Masonic ceremonies are a means to an end. In Freemasonry the ceremony (or ritual as it is often known) is the means by which the principles of Freemasonry are passed on to the candidate in a dramatic way. Even though prayers are used at certain points, the ritual is quite categorically not a religious ceremony. It is merely a formalised set of dramas used to introduce new members into Freemasonry and explain to them what it is they are joining and what will be expected of them.
Freemasons have traditionally kept the ceremonies to themselves for a very simple reason. If someone wishing to become a Freemason knew how the stories went it would ruin the effect, much as in the same way as being told the end of a book or a film ruins them. Freemasons do not make some dreadful oath not to reveal anything they do in lodge meetings.
So why use ritual? There are two reasons. First, by using formalised ceremonies everyone enters Freemasonry on an equal basis and shares the same experience, whatever their position or status outside the Craft may be. Secondly, by continuing to use ceremonies which incorporate drama, allegory and symbolism, the principles of Freemasonry are very forcibly impressed upon the candidate's mind.
The origins of the ritual, like the origins of Freemasonry itself, have not yet been discovered. Other than that they had a 'mason word' we have no idea what ceremonies were used in Scottish operative lodges. The earliest evidence we have comes from two sources: a set of over one hundred versions of a document now known as the Old Charges and Dr Robert Plot's Natural History of Staffordshire.
Although the versions of the Old Charges differ in detail they conform to a pattern. This is largely a legendary history of the mason craft followed by a set of rules (or 'charges') by which they were to conduct themselves both at work and in life in general. The various versions dating from the second half of the 1600s give an inkling of ritual practice. An obligation was taken, on the Bible, to preserve the mysteries of the Craft; the mason word and sign were communicated; the charges were read, telling the new mason of his duty to God, his master and his fellow man; and the legendary history was read. Dr Plot adds one or two minor details including the wearing of aprons and the presentation to the candidate of two sets of white gloves, one for himself and one for his wife.
It is not until 1690 that we get evidence of ritual content with the Edinburgh Register House manuscript - a set of questions and answers describing a simple ceremony and the signs. From 1690 to 1729 a number of manuscript and printed questions and answers of varying states of completeness have survived. These show a simple two-degree system (Entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft), the taking of an obligation on the Bible (sometimes including a physical penalty), the communication of signs and words for each degree and a very simple symbolism based upon stonemasons' tools.
The earliest reference to a third degree, so far discovered, comes in 1725 but it is not until 1730 that we have any idea of its content. In that year Samuel Prichard published his exposure Masonry Dissected.
This shows a system of three separate degrees - Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason - each with its own sign and word but with only an obligation in the first degree. The ceremonies were in two parts: the communicating of the sign and word, in each case followed by a short set of questions and answers in which the ceremony and the purpose of the degree is explained, again using simple symbolism based on the stone masons tools.
From the 1770s onwards the lectures based on questions and answers began to be expanded, incorporating symbolical explanations of the way the candidate was prepared for each degree. They also included additional stonemasons tools to illustrate virtues expected to be practised by Freemasons and symbolical explanations of the furniture of the Lodge room and the regalia worn by the members.
Under the rival Grand Lodges in England see How Freemasonry started there had been differences in the way of carrying out the ceremonies in lodges. When the two Grand Lodges united in 1813, a Lodge of Reconciliation was set up to produce a standard form of ritual to be used by all lodges. The Lodge of Reconciliation spent two years deliberating and in 1816 its recommendations were accepted by Grand Lodge and ordered to be adopted by every lodge. In essence the Lodge of Reconciliation expanded the simple 18th century ceremonies by incorporating material from the lectures, which gradually dropped out of use, except in the Emulation Lodge of Improvement.
As Grand Lodge refused to allow the new ritual to be printed or circulated in manuscript, arranging instead for it to be demonstrated and passed on by word of mouth, the aim of producing a standard working to be carried out in every lodge was never in fact achieved. The methods of promulgation of the new system together with a refusal to give up idiosyncratic local differences has led to a wide variety of workings being practised in English lodges. The basic framework of the ceremonies is the same but there are differences of wording and of the manner of carrying out the ceremonies and in some workings there are additional or extended charges and lectures.
The ritual for each of the three Craft degrees today falls into two parts. The first is a rather dramatic play in which the candidate is introduced, demonstrates his qualifications for the degree, takes his obligation, and has the signs and words communicated and explained to him. The second part of each ceremony is a formal charge or lecture in which the purpose of the degree and a Freemasons' duties are explained. The Charge to the Initiate is possibly one of the most succinct explanations in the English language of how to live a good and useful life.
The ritual is not set in tablets of stone and has changed and developed over the nearly three hundred years for which evidence exists. A comparison of the earliest simple sets of questions and answers with the ceremonies of today shows how extensive the development has been.
Sometimes the changes have been imperceptible, while at others they have been highly publicised. Although changes have occurred they have not altered the basic nature of the Craft. One of the major changes, which began imperceptibly, had been the de-christianising of the ritual. In the early days much of the simple symbolism used could have given a distinctly trinitarian christian explanation and the two Saints John (the Baptist and the Evangelist) were claimed as patrons of the order. In the 18th century, as non-christians began to seek admission, the christian references began to be softened and then gradually removed, so that men of different faiths could meet in amity. The process was completed by the Lodge of Reconciliation in 1814-1816, resulting in the Craft becoming truly universal and able to accommodate anyone with a belief in a supreme being, however he expressed that belief.
In the firm belief that the ritual is self-explanatory, Grand Lodge has always refused to issue handbooks further explaining the meaning of and symbolism in the three Craft degrees. Enthusiastic masonic writers, however, have produced books in which they have given personal, and often very idiosyncratic, interpretations of the ritual. In some cases the religious gloss writers have put upon the ritual is deeply offensive to the great majority of Freemasons. It cannot be too highly stressed that these interpretations are entirely personal to their authors and neither have the sanction of Grand Lodge nor do they reflect either Grand Lodge's views or those of the Craft in general.