MASONRY'S MYSTERY:THE ORIGIN OF RITUAL
Further suggested reading: THE SHORT TALK Bulletin Vol. XLVI January 1968
Published Monthly in Two Parts by THE MASONIC SERVICE ASSOCIATION
OF THE UNITED STATES- Washington D.C. 20001
Distributed Freely through AMERICA ON-LINE May 1st, 1995
Torence Evans Ake P.M.
Arcadia Masonic Lodge #1138 A.F. & A.M.
Screen Name: Yagayagaya@aol.com (Please let him know what you think of this work)
Prior to 1850, much speculation and elaboration of the origins of Masonic ritual
prevailed. Speculative Masonry was very much in its apprentice stage both with
its appearance and in fact. Its rituals were being refined and much guesswork as
to its history rendered the information passed to its entered apprentices as
fanciful as it was inspirational.
Our Masonic forefathers told elaborate stories
about the origin of the Craft, sometimes well intentioned, often "tongue in cheek"
It is no wonder that today so many of the organization's detractors allow ignore
ance to cloud their view of this venerable institution. Today, Masonic scholars
work hard to solve the Craft's greatest mystery, the origin of its ritual.
As any student of the sciences knows, all initial theories have as their basis,
speculation. Historical interpretations, in particular, will have facts to support
its perspectives. However, any study will assume certain precedents which go
back beyond the known facts.
"Masonry was established by King Solomon with the help of Hiram, King of Tyre."
"Masonry began with Noah and his sons."
"Adam was the first Grand Master because he was the first man to wear an apron."
This is the kind of Masonic history which prevailed before historians debunked
the tall tales and sought the reality of Masonry in incontrovertible written
documents. Masonry undoubtedly existed in our deeper past, with the cathedral
builders who worked on the great churches of Europe between 1200 and 1500 A.D.
These guilds became organized lodges complete with ceremonies and later
developed into Speculative Masonry first established as a Grand Lodge of Masons
in London, England on June 24, 1717.
About one hundred old manuscripts located in various places are known as the
"Gothic Constitutions" or "Old Charges "They exist as the earliest written proof
of modern Masonry. The most prized is the "Regius Manuscript" which takes its
name from the fact that King George II presented it to the British Museum in
1757. Composed circa 1390 A.D., written in verse, it is the oldest preserved
Masonic writing. The" Cooke Manuscript", circa 1400-1410 A.D. was also written
for Masons and contains evidence of having been copied from earlier works.
The Cooke Manuscript begins with the Masonic practice of invoking the blessing
of Deity and ends with the familiar "Amen, so mote it be." It contains a legen-
dary history of the craft and the guild's regulations or charges. These Ancient
Charges form the basis of our present day rituals and include the following
The initiate was instructed to take his oath while his hand was "under the holy
booke" or "upon the booke." It was his duty to "keep the counsel of his fellows
truly", "not to commit adultery with a fellow's wife, daughter or servant","not
to supplant a master or fellow in any of their work." He was not to take an ap-
prentice unless he be "freeborn, come of good kindred, and whole of limb" and to
"slander no Mason behind his back." He was to "come to Assembly if it is within
fifty miles if he have warning." These Charges were to be read at each assembly
of Masons and were often accompanied by lectures on the history of the craft or
some appropriate Masonic subject. Later, these requirements were adopted in
every well governed Lodge and much of what goes on in Masonic Lodges today stems
from the manner in which these requirements were observed from that time.
The signs and words used to identify one Freemason to another were kept strictly
secret and unwritten, while the charges were considered public and unrestricted.
They were often repeated from memory to accommodate the layman who was more com-
monly illiterate. This was a time when reading and writing was considered to be
the exclusive privilege of the wealthy and powerful. Pomposity and decadence
was supported by maintaining the working class in a state of darkness. Freemasons
challenged the established practices by sharing information amongst themselves
without regard to birthright or politics. We often see the same forces at work
today from those who deny others the use of their freewill to seek the opportun-
ities that Masonic education has to offer. Open discussion of the events that
Masons share serves to overcome these suspicions.
Though modern Masons consider the ritual to be unchangeable, this was not true
in 1717. The original services were brief and simple consisting of the administering of the oath of secrecy regarding the words and the giving of the
charges which, as previously stated were public. No standard existed and each
individual lodge with their independent Master would perform the ceremonies
according to their individual tastes and preferences. As one gifted Master
or Masonic lecturer would frame a passage of appealing beauty, it would become
accepted and passed along by word of mouth to other lodges. It was a slow
evolution and it was decades before any standardization or uniformization was
considered and sought after. Today there are eight variant rituals in England
that are utilized and accepted as "regular." In the United States there are
as many versions as there are States. Interested Masons should petition their
individual Boards of Masonic Education to obtain a written record of the development of the rituals in their individual jurisdictions. It is remarkable to
discover the influence that dedicated Masons have had in the establishment of
the Craft historically throughout the country.
During the 1600's, Scottish Freemasons evolved a series of ceremonies whose
central theme was the adoption of the Grand Masonic Word. As trade secrets
were important to the craft, it was important that no "cowans" receive them.
The secrets were communicated on the "five points of fellowship," which
modern Masons now recognize as "ph't t ph't,n t n, and to n, and er t er."
There was a central ceremony which has now been developed modernly as the
The Grand Masonic Word itself antedated 1598. There is much superstition and
speculation which surrounds it as the fearful fail to understand a word "too
sacred to pronounce." It was revealed to the initiate following an examination
or "catechism" so that each Mason might know that each were duly vested with
the secret. Even today, admittance to a Lodge of Masons is predicated upon a
member's examination, in lieu of another Mason's vouch. Knowledge of any single
element of the ceremonies will not gain him admission. Hence the response to
an inquiry which dates from this period, "by certain signs, tokens, and other
points of entrie."
From the Edinburgh Register House Manuscript we have "The first is to heill
and conceal; second, under no less pain which is then.......for you must make
the sign when you say that." The five points of fellowship is further demon-
strated ending with a primitive version of the penalty of our modern first
degree obligation. Early Scottish operative societies had two ceremonies. One
for "prentices" and the other for "fellows of the craft." There were, however
no uniform lectures though certain traditions grew up around "the word." Two
prominent speculative Freemasons, Dr. James Anderson, a Scotch Presbyterian
Minister, and Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers, and Episcopal Clergyman, con-
tributed much to the organization of the earliest Grand Lodge of 1717. They
were directly responsible for removing the prerequisite for a Christian belief
in Freemasonry thereby opening the beauties of the Craft to all men, freeborn,
of good character. Thus was established the noblest of Masonic tenets, the
universality of mankind, and the Brotherhood of men. In 1723, Dr. Anderson
published his "Constitutions of Freemasonry" from which he drew inspiration
from both The Regius and Cooke Manuscripts and thereby established the code of
Masonic Law which governs lodges today.
During this period, speculative Freemasonry was being exported to both to
Europe and America. In France it proliferated into scores of degrees, while
back in England, according to modern Masonic scholars, two degrees were being
practiced. There was yet to be developed a Master's degree. The initial
degree of "Prentice" contained the primitive version of our current lecture
regarding Geometry. It later became divided into two degrees of admission and
passing and assumed the significance that we assign it today.
The addition of the Master's degree, initially bestowed upon those called to
preside, came from the introduction of the Hiramic Legend. Most likely, this
story was first developed as a miracle play. Religious drama and folklore
were popular entertainment's in Medieval times and we know that this story
developed over several centuries. The story of Hiram, King of Tyre was most
likely referred to in lodges for a half a century before 1717. In 1723, Dr.
Anderson makes no mention of it in the Ancient Charges, but in a revised
edition in 1738 he refers to this figure "whom they decently interr'd in the
Lodge near the Temple, according to ancient usage."
In 1730, Samual Prichard published an expose' entitled "Masonry Dissected."
As with every published intrusion into the privacy of the lodges much of what
is quoted is balderdash. Even today as pretentious individuals seek to harm
the organization, much misinformation is disseminated. However, Prichards book
is useful as it contains the first proof of the use of the Hiramic Legend in
the third degree.
Hiram is mentioned in the King James Bible (I Kings and II Chronicles) as he
is further mentioned in the Cooke Manuscript of 1400-1410. However the Graham
Manuscript discovered in 1936 and dated 1726 supposes an interesting origin in
the legend of Noah. A valuable secret died with Noah and his sons agreed to
exhume his body from the grave to retrieve it. "Agreeing beforehand that if they
did not find the very thing itself, the first thing they found was to be to them
a secret." It then goes on to describe the condition of the body as the Brothers
discovered it and their attempts to lift it from the grave. This text seems to
be stolen directly from Masonic material, its authenticity curious to say the
Speculations on the Hiramic story, supposing its prefifteenth century origin
suggest that it is an allusion to political events of the day. The murders
of Thomas a' Becket in 1170, or Jacques de"Molay in 1314 or even Charles I
in 1649 have been suggested. The Scottish Jacobites, who supported Charles
were numerous in Masonic membership. The production of this play undoubtedly
lended itself to a most personal revelation in the hearts of those who saw
their futures jeopardized by the cowardly destruction of these noble men.
In 1751 a group of Lodges, expressing alarm at the many innovations that the
Grand Lodge was permitting, established a new order known as the "Ancients."
As a satire they referred to the Grand Lodge as "Moderns." This new Grand
Lodge quickly demonstrated success due to the energies of their Grand
Secretary, Lawrence Dermott. In 1756 he published a book of Constitutions
entitled "Ahiman Rezon" which, incidentally, is still used as the title to
the Book of Constitutions utilized by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, today.
In 1772, William Preston published "Illustrations of Masonry" which served as
an excellent monitor for the Craft. Though beautiful in character, the lectures
it contained took hours to perform. It was the practice then, to spread out the
use of lectures in degrees amongst several meetings. Later, these comments were
edited to a format which could be delivered in a single sitting.
The "Moderns" established a Lodge of Promulgation which honed the teaching
skills of Masons and brought their ritual more in-line with the Ancients. In
1813 a reunion between the two was made possible as by then this organization
had eliminated most of the innovations which had been objected to in 1751.
In 1797, Thomas Smith Webb published a "Freemason's Monitor and Illustrations
of Masonry" which was used as the monitor for Masonry in America. Based on the
earlier work of Preston, the ritual it contains has changed little to that which
is used today.
Moving into the 19th Century, Freemasonry spread across the continent as the
country itself expanded. In 1860, Rob Morris ended his two year term as Grand
Master of Kentucky, he had written the ritual and organized the Eastern Star
in 1850. By then he was the best known Mason in America. He then took to organ-
ize the Masonic Conservators, composed of the leading Masons in each state and
attempted to standardize the work of all Lodges with ritual which he supplied
based on the Preston-Webb work. More than 3,000 Masons joined the enterprise
but much of the membership condemned the movement bitterly. Morris utilized a
coded book during ritual which violated Masonic Law in many jurisdictions.
Though controversial and doomed to failure it caused many American Grand Lodges
to reexamine their work and make changes. These changes were more often then
not in-line with the Morris teachings.
Today our rituals stand as some of the greatest material in literature. It is a
noble conception from the mind of Man and serves to teach the recipients some of
the finest standards that a man should choose to live his life by. So long as
the soul of Man aspires to fulfill its destiny in heaven, the teachings, ideals
and philosophy of Masonry will serve to instruct. It is given to every Mason to
preserve its Ancient Usage's and Charges inviolate, and pass them to the awaiting
generations with pride and excellence.