Vol. XXXIV No. 2 — February 1956

The Broken Column

Many of Freemasonry’s symbols are of extreme antiquity and deserve the reverence which we give to that which has had sufficient vitality to live long in the minds of men. For instance, the square, the point within a circle, the apron, circumambulation, the Altar have been used not only in Freemasonry but in systems of ethics, philosophy and religions without number.

Other symbols in the Masonic system are more recent. Perhaps they are not the less important for that, even without the sanctity of age which surrounds many others.

Among the newer symbols is that usually referred to as the broken column. A marble monument is respectably ancient — the broken column seems a more recent addition.

There seems to be no doubt that the first pictured broken column appeared in Jeremy Cross’s True Masonic Chart, published in 1819, and that the illustration was the work of Amos Doolittle, engraver, of Connecticut.

Broken Column

That Jeremy Cross “invented” or “designed” the emblem is open to argument.

But there is legitimate room for argument over many inventions. Who invented printing from movable type? We give the credit to Gutenberg, but there are other claimants, among them the Chinese at an earlier date. Who invented the airplane? The Wrights first flew a “mechanical bird” but a thousand inventors have added to, altered, changed their original design, until the very principle which first enabled the Wrights to fly, the “warping wing”, is now discarded and never used.

Therefore, if authorities argue and contend about the marble monument and broken column it is not to make objection or take credit from Jeremy Cross; the thought is that almost any invention or discovery is improved, changed, added to and perfected by many men. Edison is credited with the first incandescent lamp, but there is small kinship between his carbon filament and a modern tungsten filament bulb. Roentgen was first to bring the “X-Ray” to public notice — the discoverer would not know what a modern physician’s X-Ray apparatus was if he saw it!

In the library of the Grand Lodge of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, is a book published in 1784; “A Brief History of Freemasonry” by Thomas Johnson, at that time Tiler of the Grand Lodge of England (the “Moderns”) In this book the author states that he has “taken the liberty to introduce a Design for a Monument in Honour of a Great Artist.” He then admits that there is no historical account of any such memorial but cites many precedents of “sumptuous Piles” which perpetuate the memories and preserve the merits of the historic dead, although such may have been buried in lands far from the monument or “perhaps in the depth of the Sea”.

In this somewhat fanciful and poetic description of this monument, the author mentions an urn, a laurel branch, a sun, a moon, a Bible, square and compasses, letter G.

The book was first published in 1782, which seems proof that there was at that time at least the idea of a monument erected to the Master Builder. There is little historical material upon which to draw to form any accurate conclusions. Men write of what has happened long after the happenings. Even when faithful to their memories, these may be, and often are, inaccurate. It is with this thought in mind that a curious statement in the Masonic Newspaper, published in New York seventy-five years ago, must be considered. In the issue of May 10, 1879, a Robert B. Folger purports to give Cross’ account of his invention, or discovery, or inclusion, of the broken column into the marble monument emblem.

The account is long, rambling and at times not too clear. Abstracted, the salient parts are as follows:

Cross found or sensed what he considered a deficiency in the Third Degree which had to be filled in order to effect his purposes. He consulted a former Mayor of New Haven, who at the time was one of his most intimate friends. Even after working together for a week, they did not hit upon any symbol which would be sufficiently simple and yet answer the purpose. Then a copper-plate engraver, also a brother, was called in. The number of hieroglyphics which had by this time accumulated was immense. Some were too large, some too small, some too complicated, requiring too much explanation, and many were not adapted to the subject. Finally, the copperplate engraver said, “Brother Cross, when great men die, they generally have a monument.”

“That’s right!” cried Cross; “I never thought of that!”

He visited the burying-ground in New Haven. At last he got an idea and told his friends that he had the foundation of what he wanted. He said that while in New York City he had seen a monument in the southwest corner of Trinity Churchyard erected over Commodore Lawrence, a great man who fell in battle. It was a large marble pillar, broken off. The broken part had been taken away, but the capital was lying at the base. He wanted that pillar for the foundation of his new emblem, but intended to bring in the other part, leaving it resting against the base. This his friends assented to, but more was wanted. They felt that some inscription should be on the column. After a lengthy discussion they decided upon an open book to be placed upon the broken pillar. There should of course be some reader of the book! Hence the emblem of innocence — a beautiful virgin — who should weep over the memory of the deceased while she read of his heroic deeds from the book before her!

The monument erected to the memory of Commodore Lawrence was placed in the southwest corner of Trinity Churchyard in 1813, after the fight between the frigates Chesapeake and Shannon, in which battle Lawrence fell. As described, it was a beautiful marble pillar, broken off, with a part of the capital laid at its base. It remained until 1844-5 at which time Trinity Church was rebuilt. When finished, the corporation of the Church took away the old and dilapidated Lawrence monument and erected a new one in a different form, placing it in the front of the yard on Broadway, at the lower entrance of the Church. When Cross visited the new monument, he expressed great disappointment at the change, saying “it was not half as good as the one they took away!”

These claims of Cross — perhaps made for Cross — to having originated the emblem are disputed. Oliver speaks of a monument but fails to assign an American origin. In the Barney ritual of 1817, formerly in the possession of Samuel Wilson of Vermont, there is the marble column, the beautiful virgin weeping, the open book, the sprig of acacia, the urn, and Time standing behind. What is here lacking is the broken column. Thus it appears that the present emblem, except the broken column, was in use prior to the publication of Cross’ work (1819). The emblem in somewhat different form is frequently found in ancient symbolism.

Mackey states that with the Jews a column was often used to symbolize princes, rulers or nobles. A broken column denoted that a pillar of the state had fallen. In Egyptian mythology, Isis is sometimes pictured weeping over the broken column which conceals the body of her husband Osiris, while behind her stands Horus or Time pouring ambrosia on her hair. In Hasting’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Isis is said sometimes to be represented standing; in her right hand is a sistrum, in her left hand a small ewer and on her forehead is a lotus, emblem of resurrection. In the Dionysian Mysteries, Dionysus is represented as slain; Rhea goes in search of the body. She finds it and causes it to be buried. She is sometimes represented as standing by a column holding in her hand a sprig of wheat, emblem of immortality; since, though it be placed in the ground and die, it springs up again into newness of life. She was the wife of Kronus or Time who may fittingly be represented as standing behind her. Whoever invented the emblem or symbol of the marble monument, the broken column, the beautiful virgin, the book, the urn, the acacia, Father Time counting the ringlets of hair, could not have thought through all the implications of this attempt — doubtless made in all reverence — to add to the dignity and impressiveness of the story of the Master Builder.

The urn in which “ashes were safely deposited” is pure invention. Cremation was not practiced by the Twelve Tribes; it was not the method of disposing of the dead in the land and at the time of the building of the Temple. Rather was the burning of the dead body reserved as a dreadful fate for the corpses of criminals and evil doers. That so great a man as “the widow’s son, of the tribe of Naphtali” should have been cremated is unthinkable. The Bible is silent on the subject; it does not mention Hiram the Builder’s death, still less the disposal of the body, but the whole tone of the Old Testament in description of funerals and mornings, make it impossible to believe that his body was burned, or that his ashes might have been preserved.

The Israelites did not embalm their dead; burial was accomplished on the day of death or, at the longest wait, on the day following. According to the legend, the Master Builder was disinterred from the first or temporary grave and reinterred with honor. This is, indeed, a supposable happening; that his body was raised only to be cremated is wholly out of keeping with everything known of deaths, funeral ceremonies, disposal of the dead of the Israelites.

In the ritual which describes the broken column monument, before the figure of the virgin is “a book, open before her.” Here again invention and knowledge did not go hand in hand. There were no books at the time of the building of the Temple, as moderns understand the word. There were rolls of skins, but a bound book of leaves made of any substance — vellum, papyrus, skins — was an unknown object. Therefore there could have been no such volume in which the virtues of the Master Builder were recorded. No logical reason has been advanced why the woman who mourned and read in the book was a “beautiful virgin.” No scriptural account tells of the Master Builder having wife or daughter or any female relative except his mother. The Israelites reverenced womanhood and appreciated virginity, but they were just as reverent over mother and child. Indeed, the bearing of children, the increase of the tribe, the desire for sons, was strong in the Twelve Tribes; why, then, the accent upon the virginity of the woman in the monument?

“Time, standing behind her, unfolding and counting the ringlets of her hair” is dramatic, but also out of character for the times. “Father Time” with his scythe is probably a descendant of the Greek Chronos, who carried a sickle or reaping hook, but the Israelites had no contact with Greece. It may have been natural for whoever invented the marble monument emblem to conclude that Time was both a world-wide and a time immemorial symbolic figure, but it could not have been so at the era in which Solomon’s Temple was built.

It evidently did not occur to the originators of this emblem that it was historically impossible. Yet the Israelites did not erect monuments to their dead. In the singular, the word "monument" does not occur in the Bible; as "monuments" it is mentioned once, in Isaiah 65 — "A people . . . which remain among the graves and lodge in the monuments." In the Revised Version this is translated "who sit in tombs and spend the night in secret places." The emphasis is apparently upon some form of worship of the dead (necromancy). The Standard Bible Dictionary says that the word "monument" in the general sense of a simple memorial does not appear in Biblical usage.

Oliver Day Street in "Symbolism of the Three Degrees" says that the urn was an ancient sign of mourning, carried in funeral processions to catch the tears of those who grieved. But the word "urn" does not occur in the Old Testament nor the New.

Freemasonry is old. It came to us as a slow, gradual evolution of the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, teachings, idealism of many men through many years. It tells a simple story — a story profound in its meaning, which therefore must be simple, as all great truths in the last analysis are simple.

The marble monument and the broken column have many parts. Many of these have the aroma of age. Their weaving together into one symbol may be — probably is — a modernism, if that term can cover a period of nearly two hundred years. But the importance of a great life, his skill and knowledge; his untimely and pitiful death, is not a modernism.

Nothing herein set forth is intended as in any way belittling one of Freemasonry's teachings by means of ritual and picture. These few pages are but one of many ways of trying to illuminate the truth behind a symbol, and show that, regardless of the dates of any parts of the emblem, the whole has a place in the Masonic story which has at least romance, if not too much fact, behind it.

Question Box

This column will attempt to answer questions about Freemasonry.

Why cannot a brother appeal from a master’s decision in lodge?

He can, but not to the lodge; only to the grand master or grand lodge. The master is strictly charged and sworn to uphold and further the peace and harmony of his lodge. Without complete authority he cannot assume complete responsibility. It is, therefore, the master’s prerogative to begin or terminate debate; to rule on all questions; to control the deliberations of his lodge (within the framework of the by-laws — a master cannot, for instance, legally open his lodge before the time set in the by-laws, or conduct business at a special or called communication not set forth in, the call). If any brother could appeal from the master to the lodge, the lodge would control the master, not the master the lodge. The master is not only a presiding officer (as is the president of a club) but is literally master of all proceedings, discussions and actions of his lodge, provided what he does is within the framework of grand lodge law and the by-laws of his lodge.

Why cannot a lodge not adjourn and then reconvene! The adjournment of any meeting is an act following a motion by some member of the group. No master can give the power of termination of a meeting to any member, or to the lodge as a whole, without sacrifice of his power to control the lodge. Any Masonic lodge must be in one of three states: closed, open and at work, or at refreshment. It is universally law that an open lodge must be closed before the brethren depart, otherwise a “reconvening of an open lodge” at some future date might work an injustice to some brother interested in lodge legislation, who could not be present at the “reconvened adjourned” meeting. The fundamental reason for “no adjournment” is found in the fact that the master’s power to control, which means opening and closing his lodge at his pleasure (but always within the opening time set by the by-laws), cannot be abrogated by a member or by the lodge as a whole.

The Masonic Service Association of North America