Vol. XXIII No. 11 — November 1945

Good Masonic Books

Any interested Mason wants to read of the Ancient Craft. But many a young Mason gets the wrong books, and loses his first enthusiasm from perusal of uninspired pages, or, worse, inaccurate and unauthoritative works.

There are a few great, many good Masonic libraries in this country. Brethren who have access to grand lodge libraries possess a sure guide to good Masonic reading. But for every brother who can easily reach a Masonic collection, hundreds must depend upon their own selections and stock their own small private shelves.

It is for these that this Bulletin attempts to point out some paths which lead to the real satisfaction of eager Masonic inquiry.

No authorities agree on the “best” books. In 1938 W. Norman B. Hickox of Illinois asked sixteen Masonic authorities to submit lists of what they considered the twelve most important Masonic books; from their replies he compiled and published “The Twelve Treasured Tomes of Freemasonry.”

But the “twelve treasured tomes” were not unanimously selected; they represented the combined thought of the selectors, but none of the selectors agreed wholly with the final result.

“When doctors disagree, who shall decide?”

There is, then, nothing authoritative in the following suggestion of volumes for the new student. They are not listed in any order of importance; the list is not exclusive. But the books suggested are authentic and the product of recognized authorities.

Interested Masons want to know something of the history of Freemasonry, its laws, its symbols, its structure and formation, and its spiritual content.

Two histories of Freemasonry of large size are available; one by Albert Gallatin Mackey, one by Robert Freke Gould, the latter revised and brought up to date by inclusion of special histories of Freemasonry of all American grand lodges by historians selected by them. The Mackey history is in seven, the Scribner edition of Gould in six, large volumes.

Both are library sets and books of reference, rather than for connected and continuous reading.

Of smaller histories the one-volume Gould Concise History of Freemasonry and the Haywood and Craig history are excellent. Gould, an Englishman, writes of course from the standpoint of his own country, as do Haywood and Craig, both Americans. But both volumes are easy reading, authentic and interesting.

A book for students, a reference work of importance, and a monument to tireless research is Past Grand Master and Sovereign Grand Commander, Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, Northern Jurisdiction, Melvin M. Johnson’s monumental Beginnings of Freemasonry in America. It is invaluable for students of history and should have a place side by side with either Gould or Haywood and Craig.

Two special histories should not be overlooked; Freemasonry in the Thirteen Colonies by Jacob Hugo Tatsch and Territorial Masonry by Ray V. Denslow. The first tells the really fascinating story of the Craft in the early days of America; the second the equally romantic tale of the spread of Freemasonry westward. Tatsch, alas, is no longer with us; Denslow is very much alive, but the words of both will be sources of inspiration for many a year to come.

There are many good books on Masonic law; Pound, Lockwood, Mackey are all excellent. For the small library, Mackey’s Jurisprudence will probably be the choice, since he combines catholicity of treatment with clarity of style and simplicity of presentation of a rather abstruse subject which, without some inspiration, many readers find dull.

The reader, however, should be forewarned that Mackey’s treatment of the Ancient Landmarks, authoritative and important as it was when written, has produced a storm of controversy which is anything but settled. Many eminent Masonic jurists disagree violently with his statements of the Landmarks and he is not followed in his compilation by at least half of the grand lodges in this country.

No one should undertake even a casual study of Masonic law without knowing the fundamental volume on which all Masonic law is based — The Constitutions of 1723. Herein will be found “The Old Charges” and the “Thirty-nine Articles,” in this book brought to light in print for the first time.

The original volume is not obtainable, of course, the few copies extant all being priceless treasures of Masonic libraries. But excellent reprints, some of them photographic, are available. If the book sets forth much that is purely fanciful and mythical, it also makes available the solid structure of principles which, modified only slightly and to fit modern conditions, are still the basis of our governing laws.

Symbolism is a large subject — so large that of making of books on Masonic symbols there is no end. Albert Pike, whose name is revered in Scottish Rite Masonry, promulgated the doctrine that every Freemason has the inalienable right to discover and interpret the symbols of Freemasonry for himself, and at times it seems as if most of them have, and then printed their results!

Oliver Day Street, past grand master of Alabama, wrote Symbolism of the Three Degrees and during a quarter of a century the work has become standard. It is complete without being burdensome in size, and if it has less inspirational content than some of its successors, it also has a sound documentation and is based on reason. As much cannot be said for all volumes on symbolism; too many indulge in riotous flights of fancy. It is not too difficult to find grave articles on the symbolism of the apron in which much is made of its square shape and triangular flap, and many a learned lesson drawn from its supposed relationship to the Forty-Seventh Problem of Euclid. As the square apron with triangular flap is a manufacturer’s solution of the problem of making an inexpensive apron; as original Masonic aprons were first the shapeless skins of animals, later garments with rounded corners and flaps, using modern cotton aprons as a source of deep and abstruse Masonic symbolism rather reduces a beautiful subject to an absurdity.

If the Masonic inquirer wants further to pursue the subject, let him read Charles C. Hunt’s Some Thoughts on Masonic Symbolism. Hunt combines as do few writers the gift of careful, painstaking research with a spiritual vision and a clarity of sight of the reality behind the symbol which makes his Thoughts a joy.

If a reader must content himself with just one Masonic work — let us suppose the old question was rephrased “what is the one best Masonic book to take to a desert island” the answer would again have to be the inescapable Mackey. His Encyclopedia is the multum in parvo of Masonic books. Within its two volumes is history, law, jurisprudence, symbolism, structure, practice, myth, legend and fairy tale!

It has been often revised. The original copyright was in 1873: A revised edition with an Addendum by Charles T. McClenachan was copyrighted in 1884; a pronouncing dictionary was added in 1896. Then came the Clegg revisions; Robert I. Clegg did much to make the old book fit modern conditions.

It is not difficult to find fault with the book — indeed, the critic’s job is one of the easiest in the world with any book! But while some of the Encyclopedia is less than complete according to modern discoveries and much without inspiration, after all an encyclopedia is not the place to look for inspiration, and the volume will always stand as a great monument to its author. The Masonic world owes a debt never to be paid in this world to Mackey’s brilliant mind, indefatigable energy and logical and sound scholarship. In none of his many contributions to Masonic lore are these qualities exhibited to a greater degree than in the Encyclopedia.

It is a “must” for the smallest Masonic library.

It is possible to know Masonic history, be well grounded in Masonic law, pronounce as an authority on Masonic symbolism, and still lack any real knowledge of Freemasonry. For its greatest glory and its real importance lie in its spiritual, not its material and practical content. An analogy: a foreigner desiring to be naturalized in this country might pass an examination on the Constitution, wave the American flag and be able to recite all the dates of all the battles of all our wars, the names of all the presidents and expound the doctrine of states rights, and still have no comprehension of “the American way” or the reverence for liberty under law which is the foundation of American thought.

Hence any Masonic Library should have at least one, and better, several books which set forth the spiritual content of Freemasonry. “Spiritual content” here does not mean a sermon on vague generalities. On the contrary, it means the realities of Freemasonry, just as the spirit of liberty under law is the reality behind the government — nay, the very existence — of our America.

Here there will be little quarrel by even rival authors if Joseph Fort Newton is first on the personal library shelf with one, two or three books. First, of course The Builders which has been translated into a dozen languages and is probably the largest selling single volume in the Masonic field. It has some law, some history, some symbolism, but it is packed from end to end with a great vision of the Ancient Craft. Not to know it is to be, Masonically, poor in mind.

In lesser degree, the same author’s The Men’s House and The Religion of Masonry offer the reader swift wings to take him into the high places of the fraternity, and to show him a promised land beyond the horizon, a vision of which in the Masonic heart is a possession without money and without price.

Newton “has something.” Lesser writers will not cavil at the statement that he is both prophet and chronicler, with words of gold with which to adorn his visions with poetry and song.

There are collections of Masonic books available at special prices; of these The National Masonic Library of ten volumes and The Little Masonic Library of twenty volumes are representative.

The National Masonic Library contains Newton’s The Builders, The Men’s House, Religion of Masonry, Short Talks on Masonry, Haywood’s Symbolical Masonry and Great Teachings of Masonry, McBride’s Speculative Masonry, Johnson’s Beginnings of Freemasonry in America, Street’s Symbolism of the Three Degrees and Claudy’s “Foreign Countries.”

The Little Masonic Library has Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723 (photographic reprint) Shepherd’s Landmarks (two volumes) Pound’s Masonic Jurisprudence, Ravenscroft’s The Comacines, Newton’s Modern Masonry, Palmer’s Morgan Affair and Anti-Masonry, Goodwin’s Mormonism and Masonry, Evan’s York and Scottish Rites of Masonry, Masonry and the Flag (various authors) Masonry and Americanism (various authors) Morse’s Freemasonry in the American Revolution, Baird’s Great American Masons, Newton’s Masonry in the Great Light, Degrees and Great Symbols (various authors) Wright’s The Ethics of Freemasonry, Pike’s Meaning of Masonry, Claudy’s The Old Past Master and A Master’s Wages and Masonic Poems (various authors).

These two sets of books with an encyclopedia and a good history are both a graduate and postgraduate course in Freemasonry. In “The Twelve Treasured Tomes of Freemasonry” the Bible is given first place among Freemasonry’s most important books. It hardly seems necessary to list it among Masonic volumes, but it may be mentioned that there is a so-called “Masonic Bible” readily available in times of peace, difficult to get now on account of the paper shortage, which has preliminary pages devoted to articles upon King Solomon’s Temple and the Tabernacle (with Biblical references) and a section of Scriptural quotations and allusions in the Masonic ritual. The book is handsomely illustrated in color.

Let it be emphasized that the books herein described are not declared to be the “best” books; they are not the “only” books. All this Bulletin attempts to do is to offer suggestions to interested brethren as to where may be found good Masonic reading, proved by experience and written by brethren who are authorities in their fields.

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Since this Short Talk was written in 1945, many of the books mentioned herein have become unavailable.

As of 1977, they were out-of-print. Commercial publishers take great financial risks in re-printing Masonic books: they do not sell very well. The present high costs of printing are also responsible occasionally an out-of-print volume may be found in a second-hand book sellers shop. Otherwise, they can be read only by borrowing them from a well-furnished grand lodge Library.

For example. The National Masonic Library is no longer sold as a complete set in ten volumes. Some of the books are still available as single volumes from the Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply Company in Richmond, Virginia. Out-of-print are the titles listed on the preceding page as Haywood’s Symbolical Masonry, Johnson’s Beginnings of Freemasonry in America and Street’s Symbolism of the Three Degrees.

The Little Masonic Library is also available from Macoy, but the original twenty volumes have been combined into a five-volume set containing all the original material.

More recent books, also sold by Macoy, are Coil’s Masonic Encyclopedia, which develops Masonic topics along historical lines; Henry Wilson Coil’s Freemasonry through Six Centuries (2 vols); and Allen E. Roberts’ The Craft and its Symbols, an excellent interpretation of Masonic symbols for the beginner. Macoy has a list of Masonic books available from that source.

And in 2014 as this update is being prepared, many out-of-print Masonic books are again available in print-on-demand and e-book editions. A search of the Internet will yield many sources for the Masonic reader.

The Masonic Service Association of North America