SHORT TALK BULLETIN - Vol.IV November, 1926 No.11
"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
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
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 (the first Grand
Lodge was formed in 1717), 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
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
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.