The story of the broken column was first illustrated by Amos
Doolittle in the "true Masonic Chart" by Jeremy Cross, published in 1819.
Many of Freemasonry's symbols are of extreme antiquity and deserve the reverence which we
give to that which has had sufficient vitality to live long in the minds of men. For
instance, the square, the point within a circle, the apron, circumambulation, the Altar
have been used not only in Freemasonry but in systems of ethics, philosophy and religions
Other symbols in the Masonic system are more recent. Perhaps they are not the less
important for that, even without the sanctity of age which surrounds many others.
Among the newer symbols is that usually referred to as the broken column. A marble
monument is respectedly ancient-the broken column seems a more recent addition.
There seems to be no doubt that the first pictured broken column appeared in Jeremy
Cross's True Masonic Chart, published in 1819, and that the illustration was the work of
Amos Doolittle, an engraver, of Connecticut.
That Jeremy Cross "invented" or "designed" the emblem is open to
argument. But there is legitimate room for argument over many inventions. Who invented
printing from movable type? We give the credit to Gutenberg, but there are other
claimants, among them the Chinese at an earlier date. Who invented the airplane? The
Wrights first flew a "mechanical bird" but a thousand inventors have added to,
altered, changed their original design, until the very principle which first enabled the
Wrights to fly, the "warping wing", is now discarded and never used.
Therefore, if authorities argue and contend about the marble monument and broken column it
is not to make objection or take credit from Jeremy Cross; the thought is that almost any
invention or discovery is improved, changed, added to and perfected by many men. Edison is
credited with the first incandescent lamp, but there is small kinship between his carbon
filament and a modern tungsten filament bulb. Roentgen was first to bring the
"x-ray" to public notice-the discoverer would not know what a modern physician's
x-ray apparatus was if he saw it!
In the library of the Grand Lodge of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, is a book published in 1784;
"A BRIEF HISTORY OF FREEMASONRY" by Thomas Johnson, at that time the Tiler of
the Grand Lodge of England (the "Moderns"). In this book the author states that
he was "taken the liberty to introduce a Design for a Monument in Honor of a Great
Artist." He then admits that there is no historical account of any such memorial but
cites many precedents of "sumptuous Piles" which perpetuate the memories and
preserve the merits of the historic dead, although such may have been buried in lands far
from the monument or "perhaps in the depth of the Sea".
In this somewhat fanciful and poetic description of this monument, the author mentions an
urn, a laurel branch, a sun, a moon, a Bible, square and compasses, letter G.
The book was first published in 1782, which seems proof that there was at that time at
least the idea of a monument erected to the Master Builder.
There is little historical material upon which to draw to form any accurate conclusions.
Men write of what has happened long after the happenings. Even when faithful to their
memories, these may be, and often are, inaccurate. It is with this thought in mind that a
curious statement in the Masonic ewspaper, published in New York seventy-five years ago,
must be considered. In the issue of May 10, 1879, a Robert B. Folger purports to give
Cross' account of his invention, or discovery, an inclusion, of the broken column into the
marble monument emblem.
The account is long, rambling and at times not too clear. Abstracted, the salient parts
are as follows.
Cross found or sensed what he considered a deficiency in the Third Degree which had to be
filled in order to effect his purposes. He consulted a former Mayor of New Haven, who at
the time was one of his most intimate friends. Even after working together for a week,
they did not hit upon any symbol which would be sufficiently simple and yet answer the
purpose. Then a Copper-plate engraver, also a brother, was called in. The number of
hieroglyphics which had be this time accumulated was immense. Some were too large, some
too small, some too complicated, requiring too much explanation and many were not adapted
to the subject. Finally, the copper-plate engraver said, "Brother Cross, when great
men die, they generally have a monument."
"That's right!" cried Cross; "I never thought of that!"
He visited the burying-ground in New Haven. At last he got an idea and told his friends
that he had the foundation of what he wanted. He said that while in New York City he had
seen a monument in the southwest corner of Trinity Churchyard erected over Commodore
Lawrence, a great man who fell in battle. It was a large marble pillar, broken off. The
broken part had been taken away, but the capital was lying at the base. He wanted that
pillar for the foundation of his new emblem, but intended to bring in the other part,
leaving it resting against the base. This his friends assented to, but more was wanted.
They felt that some inscription should be on the column. after a length discussion they
decided upon an open book to be placed upon the broken pillar. There should of course be
some reader of the book! Hence the emblem of innocence-a beautiful virgin-who should weep
over the memory of the deceased while she read of his heroic deeds from the book before
The monument erected to the memory of Commodore Lawrence was placed in the southwest
corner of Trinity Churchyard in 1813, after the fight between the frigates Chesapeake and
Shannon, in which battle Lawrence fell. As described, it was a beautiful marble pillar,
broken off, with a part of the capital laid at its base. lt. remained until 1844-5 at
which time Trinity Church was rebuilt. When finished, the corporation of the Church took
away the old and dilapidated Lawrence monument and erected a new one in a different form,
placing it in the front of the yard on Broadway, at the lower entrance of the Church. When
Cross visited the new monument, he expressed great disappointment at the change, saying
"it was not half as good as the one they took away!"
These claims of Cross-perhaps made for Cross-to having originated the emblem are disputed.
Oliver speaks of a monument but fails to assign an American origin. In the Barney ritual
of 1817, formerly in the possession of Samuel Wilson of Vermont, there is the marble
column, the beautiful virgin weeping, the open book, the sprig of acacia, the urn, and
Time standing behind. What is here lacking is the broken column. Thus it appears that the
present emblem, except the broken column, was in use prior to the publication of Cross'
work (1819). The emblem in somewhat different form is frequently found in ancient
Mackey states that with the Jews a column was often used to symbolize princes, rulers or
nobles. A broken column denoted that a pillar of the state had fallen. In Egyptian
mythology, Isis is sometimes pictured weeping over the broken column which conceals the
body of her husband Osiris, while behind her stands Horus or Time pouring ambrosia on her
hair. In Hasting's ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION AND ETHICS, Isis is said sometimes to be
represented standing; in her right hand is a sistrum, in her left hand a small ewer and on
her forehead is a lotus, emblem of resurrection. In the Dionysaic Mysteries, Dionysius is
represented as slain; Rhea goes in search of the body. She finds it and causes it to be
buried. She is sometimes represented as standing by a column holding in her hand a sprig
of wheat, emblem of immortality; since, though it be placed in the ground and die, it
springs up again into newness of life. She was the wife of Kronus or Time, who may
fittingly be represented as standing behind her.
Whoever invented the emblem or symbol of the marble monument, the broken column, the
beautiful virgin, the book, the urn, the acacia, Father Time counting the ringlets of
hair, could not have thought through all the implications of this attempt-doubtless made
in all reverence-to add to the dignity and impressiveness of the story of the Master
The urn in which "ashes were safely deposited" is pure invention. Cremation was
not practiced by the Twelve Tribes; it was not the method of disposing of the dead in the
land and at the time of the building of the Temple. rather was the burning of the dead
body reserved as a dreadful fate for the corpses of criminals and evil doers. That so
great a man as "the widow's son, of the tribe of Naphtali" should have been
cremated is unthinkable. The Bible is silent on the subject; it does not mention Hiram the
Builder's death, still less the disposal of the body, but the whole tone of the Old
Testament in description of funerals and mournings, make it impossible to believe that his
body was burned, or that his ashes might have been preserved.
The Israelites did not embalm their dead; burial was accomplished on the day of death or,
at the longest wait, on the day following. According to the legend, the Master Builder was
disinterred from the first or temporary grave and reinterred with honor. That is indeed, a
supposable happening; that his body was raised only to be cremated is wholly out of
keeping with everything known of deaths, funeral ceremonies, disposal of the dead of the
In the ritual which describes the broken column monument, before the figure of the virgin
is "a book, open before her." Here again invention and knowledge did not go hand
in hand. There were no books at the time of the building of the Temple, as moderns
understand the word. there were rolls of skins, but a bound book of leaves made of any
substance-vellum, papyrus, skins-was an unknown object. Therefore there could have been no
such volume in which the virtues of the Master Builder were recorded.
No logical reason has been advanced why the woman who mourned and read in the book was a
"beautiful virgin." No scriptural account tells of the Master Builder having
wife or daughter or any female relative except his mother. The Israelites reverenced
womanhood and appreciated virginity, but they were just as reverent over mother and child.
Indeed, the bearing of children, the increase of the tribe, the desire for sons, was
strong in the Twelve Tribes; why, then, the accent upon the virginity of the woman in the
"Time standing behind her, unfolding and counting the ringlets of her hair" is
dramatic, but also out of character for the times. "Father Time" with his scythe
is probably a descendant of the Greek Chromos, who carried a sickle or reaping hook, but
the Israelites had no contact with Greece. It may have been natural for whoever invented
the marble monument emblem to conclude that Time was both a world-wide and a time
immemorial symbolic figure, but it could not have been so at the era in which Solomon's
Temple was built.
It evidently did not occur to the originators of this emblem that it was historically
impossible. Yet the Israelites did not erect monuments to their dead. In the singular, the
word "monument" does not occur in the Bible; as "monuments" it is
mentioned once, in Isaiah 65-"A people...which remain among the graves and lodge in
the monuments." In the Revised Version this is translated "who sit in tombs and
spend the night in secret places." The emphasis is apparently upon some form of
worship of the dead (necromancy). The Standard Bible Dictionary says that the word
"monument" in the general sense of a simple memorial does not appear in Biblical
Oliver Day Street in SYMBOLISM OF THE THREE DEGREES" says that the urn was an ancient
sign of mourning, carried in funeral processions to catch the tears of those who grieved.
But the word "urn" does not occur in the Old Testament nor the New.
Freemasonry is old. It came to us as a slow, gradual evolution of the thoughts, ideas,
beliefs, teachings, idealism of many men through many years. It tells a simple story-a
story profound in its meaning, which therefore must be simple, as all great truths in the
last analysis are simple.
The marble monument and the broken column have many parts. Many of these have the aroma of
age. Their weaving together into one symbol may be-probably is-a modernism, if that term
can cover a period of nearly two hundred years. but the importance of a great life, his
skill and knowledge; his untimely and pitiful death is not a modernism.
Nothing herein set forth is intended as in any way belittling one of Freemasonry's
teachings by means of ritual and picture. These few pages are but one of many ways of
trying to illuminate the truth behind a symbol, and show that, regardless of the dates of
any parts of the emblem, the whole has a place in the Masonic story which has at least
romance, if not too much fact, behind it.
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