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THE ORIGIN OF RITUAL
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 ignorance 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 legendary 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 directions.
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 apprentice 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 commonly 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 opportunities 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 Fellowcrafts degree.
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 demonstrated 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, contributed 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 least.
Speculations on the Hiramic story, supposing its pre-fifteenth century origin suggest that it is an allusion to political events of the day. The murders of Thomas a' Becket in 1170, or Jacques DeMolay 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 organize 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.
Last modified: March 22, 2014