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A ritual is a system of rites. “Rite,” like “right,” is very old; it has been traced to the if Sanskrit riti, meaning usage, which in turn was derived from ri, meaning flow, suggesting the regular current of river. In Latin this became ritus meaning in general a custom, more particularly a religious custom, or usage. In taking over this word the church applied it to the acts in solemn religious services which had to be performed according to strict rules. In Masonry the ritual is the prescribed set of ceremonies used for the purpose of initiation. It should be noted that a set of ceremonies does not become a ritual until it has been prescribed by some official authority.

- Source: 100 Words in Masonry

Articles On Ritual On This Page


From the beginning of Medieval (or Operative) Freemasonry and almost to the Renaissance, the Roman church enforced a rigid censorship over, and control of, the use of ceremonies, rituals, symbols, emblems, sculptures, images, and pictures, even, in most instances, when not used in the Church or for religious purposes. It was not only matters of theological doctrines and ecclesiastical rules that the General Councils decided or the Popes enforced; the Councils also decided those other things as well, and including the authoring, illustrating, and copying of manuscripts; and a man could be declared a heretic for using an un-permitted ceremony as easily as for believing an unorthodox doctrine.

Thus, to give one example, for centuries the orthodox Crucifix was carved or modeled or painted with the two feet of the figure held apart; this required four nails; some unknown artist, with a sense for form, made a crucifix with the feet crossed, and therefore used only three nails. For years a controversy raged between the three nails school and the four nails school. A German bishop, finding that one of his churches had received a costly three-nail crucifix, was so indignant that he formed a procession and carried the unorthodox image out into the country, dumped It into a hole, and forbade any man ever to look at it. Painters were instructed by written rules what costumes a saint should wear, its color, what other figures could be included in the picture, etc.

Each Masonic student who is piecing together the external and internal evidence in an endeavor to discover what the ceremony or ritual of the early Operative Freemasons must have been, finds it necessary to keep the above facts in mind, just as he must keep in mind the fact that the General Council at Avignon forbade secret societies. Either the ceremonies and symbols were orthodox, in which case it becomes difficult to know why they were kept in such secrecy; or they were not orthodox, which explains the secrecy. And yet an Apprentice, as we know from the Old Charges, swore to be obedient and loyal to Holy Church! If so, how could such a pledge be asked in the midst of a ceremony which had to be walled in by secrecy, the door protected by a guard with a sword? The facts appear to complicate the question with one paradox on top of another; we can be certain that the builders of the cathedrals were not heretical we can also be certain that they held their assemblies behind closed doors!

The most likely answer is that their ceremonies, symbols, and truths (and no Mason should ever hesitate to call them truths) were neither heretical nor orthodox, but of a character so unlike any other ceremonies and symbols that the words "heretical" and "orthodox" were irrelevant; and that the Freemasons, than whom there were in the Middle Ages no men more intelligent, sincere, or better educated, knew them to be irrelevant and therefore had no scruples about them, one way or another.

They had constantly before them in their work and in their minds a set of arts and sciences which also were irrelevant to theology; for geometry, engineering, chemistry, and the physics of a building are self-same the world over, and cannot be made to conform to any one theological system. They called their own art by the name of "geometry" oftener than by any other name; since so it is reasonable to believe that they included their Freemasonry in the same species as geometry, something outside the spheres of the Church; and that they kept it secret for many sound and righteous reasons, among them being the danger that an art so mysterious to outsiders might be misunderstood and thereby occasion trouble.

- Source: Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry


(The history of the Ritual is most interesting, and should be written in more detail, so far as that is possible and proper for publication. Steinbrenner has a brief chapter on The Ritual in his History of Masonry, and Dr. Mackey published a lecture on "The Lectures of Freemasonry," in the old Quarterly Review of Freemasonry. (Vol. II, p. 297). The following article giving a brief story of the Ritual, appeared first in the Masonic Monthly, of Boston, in 1863, and has been several times reprinted--once in the New England Craftsman (Vol. VII) and in the Bulletin of the Iowa Masonic Library, (Vol. XV). It is of unusual value not only for its compactness, but for its revelation of the growth of the Ritual--as much by subtraction as by addition--and especially as showing the introduction of Christian imagery and interpretation, first by Martin Clare in 1732, and by Dunckerly and Hutchinson later. One need only turn to "The Spirit of Masonry," by Hutchinson--deservedly one of the most popular Masonic books ever written--to see how far this tendency had gone when it was checked in 1813. At the time of the Union a committee made a careful comparative study of all rituals in use among Masons, and the ultimate result was the Preston-Webb lectures now generally in use in this country.--The Editor.)

Of the thousands upon thousands of candidates who annually pass through the ceremonies of the several degrees conferred in Masonic Lodges, but very few know anything of the history of the ritual of the order. This is especially to be regretted, for the reason that there is, among the members of the craft generally, a strong aversion to any change, however slight, in anything connected with the Ritual, for fear that some of these ancient way-marks may be infringed upon or obliterated.

This veneration for the ancient usages and customs is highly commendable, and care should ever be taken that it be not weakened, as the stability, universality, and usefulness of the Order are, to a very considerable extent, dependant upon it. Rude hands must not be allowed to tamper with our ceremonies, our language or our usages. But it is of the greatest importance that there should be an intelligent appreciation of what really are "ancient" usages, and what actually constitute "landmarks" of the Order, as it is these alone that should be carefully preserved, and from which we should never suffer the slightest deviation. In the minds of many, every word of the Ritual, as it has come to their individual ears, is invested with all the sanctity of a landmark, to deviate from which, even in the slightest degree, would be a fatal stab at the heart of the venerated institution, and shake the foundation of the very temple itself.

In order that this fidelity to obligations, and to convictions, may be intelligently directed, so far at least as what are technically called Lectures of the Lodge are concerned, the following brief history has been prepared for these columns. The uninformed brother may safely rely upon the truthfulness of the narrative:

Previous to the revival of Masonry, in 1717, and the organization of our present system of Grand Lodges, and Chartered Lodges, the secrets of the Order were undoubtedly communicated and the instructions and explanations given, to candidates, in such form of language as the presiding master or warden could command at the time. If he were a person gifted in language, and his mind well stored with the facts and lessons of scriptural Masonic history, his explanations would be full and interesting, and his instructions clear and explicit. If, on the other hand, the presiding officer were less fortunate in these respects, the traditions and moral instruction would be set forth in style and language corresponding, even to a meagre and barren explanation of the vital points. It is very probable, but not certain, that these explanations and instructions--or "lectures," as they were technically called--by long usage and frequent repetition, gradually assumed very nearly a set form of words, which form was transmitted orally from one generation to another.

Soon after the reorganization of the Order, in 1717, the Grand Lodge of England ordered the ancient constitution and charges of the Order to be compiled and printed, which was done by Dr. James Anderson, a distinguished scholar, and Freemason. This volume, known as "Anderson's Constitution," was published in 1723, and was the first printed book upon Freemasonry ever issued. (Since this article was written others have been found of earlier date.)

Simultaneously with the compilation of this book of constitutions, Dr. Anderson, assisted by Dr. Desaguliers, arranged the "lectures," for the first time, into the. form of question and answer. Dr. Oliver informs us that "the first lecture extended to the greatest length, but the replies were circumscribed within a very narrow compass. The second was shorter, and the third, called the Master's part, contained only seven questions and examinations." So favorably were these improved "lectures" received that the Grand Lodge of England (then the only Grand Lodge in existence, except the old Grand Lodge, or Assembly, at York, which soon afterwards expired) adopted the form, and ordered them to be given in all the Lodges. Thus was compiled and disseminated the first regular form, or system, of Masonic "lectures."

The progress of the Order, subsequent to the date above mentioned, was unprecedented in all its previous history, and in a few years the imperfections of Dr. Anderson's lectures loudly called for a revision. This was finally accomplished in 1732, by Martin Clare, an eminent Mason, and who was afterwards Deputy Grand Master. Clare's amendments consisted of but little more than the addition of a few moral and scriptural admonitions, and the insertion of a simple allusion to the human senses, and to the theological ladder.

A few years later, Thomas Dunckerly, an accomplished scholar, and who was considered the most intelligent Freemason of his day, considerably extended and improved the lectures. Among other things, he first gave to the theological ladder its three most important rounds.

According to Dr. Oliver, Dunckerly "added many types of Christ." This, be it remembered, was only one hundred years ago, and is an explicit statement of the addition of the first Christian allusions to be found in the ritual of Freemasonry.

The lectures of Dunckerly continued to be the standard in England until 1763, when Rev. William Hutchinson revised and improved them. Hutchinson boldly claimed the third degree to be exclusively Christian. He considered the three degrees to refer to the three great Dispensations, viz: The Patriarchal, the Mosaic, and the Christian. He even argued that the name "Mason" signifies or implies "a member of a religious sect, and a professed devotee of the Deity." He regarded the degrees as progressive steps, or schools in religion. He believed that the knowledge of the God of Nature formed the first estate of our profession; that the worship of the Deity, under the Jewish law, is described in the second stage of Freemasonry; and that "the Christian dispensation is distinguished in the last and highest order." In the lectures of Hutchinson are first introduced the three great pillars, Wisdom, Strength and Beauty, as supports of a lodge. He also appears to have introduced, for the first time, the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance and Justice. He also gave to the Star its Christian significance. In fine, he appears to have exerted his utmost in genuity to render the degrees emphatically Christian in their allusions and teachings.

Hutchinson's system continued in force but a few years. His lectures gave place, in 1772, to the revision of William Preston. The latter not only revised, but greatly extended, the lectures, and his system continued to be the standard in England until the "Union" of the two Grand Lodges of that Kingdom, in 1813, when a committee, of which Dr. Hemming was the chairman and leading mind, compiled the form now generally used in the English Lodges, and known as the Hemming Lectures.

During the unhappy division of the craft in England, between 1739 and 1813, differences had also crept into the lectures, and at the Union above mentioned, the committee endeavored to compile a system which, while it should be in conformity to the spirit of Freemasonry, and in harmony with the ancient landmarks, should be a sort of compromise between the forms in previous use by the two rival organizations.

The Hemming lectures differ widely from those of Preston, or from any others previously introduced. A few of these differences may properly be mentioned. English Lodges are now dedicated to Moses and Solomon, instead of to the two Sts. John, as before, and their Masonic festival falls on the Wednesday following St. George's Day, April 23--that Saint being the patron of England. The symbolical working tools of an E. A. are "a 24-inch rule, a gavel and a chisel." Those of a M.M. are "a pair of compasses, a skirret and a pencil." The ornaments of a M. M.'s Lodge are "a porch, a dormer, and a stone pavement." Instead of following the example of his predecessors, in introducing new Christian allusions, Dr. Hemming expunged several in use previously. The system, however, never met the cordial approval even of English brethren, and though "beautifully elaborate," contains so many incongruities and departures from the more simple lectures of Preston that it can never he recognized as a universal system. The verbal ritual of Preston was introduced into this country by two English brethren, -- who had been members of one of the principal lodges of Instruction in London, and was by them communicated to Thomas Smith Webb, an accomplished and distinguished Mason of New England. According to the testimony of Webb himself, he made but little change in the system of Preston. In the first edition of his Freemason's Monitor, published in 1797, he says:

"The observations on 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 the general practice." It appears plain that Webb followed Preston quite closely, and one who will take the trouble to compare, will find that Cross, and after him all the rest, have copied nearly verbatim from Webb, so that the exoteric portions of the ritual, as contained in our Monitors, Charts, Manuals and Trestle Boards, are but little more than reprints of Preston's Illustrations of Masonry. In 1801-02 Benjamin Gleason, an intelligent and zealous brother, then a student in Brown University, at Providence, Rhode Island, received the lectures of Preston--as modified by Webb--directly from Webb himself. Gleason by his zeal and other excellent qualities, became a great favorite of Webb, through whose influence he was induced to become a Masonic lecturer. July 2nd, 1804, Isaiah Thomas, then Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, commissioned Brother Gleason as Grand Lecturer to the lodges under his jurisdiction, the Grand Lodge having left the subject of uniformity of work to his discretion, as Grand Master. Early in the year 1806 the Grand Master of New Hampshire, Thomas Thompson, wrote to the Grand Master of Massachusetts, requesting that committees might be chosen by the two Grand Lodges, to meet and confer upon Masonic subjects, and especially upon the subject of a uniformity of work and lectures. The proposition was favorably received, and such a committee was appointed. Rev. George Richards (editor of Richards' Preston's Illustrations of Masonry), Lyman Spaulding (Grand Secretary) and John Harris represented New Hampshire; and Henry Fowle, Benjamin Gleason and Stephen Bean represented Massachusetts. The committee met at Newburyport in this state, and before rising adopted a report, signed by each member of the committee, from which we make the following extract: "The respective committees of Massachusetts and New Hampshire are also fully agreed, perfectly decided, and positively unanimous in their opinion, that the mode of work as exemplified by Brothers Gleason, Fowle and Bean, as practiced in Massachusetts, and adopted in New Hampshire, according to the acknowledgment of Brother Harris, Richards and Spaulding, is as correct as can possibly be expected under existing circumstances; and they deem it expedient that in the three degrees, every master of a Lodge should be indulged with the liberty of adopting historical details, and the personification of the passing scene, as most agreeable to himself, his supporting officers, and assisting Lodge."

The report was approved by the respective Grand Lodges, and the Preston-Webb ritual continued to be taught by Brother Gleason. This is the committee from whom Rev. Jeremy L. Cross--long and well known as a Masonic lecturer, and as the author of the Masonic Chart, and other works-- claimed to have received the work and lectures, and to have been formally commissioned as lecturer. He also affirms that he never afterwards changed a word or a letter of the ritual as it was communicated to him by them. There are, however, some differences between the lectures as taught by Cross, and as taught by Gleason, though they are principally such as may be called non-essential.

In 1810, the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts formally adopted the Preston-Webb ritual, and voted to employ Brother Gleason to communicate it to the Lodges under its jurisdiction. In the performance of this duty, he was employed most of the time for several years; and he continued to impart his instruction, at intervals, until his death, in 1847, visiting for that purpose various sections of the country.

-Source: The Builder - December 1915


By Bro. Louis H. Fead, P. G. M., Michigan

The ritualism of Masonry is truly a wonderful thing. Simple in its dignity and with no striving for dramatic effect, its power is so intense that, when even fairly rendered, levity is impossible and the initiate is consciously impressed with a serious grandeur. With such possibilities of histrionic expression that the great Booth pronounced the Third degree the greatest tragedy ever written, even the Master who mouths his words and misconceives his emphasis cannot entirely destroy its beauty. So distinctive is it in character that ten consecutive words from it cannot be used in the press, on the rostrum or in conversation without practically every Mason recognizing them; so quaint is its context that its antiquity is instantly impressed upon the hearer; so tuneful is its rhythm that it rivals the stately measure of poetry; so natural in its movements and so devoid of restraint that its force is felt at first subconsciously but the words often spoken always convey a new idea; and withal, so lofty in its principles and so true its precepts that it is not a wonder some men make Masonry their religion.

Yet the ritual is not all there is to Masonry. Underlying the ritual, there is a symbolism which attaches to each form and rite and ceremony a significance not before known. From the forgotten past of the Ancient Mysteries, it brings the magic of the dead art of symbolic teaching and transfigures the commonplace. It transforms the lodge room into a world and the candidate into an unborn child. It depicts the building of a perfect life. It portrays the child born into the world, burdened with the cabletow of inherited tendencies. With solemn ceremonies, he is purified and consecrated, the evils of his inheritance fall from him, the light of knowledge floods him, and he is invested with purity and innocence. To build the foundation and strong walls of the temple of his character, he is given the working tools of the Entered Apprentice and, as each rite is performed and each emblem passes before his vision, he learns to employ his time and to divest his mind and conscience of vice and the things that hurt.

Having builded the walls of his character, he is taught as a Fellowcraft, by the use of his physical senses and the contemplation of a mind enriched by a study of the liberal arts and sciences, to adorn the temple with the pillars of culture and mental strength. And finally, as a Master Mason, the symbols impress upon him the certainty of death and the resurrection that there may be within the house he has builded a living presence conscious of Immortality and that its various halls and corridors and chambers and apartments may be the home of an enlightened soul.

- Source: The Builder - December 1919


"We put too much emphasis on Ritual, and not enough on the higher things in Masonry!"

How often have we heard that said; how often some of us have said it! A statement which has the ring of authority often passes for fact. So accustomed are we to the voice of the boss, the law or the minister that we get out of the habit of questioning, "Is it True?" Yet it will be of use to us here to question closely and ascertain if too much emphasis "IS" put upon ritual.

It is easy enough to state what Ritual is - certain words arranged in a certain way, which have come down to us, so we say, from time "Immemorial" and by means of which we confer degrees, and impart Masonic teachings to novices, and incidentally, to the brethren who attend lodge. But when we ask "Why is Ritual?" the answer is not so easy.

We have before us constantly the example set by school, college, tutor and student; knowledge is knowledge whether given in a set form or otherwise. "Twice two is equal to four" is no more true than is "four is the product of two multiplied by two." We can say two time two, or twice two, two by two; and express exactly the same truth. We learn no words by rote, when we study history. The medical student learns geography of the body, but not the heart. Everywhere it is shown to us that real knowledge does not depend upon a certain form of words, and that it is the fact, not the word, which is the important thing.

Why, then. this insistence upon an exact memorization of the "Words" of the Ritual? Why do we lay so much stress upon the successful employment of a mighty memory? Why do we insist that those who confer degrees should spend painful hours in long and arduous study in order that certain sentences, often of an involved and old- fashioned construction, may be uttered in a certain way only, and only in a certain way for the instruction of candidates?

Yet there are several reason why Ritual is important.

Let us examine and see for ourselves that there really are explanations of the need for memorization.

One of the great appeals of Freemasonry, both to the profane and the initiate, is its antiquity. The Order can trace an unbroken history of more than two hundred years in its present form and has irrefutable documentary evidence of a much longer existence in simpler forms. There is very complete circumstantial evidence that Freemasonry is the legitimate and only heir to guilds, societies, organizations and systems of teaching which run so far back into the past that they are lost in the mists which shroud antiquity.

Our present Rituals - the plural is used advisedly, as no two jurisdictions are exactly at one with another on what is correct in Ritual - are source books from which we prove just where we came from, and, to some extent, just when. For instance, the penalties are so obviously taken from some of the early English Laws, that no sensible student can believe that they were invented or fist used, let us say, in the time of King Solomon.

If we alter our Ritual, either intentionally or by poor memorization, we gradually lose the many references concealed in our words and sentences, which tell the story of where we came and when. It is a beautiful thing to do as all have done who have gone this way before us. To say the same words, take the same obligations, repeat the same ceremonies that Washington underwent, gives us feeling of kinship with the Father of this country which no non-Mason may have, But this we must lose if we change our Ritual, little by little, altering it by poor work; forgetting or leaving words out.

Time is relative to the observer; what is very slow to the man may be very rapid to nature. Nature has all the time there is. To drop out a word here, put in a new one there, eliminate this sentence and add that one to our Ritual - a very few score of years - the old Ritual will be entirely altered and become something new.

We have a confirmation of this. Certain parts of the Ritual are printed. The expressions in these printed paragraphs are, practically and universally the same in most of our jurisdictions. Occasionally there is a variation, showing where some Committee on Work and Lectures has not been afraid to change the work of the Fathers. But, as a whole, the printed portion of our work is substantially what it was when it was first composed and phrased, probably by Preston and Dermott. But the "Secret Work," given between portions of the printed work, is very different in many of our jurisdictions. Some of these differences, of course, are accounted for by different original sources, yet even in two jurisdictions which had the same source of Freemasonry and originally had the same work, we found variations, showing that "Mouth To Ear" no matter how secret it may be, is not a wholly accurate way of transmitting words.

If then, in spite of us, alterations creep in by the slow process of time and human fallibility, how much faster will the Ritual change if we are careless, indifferent, or in open rebellion against established Masonic tradition? The further away we get from our original source, the more meticulously careful must trustworthy Masons be to pass on to posterity the work exactly as we received it. The Mason of olden time could go to his source for re-inspiration and re-instruction - we cannot.

Ritual is the thread which binds us to those who immediately preceded us, as their Ritual bound them to their fathers, our grandfathers. The Ritual we hand down to our sons, and their son's sons, will be their bond with us, and through us, with the historic dead. To alter that bond intentionally is to wrong those who come after us, even as we have been wronged where those who preceded us were care-less or inefficient in their memorization and rendition of the Ritual.

It is not for us to say "This Form of Words is Better Because They are Plainer," any more than it is for us to say that we can build a "Better" Temple than Solomon erected, or write a "Better" document than the Constitution of the United States.

"But we amend the Constitution!" some brother may argue. Aye, we amend it, but we do not alter it. We keep the old, just as it was written, and write our amendments separately, And we have been obliged to amend the Masonic procedure of our progenitors in many ways. Modern times require modern methods. But we can add to our procedure without changing our Ritual. Every Masonic Book on symbol- ism is an addition, but it is not a change. Every lecture delivered by a student of Masonry may open up a new vision, but it is not a change in the old. To amplify, explain, expound is but to give that "Good and Wholesome Instruction" which a Master is sworn to do, but all that may be done without in any way altering the fundamentals of our methods of teaching.

But there is a great and more important reason than any of these. Freemasonry is not a thing, but a system of thought. It is not something that may be bought or sold - it can only be won. We may not wrap up Freemasonry in a package and give to an initiate. All we can do is to lead him to the gate, beyond which lies the field which he may till, the mine in which he may dig, the treasure house from which he may help himself.

Our duty is to lead him so that the way is clear - to give him instructions in such a way that he cannot miss the path. This we do by our ceremonies, our Ritual. In our Ritual is contained the germ of all those philosophical and moral truths which Freemasonry teaches. In our Ritual is at least one explanation of our symbols. In the Ritual are the real secrets of Freemasonry made plain for those who have ears to hear.

If we memorize our Ritual badly, we put the emphasis on the way we say it, not on what we say. If we omit or interpolate, we change the instructions which generations of Masons have found to be effective. If we do not pass on to others what we have received, just as we have received it we handicap those who profess to teach, and thus can have no right to complain if they do not become good Masons, but merely lodge members.

A candidate comes among us, knowing nothing of the Fraternity beyond the fact that it is an association of men in an Order which has had the approbation of leaders of men for hundreds of years. Upon the impression we make upon him when he takes his degrees will depend not only the kind of Mason he becomes, but in some respects, the judgment the world will make of Masonry, since it can only judge of the institution from the individual.

The impression make upon him will depend very largely on the character of the work we do - the care and attention we have given to its preparation - the ease with which the dear old words come from our hearts and lips.

Any one, with time and attention, can memorize Ritual.

But it is not enough merely to know it and deliver it so it sounds, as something learned by rote, parrot like, unimpressive. We may not speak as an orator speaks; we may not have his personality and the impressiveness of the actor, but we all can, if we only will, attain the perfec-tion of letter-knowledge; we can learn our Ritual so that it becomes a part of us, and give it forth with ease and clarity, if not with fire and force. The vast majority of Ritualists are but indifferent elocutionists; Freemasonry neither expects nor extracts a very high standard of delivery from us, her servants. But to make up for that which nature has denied us, we owe to Freemasonry that willingness to study, that care in preparation, that interest in perfection which alone will enable us to pass on to these who are to be our Brothers, her teachings, her instructions, the Holy fire concealed in her old, old words.

Be not discourage then, if Ritual "Comes Hard." Fail not in the task, nor question that it is worth while, for on what we do, and on the way in which we do it depends in a large measure the Freemasonry of the future. As we do well or ill, so will those who come after us do ill or well.

- Source: Short Talk Bulletin - Nov. 1926
Masonic Service Association of North America

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