Folklore Into Masonry

Since I first began to find in masonry more than the performance of rites and ceremonies, I have wanted to know how it originated. That is to say, I was curious why men took up speculative masonry; for there is no mystery about the old lodges of the operative masons, nor about their practice of admitting honorary members. There is secure evidence of such admissions taking place early in the seventeenth century in England, and in the minute book of the Lodge of Edinburgh the presence of James Boswell, Laird of Auchinleck, is recorded under the date 8 June 1600.

The brethren of that time belonged to the Livery Company of Masons of London and to the Gilds of Masons up and down the country and had plied their craft during the Middle Ages in association with the Cathedral Chapters and the Monastic Orders in building and maintaining the great Gothic Churches. Alone of all trades they had preserved the cohesion of the ‘fabric lodge’; since by the nature of things they had to keep together as a band, their work could only be done ‘on the site’. At York the masons employed at the Minster in 1532 were:

To begin work immediately after sunrise until the ringing of the bell of the Virgin Mary; then to breakfast in the logium fabricoe; then one of the masters is to knock upon the door of the lodge and forthwith all are to return to work till noon. Between April and August, after dinner they shall sleep in the lodge; then work until the first bell for vespers; then sit to drink until the end of the third bell and return to work so long as they can see by daylight.

  1. The economic changes and the new eagerness to free the individual from restriction had caused the gild system to decay and collapse, and masons lost employment as the new classical styles became popular, which called for less intricate work. Brick, too, was more extensively used.


There was, however, one feature of the masonic fraternity which made it unique. Unlike other associations of craftsmen, lodges were not permanent. When a building was completed, the workmen might pass to employment in another locality. The secrecy, fidelity and obedience they owed were not to a group in a particular place, but to the Craft as a whole. To ensure that strangers claiming the privileges of masons should not deceive, signs, tokens and words of recognition were communicated under vows of concealment that the mysteries of their art might be guarded and preserved.

A special character distinguishes bodies of men who rove the world in the

  1. 1. Quoted in Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.

pursuit of their livelihood, whether they be sailors, commercial travelers, barristers on circuit ‑ or operative masons. Lacking stable homes, they learn to settle anywhere, they have the cosmopolitan's gift of getting on terms with strangers when they meet them, some fellow‑feeling with the foreigner and understanding of the working of his mind, and, above all, a broader, more tolerant view of the universe and human kind than is held by the types which stay at home. Yet, while all these things are true of the wandering worker, he does not lack ordinary social instincts, and the want of any normal experience of settled community life makes him attach a high, perhaps exaggerated, value to the closed circle of his professional fellowship.

I think freemasonry, at the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, must have been much as I have described, a survival shorn of much of its importance and authority, held together by its traditional connection with building, in which more and more men of the middle ranks of the nation were interesting themselves, and governed as to the constitution of lodges and the conduct of brethren by Ancient Charges and Regulations. Of emblematic or speculative masonry at the beginning of the seventeenth century there is no evidence.

Jump a hundred and fourteen years, and in February 1717, four London lodges meet together for the purpose of consolidating their structure and coordinating their activities by the creation of a Grand Lodge. As to how much ritual they possess and in what ways they differ from us, their successors, it would be reckless to speak in definite terms. Certainly, all traces of operative masonry have disappeared from these four, though not by any means from all lodges in England. Certainly, too, there is some esoteric teaching contained in the ceremonies connected with the admission of candidates, and possibly on feast days. Prominent practitioners of the art of speculative masonry have given lectures. Thus, material is provided for the Masonic Order to work upon during the eighteenth century and to develop into the standard forms of virtual which we inherit. We have a problem of embryology which is completely insoluble. We simply cannot tell what stage had been reached in 1717, and I have no judgment to offer. I make but two suggestions. The first is that though, no doubt, ritual was then in primitive shape, with possibly only parts exactly phrased and neither so systematic nor so elaborate as today, there was a basic uniformity running through freemasonry. The second is that whatever may have been the growth of freemasonry we can at least identify the seeds. The former of these suggestions will not take our attention for long, and I shall not argue it further than to offer an historical parallel, but I think a satisfactory one. Indeed, I hope that you will agree that freemasons were, as I have described it, basically uniform in 1717, for it will assist me, if you do, to demonstrate the seeds from which it sprang, similar growth implying similar seeds.


The assimilation of the content of freemasonry in different lodges depended on the probability of brethren in them mixing, and this in turn upon the facilities for travel and their use by seventeenth‑century Englishmen. It is a commonplace that communications in our country had to wait till nearly 1800 before they were substantially improved. But for three hundred years before then there had been slow but steady advance. The Englishman of the Stuart period was a traveler. If he were a gentleman, that is, one who owned land and lived on the income from it, he regarded travel as a source of information; if he were a merchant, Germany or the Low Countries drew him as profitable markets; if he were a Cavalier, he may have visited or stayed in France while young Charles Stuart took refuge there; if he were a Roundhead, he might well have brothers or cousins in America. These were the sort of men who were entering the Craft as Free and Accepted Masons. If their predecessors, the operative masons, scattered over England, could in the Middle Ages preserve some sort of national association, surely it is not crediting them with too much ingenuity of organization to say that they were roughly uniform in their precepts and their practice. What they handed on was what they held in common. Except in a few instances the general pattern has prevailed; the anomalous has disappeared.

This is what we should expect in a widely scattered fraternity maintaining itself in an indifferent society. On another scale and against another background, the Christian Church was driven underground by persecution in the Roman Empire at the end of the first century of our era and reappeared when toleration was proclaimed in the last quarter of the second. During the intervening period, when it took care as far as it was able to be unknown and unheard of, it succeeded in developing an organization and a ritual which were practically uniform from Antioch to York. Is it too much to claim in the same way that the springs of speculative masonry had risen to approximately the same height during the seventeenth century in all the various centers in England?


One suggestion has been made that, alone among the craft gilds, masons continued to cherish and transmit their special religious practices. Each medieval association was religious in character, venerated one patron saint and kept its festival in a way which might be peculiar to itself. The Reformers looked askance at such carryings on, which they condemned as superstitious and put ruthlessly down. It is not easy to imagine a group or groups of men taking the trouble and risk to continue to perform them in secret. Nor are the types I have mentioned as belonging to lodges those whom we should expect to court official disfavor.

Elias Ashmole is the most famous of them. He records in his diary that he was made a freemason at Warrington in 1646. His second wife was a wealthy widow, and at the Restoration he was created Windsor Herald. He makes no other reference till 1682, when he again attended a lodge and notes composedly that he was the senior fellow. He was typical of his age, a natural student, now critical, now credulous, Fellow of the newly‑chartered Royal Society, collector of curiosities of art and nature, which Sir Christopher Wren built a famous museum in Oxford to house. His credulity appears in his friendship with the contemporary astrologers and his dabbling in the cult of Rosicrucian’s. Michael Maier's book about this system of theosophy had been recently translated from German to English. As Michael Maier was an alchemist, Ashmole seems to focus in his person all the novel, unusual and curious ideas that were drifting through the seventeenth century.

There are those who believe that Elias Ashmole imported tenets of Rosicrucian’s ‑ with its Legend of the Tomb and its implicit principles of brotherly love, relief and truth ‑ into freemasonry. There is not the smallest evidence that he was more than superficially interested in either, and it was to concrete rather than abstract matters that he devoted himself, a history of heraldry and the collection of rarities absorbing him to the exclusion of theology and metaphysics.

Robert Plot and John Aubrey have links with Ashmole, for they were both antiquarians and Plot was Secretary of. the Royal Society as well. Neither were freemasons, but both mention the Craft (in 1686 and 1691 respectively) as widespread through England, practicing charity and patronized by monarchs themselves. Shadowy as the picture is, it is difficult to conceive that lurking in the shade is a hand bent upon transforming it. Bro Bernard Jones closes his discussion of the subject by quoting Lewis Edwards:

Few, if any, institutions are invented offhand. They are all creatures of growth. If we find one of them organized and in working order at a certain date, it is highly probable that, whether or not we find traces of it, it has existed for many years in a rudimentary and unorganized form, and this is obviously the case with speculative freemasonry.'


And so, it is a question of what, when at dusk the gates of the town were closed and the bellman began his nightly rounds, our seventeenth‑century brethren talked at their secret meetings in private rooms of taverns under the presidency of an expert in the matters under discussion. These were the serious gentry and burgesses of the place; the lighter fry was dancing at the assembly rooms or foregathering in each other's houses for music, cards and supper. Let us think of them for the moment not as masons, but as fairly educated Englishmen fully awake to an endless debate that was going on around them: the debate particularly about the nature of God's creation and the laws by which it was maintained in being, the debate as to how man could be elected to sanctification and what was the balance between revelation and reason, that is, between the evidence of the Bible and the evidence of man's native intelligence. For the Bible, of which the Authorized Version was published in 1611, was in everybody's hands. It’s coming had stimulated the teaching of letters.

Speaking of the duties of man, a sixteenth‑century writer wrote:

Some things in such sort are allowed, that they be also required as necessary unto salvation, by way of direct immediate and proper necessity final; so that without performance of them we cannot by ordinary course be saved, nor by any means be excluded from life observing them. In actions of this kind our chief’s direction is from scripture, for nature is no sufficient teacher what we should do that we may attain unto life everlasting.'

Thus, Richard Hooker, the man who composed the sublime apology for the Elizabethan middle way in religion, and laid down the principles of faith and

Bernard E. Jones, Freemason's Guide and Compendium, 98. Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Policy. Bk ii, eh viii, 3 conduct that were classic in the seventeenth century. His attitude was adopted widely by his countrymen.

The Bible was read greedily, extensively and quite uncritically. No distinction was drawn between the significance of an account of early Hebrew barbarity and late prophetic insight, between the moral teaching of Proverbs and that of Paul.

As commentary upon the elucidation of Scripture, men had the conception of world organization which had been transmitted through the Middle Ages growing more complicated and more ingenious as the centuries went by. It ultimately constituted a compendium of knowledge contained in the seven liberal arts and sciences, and, of course, fully attained only by the learned few, yet in general outline part of the background of the common mind. It is to this general outline that I have referred in my title as 'folklore'. Here it is summarized.

In designing the world, The Great Archived imposed upon His Creation a particular style of His own, fitting every item into a single pattern and decreeing for each a course of action appropriate to the part assigned. The pattern was alluded to as a chain, the lowest links consisting of inanimate objects, the next vegetation, then groups of beasts, then men, then angels. Within each class the members were not ranged indiscriminately, but held their positions by merit and desert, and at the head of each class was the primate: fire among the elements, sun among the stars, king among men, eagle among birds. For instance, in Shakespeare's Richard II, Act Ill, Scene 3, Bolingbroke before Flint Castle says:

Be he the fire, I'll be the yielding water, and a few lines later:

See, see, King Richard doth himself appear, as doth the blushing discontented suit from out the fiery portal of the cast, when he perceives the envious clouds are bent to dim his glory and to strain the track of his bright passage to the occident

To which York adds:

Yet looks he like a king: behold his eye, as bright as is the eagles lightens forth Controlling majesty.'

Like children, the medieval thinkers were not accustomed to consider things detached from all other things. All were creatures of God's making and He had given to each nature which it is its raison d'etre to fulfil. The kind of strange theory that was produced to interpret a fact or to relate it to an accepted theory is exemplified by an explanation of the period of creation: the world was created in six days because the crown of creation was human kind, male and female, but the number three stands for man the number two for woman, and through the creative act of multiplying you get six.

The point that must be borne in mind is that as everything in the world has been designed by the Great Architect, it had, as it were, His mark upon it and was personalized.

Quoted by E, M. W, Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture.

Brethren will remember that ‘as a certain word was once a test word to distinguish friend from foe, King Solomon afterwards caused it to be adopted as a Pass Word in a Fellowcraft Lodge to prevent any unqualified person ascending the winding stair'. The propriety of the use of the word for this purpose, to our minds, must consist in a chance felicity produced by the almost humorous comparison between the turbulent Ephraimites and either an entered apprentice or a cowan to masonry trying to force entry to a Felloweraft Lodge. But to our ancient brethren the word had an existence of its own and with that a special virtue, just as the name of a powerful supernatural being might liberate miraculous powers. The same applies to numbers, as we have seen. The perfection of the. number seven is illustrated for masons by the fact that King Solomon was seven years and upwards in building, completing and dedicating the Temple.

I trust that I have made the point that things were never indifferent in the medieval mind. If one of them symbolized some abstract idea, the symbolism was never regarded as imposed by man; it was inherent. Without any doubt the twenty‑four inches in the twenty‑four inch gauge were not considered to be similar in number to the twenty‑four hours of the day by accident. The correspondence was part of the pattern. It is obvious that to acquire this knowledge ‑ or science, as it was named ‑ profound imagination and willingness to be taught were required; the student must 'dedicate his heart, thus purified from every baneful and malignant passion, fitted only for the reception of truth and wisdom . . .'


The movement of thought with which the name of Francis Bacon will always be connected began in the seventeenth century to loosen the foundations of this system. Men started to notice things for themselves and found that the facts they observed did not square with it. 'Our method,' he said, 'is continually to dwell among things soberly . . . to establish forever a true and legitimate union between the experimental and rational faculty. ` Those who have gone all the way with Bacon have completely discarded the scheme of accounting for the universe by abstract principles and values, preferring one which rests upon observation, measurement and the analysis of the results of these. They have built up Science in its modern meaning, and to them the universe apprehended in a form of mathematical terms is the real one, the world dreamed of in seventeenth‑century folklore only a glow of twilight in the sky.


The old ideas passed slowly, and in our century, there were many notable writers who sought to fuse the old and the new, such names as John Milton and Isaac Newton could be instanced, but there is room for one quotation, and I shall choose it from Religio Medici. The family of its author, Thomas Browne, came from Cheshire. His father was a merchant in London, where Thomas was born in 1606. He studied medicine in Leyden, in Holland, and practiced as a doctor in Norwich. He wrote on a variety of subjects and wrestled with this question of abstract against experimental science. He was not a freemason, but for reasons

I Preface to De Augmentis.

that I have already given the speculative mason would eagerly search his books, which are wise, lively and most choice in style.

Nor do I so forget God as to adore the Name of Nature, which I define as that straight and regular line, that settled and constant course the wisdom of God hath ordained the actions of His Creatures. according to their several kinds. To make a revolution every day is the nature of the Sun, because of that necessary course which God hath ordained it. from which it cannot swerve but by a faculty from that voice which did first give it motion. Now this course of Nature God seldom alters or perverts, but like an excellent Artist bath so contrived His work, that with the self‑same instrument, without a new creation, he may affect His obscurest designs . . . for God is like a skillful Geometrician, who when more easily and with one stroak of His compass he might describe or divide a right line, had yet rather do this in a circle or longer way; according to the constituted and forelaid principles of His Art.'

‑ Religio Medici, Sect 16

Sir Thomas is, of course, deprecating recourse to miracles to account for events in Nature. So far, he is in step with the rationalizers, but his method is not 'continually to dwell among things soberly'; to him, God is Artist and Geometrician, he preserves the idea of Divine style in the ordering of the universe. Had opinion in the next century been faithful to Browne's teaching which is reflected in many of his contemporaries, we should not have developed in the one‑sided way we have done.

Let me not be misunderstood. That there was much rubbish cumbering medieval science goes without saying. It had to be cast out, and the new science, with all its triumphs, replaced it. Truth has benefited.

But Truth has also lost: the facts that life is one: that perfection is a goal to be believed in even if never to be achieved: that the universe exists not only as a mine for wealth, but also as a place of service: that persons rank before things: that there is Absolute Being which we disregard at our peril ‑ these facts are incapable of experimental proof, they cannot be weighed or measured, so they are reduced to the order of indeterminate propositions. But just as those propositions were slipping out of the consciousness of Western Man, the Order of Speculative Freemasons fastened upon them and preserved them in Charge, Constitution and Ceremonial, so that we, their descendants, might follow them in tracing the intellectual faculty from its development, through the paths of Heavenly Science, even to the throne of God Himself.

I Sir Thornas Browne. Religio Medici, Sect 16.


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J. Simpson Africa Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, Lodge 628, 

is part of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania