When the Worshipful Master is asked at his installation if he agrees that it is not in the power of man, or any body of men, to make innovations in the Body of Masonry, it is important to understand that this charge is intended for the preservation of the organizational structure of Freemasonry, and not its ritual ceremonies. More than one Grand Master or Custodian of the Work has attempted to apply this admonition to Masonic ritual itself. Yet a brief review of ritual development and its many forms across the landscape of Masonic jurisdictions will quickly show this question taken from the “Old Charges” has nothing to do with the ritualistic aspects of our fraternity. Our founders never intended that ritual ceremonies remain static. Prohibition to innovation does not apply to Masonic ritual as this is the single basis upon which all Light in Masonry is transmitted and revealed.
Even the insistence by the United Grand Lodge of England that “pure, ancient Freemasonry consists of three degrees only, including the Holy Royal Arch” is historically inaccurate. Grand Lodges have always been entitled to decide for themselves exactly of what their ritual consists.
The only “pure, ancient” Masonic ritual in the world is the ritual that existed in 1717 when the first Grand Lodge was formed. We know what that ritual was because it was widely published in three early Masonic manuscripts in the form of catechisms still extant from the period of 1696 to 1715, all of which came from Scotland. The amazing thing about these exposures is that they found their way to use and adoption by English Lodges. More significantly, we also find in them much of the foundation upon which all later Masonic ritual was erected--the method of placing the feet, mention of the “prentice” and “fellow-craft,” the five points of fellowship; the mention of the square, compasses and Bible in the same context; the porch of King Solomon’s Temple, the basic penal sign; the penalty—there is much to recognize here. It is beyond coincidence that we find these characteristics in common in all of these old catechisms.
And one other point is extraordinary in all these workings: Degrees are not mentioned. When the first Grand Lodge in the world was created, there was only the ceremony of making a Mason—an “Acceptance and the Master’s part.” In fact, we have no evidence of a three degree system, or a third degree, prior to Samuel Pritchard’s famous exposure entitled “Masonry Dissected,” published in 1730.
This makes the Master Mason degree in Masonry an innovation!
Serious historians agree that the third degree was introduced into Masonry around 1725. It became popular over the next two decades primarily because Masons adopted Pritchard’s exposure as an aide to the memory work. His unauthorized work essentially became the first Masonic Monitor; and would be the unofficial ritual book of Freemasons for decades. It is also the first mention we have of the Hiramic Legend.
No one knows where this story came from, but it is surmised that Desaguiliers may have been the author, being Grand Master in 1719 and Deputy Grand Master in 1722 and 1726. This was the period when the third degree was introduced into the ceremonies of the premier Grand Lodge. Logic suggests that Desaguliers and his Masonic friends in the Royal Society could have been responsible. Certainly, nothing could have been introduced without their approval. In fact, the Craft changed dramatically while Desaguliers was on the scene. The Grand Lodge went from an annual feast to an administrative body, complete with minutes and policy direction for lodges, including the structure of its degrees.
Desaguiliers, if he and his friends were indeed the authors of the third degree, turned Freemasonry into a new path. By 1730, the ceremony we know as the Royal Arch had been developed, which was the revival of an ancient Greek story dating to c. 400 AD. By 1735, the Rite of Perfection, consisting of 14 degrees, was introduced, setting a biblical chronology to the structure of Masonic ritual. Both the Royal Arch and Rite of Perfection, innovative as they were, were declared by members as “revivals” of ancient Masonry because they automatically imparted an artificial façade of age on the degree or order. After a few years, even Grand Lodge historians were writing that these added degrees were revivals of an older system. It became fashionable to believe there was nothing innovative to them at all!
Of course, all of the new degrees/orders were adopted on a single premise—what had been lost in the third degree had to be found. For this reason, all of them show an amazing similarity in structure—all show signs of emanating from the same source, with the same regularity of form. Even as additional degrees developed, they retained a “traditional” structure.
This similarity in structure is further evidence that our Masonic degrees, were, in fact, created in a wave of fashion. They all intimate there are great secrets to be found by the dedicated follower. And indeed, there are.
At the same time that degrees and orders were growing by leaps and bounds in both the York Rite and Scottish Rite traditions, Masonic ritualists in the craft lodges continued to add to the language of the first three degrees, adding substance to their form. During the second half of the 18th Century, an extraordinary growth in intellectual meat was added to the bones of the old “pure and ancient” concept of the few simple catechisms of 1717. In fact, ritual development and expansion continued to be fashionable as a means of educating the craft until well into the 1820’s.
We had, in effect, created a school of education which thrived for nearly a century until Grand Lodges, primarily in America, determined there should be only one ritual; one set of words—that which was adopted by them—and everything else didn’t count. The American Grand Lodges established yet another innovation in Masonry—that ritual was fixed in time—their time. They had decided for themselves that pure and ancient Masonry was their Masonry alone. Masonic ritual became a fixed and stagnant thing.
This 19th century innovation may have marked the beginning of the decline in Masonry. It was during this era that Grand Lodges collectively decided there was nothing more to be learned in Masonic ritual. Our words were frozen in time.
I’m now wondering if it is time to create yet another innovation in Masonry; that of educating Masons that ritual use should be a dynamic process, just as learning is dynamic. Of course, we don’t need to adopt more words. But consider how instructive it would be if ritual diversity could be introduced as an added tool for instruction; if alternative ritual systems already adopted in other Jurisdictions across the world could be exemplified at the will of the lodge and sanctioned by Grand Lodge. Imagine how exciting and invigorating it would be if we had ten or twelve different ritual workings available to us in every Grand Jurisdiction!
Perhaps it is time to make Masonry fashionable again, both through the variety of its ritual form and the development of its intellectual form; where lectures, essays, and dialogue are shared regularly in lodge—all focused on enlightening the mind. Maybe the most instructive and informative papers could become a part of the printed monitors of Masonry; not to be memorized, but to be sanctioned and published for the benefit of those who want access to more knowledge in the ways of Masonry--those who know that More Light in Masonry is not the propriety of Grand Lodge, but rather, the individual and his brothers on their collective quest of a lifetime—a seeking for that which has been lost in the words; and their meanings.
In exercises such as these, would we not once again be practicing “pure and ancient” Masonry? It might just be another innovation worthy of our ancient craft.
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