Among the many fascinating angles of the Ancient Craft are the
numerous facts yet to be discovered.
Masonic history discloses greater and greater gaps as we go back
into the far past. The Ancient mine of Masonic symbolism stills
yields the gold of truth to him who knows how to delve, but many and
various are the Masonic customs, words, rituals and ideas for which
we have as yet no complete explanation.
Among these is the dedication of the Lodges to the Holy Sts. John.
No satisfactory explanation has yet been advanced to explain why
operative masons adopted these two Christian saints, when St. Thomas,
the very Patron of architecture and building, was available as patron
of our Order.
Most Freemasons who give the matter thought are well agreed that the
choice of our Ancient Brethren was wise. No two great teachers,
preachers, wise men, saints, could have been found who better shadow
forth from their lives and works the doctrine and teachings of
Freemasonry. But to be happy that the Holy Sts. John, in character
and attainments, are typical of all that is best in Freemasonry, is
not to know how and why the Fraternity came to select them.
Where the great students and researchers of the Masonic world have
failed, he must be fool indeed who would rush in to explain. Yet
there is an explanation somewhere, if we can but find it.
St. John the Evangelist apparently came into our Fraternal system
somewhere towards the close of the sixteenth century, at least, we
find the earliest authentic Lodge Minute reference to St. John the
Evangelist in Edinborough in 1599, although earlier mentions are made
in connection with what may be called relatives, if not ancestors, of
our Craft. For instance, “The Fraternity of St. John” existed in
Cologne in 1430.
“St. John’s Masonry” is a distinctive term for Scotch Lodges, many of
the older of which took the name of the Saint. Thus in its early
records the Lodge of Scoon and Perth is often called the Lodge of St.
John, and the Lodge possesses to this day a beautiful mural painting
of the Saint on the east wall of the Lodge Room.
Other Lodges denominated “St. John’s Lodges” were some of those
unaffiliated with either the “Moderns” or the “Ancients” in the
period between the schism of the Mother Grand Lodge (1751) and the
In many old histories of the Craft is a quaint legend that St. John
the evangelist became a “Grand Master” at the age of ninety. It
seems to have its origin in a book printed in 1789, in which one
Richard Linnecar of Wakefield write certain “strictures on
Freemasonry,” although his paper is really a Eulogy. Whether this
Ancient Freemason really continued a tradition, or invented the tale
that was seized upon by Oliver and kept alive as a legend, impossible
though it is, no man may say as yet.
One Grand Lodge has ruled that Sts. John’ Days are Landmarks! Of
course any Grand Lodge may make its own laws, but it is beyond the
power of any Grand Lodge either to make a Landmark by pronouncement,
or to make a Landmark by denying it. Inasmuch as Landmarks, whatever
else they may be, are universally admitted to be handed down to us
from “time immemorial,” and Sts. Johns’ Days as Masonic festivals are
neither extremely old nor universal among the Craft (England using
Wednesday after St. George’s Day, Scotland St. Andrew’s Day and
Ireland St. Patrick’s Day), we must consider only this Grand Lodge’s
intent to honor our patron saints, and the validity of her results.
Historians believe that only after 1717 when the Mother Grand Lodge
was formed, did Freemasonry generally hold festival meetings on
either or both, June 24th and December 27th.
Perhaps the real explanation of Freemasonry’s connection with the
Sts. John is not to be found in the history of the Craft but in the
history of religions. For the festival days of the two Sts. John are
far older than Christianity; as old as the ancient systems of worship
of fire and sun.
It is here too, that we find the beauty and the glory of the reverent
practice of dedicating Lodges, erected to God, to the Holy Sts. John.
Travel backwards in imagination to an unknown date when the world of
men was young; when knowledge did not exist and the primal urges of
all humanity were divided between the satisfaction of bodily needs -
hunger, thirst, warmth, light - and the instincts of self-
preservation, mating, and the love of children. The men of that far
off age found everything in nature a wonder. They understood not why
the wind blew, what made the rain, from whence came lightning,
thunder, cold and warmth; why the sun climbed the heavens in the
morning and disappeared at night, or what the stars might be. As is
natural for all primitive people, they tried to explain all mysteries
in terms of their daily lives. When angry, their emotions resulted
in loud shouts and a desire to kill. What more natural than to think
that thunder and lightning the anger of the Unknown who held their
lives and well being in His hands? Stronger than his enemy, ancient
man bundled him out of his cave into the open, where he froze or
starved or was eaten by the beasts. What more natural than to think
the wind, the rain, the cold, a manifestation of an Unseen Presence
which was angered at them?
The greatest manifestation of nature known to these ancient ancestors
of ours was the sun. It never failed. It was always present during
the day, and it near kin, fire, warmed and comforted them at night.
Under its gentle rays crops grew and rivers rose. The sun kept away
the wild beasts by his light. The sun made their lives possible.
Sun worship and fire worship were as natural for men just struggling
into understanding as the breath they drew to live.
Earliest among the facts recognized about the sun must have been its
slow travel from north to south and back again as the seasons waxed
and waned. And so Midsummer s day, the longest day, became a
festival; it was the harbinger of harvest, the very birthday of new
life. Its opposite was equally inevitable; the winter solstice was
significant of the end of the slow decline of the sun, the beginning
of a new time of warmth and crop and happiness.
Through the countless years, in a thousand religions, cults,
mysteries, in a hundred climes and lands, priests and people
celebrated the solstices. We know it not only from history and the
records of ancient peoples, often cut upon stone but from myths and
legends; the story of Ceres and her search for her daughter
Propsperpine, and the allegory of Isis, Osiris and Horus.
Ancient custom is taken from a people with difficulty.
In the height of our civilization today we retain thousands of
customs the origin of which is lost to most of us. We speak glibly
of Yuletide at Christmas, without thinking of an ancient Scandinavian
God, Juul. The small boy avers truth “By Golly!” Not knowing that
he offers his hand (gol) if he speaks not the truth. Those who think
it “bad luck” to break a mirror but continue a savage belief that a
stone thrown in water which mirrors the face of an enemy will break
his heart even as the reflection is broken.
If such ideas persist to this day, imagine how strenuously a people
would resist giving up a holiday celebration which their fathers’ and
their fathers’ before them had kept for untold ages.
So it was when Christianity came to the world. Feasts and festival
days of a hoary antiquity were not lightly to be given up, even by
those who put their faith upon a cross. It was of no use for the
early Church to ban a pagan festival. Old habit was too strong, old
ideas too powerful. Hence clever and thoughtful men in the early
days of Christianity turned the pagan festivals to Christian usage,
and the olden celebrations of summer and winter solstices became the
Sts. John’ Days of the Middle Ages.
As the slow years past, those who celebrated thought less and less of
what the days really commemorated, and became more and more convinced
of their new character. Today, hardly a Freemason gives a thought to
the origin of St. John’s Day in Winter, or knows his celebration of
St. John’s Day in Midsummer preserves a touch with cave men
Fairbank’s “Greek Religion” indicates that this transfer of meaning
of festival days from a pagan implication to a Christian significance
was not confined to the Sts. John. He writes:
“That in Greece itself ancient rites should persist under the cover
of the new religion, and that the ancient deities or heroes should
reappear as Christian Saints, is hardly surprising to one who
considers the summary method by which Christianity became the
established religion. It was not so difficult to make the Parthenon
a Christian Church when the virgin goddess of wisdom was supplanted
by a St. Sophia (Wisdom), then by the Virgin Mary. Similarly,
Apollo was more than once supplanted by St. George, Poseidon by St.
Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, Asculapius by St. Michael and
St. Damian, and in Grottos where Nymphs had been worshipped, female
saints received similar worship from the same people.”
It was a common custom in the Middle Ages for craftsmen of all kinds
top place themselves under the protection of some saint of the
church. Our greatest historian, Gould, puts this in a paragraph,
“None of the London trades appear to have formed fraternities without
ranging themselves under the banner of some saint, and if possible
they chose one who bore a fancied relation to their trade. Thus the
fishmongers adopted St. Peter; the drapers chose the Virgin Mary,
mother of the ‘Holy Lamb’ or ‘Fleece’ as an emblem of that trade.
The goldsmiths’ patron was St. Dunstan, represented to have been a
brother artisan. The merchant tailors, another branch of the draping
business, marked their connection with it by selecting St. John the
Baptist, who was the harbinger of the ‘Holy Lamb’ so adopted by the
drapers . . Eleven or more of the guilds . . . had John the Baptist
as their patron saint, and several of them, while keeping June 24th
as their head day, also met in December 27th, the corresponding feast
of the Evangelist.”
To say with certainty why Freemasons adopted the two Sts. John, and
continue to celebrate days as principal feast which were once of a
far different significance than was given them by the early fathers
of the church - Gregory, Thaumaturgus, St. Augustine, Gregory the
Great - is not in the power of any historian or student as yet.
Further light must be had. But the fitness of these two in our
system is obvious if we consider the spiritual suggestion of their
St. John the Baptist was a stern and just man; intolerant of sham, of
pretense, of weakness; a man of strength and fire, uncompromising
with evil or expediency, and yet withal courageous, humble, sincere,
magnanimous. A character at once heroic and of nobility, of him the
Greatest of Teachers said: “Among them that are born of woman, there
hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist.”
Of St. John the Evangelist, the disciple whom Jesus loved, a thousand
books have been written, and student has vied with minister, teacher
with historian, to find words fitly to describe the character of the
gentle writer of the Fourth Gospel. No attempt at rivalry will here
be made; suffice it that St. John the Evangelist is recognized the
world over as the apostle of love and light, the bringer of comfort
to the grief-ridden, of courage to the weak, of help to the helpless
and of strength to the falling.
It is not for us to evaluate the character of either saint in terms
of the other; it is for us to agree only that Freemasonry is wise in
a gentle wisdom which passeth that in books when she takes for her
own both the saint who fore-told the coming of the saint who taught
the law of the Son of Man who walked by Galilee.
Consider thus, from being an historical and fraternal puzzle, the
Sts. John and their connection with Freemasonry becomes as plain as
the light which was the central fact of the old religion which the
solstitial days commemorated. And it at once makes plain that part
of our ritual which so puzzles the initiate; the question “From
Whence Come You?” and the answer “From the Lodge of the Holy Sts.
John of Jerusalem.”
Many have phrased the simple explanation of the inner meaning of this
passage; none with more beauty and clarity than Brother Joseph Fort
Newton, he of the golden pen and the voice of music:
“The allusion has nothing to do with the Order of St. John of
Jerusalem. To our thought - which we give for what it is worth - its
meaning is mystical, in somewhat the following manner: The legends
of the Craft associate the two Saints John with its fellowship, as
Masters , if not Grand Masters; the one a prophet of righteousness,
the other an evangelist of love - the basic principles and purposes
“Of course, there is no historical evidence that either of the two
Saints of the church were ever members of the Craft. But they were
adopted as its patron Saints, after the manner of former times - a
good manner it is, too - and they have remained so in Christian
lands. Lodges are dedicated to them, instead of to King Solomon, as
“So, naturally, there came the idea, or ideal, of a sacred Lodge in
the Holy City presided over by the Saints John. No such Lodge ever
existed in fact, and yet it is not a fiction - it is an ideal, and
without such ideals our life would be dim and drab. The thought back
of the question and answer, then, is that we come from an ideal or
Dream Lodge into this actual work-a-day world, where our ideals are
to be tested.
“Our journey is ever towards the East, back towards the ideal, which
seems lost in the hard, real world round about us. Still, we must
plod on, following what we have seen, ever trying to find the ideal
in the real, or to bring the ideal to the interruption of the real;
which is the whole secret and quest of human life. He is wise, and
must be accounted brave, who keeps his memory or vision of the Lodge
on the Holy Sts. John at Jerusalem.”
In a few words and short; we do not know just when, or just how,
Freemasonry adopted the Sts. John. Their days are the Christian
adaptation of pagan festivals of a time when man, knowing no better,
worshipped the sun as the supreme God. So when we celebrate out
festival days on June 24th and December 27th, we walk eye to eye and
step by step with our ancient ancestors, worshipping as they
worshipped, giving thanks as they did; they to the only God they knew
for the glory of summer, the beginning of the period when days
lengthened - we to the G.A.O.T.U. that our gentle Craft took for its
own the austere but loving characters of two among the greatest of
the saintly men who have taught of the Father of all mankind.