A Pragmatic Masonic History

Leo Zanneli, MPS

A Lodge Elder introduces a new piece of ritual into his lodge workings. How long does it take to become "time immemorial" in the eyes of the members of that lodge? It could be two years or less.

It’s this ability to pull the wool over our own eyes that bedevils masonic history. The study of masonic history in particular, requires an approach which includes Applied Logic and Social Psychology — two disciplines usually missing in masonic histories, but which I have attempted here.

Someone once wrote: "…nothing vexes people so much, and hardens them in their unbelief and in their dogged resistance to reforms, as undeniable facts and unanswerable arguments." This, I feel, applies in particular to much attempted masonic historical writing.

This paper is an attempt to outline (no more) a very brief history of Freemasonry, from an obscure starting point, through 1717 A.D. — at the formation of the premier Grand Lodge by four London lodges, at the Goose and Gridiron tavern in the shadow of St Paul’s — to the present. It applies particularly to the English Constitution — although the basic history is of interest to all constitutions.

As we are trying to avoid "fairy tales" here, it must be pointed out that the insistence by the United Grand Lodge of England that "pure, antient Freemasonry consists of three degrees only…including the Royal Arch…" is almost certainly historically inaccurate. Grand Lodges are of course entitled to decide for themselves exactly what their ritual consists of. Thus if the UGLE says it consists of three degrees including the Royal Arch, then they have that right — but I think it is confusing to suggest that their (modern) version is "pure, antient…" because this tends to distort the facts.

A Question of Definition

First, let me define what I think "pure, antient" Freemasonry ritual is: It is quite simply the ritual that existed in 1717, when the premier Grand Lodge was formed. Surprisingly, we do have a pretty good idea what that ritual was — it’s just that many masonic historians stick their head in the sand and concentrate on an undefined period a few years later, when another degree came into existence. This is an illogical approach. If we accept the date of 1717 as being the start of organized Freemasonry as we know it, then the original ritual must be that which was practiced in 1717. Anything else has to be an addition or innovation.

Do we have any idea of what this ritual was composed of? Almost certainly yes. The most valuable material here is Knoop, Jones and Hamer’s book The Early Masonic Catechisms (1975, edited by Harry Carr). This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the evolution of Craft ritual.

Unlike the Old Charges, which seem to have originated as operative "trade union" charters, and which lodges seemed keen to keep as an indication of history, Early Masonic Catechisms concentrates on what are virtually scraps of paper (one is a mere 20cm by 15cm sheet of paper) upon which are written a form of ritual of a catechism (question and answer) nature. These include the Edinburgh Register House MS (1696), the Chetwode Crawley MS (1700) and the Kevan MS (circa 1715). All, you will note, immediately before 1717.

Having studied the above three manuscripts in detail, the authors state: "These three texts are so much alike in minute detail that it is quite certain that they all purport to describe the same procedure."

In fact, these catechisms have far more in common with our ritual than the Old Charges, which lodges seemed to possess to give themselves a patina of age. Now the point about the Old Charges, is that one could make a case for them being a saleable item; if every lodge were supposed to have one, there would have been steady jobs for scribes producing them. Not so the manuscripts mentioned above; they are loose leaves of paper, usually showing many folds and signs of great use, and which were not designed to appeal to anyone. Just like the scribbled bits of ritual masons have made up for centuries — to this day. In other words, there was no need to produce them except for use — which to me makes them pretty genuine.

What do they teach?

Now the amazing thing about these manuscripts, is that the average mason will find much to relate to: the method of placing the feet; mention of a "prentice" and "fellow-Craft"; the Five Points of Fellowship; the mention of the square, compasses and the Bible in the same context; the porch of Solomon’s Temple; the basic penal sign; and of having a part of your body cut out and buried on the beach or thereabouts — there is much to recognize here. This really is beyond coincidence. There’s sufficient evidence for it to stand up in a court of law! But only two degrees are mentioned.

The two-degree theory has been accepted for many years. For example take Lionel Vibert’s Prestonian Lecture for 1925, titled "The development of the Trigradal System". Early in the lecture, Vibert writes: "By the days of Grand Lodge (1717) this had come to be a system of two degrees only, the Acceptance and the Master’s Part." Later he says: "...and by 1730 the trigradal system was definitely established."

More up to date, in his article "Masters Lodges" in the September 1997 issue of the masonic magazine The Square, Yasha Beresiner writes: "Although we have no evidence of the degree work undertaken in Craft lodges before 1730, we know, beyond doubt, that there were only two degrees: that of the Entered Apprentice and Fellow of the Craft (or Master) as the second."

So we have two top masonic historians, with papers separated by over 70 years, agreeing that in 1717 the Craft ritual consisted of only two degrees; most serious historians agree with them.

So, at this point all the evidence points to the existence of only two degrees in 1717. Also, the early masonic catechisms mentioned, describe significant portions of the ritual as we know it today. Thus it is logical to assume that in 1717, speculative masons worked a two-degree system, along the lines of the masonic catechisms described by Knoop, Jones and Hamer.

It is of course interesting to speculate where these original two degrees came from. The Edinburgh House MS (1696) was, we know, an old document from the Court of Session, Edinburgh, found in 1808; the Chetwode Crawley (c. 1700) was discovered around 1900 in Ireland; while the Kevan MS (c. 1714) was discovered in 1954, in Scotland.

Looking through The Early Masonic Exposures, it seems likely that the earliest catechisms derive from Scotland, and slowly filtered through the rest of Britain.

There is a school of thought which suggests that there is a shortage of early English catechisms because they were committed to memory. This is totally illogical; such a system would have meant a great deal of change over the years because of the vagaries of human memory — whereas the amazing thing about the early catechisms mentioned above, is that so much still fits into our current ritual. This could only be achieved by writing the ritual down.

Enter a Third

Serious historians also agree that the third degree was devised or introduced around 1725. It was certainly established by 1730, because it was published in Pritchard’s Masonry Dissected on that date, and became the unofficial ritual book of freemasons for decades. This is also virtually the first mention we have of the Hiramic legend. However the storyline itself is mirrored in non-masonic legends down the ages. It’s hardly original. But who developed this third degree, how, and why?

The noted Scottish masonic historian Murray Lyon (died 1903), described Desaguliers as the "co-fabricator and pioneer of the system of symbolical masonry." He had a point. Certainly Desaguliers was just about the most influential mason of the period, being Grand Master in 1719, and Deputy Grand Master in 1722 and 1726. This was the period in which the third degree was introduced into the ceremony of the premier Grand Lodge — and logic tells us that Desaguliers, and his masonic friends in the Royal Society, just had to be responsible. Certainly, nothing could have been introduced without their approval.

In fact the Craft changed dramatically while Desaguliers was on the scene. The original Grand Lodge, so far as we can tell, was little more than an annual get-together for a feast or festival. They didn’t even keep minutes. The Desaguliers era saw the introduction of the keeping of minutes, an improvement in administration — and the introduction of the third degree.

In fact, a curious set of minutes of Grand Lodge (24 June 1723) tell us that the Duke of Wharton, Grand Master, declined to name his successor, and referred the nomination to the Grand Lodge. Most unusual. This resulted in the nomination of the Rt Hon the Earl of Dalkeith. Dalkeith then stated that in the event of his election, he would nominate Desaguliers as his deputy. Wharton then immediately asked for the Grand Lodge to approve Desaguliers (contrary to regulations). The minutes state: "A division of the (Grand) Lodge was called…there were 43 Ayes in favor of Desaguliers and 42 Noes. Dalkeith was then elected Grand Master — whereupon Wharton declared he had some doubt as to whether the tellers had reported the Desaguliers vote accurately…" (Manchester AMR Transactions LXXXIII).

There seems little doubt that almost 50 per cent of those present — not just Wharton — were not in favor of Desaguliers; an indication of dissention without doubt. Could this have been because he was "plugging" for a change of direction? People trying to change things are never popular.

How was the third introduced? After all, the slightest alteration in ritual is liable to create hysteria among masons. But remember that these were early days, when the brethren had few lines of communication and were thus ill-informed. I suggest it was introduced as the "revival of the third degree". I say this because almost every degree or order in Masonry is, at the point of origin, declared a "revival". This automatically imparts on the degree/order an artificial veneer of age. Even with the premier Grand Lodge, within a few years "historians" were writing that it was really a revival of an older system. I maintain it would have been easy to introduce a third degree, if it were described as something more ancient that masons had used in the past.

Why? That’s more difficult. This was around the time the premier Grand Lodge ceremony and outlook started to become de-christianised. The number three is more evocative than two; it may have been no more than that. What is interesting, is that there is a link — King Solomon’s Temple is mentioned in the original two-degree system, and of course in the Hiramic legend; although this does not prove a connection.

If the above assumptions are correct, then it means that three-degree Masonry as we know it, derived from two sources. We know that much of our heritage comes from the material mentioned in the two-degree system outlined in The Early Masonic Catechisms because most of it is still in our ritual. But at some point, a group introduced additional material (the third degree) that is unlikely to have had any real historical connection to the early ritual. It seems probable that Desaguliers and his companions introduced this additional material for a specific reason. Why? I suggest that a closer look at Desaguliers and the Royal Society, in this period, might shed some light on the subject.

The Degree Explosion

The point is that it happened — and I contend that it set in motion a chain of events that reverberate to this day. Because from this point, degrees and orders proliferated until, around 1800, there were literally hundreds — possibly a thousand — degrees. It became a sort of fashion. Indeed, many of the other orders that sprung up in the 1700s, such as the Buffaloes, Druids and Oddfellows, still exist to this day. Social psychologists could have a field day here, for if one traces these degrees/orders downwards from their peak, you arrive back at the period in which the premier Grand Lodge introduced the third degree — causing a virtual tidal wave of fashion for such societies.

In fact Sandbach, in his Talks for Lodge and Chapter writes: "We have to bear in mind the revolution which the coming of the Hiramic (third) degree must have achieved…What it did was turn Freemasonry into a new path." It did indeed. What it did not do is make it "pure, antient".

And Then There Were Four

Some time around 1730, the ceremony we now know as the Royal Arch was developed. We know little about its origin, except that it was a great favorite with a group of mostly Irish masons who became known as the Antients. Anyone wishing to research the Antients, should read Sadler’s Masonic Facts and Fictions.

We must bear in mind, again, that the introduction of degrees and orders at this time was starting to become a phenomenon. Most of the degrees that have been passed down to us, or of which we have evidence of the ritual, seem to slot somewhere into a biblical chronology of sorts. They are basically similar in construction.

To my mind the introduction of the Royal Arch could have been something extremely simple: if we accept that the premier Grand Lodge introduced the third degree, in which the word was lost — then the next logical progression would be to find it again: the vault and the Royal Arch.

In fact the storyline was already circulating. In one of his lectures, titled "The Mark and the Royal Arch", the noted historian Wallace McLeod writes, regarding the RA. "Actually the story…comes from the ancient Greek historian Philostorgius of Cappadocia (circa 400 AD) who wrote A History of the Church. Philostorgius tells the following story: The Roman Emperor Julian ordered the Temple at Jerusalem to be rebuilt…when the foundations were being readied, one stone, that had been laid in the bottom of the course was dislodged and revealed a cavern built into the rock…they could not see inside…The overseers wanted to know the truth, so they fastened one of their workmen to a long rope and let him down…feeling around, in the centre he discovered a block of rock projecting…when he put his hand on it he found a scroll. He picked it up and gave a signal to be pulled up…the scroll astonished both Gentiles and Jews, for when it was opened it displayed the words In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…"

McLeod goes on: "…it (the story) was picked up by the French journalist and writer Louis Travenol. He published it in 1747 in a revelation of the so-called Masonic secrets…"

Then McLeod adds, in a masterpiece of understatement "This is certainly a tale calculated to raise our eyebrows". Indeed, I can see no other alternative but to assume that the Antients, desperate to keep a Christian influence in Masonry, came upon the Greek story and immediately adopted it to fill in the "loss" described in the new third degree.

An Antient Heritage

As mentioned, "degree fever" eventually become a social phenomenon of the 1700s. But not with the premier Grand Lodge (called the "Moderns") because they insisted, for over 70 years, that Masonry consisted of three degrees only — and that most certainly did not include the Royal Arch. To take just one example among many, in 1767 Samuel Spencer, Grand Secretary of the premier Grand Lodge, replying to a query about the Royal Arch, wrote: "The Royal Arch is a society which we do not recognize and which we hold to be an invention to introduce innovation and to seduce the brethren."

It’s almost certain that Spencer himself didn’t know the truth when decrying the Royal Arch as an innovation, because the premier Grand Lodge called the Antients "innovators" — when in fact they had lit the fuse themselves with the introduction of the third degree. On the other hand, the Antients — and others — embraced the degree ethic with enthusiasm.

The Antients used to open in a "fourth degree" and in this mode worked many other degrees until, around 1800, they had a degree structure of around 26 — and many more optional. We know this from the works of the likes of John Knight, who detailed the degrees and rituals in many hand-written books. It is also recorded that quite a few Moderns lodges used to work many, if not all of the Antient degrees — it is a fact that Knight himself was technically a "Modern" (he was a friend of Dunkerley) even though he worked the Antient structure and even Druid ceremonies.

As mentioned, the plethora of degrees and orders that sprung up show an amazing similarity in structure. Many masonic writers have commented that our antient brethren had fertile imaginations; whereas in truth they were virtually devoid of imagination. The format of obligations etc all show signs of emanating from the same source, with the same monotonous regularity. There is rarely any attempt at originality. Even as these other degrees developed, they retained a "traditional" structure. To this day, most of these "outside" degrees are similar in form and are recognizable; even repetitive. Even the orders outside the Craft suffer the same fate. The Gardeners (originated in the 1700s) for example possessed three degrees: the first featured Adam, the second Noah and the third King Solomon. In the Improved Order of Red Men (American), the opening shows the same structure as that of Freemasonry — and this is repeated through all the Red Man degrees.

The fact that most degrees or orders — within and without Freemasonry — are so similar in structure, is further evidence that they were created in a wave of "fashion". They all intimate that there are great secrets to unfold to the dedicated follower; yet none of them have fulfilled their promise — and that includes the "blue" degrees.

An examination of the Antient structure seems to show that it was decidedly chivalric, with a preponderance of "Knight of…" degrees. In my opinion it still exists in a reasonably recognizable form in the American York Rite, which seems to contain many of the Antient degrees and orders, with the main exception of the Rose Croix or Rosy Crucian, which now languishes for some reason in the Ancient and Accepted or Scottish Rite. In England many of the remaining degrees are scattered around several other orders, such as the Holy Royal Arch Knight Templar Priests. But this is an avenue we shall go into at some future date.

Such was the success of the Antient structure, that many Moderns lodges performed them, totally disregarding what the premier Grand Lodge said. So much so that in 1766 a group within the Moderns forced through a "Charter of Compact" or separate Royal Arch Grand Chapter. This enabled Moderns lodges to carry out Antient degrees without having to compromise their "three degrees and no more" philosophy.

A Time for Compromise

This Antient structure — from the fourth or Royal Arch onwards — was the main stumbling block towards the union of the Moderns and Antients in England in 1813.

The Moderns — the premier Grand Lodge — had for 70 years insisted that Freemasonry consisted "of three degrees only" and of course it would have been a loss of face for them to have accepted any other. The Antients, on the other hand, insisted that the Royal Arch was the very essence of Freemasonry — and of course the key to the highly prized chivalric orders.

In the end a "nonsense" compromise was created in Article II of the Act of Union, which said that Freemasonry "…consists of three degrees and no more, viz., those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch…" I quite honestly believe that such a ridiculous compromise could only have survived in Freemasonry — in any other organisation it would have been "laughed out of court". But this, it must be emphasized, applies only within the English Constitution so far as I know; and there is no doubt that this bizarre compromise was the only one which could have saved the Union.

However, this was not the end of the story, because the political machinations within the premier Grand Lodge were still active. They had literally been forced to accept the Royal Arch, but were determined to go no further. As Sandbach points out in his Talks for Lodge and Chapter: "…if we look at the original statement in the Act of Union, we find that the quotation (…three degrees and no more, including the Royal Arch…) is incomplete, because Article II in fact goes on to say: "But this Article is not intended to prevent any Lodge or Chapter from holding a meeting in any of the Degrees of the Orders of Chivalry according to the constitutions of the said orders." Those words quite clearly gave permission to Lodges and Chapters to confer degrees additional to the three Craft degrees…" Yet this has never been allowed by the United Grand Lodge of England — despite the fact that I have seen no evidence to suggest that it was ever rescinded. Why?

It is patently obvious that, having fudged a compromise of sorts, the Moderns were determined to sweep aside all those "orders of chivalry" into oblivion. This they did with regard to the Craft; but luckily the Knights Templar and others had by this time developed administrative structures of their own, and mostly survived. But that is another story.

A Precis

Bearing all the above in mind, we are now able to construct a brief example history of Freemasonry. It certainly won’t please everyone; but it is a pragmatic reasoning — not one based on fairy stories

A fairly simple, two-degree masonic ceremony originated in Scotland, and gradually spread throughout England. This was the one in general use in 1717, when the premier Grand Lodge was formed in London.

Around 1725, Desaguliers and others within the premier Grand Lodge, decided that the ceremony needed to be dechristianised — possibly to make it attractive to a wider membership — and they added a third degree.

Several years later another group — termed the Antients — added a fourth (Royal Arch) degree; and in this "mode" also carried out a wide variety of decidedly Christian and chivalric ceremonies. None of these were accepted by the premier Grand Lodge (Moderns).

However the Antient structure proved so popular with many Moderns lodges, that in 1766 the premier Grand Lodge formed a separate Royal Arch Grand Chapter, so that their members could conduct "Antient" degrees without infringing the Craft ceremonies. Indeed, so popular was this "Antient" practice of a multitude of degrees, that there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, created outside Freemasonry.

In 1813 the two rival English Grand Lodges came together, and achieved the compromise of "fusing" the Antients’ Royal Arch onto the Craft third degree — then proceeded to ignore the rest of the Antient degrees.

Some Conclusions

It has to be emphasized again that the 1813 "compromise" applies only to the English Constitution. Everywhere else in the world, it is recognized that the Craft consists of only the three "blue" degrees, without the Royal Arch. However, the rest of the world has also got it wrong, because "pure, ancient" Freemasonry consisted of two degrees only. All the rest is innovation!

What are we to make of the above, on the assumption that it is reasonably correct? The main one is that there is no Grand Design. The first and second degrees almost certainly originated from a different source to that of the third; and the Royal Arch also came from somewhere else. It seems highly likely that the Royal Arch story originated in Greece around 400 AD — and the third degree could well have been adapted from one of many biblical stories.

This is important, because there is a general acceptance among masons (even Grand Lodges) that our ceremonies have a fixed, if slightly esoteric, meaning taken as a whole. That our ceremonies have been passed down unaltered through the centuries — and that there is a message, even a great secret, bound up in the complete "parcel". This, obviously, is not the case, because as we can see from the above, the overall picture is derived from several different sources, and the whole structure "just grew" — it really wasn’t planned.

What we originally had, has been expanded dramatically over the centuries. It is generally recognized that the three degrees as "exposed" in Pritchard’s Masonry Dissected, are a fair representation of the degrees at that time (1730). Just compare them with the three degrees we have now, and it’s obvious that something which was originally fairly simple, became repetitive, convoluted, pompous and bloated in the period from 1717 to 1813. We have not — most definitely not — "always done it that way". Bearing in mind the considerable decline in membership of the major masonic countries (USA, Britain, Australia etc) could it be time to get back to basics?

What is needed now, is to concentrate on the three distinct divisions of masonic ritual — the first two degrees; the third; and the Royal Arch — and work out the history of each as a separate entity. In that way we may start to unravel the complex structure that is Freemasonry. To attempt to imagine the first, second, third and Royal Arch as an integral whole historically, is inaccurate and will only tend to confuse — unless you prefer fairy tales…

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