Happy Birthday Freemasonry! We Don’t Know How Old We Are & We Don’t Care!

By: Jon Sage, January 14, 2017

This coming June 24, much of the Fraternity will fulfill long awaited plans to celebrate the tri-centennial of the founding of Freemasonry, which has historically been placed at the Goose & Gridiron Tavern on June 24, 1717. However, on Sept. 13, 2016, Chris Hodapp reported a paper contradicting this date of founding, as presented to the Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076  by Dr.’s Andrew Prescott and Susan Mitchell Sommers. The paper offered findings which, in the words of Mark Tabbert, “conclusively proved that the Grand Lodge of England was NOT founded in 1717, but in 1721”.

However all of this shakes out in the end, and I’m sure that there will be some serious inquiry, as Prescott and Sommers are incredibly well respected Masonic and historical scholars, it is a bit curious to jump ahead of the hard black and white facts, and investigate some of the more intricate and philosophic differences in not only the dates of founding’s, but also of the many differences in the processes of the Fraternity between our present day and 1717… or 1721!

Consider one obvious difference, and a very popular topic among traditionalists, the length and style of the Initiation processes, or lack thereof. In the days of our founding, due to demands of actually “learning” the material and also of travel times and a perhaps sometime irregular scheduling of events, it might very well take a Candidate upwards of a year to complete the Entered Apprentice degree and just as long for the Fellow Craft. Even during Post War years in America, when membership ran at an all time high- it would be very common for Brethren to spend at least 3-4 weeks on each degree. But, by and large, they learned the Ritual and were Proficient.  Of course, there were exceptions to that rule, and the now famous stories of Grand Masters using Occasional Lodges to “Make Masons at Sight”, as described in the Masonic Dictionary, and quoting Dr. Mackey.

                                        Occasional Lodges, Making a Mason at Sight

“”It is a technical term, which may be defined to be the power to initiate, pass and raise candidates, by the Grand Master, in a Lodge of Emergency, or as it is called in the Book of Constitutions, ‘an Occasional Lodge,’ specially convened by him, and consisting of such Master Masons as he may call together for that purpose only; the Lodge ceasing to exist as soon as the initiation, passing, or raising has been accomplished, and the Brethren have been dismissed by the Grand Master.

“In 1731, Lord Lovell, being Grand Master, he ‘formed an Occasional Lodge at Houghton Hall, Sir Robert Walpole’s House in Norfolk,’ and there made the Duke of Lorraine, afterwards Emperor of Germany, and the Duke of Newcastle, Master Masons.

“The initiation, passing and raising of Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1737, was done in an ‘Occasional Lodge,’ over which Dr. Desaguliers presided, but this cannot properly be called a ‘making at sight,’ because Dr. Desaguilers at the time was a Past Grand Master, and not the actual Grand Master at the time. He most probably acted under the dispensation of the Grand Master, who at that time was the Earl of Darnley.

“In 1766, Lord Blaney, who was then Grand Master, convened an ‘Occasional Lodge,’ and initiated, passed and raised the Duke of Gloucester.

“Again in 1767, John Salter, the Deputy then acting as Grand Master, convened an ‘Occasional Lodge,’ and conferred the three degrees on the Duke of Cumberland.

“In 1787 the Prince of Wales was made a Mason ‘at an Occasional Lodge, convened,’ says Preston, ‘for the purpose at the Star and Garter, at Pall Mall, over which the Duke of Cumberland (Grand Master) presided in person.’”

Another addition, and nearly as conspicuous as the Occasional Lodge practices, are the extraordinarily common Grand Master’s One Day Classes. In what is perhaps a slight to the Fraternity at large, The Ohio Grand Lodge, and others are sure to follow, have instituted plans which will begin the celebration on “March 25, with a Grand Master’s Class, which will allow new members to complete all initiation work in one day. On that Saturday, initiation ceremonies will be held simultaneously in 25 locations across Ohio, including in Northwest Ohio’s 11th Masonic District”.

Aside from perhaps the only positive effect being the sheer volume of “new Masons” which will be able to PAY DUES, there is an increasingly popular point of view which places little trust in the vaunted one day classes. In this author’s opinion, the best description of this sentiment and/or point of view, was published in the Philalethes Magazine, fall 2011. Shawn Eyer, in his article “The Initiatic Quest of the Apprentice Mason” did a fine job in expressing the utter importance of the often ignored first degree in Masonry. According to Eyer, many Apprentice Masons are encouraged to hustle quickly through the three degrees, so that they may become “real Masons”. However, he expertly points out that many of the most important lessons in Masonry are imparted to us during the lectures of the first degree.

During the course of the article, Eyer quotes W. Bro Charles Clyde Hunt, who gives what I agree is possibly the best descriptive of the first degree, and some of its more profound meanings. For these reasons, which are apparent to any who bother to give the matter even more than a few minutes of thought, it is perplexing to understand why any, especially a Grand Master, would hasten the process- especially if, through One Day Classes, they are effectively hastening the process down to a point of its non-existence!  Hunt wrote thatthe Entered Apprentice degree of Masonry is called the weaker part because although its teachings are of the utmost importance, it is for the beginner in Masonry, symbolically supposed to be unskilled in its truths. He is the novice who is laying the foundation of his Masonic instruction, and as a beginner he must be prepared in his heart before he can understand the first principles of Masonry. The heart is on the left side of man, and the Entered Apprentice degree deals with the things of the heart, the very fundamentals of Masonry. As the lessons learned in the first grade of the public schools must remain with the pupil in all the other grades through which he may pass, so the teachings of the Entered Apprentice degree must never be laid aside as the brother advances in Masonry. He should never for one moment think that because the Entered Apprentice degree is the weaker part of Masonry that he has nothing more to do with it after he has passed to the degree of a Fellow Craft. If he ever becomes a Master it will be because he has mastered the principles of the “weaker part” and uses them as a foundation on which to build the superstructure of that enduring temple in which his soul is to have an eternal habitation. In this way only can that which has been “sown in weakness” be “raised in power,” and that which was weak become strong; and in this way only can one truly say “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

                                                Breezing Through the Work

The Fellow Craft continues and necessarily builds upon this foundation and one would conclude that if hurrying through the Entered Apprentice degree is a bad idea, then it would quickly follow that to preclude the 2nd degree is equally harmful. To then gloss over the legend and lessons of the 3rd degree in the interest of membership is well … well- it is harmful at best and devastating at worst, to the Candidate AND to the Fraternity… in the LONG RUN…

So, how about this 300 year anniversary? Have we (as a Fraternity) come so far, or are we simply treading water or regressing? My conclusion is that there are at least a few voices in the forest, seldom listened to, who are trying to steer the mighty ship of Freemasonry towards the deep waters that she ought to inhabit. But, there are far too many others that wish only for a speedy little ship that glides over the top of shallow and easily navigable waters. If this indeed be the case, then those philosophical truths that many claim to find in the lectures are but a well-played hoax, for no one would have even heard the lectures, except through watching or hearing an exemplar, and then without the benefit of actually having to learn said lectures. Indeed, if THIS be the case, then how is anything to be learned at all?

           Happy Birthday Freemasonry- whichever Birthday it is… it doesn’t really matter!

Perhaps the answer is that ALL of Freemasonry, her members and degrees, should be weak– just as many perceive the Entered Apprentice to be. In this way, nothing of substance should be expected from us as none will claim to know anything or even to have the desire or need to know anything… We will become a ship of fools, with each Brother riding the swift current towards the Officer Line, Titles, and applause; with each one paying his dues for the few years that he decides the Institution to be worthwhile. And then, without conscience, he will be gone; unexcited; uninspired; and unappreciated… a victim of his own ignorance imparted to him by an irresponsible Organization worried only with numbers.

So, in the end, it matters little if Freemasonry was founded in 1721 or in 1717. For that matter, all might be better off to just continue to labor in the ignorance that we have become accustomed to. Yeah, that sounds about right: whatever conclusion Prescott and his Fellows come to… I imagine that the vast majority ought to just keep on repeating: 1717, Goose & Gridiron, pay your dues; 1717, Goose & Gridiron, pay your dues; 1717, Goose & Gridiron, pay your dues…

If you’ve read this far, then you probably have some more time to spare. I’ve attached, just because I can, The History Channel’s presentation of the “Secret History of the Freemasons”. Enjoy, Have a Happy Day Brethren,  and So Mote It Be!