Vol. XXXI No. 11 — November 1953

Seven Less than Famous

Many great names in Freemasonry are known to all — Pike, Mackey, Price, Webb, Burns, Hughan, Revere, Warren, Wren, Drummond, the Parvins, etc.

But there are many lesser lights; men and brethren who have made some record in the Fraternity, contributed each his mite and passed from the stage of the Ancient Craft, leaving only a memory in the minds of students or a paragraph in an old and seldom opened book.

Yet romance rode with them as they made their entrance on the Masonic scene and to some might have come a larger fame, had their lives and works not been overshadowed by greater men.

Seven of these are here mentioned for the interest of those who like to tread the bypaths of Freemasonry.

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Not many will recognize the name Thayendanegea as that of Joseph Brant, Mohawk Indian Chief. His story seems well authenticated and is credited by Masonic historians.

Born in 1742 in Ohio, he was educated in Connecticut, and later went to England. Here he was made a Master Mason in Falcon lodge (of the Moderns) in 1776.

During the Revolution, Brant commanded some Indian troops for the British. While in this service he learned that his troops had captured an American soldier. Investigating, Brant found a Captain John McKinstry tied to the stake, with the Indian troops about to commence torture by fire.

In some way McKinstry made a sign of distress. Brant interposed and rescued the American. Brant either took or sent McKinstry to Quebec and placed him in the hands of some Canadian Masons, who later were able to return him uninjured to the American troops.

Much later (1787), when Brant had returned to the arts of peace, he translated the Gospel of St. Mark into the Mohawk language.

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Every American knows the song “Old Folks at Home” — usually called “Swanee River.” (Swanee is a contraction of Suwanee.) It made Stephen Foster famous and gave him a permanent place among American musical composers.

Masonically, the same kind fate followed Matthew Birkhead; his almost universally known “Enter’d ’Prentices Song” brought him fame if not fortune.

Come, let us prepare
We Brothers that are
 Met together on merry Occasion!
Let’s drink, laugh and sing
Our wine has a Spring,
 ’Tis a health to an Accepted Mason.

It was published first in 1722, shortly before Birkhead’s death. It was immortalized by being printed in the first Book of Constitutions (Anderson’s) in 1723.

Birkhead was not only a composer but a singer and an actor at the famous Drury Lane Theater in London. Mackey says he was master of “Lodge V” at the time Anderson was preparing his Constitutions.

Reade’s Weekly Journal, January 12, 1723, thus describes his funeral:

Mr. Birkhead was last Saturday night carried from his Lodging in Which-street to be interr’d at St. Clements Danes; the Pall was supported by six Free-Masons belonging to Drury-Lane Playhouse; the other Members of that particular lodge of which he was a Warden, with a vast number of other Accepted-Masons, followed two and two; both the Pall-bearers and others wore the white-aprons.

Birkhead’s song, often called “The Freemasons Health” has had many adventures; it has been altered, added to, caricatured, changed and abused; sometimes by friends, more often by opponents of Freemasonry. But its publication in the first Constitutions has brought it to modern eyes and ears as he wrote it. As “Old Folks at Home” is an American and deathless folk song, so is Birkheads “Enter’d ‘Prentices Song” to the Craft.

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Lilies are not the less beautiful that they grow upon a dung hill. Most gardeners prefer their flowers in less odorous beds but the fact remains that the beauty of the lily is in the flower and not in its roots.

Giacomo Casanova, Italian adventurer, born 1725, has probably as evil a reputation as a man can get. He was a boastful braggart; he wrote at length of his seductions of innocent women; he was a spy and was caught at it; he was a gambler; he was repeatedly exiled from countries to which he had fled because of trouble with the police. In spite of all this he had a great list of prominent people at least as acquaintances, including some high dignitaries of the Catholic church.

He was made a Mason in Lyons, France in 1750.

The Craft must have made a mighty appeal to this wild adventurerous man without morals. For scattered through his extensive Memoirs are references to Freemasonry, some of them as beautiful as a modern poet might write.

He advised all young men who are well born, traveled, and wish to become of value in the society in which they find themselves, to become Freemasons “even though it would only be to know superficially what it (Freemasonry) is.”

He defended the Fraternity with unmeasured scorn from those who thought it political, anarchistic, and subversive in character. He scorned its detractors. He asked young men to “choose well the lodge, for although bad company cannot work in the lodge, it may however be found there and the candidate ought to guard himself against dangerous associations.”

What is really remarkable, however, and this adventurer’s chief claim to fame in Freemasonry, is his reverent appreciation of the inner content of the art. His words might have been those of a Joseph Fort Newton when he asserts that the real secrets of the Fraternity are not in its ceremonies, its signs, its symbols or its words, but are to be found only in reflection, reason, comparison, deduction. He avers that the secret of Freemasonry, discovered by the individual, cannot be imparted to another; in other words that it is beyond words.

Casanova, the criminal, the lecher, the despoiler of women, the rascal and the despised, thus joined himself to those immortals who have learned that Freemasonry’s real secret is of the heart and not the tongue.

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Dr. George Oliver, English clergyman, scholar, student, blamelessly living and enthusiastic Freemason and writer extraordinary upon the Fraternity was born 1782, and died in 1867. No man, living or dead, has wielded a more active pen in behalf of the order, and if one may judge the heart by the tongue, none have loved Freemasonry more.

He may justly be considered as a great, if not the principal, source of Masonic literature as it is conceived today. He wrote largely in an age when nothing was being written of the Craft; from his study poured history, symbolism, law, morals, religion, ethics, facts, and fancy in an endless river of information — and, alas, misinformation.

That the modern Masonic world owes an unpayable debt to George Oliver few will question. But countless Freemasons were misled by his enthusiasms and his credulities, and, even today, many quote him as an authority when his principal beliefs and statements are completely done away by modern scholarship.

Gentle in thought, kindly, almost a living picture of a composite of all English clergymen, Oliver’s character was interwoven with a streak of mysticism and a credulity that seems almost out of character in a man of such otherwise rich scholastic attainments. From this almost childlike belief in the fairy tales he told himself, sprang a total misconception of the Craft. Had his ideas persisted, the man who loved it so greatly might have killed it.

Oliver’s Masonic beliefs of the coming into being of the Craft are now known to be nonsense. He taught that Masonry began in the earliest periods of history that it was given by Seth to his descendants, that Noah knew it, and that after Noah the art became divided into “pure” and "Spurious.” The "pure Freemasonry” came down through the patriarchs of the Old Testament to Solomon, and so on down to us.

There have been fanciful histories of Freemasonry before Oliver — in many an Old Manuscript Constitution is to be found a legendary history of the Craft as romantically untrue as any Oliver ever wrote. But Oliver’s great disservice to the Craft he loved was his insistence upon a Christian character — he failed utterly to see that the non-sectarianism of the order was its great attraction and the tight bond between its adherents. Had Oliver’s beliefs persisted there would be no universality in Freemasonry and no meeting of men of a hundred religions about a common altar, where each may worship the God he knows under the all inclusive name of Great Architect of the Universe.

Oliver is revered in Masonic scholastic circles, but he is not respected as an authority. He is cherished as a devoted and enthusiastic Freemason, and today, largely discredited. For all that he did that was good he is loved; what he wrote that is ridiculous is more or less forgotten.

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Honored in American Masonic history beyond most teachers and exemplars of Freemasonry is Thomas Smith Webb, too famous to be included in this small compilation of those less renowned. Among his pupils were John Barney and Jeremy Cross; teachers of Masonic work, traveling "grand lecturers” who carried the banners of good ritual into far places and spread the “true Prestonian work” of Thomas Smith Webb through much of what was then the United States.

Their prototype in the country of the Mother Grand Lodge was Peter William Gilkes (pronounced and sometimes spelled Jilks). More famous in England than here, he was among the moving spirits to establish the English lodge of Emulation, the purposes of which were (and are) "to hand down the Ceremonies and Lectures unaltered and unchanged from generation to generation."

Peter Gilkes was a consecrated Freemason. He gave his whole life to the work of teaching Masonry, except such effort as was required to keep him alive. He was a “Greengrocer” and made a modest living at it; indeed, he seems to have made a little more since his small fortune was finally sufficient for him to retire and live, unmarried, in one room with an old servant to look after him, and devote himself entirely to the Craft.

Repeatedly he refused grand lodge honors because his “circumstances in life were not equal to the appointment.”

But if he would not accept office in grand lodge, he was willing to do so in individual lodges. He was apparently a revered member of more than a dozen lodges, in ten of which he occupied the chairs and was eventually master!

He had a great number of London pupils; brethren who found in his devotion to his duty (he instructed, apparently, without any payment for his time), his knowledge of the ritual, Masonic law and regulations, a source both of easy learning and of inspiration.

In 1822 a number of his pupils presented to him a past master’s jewel so encrusted with diamonds that it cost one hundred guinaes ($500). Mackey says that this jewel is still preserved by Percy Lodge, which he had visited some eighty-five times and in which, though not a member, he acted as master for three consecutive years.

Five hundred dollars in those days was about equivalent to ten times that amount now [1953], so that the offering of his pupils was at least commensurate with the value they put upon his life and works.

This modest brother who neither asked nor received pay, devoted a lifetime to imparting the arts of the Fraternity to his brethren, and this work brought him a niche all his own in the English halls of Masonic fame and make his labor a pleasant memory in all Masonic histories.

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Among the most pitiful Masonic martyrs is a man whose very name is unknown except to students, philosophers and historians of the Craft. Ask in any lodge meeting “who knows who Carl Christian Frederich Krause was?” and receive a puzzled silence — likely — for reply!

Yet Krause was a great man, a great Mason, a great thinker in the days in which he lived. Even today his Masonic philosophy is quoted with respect, although the basis on which he built was sand and not rock.

He was born in Eisenberg, Germany, in 1781, educated at Jena and, later, in Dresden, was initiated into lodge Archimedes in 1805.

A picture of the German Craft nearly a hundred and fifty years ago will show a deep-seated feeling that Freemasonry was only for the elect, the noble, the rich, the great. That “to labor is to pray” had not yet become known in German Freemasonry, and lodge doors were closed to all but the elite.

Hence Masonic literature was small, poor, and usually incorrect.

Krause was a highly intelligent man. He was a Doctor of Philosophy, a deep student, a teacher, possessed a brilliant intellect. He began to write the Masonic literature he could not find. Before he wrote he talked, as orator in the lodge of the Three Swords, and his words were well received. But when he purposed to put into print his desires to make Freemasonry the germinating ground of a world order for peace and prosperity, his Masonic superiors became frightened. When he did publish his Three Oldest Documents of the Brotherhood of Freemasons he ran into Masonic grief. German grand lodges tried to buy his work to destroy it; failing in that, he was expelled from Freemasonry and persecuted by Freemasons for the rest of his life.

Modern writers have united in condemning the masterminds of such a narrow Freemasonry and Masonic educators find much in Krause’s philosophy, which is as sound today as when written. Unhappily for Krause, he was misled in the foundations of his work; his Three Oldest Documents were the Leland Manuscript (its authenticity is much questioned today), the Entered Apprentice's Lecture, published early in the 18th century and by no means the oldest catechism, and the so-called “York Constitutions” which, claiming the date of A.D. 926, is actually a product of the early eighteenth century.

Today Krause stands as perhaps the greatest gift of German Freemasonry to the Masonic world; in reality the founder of modern Masonic literature; a scholar who was a philosopher; a philosopher who was ahead of his time; a progressive mind that belonged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that had such power as enabled it to project itself to the modern era and into modern Masonic minds.

The treatment he received at the hands of his brethren is their disgrace and his contributions to Masonic thought are our heritage.

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It is ironic but true that some of Freemasonry’s greatest enemies in the perspective of years have proved to be among its largest benefactors. No student of ritual but owes a debt of gratitude to the foresworn authors of Masonry Dissected and Jachin and Boaz, early English exposés of Freemasonry, and no historian but will doff his hat at the mention of Dr. Robert Plot, who went out of his way to condemn and ridicule the Freemasonry of his time.

Dr. Plot was a learned man. Born 1651, died 1696, he used a short life to perfect himself in education, became a professor of chemistry at Oxford, and was later the keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, to which position Elias Ashmole (whose diary records the earliest making of a Speculative Mason which is thus documented) appointed him.

Dr. Plot wrote a book called The Natural History of Staffordshire. In this volume, which had nothing to do with Freemasonry, he wrote a violent diatribe about the society. He must have either been an initiate (of which there is no record) or to have talked with some brethren who were more careless in their conversations than they should have been.

However he received his knowledge, he promptly made of it a peg on which to hang ridicule of the Fraternity, and in so doing, disclosed much of the ideas, the practices and the ceremonies of the brethren of the year 1686 (the Mother Grand Lodge was not to come into being until thirty-one years more had passed).

It is from Plot that we know, for instance, that at early initiations the candidate presented “five or six” brethren and their wives with gloves, although nothing is said to indicate that the wives were present. According to Plot, the important part of a Masonic initiation was the communication of “certain Secret Signes” by which a brother could travel anywhere and be recognized. Plot also states that a strange brother, properly approached by a traveling Mason with the “Secret Signe,” must feed him, come to his relief, get him a job, take care of him!

There is much more to Plot on Masonry, some of it doubtless accurate, his Masonic history much open to question and all of it obviously anti-Masonic in spirit.

But the old enmity has metamorphosed into service; the ancient curses have become a blessing though his motives were unkind. We salute Dr. Plot as we pay him with a smile for what he told us of the old Freemasonry of the long ago and far away!

The Masonic Service Association of North America