The Masonic Tradition

The Specifically American Features of Rituals and Institutions

The lodges of the first three American symbolic grades, created by different European grand lodges, also inherited Masonic rituals that these grand lodges bequeathed them. This explains why the provincial grand lodges before the American Revolution each had their own practices. After the revolution, the grand lodges even witnessed the emergence of a vast variety of rituals that had a tendency to develop in a certain state of anarchy, shaped as much by personal preferences as by the fantasies of the venerable masters. This erratic situation corresponded fairly well with the spirit of the times, with each lodge exhibiting a desire to emphasize its own identity, which was on a par with that of the civil authorities, with the lodges jealously safeguarding their autonomy against the emerging and already contested federal power.

There was a clear attempt at the Congress of Baltimore in 1843 to apply uniform standards to the rituals and restore things to order. This attempt was aborted, and a very American formulation of compromise was imposed. It was agreed that each grand lodge would define a uniform, standard ritual for its geographical area. As a minimalist arrangement this solution at least had the advantage of preserving the latitude of the grand lodges, while putting an end to that of the venerable masters, who previously had the possibility of choosing or even creating their own variations.

After the Morgan Affair, American Freemasonry experienced a new burst of popularity. This was also a period of reworking the institution. A number of American ritualists implemented works at this time that still set the rules today. It was also during this time that the first major American Masonic library, the Iowa Masonic Library and Museum, was created in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Albert Pike, a lawyer, former Confederate general, writer, philosopher, and scholarly researcher, was one of the most remarkable authors of fundamental Masonic works. (See color plate 5 for an image of Pike.) In fact, at the request of Albert Mackey, he took part (from 1855–1861) in the handwritten revision of the rituals with a notable meticulousness. In 1859, he was elected grand commander of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of the Southern Jurisdiction and would hold this position for the remainder of his life—some thirty-two years. His most renowned esoteric and initiatory book is Morals and Dogma, published in 1871. The purpose of this work was to explain the symbolism of the thirty-two first degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite.

Pike’s extensive knowledge of several living and ancient languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic, and his open-minded approach to the world made him an exceptional figure. However, as he was a figure of contrasts who had been on the side of the Confederates, who were born from the secession of the Southern states from the Union, it is necessary to qualify his humanism by placing it within the American segregationist context of his time; it would be an insult to history to depict him as a paragon of democratic virtue from the perspective of European parameters of evaluation, especially contemporary ones. Nor did he confine his activities to writing books on the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; he also made notable contributions to its universal and enduring establishment as the most practiced Masonic rite in the world that suffered no interruptions.

A work like this cannot, of course, be the fruit of one lone Freemason’s labors. The establishment of encyclopedic knowledge involves inventorying, analysis, and confirmation that require a wide variety of thinkers and writers. Pike had been preceded and surrounded by other renowned ritualists, such as Thomas Smith Webb, Theodore Sutton Pavin, Josiah Drummond, John Dove, John Snow, Jeremy Cross, John Barney, Charles W. Moore, Albert Mackey, and, most importantly, Moses H. Hayes, a major figure of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. Even though some of them are not so well known, each in his field and often conjointly played an essential role in the creation and establishment of a Masonic framework bearing a specifically American seal. This framework consisted of five rites: Royal Arch, Councils, Commanderies, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, and, of course, the committee system of the grand lodges, the uniform standard ritual of the first three degrees.

Today, the American symbolic lodges, thus those working with the grades of entered apprentice, fellow craft, and master Mason, are essentially heirs of the ancient York Rite and most frequently follow the American York Rite. This rite, which is derived from Royal Arch Masonry and the Templar Masonry that draws from the springs of a mythology created out of whole cloth, refers to the Templar order and its twenty-third and final grand master, Jacques de Molay. New elements were added to it in 1871—the royal and select masters.

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