The "G" In Masonry's Emblem
George H. T. French
A brother returned from a trip to Europe and asked "why is the Letter G not attached to the Square and compasses over there?" This resurrected the question that had arisen in my mind when I first saw the device with three items: "What is the 'G' doing attached to Freemasonry's classical and universal emblem?"
In quest of an answer the question was put to several well informed brothers, but they all gave — essentially — the same answer that Coil offers in his Masonic Encyclopedia. This is what Coil says:
It will surprise some to know that it was not until about 1850 that the Letter G was placed in the center of the interlaced Square and Compasses for pins and badges as commonly represented today, and that it is supposed to have originated as a jeweler's design and not by action of any Masonic authority.
Farther down on the same page Coil states that:
A moment's reflection will apprise one that the G in the center of the Square and Compasses is an incongruity ... The latter are great lights, but the G is not.
In pursuing the matter, further evidence was discovered, and the information available today shows that the attachment of the three items occurred quite a few years before the 1850 date given by Coil. To submit that information is the purpose of this paper.
SQUARE AND COMPASSES INTERLACED
A good way to start will be to establish how the Square and Compasses originally became interlaced and rose to be the recognized and universal emblem of the Craft.
The earliest known Masonic coin was minted in 1733. In it there is visible a square and also a pair of compasses, but these two items are set apart from each other. They are not conjoined nor interlaced. Upon studying Masonic exposures of the early 1700s there appears either a square or the compasses, and if both appeared simultaneously they were never joined and not even near each other.
Coil states that the square and compasses in their present day interlacement first appeared in the seal of Lodge of Aberdeen in 1762. However, even earlier than 1762 there is a beautiful picture of an English warrant for the Provincial Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, dated July 15, 1761, in Freemasonry in Pennsylvania, 1727-1907, Vol. I, pp. 120/1. It is signed by Laurence Dermott and has the superimposed square and compasses in the seal. The seal itself is depicted on page 672 of the History of Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons, edited by Bro. H. L. Stillson, Boston, 1910.
Careful research has brought to light earlier instances of the interlaced square and compasses. For instance, there has been found a reprint of a lodge summons form used in Europe on the Continent in 1760.
In a 1749 French exposure called Nouveau Catechisme des Franc-Maçons there is a pictorial representation of the master of a lodge standing behind a table over which has been placed a mantle adorned with interlaced square and compasses in a manner usual among Masons.
On the Island of Corfu excavations unearthed some eight and ninth century coins and vessels, and among them a bronze square and compasses. This jewel was very much corroded, and although there can scarcely be a doubt that it is Masonic, its age is difficult to ascertain. Much depends on the level at which the jewel might have been found, and unfortunately, there was no such information on the point. British Museum experts were inclined to ascribe it to the seventeenth century.
In Cuzco, Peru, capital of the old Inca empire, the Conquistadores erected the Church of La Compania in 1580. It was reconstructed about 1600 to 1620. Alongside the church, while it was in course of erection, would have been a masons' workshop or "lodge," and it is precisely in this area that two carved 3 foot tail wooden objects have been recently unearthed. One of which clearly shows a square and compasses. The carved objects which may well have adorned the "lodge" in some prominent location, are now in the possession of Koricancha ("Temple of the Sun") Lodge No. 40, Cuzco, constituted in 1942 under the Grand Lodge of Peru.
The information presented proves that historically the association between the square and compasses is of long standing. Antiquity supports their partnership. To that must be added that they appear together, in Sundry Roles, in all three degrees of Craft Masonry. Hence, universality is added to their antiquity. It is only natural, then, that these tools would gradually come together and become interlaced to constitute the classical emblem of the Craft.
APPEARANCE OF THE LETTER G
Historically, the square and the compasses were used in architecture and have been in Masonry since time immemorial, and this explains their presence in the Freemasonry we practice today. Whereas the Letter G appears to have entered Freemasonry as late as the 1700s.
The prevailing notion is that there is no trace of the Letter G in the numerous English and Scottish catechisms that appeared during the years 1696 to 1730. However, in 1726 there was published in London a newspaper advertisement regarding "Antediluvian Masonry," which seemed to be a skit on Dr. Desaguliers and his friends, and was obviously written by some well-informed person. The advertisement announces that there will be several lectures on Ancient Masonry, particularly on the Signification of the Letter G. If the 1726 date is correct, then this advertisement contains the earliest references known to us about the Letter G.
Furthermore, the Wilkinson manuscript is a catechism tentatively dated c. 1727 and it says: "Q. What is the centre of yr Lodge? A. The Letter G."
The frontispiece to Cole's Constitutions, which is dated 1728/29, clearly shows a letter G in the head of an arch at the right of the central figure.
The use of the Letter G was definitely established in the Masonic ritual by Samuel Prichard in his tremendously popular 1730 Exposure, printed under the name of Masonry Dissected. Because Prichard introduced new developments, one of which was an explanation of the Letter G, it does not mean that he invented these developments. In the first place, there is the above mentioned 1726 newspaper reference to the G, and in the second place the rather archaic doggeral verse in which the G is handled in Masonry Dissected suggests some measure of antiquity. It is far more likely that the Letter G and other explanatory aspects were traditional material in Craft lore long before the Speculative expansion had begun and the accretive bulkiness of the ritual had started to afflict Craft Ceremonial.
A very early instance of a pictorial reproduction of the Letter G in print appears in an engraving representing an English lodge at refreshment. The copperplate engraving was the work of K. Koberg, it was performed in 1738 and appeared in Calliope, a song book dated 1739.
An exposure called Dialogue Between Simon and Philip, dated c. 1740, has two prints. The first one shows the cruciform shape of the old lodges, whereas the second shows the oblong form of the new lodges under Desaguliers. But what is of special interest is the fact that both drawings show a "G" in the Center of the "lodge," in one with a diamond shaped rombus, and in the other within an irradiated circle. That was c. 1740.
When the Letter G did enter into Speculative Masonry it was most decidedly only as a Second Degree Symbol. What happened was that when the two original degrees were gradually being transformed into three degrees in the early 1700s, the initial weakness of the newborn Second Degree was offset by the introduction of innovations. Thus the Middle Chamber and the Letter G were added to the Fellowcraft Degree, and originally did not have any connection at all with the First or Third Degrees. For that matter, not even in today's work is the G mentioned in the First or Third Degrees.
By 1744 there appears pictorial evidence of the G in a French exposure called Le Catechisme des Franc-Maçons, written by Louis Travenol. Le Catechisme furnishes an engraving depicting a combined design for the Apprentice-Fellow's Lodge, in the center of which there is clearly visible a Letter G within a blazing star. This is one of the earliest-known printed illustrations of what ultimately became the modern Tracing Boards. It is just possible that this engraving, showing a design combining the Blazing Star, a First Degree symbol, with the Letter G, a Second Degree symbol, on the same floor drawing may have led, by gradual and successive mutations, to the display of the Letter G in lodges of all degrees. This may have been fostered by the 1843 Baltimore Convention when it sounded the death knell of the Blazing Star as being too Christian a symbol.
During the years between 1740 and 1780 there is evidence of the G as an item of lodge furnishings, either as a pendant from the ceiling of the lodge-room, or as a template on the floor, or as part of the design of the tracing boards. Today very few of the almost 2,000 lodges in London have a visible G either in the East or hanging from the ceiling, whereas the G is displayed in every Scottish lodge, usually hanging above the altar in the center of the Lodge-room, although sometimes in the East over the Master's chair.
A point to remember is that when the Letter G entered our ancient ritual it was represented pictorially on floor cloths or tracing boards as standing on its own, and in no way linked to the square and compasses. For instance, an engraving by John Scoles is the Frontispiece of James Hardie's New Freemason's Monitor printed in New York, in 1818. Also, a handkerchief printed by Gray and Todd, in Philadelphia, c. 1817. In both these pictures appear square and compasses, sometimes separated, sometimes interlaced, but never attached in anyway to the Letter G, presented in both specimens.
Notwithstanding that it is conspicuously displayed in many lodges, the Letter G has the curious, if not unique, distinction of being a Masonic symbol which does not have the all-important characteristic of universality. In the first place, the working tools, the greater and lesser lights, the pillars, which form an intrinsic part of our method of teaching, convey the same lessons to Masons in every language. Whereas the G bears its interpretation primarily in English, and only by accident in other languages such as German. Secondly, the G lacks universality because ritually it appears only in the second Degree.
One cannot read the old Masonic Constitutions without being struck by the prominence given to Geometry in their descriptions of Masonry. The oldest copy of them all — The Regius Poem — makes Masonry to spring from Geometry, as may be seen in lines 53 and 54 of that manuscript: "On this manner, thru good wit of Geometry — Began first the Craft of Masonry."
In every one of the hundred or so old manuscripts, Geometry is placed first among the Sciences.
The most reasonable explanation would be that Operative Masonry was nothing other than applied Geometry, and the two terms, Masonry and Geometry, became virtually synonymous, with the word Geometry holding a special connotation for the masons of c. 1400. So long as that connotation remained (as it did for several hundred years) it was inevitable that when the first glimmerings of symbolism began to make their appearance in the Craft, the significance of Geometry would be emphasized in some way.
When the Craft became more structured as a Speculative Craft after the creation of the Premier Grand Lodge in 1717, Geometry continued in its place of prominence. Masonry Dissected, a 1730 exposure, stated that the institution is rounded on "the liberal arts and sciences, but more especially on the fifth, viz., Geometry."
A Dialogue Between Simon and Philip, a c. 1740 exposure, also stresses Geometry.
"Phil. Why was you made a Mason?
Sim. For the sake of the letter G.
Phil. What does it signifye?
Phil. Why GEOMETRY?
Sim. Because it is the Root and foundation of all Arts and Sciences."
William Preston, in his Lectures of the end of the 18th century, reflects this thought, that masonry and geometry meant the same thing to those concerned, because originally Masonry and Geometry must have been synonymous terms. And round about the year 1800 the G. denoted Geometry for the Premier Grand lodge of England.
In the Revised English Ritual, the Charge after Passing states that "the study of the liberal Arts which tend so effectually to polish and adorn the mind, is earnestly recommended to your consideration, especially the study of Geometry, which is established as the basis of our Craft."
ANCIENT OF DAYS
However, as the operative element of the Craft died out, the Letter G gradually lost its powers to suggest Geometry. At the same time, the Speculative Masons began referring to God as the Grand Geometrician of the Universe in the Second Degree, and some feel that this trend helped to veer the meaning of the G from Geometry to God. However, available evidence for this explanation is indeed very slender. What we do know is that originally the Letter G in the Fellowcraft Degree referred to Geometry, that this degree was altered considerably between 1730 and 1813, and that gradually the reference to God was introduced and became solidly established.
G ATTACHED TO THE EMBLEM
The next question is, when did all three items — Square, Compasses and "G" — first appear attached? Harry Carr says that it is impossible to answer with certainty because many of the examples (even the early ones) are not dated, and many that have early dates are forgeries! In England most of the best examples belong to the period 1775 to 1810, mainly in pierced silver jewels and less often in solid "plate" Jewels.
Most changes take place gradually. The attachment of the G to the interlaced Square and Compasses also occurred gradually, and did not happen at the same time in all places. Thus there is a pierced silver jewel of c. 1760 which shows the working tools (square and compasses interlaced) not enclosing a G but surrounded by a large G which more or less frames the whole design. Many of these items appear to have been "decorative" rather than "ritualistic."
For the first appearance of the interlaced square, compasses and the Letter G in the United States, Brother Harry Carr suggests the perfect answer. In Masonic Symbols in American Decorative Arts, published in 1976 by the Scottish Rite Museum of our National Heritage (U.S.A.), there is a picture (Item No. 10) of a gilded brass piece cast by Paul Revere and dated 1796. This specimen consists of the three interlaced items, Square, Compasses and G. Surrounded by a cable tow, and has been lent to the Museum by its owner, Mr. Russell Nadeau. Item No. 12, a door knocker in brass removed from a house in Boston, Mass., before 1910, is equally useful but unfortunately is not dated. Further research is leading to the feeling that 1796 is not the earliest date, and that there may be items from c. 1775 onwards made in America.
One must always beware of forgeries and anachronisms. There is a painting on display in the Chicago Historical Society in which George Washington appears wearing a Masonic apron which shows the Letter G attached to the interlaced square and compasses. There is also a picture of Benjamin Franklin wearing an apron with the same design. Washington died in 1799 and Franklin died in 1790. So it is very probable that aprons with the three element design were not yet being worn when these patriots lived.
It is a fact that the power of fashion and common usage has always to be reckoned with. For instance, Coil on page 270 of his Masonic Encyclopedia states his belief in the incongruity of placing the G in the center of the square and compasses. And yet, at the top of that very same page there appears a drawing of the G placed within the interlaced Square and Compasses!
Moreover, there must be a certain appeal or attraction about the three unit Masonic emblem, for it is found in many parts of the world and displayed in many ways and forms. In Cuba, over the illuminated terrestrial globe on the roof of the Grand Lodge Temple at Havana, In Mexico, on a publication. In Jamaica on the building of the Masonic Temple above Montego Bay. In the Republic of Colombia on a Masonic pamphlet. Below the Equator, on a postage stamp in Brasil. Across the Atlantic, the device is displayed in Scotland on the Master Mason's apron and on the Jewel of the Grand Master in Ireland. The Spanish Masons also use it: on the 1830 seal of the Lodge Friends of Nature and Humanity, in Gijon, and on the cover of the Constitution of the Grand Orient of Spain, Madrid, 1934. Finland, whose Lodge of Research is a Corresponding Member of Texas Lodge of Research, shows the G coveting the joint of the Compasses. Because it is seen everywhere in United States there is no need to mention any instances of its use. However, it would not be amiss to mention that it is placed very conspicuously on Texas' reconstructed first Masonic monument, the one in Morton Cemetery, Richmond, originally dedicated in 1825 to Robert Gillespie.
In conclusion, let it be stated that 1850 is not the earliest recorded case of the G appearing inside the interlaced Square and Compasses. There is definite proof of Paul Revere having cast a brass specimen as early as 1796. And, as for the second part of Coil's statement, one must accept that the incongruity of the union is hallowed by and must be accepted due to the power of common usage.