The Mission of the Masonic Press
By Bro. Robert Freke Gould
In the first issue of this journal its editor laid on the trestleboard a scheme of the plan of work proposed for the National Masonic Research Society: therein was indicated a purpose to republish already printed works that may not be accessible to the majority of students. The best that has been thought and said about Masonry, by those outside as well as inside the Craft, should not fall into oblivion merely because it may chance to have been written a year ago, or ten years ago, or twenty. We have already republished a number of essays and chapters of such a character: we shall publish many more. Among these may be listed the following characteristic essay by one of the masters of Masonic lore: the article, which I able to speak for itself, was first printed in The London Freemason in 1906.
"Oceans of ink, and reams of paper, and disputes infinite might have been spared, if wrangles had avoided lighting the torch at the wrong end; since a tenth part of the pains expended in attempting to prove the why, the where, and the when certain events have happened, would have been more than sufficient to prove that they never happened at all." Rev. C.C. Colton.
POPULAR errors of the moment, mischievous and extensive in their effects," observes Sir Egerton Brydges, "are always in operation; truth prevails more rarely than is assumed, and false opinions, let alone, will obtain absolute dominion. The enlightened intellect which can correct them, and dissipate delusions, is a great benefactor."
Surplus copies of books, as many will be aware, are called in trade "Remainders," and with this prelude I proceed to quote from an interview with one of the greatest dealers in those wares, of which an account was given some years ago in the newspapers. "Remainders in Law and Physic," Mr. William Glaisher, the well-known bookseller of High Holborn, is reported to have said, "would be of little use. People who want legal and medical works must have the latest editions -they must be up-to-date. I'm afraid, therefore, that surplus copies of legal and medical works become so much waste paper, and are sent back to the mills."
Let us contrast with this the fate of unsold copies of works relating to Freemasonry. Year by year, the early history of our ancient Craft is being gradually unfolded to us. But no Masonic book ever seems to grow out of date. The visionary writings of past times, and the more scholarly productions of our own, are perused with an equal faith. Old texts are found to yield new readings, but the old readings are not thereby displaced. Popular fallacies are exploded, i.e., within a limited circle - but within a larger circle their vitality, remains unimpaired.
What, therefore, is most wanted in the true interests of Masonic study, or, perhaps, it will be better to say, in the diffusion of genuine Masonic knowledge, is a tabulation of results. The wisest man may be wiser today than he was yesterday, and tomorrow than he is today. New facts are constantly becoming known, while old facts are as rapidly disappearing, and (as it seems to myself) an efficient registration of these phenomena should be included among the duties or obligations which we naturally associate with the Mission of the Masonic Press.
It has been well said, that it is not so difficult a task to plant new truths, as to root out old errors; for there is this paradox in men, they run after that which is new, but are prejudiced in favour of that which is old.
Under the title of A Masonic Curriculum, the late George William Speth wrote an interesting pamphlet which was designed to be "A Course of Study in Freemasonry." It was almost the last essay he lived to complete, and though a small and unpretentious contribution to the literature of the Society he served so faithfully and well, it is full of sage reflections and interesting comments on the then published works and ephemeral writing of all Masonic authors of repute, and these critical remarks will always be attractive, not for their utility, but also for their felicities of style.
It was the object of the late Bro. Speth to point out what books and pamphlets ought to be read. A similar duty, of course, devolves on the Masonic Press, but a matter of far greater importance (as it strikes my own mind) is the urgent necessity for the literary organs of the Fraternity to speak with no uncertain sound as to the books and writings (of all classes and descriptions) which the student of Masonry will be well advised to leave severely alone.
The amount of justly merited obloquy under which the entire literature of the Craft reposes, owing to the foolish writings of so many enthusiastic but uncritical Freemasons, it would be impossible to exaggerate.
By way of illustration, let me quote some passages from a long forgotten article on "Ancient and Modern Freemasonry," by the late Dr. Armstrong, Bishop of Grahamstown, who observes: "The Livys of the Masonic Commonwealth are far from willing to let their Rome have either a mean or unknown beginning. According to Preston, 'From the commencement of the world, we may trace the foundation of Masonry'; 'But,' adds Dr. Oliver, 'ancient Masonic traditions say, and I think justly, that our science existed before the creation of this globe, and was diffused amid the numerous systems with which the grand empyreum of universal space is furnished."'
After pointing out in a strain of severe satire that the Freemasons were not in the least joking, in what many men considered as a joke, the Bishop continues: "Look, for instance, at the Rev. G. Oliver, D.D. He is quite in earnest. There is something really wonderfully refreshing in such a dry and hard-featured an age as this to find so much imagination at work. After having pored through crabbed chronicles and mouldy MSS., with malicious and perverse contractions, ragged and mildewed letters, illegible and faded diaries, &c., it is quite refreshing to drive along the smooth and glassy road of imaginative history. Of course, where there is any dealing with the more hackneyed facts of history, we must expect a little eccentricity and some looseness of statement - we cannot travel quickly and cautiously, too. Thus the Doctor of Divinity before mentioned somewhat startles us by an assertion respecting the destruction of Solomon's Temple: 'Its destruction by the Romans, as predicted, was fulfilled in the most minute particulars; and on the same authority we are quite certain it will never be rebuilt.' He is simply mistaking the second Temple for the first!"
The Bishop further observes: "There are minds which seem to rejoice in the misty regions of doubt, which see best in the dark, which have a sensation of being handcuffed when they are tied to proofs and documents; they despise those stubborn facts, the mules of history, on which safe historians are content to ride down the crags and precipices of olden times, 'Inveniam viam aut faciam'- I will find my facts or make them; so say the Masonic writers. They have the same contempt for plain plodding historians which we can conceive a stoker of the Great Western dashing out of Paddington would feel for an ancient couple, could such be seen, jogging leisurely out of town in pillion-fashion on their old somber mare, with the prospect of a week's journey to Bath. They drive the 'express trains' of history. While we are groping and floundering amid the fens and bogs of the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, they look upon such times as the mere suburbs of the present age - 'the easy distance from town.' They dash past centuries, as railroad trains whisk past milestones. For ourselves we see nothing of Freemasons before the seventh century; we cannot even scent the breath of a reasonable rumour. But if we put ourselves under the charge of the most sober and matter-of-fact Masonic historians, away we are scurried from the seventh to the sixth, from the sixth to the fifth, from the fifth to the fourth, to the third, to the second, till dizzy heads and our breath gone, we find ourselves put down by the Temple of Solomon.
Dr. Oliver, of course, was not the only, but he may justly be styled the worst, offender in matters of the kind, as of all the vast array of authors who have written on the subject of Freemasonry, he was the most prolific, and in the quantity of the publications that issued from his pen, there has been no one to compete with either in the Old World or the New.
All the works of Dr. Oliver would be put into an Index Purgatorius, that is to say, if the scholars of Masonry were empowered to draw up "A Catalogue of Books prohibited to be read." The book of his that has probably done the most harm is The Revelations of a Square, a sort of Masonic Romance, professing to detail, though in a fictitious form, many of the usages of the last centuries, with anecdotes of the leading Masons of that period. Most of the articles on the English Ritual of the eighteenth century, written since the publication of this work, have been based on the illusory "Revelations" of Dr. Oliver's imaginary "Square."
In the remarks, however, with which I am now proceeding, space would fail me were I to attempt to enumerate the books and pamphlets which should be carefully avoided and left unread by all serious students of Freemasonry. The utmost I can do is to present in a small compass a body of specious but radically unsound doctrines, which if resolutely stamped out by the combined action of the Masonic Press, would result in a purification of our sources of knowledge, and tend to remove the popular impression that Freemasonry is wholly unworthy of the attention either of scholars or men of intelligence.
Historical fictions have been common in all ages, and the particular branch of "history" in which Masonry is contained, has its full share of them.
There is nothing from which we have reason to infer, that the cathedral (or church) builders were a separate class from the Masons of the City Guilds or companies; that the Manuscript Constitutions belonged to the Church-building Masons; or that the Church builders were a single fraternity, travelling from place to place as their services were required and making themselves known by means of secret grips, words, and signs.
Papal Bulls were not given to the Freemasons, nor had they an annual Parliament of their own. The first Grand Lodge was formed, and the first Grand Master elected in 1717. Sir Christopher Wren was not a Grand Master, nor is there any proof that he was a Freemason at all. The Grand Lodge of England (1717) was not founded by Payne, Anderson, and Desaguliers, or any one of them. Two degrees and not three were recognized by the Grand Lodge of England in 1723. Neither Martin Clare nor Thomas Manningham revised the Ritual, and the labours of Thomas Dunkerley in the same direction are equally imaginary. Andrew Michael Ramsay did not invent a single one of the numerous Rites that have been fathered on him. The young Pretender - Charles Edward - was not a Freemason. There has never been - except in the imagination of the American writers - a York Rite; nor are there any Prerogatives, which are inherent to the office of a Grand Master. The dogmas of Perpetual Jurisdiction, Physical Perfection, and Exclusive (or Territorial) Jurisdiction, have been evolved since the introduction of Masonry into what has become the "United States," from England, during the first or second quarters of the eighteenth century. No alterations were made by the Original Grand Lodge of England in the "established forms." The story of Mrs. Aldworth, the alleged "Lady Freemason," is of no historical value whatever, and to bring my list of delusions to a close (though the examples could be greatly multiplied) the now familiar mot du guet, "the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man" would have been both unmeaning and unintelligible to the Masons living in the era that preceded that of Grand Lodges, as their conception of a creed would have been a strict belief in the Trinity; and probably nothing would have more surprised our ancient brethren than to hear it mooted that persons of other than Anglo-Saxon parentage were qualified for admission into the Society.
It will scarcely be denied by anyone, that owing to the loose and inaccurate - not to say extremely foolish - manner in which Masonic history has been written, there is much that the present, and possibly a later generation will have to live down. That the efforts of the true lovers of Freemasonry in this direction will be ultimately successful I have myself no doubt whatever, but the period of time that may be expected to lapse before this aspiration is fulfilled must necessarily vary in extent, accordingly as enlightened assistance is rendered, or not rendered, by the concerted action of the Masonic Press.
The task immediately before us is to show, that with the disappearance of its fabulous history, there emerges a real history, of which every intelligent Freemason may feel justly proud.
There is an anecdote of Lord Chesterfield, so much to my present purpose, that I cannot refrain from relating it, as I conceive that it will be deemed in point by most readers, and to some may possibly be new. We are told by Horace Walpole, in one of his letters, that on a certain occasion Lord Chesterfield exclaimed to John Anstis, Garter King of Arms, "You foolish man, you do not understand your own very foolishness." Without doubt, there are points of resemblance - suggestive of a family likeness - between the Herald and the Freemason, when each of them is clad in full panoply of his regalia, which strikes the eye of the ignorant (or untutored) observer; and while I do not for an instant wish it to be supposed that I consider the "business" of a Freemason to be a "foolish" one (which, indeed, would be in direct opposition to the view I am seeking to establish), nevertheless, I shall venture to affirm that the profound ignorance of the generality of the Craft, with regard to the history and antiquities of our venerable Society, might well extenuate, if it did not entirely excuse, the words of Lord Chesterfield, if peradventure, instead of being addressed to the Garter King of Arms, they had been used with respect to the "business," as commonly understood, of a Freemason.
"The boys that grind my colours," said Apelles to one of the priests of Diana, "look upon you with respect, while you are silent, because of the gold and purple of your garments; but when you speak of what you do not understand, they laugh at you."
"Why do men study ancient history, acquire a knowledge of dead languages and decipher illegible inscriptions? What gives life to the study of antiquity? What compels men, in the midst of these busy times, to sacrifice their leisure to studies apparently so unattractive and useless, if not the conviction, that in order to obey the Delphic commandment - in order to know what Man is, we ought to know what Man has been?"
The foregoing are the words of the late Professor Max Muller, and they are applicable to the study of Masonry, as to the investigation of any other branch of historical research. The authentic history of our ancient Craft can be traced, by the evidence of existing documents, to the fourteenth century, and without the shadow of a doubt it had then attained a hale and vigorous old age.
The recent labours of many learned men have brought to actual demonstration what was previously only matter of strong probability, that a state of society highly cultivated and refined, existed in various parts of the globe, prior to any written or authentic documents transmitted to us. Are we justified in supposing that the traditions which connect Masonry with those ancient peoples, among whom that advanced condition of civilization is found to have prevailed, are entitled to any real weight?
Of traditionary evidence, indeed, it has been said by an old writer whose name I forgot, "that a great cloud of smoke argues at least a little fire."
But the observation is a shrewd one, and I have reminded the reader of it, as the Traditions - Written or Unwritten - of Freemasonry, are its chief glory, and in these consists its superiority over all other Associations.
"Say what you will against Tradition," wrote the learned Selden; "we know the Significance of Words by nothing but Tradition. You will say the Scripture was written by the Holy Spirit; but do you understand the Language 'twas writ in? No. Then, for example, take these words, 'In principio erat verbum." How do you know these words signify, 'In the beginning was the word,' but by Tradition, because some Body has told you so?"
But long before the discoveries of recent times, there were monuments in many countries which fairly justified the belief that has now ripened into actual knowledge. The magnificent ruins of ancient cities, of which no record remained, the Pyramids, concerning which the remotest antiquity had nothing to depose, the advanced state of the sciences of Geometry and Astronomy amongst the Egyptians and the Babylonians amply warranted the presumption that a high state of cultivation and knowledge did exist anterior to any written documents or historical records.
To the literate of our Craft it will be unnecessary to explain either that the characteristic signs now called Masons' Marks, were originally developed at a very early period in the East, and have been since used as distinguishing emblems of some kind throughout the Middle Ages, in Persia, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere; or, that the Science of Geometry as taught by Euclid to the Egyptians, was the fons et origo of the Craft of Masonry, that is if we may repose any confidence in what is distinctly affirmed by the most ancient Manuscripts of our Society.
There are many further points on each of which I should like to say a few words, but as this cannot be done, I shall make the best selection I can for treatment in the present article. To begin with, there is a certain amount of drudgery associated with the acquisition of the rudiments of Masonic knowledge, which may explain, perhaps, why it is that no one who enters upon the study of Masonry late in life ever pursues it to an entirely satisfactory conclusion. "More, therefore (to slightly paraphrase the words of Dr. Johnson, when speaking of the natives of Scotland), may be expected from a Mason, who has been caught young." Lengthy works, however, are not generally esteemed by any Masonic readers, who, in this particular, remind one the Italian convict - the story is told by Macaulay. He was given the choice of the galleys or reading through Guicciardini; he chose Guicciardini but stuck fast in the wars of Pisa, thought better of it, and took to the oar.
The famous author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, has spoken of "the vast space which every ray of light has to traverse before it reaches the eye of the common understanding." But since the days of Edward Gibbon, many things have happened, and at the present day intelligibility is not considered by learned men as a sort of reflection on their intellectual status. It is no longer a reproach to be "popular." On the contrary, it is generally understood that the savant who is unable to make the abstruse moderately simple is not gifted with a very clear intellect, or is deficient in that literary ability which is so marked a characteristic of the leading latter-day writers on subjects of scientific, artistic, or of any other special character.
The extent to which the history of our own Craft has been critically and intelligibly dealt with by writers of the present generation, is a question on which, for obvious reasons, I should hesitate to pronounce any judgment at all. But wherever they have failed to bring down to the level of the ordinary mind the bearings of the latest discoveries, let us hope that what Proctor did for Astronomy, what Huxley and Wallace achieved for Natural History, what Tyndall accomplished for Physics in this country, and Helmholtz in Germany, may be done for Masonry by the organized labours of the Masonic Press.
- Source: The Builder - August 1921