Vol. XXXIV No. 5 — May 1956

Cipher Rituals

From time immemorial, secrets and their keeping have made difficulties, and the secrecy of the ritual of Freemasonry is no exception. Luke 12:2 says: “There is nothing that shall be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.” In the Apocrypha, in Ecclesiasticus 27:21, is this philosophy: “As for a wound it may be bound up; and after reviling there may be reconcilement; but he that betrayeth secrets is without hope.”

Cipher or code writing is very old; perhaps no one knows how old. Mackey states that more than two thousand years ago Tacitus collected twenty or more systems by which Kings and Generals communicated secretly, messages to and from palace to battlefield. Druids and Cabalists had methods of secret writing. Some fanciful theorists have found in the JHVH of the Old Testament a “secret writing” of the name of God, which the makers of the King James Bible turned into Jehova by supplying the missing vowels.

The code or cipher ritual has either plagued or assisted Masonic ritual learning for many years; which word is used depends on the grand lodge in which it is spoken!

To teach mouth to ear only; to teach mouth to ear and use a cipher for help; to depend wholly on ciphers . . . these questions have vexed some, if not all, of the forty-nine Grand Lodges of the nation and still do so.

The use or forbidding of ciphers, the possession or lack of possession of a master copy of the ritual, are strictly the business of grand lodges and no criticism of either course is here suggested.

In twenty-five of the forty-nine Grand Lodges of the United States it is a Masonic offense to possess or use a Masonic cipher, secret code or mnemonics.

In twenty-four grand lodges the possession and use of such aids to ritual memorization are authorized and permitted.

In twenty grand lodges there is no master copy of the correct ritual as adopted and inculcated by Masonic authority. In the remaining twenty-nine grand lodges there are such master copies; in sixteen, in the possession of grand secretaries; in five, committed to the care of the grand lecturer; in others, in the possession of the chairman of the ritual committee, the board of custodians, the custodians of the work, grand master of instruction, (but to be seen only in the presence of the grand master or the grand secretary), the grand master and grand secretary, grand secretary and deputy grand secretary, grand lecturer and grand secretary.

Every schoolboy knows the simplest cipher system, in which numerals stand for letters: 1 is A, 2 is B, 3 is C, etc. Small boy, thinking the teacher cannot understand this, writes upon a blackboard 20 5 1 3 8 5 18 9 19 4 21 13 2 and wonders why he is kept in after school, when his sentence “Teacher is dumb” was so carefully concealed!

In “The Gold Bug,” Edgar Allen Poe showed how easy it is to translate such a substitution cipher. So the young hopeful in the school tries the “letter for letter” substitution in which A is B, B is C, C is D, etc., as follows:


“Teacher is dumb” is thus written UFBDIFS HT EVNC, which seems to a childish mind quite unreadable, but is actually as simple as the number substitution cipher.

A next step may be the simple "wheel cipher” in which 26 numbers on a wheel revolve inside a stationary alphabet. A cipher constructed by this device is produced by those who will use the cipher agreeing on a number — say the number 5. The recipient knows that the wheel must be revolved five letters (either to the right or the left, according to prearranged plans) after that the familiar pattern of the substitution cipher becomes as readable as that in which A equals B, B equals C, C equals D, etc.

Wheel Cipher

In the illustration, the number 5 is under A and “Teacher is dumb” results in 24 9 5 7 12 9 22 13 23 8 25 17 6. The advantage of the “wheel cipher” is that more than one number may be mutually agreed upon between sender and recipient; for instance the first word to have 5 beneath “A,” the second word to have 11 beneath “A,” the third word to have 21 beneath “A,” and repeat that scheme makes the first, second, third, etc., group of three words come from differently numbered alphabets.

A further step might be the simple “design cipher” in which the common “tit-tat-toe” cross, with square and oblong additions make twenty-six different symbols, each for a letter, thus:

Tic-tac-toe Cipher

A message spelled out with this — “Teacher is dumb’ — looks like this:

Tic-tac-toe Cipher Parts

This also appears unreadable, but it is actually only another form of substitution cipher, which carries on its face its easy key construction and thus ease of reading.

While few if any grand lodges have trained cryptographers easily available, common sense dictates the idea that no such simplifications would safely serve in Masonic ciphers intended to assist ritualists in memorizing the esoteric work.

The major controversies about Masonic ciphers in the United States grand lodges apparently begin with Rob Morris and his “Masonic Conservators” — a fascinating tale of nearly one hundred years ago.

The “Conservators" were to establish “the only true work"; it was to be “uniform work” throughout the nation. Morris’ idea was expressed by him as follows:

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 previous 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.

Freemasonry, if small and weak compared to its numbers and strength today, was even then hopeful, ambitious, and going forward. The Conservators came into being only twenty-five years after the disruption and disintegration of the Morgan episode and its following years of ugliness and persecution. Anything that 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 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 to become members, and promptly took up arms against those who dared to propose to come into their grand lodges and teach a different mode of work.

And then Morris offered his Mnemonics - his secret cipher, which was, to his mind, “unreadable” by the non-initiated, and so “perfectly safe!”

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 that is to be widely used can be.

Morris’ cipher code was far too difficult and complicated for the average lodge officer, just as the “two letter cipher” is now generally considered too simple and too easy to read.

Thus “Thou, O God, knowest our down-sitting and our uprising and understandeth our thoughts afar off” may be written (first two letters): “Th O Go kn ou do an ou up an un ou th af” of or (first and last letters): “Tu O Gd kt or dg ad or ug ad uh or is ar of.”

Grand lodges that permit ciphers at all usually agree upon the “first letter cipher.” Here only the first letter of the word is employed. “Teacher is dumb,” is “T-I-D” which could equally well stand for “Test immediately Dad.” And “Thou, O God, knowest our downsitting and our uprising and understandeth our thoughts afar off” would be coded as “T-O-G-k-o-d-a-o-u-a -u-o-t-a-o” These letters, according to the cipher construction, might as easily and properly stand for “Then Our Grandfather kneeled on dusty areas, odd up lifting and unusual offer to an ogre.” The belief is that only those who have more or less familiarity with the ritual can read it from a one letter cipher.

Those who permit ciphers contend that it makes for accuracy and uniformity, conserves time, saves money of traveling officers whose business it is to instruct makes for better ritual in lodges and hence a greater appeal to candidates.

The argument against ciphers is that they violate an obligation and jeopardize the secrecy of Masonry and that work learned “mouth to ear” heightens the dignity and increases the impressiveness of ritual, while ciphers reduce ritual learning to a mere mechanical act.

No grand lodge that permits the use of ciphers intends it as a substitute for mouth to ear instruction. Ciphers are intended only as a corrector of a poor memory, a reminder of sequence, a schedule of completeness. All the grand lodges recognize to the full the great value of the personal relation of oral instruction.

While he spoke only for himself, the late, great Joseph Fort Newton, beloved speaker and writer of Freemasonry, might well have had all grand lodges in mind when, as Editor of The Builder, he wrote in January 1917 these paragraphs:

The phrase “secrets of a Master Mason,” or its equivalent, has a distinct meaning running back at least to the founding of the Mother Grand Lodge of England, and those secrets are quite uniform throughout regular Masonry. Indeed, we may trace them further back still, for in the Old Charges of Craft Masonry the initiate was obligated to keep the secrets of the Craft, by his honor as a man on the “contents of this Holy Book.”

What were those secrets in the olden time? They included the technical secrets of his art — which have become symbolic secrets to us — and the signs and tokens by which he made himself known as a Master Mason when he went a-journeying. Those secrets protected both the artist and his art. What are the secrets of a Master Mason now? Not the wise and noble truths that the order teaches. Our fundamental principles are the common possession of thinking men and are the foundations of the higher human life everywhere. No, what is secret in Masonry is not the truth that it teaches but the method by which it teaches it — its ceremonial and symbolism, and the signs and tokens by which it protects the privacy of its lodge room that it may teach more impressively. Also, those signs and tokens serve as a cover under which charity, brotherliness, and the busy heart of love can work without ostentation — enabling us to serve a brother in perplexity or need without wounding a heart already sore. Therefore, if those secrets were surrendered, something beautiful and fine would be lost.

What is efficiency in the teaching of Masonry? Surely it is something more than accuracy of the letter, valuable as that is. It is also the communication of a spirit, and this highest and most precious result is better achieved by oral instruction. It goes deeper, it stays longer, it touches parts of our nature that are not reached by decoding a cipher.

We were instructed in Masonry by a noble and gracious man to whom Masonry meant very much — long since gone to join the white and silent people we call the dead — but the impress of his spirit lingers still. He gave us something that no book can give, because the finest truth is communicated only through personality — it passes silently, mystically, from soul to soul. It is so in all education. The best thing a lad gets at college is not from books, but from his contact with strong men — as when Garfield said that the best university would be to sit on one end of a log with Horace Mann on the other end. Inaccuracies may be corrected, but we cannot think that the hours that we spent in fellowship with the gracious men who instructed us in the days that come not back, were wasted.

To abandon the oral teaching of Masonry would mean the loss of something unique, particular, fine, and we know of nothing to take its place. In other days it required some courage to be a Mason, and those old pioneers who faced obloquy for their Masonic faith and fellowship, knew what they were about when they took no risks of having their sacred secrets violated, but kept them warm and tender and true, passing them from mouth to ear down the years! After all, it is only a question of the best way of doing what we all want to do in the best way.

It is common knowledge of all well informed Masons that many exposés of the ritual are still in print; they may be seen in any Masonic and most city libraries; they can be bought either new or second-hand from many book sellers. The Short Talk Bulletin of July 1952, “Those Terrible Exposes” list a great many, published from 1723 to 1862.

Grand lodges that permit the ritual ciphers believe that such ciphers are far less expensive than exposés; that they are far more secret; that forbidding ciphers encourages the printers and sellers of exposés.

It is generally the thinking of Masonic students that the exposé is the skeleton without the flesh; the body without the spirit of Freemasonry. Objectionable as they are, they have done and now do, but little harm to a great Fraternity. Bible and religion require church and ministers and teachers to bring forth the spirit from the words; ritual requires a lodge and a candidate and officers to translate words into Freemasonry.

This Bulletin is not concerned with the correctness of either the standpoint of those who approve of and permit or those who disapprove of and forbid ciphers. He would be a brave Mason indeed who would call either grand lodges that permit or those that forbid ciphers, sheep or goats, or say that either was less devoted to Freemasonry or had less reverence for its secret ritual than the other!

(NOTE: Part of this Bulletin is abstracted from the Association’s Digest on the same subject, published in 1952; the illustration of the “wheel cipher” is taken from a copy of the Association’s Masonic play, Treasures of Darkness, in which an apparently unsolveable cryptogram forms the basis of the plot.)

Question Box

This column will attempt to answer questions about Freemasonry.

How old is Masonry?

The question is not answerable unless Masonry be defined. Some form or organization of builders, according to the oldest Masonic document, the Regius Poem, existed as early as A.D. 926. Freemasonry, as distinguished from any other organization of practical builders, probably began among the Cathedral Builders of the Middle Ages — tenth or eleventh century. The first grand lodge came into existence in 1717. Freemasonry in the United States dates definitely from 1730 and probably earlier.

Who discovered, designed, or invented Masonry?

No one man, any more than any one man discovered designed or invented democracy, or philosophy, or science, or any one government. Freemasonry is the result of growth. Many Masons had a part in it; it has taken to itself teachings from many religions, philosophies, systems of knowledge, symbols.

The most generally accepted orthodox belief as to those who “began” Freemasonry is that the Craft is a descendant of operative masons. These Operatives inherited from unknown beginnings, of which there may have been several and were probably many, practices and some form of ritual. Speculative Masonry, reaching back through Operative Masonry, touches hands with those who followed unknown religions in which, however, many of the Speculative principles must have been taught by the use of symbols as old as mankind and therefore universal, and not the product of any one people or time.

The Masonic Service Association of North America