Vol. XXXV No. 5 — May 1957

Uniformity of Ritual

The lack of a uniform ritual among the forty-nine grand lodges and their nearly 16,000 lodges in the United States troubled early Freemasonry in the United States and even today causes worry to many brethren.

A newly-made Mason visits in a lodge in another grand lodge than his own, and is surprised and often shocked to find the words differ from those he learned and that the ceremonies are not the same in all essentials as those he experienced.

For many years it was an undisputed fact that a uniform ritual was desirable; that only by uniformity could Freemasonry survive. This belief was doubtless partly responsible for the well-meant but mistaken efforts of early brethren to form a “general grand lodge” of the United States, which would provide one ritual, one set of ceremonies, one frame of complete uniformity to which all must — and, in their thought — all would wish to conform.

Many attempts have been made to make Symbolic Lodge ritual uniform; the Baltimore Convention of 1843-44 tried hard and failed. Then came the Rob Morris Conservator movement of 1861-65. Rob Morris was a great man, a great Mason, a devout believer in uniformity; of it he said:

The great advantage of uniformity of work throughout this large country is 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 precious 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. A large number of the most learned, devoted and influential members of the fraternity, living in every jurisdiction, have set themselves to the task of acquiring, that they may disseminate it, and success is quite as sure, and will be even more speedy, than in the days of which we have spoken.

Alas, for Morris! His Conservators wrought a storm, not peace nor uniformity. The story told in The Short Talk Bulletin, “The Masonic Conservators” of January 1946, is fascinating but this great effort failed — and failed inevitably as it failed completely.

Most grand lodges in the United States strive for a uniform ritual among their own lodges; there are grand lodges where lodges can choose between rituals; there are grand lodges that omit the Prestonian Charges at the conclusion of degrees, substituting the words of any brother who may undertake to give the charge.

Degrees are not the same in East and West, North and South.

This Bulletin is a frank attempt to explain why such divergencies are not too important. How divergencies came to be was explained in the January 1934; Short Talk Bulletin, “Ritual Differences.” Here the attempt is to show, by examples, that ritual variations between grand lodge and grand lodge are not only not harmful to the Fraternity, but more or less inevitable.

Prior to the formation of the Grand Lodges of England, Ireland, and Scotland early lodges were not concerned with uniformity of ritual. Unquestionably the Mother Grand Lodge of 1717, and the “Antient Grand Lodge” of 1751, made some attempts at ritual uniformity — indeed, one of the reasons for the formation of the "Antients” was the strenuous objections of those who formed it to what they considered changes, alterations, “modernizations” of “ancient ritual” by the Moderns.

But when the reconciliation occurred in 1813, and the two grand lodges came together to form the United Grand Lodge of England, the force of the desire for uniformity had to a large extent spent itself.

Haywood’s words on the beginnings of the differences in ritual are here abstracted: "On October 26, 1809, the Modern Grand Lodge (of 1717) constituted a lodge of Promulgation that, according to a Grand Lodge resolution, was to give effect to a previous resolution for enjoining the “lodges to revert to Ancient Land Marks of the ‘Society.’” The Modern Grand Lodge thus confessed itself to have made innovations in the ritual, a different matter from divergencies. At the Union of 1813, a version of the ritual was approved, and a lodge of Reconciliation was constituted to “promulgate and enjoin the pure and unsullied system.” It held meetings until 1816. But lodges refused to accept uniform work and it was deemed unwise to force them to do so. In consequence, lodges under English Constitutions have had ever since a choice of a number of officially approved “workings,” notable among them being Stability, Emulation, West-End, Oxford, and Logic.

A century later it seemed evident that the brethren in the two Baltimore Conventions confused two principles: ritual and the landmarks. They believed that the unity of Masonry required a universal uniform work, although the fraternity had maintained its identity for some eight centuries without uniform work. That which maintained its unity and identity has been the Ancient Landmarks. “When, where, how, by whom, was the original uniform work broken into divergencies?” This question, once so frequently asked, has received its answer from Masonic history: “There never was, at any time, in any country, a universal uniform work.”

More than one miracle would have been required to make it possible; historians themselves never are astonished by the fact of divergencies; they are astonished by the fewness and unimportance of divergencies.

On the same subject, Mackey believed that uniformity of work, however much it might be desired, could never be attained, as is true in all institutions where the ceremonies, the legends, and the instructions are oral. Treachery of memory, weakness of judgment, fertility of imagination, lead men to forget, to diminish, or to augment, the parts of any system that are not prescribed within certain limits by a written rule. The Rabbis discovered this when the oral law became perverted, losing its authority, as well as its identity, by the interpretations that were given to it in the schools of the scribes and prophets. To restore it to its integrity, it was found necessary to divest it of its oral character and give to it a written form. To this are we to attribute the origin of the two Talmuds that now contain the essence of Jewish theology. In Freemasonry the esoteric ritual is continually subjected to errors arising mainly from the ignorance or the fancy of Masonic teachers. The printed monitorial instructions have suffered little change. The only partially uniform ritual to be heard in United States grand lodges is the printed or esoteric work, which is fairly uniform in many states.

There is one flag, and only one, of the United States of America; the Stars and Stripes with its one star for each state on a blue field, its 13 red and white stripes symbolizing the original 13 Colonies.

But the Nation uses a dozen other flags, all authorized by law, and flown for particular services or officials, for different purposes at different times: Among these are the Union Jack, one star for each state on a blue ground; the U.S. narrow pennant, for war ships; the President’s flag, four stars, shield and eagle; the secretary of the Navy’s flag; the Admiral’s flag, the Vice-Admiral’s flag, the Rear Admiral’s flag, flags of the Coast Guard, the Consular Service, the Lighthouse Service, the Quarantine flag, the U.S. Yacht Ensign, etc. States of the United States have their own flags; all different in design, all alike in expressing state sovereignty. Many grand lodges have banners or flags; no two are alike, but each expresses for its grand lodge the sovereignty and power of that organization. The details differ; the intent and the result of use is the same.

Will anyone agree that these flags cause confusion? That they should be eliminated because there is one great flag that to all Americans expresses America?

In 1954, “under God” has been added to the universally known American Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. In its older form, it has been uttered countless times since its beginning in 1892. Now, by order of Congress, June 1954, two words have been added. Thousands who have not learned the change, or forget it, are thus guilty of “lack of uniformity.” What harm is done by their failures? Some believe the new words should not have been added, as seeming to infringe on the American doctrine of the complete separation of Church, religion and religious teaching, and acts of the state. If these refrain from using the new words, is their loyalty to the flag to be questioned, or is harm done to the “American way”?

There are some 250 different religious faiths in the United States, whose nearly 100,000,000 believers gather and worship in nearly 300,000 churches. The Catholic does not worship as does the Jew; the Jew does not worship as the Protestant; and there are several varieties of Catholic and Jewish teachings.

Yet every church, cathedral, synagogue, meeting house, or evangelist’s tent provides worship of a Supreme Being, offers religious instruction, holds out high ideals, bases teaching upon a book of the revealed will of God.

Could all these who worship do so more sincerely, or to greater effect, if all were brought into one church, with one ritual, one belief, one method of teaching?

Men and women are too diverse in idea, history and background. A union of all churches into one church, and all religious worships into one fixed form, would be as disastrous to true religious feeling as it would be impossible.

The ritual most universally known to English speaking peoples is the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9—13)

Yet even in this short petition, there are variations — in some churches the prayer begins “Our Father which art” — the Revised Bible has “who art”; in some faiths the devout ask for forgiveness of debts as they forgive their debtors; in others it is trespasses that are forgiven, and Divine forgiveness is asked for the same sin. Some prayers end “for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen”; others pray “for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Amen.” And when this prayer is used in a Masonic lodge it usually ends with "So mote it be.”

It is hardly a matter for argument that a Great Architect of the Universe understands both forms, or would He consider those who used one instead of another as committing a sin, a sacrilege or a mistake?

No attempt will be made here to number the past and present postage stamps of this country. They have been printed in all colors, shapes, sizes, designs. They come in many denominations. There is no confusion as to their use, purpose, effectiveness. If they were all one color, all one size, all one design, confusion between the several classes of mail would result.

A piece of paper especially engraved, to be attached by gum to something that is to be mailed, is uniform — universally understood. The differences did not impede the Post Office Department in receiving the necessary funds for its carrying and distributing the mails. That is effectively managed by postage stamps. To that end, varying stamps of different kinds, colors and values contribute, instead of detracting.

Postage stamps of varying designs are used to commemorate different people, causes, events; this use of postage stamps has nothing whatever to do with carrying the mails or paying the Post Office Department. It neither adds to, nor takes from,—the properties of stamps to carry mails and pay Post Office bills: one stamp carries mail as well as another.

Our states have state laws; these frequently differ from each other; what is legal in one state is illegal in another. In Utah at one time, it was legal to have more than one wife; in Nevada now it is legal to conduct a gambling establishment. Different peoples, in different climates^ locations, elevations, with different histories, backgrounds and ideals, have different conceptions of what is good and what is bad law. Yet all our states recognize and abide by Federal Law.

Freemasonry in this country came from many sources; it changed in details as it traveled the slow journey from east to west. It has grown to fit its people, become fixed in its words and methods to suit its devotees. Southerner, Northerner, Easterner, Westerner; farmer and workman, professor and student, lawyer and laborer, each in his own way has had an effect upon, as well as been affected by, the Masonry of his own locality.

The forty-nine grand lodges in the United States have as many varieties of ritual. Yet all of these, differing in details, recognize and adhere to the fundamental landmarks of the Craft, tell the same story, provide the same instructions, teach the same morality and character, adhere to the important ancient practices and forms and ceremonies.

The essentials of Freemasonry are identical in all our grand lodges. The differences in the words, their order, the ceremonies and their performance, can be compared justly to differences in postage stamps, laws, churches, flags, etc. All postage stamps carry mail; all laws are conceived for mutual liberty that protect human rights, all churches provide worship of a Supreme Being.

To make ritual uniform, men would first have to be made uniform minded. A different ritual for different men in different situations has been the only possible way in which the fundamentals of Freemasonry could survive.

All Symbolic Lodge rituals provide Masonry in its essentials.

Lack of uniform ritual is neither important nor dangerous. As long as grand lodges and lodges adhere to the landmarks, and teach the immortal story as Freemasons know it, the way in which that teaching is done need trouble none who find in another grand lodge another ritual other than the one he knows.

Question Box

This column will attempt to answer questions about Freemasonry.

Masonic dates are written “A.L.” before figures that differ with the number of the year in which we live; why?

Freemasonry’s practice has followed the ancient belief that the world was created four thousand years before Christ; that when God said, “Let there be light,” the world began. Therefore Masons date their doings four thousand years plus the current year, “Anno Lucis,” or “In the year of Light.”

It is but another of Freemasonry’s many ties with a day so old no man may name it.

What are “A master’s wages”?

According to the ritual, corn, wine and oil are symbolic of the payment a Freemason earns today by “good work, true work, square work.” “A master’s wages” may be the same, may be different, for every brother. They are the friendships formed through Freemasonry; the consciousness of unselfish work; taking part in movements and actions for the betterment of the condition of neighbors; inherent in learning and in making it possible for other men to learn that men of widely different beliefs, convictions, circumstances, education, skills and character may live and work, play and love together in peace and happiness. A master’s wages are intangible, but the more real because any brother may earn as much as he will.

I worked far menial’s hire,
Only to learn, dismayed,
Any wage I asked of Lodge,
Lodge would have paid.

— After Jessie B. Rittenhouse

This is a paraphrase indicating that there is no limit to the master’s wages any brother may receive, except that which he may put upon himself.

The Masonic Service Association of North America