The Symbolism of Freemasonry/Chapter IX

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The Symbolism of Freemasonry by Albert Mackey
Chapter IX
Chapter IX.
Disseverance of the Operative Element.

The next point to which our attention is to be directed is when, a few centuries later, the operative character of the institution began to be less prominent, and the speculative to assume a pre-eminence which eventually ended in the total separation of the two.

At what precise period the speculative began to predominate over the operative element of the society, it is impossible to say. The change was undoubtedly gradual, and is to be attributed, in all probability, to the increased number of literary and scientific men who were admitted into the ranks of the fraternity.

The Charter of Cologne, to which I have just alluded, speaks of "learned and enlightened men" as constituting the society long before the date of that document, which was 1535; but the authenticity of this work has, it must be confessed, been impugned, and I will not, therefore, press the argument on its doubtful authority. But the diary of that celebrated antiquary, Elias Ashmole, which is admitted to be authentic, describes his admission in the year 1646 into the order, when there is no doubt that the operative character was fast giving way to the speculative. Preston tells us that about thirty years before, when the Earl of Pembroke assumed the Grand Mastership of England, "many eminent, wealthy, and learned men were admitted."

In the year 1663 an assembly of the Freemasons of England was held at London, and the Earl of St. Albans was elected Grand Master. At this assembly certain regulations were adopted, in which the qualifications prescribed for candidates clearly allude to the speculative character of the institution.

And, finally, at the commencement of the eighteenth century, and during the reign of Queen Anne, who died, it will be remembered, in 1714, a proposition was agreed to by the society "that the privileges of Masonry should no longer be restricted to operative masons, but extend to men of various professions, provided that they were regularly approved and initiated into the order."

Accordingly the records of the society show that from the year 1717, at least, the era commonly, but improperly, distinguished as the restoration of Masonry, the operative element of the institution has been completely discarded, except so far as its influence is exhibited in the choice and arrangement of symbols, and the typical use of its technical language.


The history of the origin of the order is here concluded; and in briefly recapitulating, I may say that in its first inception, from the time of Noah to the building of the temple of Solomon, it was entirely speculative in its character; that at the construction of that edifice, an operative element was infused into it by the Tyrian builders; that it continued to retain this compound operative and speculative organization until about the middle of the seventeenth century, when the latter element began to predominate; and finally, that at the commencement of the eighteenth century, the operative element wholly disappeared, and the society has ever since presented itself in the character of a simply speculative association.

The history that I have thus briefly sketched, will elicit from every reflecting mind at least two deductions of some importance to the intelligent Mason.

In the first place, we may observe, that ascending, as the institution does, away up the stream of time, almost to the very fountains of history, for its source, it comes down to us, at this day, with so venerable an appearance of antiquity, that for that cause and on that claim alone it demands the respect of the world. It is no recent invention of human genius, whose vitality has yet to be tested by the wear and tear of time and opposition, and no sudden growth of short-lived enthusiasm, whose existence may be as ephemeral as its birth was recent. One of the oldest of these modern institutions, the Carbonarism of Italy, boasts an age that scarcely amounts to the half of a century, and has not been able to extend its progress beyond the countries of Southern Europe, immediately adjacent to the place of its birth; while it and every other society of our own times that have sought to simulate the outward appearance of Freemasonry, seem to him who has examined the history of this ancient institution to have sprung around it, like mushrooms bursting from between the roots and vegetating under the shade of some mighty and venerable oak, the patriarch of the forest, whose huge trunk and wide-extended branches have protected them from the sun and the gale, and whose fruit, thrown off in autumn, has enriched and fattened the soil that gives these humbler plants their power of life and growth.

But there is a more important deduction to be drawn from this narrative. In tracing the progress of Freemasonry, we shall find it so intimately connected with the history of philosophy, of religion, and of art in all ages of the world, that it is evident that no Mason can expect thoroughly to understand the nature of the institution, or to appreciate its character, unless he shall carefully study its annals, and make himself conversant with the facts of history, to which and from which it gives and receives a mutual influence. The brother who unfortunately supposes that the only requisites of a skilful Mason consist in repeating with fluency the ordinary lectures, or in correctly opening and closing the lodge, or in giving with sufficient accuracy the modes of recognition, will hardly credit the assertion, that he whose knowledge of the "royal art" extends no farther than these preliminaries has scarcely advanced beyond the rudiments of our science. There is a far nobler series of doctrines with which Freemasonry is connected, and which no student ever began to investigate who did not find himself insensibly led on, from step to step in his researches, his love and admiration of the order increasing with the augmentation of his acquaintance with its character. It is this which constitutes the science and the philosophy of Freemasonry, and it is this alone which will return the scholar who devotes himself to the task a sevenfold reward for his labor.

With this view I propose, in the next place, to enter upon an examination of that science and philosophy as they are developed in the system of symbolism, which owes its existence to this peculiar origin and organization of the order, and without a knowledge of which, such as I have attempted to portray it in this preliminary inquiry, the science itself could never be understood.