Vol. XXX No. 11 — November 1952

The Prestonian Charges

In a majority of American Grand Lodges either the Master, a Past Master, or some brother appointed for the purpose, delivers the “Charge” of the degree conferred.

In most Grand Lodges these are Thomas Smith Webb’s abbreviations of the original charges written by William Preston in his Illustrations of Masonry (first edition 1772), or the same somewhat altered and edited.

The Standard Dictionary defines the word charge in several ways; the definition which applies Masonically is “To give command, instruction, direction or advice, especially in an official or formal address; to exhort, instruct earnestly, solemnly, authoritatively.”

Quotations here made are from the charges of the three degrees as printed in “The first American improved edition of Illustrations of Masonry”, dated 1804 and edited by George Richards. There was another “first American edition”, published in Virginia; the two editions appeared almost simultaneously and apparently neither author was known to the other.

Curiously enough, little is to be found in print in American magazines, encyclopedias or indeed in any books on Masonry, regarding the charges given after the degrees — there is much in many books regarding “The Old Charges” which are a part of the first Book of Constitutions of Anderson, first printed in 1723.

In Preston’s charge after the first degree the first paragraph is devoted to praises of Masonry and the proud and familiar boast that “Monarchs in all ages have been encouragers and promoters of the Art, etc.”

Following are paragraphs devoted to admonitions; the first is of particular interest because of its footnote. Preston wrote: “As a Mason you are to study the moral law, as contained in the sacred code * to consider it as the unerring standard of truth and justice, and to regulate your life and actions by its divine precepts.” The footnote referred to by the asterisk reads; “* The Bible, and in countries where that book is not known, whatever is understood to contain the will or law of God.” Inasmuch as this was written before Masonry had reached the Far East, where, later, English Masonry was to permit other Books of the Law than the Bible upon the Altars of their lodges, Preston evidently recognized that the Bible was, Masonically, not a holy book of either Jews or Gentiles, but representative — in other words a symbol — of all divine pronouncements, no matter from whose hands or of what Deity or religion.

Follows next the familiar paragraph of the three great moral duties owed by a Mason to God, to neighbour and to self. Here in somewhat quaint language is found Preston’s conception of the Masonic Golden Rule. He writes: “To your neighbour, in acting upon the square, and considering him equally entitled with yourself to share the blessings of Providence, rendering unto him those favours, which in a similar situation you would expect to receive from him.”

A reflection of Preston’s age — which was one of license, drinking and gormandizing, in all of which a “gentleman” might indulge without reproach — is in the following sentence, in which a Mason’s duty is set forth as “And to yourself, by not abusing the bounties of Providence, impairing the faculties by irregularity, or debasing the profession by intemperance.”

Modern adaptations of Preston’s conception of “Masonic duty, as a good subject” omit some of the spirit of Preston’s words — and no wonder, since the American Masonry of Preston’s Illustrations of Masonry was the Masonry which followed the American Revolution. Preston’s words are:

“In the state, you are to be a quiet and peaceable subject, true to your sovereign, and just to your country; you are not to countenance disloyalty or rebellion, but patiently submit to legal authority, and conform with cheerfulness to the government under which you live, yielding obedience to the laws which afford you protection, and never forgetting the attachment you owe to the place of your nativity, or the allegiance due to the sovereign and protectors of that spot.”

Most modern adaptations of Preston still forbid “disloyalty and rebellion” although we have replaced “sovereign” by “government” and usually omit all “allegiance due to the sovereign and protectors of that spot.”

If the Prestonian charges were used in the United States during the Revolution (which is hardly probable) we can be sure that this paragraph about “rebellion” was not included!

Preston’s First Degree charge contains much usually omitted in the United States; he cautions against those “who may artfully endeavour to insinuate themselves into your esteem” and warns against “dishonourable action”. He speaks of “the inconceivable pleasure of contributing towards the relief of our fellow creatures” and then admonishes of a Mason “supposing himself in a situation of an unhappy sufferer, he listens to the tale of woe with attention, bewails misfortune and speedily relieves distress”.

The initiate is to study the Constitution, history, lives of Masonry’s patrons, the ancient charges, the general regulations. He is instructed to attend “that assembly where your name is enrolled as a member” and order, decorum and harmony are to be preserved and good manners are essential. Profanity is decried, religion and politics forbidden as subjects for discussion and caution about “irreverent behaviour” is set forth.

The final paragraphs have been less changed than some of the others, but one followed by an “Eulogium of Masonry”, an impassioned, somewhat verbose but wholly dignified tribute, which, because used so little if at all in our American system, seems here worth quoting in full:

“Masonry comprehends within its circle every branch of useful knowledge and learning, and stamps an indelible mark of preeminence on its genuine professors, which neither chance, power, nor fortune can bestow. When its rules are strictly observed, it is a sure foundation of tranquillity amidst the various disappointments of life; a friend that will not deceive, but will comfort and assist, in prosperity and adversity; a blessing that will remain with all times, circumstances, and places, and to which recourse may be had, when other earthly comforts sink into disregard.

“Masonry gives real and intrinsic excellency to man, and renders him fit for the duties of society. It strengthens the mind against the storms of life, paves the way to peace, and promotes domestic happiness. It meliorates the temper, and improves the understanding; it is company in solitude, and gives vivacity, variety, and energy to social conversation. In youth, it governs the passions, and employs usefully our most active faculties; and in age, when sickness, imbecility, and disease have benumbed the corporeal frame, and rendered the union of soul and body almost intolerable, it yields a fund of comfort and satisfaction.

“These are its general advantages; to enumerate them separately, would be an endless labour: it may be sufficient to observe, that he who cultivates this science, and acts agreeably to the character of a Mason, has within himself the spring and support of every social virtue; a subject of contemplation, that enlarges the mind, and expands all its powers; a theme that is inexhaustible, ever new, and always interesting.”

The original Preston Apprentice Degree charge is much longer than most American jurisdictions use. There is less change in original Preston in the charges of the second and third degrees, but those small changes seem worth noting. Three paragraphs of Preston are usually (not invariably) omitted in modern practice; these are as follows:

“As the solemnity of our ceremonies requires a serious deportment, you are to be particularly attentive to your behaviour in our regular assemblies; you are to preserve our ancient usages and customs sacred and inviolable; and induce others, by your example, to hold them in due veneration.

“As a craftsman, in our private assemblies, you may offer your sentiments and opinions on such subjects as are regularly introduced in the Lecture. By this privilege you may improve your intellectual powers; qualify yourself to become an useful member of society; and like a skillful brother, strive to excel in every thing that is good and great.

“All regular signs and summonses, given and received, you are duly to honour, and punctually to obey; inasmuch as they consist with our professed principles. You are to supply the wants and relieve the necessities of your brethren and fellows to the utmost of your power and ability; and you are on no account to wrong them, or see them wronged; but apprise them of approaching danger, and view their interest as inseparable from your own.”

It is interesting also to note that modern Preston is ancient Preston rearranged; modern second degree Preston puts “Your past behaviour and regular deportment . . . steadily persevere in the practice of every commendable virtue” at the close of the charge, whereas in original Preston it is a part of the second paragraph.

One oddity in the charge to the Masters Degree makes moderns wonder. We are still instructed that it is the internal and not the external qualifications of a man which Masonry regards. We still meet upon the level. In a Masonic lodge all members are on the same equality. While we have officers, they are still brethren, and it is we, and not the world, who elevate them temporarily to stations of responsibility. The levelling influence of the fraternity was one of its charms in an older day as well as when Roosevelt the First declared that “it was good for him and good for me” when he went to the lodge of which his gardener was Master.

Yet in the Prestonian charge to the third degree we find set forth that a Mason has inferiors, equals and superiors!

More, we must “recommend” to our inferiors that they be obedient to us and submit — supposedly to our authority. To our equals we must be courteous and affable, and teach them to be affable and courteous to us. To our superiors, we are to suggest that they treat us with kindness and with condescension, and, supposedly, we are to accept the kindness with gratitude and are to be not dismayed nor resentful when they are condescending!

However, even Jove was supposed to nod, and if Preston wrought into his charges something of the feeling of a “gentleman” of the England of the seventeen seventies, at least he succeeded, in his gentle charges to all of us who are his Masonic posterity, a clear picture of the educated, kindly, goodly citizen which a Mason has always been supposed to be.

Preston at the close of the American Master Mason Degree is practically the same with Preston in the original.

Preston at the close of the second degree is in modern days Preston with some omissions.

Preston at the close of the Apprentice degree is Preston more omitted than present.

Most of the alterations, rearrangements and omissions made in the original Preston are probably to be credited to Thomas Smith Webb, the noted American Freemason whose monument is the exoteric work of the majority of Grand Lodges in the United States.

There are some exceptions; occasionally some changes have been wrought in Preston by Grand Lodges which have added paragraphs to Preston as edited by Webb. These are easy to distinguish, even without an original Preston or a Webb Monitor at hand for comparison. For none of these modern additions carry either the spirit or style of Preston. With these this Bulletin is not concerned; the matter is but mentioned here that any reader, conscious of paragraphs in the charges he knows, not here given or commented upon, may the more easily distinguish what is modern and American from what is ancient and Prestonian.

Comparison with the charges as printed in Webb’s Freemason’s Monitor and most of the charges as used in the United States now show a close approximation. A comparison of Webb with Preston indicates that Webb desired to make the charges of approximately the same length, and suggests that he had the practical problem of memorization constantly before him.

Webb taught, exhorted, pleaded, commanded. He was a dynamic force in the spread of Preston. A revered Past Grand Master of Rhode Island, he is to be looked upon as one of the builders, if not the founders of the American Rite.

But at his best Webb is but an editor of Preston, and it is to Preston that we owe much of the gentle insistence of the Ancient Craft on dignity, manhood, probity and learning.

It is a matter for congratulations that while shortening his paragraphs Webb did not alter Preston’s spirit.

The general effect of Preston — the aroma of a bygone age — is preserved. His phrases are old fashioned, well rounded, sonorous periods. He uses several words where one will do. But even where modernizing has washed away some of the pleasing odours of a faded flower something remains in our modernized Prestonian charges to remind us of a more leisurely Masonic day.

The Masonic Service Association of North America