Vol. XXIV No. 1 — January 1946

“The Masonic Conservators”

A fascinating page of Masonic history tells the story of this secret organization devoed to establishing and teaching a uniform ritual among the Grand Lodges of the United States almost a hundred years ago.

Rob Morris, Poet Laureate of Freemasonry, past grand master of Kentucky, generally credited with haing written all or parts of the ritual of the Order of the Eastern Star, was the founder of the movement. Universally now regarded as a good man and true, an altruist, an idealist, unselfish and kind, if visionary and without balanced judgment, Morris was “Chief Conservator” and probably the chief sufferer from the bitterness which his system engendered in grand lodges.

The idea was first sprung upon the Fraternity in late June 1860, when many eminent craftsmen received an invitation from Morris to join what he termed “an association of experienced and devoted Masons” under the title “Conservators of Symbolical Masonry.” Its purposes were set forth as ten in number:

  1. The dissemination of the ancient and genuine Work and Lectures of the first Three Degrees, as arranged by Preston, and taught by Thomas Smith Webb.
  2. Discountenancing all changes, innovations, and errors of every sort, introduced into the first Three Degrees of Masonry since the death of Webb, in 1819.
  3. Establishing a perfect uniformity in the means of recognition, the ceremonies, the language of the Lectures, and everything that is secret in Symbolical Masonry.
  4. Building up Schools in Instruction in every lodge in which the same Work and Lectures shall be taught that are taught everywhere else.
  5. Instructing intelligent and ardent Masons for the work and responsibility of Masonic lecturers.
  6. Affording traveling brethren the opportunity to pass themselves with honor and credit in every lodge they may visit.
  7. Strengthening the ties that bind Masons generally together, by adding the additional ties of Conservators of the Work.
  8. Detecting and exposing imposters.
  9. Encouraging mutual acquaintance, conference, counsel, and sympathy among the Conservators.
  10. Opening the way for a more intimate communion between the Masons of Europe and America.

The invitation suggested that if the recipients approved of the purposes of the movement they so signify. Many responded; these then received a long communication from Morris setting forth in detail seven features of the organization which specified secrecy, a Masonic degree (Conservator’s Degree) a journal published for members only, the learning and teaching of “the original Prestonian work as taught by Webb,” the exemplification of degrees before grand lodges and lodges, the “mode of disseminating the work,” and a request for ten dollars which was the only contribution ever to be asked of those who joined.

The association was to exist for five years only; at the end of that period Morris envisioned a Fraternity completely won over to the “old and original” work; a Craft which had abandoned all grand-lodge-promulgated rituals which did not agree with that taught by the Conservators, and thus lodges which would forevermore live in peace and harmony with a completely uniform method of work throughout the nation.

Alas, for the best laid plans of men!

Morris apparently had small knowledge of human nature. He did not understand that a fraternal bond among men is no guarantee that they will all think alike on all subjects. The secrecy he enjoined, the trust he reposed in the hundreds if not thousands to whom he wrote (that they would not disclose the existence of the Conservators, even if they did not join) was soon broken. Not all who received his first letter wrote for more particulars; not all who received the long letter on the “seven features” became members. Some talked. Many were against the idea of changing their own grand lodge ritual; others did not believe that Morris had any clear authority for claiming that the ritual the Conservators taught was any more original, authentic or true than the rituals already in use.

Morris, of course, was intensely enthusiastic. Hear him on the blessings which the Conservators were to bring to the Masonic world.

The great advantage of uniformity of work throughout this large country are apparent to all. In an age when every man is a traveler, an institution originally designed for travelers should be universal in its mode of examination, or it is of no account. The ten thousand innovations recently introduced are so many obstacles to travel. They daily embarrass, hinder, and prevent good Masons from visiting lodges, thus depriving them of the highest privilege known to Masonry. A return to a uniform system, and that the old system, will restore this precious privilege, set the whole Brotherhood upon the study of Masonic ritualism, and create a oneness of sentiment and aim, which at present does not exist. A thousand lodges in the United States are now (March 1861) learning this work, the old work of Preston and Webb. A large number of the most learned, devoted and influential members of the fraternity, living in every jurisdiction, have set themselves to the task of acquiring, that they may disseminate it, and success is quite sure, and will be even more speedy, than in the days of which we have spoken.

It is necessary to understand something of the times to realize the intensity of the controversy which Morris, with the best of intentions, created among his brethren. Freemasonry, if small and weak compared to its numbers and strength today, was hopeful, ambitious, and going forward. It was only twenty-five years beyond the disruption and disintegration of the Morgan episode and its ten years of ugliness and persecution. Anything which seemed to make for unity, for improvement, for progress was welcomed. Travel was difficult, journeys long; could uniform work be established the traveler’s path might be much eased.

But difficult travel also brought few problems of differing rituals to small grand lodges; each then (as now!) regarded its own ritual as “the only true work.” Jealousies were easily aroused. Many good men and true not invited to become Conservators were envious of those who had been invited, and promptly took up arms against those who dared to propose to come into their grand lodges and teach a different mode of work.

Morris’ idea of the “mode of disseminating the work and lectures" brought bitter and angry criticism from those to whom any attempt to reduce the esoteric work of the Fraternity to print — no matter how abstruse and difficult to read might be the cipher — was anathema. Many grand lodges then (as now) frowned upon a cipher code as much as they did upon “exposés” of Freemasonry’s secrets. And here came a stranger from a strange land, with a new ritual in the one hand, an abstruse and difficult to read code in the other, to teach that grand lodge work is wrong! The Conservators soon had more enemies than friends.

To be just to Morris, he never intended that any of his disciples should attempt to force his ritual on grand lodges. Throughout his letters and publications he defers to grand lodges and their powers. He sought to persuade, not to enjoin. He believed utterly that he had the “only true work” and was convinced that it would win its own way by its inherent rightness. He hoped that a grand lodge listening to one exemplification would be so entranced with the beauties of the “original” work that it would promptly throw its own version into the discard and adopt the words of the Conservators.

If in this day and age this seems an almost childish faith, it should be looked at through the gentle eyes of the poet, the heart of a man who believed he had a mission not of the earth, earthy, to do a service for the Craft he loved.

Almost three thousand Masons joined the movement; among them were nearly fifty grand and past grand officers. There were Conservators in thirty-four states, a territory, even in England and Scotland.

The Mnemonics — which was Morris’ method of teaching — was a complicated and difficult compilation of letters and figures in one book and a “spelling book,” in which every word in the Masonic ritual was to be found. The cipher read sometimes down, sometimes up, sometimes across; sometimes it was to be read continuously, at others by skipping various columns. It was probably as secret as any cipher which is to be widely used can be, but then, even as now, many Masons resented any “key” to the work; any “cipher” setting forth that which should not be printed. And this, too, added to the opposition which the Conservators began to experience.

For two years the movement had some — not very much — success. Iowa, Indiana, North Carolina were kind to the idea at first. Many lodges received the work either at the hands of their own brethren who had become Conservators, or from traveling Conservators who appeared by invitation. A common figure in these days was the “professional” traveling Masonic lecturer, who, for a suitable fee, instructed in “the only true work” (which might be Webb or Cross or Barney or Cushman or Vinton or any one of a dozen noted “Masonic lecturers”). Hence a traveling Conservator was no phenomenon and likely to be accepted at his own valuation.

But the storm was rising; when it broke, it let go with the fury of pent-up emotions. As is too often so, to make a case the opponents of the Conservator system resorted to some measure of vilification of the man behind — Morris — and accusations were hurled at him which now seem so unjust that it is a wonder they gained hearers. Particularly atrocious was the charge that the whole movement was a pecuniary scheme designed to enrich Morris. As Morris was often too poor to buy transportation to a grand lodge to defend himself, had a large family brought up in poverty and died a poor man, this charge was obviously untruthful.

But there was no untruth in the statements that the Conservators were trying to introduce into grand jurisdictions a system of ritual and lectures foreign to that prescribed by those grand lodges. Indeed, some of the fury which descended from the Masonic heaven might well have been born in the uncomfortable knowledge that Morris had, to some minor extent at least, succeeded in teaching, and persuading brethren to accept, his “only true work.”

Whatever the combined causes, the Masonic hurricane of the next three years blew the organization to tatters and scattered it like chaff. Grand lodge after grand lodge passed condemnatory resolutions, laws, edicts, ukases, commands. One grand lodge for a while demanded an “oath of renunciation” from all who would hold office, and from Masons desiring to affiliate — the renunciation was all-embracing and took in the Conservators from Rob Morris at the beginning to The Mnemonics at the end.

Missouri, Maine, Michigan, Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Ohio, Vermont, New York, and finally Iowa, and then the grand lodge of the Chief Conservator, Morris, read the Conservators out of the Masonic picture, sometimes in restrained and temperate language, at times with such emphasis as to indicate that high treason were a small crime compared to trying to change the existing ritual!

Of course the Conservators defended themselves, and had their champions. There were (still are) many who believe that a uniform ritual is the answer to all Masonic problems. Many brethren who were little interested in either the Conservators or grand lodge objections to them, did not approve of the personal attacks made upon Morris. Illinois was for long a friend of the movement and the controversy which arose between some of her brethren and those in opposing grand lodges, notably Missouri, adds nothing to the lustre of this bypath of Masonic history.

But in spite of defenders, in spite of a deep belief on the part of many that uniform ritual was desirable if not a necessity, in spite of Morris’ personal rectitude and dignity and a heart undoubtedly innocent of any ulterior motive, the attack was too strong. One man, one idea, less than three thousand members engaged in a crusade which could hardly have been better designed had its purposes been to offend grand lodges, could not stand against the tempest.

When the “five year plan” (to borrow from modern Russia) had run its course, the Conservators were dissolved as Morris had promised they would be, and a conception born of fanatical loyalty to an ideal passed into history as a discredited movement followed by the curses of the leading Grand Lodges of the union.

What results came to the Craft? In his final analysis Morris claimed much; history, perhaps, does not now and never will agree with him. The Conservators contributed an interesting era to Masonic history; his movement brought forth intense controversy, which undoubtedly stirred Masonic energies and brought new life to the Craft; five years of teaching of one ritual all over the United States left its impress upon the Masonic rituals which finally absorbed them into their own.

Whatever the net results, the quarrels are now all composed, the antagonists lie side by side in their parent dust, forty-nine grand lodges exist in peace and harmony with forty-nine different rituals nor ever think, now, of those who once tried to make most of them think and speak alike.

And Masonic history, too often thought dry and uninteresting, is the brighter for a vivid page as seen in the perspective of eighty years!

Note: For a more complete account of the Masonic Conservators, see past grand master (Mo.) Ray V. Denslow’s book of that name, to which the editor is principally indebted for the facts in this short summary.

The Masonic Service Association of North America