Robert Freke Gould


"Cicero, But men may construe things, after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves."

Julius Caesar, A. 2, Sc. iii.

In my previous article — the first of the series with which I am proceeding in the columns of this journal — the Catechisms and the Constitutions of the Freemasons were instanced as throwing a strong side-light on the early usages and the lost learning of the Society. But a more comprehensive definition of the sources of information which are yet open to those in quest of Masonic knowledge, may be summed up in the recommendation, that they should diligently search for, and when found carefully examine, the Oral, the Written, and the Symbolical traditions of our Sodality. The manner in which this attempt should be made, or, to be more precise, let me say the first and most important step to be taken in the inquiry, I shall endeavour to indicate in the present paper.

I shall begin by asking the reader to allow himself to be personally conducted over a period of Masonic history, which, if rightly understood, will afford a good insight into the usages of the Fraternity, as prevailing immediately before and immediately after that great event which ushered in what has been appropriately termed the Era of Grand Lodges The historical space we are about to traverse has been termed the Epoch of Transition, and may be said to extend from the formation of the earliest of Grand Lodges in 1717, down to the publication of its second "Book of Constitutions" by that body in 1738. The annals of these 21 years have come down to us very imperfectly recorded, and over a great portion of them, more especially the chronicle of the first seven years, there is a heavy cloud of darkness and uncertainty. Still, judging by such light as we possess, and there are not wanting beacons that will aid in keeping us in the right path, certain leading events stand out, as it were, in relief, and on these a passing glance is essential, in order that a due comprehension of my general argument may be ensured.

Although the Grand Lodge of England was established in 1717, it excited very little notice until the Duke of Montagu became "the first Noble Grand Master" in 1721.

At a Grand Lodge held in September of that year, "His Grace's Worship and the Lodge finding fault with all the Copies of the Old Gothic [i.e., Manuscript] Constitutions, ordered Bro. James Anderson, A.M., to digest the same, in a new and better method." This mandate was duly carried out, and the compilation, bearing the title of the Constitutions of the Freemasons, was published with the printed approbation of the Grand Lodge and the private lodges (under its obedience) in 1723.

There was a great uproar. An alarming decrease in the number of subordinate lodges took place. Both from within and without the pale of the Society the Freemasons were openly derided and held up to ridicule. Ultimately a scapegoat was found in the person of the unlucky Author of the Book of Constitutions, and the Rev. James Anderson (afterwards D.D.) either proprio motu or under moral compulsion, retired from active Masonic life in 1724, nor did he again attend a meeting of the Grand Lodge until the summer of 1731.

Anderson, who has been styled "The Father of Masonic History," brought out in 1738, under the title of The New Book of Constitutions, a revised and greatly amplified edition of his previous work of 1723, and the two books have been generally accepted, not only as the basis of Masonic history, but also of Masonic law. Yet, if this view be conceded, what follows? According to the earlier edition (1723), there were two degrees; according to the later one (1738) there were three. Moreover, in various other ways, and notably in the Charge, "Concerning God and Religion," they exhibit discrepancies which are totally irreconcilable. If you pin your faith on one book, you must throw over the other, for to believe both is an impossibility.

But as the only possible way to solve a complex problem is to take it to pieces, that is what I shall attempt to do with the leading and somewhat baffling intricacies of the Epoch of Transition. The first Book of Constitutions (1723) introduces three striking innovations. It abolishes Christianity as the religion of Masonry; it forbids the working of the "Master's part" in private lodges; and it arbitrarily imposes on the English Craft the use of two compound words — Entered-Apprentice and Fellow-Craft — which had no previous existence in its terminology.

The profession of faith which should be required of every candidate for initiation is a question which is being debated with much intensity at the present moment by our Continental and American brethren, but the theological tenets comprised in the Original Plan of Freemasonry fall within the scope of our "Written," and not of our "Symbolical Traditions" — the examination of which will absorb whatever is left of the space that has been placed at my disposal for the article of this month.

In the 13th of the General Regulations (O. R. XIII.), which were first printed in Anderson's Constitutions of 1723, there appears; "Apprentices must be admitted Masters and Fellow-Craft only here [i.e., in the Grand Lodge], unless by a dispensation."

This law, it may be observed, was swept away by a resolution of the Grand Lodge, on November 27th, 1725, and its repeal is chiefly noteworthy (in the argument I am pursuing) as affording corroborative and conclusive evidence with respect to the number of degrees that are actually referred to in O. R. (Old Regulation) XIII.

In the terms used by Anderson there was a latent ambiguity, which caused his words to be wrongly understood, and their true meaning was not re-discovered until 1885.

Apprentices, therefore, as the accredited mouthpiece of the Grand Lodge was long supposed to have said (in 1723), could only receive the degrees of Fellow-Craft and of Master in the Grand Lodge. Whereas, in the contemplation of Dr. Anderson, there was only one degree (and not two) superior to that of Apprentice, namely, that of Fellow-Craft or Master — words, which in the Scottish idiom signified one and the same thing. But the erroneous impression prevailed, and perhaps there is nothing more remarkable in the whole history of Freemasonry, than the curious circumstance that within the short period of 15 years a popular delusion was transformed into an unvarnished truth. Apprentice, and Fellow-Craft or Master, are described as the degrees then existing in the "Constitutions" of 1723; while Apprentice, Fellow-Craft and Master are given in the "Constitutions" of 1738.

In Scotland, both before and long after the year 1723, the expressions "Fellow-Craft" and "Master" were terms of indifferent application, meaning one and the same thing. But in England the compound word "Fellow-Craft" was unknown, until its introduction by Anderson in 1723 (O. R. XIII.) from the operative vocabulary of the North.

The combined use, therefore, of the terms Apprentice, Fellow-Craft, and Master in the XIIIth of the "General Regulations" (1723) gave rise to the singular hallucination that they denoted three distinct and separate degrees which were then recognised by the Grand Lodge.

A brief recapitulation of certain leading facts may, at this point, be acceptable to the reader. In 1723, and presumably at a far earlier date, there were two steps, or, as we should now say, degrees of Masonry. One, the Apprentice part; the other the Master's part. The former comprising the degrees of E.A. and F.C.; and the latter that of M.M. — as we now have them. Moreover, the now familiar titles of Entered Apprentice and Fellow-Craft are operative terms which were peculiar to Scottish, and unheard of in English Masonry, until their appearance in the printed "Constitutions" of 1723.

The earliest reference to three distinct steps (or degrees) of Masonry will be found in the minutes of the Philo-Musicae et Architecturae Societas, London, under the date of May 12th, 1725; and the second in the "Speech" delivered by Dr. Francis Drake (the famous author of Eboracum) at York, on St. John's Day, (in winter), 1726. A little later — in 1730 — one Samuel Prichard published a spurious ritual of three degrees, under the title of Masonry Dissected; and a similar number are indicated by John Pennell in hisIrish"Constitutions"of the same year. After this the delusion assumed such proportions that, yielding to popular clamour, the two degrees inherited and hitherto only recognised by the Grand Lodge of England were, by the bisection of the Apprentice part, declared not only to be, but to have been, three.

Among the attractions of historic study there is the possibility of wresting from some limited series of events the secret of their cause and effect. The plan I have proposed to myself in the present paper, is to lead the reader over a particular period of Masonic history, with the hope and expectation not alone that he will obtain an insight into the early proceedings of the Grand Lodge Era, but that the information so derived will give him a fuller, clearer, and more serviceable glance at Freemasonry as a whole, than would be afforded by an equally restricted survey of any other "limited series of events" to be found in the entire annals of our Fraternity.

After 1730, constant allusions by British and Continental writers are met with, referring to Scots (or Scottish) Lodges, Scots Masters, and Scots Degrees, all of which may have derived at least a portion of their origin from a still increasing delusion with respect to O.R. XIII. In the General Regulations of 1723, besides introducing a new or additional degree, the Scottish Author of the English "Constitutions" was also supposed to have hinted — not obscurely — at the existence of a more elaborate system of Masonry than prevailed elsewhere, in the country of his birth.

The second "Book of Constitutions" was printed in 1738, and as most works of reference are consulted in their latest form, it at once superseded and took the place of the first edition, published in 1723.

A new generation of Masons sprang up. The contemporaries of Payne, Anderson, and Desaguliers passed off the scene, and then came the Great Schism, — when for more than half a century two Grand Lodges, each denouncing the other as irregular, distracted the allegiance of the English Craft.

The market (for such commodities) was glutted with spurious rituals, and by certain of these publications it was declared that the sequence of the three degrees having been altered by the original Grand Lodge of England in 1730, the edict had been conformed to by a majority of the Lodges, but that a more scrupulous minority — adhering to the ancient customs — had seceded from the general body, and set up a Grand Lodge of their own.

This curious story had, of course, its origin in the delusion that three degrees were unequivocally referred to in the "Constitutions" of 1723. Whereas, if three degrees were worked at all during the third decade of the eighteenth century, the practice took place not only without the sanction, but in direct violation of the usage prescribed by the Grand Lodge. How, therefore, the governing Masonic body could have changed the relative priority of the first two degrees, which as separate entities, were unknown to it, — or, on what grounds it could have expected the Lodges to obey its commands (if, for the sake of argument, the possibility of three degrees having been worked, though not authorized, be conceded) after 1730, considering that they had done so before that year, it would be idle to enquire.

The point, however, must be pressed home, that the delusion of 1723, with all its subsequent accretions of error, was accepted and propagated by every historian of the Craft down to quite recent times. Dermott, Preston, Kloss, Oliver, Findel, and Mackey all figure in the list.

Many volumes of enthusiastic rubbish, and a few — a very few — essays of considerable though transitory interest have been written on what can, at most, be only described as the conjectural history of Masonry before the Era of Grand Lodges.

But the disbelievers in the existence of a tri-gradal system of degrees at that early period, had (prior to 1885), to deal with the supposed fact — which was more or less disastrous to their theories — that three degrees, as we now have them, are plainly indicated in the "Constitutions" of 1723.

The accumulation of possibilities was an easy task, but a difficulty which proved insurmountable, was to make out a particular case in such a way that it would stand vigorous criticism.

The real meaning, however, of Old Regulation XIII. having now been re-discovered, it will at least become a legitimate inference, or reasonable deduction from the evidence, that the two degrees of 1723 had been in existence for a longer period than six years; or, to vary the expression, that these steps of Masonry were known to the Lodges and Craftsmen, at whose bidding the earliest of Grand Lodges assumed the reins of power and authority in 1717.

Northern Freemason, 1906.