Evolution of the Operative into the Speculative Craft

By Bro. Wm. F. Kuhn, P. G. M., Missouri


The formation of the Grand Lodge of England, on St. John’s Day in June, 1717, is the base point on which the Masonic surveyor places his compass; from which he obtains his level, and lays his chains to plat the field of Masonic History. It is the observation point on which the Masonic Historian stands, as he looks backward into the mists of uncertainties and speculation, and on which he looks forward through two hundred years of recorded growth and achievements. This basic point lies just this side of tradition and uncertainty.

The Freemasonry of today is not that of 1717; neither was the Freemasonry of 1717 that of the traditional past; but through it all there runs a life that has pushed itself upward and forward from an undifferentiated mass into a differentiated, definite unity, unto a reality possessed of a personality, with unlimited potentialities. Whatever may have been its origin, wherever it may have arisen, is secondary to the great fact, that Freemasonry is here, and is a living thing, throbbing and pulsating with inestimable efficacy. In its successive growth, it was never a revival, but always an evolution.

To the question, Whence came Freemasonry ? there have been many answers. Some are purely fantastic, others clearly absurd, while many show deep research and study. But even here, there is necessarily an element of conjecture, and until more reliable data are found, this uncertainty will remain. The history and origin of Freemasonry must be traced by certain fundamentals peculiar to it. These lie in its special symbolism, its laws and its ethical and religious conceptions. In this research, the Masonic student should be warned against two classes of blind guides: the wild-eyed Masonic archaeologist, and the fantastic Masonic symbologist. There is no limit in time or space for either of them, when vagary and fancy seizes the reins and drives them on in a furious pace. In studying the origin of Freemasonry, we must make the distinction between a mere secret society and a brotherhood. A secret society is the outgrowth of primitive minds and primitive conditions. A brotherhood is the product of culture and enlightenment. A secret society hedges itself about in a cloak of mystery, superstition and curiosity. A brotherhood has no secrets or mysteries, but bears within it a common bond of mutual helpfulness and a stimulus to investigation in the broad field of intellectual, moral-and spiritual development.

I admit that to some Freemasons, or rather to some men who are members of a Masonic Lodge, Freemasonry is a mere secret society, but let us make the clear distinction that Freemasonry is not such, but that it is a Brotherhood, without mystery, whose germ has clearly and persistently been pushing upward to a greater and fuller recognition of what Life means in all its relations. While Freemasonry has in it the obsolete parts of a secret society, indices of its evolution, yet these rudimentary remnants do not make or constitute Freemasonry.

The Masonic student who would trace Freemasonry to some mere secret society has plenty of fantastic material. It is an historical fact, that secret societies have always existed in great multiplicity among the most primitive people and savages. It appears as an aboriginal instinct. These secret societies seem to have a common origin in the “Men’s House” of the aborigines. In these men’s houses gradually arose certain secret ceremonies, even degrees, typifying Youth, Manhood, and Old Age, often attended with barbarous rites of torture and mutilation. In some of the African, Australian and Hebrides Societies the candidate received a “New Name,” and he was taught an esoteric speech. In some a hideous representation of death and the resurrection was presented, even some modern paraphernalia was used, such as masks, “Bull-roarers” and other devices and equipments to impress the candidate with the important lessons. In passing, I might add that the “Bull-roarers” was an instrument capable of making a prodigious noise. The only counterpart to a Bull-roarer in Freemasonry today, is the Jubulum found in some Masonic Lodges.

The following taken from “Primitive Secret Societies”–Webster, is illuminating: “The process which converts puberty institutions into secret societies of peoples more advanced in culture, seems, in general, to be that of the gradual shrinkage of the earliest and democratic organizations, consisting of all the members of the tribe. The outcome of this process, on the one hand, is a limitation of the membership of the organization to those who are able to satisfy the necessary entrance requirements, and, on the other hand, the establishment of a fraternity so formed of various degrees through which the candidate may pass in succession. With the fuller development of secret society characteristics, these degrees became more numerous, and passage through them more costly. The members of the higher degrees forming an inner circle of picked initiates. These control the organization in their own interests. The best examples of this practice are to be sought in the Australian and African Tribes.” It will not require a wide stretch of the imagination to find some analogy of thought between primitive minds and some modern thinkers and their methods.

Some form of secret and magical societies have always existed among the aborigines of all countries. The snake dance of the Hopi Tribe is a part of one of these ceremonies. Their existence with their secret signs has caused some writers to imagine that Freemasonry existed among the American Indians and among the several tribes of the Philippines.

The Mysteries of the classic period of Greece and Rome are to some extent kindred to the secret societies of the aborigines. The Mysteries of Eleusis, of Dionysus, of Mithra, of Osiris, of Demeter, etc., embodied more culture and philosophy and some of the best and greatest minds of that or any other age were members thereof. Yet all these Mysteries were hedged about with certain profound secrets and occultism known and communicated to the adept only. The central idea of all of them was the presentation in a dramatic, allegorical ceremony, life, death and immortality. This ceremony was monotheistic in its elaboration and strongly approached the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. The effect and influence of these Mysteries upon the minds of men would have been greater and more beneficent, if these societies had not labored under the delusion that symbol and allegory were means to conceal rather than to reveal. These Mysteries never arose above the mental conception found in mere occult secret societies. The advent of Christianity into Greece and Rome wrote “Finis” after the history of the Mysteries.

If Freemasonry contained no more than wonderful secrets, symbols, allegories, signs, words and degrees, the Masonic Archaeologist would have little trouble in tracing its ancestry to the secret societies of the aborigines of Australia, Fiji Islanders, to the North American Indian or to the Great Mysteries. Symbols and symbolism are as old as man. It is the primeval, yet universal language of the world. Symbols and symbolism are not peculiar to any nation, peoples, secret societies or brotherhoods, whether primitive, medieval or modern. Symbols and symbolism are not bound down by fast rules and regulations, hence a man with a symbol can have the extreme satisfaction, that as a free moral agent, he can see in it, and through it, more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed by common mortals. Some of the most amusing stunts on the Masonic vaudeville stage are performed by the Freemason with a symbol.

The point, the circle, line, plummet, square, level, trowel, and hammer; these implements of theoretical and practical architecture have always been a fruitful source of symbolism. The implement and its symbolism have been a matter of evolution. The cave man, as he slowly evolved to a higher stage of intelligence, began to use some crude implements in the erection of his simple house of stone. A piece of flint or a stick may have served as a trowel to fill the crevices of his house with mud. This simple instrument evolved into the modern trowel of the operative Mason of today. The shape of the modern trowel is based purely on its practicability, and not on any supposed geometrical law. The maul, possibly the oldest operative instrument, has become a hammer or a gavel. The plummet, level, and square are incident to the development of architecture and other geometrical sciences. It does not follow, that because certain operatives used these instruments, that they were Freemasons. The discovery of these instruments in old ruins, or pictures there of cut or painted on old monuments, walls, or obelisks, do not prove anything as to the history of Freemasonry. Because a Freemason has a thigh bone, does not prove that an Egyptian mummy was a Freemason, because a thigh bone was discovered in him. It is related that a Freemason, with a Moslem pin on the lapel of his coat and a combination watch charm of the double eagle, cross and crown, dangling from his vest, accidentally happened on some Egyptologists, as they uncovered the grave of a man of the late stone age; in the grave were the remains of the man, food and other things usually found in such tombs, also a stone hammer with a wooden handle attached by withes; when the Freemason saw the hammer he exclaimed: “Eureka, this man was a Freemason and the Master of his Lodge, because here is his gavel.” This incident may not be true, but it is in keeping with some of the eloquence dispensed from Masonic platform and Masonic papers about “The great antiquity of our great and magnificent Order.”

The symbolism based on the implements of the operative, is equally ancient and runs through the literature of the greatest teachers of ancient and modern times. The Bible is rich in such symbolism. The Prophet Amos said: “I will set a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” In Proverbs we find: “When he set the compass on the face of the deep I was there.” Ezekiel in prophetic vision saw a “City four square.” In Second Kings, it is recorded that Jehovah “Will stretch over Jerusalem a line of Samaria, and the plummet of the House of Ahab.” St. Peter said: “Ye also are living stones.” In the prophesies of Isaiah we find: “Judgment also will I lay to the line and righteousness to the plummet,” and Zachariah said: “For they shall rejoice and shall see the plummet in the hands of Zerubbabel.” These are only a few quotations. There are many other examples of beautiful and impressive symbols used by the Old and New Testament writers. This geometrical and architectural symbolism runs through all literature, ancient and modern, secular and religious. Imagery, symbols, allegory, and trope are the beauty and sublimity of Biblical literature. The purpose and use of symbolism among all great religious teachers was to make clear, to elucidate, to make plain, but never to hide or conceal great truths and precepts. Christ was prolific in the use of symbols, especially in allegorical form. His parables and allegories are remarkable for their pertinence and graphic in their power to present moral and religious truths with clearness and comprehension. He never used them to cast a metaphysical fog over his listeners.

This extensive use of symbolism in literature does not make it Masonic, neither must we in our zeal claim that because Amos, Isaiah, Zachariah and St. Peter used the symbolism found in our ritual of today, they must have been Freemasons. Symbolism based on the tool of the operative or on geometrical figures does not prove, in itself, Masonic descent, any more than secret words, signs and grips prove Masonic genealogy.

If secret societies had existed from primitive ages and symbolism is coextensive and coequal with human thought, where lies the genesis of Freemasonry? The answer to this question has been the subject of much controversy and research. The most satisfactory answers can be found in Vols. 1, 2 and 3 of Mackey’s History, Gould’s History, but especially in that little incomparable book, “The Builders,” by Reverend Joseph F. Newton.

Certain analogies exist between secret societies, brotherhoods, cults, and mysteries, and even with the Church. These analogies do not prove a common origin, but they establish the fact that men, psychologically, think alike. There may be shades of difference, but on all great issues and truths, these opinions blend into a composite whole. Gregariousness is an instinct common to man and animals. We love companionship. We love kindred spirits, and in it lies the secret of brotherhood. Gregariousness with a fondness for the mysterious, coupled with a little leaven of superstition, is the father of the secret societies and the Mysteries. It may be stated as axiomatic, that the more primitive the intellectual and moral development of man, the more do secret signs, words, grips, and awe-inspiring mysteries appeal to him. It is for this reason that only certain phases of Freemasonry appeal to certain members. It is stating a Scriptural truism to say, that as a Freemason thinks in his heart, and is able to comprehend in his mind, so is Freemasonry to him.

The symbolism, the laws, and the lofty ethical and religious principles, found in Freemasonry, point indubitably to an origin in a cultured religious society of Cathedral Builders in England. There is no evidence that such a society of builders existed in England prior to the Norman Conquest, in the eleventh century. There were builders who wrought in stone and timber prior to this time, but these Gilds or Societies did not specialize in the building of churches or cathedrals. In a classical article on architecture in the Encyclopedia Britannica, the following pertinent statement occurs: “The existing Roman remains show that there was quite enough architecture and decorative art introduced into England by the Romans to have formed a school of Masonic sculptors and builders, if the civilization of the people had been sufficient to make them desire it. Such a School can hardly be said to have been formed, if we look at the few and comparatively rude remains of buildings certainly erected before the Norman Conquest.” The same authority further states that: “When Roman Architecture ceased, for nearly seven hundred years, nearly every building was ecclesiastical.” The study of architecture clearly established the fact that no school of Masonic architecture existed prior to the eleventh century; after that, until near the end of the seventeenth century, such a school flourished, as indicated by the large number of ecclesiastical structures erected. It must also be remembered that the oldest document in reference to Freemasonry is the Halliwell Poem, dated sometime in the fourteenth century. It is evident, without going into detail, that a fraternity of Cathedral Builders came into existence with Gothic architecture from the eleventh to the twelfth century. The membership was made up of skilled workmen, not only in the practical, but in the theoretical art of architecture, and all its cognate sciences. Whence came the men who formed such a fraternity may find its solution in the existence of former societies like the Roman Collegia and the Comacine Masters.

The fraternity of Cathedral Builders was a fraternity erected, possibly, on the remains of former similar organizations, and this new fraternity was the beginning of Freemasonry of today. But what of the assembly of Masons held in York in 926? So far as this assembly relates to Freemasonry, it is a myth. But while the holding of such an assembly is only legendary, it can not be said that no such an assembly was ever held. I am inclined to believe that such an assembly was held, but it was of the “Rough stone Masons” and in no sense an assembly of the Cathedral or Ecclesiastical Builders.

Intellectually, in as far as it refers to the Fellows of the Craft and the Masters of this Fraternity of Cathedral Builders, they were of an advanced type. The culture and enlightenment of the age found expression in these Cathedrals. Their wondrous beauty, symmetry, harmony, ornamentation and color bear witness of the skill, intelligence and scientific attainments of the members. Such work can not come from the illiterate or unskilled, but from minds trained in the sciences of architecture, sculpture and art. Gothic Architecture (sometimes called Christian Architecture) brought into use the highest skill in the practical and theoretical science of building. The key note of the artisan was “Stability, Utility, Beauty.” It can be readily seen why Euclid, the great geometrician, figured so prominently in the old manuscripts, and it has also appeared a mystery why Pythagoras was dragged, as if by the ears, into modern Freemasonry, and Euclid and Archimedes, the two great prominent thinkers in practical and theoretical geometry, have been excluded. Intellectually, the Freemason of the Cathedral Builders was an adept in the sciences.

The Rules and Regulations, by which the Craft was governed, might be said to be an application of the Golden Rule. The ethics of these rules and regulations stand undimmed in the centuries, and may be summed up in this: That it is the duty of a Freemason “To do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly before God.” It has been well said: “If as an ethic of life, these laws seem simple and rudimentary, they are none the less fundamental, and they remain to this day the only gate and way by which those must enter who would go up to the House of the Lord.” To be convinced of this statement, read these Rules and Regulations as found in the old Manuscripts; they are individual to Freemasonry.

Freemasonry stands preeminent in its moral and religious teachings. It stands alone among secular institutions in the purity and exalted spirit in its religious conceptions. If there is any evidence, above all others, that connects Freemasonry with the Cathedral Builders, it is this golden thread of ethics and religion. Architecture is but the expression of religion in its highest development and it has been well said: “Architecture has had its origin in religious feeling and emotions, that its noblest monuments among the Pagan nations of antiquity, were the temples to their gods, as well as those of the Christian nations.” A prominent writer on architecture says: “With the Christian faith there rose those forms of beauty unknown to the Pagan, which culminated in the glories of Lincoln and Canterbury.” The spirit of the First Crusade is manifest in this new architecture and finds expression in the religious tenets of the members. Their creed was Christian and Trinitarian. In nearly all of the sixty or more copies of the “Old Charges” the following formula of belief, or slight modification thereof, is set forth: “In the name of the Great and Holy God, the Wisdom of the Son and the goodness of the Holy Ghost, three persons in One, be with us now and ever. Amen.” This invocation was always given in their Lodges and also read to the neophyte. This Trinitarian Creed was peculiar to the Cathedral Builders and remains so even under the formation of the Grand Lodge in 1717, until the adoption of “The Old Charges of the Free and Accepted Masons” in 1723. Upon the adoption of these Old Charges of Free and Accepted Masons, the formula became purely Deistic; that a Mason “Will never be a stupid Atheist,” and it was “Thought more expedient only to oblige them to that religion in which all men agree” viz., a belief in God, the Great Architect of the Universe. The peculiar symbolism, the lofty ethical rules and regulations, and the profound and advanced religious conceptions of Freemasons can find no other origin than that in the Society of the Cathedral Builders of the 12th Century.

If such is the origin of Freemasonry, the question arises: why should an operative Craft become a speculative Craft? In the middle ages, the clergy, or ecclesiastics, were the repositories of learning. It is not, therefore, strange for them to associate themselves with a society of such technical skill and erudition in the theoretical sciences. The study of geometry in its wide, practical and almost unlimited field, in so many Arts, would naturally appeal to them, so that this speculative Mason was, doubtless, a member in its earliest history. The two oldest Manuscripts intimate this fact, so that we are not wide of the mark in believing that speculative Masons were members in the earliest history of this Fraternity of Cathedral Builders and their numbers continued to increase year by year. Proof of this is found in abundance in Lodge minutes. Noblemen, students, scholars sought entrance, not because of any special symbolism or mysteries, but because of an opportunity for a wider and more general education and to pursue the fascinating study of the “noblest of sciences.” Cook’s manuscript indicates the educational and moral purposes of the fraternity. The writer thereof says: “And, moreover, He, (God), hath given to man wit and knowledge of divers things and handicraft, by which he may labor in this world in order to therewith get our livelihood, and fashion many objects pleasant in the sight of God, to our own ease and profit. To rehearse all these matters here were too long in the writing or telling; I will therefore refrain, but nevertheless tell you some: for instance, how and in what the science of geometry was first invented and who were the founders both thereof and of several other crafts as is declared in the Bible and other histories. You must know that there are seven liberal sciences from which seven all other sciences and crafts in the world have sprung; but especially geometry, the first cause of all other sciences, whatsoever they be; the seven sciences are Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialetic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.”

It will be noted that this quotation from the second oldest Manuscript, shows unmistakably that one of the great ends of the fraternity was the diffusion of practical knowledge and its curriculum of studies compares well with the schools of today. Technical skill and study were paramount to any and all symbolism. There is no evidence that symbolism attracted the speculative Mason into this fraternity, or that there existed within it a school of symbology, neither did its simple ceremonies attempt to elucidate any Secret Doctrine or waste its time on the mystical numbers of Pythagoras. Whatever secrets were communicated were purely technical and trade secrets, and possibly a word and sign whereby the members might make themselves known to each other. The fraternity of Cathedral Builders was a professional and trade society–symbolism, if any, was incidental. I do not wish to be understood that these beautiful cathedrals were built in a haphazard way without any attention to the ideas to be conveyed in their symbolic and geometrical structure. The cross as represented by the transept, the nave, and the chancel; the pointed arch based on the equilateral triangle, every column, chapiters, entablature, arches, towers, sculpture and decorations; the whole cathedral was a symbolic expression of the religious faith of the builders. No structure ever erected before or since, showed such a wealth and beauty of symbols. But this symbolism was an open and manifest expression. It was a secret revealed to the world in stone. In all the symbolism of the cathedrals, there was no primitive conception of the aborigines, no transcendental moonshine or metaphysical mist. Numbers had no mystical meaning, except in so far as they were the practical application of the science of numbers to proportion in structure. The ancient interpretation of symbols was lost in the new and higher conception, and theorizing gave way to utility and beauty.

With the decline of architecture, the transition of the operative into speculative craft was easy, yet gradual, as evidenced in the “Old Charges of Free and Accepted Masons” adopted six years after the formation of the Grand Lodge. These so-called Old Charges apply more to an operative organization than to a speculative, but it will be observed in paragraph four provision is made for the holding of official station by the non-operative. It reads: “Who is also to be noble born, or a gentleman of the best fashion, or some eminent scholar, or some curious architect, or other artists, descendant of honest parents and who is of singular great merit in the opinion of the Lodge.” The entrance of John T. Desaguliers, LLD., into Freemasonry, 1719, and of James Anderson, D. D., at about the same period, was the pivotal point which gradually completed the transition. Dr. Desaguliers, above all others, is the great figure who changed the operative into the speculative, but it will be observed in paragraph four associations with the scientific and philosophical schools, he was preeminently qualified for this work. While such of the symbolism of Freemasonry was introduced at a later period, yet the sublime symbolism of Freemasonry is the product of this clergyman’s son. In 1723 Freemasonry stood at the dawn of a new age with great opportunities and potentialities in her grasp. Although conceived and born in a fraternity of Christian architects and scholars, retransformed into a new life by two Christian clergymen, it laid aside its special creed and dogma for the promulgation of the great and fundamental creed: The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.

In conclusion I would restate that Freemasonry is a Brotherhood and not a secret society; the secret signs, grips and steps in its ceremonies today are remnants of its evolution. These remnants are a hindrance to the full glory of Freemasonry, in that they create curiosity for the aborigines of the twentieth century and a veil of mystery for the illiterate and self-seeking. Signs, grips and steps are nothing, and ritualism is only secondary to the all-embracing spirit of Freemasonry, –Brotherhood.

– Source: The Builder November 1917