In my study of Freemasonry I found numerous books, some public domain, some commercial, some "lawful" and some possibly not so, as far as I can tell from reading my Obligation of an Entered Apprentice. Some are restatements of the official texts, but one stands out for me as an honest, scholarly work that adds to my understanding of the origins of Freemasonry and of the practical interpretation of its principles.
The book, The Builders: a Study and Story of Masonry by Joseph Fort Newton, is both revealing and satisfying in a couple of areas that I'll mention. Not all of Newton's text is new to me, given the education and instruction provided by the Grand Lodge, but his eloquence of expression, the clarity of his exposition, and depth of his understanding add a satisfying dimension to the standard information. There is a lot more to his book that what I'm mentioning here, but three areas stood out for me.
Most surprising to me were the number of beliefs and principles held in Freemasonry that are consistent with ancient sources of mysterious wisdom. The foundation symbols of Freemasonry were used and described simarly by Egyptians and Chinese, and echoed in literature and societies that preceeded the formal founding of speculative Freemasonry. Knowlingly or not, Freemasonry is a continuation of centuries-long thinking about man, his buildings and his place in the cosmos.
Foundations of Freemasonry
“Here, then, are the real foundations of Masonry, both material and moral: in the deep need and aspiration of man, and his creative impulse; in his instinctive Faith, his quest of the Ideal, and his love of the Light. Underneath all his building lay the feeling, prophetic of his last and highest thought, that the earthly house of his life should be in right relation with its heavenly prototype, the world-temple—imitating on earth the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
“It was but natural that the tools of the builder should become emblems of the thoughts of the thinker. Not only his tools, but, as we shall see, the very stones with which he worked became sacred symbols—the temple itself a vision of that House of Doctrine, that Home of the Soul, which, though unseen, he is building in the midst of the years.”
Philosophy and Role of Freemasonry
He goes deeper into the interpretation or definition of Freemasonry, beginning,
“Masonry is the activity of closely united men who, employing symbolical forms borrowed principally from the mason's trade and from architecture, work for the welfare of mankind, striving morally to ennoble themselves and others, and thereby to bring about a universal league of mankind, which they aspire to exhibit even now on a small scale.”
On the function of Masonry, he says, “By its ministry to the individual man — drawing him into the circle of a great friendship, exalting his faith, refining his ideals, enlarging his sympathies and setting his feet on the long white path—Masonry best serves society and the state.”
Freemasonry and Religion
For me Newton's explanation of the relationship between world religions and Freemasonry is both elegant and revealing. He says:
“No part of the ministry of Masonry is more beautiful and wise than its appear, not for tolerance, but for fraternity; not for uniformity, but for unity of spirit amidst varieties of outlook and opinion. Instead of criticizing Masonry, let us thank God for one altar where no man is asked to surrender his liberty of thought and become an indistinguishable atom in a mass of sectarian agglomeration. What a witness to the worth of an Order that it brings together men of all creeds in behalf of those truths which are treater than all sects, deeper the all doctrines—the glory and the hope of man!”
There is a depth to his analysis and description of the relationship between Freemasonry and sectarian religions. Perhaps this is what so frightens fundamentalist "evangelists.”
By the way, Newton was born in Decatur, Texas, the son of a Baptist minister turned attorney. He attended Southern Baptist Seminary, and Harvard University. He was himself a minister, a priest, an author, and, of course, a Master Mason. Here's more information about Joseph Fort Newton.