Return to main page

Masonic History

The Masonic Ritual in the United States:
History vs. Tradition


By Bro. A.L. Kress, Pennsylvania

For a long time now Bro. Kress has been collecting data concerning the history of our ritual, especially as it has been used in America. It is pioneer work, and very difficult, especially because of the lack of dependable printed writings, so many of which have been published by uninformed authors altogether too credulous of hearsay and tradition. The present challenging paper is but the first of several that Bro. Kress will write with a view to the ultimate publication of a History of the Ritual, based on known facts and scientific methods. Every reader who may be able to contribute facts, suggestions or criticisms is urged to communicate with THE BUILDER, or with Bro. Kress himself, 330 Center street, Williamspert, PA.

THE history of Freemasonry has been effectually removed from the realm of tradition and imagination, due to the noteworthy labours of Gould, Hughan, Woodford, Lyon and their coworkers. But the development of the Masonic ritual has never been historically treated. Such articles as have appeared in the past in our journals can, at best, be characterized as psuedo-history only. An excellent example of these uncritical accounts, heretofore accepted as fact, may be found in THE BUILDER, Vol. I, page 291. There are, of course, difficulties in dealing freely and openly with such an important topic as would be possible when writing of Jurisprudence, Symbolism or the History of the Order; but they are not insurmountable. It may even be supposed by "mouth-to-ear" extremists that the history of the ritual can never be written because documentary evidence is lacking. But there is an ample supply of such. In fact, much as we cherish the tradition of a ritual transmitted by the instructive tongue to the attentive ear, as we review the past some doubt will arise as to whether it could ever have been maintained for two hundred years unless some records were kept.

TRADITION OF THE WEBB-PRESTON LECTURES

Perhaps I should give this paper a sub-title, "The So-Called Webb-Preston Lectures," for it is this specific phase of the ritual I shall discuss. There is a persistent and generally accepted tradition throughout the United States that Thomas Smith Webb somehow or other modified, abridged, altered, or rearranged the Preston Lectures, and that this was the genesis of our present ritual. I accepted the story myself at first, but it did not require much research to convince me that somewhere along the line tradition and fact controvert each other.

I shall first of all examine the origin of the tradition itself. It was not until about 1860 that our Grand Lodges evinced any great interest in the ritual and its genesis, which interest was largely stimulated by Rob Morris. As I have pointed out before, the ritual was in a somewhat chaotic condition from 1840 to 1860. Intelligent Masons everywhere were seeking for "the old ritual." Rob Morris was the leader in this search. In the course of his travels in 1857 he visited Philip C. Tucker, of Vergennes, Vermont, who had been made a Mason about 1824. Morris had made a practice of conferring with the older Masons - those made prior to 1830 - checking and comparing their versions in an effort to piece out "the old ritual." Tucker informed him that Samuel Willson, also of Vergennes, had in his possession an old manuscript cipher, which Willson had made in November, 1817, of the Webb Lectures as he had received them from John Barney at that time. Barney in turn had received them from one of Webb's "direct disciples" in Boston, and claimed to have rehearsed them before Webb himself. Morris was elated over this good fortune, examined the cipher and accepted the Barney-Willson Notes - now in the possession of the Grand Lodge of Vermont - as embodying the most authentic version of the old ritual then in existence.

As a result of Tucker's association with Morris and Morris' insistent effort to revive the old Webb Lectures, Tucker made three addresses before the Grand Lodge of Vermont in 1859, 1860 and 1861 respectively, which were extensively quoted by other writers. In his address in 1859 Tucker sought to present a complete narration of the history of the ritual. He said, in part:

"About the year 1800 - twelve years after the publication of Preston's Illustrations - an English brother whose name I have been unable to obtain came to Boston, and taught the English lectures as they had been arranged by Preston. The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts approved them, and they were taught to Thos. S. Webb, and Henry Fowle, of Boston, and Brother Snow, of Rhode Island, about the year 1801..... I think, upon these facts, I am justified in saying, that the lectures we use are the true lectures of Preston. Webb changed the arrangement of the sections, as fixed by Preston, for one which he thought more simple and convenient, but as I understand, left the body of the lectures themselves as Preston had established them." (1)

These portions of his address were evidently challenged by a member of the Craft - whom I believe to have been Mackey, though I have not yet located his article - which prompted Tucker to again discuss the matter in his address of 1860. He qualified his previous statements somewhat. I quote this address at greater length:

"In my address of last year I endeavored to condense what little information I had about the Masonic lectures, and that attempt has been, in general, quite favorably noticed by the Craft. In one distinguished Masonic quarter, however, some parts of my address on this subject seem to have met with disfavor. One particular thing found fault with is, that I thought myself justified in saying that the lectures in use, recovered through Webb and Gleason, were the true lectures of Preston. I certainly did not mean to say that they were identical in length with those of Preston. I had already said that Webb changed the arrangement of Preston's sections, but that he had left the body of the lectures as Preston had established them. Perhaps I should have said the substance instead of the 'body' of those lectures. I now state, what I supposed was well understood before by every tolerably well-informed Mason in the United States, that Webb abridged as well as changed the arrangement of the lectures of Preston. I believed that I knew then, and I believe I know now that Webb learned and taught the Preston lectures in full as well as that he prepared and taught his own abridgement of them. I have a copy in key, both of Webb's abridgement and of Preston in full, which I have reasons wholly satisfactory to myself for believing are true transcripts of both those sets of lectures as Gleason taught them........ Again I am criticized for saying that Gleason visited England and exemplified the Preston lectures, as he had received them from Webb, before the Grand Lodge of England, whose authorities pronounced them correct, and I am charged with taking this from 'hearsay', and my critic places no 'faith in it.' I received that statement from the highest authority - from one who knew - and I wrote it down at the time. There are existing reasons why I do not choose to gratify my critic by naming that authority at this time, and I leave the Craft to judge whether my statement of the fact upon undoubted authority is not worthy of as much credit as any Reviewer's doubt about it. I do not possess anything in writing or published of Gleason's, as to his lecturing before the Grand Lodge of England, but that Masonry abroad did not ignore the lectures, as Gleason taught them, we have his own published letter to prove." (2)

Tucker then reproduces a letter from Gleason to C.W. Moore which was published in the second edition of Moore's Masonic Trestleboard, which as evidence is of no value.

Morris, likewise, was diffusing a similar legend in his writing and addresses. In October, 1858, at Louisville, Ky., for example, he said: "The lectures I shall teach you are those which Thomas Smith Webb prepared some sixty years ago, from the Ritual of William Preston. There are no others in the United States that have any claim to your respect." (3)

C.W. Moore, of Boston, was another to pass along the tradition. In December 1858, in an address at Boston, he remarked in part as follows:

"Among the Past Masters of this lodge we notice the name of the late Benjamin Gleason, Esq., who was the associate and co-laborer of the late Thomas Smith Webb, in introducing into the lodges of New England, and subsequently into other sections of the country, what is known as the Prestonian system of work and lectures....... It was the 'work' of Masonry as revised by Preston, and approved and sanctioned by the Grand Lodge of England, near the close of the last century......... The verbal ritual as revised by Preston, was brought to this country about the year 1803 - not by Webb, as we have recently seen it stated, never went abroad - but by two English brethren, one of we think, had been a pupil of Preston, and both of whom had been members of one of the principal Lodges of Instruction in London. It was first communicated to Webb, and by him parted to Gleason....... The system underwent some modifications (which were doubtless improvements) in its general arrangement and adaptations - its mechanism - soon at its introduction into this country; but in all other respects was received, and has been preserved, especially in the lodge of older jurisdictions, essentially, as it came from the original source of our Craft Masonry." (4)

So far as I have been able to discover, these earliest narrations we have of this tradition. If any brother knows of an earlier reference or can point to the use of the term "Webb-Preston Lectures" anywhere prior to 1858, I hope he will call it to my attention. The tradition rests upon the unsupported assertions of Tucker, Morris and Moore. None of them possessed any first hand information, nor produced any facts to confirm their assertions. Tucker attempted to, but his proofs are based only on inference. It hardly seems worth my while to refute any portion of their statements, as I shall show later on that the Webb Lecture could not possibly be an adaptation of the Preston Lectures.

THE "ANTIENTS" AND THE "MODERNS" ARE CONTRASTED

No intelligent discussion of the ritual can be without reference to the rival Grand Lodges named above, which existed in England from 1752 to 1813. While the researches of Sadler have given us a better idea of the causes which led to the formation of the Grand Lodge of "Antients", it would seem that, a comparative study of the rituals of the two bodies would afford still further light on this little understood episode.

As early as 1760 we find the ritual of the "Antients" had assumed the exact form and arrangement preserved in the United States today. Under this type the ritual was divided into three degrees and each degree into sections. For example, there were three sections in the First Degree. The first section, of about sixty questions and answers, comprised the "Entered Apprentice's Lecture"; the second, of about fifteen questions and answers, the "Entered Apprentice's Reasons"; and the third, of some forty questions and answers, recited certain explanatory matter, some of which is now found in the second section of the Fellow craft's Lecture. This arrangement was most logical. The first section rehearsed the ceremony of initiation, the second, the reasons for the various acts; and the third elaborated on them. Every brother in this country, except our Pennsylvania brethren, will at once recognize this arrangement.

On the other hand, the ritual of the "Moderns the latter half of the 18th century, exhibits an entirely different form and arrangement, which in turn has been preserved in England. Under this type the ritual was divided into three lectures and these lectures arbitrary sections. The division of their lectures into sections, as I shall explain more fully in discussing the Preston Lectures, was for no reason save that of facilitating memorization and had not the slightest relation the sections of the "Antients."

In referring to the ritual of the "Moderns", I intentionally said it was divided into three lectures, for it was distinctly true of the "Moderns" that the real "work" of their lodges consisted not in making of Masons, but in the rehearsal of these lectures to the accompaniment of eating and drinking. It seems that the initaton of candidates was often something of an intrusion and was at times entrusted to a few brothers, who took the candidate into an adjoining room that the real "work" of the lodge might not be interrupted. The French term "Table Lodges" would fitly describe them. To conform to this practice in the "Moderns'" ritual, the ceremony of initiation, the reasons and the explanatory matter were all merged into one lecture, each section (as we know the term) losing its identity. The whole lecture was then interspersed with very frequent "Charges" or toasts. In the First Degree, in one "Modern" version, there are 219 questions and answers, whereas in the "Antients" we find but about 120. As interesting as this is, I can develop this comparison no further with the space at my disposal. Let us keep in mind, then, that in the United States we have preserved essentially the ritual of the "Antients", while in England the ritual is essentially that of the "Moderns".

THE PRESTON LECTURES ARE EXAMINED

The Preston Lectures have been widely written of, highly praised, and withal never understood in this country. I am not now prepared to say how much originality and invention, if any, Preston displayed. Unless it should be eventually found that he himself was responsible for the arrangement of the ritual of the "Moderns", we may question if his influence on the ritual has not been over-exaggerated. Our English brethren maintain a studied indifference to any attempt to "exhume" the Preston Lectures. I believe the last time a Preston Lecture was delivered in accordance with the bequest in his will was in 1857. However, the fund of 300 pounds, bequeathed by Preston for this purpose, is presumed to have mysteriously "disappeared". Certainly all this is quite strange if he were, in the words of Mackey, "the founder of a system of lectures which still retain their influence." No one, in recent times, seems to know just what the Preston Lectures actually were.

Preston is said to have been made a Mason in 1762 in a Lodge of "Antients", which later went over to the "Moderns". He seems to have early interested himself in the ritual and by 1774 had so far perfected his lectures that he held an institute for their general dissemination in London. In 1772 he published the first edition of his Illustrations, which went through many editions. In this work he outlined briefly his system of lectures and described his division of them into sections. In 1787 he organized the "Grand Chapter of Harodim", which met "at Freemasons' tavern on the third Monday of January, February, March, April, October, November and December." This was the mechanism through which he disseminated his lectures. It is best described in his own words:

"Different classes are established, and particular lectures restricted to each class. The lectures are divided into sections, and the sections into clauses. The sections are annually assigned by the Chief Harod, to a certain number of skilful companions in each class, who are denominated SECTIONISTS: and they are empowered to distribute the clauses of their respestive sections, with the approbation of the Chief Harod, and General Director, among certain private companions of the chapter, who are denominated CLAUSEHOLDERS. Such companions as by assiduity become possessed of all sections in the lecture are called LECTURERS: and out of these the General Director is chosen." (5)

From this explanation, Preston's purpose in dividing the lectures into sections and clauses is at once self-evident. As I said above, it was to facilitate memorization and these divisions are wholly arbitrary.

The Preston Lectures, we must remember, are a version of the "Moderns'" Ritual. He divided the first lecture into six sections, the second into four, and third into twelve. Taking the first lecture for comparison (as I have done throughout) there were:

  • 5 clauses in the first section.
  • 5 clauses in the second section.
  • 5 clauses in the third section.
  • 5 clauses in the fourth section.
  • 5 clauses in the fifth section.
  • 5 clauses in the sixth section.

As a typical example of a clause, I reproduce here the questions in the fourth clause of the first section of the first lecture, as nearly as I can reconstruct them:

  • Whence came you principally?
  • What recommendation do you bring?
  • What other recommendation?
  • What is the purpose of your visit?
  • How do you hope to accomplish that?
  • What was the first grand natural object you viewed?
  • Through what medium?
  • What was the second grand natural object you viewed?
  • Through what medium?
  • What was the third grand natural object you viewed?
  • Through what medium?

It is hardly necessary for me to say that there is nothing in the Webb Lectures even remotely resembling this.

In 1797 Webb published the first edition of his Freemason's Monitor, while he was at Albany, In his Foreword, he said:

"The observations upon the first three degrees, are principally taken from Preston's Illustrations of Masonry, with some necessary alterations, Mr. Preston's distribution of the first lecture into six, the second into four, and the third into twelve sections, not being agreeable to the present mode of working, they are arranged in this work according to general practice."

In the 1802 edition he changed the words "present mode of working" to "mode of working in America."

Now Webb meant just what he said there. Preston's arrangement by sections was not "agreeable to the mode of working in America," because Webb referred to the ritual of the "Antients" while Preston referred to the ritual of the "Moderns". Webb found three clear-cut logical sections in the First Degree, for example, so why try to make six out of them? Here lies the difficulty. Webb copied most of his matter in the three degrees from Preston, but they each were referring to something entirely different. This even led to criticism, sixty years ago, that the Webb Monitor did not fit the Webb Lectures. Personally, I doubt that Webb ever even knew the Preston Lectures.

I have sought to establish that:

  • The Webb Lectures have their exact counterpart in the ritual of the Antients, evidence of which exists as early as 1760, or before Preston was even made a Mason.
  • Webb never rearranged the Preston Lectures.
  • The Webb Lectures do not even remotely resemble the Preston Lectures.
  • The tradition arose about 1858, and has no basis of fact.
  • The term "Webb-Preston Lectures" is erroneous, misleading, and should be abandoned.

Just what Webb's contributions were, together with a citation of all the documentary evidence, is a subject, which it may be my pleasure to discuss at some later date.

References:

  • Proceedings Grand Lodge Vermont - 1859 pp. 35-42.
  • Proceedings Grand Lodge Vermont - 1860 pp. 23-32.
  • Proceedings Grand Lodge Vermont - 1859 p. 42.
  • Proceedings Grand Lodge Vermont - 1860 pp. 23-32.
  • Preston - Illustrations of Masonry - 1804, American Portsmouth ed., pp. 234-35.

- Source: The Builder - October 1923

more masonic history