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Book of Constitutions

The Book of Constitutions is that work in which is contained the rules and regulations adopted for the government of the Fraternity of Freemasons. Undoubtedly, a society so orderly and systematic must always have been governed by a prescribed code of laws; but, in the lapse of ages, the precise regulations which were adopted for the direction of the Craft in ancient times have been lost. The earliest record that we have of any such Constitutions is in a manuscript, first quoted, in 1723, by Anderson( Constitutions, 1723, pages 32-3), which he said was written in the reign of Edward IV.

Preston (page 182, edition of1788) quotes the same record, and adds, that "it is said to have been in the possession of the famous Elias Ashmole, and unfortunately destroyed,'' a statement which had not been previously made by Anderson. To Anderson, therefore, we must look in our estimation of the authenticity of this document ; and that we cannot too much rely upon his accuracy as a transcriber is apparent, not only from the internal evidence of style, but also from the fact that he made important alterations in his copy of it in his edition of 1738. Such as it is, however, it contains the following particulars: "Though the ancient records of the Brotherhood in England were many of them destroyed or lost in the wars of the Saxons and Danes, yet King Athelstan (the grandson of King Alfrede the Great, a mighty Architect), the first anointed king of England, and who translated the Holy Bible into the Saxon tongue, 930 A. D., when he had brought the land into Rest and Peace, built many great works, and encouraged many Masons from France, who were appointed Overseers thereof, and brought with them the Charges and Regulations of the Lodges preserved since the Roman times, who also prevailed with the King to improve the Constitution of the English Lodges according to the foreign Model, and to increase the Wages of Working Masons.

"The said king's youngest son, Prince Edwin, being taught Masonry, and taking upon him the Charges of a Master Mason, for the love he had to the said Craft and the honorable Principles whereon it is grounded, purchased a free charter of King Athelatan his Father, for the Masons having a Correction among themselves (as it was anciently expressed), or a Freedom and Power to regulate themselves, to amend what might happen amiss, and to hold a yearly Communication and General Assembly.

"Accordingly, Prince Edwin summoned all the Masons in the Realm to meet him in a Congregation at York, who came and composed a General Lodge, of which he was Grand Master; and having brought with them all the Writings and Records extant, some in Greek, some in Latin, some in French, and other languages, from the Contents thereof that Assembly did frame the Constitution and Charges of an English Lodge, and made a law to preserve and observe the same in all time coming, and ordained good Pay for Working Masons, ac."

Other records have from time to time been discovered, most of them recently, which prove beyond a1l doubt that the Fraternity of Freemasons was, at least in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, in possession of manuscript Constitutions containing the rules and regulations of the Craft.

In the year 1717, Freemasonry, which had somewhat fallen into decay in the south of England, was revived by the organization of the Grand Lodge at London; and, in the next year, the Grand Master having desired, says Anderson, "any brethren to bring to the Grand Lodge any old writings and records concerning Freemasons and Freemasonry, in order to show the usages of ancient times, several old copies of the Gothic Constitutions were produced and collated" (see Constitutions, 1738, page l10).

But these Constitutions having been found to be very erroneous and defective, probably from carelessness or ignorance in their frequent transcription, in September, 1721, the Duke of Montagu, who was then Grand Master, ordered Brother James Anderson to digest them "in a new and better method" (see Constitutions, 1738, page 113).

Anderson having accordingly accomplished the important task that had been assigned him, in December of the same year a committee, consisting of fourteen learned Brethren, was appointed to examine the book ; and, in the March Communication of the subsequent year, having reported their approbation of it, it was, after some amendments, adopted by the Grand Lodge, and published, in 1723, under the title of The Constitutions of the Freemasons, containing the History, Charges, Regulations, etc., of that Most Ancient and Right Worshipful Fraternity. For the use of the Lodges. A second edition was published in 1738, under the superintendence of' a committee of Grand Officers (see the Constitutions of that year, page 133). But this edition contained so many alterations, interpolations, and omissions of the Charges and Regulations as they appeared in the first, as to show the most reprehensible inaccuracy in its composition, and to render it utterly worthless except as a literary curiosity. It does not seem to have been very popular, for the printers, to complete their sales, were compelled to commit a fraud, and to present what they pretended to be a new edition in 1746, but which was really only the edition of 1738, with a new title page neatly pasted in, the old one being canceled.

In 1754, Brother Jonathan Scott presented a memorial to the Grand Lodge, ''showing the necessity of a new edition of the Book of Constitutions.'' It was then ordered that the book "should be revised, and necessary alterations and additions made consistent with the laws and rules of Masonry" ; all of which would seem to show the dissatisfaction of the Fraternity with the errors of the second edition. Accordingly, a third edition was published in 1756, under the editorship of the Rev. John Entick. The fourth edition, prepared by a Committee, was published in 1767.

In 1769, G. Kearsly, of London, published an unauthorized edition of the 1767 issue, with an appendix to 1769 ; this was also published by Thomas Wilkinson in Dublin in the same year, with several curious plates ; both issues are now very scarce. And an authorized supplement appeared in 1776.

John Noorthouck published by authority the fifth edition in 1784. This was well printed in quarto, with numerous notes, and is considered the most valuable edition ; it is the last to contain the historical introduction.

After the Union of the two rival Grand Lodges of England (see Ancient Masons) in 1813, the sixth edition was issued in 1815, edited by Brother William Williams, Provincial Grand Master for Dorsetshire; the seventh appeared in 1819, being the last in quarto ; and the eighth in 1827; these were called the Second Part, and contained only the Ancient Charges and the General Regulations. The ninth edition of 1841 contained no reference to the First or Historical Part, and may be regarded as the first of the present issue in octavo with the plates of jewels at the end.

Numerous editions have since been issued. In the early days of the Grand Lodge of England in all processions the Book of Constitution was carried on a cushion by the Master of the Senior Lodge (Constitution, 1738, pages 117-26), but this was altered at the time of the union and it is provided in the Constitutions of 1815 and in the subsequent issues that the Book of Constitutions on a cushion shall be carried by the Grand Secretary.

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