Vol. XXXVI No. 10 — October 1958

Some Ancient Sources

Conrad Hahn

Three documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — contain the essence of “The American Way of Life.” They are known to every one of us; we may not be able to repeat them, but we have read them. Perhaps in school we memorized them; they are the foundation of our thoughts about our country. In them is the grim determination of Colonial patriots, the vision of our founding fathers, and the brooding sorrow of Lincoln over the tragedy of the Civil War. Their words speak love of our native land. Around them we build our conception of our national character. Yet all these documents are restatements of hopes, of dreams, of ideals that had gleamed like beacon lights to men in previous centuries.

Freemasonry has been built around certain old documents. The more than a hundred “Old Manuscripts” or “Manuscript Constitutions” are to the Fraternity what the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address are to us as American citizens. These “Old Charges” are the substance and the source of the Ancient Landmarks, and from them has come much of our ancient usages and customs and some of our ritual.

Whether an ancient ritual long lost to us was father to the Old Charges, or whether they were the beginnings of ritual, is an unanswerable question much like that which inquires whether the egg or the chicken came first.

But the intimate connection between ancient Masonic manuscripts and the rituals we have today — changed, altered, added to, edited, modernized as they have been by the Prestons and the Webbs and the Crosses — is plainly to be seen by readers of the ancient documents.

Few brethren, however, have easy access to these precious old manuscripts. That some understanding of the antiquity of our ceremonies, their teachings, and their sources may be had, this Bulletin is written.

The oldest extant document is the Regius Poem, also called the Halliwell Document, from the name of the antiquarian who in 1840 first discovered that the little book catalogued in the British Museum as “A poem of moral duties” was really a Masonic writing. It was written about A.D. 1390 and bears internal evidence of being a copy of a much older instrument.

The candidate for Freemasonry must be “free born.” This is one of the most ancient Masonic thoughts about servitude and dates back to a time when bondage actually existed. A “bondman” could be claimed by his lord; he was not “free.” His membership among the Craft could cause serious trouble for the lodge.

In the Regius Manuscript we read:

The Fourth Article this must be
That the master him well besee [i.e. take care]
That he no bondman prentice make
For no covetize [i.e. avarice] do him take.

A few fines later we read:

For more ease then, and honesty
Take a prentice of high degree
By old time written I find
That the prentice should be of gentle kind.

The document now called Grand Lodge No. 1 Manuscript states (spelling here modernized):

Masters or Fellows take no prentice but for a term of VII years and the prentice be able of birth that is to say free born and whole of limbs as a Man ought to be.

The great majority of all the old manuscripts have a similar caution regarding apprentices. All Masons know the Ancient Craft reverences women and enjoins protection of them. In the Regius Manuscript — we find:

Thou shalt not by thy master’s wife lie
Nor by thy fellow’s, in no manner wise
Lest the craft would thee dispise
Nor by thy fellow’s concubine
No more than woulds’t he did by thine,

and a later line describes such conduct as:

such a fowle [i.e. foul] deadly sin.

The Regius Manuscript mentions four “oaths” required of a Mason:

He shall swear never to be no thief
Nor succor him in his false craft
⁎  ⁎  ⁎
A good true oath he must there swear
To his master and his fellows that be there
⁎  ⁎  ⁎
And all these points here before
To them thou must need be y-swore [i.e. sworn]
And all shall swear the same oath
Of the masons, be they willing be they loath,

and at the annual assembly all Masons were again to be sworn:

To keep these statutes, every one.

The Regius Manuscript ends with the oldest words in our ceremonies:

Amen, Amen, so mote it be,
We say so all with charity.

Freemasonry’s second oldest document is the Matthew Cooke Manuscript, written in all probability during the first part of the fifteenth century. Its fourth article is similar to that in the Regius Manuscript, in that it forbids the taking of a slave as an apprentice:

That no master for no profit take no prentice for to be learned that is bore [i.e. born] of bond blood.

The Cooke Manuscript continues, warning of the possibility of manslaughter resulting from the inclusion of a slave or serf among free men.

The word hele (pronounced hail) appears for the first time Masonically in the Cooke Manuscript. Hele is old English for cover or conceal; it is from the Anglo-Saxon helan meaning to keep secret. The Cooke Manuscript has the words,

That he can hele the counsel of his fellow in lodge and in chamber and in every place there masons be.

The Cooke Manuscript also prohibits improper relations between a Mason and a Mason’s wife or daughter and then continues with some moral restrictions:

Never to be thieves nor thieves’ maintainers
To truly fulfill their day’s work for their pay
To give a true account of their fellows and love them as themselves
To be true to the King and the realm
To keep with all their might the articles aforesaid.

Like the Regius, the manuscript ends with “Amen, so mote it be.”

Masonic lodges open and close with a prayer. The Grand Lodge Manuscript No. 1 in the possession of the Mother Grand Lodge in England (the earliest known that has a date — “Decembris 25 1583”), begins with a solemn prayer, thus setting the pattern for all lodge meetings. The prayer reads:

The Might of the Father in Heaven and the wisdom of the glorious Son through the grace and the goodness of the Holy Ghost that be three persons and one God be with us at our beginning and give us grace so to govern us here in our living that we may come to His bliss that shall never have ending, Amen.

Following the prayer is a most curious and interesting ritualistic instruction that is found in most of the Old Charges and nearly always in Latin. It is the command that “one of the Seniors” hold the book (the Volume of the Sacred Law) while the candidate places his hand upon it as the charges of a Mason are read to him. The great Albert G. Mackey thought that the fact that this instruction was so often given in Latin was a potent argument for the belief that Freemasonry was a lineal descendant from the Roman Collegia.

The “Charges” to which the candidate listened with his hand on the book were thirty in number; they concluded with the statement:

These charges that we have now rehearsed unto you and all others that belong to Masons ye shall keep, so help you God and your hallydome, and by this book in your hand unto your power. Amen, so mote it be.

“Unto your power,” of course, means “with all your power.”

Hallydome - variously spelled in the many manuscripts in which the word is used — holidome, Holy Dame, holy Doome, holy-doom, etc. — comes from the Anglo-Saxon halig, meaning “holy” and dom meaning “doom” or "judgment.” Thus, in swearing "by my holidome,” the candidate offered his hope of a just and happy judgment in the world to come as an earnest of his sincerity.

In many of the Old Charges are additional oaths — we would call them obligations — which change a little from manuscript to manuscript as the years go by. For instance, in the Buchanan Manuscript dated approximately three hundred years ago (1660-1680) appears this:

These charges that you have received you shall well and truly keep not disclosing the secrecy of our lodge to man, woman or child; stick nor stone; thing moveable or unmoveable; so God you help and his holy Doome. Amen.

The Aberdeen Manuscript, dated 1670, particularly styles the prayer at the beginning “A Prayer before the Meeting,” again showing the antiquity of a petition to the Great Architect as a part of opening a lodge.

The custom of requiring a candidate to kiss the Volume of the Sacred Law on taking his obligations is at least as old as the second half of the seventeenth century; the Harris Manuscript of that date has the phrase, “after the Oath taken and the bookkist.”

In general, according to a comparative study of all the old manuscripts, lodge meetings of the pre-grand lodge era were opened with prayer, followed by the reading of a legendary history of the craft. The candidate was then caused to place his hand or right hand (the “right” hand is first specified in the late seventeenth century, Colne Manuscript No. 1) on the Bible, which was held for him by a senior member. The articles binding upon all brethren were then read to him, after which the candidate had imposed upon him a short oath or obligation. Later he received another obligation, regarding secrecy, and then the “secrets” — whatever they may have been — were communicated to him.

Just what the earliest ceremonies of “making” were is a tantalizing speculation, as may be understood by reading the following passage from the Chetwode Crawley Manuscript of 1730. This must have been written very shortly after the Master Mason ceremony was fully developed in the then-new grand lodge:

First, all the Apprentices are removed out of the Company and none suffered to stay, only Masons-masters. Then, he who is to be admitted . . . a member of the fellowship is put again upon his knees and gets the Oath administered to him anew. Afterwards, he must go out of the Company with the youngest Master to learn the words and signs of fellowship. Then coming in again he makes the Master-sign and says the same words of entry as the prentice did, only leaving out the Common Judge. Then the Masons whisper the word among themselves, beginning at the youngest as formerly. Afterwards the young Master must advance and put himself in the posture wherein he is to receive the word, and says to the Honorable Company, whispering, The Worthy Masons and Honorable Company that I come from Greet you well, Greet you well. Then the Master Mason gives him the word and grips his hand, and afterwards all the Masons, which is all done to make a perfect Mason.

The “Common Judge” has been something of a puzzle but is now generally believed to be a corruption of “Common Gauge.” The Chetwood Crawley Manuscript indicates that an apprentice was sworn on the square, compasses and common gauge, while a Master Mason’s obligation was taken on the square and compasses only. The Steinmetzen in Germany as early as 1462 were obligated on “the gauge and square.”

In the Dumfries-Kilwinning Manuscript No. 4 appear words that have a familiar ring today. This manuscript, written in the first part of the eighteenth century, states in its obligation, “you that are under voues to, see yt you keep ye ath and promise you made in presence of Allmighty God think not yt a mental reservation or equivocation will serve. . . .”

In the Gateshead Manuscript, early eighteenth century, appear these words: “That you be true to one another when you stand in peril or danger by height, Lift or otherwise, whereby a man may be much hurt, or his life endangered, taking good heed thereunto as well for your fellow as for yourself,” which is suggestive of some modern ritual. In the same manuscript it is written, “You are not to wrong them or see them wronged but timeously to apprise them of approaching danger.”

It is interesting to note that there is no reference to Solomon in the Regius Poem, but the Cooke Manuscript has this to say:

And the making of Solomon’s temple that king David began. . . . And at the making of the temple in Solomons time . . . Solomon had 4 score thousand masons at his work. And the king’s son, of Tyre, was his master mason. And . . . Solomon confirmed the charges that David, his father, had given to masons and Solomon himself taught them manners [with] but little difference from the manners that now are used. And from thence this worthy science was brought into France and into many other regions.

In the Dowland Manuscript (ca. 1550) is to be read this:

And furthermore there was a kinge of another region that men called Iram, and he loved well Kinge Solomon, and he gave him tymber to his worke. And he had a sonn that height Aynon, and he was a Master of Geometrie, and was chiefe Maister of all his Masons, and was Master of all his gravings and carvinge, and of all manner of Masonrye that belonged to the Temple; and this is witnessed by the Bible, in libro Regum, the third chapter. And this Solomon confirmed both charges and the manners that his father had given to Masons. And thus was that worthy Science of Masonrye confirmed in the country of Jerusalem, and in many other kingdomes.

It is extremely interesting to note that in none of the pre-grand lodge era manuscripts is there any account of the story of the master builder as we know it.

The genesis of modern Masonic ritual is a long, detailed and difficult study. That the Old Charges were sources of some of it is sufficiently indicated by the quotations given above. Of course there are many more in other old manuscripts that space here does not permit mentioning. In the grand lodge era came Desaguliers, Anderson, Dermott, later Preston and our American ritual makers, editors, changers and writers, notably Thomas Smith Webb and Jeremy Cross.

All that is attempted in these few pages is to give readers an idea of how ancient many of our ceremonies are, and how vital — to live so many hundred years — the ideas of our early forefathers have proved to be.

Surely one of the most touching and tightly binding parts of the "mystic tie” which Freemasons share is the antiquity as well as the solemnity of much of our teachings.

Question Box

Am I allowed to visit in any lodge anywhere on the globe?

No. You have agreed to obey the laws of your own grand lodge. Those laws provide that you can visit in the lodges that are under the jurisdiction of grand lodges that your grand lodge recognizes as legitimate. All United States grand lodges are in fraternal relations with each other. If your travels extend beyond this nation, and you wish to visit lodges in foreign countries, ascertain, either from your Proceedings (published yearly by all grand lodges), by correspondence with your grand secretary, or by consulting the Chart referred to below, which foreign grand lodges your own grand lodge recognizes.

How many grand lodges are there in the world?

The annual Chart of Foreign Grand Lodges recognized by the grand lodges of the United States, published by The Masonic Service Association, lists one hundred two grand lodges beyond the confines of this nation. There are, then, approximately five thousand possible “recognitions” of foreign grand lodges by United States grand lodges.

The Masonic Service Association of North America