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by R.W. Bro. George W. Warvelle, Grand Orator


Most Worshipful Grand Master, Grand Officers and Brethren of the Grand Lodge: 

The regularly ordained grand orator having failed to materialize, the powers that be, unwilling to disturb the precedents that for half a century have prevailed in this Grand Lodge, have resolved that a substitute shall perform the duties of his office, and by some unfortunate combination of circumstances I have been selected as that substitute. I freely confess to you that I entertain but very vague and uncertain ideas of the duties and requirements of this office into which, at the eleventh hour, I have been installed, but I remember having read in the old books that it was a custom of our Masonic ancestors, after the labors of the Lodge had been concluded, to listen to an "entertaining and instructive discourse" by the grand orator. To entertain is not an easy task, while to be instructive is attended with even greater difficulties, but to be both entertaining and instructive at one and the same time is an undertaking that blot few of us can hope to successfully accomplish, and I frankly admit my inability at the outset. 

My general recollection of the annual addresses of my illustrious predecessors is that they were generally didactic in character, with a strong moral bent, a circumstance that may possibly be attributed to the fact that in most cases the incumbent of the office has been a clergyman; but I shall not take advantage of your helpless condition to inflict upon you a sermon or tax your patience with a rehearsal of moral platitudes. 

During the few minutes that are allotted to me I propose to talk, in a plain, matter-of-fact way, on that time-worn and threadbare subject, the antiquity of Masonry. Possibly no topic has more frequently engaged the attention of Masonic orators or writers than the one now under consideration. Its elucidation has called forth the best thoughts of the brightest intellects of this and of past ages, and upon it the student and philosopher have written tomes almost innumerable, and yet, after two centuries of research, thought, and discussion, it is the one topic of all others concerning which the great body of the craft entertain the most hazy, indistinct, and incorrect ideas. 


The legendary history of Freemasonry locates its origin at or immediately anterior to the building of King Solomon's temple at Jerusalem, while numerous learned and industrious brethren have endeavored to demonstrate the fact of its existence for thousands of years prior to that event. Now, I do not propose to enter into any controversial arguments to show the truth or falsity of these claims, nor am I inclined to strike with iconoclastic hand the cherished idols and traditions of the craft. I only say that no evidence, to my mind, sufficient to substantiate the truth of these assertions has ever been brought to my attention, and every at tempt to show a line of unbroken continuity between the temple-builders and the Masons of to-day has resulted, so far as my observation goes, in utter failure. And because we are unable to prove by irrefutable evidence that this Grand Lodge, sitting in annual communication on the banks of Lake Michigan, is the direct descendant and lineal successor of King Solomon's artificers at Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, no inconsiderable number of the craft have conceived an idea that we have no past; that our claim of antiquity is a fable, and that our title of "ancient" is based on no better grounds than simply priority over the numerous imitative societies that have followed us. But in reply to this I can say: If our claims of remote antiquity are doubtful, assertions of modern origin are absolutely false, and in making this statement I am prepared to fully sustain the position I have taken by evidence of undoubted authenticity. Freemasonry is an ancient society, with a long and honorable record, and the contemplation of its development from the guilds of humble artisans to the powerful, influential, and far-reaching organization of to-day is, to my mind, a spectacle of far deeper interest than all its mythic glory under the patronage of Israel's wise king. 

Society in the tenth century was just emerging from the lethargy, gloom, and barbarism of the dark ages. Individual liberty so long re strained now began to be asserted; the liberal arts, for ages preceding the sole property of the church and confined to monastic communities, gave faint evidence of an existence among the people, and while the cloister still directed the hands of the workmen it no longer held him in a tenacious grasp. In the eleventh century the spirit of progress was still more manifest in the revival of commerce. the extension of manufacture, and the cultivation of handicrafts, and about this time occurred the organization of the guilds of artificers, which were afterwards to play such important parts in the political drama. In the twelfth century these guilds had spread with marvelous rapidity over the greater part of Europe, embracing nearly every trade and occupation, and from that time until the present Freemasonry in some form has been a living, potential energy in the social life of the civilized world. Of the progress of the Masons' guild upon the continent of Europe, its trials, its triumphs, and its glorious achievements, time does not permit me to speak and I shall confine the remainder of my remarks to a very brief summary of its career in England, the birthplace of speculative Masonry. 


From the best attainable sources of information it would seem that the principles of the operative art were derived from France and numerous examples of mediaeval architecture are still extant in various parts of Great Britain, which bear upon them the name of the French master who directed the work. In England, as upon the continent, the early policy of the craft was shaped bythe church, under whose protecting care it flourished and waxed strong, and the titles still employed in the nomenclature of some of the officers of the Lodge are directly attributable to the ecclesiastical supervision of that period. 

It is a matter of congratulation for us that in tracing our Masonic genealogy, and proving our descent from the English craftsmen, we are compelled to rely on no doubtful theories or unsubstantial legends. Fortunately there exists authentic data in the shape of contemporaneous documentary evidence, upon which we may with confidence reply, and which fully confirms all our claims of ancient and honorable lineage. These documents, for the most part, consist of manuscript versions of what are known as the old charges, or the regulations for a government of the craft, and of these there are some thirty-one copies in existence of undoubted antiquity. They are deposited in the British museum, the Grand Lodge of England, and in the archives of its constituents, and may be seen by any person who may desire to investigate for himself the stability of our claims. The earliest document yet brought to light connected with the progress of Freemasonry in England is known as the Halliwell manuscript, dating from the fourteenth century - November, 1388 - and is supposed to have been made in obedience to an ordinance of Richard II. calling for returns from the guilds and crafts. It is in every respect a remarkable document and the most precious heritage that has come down to us. It is written on vellum, and its composition is in meter or a sort of rude verse. From international evidence it is supposed to be the work of a poet priest or monk of that day, a supposition that is strengthened by the well-known facts of early ecclesiastical patronage, and the probable dearth of clerical attainments among the workmen of that period. Here, then, we have authentic evidence 500 years old of the existence of a Masons' guild at that time in full and vigorous life, and in these days of mushroom societies with doubtful pedigrees, 500 years is not too short a period on which to predicate the term "ancient." The next in importance is known as the Coke manuscript, which, like the one I have just described, is contained within the archives of the British museum. It is in a fine state of preservation and its original cover of wood still remains, together with the rough twine connecting the vellum sheets, apparently as it was sewed 400 years ago. Then there is the Lansdown manuscript, dating from the sixteenth century, written upon three and one-half sheets of stout paper, and the parchment roll in the custody of the Grand Lodge of England, bearing date Dec. 25, 1583. There are besides a large number of other ancient documents, many of which bear evidence of being copied from others still older, all tending to indicate the existence of the society at a very early date. 

These documents have reference to Masonry as an artificer's guild only, and such it continued to be until late in the sixteenth century. Prior to the year 1424 it was strictly an operative association, working privately with closed doors and sedulously guarding the secrets of the trade, and Scotch Masonry so continued long after it ceased in England. At this time, however, occurred a most remarkable circumstance that completely changed the character of the association as well as its future destinies, and to which we owe the fact of our assembly here to-day. It would seem that the power and influence of the trades union were not unknown even in those days and that our ancient operative brethren had arrived at a full understanding of its value, for we find that in this year, being the third year of Henry VI., an enactment was had called the statute of laborers, whereby Masons were no longer permitted to assemble as a body of operative workmen or to exercise their handicraft with guarded doors, nor were they permitted to fix the price of their labor or establish ordinances affecting apprentices. The object of the statute was to break up the guilds by denying them the benefits of combination, but, like many other at tempts of suppression, the results were far different from the expectation for, notwithstanding this prohibition, the society continued to exist as a benevolent and fraternal association, with its membership confined to workmen actually engaged in operative Masonry. But during the sixteenth century, while it still continued to be a trade society, its benefits and advantages were no longer confined to operative Masons, and work men in other lines were received, until finally in the century followed it became purely speculative, and men from every walk of life, including persons of rank, began to seek admission. During this period was engrafted upon it the system of mystical philosophy which has ever since formed oneof its distinguishing characteristics, and about this time may properly be fixed the birth of modern Freemasonry as a system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. 


The latter half of the seventeenth century was a period of turmoil and civil dissensions, and these, together with other causes, led to a partial disruption of the society, so that for several years it remained in a rather dormant condition. Many of the Lodges practically disbanded, and but little activity seems to have been manifested until what is known as the revival of 1716 and the subsequent assembly of 1717, out of which sprang the Grand Lodge of England - the mother of all Grand Lodges. 

As the enactment of the statute of laborers marked an epoch in the life of Masonry, so the revival of 1716 marked another, and no event in the history of the craft is more replete with stirring interest. It would seem, however, that no minutes were kept of these early meetings, or at least none have yet been found for six years after this assembly, and the only information we possess of the transactions is contained in the edition of "Anderson's Constitution," published soon after by authority of the Grand Lodge. From these we learn that King George I. entered London most magnificently Sept. 20, 1717, and that after the rebellion was over, in 1716, the few London Lodges thought fit to cement under a Grand Master as the center of union and harmony. Therefore, they and some of the old brethren met at the Apple-Tree tavern, and having put into the chair the oldest Master Mason present (being the Master of a lodge) they constituted themselves into a Grand Lodge and resolved to hold the annual feast and assembly, and to choose a Grand Master from among themselves until they should have the honor of a noble brother at their head. Accordingly St. John's day, 1717, the annual assembly and feast was held at the Goose and Gridiorn alehouse; a list of candidates was proposed, and the brethren by a majority of hands elected Anthony Sayre, gentleman, Grand Master. And so at the assembly of June 24, 1718, it is related that after dinner Brother Sayregathered the votes and proclaimed George Payne, Esq., Grand Master. 

Thus matters progressed until 1720, when a noble seems to have been received, for at the assembly held on Lady day, 1721, John, duke of Montague, was named as Grand Master, and then, as the old records say, ''They all expressed great joy at the happy prospect of being again patronized by noble Grand Masters as in the prosperous times of Freemasonry." From that time until the year 1738 everything passed smoothly; the craft prospered and all went well, but in this latter year occurred an event which may well be said to mark the third epoch in Masonry, being nothing more nor less than a schism. Now, if there is anything that we Americans firmly believe it is the doctrine of political unity. "United we stand, divided we fall," has long been a watchword, while, "In union is strength" is a principle instilled into us almost with the very elements of our being, and yet, paradoxical as it may seem, no small degree of the popularity and success which has attended this fraternity, as well as its wide diffusion in all lands, is due to the fact that English Masonry was a divided house for seventy-five years, for it was not until the year 1813 that the rival factions came together and formed the present United Grand Lodge of England. 

I have thus, brethren, in a very brief, desultory and fragmentary manner endeavored to sketch the origin, progress, and development of Masonry as revealed to us by the authentic data now in our possession. If it lacks the romantic glamour with which it was clothed on its first presentation to you attribute it not to the unsympathetic nature of the speaker, but to the cold, hard facts of history. No royal mandate or princely fiat gave it birth, nor did it spring into a vigorous life with one grand impulse, on the contrary its beginnings were of the most humble kind, and its evolution from the primitive association of timid workmen, laboring under the shadow of the church, to the magnificent philosophical brotherhood that constitutes its organization in the nineteenth century has been the slow and constant work of nearly a thousand years. And let it be a matter of congratulation for us that we are unable to connect ourselves with the learned and mystical societies of the ancient world, for, by the light of authentic history, our path has ever been onward and up ward, with no diminishing glories, lost arts, or forgotten knowledge.

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Last modified: March 22, 2014