The Origin of Masonry 1

Part I. From Operative To Speculative

E. Cromwell Mensch

The most prolific source of Masonic literature is that dealing with the origin of the Craft. It is a theme which has filled many volumes, and one which invariably follows the same pattern to the point of monotony. Practically all research along these lines starts with the stone masons of Europe, and ends up with the guilds, or associations, of ancient Rome. The Temple itself as a source of origin is avoided for two reasons, the first of which is a fear of encroaching upon the secret work of the Order. The second reason is a more logical one, for it is founded in the fact that very little is known about the Temple. There were three Temples built at Jerusalem, each of which was to replace an earlier structure. The last Temple was built by Herod, and is supposedly described by Josephus, the historian. He was an eyewitness to the destruction of this last Temple, but his lack of technical knowledge is painfully evident from his description of its structural details. The Temple previous to Herod's was built by Zerubbabel, a very brief account of which is set forth in the Book of Ezra. The so-called first Temple was built by Solomon, and a fairly complete description of it is set forth in the first Book of Kings.

However, Masonry was founded long before the Temple of Solomon was built. The identification of our Craft with the Temple came about through the ambition of David. It was he who realized the importance of the Tabernacle of Moses, and planned the Temple as a substitute therefor. Through it he sought credit for the establishment of the house and kingdom of God. This ambition of David is described in the second Book of Samuel, but more particularly in the words of II Samuel 7:13, "He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever." These words are supposedly the Lord's, uttered through the medium of Nathan, the prophet. However, they were prompted by David, for Nathan was a member of David's court.

What David really sought was a vehicle which would perpetuate the divine power of the Tabernacle. That this structure was possessed of such power is quite evident from the fact that, within its confines, Moses established the word of God among men. The Word has come down to us practically intact in the form of the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible; and the House still stands today! Its original form is essentially unchanged, although some of its parts have been destroyed by the violence of fire and the quantity of water, which have been visited upon it from time to time. This House and this Book were founded at one and the same time, and both are an integral part of Masonry.

This particular phase of the inquiry into the origin of Masonry deals with the shift from operative to speculative, for our ritual tells us that we no longer work in operative, but speculative Masonry only. An entirely new approach to this subject is to be had through the medium which has never changed since our Order was founded. That medium is the Holy Bible, which is placed in the same setting as Moses placed it in the beginning. Save for the legendary part of our ritual, it contains all the factual details of our Craft. When these factual details are worked out to their ultimate conclusion, it will be found that the legendary part of our ritual comprises but a very small percentage of the whole. That the operative phase of our Order was in effect during the time of Moses is stated in Exodus 1:11, "And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pitham and Raamses." It was from the builders of these two cities that Moses recruited the founders of our Order. They were the enslaved workers of Ramses II.

Ramses II reigned over Egypt from 1292 to 1225 B.C. His reign was singularly marked by a wealth of building activities. He completed Seti's Temple at Abydos, and added to the Temples at Luxor and Karnak. He constructed at Thebes the great mortuary Temple of the Rameseum, with its colossal statues of himself; and he built the rock-cut temple at Abu-Simbel. During the early part of his reign Ramses II engaged in an important campaign against the Hittites, and fought an indecisive battle at Kadesh on the Orontes River in Syria. In these forays across Palestine, and into Syria, the victor found a means to augment his labour supply in the form of prisoners of war. They were put to work building such cities as Pithom and Ramses, and it was from their ranks that Moses recruited the people of his Exodus. It is specifically stated that some of them worked in brick and mortar (Exodus 1:14). Any attempt to connect our membership with operative masonry at a later period in history is an inconsistency, for it was these builders of Pithom and Ramses who established speculative Masonry when they built the Tabernacle on Mt. Sinai.

The Tabernacle was really the first Temple, for it was, and still is, a masterpiece of the builder's art. Every part of it has a symbolic meaning far beyond anything incorporated into the Temple built by Solomon. The superb engineering employed in the design of the Tabernacle indicates that several years of study went into this feature alone prior to its actual building. Since Moses was a royal scribe by calling, he undoubtedly planned the Tabernacle in collaboration with an architect. This period of planning took place while they were still in Egypt, for a great many of its features were borrowed from those to be found in the Temples along the Nile. Its design was too intricate to have been improvised in the desert of Sinai.

Ramses II died in 1225 B.C., and was succeeded by Merneptah. From all the evidence available, it is quite plain the Exodus must have taken place fairly close to this change in the administration of the affairs of Egypt. In summing up, operative Masonry flourished during the reign of Ramses II, and the transition to speculative Masonry took place during the reign of Merneptah.

The transition to the speculative phase is definitely stated in the words of Exodus 36:8, "And every wise hearted man among them that wrought the work of the tabernacle made ten curtains of fine twined linen." This is the first of a long list of specifications, wherein Moses describes the manner in which the Tabernacle was built. It is placed first because these ten curtains of fine twined linen symbolized a pair of hands raised in supplication. Symbolically, they were so placed that Moses might tell us that no man should ever enter upon any great or important undertaking without first invoking the blessing of God.

As a protege of the royal household, Moses was raised in the pagan worship of Osiris, a deified king. The domain of Osiris was centred in an underground heaven, sealed with the doom of perpetual darkness. This great king of the spiritual world was flanked with a myriad of lesser deities, to whom tribute had to be paid before the novitiate could hope to enter. Associated with this monopoly of the Egyptian hierarchy was the tyranny and oppression of its rulers.

As Moses grew to manhood he saw that the beneficence of God came from above, and that it was the Light from the celestial sphere which caused all nature to blossom forth and prosper. His problem was to present this new doctrine to a people whose ancestors had been steeped in paganism for centuries. To this end he endowed his House with the attributes of the heavens by making every part thereof symbolic of some feature of the celestial sphere. This master plan, of course, called for the utmost secrecy, and was tied in with a key. The plan itself he concealed by scattering it throughout all five of the books of the Pentateuch, but the key was left for future ages to discover. Since every one of the 7,625 parts of the Tabernacle played a part in its symbolic meaning, the building of this House coincided with the commencement of the speculative phase of Masonry.