Henry Wilson Coil’s Comprehensive View of Freemasonry (1952) is a well-reasoned and historical account of the Craft. The author is cautious when interpreting the rituals of Masonry. He notes that the many attempts have been made to decode the rituals and their symbols are mutually contradictory. No single interpretation can lay claim to being the “right” one, except to the extent that it satisfies the individual Master Mason. Yet, Bro. Coil wrote a concise history of the development and adoption of the degrees and lectures in Britain, Europe, and America. The details of this history are themselves a part of Masonic knowledge that no brother ought to neglect.
The historical development of the Craft must be taken into consideration when attempting to discover the “hidden mysteries of Masonry,” because our rituals and even the number of degrees confered in early lodges varied considerably. Prior to the creation of the first Grand Lodge in England in the year 1717, we cannot doubt that the variety of practice was even more diverse than afterwared. Yet, even after that date, the whole 18th Century is a tale of rival versions of the ritual, attempted improvements to the degrees, and no small amount of sheer confusion in the Temple.
A History of Masonic Rituals
If one wishes to find the true, original Masonic mysteries, one has to search for a starting point in history. As with all such historical study, one is limited by the documentary evidence that exists. With Masonry, the earliest documents are sketchy. It would seem that Speculative Freemasonry took over the symbols and rituals of the operative stonemasons, then elaborating their symbolism. Bro. Coil reiterates the earlier work of Knoop and Jones when he explains that Freemasonry was never a medieval guild (or gild), as such. Indeed, it was conspicuously absent from the lists of city guilds. Each burgh or town in the Middle Ages had its own guilds, the purpose of which was to enforce municipal laws regarding the practice of their various crafts. The Free Masons were not included in such lists because their work migrated from job site to job site, and many of these were outside the jurisdiction of any town. The building of castles and monasteries was a matter under direct royal, noble, or religious authority. Lodges of operative stonemasons stayed in one place sometimes for centuries, as it took that long to build some of these great structures, especially the great Gothic cathedrals.
A Mason’s lodge therefore might be his home for the full extent of his life. In the Middle Ages, before the Protestant Reformation (and even after it for the most part) no man was anything but a Christian. It is possible that stonemasons honored the Christian God as not only God the Father, but also as the Grand Architect, thus expressing a view of the cosmos through architectural imagery. It is also quite possible that Masons took up the ideal of religious tolerance during the troubles between Protestant and Catholic in Britain, recognizing that within the Lodge it was skill and not religious beliefs that mattered and of foremost importance was the harmony of their brotherhood.
As Bro. Coil also notes, the one exception to the rule is the fellowship of Masons of London, who in 1376 were incorporated as a true city guild under the name of the “Company of ffree Masons.” Nearly one hundred years later, in 1473 King Edward IV granted the guild its own coat of arms under the name “The Hole Crafte and Fellowship of Masons” and employing as its motto “The Lord is All Our Trust” Old records indicate that sometime prior to 1620 some members of the guild were considered a distinct group called “The Accepcion” (or Acception, as we would spell it today). These “accepted” masons seem to have constituted a particular lodge under the financial control of the Company and it is to this lodge in London that Elias Ashmole was summoned in 1682, as one of our first named example of a non-operative “mason” or accepted mason. This terminology was carried on to the present day in the designation “Free and Accepted Masons.”
It appears, as Bro. Coil says, that the lodges in general were not subject to the regulation of the London Company and maintained their freedom, each working under the “paternalism” of its Master and his Warden. The oldest lodge records preserved were in Scotland. Aitchison’s Haven Lodge can be documented back to 1598. Bro. Coil notes that after the heyday of Gothic architecture, the lodges seem to have become entirely social organizations, the men of the old operative lodges, wishing, understandably to preserve and continue their close-knit society of fellow workers and friends both for the fraternal bond and for mutual aid and assistance in times of trouble.
In England the oldest minutes preserved are those of Alnwick Lodge (1701) and York Lodge (1712). As Bro. Coil writes: “For information as to the existence and character of English lodges in the 17th century, we are forced to rely solely on extraneous references of which there are half a dozen. These all come from men of superior attainments, that is ‘gentlemen,’ and none from those following the stonemasons’ trade. The first of these was Elias Ashmole…” (58) Ashmole was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a dabbler in all sorts of knowledge, ancient and modern. It is said, but not proven, that he was interested in Rosicrucianism, but Bro. Coil cautions that this is insufficient evidence to claim that Freemasons generally derived from Rosicrucians, as some say, or that Ashmole brought Rosicrucianism into the Craft. It is only possible, unsupported speculation. Yet, even today, writers continue to assert this connection, along with the even more ancient connection to the Knights Templar.
The assertion of ancient roots came from the very beginning of Freemasons’ lodges. According to Coil, the idea that Ashmole was a great influence on the Craft in the 17th century is not supported by any evidence, and that tiny bits of evidence we can glean from his diary. Ashmole notes on March 10, 1682 that he was summoned to appear at a Lodge to be held the next day at “Mason’s Hall” London. He himself also remarks that it was 35 years since he had been accepted into the Lodge at Warrington in Lancashire. His diary evidently does not record any other Masonic activity. To argue that the lack of entries is due to his keeping secret the meetings of his lodge, is to argue from negative evidence. However, it is pleasant to think of the great man as an active creator of modern Freemasonry.
The development of the Craft in the period following 1717 is clearer. From the outset, the Craft was divided. The newly formed Grand Lodge was denouced as well as imitated. It attempted to extend its jurisdiction over all England prompting the independent lodge at York to hail itself in 1725 as the “Grand Lodge of All England.” Whether this was an attempt to rival the London Grand Lodge or merely ridicule of their pretentions remains an open question. In addition to rival Grand Lodges, most particularly in Scotland and Ireland, there were other groups “more or less Masonic” that imitated Freemasonry. Among those we read of in occational newspaper comments are the Philo-Musicae et Architecturae Societas Apolloni; the Apollonian Masons, which may be an abbreviation of the first; the Antediluvian Masons; Real Masons; Honorary Masons; Modern Masons; and Scald Miserable Masons (Coil 78).
It may be worth noting, for the benefit of the American reader, that in this period Great Britain (consisting of England and Wales) was not yet completely united into the United Kingdom. Scotland and Ireland insisted on their independence even though they had been militarily conquered by the English. They still do. This is the reason that the Grand Lodges of Scotland and Ireland were two powerful rivals of the Grand Lodge of England. Each of these Grand Lodges chartered (warranted) lodges within and outside their respective countries. In America this was especially the case. Bro. Coil asserts that the first lodge warranted in a foreign country, for which we have records is a lodge at Madrid, Spain (1728), followed by one in Bengal, India in 1730. Within the next thirty-three years, Freemasonry had spread to nearly every country in the Northern Hemisphere, from Russia to Pennsylvania.
The Three Degrees of Masonry
With this history in mind, we may turn to the actual rituals. My current research interest is not in the history as such, but in the historical development of the Masonic degrees. The evidence for the three degrees is complex. Various writers have used different sets of evidence to make their cases. Did the Grand Lodge of England begin with two degrees, or one, or three? Ashmole, in the previous century only alludes to one initiation, the Acception. Yet, we know that the operative lodges observed the three ranks observed by other medieval guilds – namely, that of Apprentice, Fellow or Journeyman, and Master. A Fellow of the Craft was apparently the highest rank, fully capable of independent work and contracting in a lodge, and it may be that the “Masters” were distinctly those Fellowcraftsmen who took on indentured apprentices to teach them the Craft. Or it may be that the Masters were Masters of Lodges. The use of rituals among the operatives that were connected with these ranks is not attested but inferred from the later rituals once they emerge into print in the Speculative Craft.
The Constitutions of 1723 make it clear that the Fellow Craft was the highest rank, “being qualified to become Master of a lodge or even Grand Master” (Coil 94). The evolution of the third degree appears to have occurred sometime between 1725 and 1738. In 1725 a Master’s Degree is mentioned in the minutes of the Philo-Musicae et Architecturae Societas Apolloni (The Apollonian Society of Lovers of Music and Architecture). This was a society confining its membership to Freemasons but was not a lodge as such. In 1738 Dr. Anderson amended the Constitutions, changing many instances of “Fellow Craft” to “Master Mason.” From this evidence it can be inferred that by this time the third degree had become accepted generally. Some Masons maintained disdain for the new degree since it confered a title that hitherto had required years of service to a lodge as its Master.
Bro. Coil points out that the Master’s Degree during the first half the the 18th century was a “side degree.” He says, “Its uncertain status, so prolonged, undoubtedly furnished an incentive and some justification for the fabrication of other side or higher degrees which broke out about 1738-1740. Among these side degrees was the Royal Arch Degree, which we find reportedly used at York for some years prior to 1744. That degree and the Royal Order of Scotland are, says Coil, possibly the same class of degrees as those many others that emerged in France at this period. These were generally termed “Hauts Grades” or High Degrees.
The tendency of Scotland to ally itself with France whenever the latter country was at war with England may explain why “Eccosais” degrees were so called. In addition to the political link and the wish to distinguish the high degrees from English Masonry, there was also the general love-affair with Scotland as celebrated by Romantic poets. Scotland and the ancient order of Druids became the object of poetic speculation in the latter half of the 18th century. Two notable events can illustrate this interest. The first is the 1761 publication of James Macpherson’s epic poems about the mythical hero Fingal, which were called the “Ossian poems” because Macpherson presented them as if they had been written by that other mythical Gaelic poet and traveler to the Fairy Realm. These poems became all the rage across Europe and Scotland was catipulted into a place of ancient mysteries and lore.
The Romantic Scotland of Macpherson also fed the desire of antiquaries to discover an antediluvian religion, the pure religion of the God of Adam, as distinct from the one passed down through Jewish tradition. That there was a certain anti-Semitism in this desire cannot be questioned, but there was a growing anti-clerical sentiment at work among those who saw the Church as a corrupt institution that wished to keep men in ignorance and control entirely what people held to be “Truth.” For the Romantic, and the Revolutionary in France, Scotland was a touchstone for the preservation of the pure ancient religion, untainted by popes and patriarchs, and Jews. The Druids became a symbol of this conjectural Adamic religion.
Which brings me to the second event to consider: the posthumous publication in 1810 of Thomas Paine’s short work, “The Origins of Freemasonry.” Paine’s low opinion of established Christian churches and for the Jews is apparent, but what is more to our point is that he attributes the origins of Freemasonry not to the Temple of Solomon and the Jewish race, but to the Tyrian Phoenicians and the Druids, who spread the ancient mysteries of Egypt into England. While residing in Paris, Paine was close to Nicolas de Bonneville and Charles François Dupuis, “whose writings are replete with masonic speculations.” (see: Secular Web) The Romantics positive view of the ancient Celtic Bards and Druids as wise sages was mixed up with Freemasonry in several ways. Paine himself cites an Irish lodge called Druid’s Lodge. The antiquarians who first studied the stone circles and other remains of prehistoric peoples in Britain attributed them to Druids and thus to the remarkable stone builders whose skill was evidence in Stonehenge. By the 19th century, some Masons had started to call themselves “Druids” as a nod to Welsh nationalism and the indigenous wisdom tradition of the British Isles. Scotsmen such as Macpherson and Robert Burns, who was himself a Mason, hinted that the ancient bards possessed that universal original system of beliefs decended from Adam through Noah. It may be seen by these examples why the French may have named their High Degrees “Scottish,” an appelation conjuring ideas of great antiquity predating the English. Those “Scottish” degrees were to become the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.
All of which I raise mainly to explain the cultural and political motivations which created and proliferated the side degrees that were the foundation the the Scottish Rite. Coil describes how these degrees were offered for sale by itinerant lecturers in post-revolutionary America. George Washington was raised a Master Mason in 1753, demonstrating that the Master’s Degree was by that time in general use. Fredericksburg Lodge in Virginia, where Washington was raised, had been chartered by the Grand Lodge of Scotland. It also offered the Royal Arch degree.
Creating the Modern Ritual Degrees
We may still wonder what the degrees were actually like in 1753 or in 1818, for that matter. A younger British contemporary of Washington was William Preston, made a Mason in 1762 at age twenty, the same age at which Washington joined the Craft. Bro. Coil in his Comprehensive View suggests that the degrees of Masonry were performed in very different forms in different places. It was Preston who tried to “embellish and unify the rituals and to fix them in permanent form,” with the thought that they should be delivered without variation. He presented a system of lectures degree lectures in 1774 at the Mitre Tavern, which were later published as Illustrations of Masonry. It took some decades and was hampered no doubt by the chaotic conditions during the American Revolution, but the Prestonian work was taken up in North America sometime before 1797 by Thomas Smith Webb. Webb was among the Masonic lecturers who traveled over the new States visiting lodges to teach them the work. Webb’s Freemason’s Monitor (1797) was the published version of his abbreviated and rearranged version of Preston’s work.
There are variations of the ritual from among the State jurisditions of the American Grand Lodges. In England, even though there was by 1813 a United Grand Lodge of England, there still persisted eight forms of degree work: Emulation, Stability, Oxford, West End, Logic, Bristol, Universal, and North London (Coil 106). Therefore, Masons cannot think of their degrees as set in stone, or indeed as more ancient than the late 18th century in their present form. Some elements are older, but the main impetus for the degrees and lectures written as they are now came from Preston, who studied the variants and re-wrote them in the 1770s into a coherent system in well-crafted language. Preston presented his work to the Grand Lodge of England (the premier lodge, not the “Antients”) just before the outbreak of the American Revolution.
When George Washington became a Freemason in the middle of that century the Craft existed as
a complex aggregate of ceremonies, themes, and doctrine, and its government was beginning to be dissipated among several widely separted, independent, authorities. It did not mean the same thing on the continent as it did in the British Isles, and the Grand Lodge of England, never a strong administrator, was losing contnrol and, in many instances, influence with lodges abroad” (Coil 112).
Washington’s own lodge at Fredericksburg, Virginia had been chartered as an “Antients” lodge by the rival Grand Lodge. This rival to the premier Grand Lodge in London, we now believe, came about when a group of Irishmen arrived in the old city of York in the north of England. There they established themselves as a Grand Lodge promoting the Irish work. This piece of Masonic invasion is a curiosity of the history of the Craft and one may wonder if it was a little payback from the Irish and the Grand Lodge of Ireland. Ireland had long been a conquered nation, bullied and despised by the English. Englishmen in many cases bore such prejudiced ideas about the Irish that they were considered as barbarians on the same order, perhaps, as the people of more recent colonial conquest such as the people of India. For some, Americans were little better.
In any case, it is probably the Scottish and Irish colonists of Virginia that made the rival grand lodges so prominent. However, this situation was not by any means unusual. At the time, the whole idea of grand lodges and their authority was still new – a thing established within living memory – and there was nothing like the system of territorial jurisdictions we enjoy today in the United States. The result was that Preston’s revisions of the work offered a much-needed attempt to establish a unified and universal Masonic ritual. The idea was eagerly taken up in America by Thomas Smith Webb, a young Mason who, in 1797, published The Freemason’s Monitor, or Illustrations of Masonry.
This monitor became very influential over American Masonry, which was what we now call the York Rite, partly because of the strong influence of the Antients version of ritual in North America. Webb was only a small boy when Preston published his own Illustrations of Masonry. It is worth noting that both of these men entered the Craft at age 21, as Washington did, and both were printers. If we may take Preston and Webb as examples, the young Masons of that day were notably active in the reformation of the Craft and were motivated to improve it and to restore it to an imagined dignity that had been lost.
It is instructive for us today to read that in the 1770s William Preston saw Masonry as having fallen from its higher purposes through the admission of men who were not “duly and truly prepared” to take on serious spiritual self-improvement. He complained that Masons had urged their friends to join and established a body of Masons who were only interested in the festive board and the morality of the Craft in the form of common platitudes. His desire to restore the dignity and beauty of the rituals has much of the same flavor as the Observance movement today which offers much the same complaints about the dedication of the members of the Order. The desire to reform Masonry to be more dignified and serious and for its members to be more deeply dedicated to applying those lectures and rituals has been a perennial desire from nearly the beginning of the speculative Craft.
Too Many Masons?
There may have been no Golden Age of Masonry at all. Or it may be that Masonry prior to the founding of the first grand lodge, before it became popular socially, had been taken more seriously. The ritual secrecy certainly would suggest that Masons began by taking the work of the lodge as something for which they would risk their lives. By the Age of Enlightenment, the fear of persecution by the Church was largely lifted, even though some Church leaders continued to denounce and condemn the Order. Masons continued to be criticized and even villified by some people, but for the most part men joining the Craft in this period were not risking their lives to do so. On the contrary, in England and her colonies the fraternity was becoming so popular that Masons such as Preston felt that too many candidates for the degrees were being admitted only because they were friends of members.
The upshot of this history lesson is that what we are doing today, in attempting to reform Masonry by pointing out what it actually tells us to do, has been done before. In a different way, it may be that the creation of the Royal Arch, Cryptic Degrees, Templars, and Scottish Rite were also attempts to make Masonry more serious. At least for some Masons, the reaction to the dilluted respect for the Craft degrees was to add more degrees, to make it increasingly harder to progress to the “top” or the “end” of Masonry. Grade inflation.
Unfortunately, that approach was predicated on the idea that Masonic “work” consisted mostly in going through ceremonies of initiation. The initiation was neither earned by any sort of spiritual or moral progress within the previous degree, nor did it obligate the initiate to any actual new work. The high degrees became nothing more than a way for Masons to compete with their brothers for laurels and fancy titles. Titles, moreover, that were not earned so much as simply purchased or given to famous people as an honor. In America this effect took on a new dimension. The young United States of America had banned all knighoods, titles of nobility, and such honors as had formed the European aristocracy. Masonic knighthoods filled a desire to keep those things and even the white lambskin apron may have been seen as simply another of this sort of honor – even a hereditary honor as the sons of Masons joined the fraternity. The the first degree ritual says that the white lambskin apron is a higher honor than any knighthood or chivalric order given by “king, prince, or potentate.” For American ears, this could be read in just the opposite way it was intended, to mean that the badge of a Mason was an honor like those knighthoods, a whole new aristocracy no more actually based upon merit than the old one.
So, we find ourselves today. A man may be made a Mason because his friends believe him to be a good man with a desire to improve himself. Alternatively, they may simply believe him to be clubbable and decent enough to be worthy of joining an elite society of men who congratulate each other on their virtues. Neither motive is bad, but they are to some extent mutually exclusive. The serioius supplicant seeking true enlightenment and wishing to be instructed in a system of self-actualization, one who is actually seeking the Mysteries, will be sadly disappointed at a lodge that is full of brothers who, however jolly, do not understand the Work beyond its mere verbatim repetition.
I have witnessed a degree so full of errors and sloppiness that I was embarassed for the candidate. The brethren were not on their best form with the exception of the Worshipful Master and the Past Master who delivered the long Sr. Deacon’s lecture. The Master made a few mistakes yet carried them off with dignity, except for one flub that caused him to laugh nervously as he corrected himself. Such a tiny thing as a nervous laugh or a “sorry” preceding a correction may seem forgivable, but it nevertheless shatters the seriousness and dignity of the ceremony – especially for the candidtate.
We become so used to the performance of these ceremonies that we are only concerned with whether the actors get their lines right. It is a focus upon the surface of the ritual – the words and actions – rather than maintaining the necessary calm and serious focus upon the initiation itself. What I mean by that is the emotional engagement with the ritual that causes transformation in the soul of the candidate. Compare it to a play in the theater. If the actors flubbed their lines and apologized to the audience, the spell of the drama would be broken. It is one of the first rules of acting that you must carry on as if nothing had happened – stay in character.
Even more disappointing than the flubbed lines, are the interjections from the sidelines at every mistake. No one should ever, ever, ever interrupt the a ritual with corrections, no matter how serious may be the error, unless the actor speaking looks to them for a prompt. In such cases prompts must be given in a low voice only by one person, and the actor continue as if nothing had happened. To have two or three past masters correcting the actors in the ritual of initiation is not only disruptive but disrespectful. Such interjections are disrespectful to the candidate and also to the Craft itself. For the Craft is more than a lot of words. The Craft is a profound spiritual awakening for the candidate and every brother present must be focussed on the candidate’s needs. That is the whole purpose of the ritual – the awakening of the candidate spiritually and his dedication to a serious commitment to his own soul-work.
Which brings me to another observation, a conundrum for me and for other brothers no doubt. We have so much respect for past masters and those who have preceded us in Masonry that we are afraid to correct them for their behavior. How does a Mason of five years tell a Mason of twenty years that he is making an egregious mistake. That politeness and perhaps fear of the past masters must somehow be overcome if we are ever to reform the Craft.
Historically, what has happened is that the Craft degrees have come to be treated as nothing more than words without understanding the psychology of ritual and its power to change a person’s life. Because of this, they are not satisfactory to new brothers. In each cycle of initiations (of which there are far too many), the whole process is treated mechanically. We are nothing but a “degree mill” and it is hardly surprising that 90% of our members choose to never attend their blue lodge again.
Were it not for the requirement that one be in good standing in one’s Craft Lodge to maintain membership in the Scottish Rite, the Templars, and the Shrine, I doubt very much if that 90% would continue paying their dues. Only those few brothers who derive some pleasure from the perpetuation of the rituals, bother to continue as active lodge members. Yet, the same attrition occurs in the “higher” degrees also and for much the same reasons. Men whose souls are not fed by an organization, will drop out. Even if they maintain a polite respect for the institution and continue paying their dues, they see no reason to come to lodge.
The result is that the only forces left to motivate a Mason to continue in the Craft at all is the love of the friends they have made or the love of perpetuating rituals from generation to generation for their own sake. This leaves the active membership of Freemasonry in the hands of a curious group of brothers who enjoy camraderie and getting the words right, thus passing on the rituals intact through the centuries. The camraderie is all well and good, as is the giving money to charity that has come to preoccupy Masons.
No doubt writing a check to a charity has some small effect on one’s soul. But the initiations and the work of the three degrees is forgotten. There is a word for this kind of behavior: superstition. Ritual words and actions are practiced because one believes they have some magical efficacy in themselves, but the real purpose of the rituals and the concentration of thoughts and emotions that is required to actually make them effective is forgotten. So also seems to be the simple comprehension of instructions to act. Worse still, lost is the ability to teach new brothers in the Craft.
We as speculative Masons do not teach the art of building in stone, but that absence of teaching stonemasonry seems to have extended also to teaching speculative Masonry. It is as if Masons believe that merely listening to the rituals of initiation, repeating words and actions in a ritualistic manner, is all the teaching that is required. Lectures have been memorized but those lectures are couched in symbolic language. When we hear, for example, in one of the lectures why the candidate is dressed in curious clothes, part of the explanation says that the reason for being “neither barefoot nor shod” (i.e., one shoe off, the other bare) is an allusion to “an ancient Israelitish custom” in which a man would pluck off one of his shoes and give it to another as a symbol of the pledge of fidelity he made. The sense is that when borrowing money from another, the single shoe was given as collateral, to be returned when the debt was paid.
Quaint custom. I bet there is more to the symbolism even in the original example, but I am certain there is more to the symbolism in Masonry. For in the second degree the candidate is again prepared with one shoe on and one off, but it is the other shoe – the right instead of the left. How does the Biblical story explain this fact? No, the initial explanation offered to the candidate merely gives a superficial meaning. The candidate himself is expected to search for its deep meaning, and to be aided in that search by the Masters. Master’s teach apprentices – not in one single lesson, but every day, helping them to improve their practice of the craft. A lecture that gives superficial answers and is then followed by no further instruction, is a blind. The apprentice who accepts the superficial answer and looks no further is still in darkness.
The shoe episode hints that Masonic shoelessness indicates obligation. The obligation which the apprentice takes to observe the craft and keep is sacred. He does, literally get his shoe back when he has taken his entered apprentice obligation at the altar of Masonry. But that seems a bit silly if that is all it was for. No, we must look deeper. Consider that “neither barefoot nor shod” is part of a whole costume that also includes “neither naked nor clad.” The initiatic clothing and its arrangement is symbolic, not silly. If done aright, the candidate should have his left arm and breast exposed by having his left arm pulled out of his shirtsleeve. His left knee is exposed by having that trouser leg either rolled up or removed below the knee. The nakedness of his hands is also emphasized, and finally there is a rope around his neck. The last of these symbols can only mean that he has been prepared to die, to be hanged, like a criminal. It alludes to death symbolically. He is about to die to his old life and be reborn to a new life as a Mason.
Now if Masonry is only about writing checks to charity and attending pancake breakfast fundraisers, it seems silly to take this “rebirth” so dramatically. The true meaning of what it is to be a Mason has been lost or ignored. It is, after all, right there is the instructions of the ritual and lectures, so “ignored” seems the more appropriate word. The rope or “cable tow” as it is called is sometimes likened to the rope used by stonemasons to raise and lower the stones into place, which would suggest that the candidate is symbolically a stone. Which we are told elsewhere in the ritual. He is the rough ashlar, unshaped and possibly unworthy. He must have is rough corners knocked off by the craftsman’s gavel, and be tested for his own structural integrity before he can be passed on to the next stage in building the symbolic temple. The Masters must judge his integrity. Ultimately the perfection of the “perfect ashlar” means that he has been “fitted for the Builder’s use.” The Builder is God and the Temple, the spiritual unity and universality of mankind. But the Builder is also the apprentice himself once he moves up to become a Fellowcraftsman and a Master.
So much for the rope. What of the half and half manner of dress. It is symbolic of his being only partially prepared. He is half-ready to receive instruction. He is in a place that is neither this nor that, here nor there, on a threshhold of transformation that is symbolized by being half dressed. In the third degree he is even more undressed, which makes me believe that his clothing is that which conceals the true man. He is in a state of undress. In the old days, he would be in his own shirt and drawers, but that state was then a state of unusual intimacy. No man would appear before his friends in such a state of undress. Even common working men would wear more than a shirt in the 18th century. To be so ill-clothed suggested more that status of a slave, or a man extremely destitute. And tht is the symbolism of it. Destitute, but at the same time closer to the true inner man, closer to the innocent nakedness of Adam in Eden. Nakedness, even of hands and knees, symbolizes that one is vulnerable, but also that one is in direct contact with whatever one is doing. The sense of touch is invoked – a sense that will be discussed more when the apprentice attains the second degree of Masonry.
The emphasis on memorizing the languge of Masonic ritual seems to have had the unintended affect of focusing the attention of the brothers on the superficial aspects of Masonry and not on the depths. We are taught in the second degree initiation that in geometry a superficies is a figure of two dimensions and that a figure of three dimensions (the mystic number three) is a solid. We do well as Masons if we heed this seemingly simple fact of geometry and apply it to our spiritual work. If we are only superficial in the recitation and repetition of our liturgies and never deepen our experience to the depths of the soul, we have failed to become solid Masons and the Temple which we are ordered to build is left as nothing more than a flat floorplan. Masonry is not merely Geometry; it is applied Geometry. To build we must build in three dimensions and so comprehend the depth of meaning of each and every symbol within our rites. Our rites are not “worship” as in church; they are instructions meant to be followed. They are the tools and skills of the speculative Craft.
Coil, Henry Wilson. A Comprehensive View of Freemasonry. Macoy, 1973 (Originally 1952).
Secular Web editor’s note to Paine’s “Origin of Freemasonry” extracted postumously from the drafts of the third part of The Age of Reason. First published in 1810 redacted to supress anti-Christian sentiments. Restored version published in 1818. Accessed 2/6/2012.
I am currently reading a book by Bro. Andrew Hammer titled Observing the Craft: The Pursuit of Excellence in Masonic Labour and Observance (Mindhive Books, 2010). Too bad I did not find this book two years ago! It is the most lucid presentation of what Masons ought to be doing in their lodges that I have yet read. Bro. Hammer’s assessment of Freemasonry and the thick encrustation of appendant, concordant and adoptive rites is forthright, honest, and a challenge to all Masons. He makes the very important point that all of these additional organizations have been added on for their own purposes and are not, in fact, Freemasonry. The “Scottish” Rite, the American “York” Rite, and so forth were invented by Masons, and require members to be Masons, but they are not in themselves Masonry. Only the degrees and work of the Craft Lodge, the Symbolic Lodge is Freemasonry.
Distracting from the Craft
Having grasped that point, one naturally wonders, why were all these other organizations created? One thing is certain: none of them help the newly made Master Mason to understand the work of the Craft Lodge. The Scottish Rite calls itself the “university” of Freemasonry, as if the Craft Lodge degrees are only High School (or worse, Elementary School). While the 29 degrees offered by the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite are fascinating in themselves, they are not Freemasonry. They are an independent order that Freemasons may join. The “university” terminology applied to a system of “degrees” is almost bound to be misundestood. It implies that the 29 S.R. degrees are in some way a progression to greater knowledge or accomplishment.
If the degrees were (like the three Craft degrees in the Scottish Rite system) performed with only one candidate at a time, and if each degree expected its initiates to attend a lodge of that degree and actually do Masonic work in those lodges, then the Scottish Rite could be considered a sort of Masonry. But it would take many years to reach the 32nd degree, and one might end up obligated to attend 30 different lodge meetings every month. One a day. Unquestionably such a system of Masonry would be a huge commitment and would consume a brothers time completely.
This is perhaps why the Scottish Rite evolved differently. As Bro. Hammer observes, the history of the “Scottish” Rite started in France and spread to North America. There is actually nothing Scottish about it. It began with the degree mania of French Freemasons. A fad emerged in the 18th century for some brothers to create new degrees and sell them to other brothers for a price. In the early days a Master Mason might take the eighteenth degree without ever having taken any degrees numbered four to seventeen. The acquisition of French “higher” degrees was haphazard. Initially, they were simply a commodity and there were hundreds of them. This sort of Masonry was what Bro. Hammer rightly calls “the world’s first degree mill.”
When the Scottish Rite was reorganized in America by Bro. Albert Pike, this degree mill was brought under control and institutionalized under a central controlling Supreme Council. Pike was trying to fix a serious problem in Masonic circles. The obsession with acquiring higher numbers of degrees in numerical order could not but give Masons the impression that they were being offered a continuation of their path to enlightenment. But those brothers more often than not, I am afraid, were seeking “higher” degrees because they never paid proper attention to the first three. If they did not grasp the reality of Craft work and spend time honing their skills as observant Masons, then they would certainly not find the answers by listening to the degrees of the Scottish Rite. For, those degrees were not communicated to individual initates; they were presented like theater with an audience of candidates passively watching the drama. I like the Scottish rite degrees. Some are spectacular. But I have come to realize that it is a distraction from the real mysteries.
Knocking on the Door
Craft Freemasonry is a mystic order into which men are initiated after they have sought out the lodge on their own. These men have come to the lodge door because they believe they will receive teachings that will help them toward self-improvement and toward becoming not merely a good man but an excellent one. If the petitioner at the door of Freemasonry is judged by the members of a lodge to bee seeking entry without mental preparation to be initiated into a lifelong commitment to hard work in and out of the lodge, then the brethren should not admit him. If, for example, a man is considered a good fellow of conventional morality and he knocks on the door of the lodge thinking that he is going to be “initiated” into something like a college fraterity or men’s social club, then he is not “duly and truly prepared.”
Craft lodges seem to have lost the understanding of that phrase. Some brothers genuinely believe that the meaning of “duly and truly prepared” means that the candidate has been dressed properly in the peculiar costume used for Masonic degree rituals. He has, they think, been properly (duly) prepared by the brothers assigned to dress him in the “preparation room.” The ante-chamber in which the candiate is placed before being admitted to the lodge room itself should not be called a “preparation room” for this very reason. It obscures the real meaning of being prepared to become a Mason.
Let us say, by analogy, that you were a member of a monastic order, or a medieval order of chivalry. Would you say that a candidate was “duly and truly prepared” to become a monk or a knight simply because he had asked to join and been dressed as a monk or as a knight? Certainly not. You would expect him to have considerable experience with religious devotion, on the one hand, or with riding and fighting from horseback, on the other. If he had no conception what work was expected of him in either holy orders or chivalric orders, he would not be a suitable candidate. Clothes do not, in fact, make the man.
The author of Observing the Craft argues passionately and logically that Freemasonry requires that its candidates be men capable of spiritual discipline, men who not only desire to seek the mystic art of soulwork, but who are mentally and emotionally prepared to do the work. Masonry was never intented to be for everyone. It was created to be an exclusive order of men pursuing serious spiritual work. After experienceing the three Craft degrees a brother is left with a feeling that there is something more. He is left (quite purposely) feeling that he has not learned the whole business of Masonry. He is not supposed to go on taking further degrees and going though further rituals to find the power and meaning of Masonic Observance. He is supposed to look to himself and study the rituals he has already experienced. To be told, “The Scottish Rite rituals will deepen your experience and understanding” distracts the newly raised Master Mason from the very serious and difficult work the three degrees of the lodge have obligated him to perform.
More is not Better
Organizations such as the Scottish Rite seem to have been founded by men who apparently failed to understand what the three degrees of Craft Masonry were asking them to do. So, they became bored with their Craft lodge and moved on to something they thought was more exciting and “higher.” At the same time, the loss of basic understanding of the Craft ritual and lodge work led to lodges being seen as something that a Mason moved on from, and not as an end in itself. The lodge began to be seen as incomplete. And indeed it had become incomplete because fewer and fewer lodges understood how to carry on. Seeing nothing more in the Craft rituals, they presumed that the itchy feeling they had that there was something they were supposed to do meant that they were supposed to acquire additional degrees.
This goes against the ancient constitutions of Freemasonry and goes against the assertion one will still hear piously repeated that “there is no higher degree than the third degree.” Those who say this seldom can explain why that should be the case. In America we have not only the Scottish Rite competing with Craft Masonry, but we also have the so-called “York” Rite, another separate system of degrees that were accumulated because Masons failed to see that the Craft degrees were already a complete system. They need no additions, and in fact such additions are a damaging distraction from the intended work of the Craft lodge.
The separation of the Royal Arch degree from the third degree was a purely political aberration caused by the schism between “Antients” and “Moderns.” To resolve the differences between these groups of Masons, the Royal Arch was turned into a degree by itself. Originally it had been a degree given only to Master Masons who had served as the Master of their Lodge. To get around this stipulation, American York Rite Masons added several other degrees to their chapters. Among these was the degree of “Virtual Past Master.” I have been through these degrees and have come to the conclusion that they are utterly superfluous. For myself, I think that if a lodge is not going to perform the story of the Royal Arch as the final part of the third degree, it can quite well be left out. (Of course this would make the 3rd degree last all afternoon and into the evening.) To add a fourth degree, as in the Scottish Rite, distracts the Master Mason from what he is supposed to be doing in his lodge. It begins the damaging attitude that one has to climb a ladder of degrees to arrive at the “top.”
The Royal Arch chapter, the Cryptic degrees, and the Templar degrees in the American York Rite have nothing to do with the English city of York, nor do they have anything to do with Freemasonry. As Bro. Hammer observes, the Templar order was created by Masons who wanted an exclusively Christian Masonic body. One can only think that these Templars believed themselves to be above other Masons and that they took pride in imagining that the real secret of Freemasonry was that it was the heir to the medieval order of Knights Templar.
Despite many books exploring the possibility that the medieval Knights Templar may have been behind the creation of speculative Masonry, no one has ever come up with evidence that would stand the scrutiny of a professional historian. The story is mostly inference and manipulation of data in order to arrived at a pre-conceived conclusion. Now, I have nothing against an organization that wishes to believe they have a connection to the secrets of Templarism. What is damaging is that the Templar story and its supposed secrets have been substituted for the actual mysteries of Freemasonry. Again, those who pursue these higher degrees very likely have failed to grap what the work of the Symbolic Lodge really entailes. If they had grasped it, they would not desire anything to take up their time and distract them from their Masonic work.
Such remarks may seem insulting to some brothers who have bonded their egos to Templarism or the Scottish Rite or the Royal Arch chapter. Such men probably joined those organizations sincerely thinking that they were part of Freemasonry. Step away and look at the history and it becomes clear that they are not. They are completely separate organizations each with its own agenda and purpose, founded by Masons who evidently did not think the work of the lodge was enough.
And why did they not? Most probably because the brothers of their lodge were not actually doing the work. The communication of the three degrees had been become nothing more than the communication of the “higher degrees” – that is, the performance of rote rituals preceded by very little rehearsal and followed by no further study or action. No one examined and studied “higher” rituals and lectures. No one was asked to do so. Or if the degree did ask the candidate to study it was in such an offhand way that a modern brother would just scratch his head.
For example, one degree tells the candidate to go study Kabbalah. Well, that’s like telling someone to go study quantum physics. “Go study Kabbalah and then you will understand all this.” Does anyone do so? Maybe one in a hundred. Do they stick with that study for years in order to truly understand it and know the work of the Kabbalist? On in ten thousand, I’ll wager. And, oops, guess what? You have been spending your time studying Kabbalah instead of studying the Craft. After a generation of this kind of confusion and obfuscation, a lodge would have given itself collective amnesia; no one would know what they were supposed to be doing and would simply bumble along, repeating rituals they never stopped to study. Since they never stopped to study and pay attention to what the degree rituals were instructing them to do, they passed on to the next generation only an empty shell.
The Lost Word
Because the Masonry of the Craft (or Blue) Lodge had become an empty shell, the process fed itself. Brothers moved on from the lodge as fast as they could for the other organizations that claimed to offer further and higher insight into the secrets of Masonry. The Scottish Rite is a series of degrees that repeatedly promises to reveal the “true Word,” the word that was Lost on the death of the Master Hiram. The degrees give several different words but none are at all satisfactory and the candidate for the degrees arrives at the 32nd degree just as confused as he was when he walked out of his Craft Lodge. That metaphor of the “Lost Word” is central to Freemasonry and it is ironic and tragic that the meaning of this symbol has been actually lost within the brotherhood.
The Templars offered an answer that interpreted the Craft degrees (the third degree especially) as nothing more than an allegory for Christ. With the death and raising of Hiram interpreted to be merely a veiled retelling of the Gospel story, the third degree could be dismissed as fully “understood.” It would seem that these Masons decided that the “secret mysteries of Masonry” referred simply to this “hidden” Christian meaning. That this should have happened among Masons is truly astonishing, for the very foundations of Freemasonry insist that it is not a Christian organization, that it accords no supremacy to any single religion and that its aim is Universality. The Templars merely co-opted Masonry for Christianity.
I should mention the Shrine also. For a long time, the Shrine required its members to be either Knights Templar in the York Rite or 32° in the Scottish Rite. This strategic move made the Shrine the most elite of organizations for Freemasons. But the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine had been created as a joke. It was created by Masons who thought that Freemasonry had become too much addicted to solem, serious, even pompous and ponderous rituals. Shriners could get together and just have a few laughs. The degree of the Shrine has its own pomp and ceremony, and would seem to suggest that Christians ought to reconcile themselves to their Muslim brothers. Yet, it coud also be that the ritual was intended to merely ape oriental pomp and poke a little fun at the Ottoman Empire and its red fezzes.
The Shrine was not originally a philanthropic organization. It became so after it had grown to such proportions that it has gained a reputation for intemperance and excess (that is, druken parties). Then came Prohibition. The Shrine was in a pickle. Unable to indulge in alcohol without breaking the law, Shrines had to come up with another raison d’etre. So was born the Shrine Hospitals for Children. Wonderful institutions in themselves, these hospitals became the centerpiece of what it meant to support the Shrine. Bro. Hammer suggests that it would make a good deal of sense for the Shrine today to cut its ties with Freemasonry altogether and open its membership to any man sufficiently philanthropic who wished to support the Shrine Hospitals. The repeal of Prohibition permitted Shriners to take up drinking booze again as a central part of being a Shriner. No criticism is intended. Americans have always made alcohol the centerpiece of having fun.
Eventually, the boozing became a problem again for the reputation of the organization and Shrine Temples began to organize themselves in to “units.” These units were groups of Shriners with shared interests: putting on the Shrine circuses, putting on the ceremonials, collecting antique cars, fishing, hunting, guns, motorcycles, flying, sailing, and so on. Shrine clubs were formed so that Shriners who lived far from their Temple could get together in their home town. And then there were the parades. I suspect that Shriners started parading to complete with the Knights Templar. Since being a Knight Templar was one ticket to get into the Shrine, many of its members already had experience with parading and military drill.
Parades, circuses, conventions, fezzes, fun and philanthropy – that is the Shrine. It is a good organization. I am a Shriner and proud of it. But it has nothing to do with Freemasonry, except the fact that it was started by Masons and membership was limited to Masons. The destructive side of that fact was that Masons in America began to think of Freemasonry as a “family” of organizations. Beyond those mentioned there were organizations for the female relatives and wives of Masons, also with their “degrees” and philanthropic projects. Trying to catch up with the Shrine’s popularity, the Scottish Rite created its own RiteCare Clinics to have a philanthropic project they could call their own.
The problem is that however good and worthy supporting hospitals or cancer research or whatever philanthropic project one may choose, philanthropy is not Freemasonry. The adoption of such projects as central to the appendant and concordant orders was a response to having lost any sense that going through degree rituals meant anything. When the “higher” degrees were not studied and did not obligate their initiates to any sort of spiritual practice, these organiztions started to feel unfulfilling. So, giving money to charities (as we say today) became the accepted interpretation of “brotherly love” and “relief” in the Craft rituals. The lessons about the importance of “charity” as a vitue were lost partly because the useage of the word had changed in society. Religious organizations also promoted the support of “charities,” and the word “charity” as refering to a spiritual virtue practically disappeared in the English language. What the original Latin word “caritas” meant (and the creators of Freemasonry knew Latin) was “the love of God” or “Divine Love.” It was used to translate the Greek word “agape” when the Gospels were translated from Greek into Latin.
A Numbers Game
So, another misconception turned Craft Masonry itself into a philanthropic organization. Grand Lodges launched campaigns to give millions of dollars to cancer research and the organization named Masonic Charities emerged to claim the attention of Freemasons. Solicitation of charitable donations became a regular feature of lodge meetings. The state of affairs by the mid 20th century was this: Craft lodges performed degrees as rote memorization for the sole purpose of bringing new members into their membership rolls.
Moreover, their “stated” or “regular” communications – those meetings that were supposed to be the main gathering in lodge to do Masonic work – became nothing more than business meetings. Members voted on mundane matters such as the upkeep of their building, upcoming fundraisers for charitable projects and solicitations from others for donations. In the tradition of every other social organization, the stated meetings of the lodges involved reading minutes, approving treasurer’s reports, reading correspondence, and tallying both new members and those who had passed away. Very few men actually enjoy such meetings, so fewer and fewer lodge members attended them. A small clique of brothers were left to run the organization while most of the members went off and joined a dozen appendant bodies and acquired rings, medals, colored hats, uniforms, and degrees with a larger numeral attached to them.
In fact, numbers consumed Masonry. Lodges were no longer concerned with the quality of the men admitted to the Craft, much less whether they were fitted for hard spiritual labor in a group setting. Because the main purpose of every “Masonic” organization had become philanthropy, increasing membership and income from dues became the primary concern of those Masons left running the Craft lodges. Masons created the appendant organizations and made all brothers accept them as if they were just as much a part of Masonry as the Blue Lodge. Philanthropy had become the raison d’etre for each of these organizations, so mazimizing membership became the sole preoccupation. If we do not have a lot of members, we cannot support our hospitals and other charities.
In answer to this new sort of Freemasonry and its concerns about numbers and money, emerged a generation of men who had served in the second world war. For whatever reasons (and it would be interesting to research), this huge wave of men joined Masonic lodges in the 1940s and 50’s. What they found upon entering as apprentices was some elaborate and sometimes disturbing rituals that they had to get through to become members. This fact made Masonry hard to get, so natuarally everyone wanted in. If you want more members in your organization just make sure everyone knows that it is hard to get in.
The reality was just the opposite, however. It was easy to get into Masonry and nothing was required of you exept that you show up for social functions and give money to philanthropic causes. Because wives, sons, and daughters all now had “Masonic” organizations they could join, the Craft was further diminished and turned into nothing but a big family social club. The actual mysteries of Craft Masonry had been completely forgotton.
One has to admire the men who created the rituals of the Craft. It almost seems that they foresaw a time when the Word would be lost and they structured their rituals in such a way that every man who went through them solemnly swore to pass them on verbatim and only within a tyled Craft Lodge. So, even though the “hidden mysteries of Masons in Masonry” had been forgotten, the words were passed on, and eventually it would come to pass that brothers such as Andrew Hammer and the many others behind the Traditional Observance movement rediscoverd it.
A Change of Culture and a Change in Demographics
What happened to Masonry from the end of the second World War and today? Two major phases can be identified. The boom in membership was followed by a sudden radical change in American culture during the 1960s. In that decade, and to some extent in the decade which followed, we became a youth culture, and the young men in America turned away from all that was established, old-fashioned and conservative. Everyone wanted to be “modern,” even futuristic, optimistically looking forward to colonies on the moon and navies sailing to the stars.
At the same time, the Hippies and the teenagers who emulated them saw mainstream American culture – business suits and ties, working for rich men who owned the means of production, and caring more about making money and social status than simple human pleasures like music and sex, love and beauty. Drugs entered our culture which were stronger than the drugs of the business culture (caffiene and alcohol), and Americans began to search for self-transformation with Eastern gurus, rock music, modern art, and consciousness-altering experiences. The New Age movement ushered in a new interest in magic, mystical states of consciousness, spirituality beyond religion, and a human potential movement that saw men and women as perfectable, saw the human species as evolving to higher, even godlike, powers of the mind.
Had Craft Masonry been still practicing real Masonry, it would have been able to offer at least the men among such seekers a method to develop themselves spiritually, outside of religion, and to see the potential of men and women to become better than they are, to stretch beyond the mundane concerns of making a living, toward actually living a life. One wonders whether the explosion of interest in spirituality and such disciplines and yoga and meditation did not happen because Freemasonry had pushed all of its mysteries into the collective unconscious. When lodges stopped carrying the mystic current of spirit they were designed to conduct and amplify, all of that potential was pushed underground, only to erupt somewhere else, outside the lodge.
Since the 1960s countless new organizations blossomed – all manner of “occult” organizations: druid groves, witches’ covens, magical lodges devoted to ceremonial magic, and many others centered around charismatic motivational speakers. If one researches the history of druid orders, magical orders, and Wicca as a modern form of “witchcraft,” one finds that the founders all of these organizations were Freemasons or had some knowledge of Masonry’s rituals. Most of those new seekers in the last two decates of the Twentieth Century were seeking exactly the sort of experience and rituals Freemasonry had offered two hundred years earlier. But they would not think of becoming Masons because it was old-fashioned and to all appearances was just a social and dining club that the older generation belonged to.
The gap in membership is the second of the two phases I mentioned. Cultural change made Masonry seem hopelessly old-fashioned to a generation that wanted to be modern. Dressing in suits and ties or tuxedoes was laughable to the blue jeans generation. The emotional thrills offered by rock concerts and LP vinyl records, made everything else pale. Drugs made it easy for seekers to get a feeling of mystical union with something or other, and atheism made them feel superior to their parents and their conventional religions. By the end of the 1980s however, all those men who had joined a lodge in the World War II and post-war era were getting old. Freemasonry became associated with old men.
If a man had joined his lodge in at age thirty in 1945, by 1985 he was in his seventies, retired, and playing golf (if he was still alive at all). This is why since 1990 the Craft has seen a massive die-off and fall in membership. The Masons who were still young enough to be active, scrambled to find new ways to increase membership in their lodges and in all the appendant organizations. Masonry went into crisis mode. Some brothers woke up and realized that unless they met the needs of the young seekers who were intrigued by a Masonic book they had found, their lodges would fold up. Among some brothers there was a feeling that ritual was not being performed well enough and no longer had the power it should have.
Sadly, there was also a lurch in the opposite direction. Instead of making the new apprentice’s experience of initiation better and more dramatic, and returning to actually studying what the rituals say, another faction of Masons created One-Day classes. Now, in fact, historically this sort of quickie Masonry had always been a problem. As soon as Masons became respected members of society, there was someone willing to sell the degrees for a profit. As I mentioned, the French higher degrees started out that way. Whoever it was who gave Grand Masters the power to “make a Mason on sight” really gummed up the works. The One-Day-to-Masonry classes we see today do not transmit Masonry to the poor candidates unfortunate enough to go through such a whirlwind. It was really an idea that came out of the method of the Scottish Rite, which gahered huge “classes” of brothers to sit in auditoriums and watch the degrees performed. No one who actually understands Initiation could possibly accept such a system as true Initiation. It turned Masonry into a parody of itself.
Yet, the majority of brothers let it happen. Why? Because they had come to believe that Masonry desperately needed more members. Far from understanding that an initiatory order is intended to be small, they were thinking of the Craft as a social and philanthropic club. Obviously it needed more members to meet rising costs of operation and the more the merrier. They were thinking of the Craft as something like a political party: whoever has the most card-carrying members wins.
De-Sacralizing the Craft
Which brings us to the present state of affairs. Bro. Andrew Hammer and his book, Observing the Craft, lays it out succinctly and clearly. He and others in the Traditonal Observance movement understand the real power of ritual done with deep reverence and concentration. Every movement, every word is a part of the whole, and each officiant in the ritual supports and magnifies the spirit of the others if all are serious and understand equally what they are all doing in the lodge room. The rituals of opening and closing the lodge are clearly rituals designed to create sacred space and a mood of solemn reverence. If the opening ritual is done in a slovenly manner, if the officers speed through their lines as fast as they can, or someone from the sidelines laughs at a mistake in the liturgy, the ritual is spoiled and fails to create the sacred space necessary for Masonic work.
If after such an opening ritual, the next thing the brothers hear is “Good evening brethren!” from the Worshipful Master, every vestige of incipient mystery is blown away. What usually follows next makes matters even worse. It is something completely foreign to Freemasonry, a non-Masonic ritual that undermines the very foundations of the Craft in freedom from the tyranny of religion and state. What is this intrusive sacriledge? Pledging allegiance to the Flag.
American lodges have made the pledge of allegiance part of lodge ritual out of some misguided belief that it will demonstrate that Masons are patriots, and that their first allegience is to the State. Maybe it is because so many Masons of the past era were veterans. Maybe it was just because Americans started pledging allegiance to the flag as a way to identify the Communists hiding in every organization. No one can accuse Masons of being unpatriotic. After all, they were instrumental in causing the American Revolution. The pledge of allegiance reminds the brothers where they are. They are not in England and are not British. They are not Commies. They are American Capitalists.
What could be a bigger violation of the the founding principles of Masonry? For it is a philosophy that belongs to no single nation and is not under the control of any government other than the brothers themselves. To display a flag in the lodge room, as Bro. Hammer says, might be permissible, but to pledge a solemn oath that has nothing to do with Freemasonry violates the sanctity of the lodge. Having done this, the brothers resume their seats with the firm thought in their minds that the lodge is a place of patriotism (interpreted by some as loyalty to an economic system). They have successfully been prevented from feeling they are in a place apart from the mundane. The opening ceremony of the Craft Lodge is designed to tell the brethren assembled that they are now in a sacred space, a temple of freedom of thought, free from any thoughts of nationality, race, creed, or party. The only way to do create that place and the state of mind it is designed to evoke is to remove any symbols or pictures that are not strictly Masonic.
Taking my lodge as an example of this problem, it has long been irritating to me that our lodge room is actually set up as an OES chapter room. Someone in the lodge at some point decided that the lodge room was to accommodate this other organization rather than Freemasonry. The Sr. Warden’s grand chair is placed in the north and where the Sr. Warden’s chair should be, there are two ordinary chairs. The Order of the Eastern Star was invented by a Mason and Masons often join it, but it is not Freemasonry and it has absolutely no right to move the furniture of the Craft Lodge. Our brothers three hundred years ago would be shocked and appalled at such a state of things. For them the Masonic lodge was a room which supported in its every detail the work of Masonry.
Another distracting intrusion in our lodge room is a large painting representing Ruth clinging to her mother-in-law Naomi, while the old woman’s other daughter-in-la, Orpah, departs back to her people, the Moabites. It is a wonderful story from the Bible about loyalty and love between women. It is a great story, just as the OES is a fine ritual order for women, but it is not Freemasonry. The OES is far more connected to the Christian Bible than is Masonry, which is supposed to take no sides and favor no religion over another. To have this painting in the lodge room is inappropriate and detracts from its Masonic character. Similarly in our lodge there is an illuminated square and compasses with the letter G over the Master’s chair in the East, but the five-pointed star of the OES is attached to it as a part of the same light fixture. One light is lit during Lodge meetings, the other during meetings of the OES chapter.
In such a lodge room, so muddied with non-Masonic symbols and failing to conform to the prescribed layout of a lodge room, it is not possible to do real Masonic work. Not possible because of the improper symbolism, but also not possible because clearly the men who have allowed this state of affairs do not understand what the lodge room is for and the importance of its configuration and dedication to the Craft. It comes as no surprise that what occurs next after the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America is a completely profane “meeting.” In such a profaned room we begin with a casual and jocular statement of business, which is treated with no special solemnity even if the business is the confering of the degrees. Balloting might be conducted seriously, but even here, it is more likely that brothers on the side lines will be whispering to each other.
It is a sign of how profane the Masonic Lodge has become that Masters of the Lodge have to remind the brothers to turn off their cell phones. Think about it for a moment and I think you will agree that even bringing a telephone into the lodge room is a profanation of the space utterly at odds with Masonic philosophy. We are to leave the world behind and enter into something else, a place in which we seek to perfect ourselves. As with the candidate, every brother must divest himself of all “metals.” That is, of all mundane, earthy matters. Only then will he be able to enter the frame of mind necessary to engage in the observance of Masonic philosophy.
Researching the history of my lodge, Lake Harriet No. 277 of Minnesota, has expanded my understanding of the past 100 years of the Craft. It is an ongoing project and I have been reading through the back issues of the Lake Harriet Herald, our lodge newsletter. It has illuminated the many things I do not like about my lodge. Foremost among my dislikes was for the physical presentation of the building. Since I arrived, we have successfully changed the look and format of the Herald, making it something we can be proud of. When I joined our lodge, five years ago, the one thing that was obvious to me and many of the newer brothers was that the Herald was an embarrassment. It looked like the format had not changed in thirty years (which was true) and gave the impression that the organization was a relic of the 1970s and the age of mimeograph machines. It also had hardly any content except announcements of upcoming pancake breakfasts and lutefisk dinners, meeting times, and so forth.
The physical building was no better. The dining room looked like a worn and grubby church basement. Miscellaneous stuff was propped against walls or piled in the areas of the lodge that should have been available for fellowship. There was a lovely old pool table, but the room that housed it was cramped and the made moreso by the old folding tables and a meat slicer that seemed to have no place in the kitchen. The pool table was covered by an ugly plywood cover, to prevent injury, but the result of this was that it was hardly ever used for pool. Someone took it upon himself to move an old pop cooler into the pool room, making it even more impossible to play the game.
This pop cooler is old and was presumably donated to the lodge for the refreshment of the brothers. But it takes on some sad and shocking symbolism for me because our pool room is also our library. I myself went to a lot of trouble to acquire proper book shelves and increase the collection to include the kind of books men engaged in philosophical Masonry would want to read. I also rescued a dart board that had been tucked away somewhere and hung it on the wall so brothers could play while relaxing after the serious work of the lodge.
Now the pop cooler stands in front of the book shelves, partially cutting off access to the books and in front of the dart board preventing anyone from playing that game. No pool, no darts, no respect for books and study, and no sense of aesthetic taste. We have instead soda pop. I find that a fitting metaphor for the kind of pseudo-Masonry done in our lodge. My brothers, I know I will offend many of you to say so, but we are practicing soda-pop Masonry. It is all fizzy water and sugar, artificial flavorings, sometimes with a jolt of caffiene to make us feel mentally sharp when we are not, and absolutely no nutritional value.
The whole lodge, in its physical manifestation gives new brothers an impression of neglect, bad taste, and disorder. The outside structure built over the glass entry doors looks my grandpa’s old ice fishing shack. The folding round tables in the dining room were obviously purchased at considerable expense by prior generations and they were certainly practical – especially if you had to clear the floor for a dance, or if you had to store extra tables for bigger than ordinary banquets. However, they looked institutional, and made the dining room reminiscent of a school cafeteria, complete with a pass-though from the kitchen and another to the dish washer. Spare tables were folded and stored against the far wall of the room as if no one had thought of where they were going to be stored.
In our building, there is nothing like the romance of Masonry that young men are seeing today, the turn of taste back to the wood wainscoting, chandeliers, and elegance of the 18th and 19th centuries. Masonry, because of the archaic language of its rituals, hearkens back to those times. The Master’s top hat, the wearing of formal evening dress – there are still vestiges of a more elegant and dignified past. The mysteries of Masonry are derived from the ancient mysteries, making them antique in one sense. They are over 300 years old, and it is that antiquity that men today find attractive.
While the culture of the last century became more and more obsessed with the future and its supposed glories of technology, the culture of the Twenty-first Century looks ahead with horror at impending doom from climate change and overpopulation and a worldwide economic system that seems about to fall apart. Is it any wonder that men today look back for guidance and wisdom. Our lodge building does not look like a place to seek wisdom. It doesn’t have antique charm, but neither does it have the comfort and ambience of a coffee house, which might at least make members desire to hang out there. Coffee houses have returned to the place in society they once occupied in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were once centers of conversation where men went to read the newspapers and discuss what was going on in the world. Today, somewhat ironically, the Internet and laptop computers perform a function very similar to that of the early newspapers.
Hat’s off to our lodge for having installed WiFi. But hat’s back on again for not investing in remodeling that would make it at least as attractive as a fine restaurant or café. It is not that we are in impecunary circumstances either. My lodge has a large endowment and owns its building in the clear. I can only assume that the brothers with the purse-strings do not care about Freemasonry enough to give it a respectable home — to invest in it. Maybe it is some German Lutheran phobia about spending money on oneself. I honestly do not get it.
Back to the Foundations
What do we do then? The giant organizations such as the Shrine, York Rite, Scottish Rite that have attached themselves to Freemasonry and successfully destroyed the knowledge of how to practice the Craft, are too big to change. Let them do what they want, but let us stop saying that they are a part of Freemasonry. My desire is to read the authors who are trying to revive the lost Craft, particularly the “Observance” of the Craft. We will have to shake off the attachments we have made with other organizations. We shall have to spend money and do a lot of work to restore our lodge rooms and the buildings that house them to a level of excellence that reflects the pursuit of self-perfection. We must dress with reverence and respect, conduct ourselves with decorum, concentration, discipline, and silence.
The system is spelled out for us in great detail. All we have to do is agree that we are going to devote ourselves to the study of the rituals – study, not mere memorization – and then act as Masons to follow their instructions. Yes, we will have to admit that generations of Masons misconstrued our noble Craft, that we, as an order, made a big mistake when we lost the practice of observing the Craft. Some lodges have managed to recognize this truth and correct their course, and that gives me hope. Brothers, go out and buy a copy of Observing the Craft: The Pursuit of Excellence in Masonic Labour and Observance.