Vol. XXXIV No. 6 — June 1956

Dr. George Oliver

Father of Masonic Literature

Modern Masonic scholarship thinks little of many of the “facts” in the writings of Dr. George Oliver. He is often inaccurate, frequently deluded, sometimes naive, occasionally childish. But no criticism can dim the debt owed to this almost incredibly prolific author, who justly deserves the commendations and the admiration of the world of Masonic literature, study and research. He was a prophet who led the way out of Masonic silence into a new idea — that much of Masonry could be talked about, written about, investigated, and made available to the world at large.

George Oliver was born in Nottinghamshire, England, 1782, the son of a clergyman. Well-educated, he became a master in a school when twenty-one and six years later was head master at an important institution of learning. He became an ordained minister, with many churchly honors. He was a noted antiquarian and his books on phases of that subject brought him high, if limited, fame. He was married, fathered five children; he died March 3, 1867, and was buried with Masonic honors in the cemetery attached to the church of St. Swithin, Lincoln.

His scholastic attainments, however great, pale in size and significance before his Masonic literary efforts.

His father was an enthusiastic Freemason, and chaplain of his lodge. He initiated George Oliver when the boy was but nineteen as a lewis (son of a Mason); he was given the rites by dispensation in St. Peter’s Lodge (now No. 442), Peterboro, in 1801.

George Oliver became an enthusiastic Mason immediately; he read everything he could find about the Craft (not too much in those days) and within six years had been instrumental in the establishment of a new lodge, Apollo, of which he was master for fourteen years. He applied for and received all the degrees in all rites then practiced and later became in succession a provincial grand steward, provincial grand chaplain, and then provincial deputy grand master of the province of Lincolnshire, which he was for many years. He became a 33° in 1845.

Later he was the victim of his own warm friendship for a brother who had incurred the dislike, if not the enmity, of the then-provincial grand master. Due to Oliver’s warm championship of his friends, he was asked to resign as provincial deputy grand master, which he did. The Craft generally supported Oliver in this quarrel.

Oliver’s first exploration of Masonry had not too great a field. He may have seen the Robert’s Constitutions of 1722; undoubtedly he read Anderson, of 1723. Then Anderson compiled his Constitutions of 1738; Dermott brought out his Ahiman Rezon in 1756; there were the usual “exposés” (Jachin and Boaz, Masonry Dissected, and many others) the imposture Locke Ms. was “discovered” in 1753; and then, in 1772, came Preston and his Illustrations of Masonry. This and Hutchinson’s Spirit of Masonry probably became Oliver’s Masonic scriptures, although this is but a supposition. There were a few books: Masonic Effusions by Garland, 1819, Lawrie’s History of Freemasonry, 1804, and The Freemason’s Magazine which had a short life of five years (1793-98).

Whatever he could find, Oliver read. Whatever he read, started off trains of thought, investigations, ideas, dreams, visions, hopes, and finally, beliefs and convictions, some of which had little or no basis in fact. And then began that incredible stream of Masonic literature of which Oliver was the spring, the well, the brook, the lake, the ocean-source!

His first book was The Antiquities of Freemasonry published in London in 1823, just one hundred years after Anderson.

In 1825 appeared Olivers second work, The Star of the East, followed by Signs and Symbols, Explained in a Course of Twelve Lectures on Freemasonry, published 1826. The History of Initiation was published in 1829; The Theocratic Philosophy of Freemasonry in 1840. A History of Freemasonry was produced in 1841, as was The History of the Witham Lodge, Lincoln. In 1844-46, he wrote Historical Landmarks and Other Evidence of Freemasonry, London, 2 vols. An Apology for the Freemasons, in 1846, was followed by The Insignia of the Royal Arch in 1847. Then came The Golden Remains of the Early Masonic Writers, in 5 vols., 1847-50; A Mirror for the Johannite Masons, 1848; Institutes of Masonic Jurisprudence, 1849; and The Book of the Lodge, in the same year. In 1850 he added to it his Century of Aphorisms, which went through several editions, in 1849, 1856, 1864, 1879. The year 1850 also saw the publication of The Symbol of Glory. Then followed in 1853 his Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry, and in 1855, The Revelations of the Square. In 1863, he issued Freemasons’ Treasury, in 1866 Papal Teachings in Freemasonry; and in 1867, The Origin of the Royal Arch. A posthumous work on The Pythagorean Triangle, and one on Discrepancies of Freemasonry, were published in 1875. He also edited the 14th, 15th, and 16th editions of Preston’s Illustrations, bringing it down to 1849; Ashe’s Masonic Manual, 2 editions, 1843 and 1870; and Hutchinsons Spirit of Masonry in 1843.

It is impossible to evaluate the effect of such an outpouring of Masonic fact and fiction. The good done was incalculable; alas, there was also harm. To understand this, it is necessary to know something of the man’s character. According to those who knew him best, he was of sterling personal worth; modest, unassuming, charitable, kindly, amiable, and easy to approach.

And, alas, he was credulous; whether because of the sheltered life of a priest of the church; whether from scholastic training and the restricted horizon of the antiquarian; whether because of upbringing and quiet family existence, who shall say?

Oliver had a vivid imagination. Like some small children, he apparently told himself stories, and then came to believe them. Visions became facts in his mind for no better reason than, it appears “they ought to be true” — “it could not have been otherwise” — “it must have been this way.”

And so he gave to the world his “history” and his convictions regarding the Order that modern scholarship has exploded into fragments.

For Oliver, Freemasonry began with the beginning of the world. “Primitive” or “pure” Freemasonry was practiced by Seth (son of Adam and Eve — see Genesis 4:25); Noah became a Freemason; after the Deluge, Freemasonry became “pure” and “spurious” and the “pure variety” descended through the Patriarchs to Solomon.

Following Hutchinson, Oliver declared for the purely Christian character of Freemasonry (in spite of the articles on God and religion in Anderson’s Constitutions, and the pronouncements of the union of the Moderns and the Ancients in 1813). He believed that Masonry was Trinitarian, in which he may have been misled by the constant emphasis upon the number three in the Fraternity — a matter that is now referred to as the triangle, the earliest Symbol of Deity. Oliver insisted that Grand Architect of the Universe was a name concealing that of Jesus Christ.

Oliver’s writings on the landmarks were not, at first, germane to his subject. His two volumes of Historical Landmarks of Freemasonry uses the word landmarks, as Pound has well pointed out, in the same sense that Lord uses the words “beacon lights” in Beacon Lights of History. Oliver’s books on landmarks are not the landmarks — the fundamental principles of Freemasonry.

Then came Mackey and his famous twenty-five landmarks and Oliver apparently had his imagination inflamed with a new idea that he fanned until it burned brightly. In 1863, Oliver has landmarks in “twelve classes” and a dozen are “obsolete.” It sounds impossible, in the light of our conception of a landmark, but “obsolete landmarks” were facts in Oliver’s thinking. Then he spoils this story by observing (what is now nearer the truth than anything else Oliver said about landmarks) “we have no actual criterion by which we may determine what is a landmark and what is not.”

To be completely fair to Oliver, it should be noted that some American grand lodges have carried to similar absurdity their “listing” and “adoption” and “classification” of landmarks. One grand lodge has seven, one ten, half use Mackey’s twenty-five, and one grand lodge has fifty-four!

It hardly needs to be said that no complete catalog of landmarks is more possible or credible than one of the laws of nature or the moral laws!

Oliver believed what he wanted to believe. This is no impugning of his honesty; doubtless few men have ever exceeded him in saintly character and honor. “He believed in fairies,” perhaps expresses the man. He quotes in Mirror for the Johannite Masons a bit of doggerel:

That you will always keep, guard and conceal
And from this time you never will reveal
Either to M.M., F.C., or Apprentice
Of St.Johns Order what our grand intent is.

He says “it is confidently affirmed” to be a part of the Masonic obligation in the fourteenth century!

No one has been able to find this verse elsewhere. That there were three degrees shortly after the Regius Poem was written is, of course, nonsense.

But Oliver believed it.

Few, if any, brethren have attained a greater fame for solid painstaking and accurate scholarship than Robert Freke Gould, English Masonic historian. Gould was ruthless with Oliver; he said of his labors:

Dr. Oliver was not the only, but he may justly be styled the worst offender in matters of the kind, as of all the vast array of authors who have written on the subject of Freemasonry, he was the most prolific. All the works of Dr. Oliver would be put into an Index Purgatorius, that is to say, if the scholars of the world were empowered to draw up a catalog of books prohibited to be read.

In an article in The Builder in August 1921, John Armstrong, Bishop of Grahamstown (England), is quoted on Oliver as follows:

According to Preston “From the commencement of the world we may trace the foundation of Masonry.” But adds Dr. Oliver: “ancient Masonic traditions say, and I think justly, that our science existed before the creation of this globe and was diffused amid the numerous systems with which this grand empyrean of universal space is furnished.”

But there is another side of the shield, and that is the good that Oliver did, and the persistence of the forces he loosed on the Masonic world that gain, rather than lose power, as the years go by.

Perhaps more than any other writer of Freemasonry, he taught thoughtful Freemasons to read of Freemasonry.

A wise philosopher has said, “I care nothing for the name of your faith; it is of no interest to me what you believe. What is of interest is that you have a faith.”

In the same way, then, Oliver taught Freemasons that in books would be found information, enlightenment, history, romance, symbolism, law, morality, religion; love and brotherhood were in his writings. In the early days of organized Freemasonry, manuscript after manuscript and perhaps books, of which we do not know, were destroyed by brethren who believed that secrecy was more important than information.

Oliver was the great exponent of the idea that for every word in Freemasonry that the profane should not hear, there should be a book filled with words that they could read!

Oliver demonstrated that the Ancient Craft was not a mere society with secrets, but a factor in history of considerable importance. He made Freemasonry well and favorably known. All his books breathe the spirit of fraternity. The man loved the Craft and received inspiration from it; that inspiration he eagerly phrased for his readers. His affection for the lodge and the Craft overflowed from his pen.

Parson Weems gave us Washington as one who could not tell a lie; Longfellow made a deathless hero of Paul Revere; who shall say that their inaccuracies in some future evaluation, will not be wholly forgotten because of the good they did?

Oliver might be dubbed the “Parson Weems” of the Freemasonry of his day, making a point by treating fiction as fact.

The Masonic world owes to the man a debt difficult to pay. If it pays that which it owes, while fully conscious of all that Oliver said that is beyond and high above the facts, it will, in the long run, concur wholly with Mackey’s tribute:

While his erroneous theories and fanciful speculations will be rejected, the form and direction he has given to Masonic speculations will remain, and to him must be accredited the enviable title of Father of Anglo-Saxon Masonic literature.


This column will attempt to answer questions about Freemasonry

What is an “emergent lodge”?

Any regular lodge called for an emergency at a special communication by its master. The purpose of such a meeting must be stated in the call, whether it be for an emergent degree on an elected candidate as on one who has received sudden orders for foreign service — or to consider an emergency requiring lodge action, or a sudden call for a greater amount of charity than the master is willing to spend without lodge authorization.

What is the Ahiman Rezon?

These words form the title used in South Carolina and Pennsylvania for their “books of the law.” In times gone by it was also used by Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland, Nova Scotia. No one has yet discovered a meaning of the words not disputed by others — they are variously translated from a supposed Hebrew to mean “will of selected brethren,” “secrets of a prepared brother,” “royal builder,” “brother secretary,” "intimate brother secretary,” “a prepared brother.”

What is a “moon lodge”?

In the early days in this country many lodges met “on or after full moon,” or “on or before full moon.” Transportation was poor; roads were rough and difficult; getting from home to lodge was often a problem. Having the light of the moon made such journeys safer and easier. Many old lodges refused to change their dates of meeting even when the necessity for lunar meeting times had passed. But many grand lodges have legislated the “moon lodge” out of existence by insisting that their lodges meet upon definite dates, and others of the old moon lodges are gradually giving up that distinction in favor of the more practical settled date. Less than five hundred moon lodges still exist in this country.

The Masonic Service Association of North America