The Word In Masonic Ritual

The Beehive is proud to present once again a paper that comes from the weekly Masonic Newsletter of Brother Wayne Anderson of Canada. Anderson sends out a new article each Sunday and to get on the mailing list all one needs to do is to E-Mail him at

This article, about Masonic Ritual and the Masons word, may punch some holes in the conceptions you have of the origins of Masonic ceremony. It may destroy some myths, such as…. and also…..and then there is…. Oh, I can’t tell you that part of the rituals of Masonry. That would be like giving up the ending of a murder mystery. You will just have to read Anderson’s take on the ritual for yourself

The Word In Masonic Ritual

by Edward M. Selby, M.P.S.

Wood-Inlaid-Masonic-Table2-300x178We have an area in Masonic inquiry that deserves more study and a re-evaluation. In spite of evidence to the contrary an opinion still persists there was no Speculative Masonry, as we now think of it, prior to the organization of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717, notwithstanding facts, abundantly proven, that non-operative Masons were working in Britain at least one hundred years before that date. Beginning with the Acception in 1620 numerous records occur of meetings and of the making of Masons all during the Seventeenth Century. Many clues as to the manner of working and scraps of old rituals are preserved which show how lodges worked, perhaps as early as fifty years before 1717. These rituals differ in many details but, nonetheless, they have many characteristic things which are common to all.

For years the accepted thesis was that the Mother Grand Lodge was the first to devise lodge ceremonies into three degrees. It was following this, it was said that numerous inventive and innovative agencies and persons built on this base multitudinous degrees and rites. To an extent this is true but good evidence proves lodge workings had been divided into at least two and possibly three grades several years before Drs. Anderson and Desaguliers wrote their Constitution and ritual about the year 1723. Furthermore, an examination of this evidence reveals several things, later employed in the so-called “advanced degrees,” was known and utilized in earlier forms of lodge initiation. This is more understandable if one accepts the fact that the London Grand Lodge, in 1717, was simply an association of four lodges which were then meeting in London and Westminster, and that these lodges only did what many other groups of Masons had already done before them all over Britain. They prepared for their own use a set of Constitutions and a method of initiatory working which was consistent with the views and purposes of their own membership.

Book of Zechariah, Gustave Doré, bibleAbout sixty years ago an English scholar, J.E.S. Tuckett, presented a theory that pre-Grand Lodge Masonry consisted of a deep well of Masonic lore, only a part of which later found its way into the Grand Lodge ritual; and that from this well was taken many things that later appeared in the so-called “high degrees.” His ideas met with little acceptance at the time they were offered. Masonic documents have since appeared which add weight to his thesis. For example, the Graham Mss., undiscovered until 1936, tells a well known story about the payment of Craft wages which later appeared in the Mark Degree. The Dumfries Mss. No. 4 gave much attention to the furniture of KS Temple, suggesting ideas in our present degree of Most Excellent Master. In it also appears that famous phrase from the Book of Zechariah, “Holiness to the Lord.” The Dumfries Mss. is dated c. 1710 while the Graham Mss. is dated 1726 although the language is more consistent with English usage some fifty years before.

During the Eighteenth Century there was a marked difference in opinion as to what constituted ancient Masonry. This was the basis of a dispute between two rival groups of Masons in which the “Ancients” accused the “Moderns” of being ignorant of many things they deemed essential in the old ceremonies. An outstanding example of this is the Royal Arch Degree which the “Ancients” insisted to be a part of their Lodge ritual whereas the “Moderns” branded it as an innovation.

Best evidence leads us to believe that Speculative Masonry, as it evolved during the Seventeenth Century, was a product on one hand of the Old English Constitutions and of ritualistic practices employed in Scottish operative lodges on the other. The merger of these two systems seems to have emerged sometime after the union of the crowns of the two countries in 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England. In this way relations between the two nations became much closer than they had been during three hundred years of previous hostility.

Scottish Masonry has contributed much to our present ritual. One item in particular dealt with an apprentice who, when he had completed his indenture, was taken by his master and “entered” on the rolls of the lodge. He was not immediately “accepted” as a Fellowcraft because, having satisfied his master, it was then mandatory that he also satisfy the body of the Craft. When that had been done, following a period of trial and probation, he was invested with “the Mason Word” and recognized as a Fellow. He could then travel in foreign countries and there work and receive Master’s wages. There is good reason to believe this investiture was also accompanied by a ceremony which was similar in substance to the Hiramic Legend of the present Third Degree.

In this there seems to have been some confusion in the use of the term “Master.” In one instance it referred to a Fellow who had mastered the skills of the operative craft. In another, it meant actual Masters who had presided over a lodge and those whose skill was such they could design and supervise the erection of buildings. These were a privileged class who jealously guarded their preeminence. There was then two Words, one for each class of Masons. In this, some believe, can be found the early roots of the Royal Arch Degree which did not emerge as a separate identity until about 1725.

The story of the Mason Word is told by Douglas Knoop and his associates in their scholarly works on Masonic antiquity, particularly their Early Masonic Catechisms. Collectively these catechisms and constitutions, as many of them actually are, presents a picture of what British Masonry was like during the years which preceded the Mother Grand Lodge in 1717, and for many years thereafter until its system was finally accepted and it became the dominant body of the fraternity. It should, however, be kept in mind that there was a period of transition which lasted until 1813 during which there continued many varied forms of ritual. And that during that period there was developed most of the so-called “higher degrees.”

What was the Mason Word or Words? It is spelled out in so many different versions they can only be explained as either deliberate attempts to deceive the profane reader, or as corruptions by ignorant Masons. An early example appears in the Sloane Mss. of about 1700 which gives it as MAHABYN. In the Trinity College Mss. of 1711 in Dublin it is MATCHPIN. In the same document is another word JACHQUIN. In 1723 this poem appeared in one of the public prints –

“An enter’d Mason I have been
Boaz and Jachin I have seen
A Fellow I was sworn most rare
And know the Astler, Diamond, and Square,
I know the Master’s Part full well
As Honest MAUGHBIN will you tell.”

to this is given a reply:

“If a Master Mason you would be Observe you well the Rule of Three
And what you want in Masonry
Thy MARK and MAUGHBIN makes you free.”

In 1725 was printed a broadsheet titled “The Whole Institution of Free Masons Opened – “Two words are given in it, MAGBOE and BOE, which were said to mean “Marrow in the Bone.” A year later the Graham Mss. told a story about Noah and his three sons in which MARROW was associated with close fellowship, marrow then being a word of common usage to describe a close fellow or companion. Again, in “The Whole Institution of Free-Masons Opened”, appeared this cryptic paragraph:

Yet for all this I want the primitive Word, I answer it was God in six terminations, to wit, I Am, and Jehovah is the answer to it, and grip at the rain of the Back, or else Excellent and Excellent, Excellency is the answer to it, and Grip as aforesaid, or else TAPUS MAGISTER, and MAGISTER TAPUS is the answer to it, and Grip as aforesaid, for proof read the first of St. John.

What all this meant is left to the reader’s imagination, but throughout are suggestions of several things familiar to present-day Masons.

In the Old Constitutions much was made of two pillars erected by the children of Lamech before the Flood. Sometime during the Seventeenth Century these pillars were gradually replaced in Masonic thought by the B&J of KS Temple. Here we see a Temple Legend slowly superseding the Old Legend of the Craft, as Dr. Mackey was fond of referring to it. The use of the words B&J is not clear. It is certain they were given to a new Mason at the time of his initiation. At one time they were both given to an Entered Apprentice. On other occasions one was given separately to EA and to a FC. This becomes, confusing when we examine an expose published in 1730 by Samuel Pritchard, an apostate mason. In his “Masonry Dissected,” he described work then in use during the third decade of the Eighteenth Century. In it J&B are the words of the Entered Apprentice Degree. The significant word of a Fellowcraft was associated with the letter G. while the word of a Master Mason was MACHBENAH.

That Pritchard knew more than he should have told is evident. What is not clear is how accurate he revealed work which generally prevailed during the 1720s. It is possible he belonged to one of the branches of Stuart Masonry which had subverted the ritual of Freemasonry for political purposes, since the word MACHBENAH is translated “The Builder is Stricken,” and in Gaelic it means “Blessed Son.” All this could have had a reference to James II, son of Charles I and of his widow Henrietta Maria.

Bernard E. Jones states the present version of Lodge Ritual did not appear until sometime after 1730. Before that date he says many versions of ritual existed and that they varied greatly among lodges, which is demonstrated in the Old Catechisms. In the Dumfries Mss., a thoroughly Christian document, the word is given as INRI. Also we find this:

…Christ shall wryt upon these pillars better names than Jachin and Boaz for first he shall wryt upon ym ye name of his god ….

What was the Mason Word in its earliest form? A suggestion is found in a story told some ninety years ago about an old manuscript that was read by a non-Masonic scholar in one of the British libraries. It was a Fourteenth Century work and contained a Hebrew acrostic MACH which he interpreted as “we have found our master Hiram.” Unfortunately this meant nothing to the reader until several years later he happened to refer to it in a conversation with a Masonic friend. A search was made but the manuscript could not be located. This calls to mind a speculation found in Mackey’s Encyclopedia. He calls attention to two Hebrew words MAHA and BONAY which can be put together to form a question, “What, is this Builder?”

Considering what we know about the origins of Masonic ritual we offer these conclusions –

Our present ritual has roots in many diverse methods of Masonic working which were practiced during the Seventeenth Century and which continued to be used for some time after 1730.

Slowly the ritual centered itself, more and more, around a Word and all that it came to mean. As early as 1725 one of the news prints poked fun at a certain Doctor who had recently received a Fifth Order of Masonry and with it a mysterious hocus-pocus word that was said to possess great powers.

That sometime between 1725-1740 the Royal Arch Degree appeared as the culmination of a slowly developing philosophy. This had its origin in old Craft practices and utilized much material taken from ritual ceremonies in old lodges. Out of all this resulted a final definition of Ancient Craft Masonry which was given at the Union of the two rival Grand Lodges in 1813.

Pure Ancient Masonry consists of:

three degrees and no more, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch.

From whence came the idea of an arch in Masonry. One reference appears in the Old Catechisms (A Mason’s Examination) which likens the arch to the Rainbow. That same year (1723) Dr. Anderson mentioned it in the same manner in his Constitutions. Notice is taken here of two verses from the beginning of St. John’s Gospel which had much use, during the Eighteenth Century, on Masonic membership certificates.

In the beginning was the Word ….. . . and the Darkness comprehended it not.

Here we see in use that essential part of Lodge working, the principle of Darkness and Light. This has caused some to speculate on a coincidence that the Greek word for “Beginning” is apxn. In its English form it is written ARCHE, and pronounced Ah-r-he.

Whether any of this has merit the fact remains that in the Arch of Promise, as God described it to Noah, is the ne-Plus-ultra, the ultimate of everything which is in Masonic philosophy.

Speculative Masonry is not something, like the Goddess Athene, who sprang fully armed from the brow of Jove. Historically its progress can be traced over a period of three centuries between the years 1400-1700. No one can be certain about all its details but the cumulative result came about because of the efforts of many imaginative innovators who developed from the simple forms of old English and Scottish Masonry that great system of morality which we call today Freemasonry.

From a primitive period in the Seventeenth Century we visualize a time when lodges of Masons had their own concept of this growing system, each with a character all its own, but notwithstanding this, all built around a common core of ideals and principles which bound them together. From this rich well of Masonic experience and experimentation was finally formed the three primary grades of the lodge on which was added other explanatory and enlightening ceremonies or degrees when the initial three were felt to be inadequate to express all that was in their common heritage of the past.

What is noteworthy about all this is that the Word, and what it came to mean, either in the Holy Royal Arch, in the Grades of Perfection of what we now call the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, and in possibly other variants of Masonic instruction employing the same principle, is found what Lawrence Dermott called – “The root, the heart, and the marrow” of everything worthwhile in Speculative Masonry.

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Fred is a Past Master of Plymouth Lodge, Plymouth Massachusetts, and Past Master of Paul Revere Lodge, Brockton, Massachusetts. Presently, he is a member of Pride of Mt. Pisgah No. 135, Prince Hall Texas, where is he is also a Prince Hall Knight Templar . Fred is a Fellow of the Phylaxis Society and Executive Director of the Phoenix Masonry website and museum.

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