FREEMASONRY IN PERSPECTIVE
A peculiar System of Morality
Freemasonry is so frequently quoted as 'a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory,
and illustrated by symbols' but, let us now examine that statement with a view to finding
out just what is meant by the phrase and how it arose.
'A peculiar system of morality' - well - word values tend to change over the years and the
word 'peculiar' in this sense means particular or special; the morality in question has its
roots in a philosophy and a code inspired by the bible as a whole.
In mediaeval times skilled craftsmen in various trades banded together to protect their
crafts and permitted only those who had been trained, taught, proved, and trusted to
pursue their skills. It was a means to outlaw pirates from producing inferior work and thus
betray the trust of the architect, the master, or the commissioner of the work. From such
early control development escalated in the 14th to the 17th centuries and there is ample
evidence in both England and Scotland that such a trade control included instruction in
matters beyond their crafts and skills; traces of that form of instruction can be found in
modern times. As an illustration let us take the little booklet supplied on admission to the
Freedom of the City of London which is entitled Good Advice to Apprentices; or The
Covenants of the City Indenture (familiarly Explained and Enforced By Scripture.) from a
copy dated 1863 the first two items, from eleven are 'familiarly Explained', are here
'During which term the said Apprentice his Master faithfully shall serve' - that is he shall
be true and just to his Master in all his dealings, both in word and deed; he must not only
keep his hands from picking and stealing, and his tongue from lying and slandering; he
must also abstain from doing him any manner of injury, by idleness, negligence, or
carelessness; by deceiving, or defaming, or any kind of evil speaking; but he must learn
and labour to do him a true and real service.
Several biblical quotations are listed in support of those injunctions including:
Ye must be faithful in all things. (Timothy iii, 11)
In all your labours let no iniquity be found. (Hosea xii, 8)
and in addition to those there are quotations from Leviticus xix,11; Ephesians iv,25;
Deuteronomy xxv,16; and Proverbs xii,19.
The next example is:
'His secrets keep' - that is he shall conceal the particular secrets of his art, trade, or
science, without divulging or making any one privy to them to the detriment of his
Master, whose interest may very much depend on a peculiar management and knowledge
of his business. To behave thus is to serve faithfully; and fidelity is the glory and
perfection of a servant, as his want of it is his greatest discredit and reproach.
Only one biblical extract is given in support of that:
Discover not a secret to another, lest he that heareth it put thee to shame, and thine
infamy turn not away. (Proverbs xxv, 9, 10 )
That booklet perpetuates injunctions similar to those written into the Old Charges dating
from the 14th century. It was from those manuscripts the Revd. James Anderson compiled
the first book of Constitutions of the Freemasons in 1723. It was officially sanctioned by
the premier Grand Lodge founded in London in 1717, and became the means by which
Speculative Freemasonry was to be governed.
Under the sub-heading 'City Freedom' in the Good Advice booklet the following appears:
Apprentices who have faithfully served their Masters can obtain the Freedom of the City,
which confers many advantages, for the sum of 5s only.
And that is followed by a Note which states:
Masters should enrol their apprentices at the Chamberlain's Office within twelve months
from the date of their Indentures, it being for their mutual advantage. ... Persons who give
false testimony, forfeit their freedom. All who come to the Chamberlain's Office to enrol,
turn over, or make free their Apprentices, must bring the copies of their own freedom
The Entered Apprentice was thus guided, encouraged, taught the skills of the craft, and if
he faithfully served his Master for the period of indenture, at least seven busy years, he
obtained the Freedom of the City of London and by becoming a Fellow of his craft was
then on his way to becoming a Master if that was his ambition. But, according to a
reference quoted by Douglas Knoop in The Mason Word, his Prestonian Lecture for
1938: 'Actually fewer than 50 per cent of the apprentices bound in London took up their
The earliest record among the surviving Old Charges is the oft-quoted Regius Poem, or
Halliwell MS dated c. 1396. It is headed in Latin - 'Here begin the constitutions of the art
of Geometry according to Euclid', and among the fifteen Points and the fifteen Articles, is
the following, but quoted in modern English:
The third Point must be severely
with the 'prentice know it well,
His master's counsel he keep and close,
and his fellows by his good purpose;
The privities of the chamber tell he to no man,
nor in the lodge whatsoever they do;
Whatsoever thou hearest or seest them do,
tell it to no man wheresoever you go;
The counsel of the hall, and even of the bower,
keep it well to thy great honour,
Lest it would turn thyself to blame,
and bring the craft into great shame.
(From a modern transcript by Roderick H Baxter, Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge in
British Masonic Miscellany Vol 1)
It is worthy of notice here that the Regius Poem ends with the expression 'So mote it be'
and that archaic expression is still used in Freemasonry. There is no question that
Freemasonry was and still is ' a peculiar system of morality' that has stood the test of time.
The essence of the principles then taught are still to be found in the modern Charge after
Initiation, the first printing of which was by W. Smith in The Pocket Companion
published in 1735 and has remained unchanged in the basic wording.
Veiled in Allegory
Let us turn to the expression 'veiled in allegory', and in that connection, note that the bible
is full of accounts of incidents and stories that cannot possibly stand up to modern
analysis and in consequence has provided much that has to be taken as allegory. Indeed
the most effective teaching designed to capture full interest was given in parable form
using an example that was common knowledge. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is
given in the Gospel According to St. Mark (chap. iv, 2-9) in the story of the sower who
went forth to sow.
...and as he sowed, some fell by the wayside, and the fowls of the air came and devoured
it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth: and immediately it
sprang up, because it had not depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched;
and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns
grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. (but) others fell on good ground, and did
yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty,
and some hundred(fold).
Communicating in that manner, in whatever subject but based upon elements already
known and understood by an audience, has its greatest value in that it can be esoteric and
therefore selective, separating those who are 'properly prepared' to appreciate an inner
meaning of an otherwise plebian story, but of interest to everyone. The story just quoted
ends with the comment:
'And he said unto them, He that hath no ears to hear, let him hear', or in other words - he
who understands, will understand!
Stories from the bible have long been the subject of Mummers Plays, Miracle Plays,
Morality and Passion Plays. They portrayed incidents that people learned as children and
that stayed with them all their lives which were, in those days, centred almost entirely
upon church or cathedral. Dressing up and acting in a fantasy world was not only an t
retained some control over the text which paraphrased the sacred writings.
Conder also gave lists of various towns and cities to shew the proliferation and here is a
random choice as an example of that:
48 plays listed at York in the year 1430
25 at Chester from 1268 to 1577
42 at Coventry in 1468
30 at Wakefield in 1425
27 at Newcastle from 1285 to 1675.
The period that he took ranged from the 12th to the 17th centuries and in that time similar
evidence was forthcoming from other places in England, from north to the south and from
east to west. Various parts of London where plays are known to have been presented are
also mentioned but, regretfully, no texts have survived in that connection.
The only subject related to building is the one entitled 'Building of the Ark and the Flood'
at Wakefield but no entry as to who performed it; at Newcastle it was appropriated by the
Shipwrights under the t
itle 'Noah's Flood'; in that city it is even possible that the Master
Mariners may have had something on that theme. The carpenters had the 'Burial of Christ'
and the Masons had 'The Corpus Christi' Plays; but nowhere did the masons have a play
linked with their craft and quite often they joined with another craft for their project.
Nowhere is the building of Solomon's Temple shewn to have been a subject among the
extensive list so one might search in vain for traces of the Hiramic Legend; the Morality
Plays may well have provided a pattern or a form for it when it did arise for adoption. The
earliest record of it is given in the masonic exposure, Masonry Dissected, written and
published by Samuel Prichard in 1730.
There is no mention of the building of King Solomon's temple in the earliest manuscript,
the Regius Poem of c. 1396 and it received only scant mention in the Cooke MS of c.
1410. Whilst in that one the central character is not named he is identified there as'... the
kings son, of Tyre, as his (Solomon's) master mason'. Into the next century, the
Downland MS c. 1550, the reference is :
The king that men called Iram . . . had a son (named) Aynon, and he was Master of
Geometrie, and was chief Master of all his Masons and was Master of all his gravings
and carvings, and all manner of Masonrye that belonged to the Temple.
In that case not only is Hiram Abif deemed to be the son of the King of Tyre, a commonly
held interpretation of the name, but we find one of a large variety of spellings invented or
copied phonetically for the master craftsman. But there is absolutely nothing about the
Hiramic legend which surely must be treated as the most prominent allegory that was still
to come into Freemasonry.
In 1723 the Revd. James Anderson compiled and published the first book of
Constitutions of the Freemasons in which he included a so-called history of the mason
craft both operative and speculative which he gathered from the manuscript of Old
Charges where legend, myth, and fairy tale often became confused with history. Whilst he
gave much attention to the biblical account of the master craftsman being sent by Hiram
King of Tyre to Solomon King of Israel, and to interpretation of the Hebrew construction
of the words 'Hiram' and 'Abif' there was no mention of any drama involving his death
which is, of course, legendary having absolutely no foundation in fact nor biblical history
because it is pure fiction.
In Anderson's 2nd edition, published in 1738 eight years after Prichard's exposure,
Masonry Dissected, the examination of the Hebrew construction is repeated but the
subject taken a step further by the following footnote:
But tho' Hiram Abif had been a Tyrian by Blood, that derogates not from his vast
capacity; for Tyrians now were the best artificers, by the encouragement of King Hiram:
and those Texts testify that God had endued this Hiram Abif with Wisdom,
Understanding, and mechanical Cunning to perform every Thing that Solomon required,
not only in building the Temple with all its costly Magnificence, but also in founding,
fashioning and framing all the holy Utensils thereof, according to Geometry, and to find
out every Device that shall be put to him! And the Scripture assures us that He fully
maintain'd his Character in far larger Works than those of Aholiab and Bezalleel, for
which he will be honoured in the Lodges til the End of Time.
Anderson's last remark there - 'for which he will be honoured in the Lodges till the End of
time' - is probably an indication of the use of the drama, after a style of the Miracle Plays,
but in this case performed under tyled conditions as they are still performed in some
Jurisdictions. Regarding the completion of the Temple, Anderson wrote:
It was finish'd in the short space of 7 Years and 6 Months, to the Amazement of the
World when the Cape-stone was celebrated by the Fraternity with great Joy. But their Joy
was soon interrupted by the Sudden Death of their dear Master Hiram Abbif, whom they
decently interred in the Lodge near the Temple, according to ancient Usage. After Hiram
Abbif was being mourn'd for, the Tabernacle of Moses and its Holy Reliques being
lodged in the Temple, Solomon in a General Assembly dedicated or consecrated it.
In that account the 'sudden death' happened after the completion of the Temple and not
during its construction. In accordance with the edict - '. . . . he shall build an house unto
my name 'King Solomon dedicated the temple to the Holy Name, or in Hebrew terms Ha
Shem. The Holy Name is allusive in that whilst both Enoch and Noah 'walked with God'
(Gen v, 22: vi, 9) there is no mention in the bible of them being given the Name. Biblical
records state that the Patriarch Abraham, Hagar the mother of Ishmael, and the Patriarch
Isaac 'called upon the name of the LORD' which tends to credit them with knowing it
(Gen. Xii, 8: xii, 4: xvi, 13: xxvi, 15) but it would appear that the name granted to them
was of descriptive character only and that is borne out by the statemente of Moses - ' I
appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty (in
Hebrew - El Shaddai), but my name JEHOVAH (in Hebrew-Jod He Vav He) was I not
known to them' (Exod. Vi, 3). The name JEHOVAH is an Anglicized manufactured word
to accommodate the Hebrew characters - the Tetragrammaton - Ha Shem - and as they
are consonants, the vowels known only to the priesthood and with such limited use by
them, the original pronunciation has been lost.
The possession of the name of a person meant a close affinity or relationship with that
person, but possession of the Holy Name was the highest privilege and, by masonic fable,
was known by the three Grand masters. In order to avoid its full pronunciation the word
was shared between them by syllables and the 'sudden death' of one of them brought an
end to that practice; there was no question of the appointment of another to replace him
and that gave rise to a substitute - or 'the Masonic Word'. The attempt to revive or 'raise'
Hiram Abbif in order to recover from the dead, as it were, the secret that he had in life
has been submerged in a welter of interpretations that include the fable of the Noah
incident mentioned in some of the Old Charges, a subject not from biblical history, the
raising of the widow's son by the action of Elijah (1 Kings xvii, 17-23) a similar raising of
the son of the Shunammite woman by Elisha (2 Kings iv, 34-35) and the young man by
St. Paul (Acts xx, 9-12). They are resurrection allegories, effected through divine
influence, but nowadays compared with the 'kiss of life' action.
In a symbolical interpretation 'The Name' of 'the Mason Word' is ever lost whenever
mankind turns away from his faith in the Almighty, in whatever form, or by whatever
Name he is known. Biblical history records the conquering of Jerusalem, the destruction
of Solomon's temple, the Exile of the Jews to Babylon, and the subsequent return to
Jerusalem to re-build the City and a Second Temple. That sequence provided the
'Recovery' theme - the completion of the Master Mason's degree, and is a subject dealt
with in the Royal Arch.
Illustrated by Symbols
'Illustrated by symbols' is the final item for this examination and here we have to
distinguish between a tangible object, or symbol, upon which has been bestowed a
meaning or representation completely different from its form, eg, an anchor is just an
anchor to the seafarer but symbolically it is widely taken to represent Hope; the other
distinction from the tangible is the intangible and what better example of that is a
handshake to represent friendship in greeting; the whole world seems to know that it is a
symbolic means of recognition among Freemasons!
Symbols may be universal and can transcend all language, classic examples of which are
road and traffic signs, but even such common signs or symbols may still be endowed by
some organised groups of societies where meanings are given to such mundane objects
but known only to themselves. Freemasonry abounds with such symbols through which
abstract ideas may be presented; they provide the visual aid.
Not all that Albert G. Mackey wrote on Freemasonry is acceptable to modern masonic
students, but that does not mean that all his work is dismissed. Here is what he had to say
on Symbolism in his Encyclopedia, first published in 1873.
In Freemasonry, all the instruction in its mysteries are communicated in the form of
symbols. Founded as a speculative science, on an operative art, it has taken the working-
tools of the profession which it spiritulizes, the terms of architecture, the Temple of
Solomon, and everything that is connected with its traditional history, and adopting them
as symbols, it teaches its great moral philosophical lessons by this system of symbolism.
Mackey also wrote:
The older the religion, the more the symbolism abounds. Modern religions may display
their dogmas in abstract propositions; ancient religions always conveyed them in symbols.
Thus there is more symbolism in the Egyptian religion than the Jewish, more in the Jewish
than the Christian, more in the Christian than the Mohammedan, and lastly more in the
Roman (Catholic) than the Protestant . . . Any inquiry into the symbolic character of
Freemasonry, must be preceded by an investigation of the nature of symbolism in general,
if we would properly appreciate its particular use in the organisation of the Masonic
It is possible that some people might argue with that, but it does provide food for thought!
In reply to comments on their Paper - 'Masonic History Old and New' given to Quatuor
Coronati Lodge on 2 October 1942, (AQC Vol. 55, pp.285-323). Douglas Knoop and G.
P. Jones stated:
There is no evidence to suggest that masons themselves (i.e., operative stonemasons)
moralized upon their tools. Though the Regius Poem is full of moral precepts, and the
Cooke MS rather less so, in neither of these early manuscripts, nor in later versions of the
MS Constitutions, those peculiarly masonic documents written about Masons for masons,
is there any sort of symbolism based upon masons' tools. Had the masons made use of
such symbolism in their teachings, one would have expected some reference to it in
Another useful statement of theirs was 'The Philosophy and symbolism of masonry are
quite distinct from the history of masonry' and that is a point of differentiation that is
constantly overlooked by some freemasons and masonic writers.
During the long period of transition from operative to speculative masonry in the 17th and
18th centuries the scientific, Philosophical, the studious, those who made up the
intelligentsia many of whom indulged in studies of alchemy, mysticism, and Kabbalistic
pursuits , providing what has been termed a fringe of the craft undoubtedly left their
marks in its construction. The mystical writings of such people had a strong influence and
would account for the adoption of certain symbolism, traces of which, however slim are
there to be found.
Symbols can be classified as a form of pictorial shorthand, examples of which are to be
seen in stained glass windows in churches, some of which are indeed visual sermons in
themselves. Emblazonment in heraldry also provide examples where a symbol in that
context can mean so much in regard to family name, a line of succession, marriage,
property, county, and countless other meanings so cryptically displayed. Symbols
therefore can mean all things to all men but an inner meaning can be made to apply in the
context in which persons have been so informed.
Tangible forms of freemasonry are usually explained to the membership in ceremonial or
lectures, and in the case of the Lectures which can be so informative insufficient use is
made of them; there is a lack of stress placed on that area of explanation for much that is
contained in the book of Working according to that used in a member's lodge.
The intangible symbols are much more difficult for brethren to appreciate for they can
often be bent to suit whatever interpretation that may be preferred, and an inner meaning
only applies in circumstances in which one has been so informed. It may be truly said that
we are given all the ingredients but the mixing is left to ourselves. Let us take the
expression 'The Mason Word' appropriately used by Douglas Knoop as the title for his
Prestonian Lecture in 1938, he commented as follows:
The justification for stressing the importance of the Mason Word as a factor in the
development of masonic ceremonies lies in the fact that it consisted of something
substantially more than a mere Word. Thus, the Rev. Robert Kirk, Minister of Aberfoyle,
writing in 1961, says the Mason Word 'is like Rabbinical Tradition, in a way of comment
of Jachin and Boaz, the two Pillars erected at Solomon's Temple (1 Kings, 21) with an
Addition of some secret Signe delyvered from Hand to Hand, by which they know and
become familiar one with the other.'
The preamble to The Abstract of Laws for the Society of Royal Arch Masons (as it was
called when issued in 1778) was more clear in the point as it included the following:
. . . We also use certain signs, tokens and words; but it must be observed, that when we
use that expression and say THE WORD. It is not to be understood as a watch-word
only, after the manner of those annexed to the several degrees of the Craft, but also
theologically, as a term, thereby to convey to the mind some idea of that great BEING
who is the sole author of our existence, and to carry along with the most solemn
veneration for his sacred Name and Word, as well as the most clear and perfect
elucidation of his power and attributes that the human mind is capable of receiving; . . .
The 'Mason Word' is the most intangible symbol of all intangible symbols used in
Freemasonry. Without some acquaintance with the Law of Moses, otherwise called the
Torah, or the Pentateuch, where we became acquainted with the gradual revelation of His
holy will and Word and the development which ensued from that biblical period, one
cannot begin to understand what has now become so obscured.
It was not the intention in this short review to take individual symbols as a study, nor to
develop a treatise based solely upon symbolism, such an exercise would take several
volumes and would raise a proliferation of discussion or argument, sound or otherwise;
each would have an interpretation of a sort, some that are held to the exclusion of all else.
However, it must be stressed that the bible, the Patron Saints of the Christian church, the
observances of Holy Days, all provided the very foundation for this 'peculiar system of
morality'. The system has gathered accretions from other religions, and various mystics
from different backgrounds to the extent that its simple form has been swamped; it really
has become 'veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols', some of which have failed to
stay the course but nevertheless did leave a mark or trace e here and there to be re-
discovered and perhaps enjoyed by the industrious student of Free and Accepted masonry
in the future.
The state of contention between brethren regarding some matters that are dealt with in
lectures or ceremonial was the subject of an appropriate comment by the author of Three
Distinct Knocks, a masonic ritual exposure published in 1760. Here is what he inserted at
the end of the part of the Fellow-Craft (p.45):
Some Masters of Lodges will argue upon the Reasons about the holy Vessels in the
Temple and the Windows and Doors, the Length, Breadth and height of every Thing in
the Temple, Saying, why was it so and so? One will give one Reason; and another will
give another Reason, and thus they will continue for Two or Three Hours in this Part and
the Master-Part; but this happens but very seldom, except an Irishman should come, who
likes to here himself talk, asking, why were they round? Why were they square? Why
were they hollow? Why were the Stones costly? Why were they hewn Stones and Sawn
Stones, &c. some give one reason and some another; thus you see that every Man's
Reason is not alike. Therefore, if I give you my Reason, it may not be like another; but
any Man that reads the foregoing and following Work, and consults the 5th, 6th, 7th and
8th Chapters of the first Book of Kings, and the 2nd, 3rd and 4th of the second Book of
Chronicles may reason as well as the best of them; . . .
If ever there was a common-sense summing up of the situation that surely must be it;
getting back to basics and building from there, staying within the proper context and
treating interpretation for what it is, nevertheless searching among the symbols and
allegories to find the intention of the compilers, will help anyone to get Freemasonry into