothing more positively, more fearlessly, and more persistently than these two Commandments, on which hang all the Law and the prophets. Masonry etymologically refers to the art of building. A Mason is a builder. Architects originally were builders of the structures they designed, and long before they were called architects they were universally known as masons or builders.

Within comparatively recent periods Freemasons were, practical builders. They were, in days when education was limited to a favored few, a separate class of cultured men, whose professional terms and knowledge were secrets all their own. When knowledge became more diffused, and professional knowledge became more universal, old associations that had incidentally fostered friendship were retained, and ceremonies that had answered for the preservation of professional secrets of the builder's art were endowed with symbolic meaning. Operative masonry developed into speculative masonry, and the world-wide beneficent and benevolent fraternity as we have it today became a fixed feature in its evolution.

If you were to reduce all the teachings of all the degrees of all the rites of Freemasonry as practiced in the world today to what might be called its essence, its compound concentrated extract, so to speak, you would find your residuum of Masonic teaching expressed in nothing better than the two great Commandments on which hang all the Law and the prophets, namely, love of God and love of fellow men. Because this is so, no weapon formed against it shall prosper, no misunderstanding of its mission, work and worth can defeat its progress, no conclave of Church nor edict of state can prevent its onward career.

If this thing be of men, it will come to nought, but being of God, none can successfully fight against it. Anything that teaches men to love God and love one another is of God and for man's good. Masonry does this, and I have chosen my text purposely to prove it. This text is not unfamiliar to Masons. It is often heard by them. These words mean much more than are apparent on their surface, so to speak, and this is true of all of God's word--"And the Lord said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, a plumbline. Then said the Lord, Behold, I will set a plumbline in the midst of my people Israel."

Amos was a shepherd. He was also a spiritually minded man and a teacher. Occasionally, having great influence in the community, he would preach, and he preached so well and lived such a good life that people recognized in what he said the voice of God. So they regarded him as inspired, and called him a prophet.

Anybody who keeps close to God, and tries to be good, never wilfully doing wrong, will have hours of conscious communion with God. He will hear amid the noises and din of the world a still small voice at times, and God, undiscoverable in earthquake, wind or fire, will be in that still small voice. Amos tells us that on one occasion the voice called him by name, and that he recognized the voice as the voice of God. There is nothing inherently impossibly in this. God speaks at times and speaks in a way unmistakable to one who living a good life has willing ears to hear. God is a being and not afar off. He loves like a Father and love has a language all its own to make itself known. Moreover man can speak to God. The human can have converse with the Divine. God spake to Amos and Amos spake to God. God said: "What seest thou?" and Amos said, "A plumbline." God had a plumbline, therefore, for Amos to see, and God had a lesson which this plumbline would help to illustrate, a lesson which at the time he taught Amos, and through Amos has been teaching the children of men ever since. I want to teach that lesson to you tonight. I want you to learn that you are God's child, that God is your Father, that as a father he loves you, loves you whether you are good or bad, but if you really love Him, you will learn the lesson of the plumbline and live your life according to the precepts of the plumbline, and so besides insuring your happiness here and heaven hereafter, make your Father in heaven happy, enable Him to say of you: "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."

Let us, my brothers, get close to Him tonight, let us make our Masonic teachings "living epistles" tonight; let us leave these sacred portals better men than when we entered; let us make needed resolutions and by God's grace keep them; let us ga straight to the East and ask him to teach us life's lesson of the plumbline. To do this, "Speak to Him, then, for He heareth, and spirit with spirit can meet. Closer is he than breathing, nearer than hands and feet." "And the Lord said unto me, Amos, what seest thou? And I said, a plumbline." Now a plumbline is used to determine perpendiculars. It is a cord or string with a weight at the end that rests unwaveringly only when vertical. But a perpendicular presupposes a horizontal. From Zenith to Nadir is a vertical. An hypotenuse is a straight line, but is the farthest removed from a vertical or a perpendicular. Horizontals and perpendiculars are lines at right angles always with each other. Planes constructed upon horizontals and perpendiculars. are invariably at right angles with each other. It cannot be otherwise. A plumbline refers then to two things, a horizontal and a vertical. Horizontals have to do with foundations and verticals or perpendiculars with the superstructure raised upon such foundations.

The foundation principle of a well developed human character is love of God,, and the genuine superstructure built upon it is love of fellow man. Faith and practice, right believing and right living; "religion and righteousness are the two essentials of perfect manhood, which the "plumbline" tests. Now, Masonry, that has so much to say about the plumbline, tells us what the plumbline is, when it says that the Holy Bible is the rule, and guide to our faith and practice, and bids us reverence and regard is as the Great Light in Masonry. So you see whether you go to the Old Testament or the New, hear God speak from Sinai, or hear the voice Divine from Calvary, whether you learn it from the summary of the Law direct from the lips of the Redeemer, or sit at the feet of the prophet Amos and listen to the lesson of the plumbline, the two great Commandments on which hang Law and prophets, the two essential constitutents of a complete human character, the horizontal of faith and the perpendicular of practice, are laws of God and love of fellow man.

My duty toward God and my duty toward my neighbor are herein all concluded. These are what you learn and all that you learn, and everything that is necessary for you to know in the Ten Commandments. The one is your horizontal of faith and love the other is your perpendicular of your duty. On these two hang all the Law and the prophets. These two combine to form a commendable character. The plumbline tests both. Let us, now apply this plumbline to determine the accuracy of some pretended horizontals and perpendiculars in our familiar experiences of daily existence. I suppose it will not be denied by any in a congregation of Freemasons, whose pretended faith is belief in God, and rule of life is love and charity, whose acknowledged great light is the Holy Bible, because it is a guide both to faith and practice, that God made this world and everything in it, visible and invisible; also that God is the loving Father of every human being. Experience shows us year after year that it is the Divine intention to have an inexhaustible supply of fresh air, a bounteous provision of food and drink, all needed material for clothing and shelter. It is inconceivable if God has anything to do with bringing us into this world that he should fail to have everything really needful for us once we are here. Something surely must have interfered with the Divine arrangement, sufficiently serious to thwart the Divine intention if any child of His is deprived of pure air, good supply of food, sufficient shelter and a covering of clothing. With such profusion of beauty as we see everywhere in nature, flowers and clouds, colors and forms, we might even reasonably assume that in addition to things essential to bare existence, it was also the Divine intention to give the children of men abundant opportunities for pleasure, recreation, and genial study the better to understand Him, and His ways, and His works. But certainly the essentials of life a good God intended every child of his to enjoy. Does every child enjoy these? If not, why not? What has operated to defeat the Divine plan? Apply the plumbline.

One need not be a socialist, nor to assume such an absurdity as the possibility of maintaining for a single hour an equality of possession by all men, to be positively sure that it is neither according to the mind of God, nor for the best interests of man for large tracts of land in a congested community, or in a crowded country, to remain year after year the park or preserve of a single individual, while hundreds all about are hungry, or pay exorbitant prices for food. The earth is the Lord's, and beyond the point of general good ought never to be the landlord's. The land is to yield its increase, and not to be fenced about for any man's aggrandizement. Any country obliged to send its people away from home is short-sighted if not unjust to allow acres to go untouched by cultivation for the common good. Again, commerce is a necessity to life. Goods must be distributed. Harvests must be gathered and products sold. Trade, however, becomes traitorous when combination interferes with its freedom, and monopoly spells misery for the many however profitable it may be for the iniquitous few. Nor must any lavish munificence to state or church blind us to the iniquity of the source if such munificence be due to the perversion of the Ten Commandments. Again, nothing is clearer concerning the Divine intention than the marriage at suitable age of young men and women, the formation of homes, comfortable, happy homes by such, and a reasonable number of healthy, happy children born to such in honest wedlock. Conditions that cut salaries down to a figure that married men must give place to single ones, who upon such salaries cannot think of marriage and having a happy home of their own, or worse, conditions that reduce the wage still more so that these single young men must leave and give place to young women, are interfering with the Divine intention, are closing the doors to all possibility of human exercise of human rights, say doors to all possibility of the exercise of human rights, to say nothing of increasing the temptations to human wrongs, follies, sins and crimes.

The truth is, we have been for so long a time telling people to be good, and meanwhile ignoring the conditions that make it impossible for them to be good, that we are almost blind to social wrongs, commercial injustice, corporate greed, municipal iniquity and national misdoing.

What we need is to apply the plumbline and proceed to straighten out some things that are singularly crooked in our structure, things that not straightened, and remaining as they are will grow worse, and eventually cause the whole structure to topple and fall. Masons of all men ought not to be oblivious to these faults in the building. They are as bad as Nero fiddling while Rome was burning, if occupied solely with what they call work, they do nothing more than make more Masons whose only idea of Masonry is to enjoy themselves and in turn make more. The propagation of such listless Masons is a menace to the public good. Such were not our fathers. The rolls of public men who labored for the public weal will show a preponderance of men who were Masons. Avoiding discussions of either politics or religion, good Masons ought to be interested in both, and on whatever side or in whatever party a good Mason is found, if at all true to his faith, he will always be found on the side favorable to the public welfare. Masonry is a democracy. It knows no class and acknowledges no aristocracy. It makes every man a monarch, the peer of every other so long as he is his peer in straight living and right doing. Masonry can never countenance monopoly, nor sympathize for one moment with any man or any measure that contributes to individual prosperity at the expense or sacrifice of the good of all.

Masonic charity will go much further than dealing the dole to the needy. It will put the arm around an erring brother and whisper needed counsel. Whether he will hear or forbear, it will even be gentle with the wayward and kind to the transgressor, but no oath ever taken can ever be honestly construed into an obligation to condone a wrong.

"In vain men call old notions fudge,
And bend their conscience to their dealing.
The Ten Commandments will not budge,
And stealing will continue stealing."

There is danger in the popularity of Masonry. I have as a clergyman observed that small classes for confirmation are likely to turn out best material. There is such a thing as the enthusiasm of numbers working more for woe than for weal. Better material and less of it would not be a policy wanting in both sense and judgment. When it comes to building, which is our business, to make haste slowly is the portion of prudence. There is, or there ought to be, a tremendous influence for good in a body of men, numbering in this state alone nearly two hundred thousand, distributed in every village and almost every hamlet of the great commonwealth.

Our newly elected Governor has been the Master of one of the lodges, under whose auspices we meet here tonight, and if he makes as good a Governor as he did a Master, he will serve all the people, be his own Master, the people's servant that means, and serve the people well.

Without figures to fortify, I will venture to say that a majority of legislators in both houses of state and nation are Masons, and if they are real Masons, they will do their best to serve the people well. The same thing is relatively true, I have no doubt, of both Senate and Congress or House of Representatives at Washington. We have the right to believe that all legislation will aim at a better service of the people, all the people, and that no more attention, if indeed as much, shall be given to the already favored few.

One thing is certain, if they are true to the teachings of Freemasonry, the old watchword of the Old Testament will ring through all the halls of legislation to "let the oppressed go free!" My brothers, I am very anxious, especially at this time, that members of our historic society and beloved order will appreciate their responsibility and better fulfill their obligation of public service.

Masons are selected men. If there is anything in this suggestion that runs counter to your impressions of them, then all I have to say is that somebody has erred, yes transgressed, and some lodge has been derelict in its selection of workmen in the temple.

Masonry is not a reformatory. The Church is much more of a reformatory than is a Masonic lodge. The intention of Masonry, its pretention also, is to make selection among men to get the best. It owes an obligation to those already within, not to compel them to associate with any but selected men. These men are selected for companions, companions in worth as well as work. If any man made a Mason does not believe in God, does not believe in the Bible, does not pray, and does not make some honest daily endeavor to be upright and good, he is out of his element and unfit for Masonic companionship.

I need not tell you, my dear brothers, that I am emphasizing these verities for the better understanding by the public of the merits of our order. The Masons who are unworthy are most likely not here. Any Mason here to-night will be glad to have the standards of Masonry placed upon their proper pedestals, placed high. However halting any individual Mason may be in his progress and work, there are few if there are any that would want the standards trailed in the dust. Charity toward a forlorn brother is neither encouraged nor fostered by lowering the faith to a debased practice.

Masonry is old because it is true. Great is truth and it will prevail. Masonry has been from the beginning, is now, and ever shall be for the public weal. It lacks in nothing but a more forceful expression in social, commercial and national life. It is truest democracy. When everybody practices the precepts of Freemasonry, we will need no further initiations. Everybody will be a Mason without any initiation, all of its secrets will be out, the order having fully accomplished its mission will cease to be, and time will be merged into the millennium.

It is for you and me, my brother, to hasten the day. If you and I and every other Mason were what we ought to be, every little boy in the street would know a Mason as a good man in the community, honest, straight, pure, upright, standing on the level and acting on the square, and tested by the plumbline known to be good. What is a sermon for? What use is preaching? Contrary to custom, at the suggestion of others I have written this sermon that it could be printed as preached and given wide circulation. It goes for nought if it does not make men better.

We have come up here to-night to the House of God. The searcher of all hearts knows each heart here; and its needs. I beg you lay bare your hearts to the God who loves you, to the Saviour who is ready to forgive you, to the Sanctifier who will help you. Cease from doing evil. Learn to do well. Break all league with wilful sin. Conscious of continuance in wrong doing, you cannot be happy. Playing with sin, you are losing your self-control. You cannot look favorably upon lust and look straight into the eyes of those you love most without wincing. You can never be happy by climbing over your fellow men, and holding them down with one foot, while you reach the other soiled one a rung higher. That kind of climbing is not upon the ladder of fame, but of infamy. I beseech you to get happiness and get it quick, get it to-night, by getting into communication with heaven. Heaven is only for the heavenly minded. None will ever get to heaven who does not make a start for it here. Our great trouble is that we buy bubbles with a soul's overtasking, when we might have blessedness merely for the asking.

Masons, be men, and to be men be men of God. To have God is to have all heart can desire. This you can have without money and without price. Ah! my brothers, remember that

"The money that you sought for, and wrought for and fought for,
And fought for, and fought for, but could not take away
On your gold is an embargo,
You must jettison your cargo,
'Ere your soul fares forth on its unchartered way.

"What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"

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