Review of Freemasonry

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The Square Magazine for the DECENNIAL of PS Review of Freemasonry
10 papers published on The Square Magazine from 1996 through 2006 to celebrate the 10 years of PS Review of Freemasonry.
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This project is sponsored by Lewis Masonic, the leading Masonic publisher since 1886.

by C.Bruce Hunter
Published in The Square Magazine Vol 29, March 2003

© All editorial matter contained in this Magazine is copyright and may not reproduced without written permission from the publisher

AMONG the central characters of Freemasonry's Hiramic legend are three 'ruffians' whose presence has generated more than a few questions. A great deal has been written about them, but they remain elusive, partly because clues to their true identity are subtle and few -and partly because the story can be misleading. A cursory reading could lead us to believe the ruffians were members of the Craft. But a closer look suggests otherwise. 

The earliest known version of the story, published in Masonry Dissected in 1730, describes them only as 'Three Ruffians, suppos'd to be Three Fellow- Crafts'. This isn't much to go on, but it does provide an important clue: the phrase 'suppos'd to be' implies that the ruffians were not actually masons. But if they weren't, we need to understand who they were and what they were trying to accomplish. 

A Bit of History

 The answers may lie in the history of the Hiramic legend itself. It is found in the third degree, anew working composed during the mid-1720s. Like every innovation, the third degree was undoubtedly a product of the members' assessment of their needs. Although set in biblical times and laced with timeless lessons, it must have been created because the members saw a contemporary need for it. 

The ruffians described in this new working must therefore have been included to serve a purpose. But the purpose may not be as simple as most believe. In addition to whatever else they symbolize, their sudden appearance in the ritual seems to have a hidden meaning. The general impression is that they were meant to represent members of the Craft who are unwilling to follow proper procedures. Therefore, they are 'us' but are examples of what we should strive not to be. However, the word 'suppos'd' suggests that, in fact, they may never have been us. 

The sense of 'suppose' has long included the notion of feigning, substituting or counterfeiting. And here we begin to see what the ritualists may have been trying to tell us. At the time, exposes of the Craft's esoteric material were beginning to appear. This is easy to understand. The Grand Lodge had just been formed, and in the process the fraternity had acquired a higher profile, which undoubtedly sparked curiosity among the public. 

To satisfy the curiosity, a number of exposes were rushed into print. A Mason's Examination appeared in 1723. The Grand Mystery of Free-Masons Discover'd followed in 1724. The next year it was The Whole Institutions of Free-Masons Opened. And in 1726 The Grand Mystery Laid Open was added to the list. Although these documents were published anonymously, the earliest of them established the precedent of claiming they came from members of the Craft. It's a dubious claim. Quite possibly the authors, like the ruffians, were only 'supposed to be' masons. But whoever they were, their actions had far-reaching consequences. 

Evasive Action

One consequence was that the masons took evasive action. Scholars believe some of the fraternity's procedures and passwords were changed during this period because the originals had been compromised. The members felt that when a critical 'word' was improperly revealed it could no longer serve its purpose in the lodge, and a substitute had to be adopted. But this is essentially what the Hiramic legend says. Could it be that even the Craft's lessons were changed to accommodate a new sense of urgency about protecting its traditions and heritage in the face of persistent, unauthorized revelations? The addition of a group of 'ruffians' to the ritual may be evidence that this is precisely what happened. 

The Real Story

Although in English the word 'ruffian' has always been associated with 'rough', no doubt due to a similarity in pronunciation, its origins tell a different story. It apparently comes from the Italian ruffiano and the Middle French rufian or rufien, both meaning a pimp, swaggerer or pander. It is also related to the word 'ruffle', meaning to bluster or to be turbulent, which in turn relates to the Low German ruffeler, referring again to a pimp or to a person who engages in secret intrigues.

To an extent, this meaning found its way into the English version of the word. Although Samuel Johnson defined a ruffian as 'a cut-throat; a robber; or a murderer', he also reckoned the word referred to 'a brutal, boisterous, mischievous fellow'. And the Scottish 'ruffie' denoted a 'low worthless fellow'. So the English language had not drifted far from recognizing a ruffian as a pimp.

 Now, a pimp is not merely a person who provides women for immoral purposes. In a more general sense he is one who, as American lexicographer Noah Webster put it in 1828, 'provides gratifications for the lust of others'. All these definitions could well apply to purveyors of exposes. And when we take a close look at the way the ruffians are portrayed in the ritual, we can see that they may indeed represent an effort by the 18th century masons to deal with precisely this problem. The ruffians were bent on dealing in the illicit transfer of information. The original version of the story doesn't say why. (That they wanted to receive a master's wages appears only in later versions.) But if they were panders we can easily understand what they were trying to accomplish. And more importantly we can understand why it was such an important issue. 

To masonic eyes, anyone who published an expose would certainly have seemed a worthless character who caused public commotion by catering to the prurient curiosity of others, and a dangerous one at that. Publication of the fraternity's confidential matters by 'supposed' masons who were in fact 'pimps' was indeed harmful to the Craft. For one thing, it broke the group's continuity with its past by forcing the members to abandon time-honored procedures and words. 

Forging Ahead 

While the masons of the 18th century, like the craftsmen in the legend, persevered by moving into the future with a new version of their workings, they could hardly have resisted the temptation to document their feelings about the matter. 

There was nothing they could do to prevent exposes from appearing in public. But they could at least use their new ritual to denounce the 'ruffians' who were causing them so much bother. It would give their initiates something to think about. And if the new ritual were eventually exposed, it would give the ruffians something to think about as well.

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