Dispatches from Maine

Just another person of little note writing about ordinary things. That I reside in Maine is icing on the cake.

15 May 2006

MMC: Development of Masonic Ritual

Here is the material I sent to the Maine Masonic College to describe my class:

The history of Masonic ritual traces its evolution from a simple workman's degree designed to impress and frighten apprentices being entered into the lodge to the high production sets and dramatics of the Scottish Rite degrees. The winding staircase which connects these degree systems is of interest to almost any scholar of Freemasonry as it covers more than six hundred years of Masonic history. The ritual contains, encoded within it , signs of the physical structure and organization of the lodge system and so it is bound up with the history of Freemasonry itself. The makes a comprehensive study of the its development almost impossible in a short time period. This class is, therefore, designed to give an overview of the history of Masonic ritual and will arm each participant with the tools necessary to do further research into the area of interest to them.

The history of the ritual will include a study of the three major periods of Masonic ritual: constitutions, catechisms, and lectures. The first period, the Gothic Constitutions, consisted of a ritual designed to frighten new apprentices and a book of rules for the government of conduct while working on a job. The gild Passion plays common to this period would plant seeds for a deeper ritual system, as we have today. Though many of these texts are lost to history, we will study the text families as defined by noted Masonic historian, Wallace McLeod, and review the content of several of these texts. The rules set down during this period continue to affect Freemasonry right up to the present day.

The second period, catechisms, is our first insight into the Masonic ritual system itself. These early rituals took the form of long question and answer exchanges, which are quite similar to sections of our modern ritual. No Freemason in Maine would find this line unfamiliar:
Are you a mason? Yes, I am a Freemason. How shall I know that? By perfect signes and tokens and the first poynts of my Enterance.
The proficiency examinations, employed here in the United States, echo these traditional catechisms and preserve a centuries old tradition. We will study a number of these catechism documents using the famous collection "The Early Masonic Catechisms" by Knoop, Jones and Hamer. Their collection includes both handwritten copy and printed texts, which form the first exposures.

Finally, the third period of Masonic ritual, the lectures, will receive a great deal of attention. The first lectures were the work of a single individual: Bro. William Preston. His "Illustrations of Masonry" elevates the Masonic ritual to a new height of philosophical illumination inspired by the Enlightenment. It is from our famous Bro. Preston in 1788 that we receive:
By geometry, therefore, we may curiously trace Nature, through her various windings, to her most concealed recesses. By it, we may discover the power, the wisdom, and the goodness of the Grand Artificer of the universe, and view with delight the proportions which connect this vast machine.
We are fortunate, to have Preston's own famous work to aid in our review of this material, as well as the transcription of our own M.W. Bro. Thomas Smith Webb, author of the famous "Webb working."

The class winds down with a review of the exposures of the 19th century including those of Morgan, Richardson, and Duncan. These give an insight into the state of Masonic ritual before the destruction of the Morgan Affair. Finally, the great meeting of the Grand Lodges at Baltimore and the attempt to select a single common ritual system for the entire United States will be the last topic of discussion.

When the class concludes you will leave with a sense of the periods of Masonic ritual over the last six hundred years. Further, you will know which books can give you insight into the period which interests you. Then you can continue your own Masonic education and bring light to others as you share with them the answers: "What does hail mean?" or "Where can I read more about this whole Hiram thing?"

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