Masonic Encyclopedia The Ashlar Company
Masonic Regalia StoreRegalia Store AccountAccount BlogsBlogs EducationEducation EncyclopediaEncyclopedia EtiquetteEtiquette Famous MasonsFamous Masons GracesGraces Grand LodgesGrand Lodges InformationInformation LibraryLibrary Lost & FoundLost & Found MembershipMembership MythsMyths NewsNews PoemsPoems QuotesQuotes Regius PoemRegius Poem RitualsRituals SymbolsSymbols ToastsToasts TourTour Tracing BoardsTracing Boards TricentennialTricentennial WallpaperWallpaper Masonic Encyclopedia Search A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Ashlar Home > Encyclopedia

Lectures, History of The

To each of the Degrees of Symbolic Freemasonry a catechetical instruction is appended, in which the ceremonies, traditions, and other esoteric instructions of the Degree are contained. A knowledge of these lectures which must, of course, be communicated by oral teaching constitutes a very important part of a Masonic education; and, until the great progress made within the present century in Masonic literature, many bright Masons, as they are technically styled, could claim no other foundation than such a knowledge for their high Masonic reputation.

But some share of learning more difficult to attain, and more sublime in its character than anything to be found in these oral catechisms, is now considered necessary to form a Masonic scholar. Still, as the best commentary on the ritual observances is to be found in the lectures, and as they also furnish a large portion of that secret mode of recognition, or that universal language, which has always been the boast of the Institution, not only is a knowledge of them absolutely necessary to every practical Freemason, but a history of the changes which they have from time to time undergone constitutes an interesting part of the literature of the Order. Comparatively speaking, comparatively in respect to the age of the Masonic Institution, the system of Lodge lectures is undoubtedly a modern invention.

That is to say, we can find no traces of any forms of lectures like the present before the middle, or perhaps the close, of the seventeenth century. Examinations, however, of a technical nature, intended to test the claims of the person examined to the privileges of the Order, appear to have existed at an early period.

They were used until at least the middle of the eighteenth century, but were perpetually changing, so that the tests of one generation of Freemasons constituted no tests for the succeeding one. Brother Oliver very properly describes them as being "something like the conundrums of the present day difficult of comprehension admitting only of one answer, which appeared to have no direct correspondence with the question, and applicable only in consonance with the mysteries and symbols of the Institution" (On the Masonic Tests of the Eighteenth Century. Golden Remains, volume iv, page 16).

These tests were sometimes, at first, distinct from the lectures, and sometimes, at a later period, incorporated with them. A specimen is the answer to the question, "How blows the wind?" which was, "Due East and West."

The Examination of a German (Stone-Mason, which is given by Fidel in the appendix to his Historic was most probably in use in the fourteenth century. Doctor Oliver was in possession of what purports to be a formula, which he supposes to have been used during the Grand Mastership of Archbishop Chichely in the reign of Henry VI, and from which (Revelation of a Spare, page 11) he makes the following extracts:

Question: Peace be here? Answer. I hope there is. Q. What o'clock is it? A. It is going to six, or going to twelve. Q. Are you very busy? A. No. Q. Will you give or take? A. Both; or which you please. Q. How go squares? A. Straight. Q. Are vou rich or poor? A. Neither. Q. Change me that? A. I will. Q. In the name of the King and the Holy Church. are you a Mason? A. I am so taken to be. Q. What is a Mason? A. A man begot by a man, born of a woman, brother to a king. Q. What is a fellow? A. A companion of a prince, etc.

There are other questions and answers of a similar nature, conveying no instruction, and intended apparently to be used only as tests. Doctor Oliver attributes, it will be seen, the date of these questions to the beginning of the fifteenth century; but the correctness of this assumption is doubtful. They have no internal evidence in style of having been the invention of so early a period of the English tongue.

The earliest form of catechism that we have on record is that contained in the Sloane Manuscript, No. 3329, now in the British Museum, which has been printed and published by the Rev. A. F. A. Woodford. One familiar with the catechisms of the eighteenth century will detect the origin of much that they contain in this early specimen. It is termed in the manuscript the Freemason's "private discourse by way of question and answer," and is in these words: Question. Are you a Mason? A. Yes, I am a Freemason. Q. How shall I know that? A. By perfect signs and tokens and the first points of my Entrance. Q. Which is the first sign or token, shew me the first and I will shew you the second. A. The first is heal and conceal or conceal and keep secret by no less pain than cutting my tongue from my throat. Q. Where were you made a mason? A. In a just and perfect or just and lawful lodge. Q. What is a just and perfect or just and lawful lodge? A. A just and perfect lodge is two Entered apprentices two fellow crafts and two Masters, more or fewer the more the merrier the fewer the better clear but if need require five will serve that is, two Entered apprentices , two fellow crafts and one Master on the highest hill or lowest valley of the world without the crow of a coeh or the bark of a dog. Q. From whom do you derive your principally. A. From a greater than you. Q. Who is that on earth that is greater than a freemason? A. He y't was earyed to y'e highest pinnicall of the temple of Jerusalem. Q. Whith'r is vour lodge shut or open'? A. It is shut. Q. Where Iyes the keys of the lodge doore? A. They ley in a bound ease or under a three cornered pavem't about a foote and halfe from the lodge door. Q. What is the key of your lodge door made of? A. It is not made of wood stone iron or steel or any sort of mettle but the tongue of good report behind a Brothers back as well as before his face. Q. How many gavels belong to your lodge? A. There are three the square pavement the blazing star and the Danty tassley. Q. How long is the cable rope of your lodge? A. As long as from the Lop of the liver to the root of the tongue. Q. How many lights are in your lodge? A. Three the sun the master and the square. Q. How high i8 your lodge? A. Without foots yards or Inches, it reaches to heaven. Q. How stood your lodge? A. East and west as all holly Temples stand. Q. Which is the masters place in the lodge? A. The east place is the masters place in the lodge and the jewel resteth on him first and he setteth men to work w't the m'rs have in the forenoon the wardens reap in the afternoon. Q. Where was the word first given? A. At the tower of Babylon. Q. Where did they first call their lodger A. At the holy chapel of Saint John. Q. How stood your lodge? A. As the said holy chapel and all other holy Temples stand (viz.) east and west. Q. How many lights are in your lodge? A. Two one to see to go in and another to see to work. Q. What were you sworn by? A. By God and the square. Q. Whither above the clothes or under the clothes? A. Under the clothes. Q. Under what arms? A. Under the right arms. God is grateful to all Worshipful Masters and fellows in that Worshipful lodge from whence we last came and to you good fellow with is your name. A. J or B then giving the grip of the hand he will say Brother John greet you well you. A. God's good greeting to you dear Brother.

But when we speak of the lectures, in the modern sense, as containing an exposition of the symbolism of the Order, we may consider it as an established historical fact, that the Fraternity were without any such system until after the revival in 1717. Previous to that time, brief extemporary addresses and charges in addition to these test catechisms were used by the Pilasters of Lodges, which, of course, varied in excellence with the varied attainments and talents of the presiding officer. We know, however, that a series of charges were in use about the middle and end of the seventeenth century, which were ordered "to be read at the making of a Freemason." These Charges and Covenants, as they were called, contained no instructions on the symbolism and ceremonies of the Order, but were confined to an explanation of the duties of Freemasons to each other. They were altogether exoteric in their character, and have accordingly been repeatedly printed in the authorized publications of the Fraternity. Doctor Oliver, who had ampler opportunities than any other Masonic writer of investigating this subject, says that the earliest authorized lectures with which he has met were those of 1720. They were arranged by Doctors Anderson and Desaguliers, perhaps, at the same time that they were compiling the Charges and Regulations from the ancient Constitutions. They were written in a ectechetical form, which form has ever since been retained in all subsequent Masonic lectures. Brother Oliver says that "the questions and answers are short and comprehensive, and contain a brief digest of the general principles of the Craft as it was understood at that period." The "digest" must, indeed, have been brief, since the lecture of the Third Degree, or what was called "the Master's Part," contained only thirty-one questions, many of which are simply tests of recognition. Doctor Oliver says the number of questions was only seven; but he probably refers to the seven tests which conclude the lecture. There are, however, twenty-four other questions that precede these.

A comparison of these the primitive lectures, as they may be called with those in use in America at the present day, demonstrate that a great many changes have taken place. There are not only omissions of some things, and additions of others, but sometimes the explanations of the same points are entirely different in the two systems. Thus the Andersonian lectures describe the "furniture" of a Lodge as being the "Mosaic pavement, blazing star, and indented tassel," emblems which are now, perhaps more properly, designated as "ornaments." But the present furniture of a Lodge is also added to the pavement, star, and tassel, under the name of "other furniture." The "greater lights" of Freemasonry are entirely omitted, or, if we are to suppose them to be meant by the expression "fixed lights," then these are referred, differently from our system, to the three windows of the Lodge.

In the First Degree may be noticed, among others, the following points in the Andersonian lectures which are omitted in the American system: the place and duty of the Senior and Junior Entered Apprentices, the punishment of cowans, the bone bonebox, and all that refers to it; the clothing of the Master, the age of an Apprentice, the uses of the day and night, and the direction of the wind.

These latter, however, are, strictly speaking, what the Freemasons of that time denominated tests. In the same Degree, the following, besides many other important points in the present system, are altogether omitted in the old lectures of Anderson: the place where Freemasons anciently met, the theological ladder, and the lines parallel. Important changes have been made in several particulars; as, for instance, in the "points of entrance," the ancient lecture giving an entirely different interpretation of the expression, and designating what are now called "points of entrance" by the term "principal signs"; the distinctions between Operative and Speculative Freemasonry, which are now referred to the Second Degree, are there given in the First; and the dedication of the Bible, Compass, and Square is differently explained. In the Second Degree, the variations of the old from the modern lectures are still greater. The old lecture is in the first place, very brief, and much instruction deemed important at the present day was then altogether omitted. There is no reference to the distinctions between Operative and Speculative Freemasonry, but this topic is adverted to in the former lecture; the approaches to the Middle Chamber are very differently arranged; and not a single word is said of the Fords of the River Jordan. It must be confessed that the ancient lecture of the Fellow Craft is immeasurably inferior to that contained in the modern system, and especially in that of Webb.

The Andersonian lecture of the Third Degree is brief, and therefore imperfect. The legend is, of course, referred to, and its explanation occupies nearly the whole of the lecture; but the details are meager, and many important facts are omitted, while there are in other points striking differences between the ancient and the present system.

But, after' all. there is a general feature of similarity a substrata of identity pervading the two systems of lectures the ancient and the modern which shows that the one derives its parentage from the other. In fact, some of the answers given in the year 1730 are, word for word, the same as those used in America at the present time. Here Brother Hawkins says Martin Clare and Dunckerley, which see elsewhere, are often credited with being revisers of the English ritual and lectures, but. as there is no proof whatever that they had anything to do with such revision it does not seem worth while to repeat the well-worn tale here. Nothing can be said with any certainty about the lectures in England until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, when William Preston took the matter in hand and revised or more probably rewrote them entirely. Brother Mackey continues from this point, commenting on Preston.

Preston divided the lecture on the First Degree into six sections, the Second into four, and the Third into twelve. But of the twelve sections of the third lecture, seven only strictly appertain to the Master's Degree, the remaining five referring to the ceremonies of the Order, which, in the American system, are contained in the Past Master's lecture. Preston has recapitulated the subjects of these several lectures in his Illustrations of Masonry; and if the book were not now so readily accessible, it would be worth while to copy his remarks. It is sufficient, however, to say that he has presented us with a philosophical system of Freemasonry, which, coming immediately after the unscientific and scanty details which up to his time had been the subjects of Lodge instructions, must have been like the bursting forth of a sun from the midst of midnight darkness. There was no twilight or dawn to warn the unexpectant Fraternity of the light that was about to shine upon them. But at once, without preparation without any gradual progress or growth from almost nothing to superfluity--the Prestonian lectures were given to the Order in all their fulness of illustration and richness of symbolism and science, as a substitute for the plain and almost unmeaning systems that had previously prevailed.

Not that Freemasonry had not always been a science, but that for all that time, and longer, her science had been dormant--had been in abeyance. From 1717 the Craft had been engaged in something less profitable, but more congenial than the cultivation of Masonic science. The pleasant suppers, the modicums of punch, the harmony of song, the miserable puns, which would have provoked the ire of Johnson beyond anything that Boswell has recorded, left no time for inquiry into abstruser matters. The revelations of Doctor Oliver's square furnish us abundant positive evidence of the low state of Masonic literature in those days; and if we need negative proof, we will find it in the entire absence of any readable book on Scientific Freemasonry, until the appearance of Hutchinson's and Preston's works. Preston's lectures were, therefore, undoubtedly the inauguration of a new era in the esoteric system of Freemasonry.

These lectures continued for nearly half a century to be the authoritative text of the Order in England. But in 1813 the two Grand Lodges the Moderns and the Ancients, as they were called after years of antagonism, were happily united, and then, as the first exercise of this newly combined authority, it was determined "to revise" the system of lectures.

This duty was entrusted to the Rev. Dr. Hemming, the Senior Grand Warden, and the result was the Union or Hemming Lectures, which are now the authoritative standard of English Freemasonry. In these lectures many alterations of the Prestonian system were made, and some of the most cherished symbols of the Fraternity were abandoned, as, for instance, the twelve grand points, the initiation of the freeborn, and the lines parallel (as to free born in particular, see Landmarks). Preston's lectures were rejected in consequence, it is said, of their Christian references; and Doctor Hemming, in attempting to avoid this error, fell into a greater one, of omitting in his new course some of the important ritualistic landmarks of the Order.

Brother E. L. Hawkins here observes that nothing, definite can be stated about the lectures used in America until near the end of the eighteenth century when a system of lectures was put forth by Thomas Smith Webb.

The lectures of Webb contained much, continues Doctor Mackey, that was almost a verbal copy of parts of Preston; but the whole system was briefer and the paragraphs were framed with an evident views to facility in committing them to memory. It is an herculean task to acquire the whole system of Pretorian lectures, while that of Webb may be mastered in a comparatively short time, and by much inferior intellects. There have, in consequence, in former years, been many "bright Masons" and "skillful lecturers" whose brightness and skill consisted only in the easy repetition from memory of the set form of phrases established by Webb, and who were otherwise ignorant of all the science, the philosophy, and the history of Freemasonry. But in the later years, a perfect verbal knowledge of the lectures has not been esteemed so highly in America as in England, and the most erudite Freemasons have devoted themselves to the study of those illustrations and that symbolism of the Order which lie outside of the lectures. Book Freemasonry that is, the study of the principles of the Institution as any other science is studied, by means of the various treatises which have been written on these subjects has been, from year to year, getting more popular with the American Masonic public which is becoming emphatically a reading people.

The lecture on the Third Degree is eminently Hutchinsonian in its character, and Gontains the bud from which, by a little cultivation, we might bring forth a gorgeous blossom of symbolism. Hence, the Third Degree has always been the favorite of American Freemasons. But the lectures of the First and Second Degrees, the latter particularly, are meager and unsatisfactory. The explanations, for instance, of the Form and Extent of the Lodge, of its Covering, of the Theological Ladder, and especially of the Point within the Circle, will disappoint any intellectual student who is seeking, in a symbolical alliance, for some rational explanation of its symbols that promises to be worthy of his investigations (see Dew Drop Lecture and Middle Caliber Lecture)

The Ashlar Company is Owned & Operated Exclusively by Past Masters
Tradition, Integrity, Trust.
© 2017 The Ashlar Company “Just received my ring. Well worth the wait. Thank you.” Brother Michael, Greensboro, NC