A Better Approach to Masonic Instruction

By R.W. Bro. Ron Coulson, Grand Senior Warden, Saskatchewan

Square & CompassOne of the elements of Freemasonry that has been constant over the ages, is the process of instruction. Every man who enters our Fraternity as an Entered Apprentice begins a lifetime of learning about Freemasonry, but more importantly, about himself.

He quickly finds out how very little he really knows about either subject. And he more quickly develops a need to progress in both studies as quickly as he can. He also begins to realize that he will probably never know all he will want to know.

To some extent, this is not much different from entering any phase of life. Our first days in high school were full of anticipation, trepidation and excitement. We knew our future was not far ahead of us and yet we were not certain where we were heading. Then, all of a sudden, we were graduated. Or, as was the case with some of us, circumstances cut our high school education short. For us, we had no choice but to And there were others among us who went on to an even further world of learning – to university, and to other uncharted courses.

Life is a series of learning experiences — in school, on the job, in society, in politics, in community affairs, in church, in our Lodges and other fraternal and service club environments, and in our retirement years.

The only constant factor in our lives is change, and the need to keep up with it, or be left behind.

Every encounter with a new education process presents a challenge to us. It represents a crossroad, or benchmark, which we must either meet and master, or submit to in defeat and confusion.

I feel that our fraternity has met and mastered many, many of these challenges in the 300 or more years it has existed, pretty much as we know it today.

I also feel, very strongly, that it is meeting one today. It is meeting the challenge of making itself relevant to the whole new generation of men.

Men essential to its survival.

For the past three decades we have watched, at first somewhat passively, then with a growing sense of panic and frustration, as our numbers have declined steadily. That subject has been explored, explained and expounded at this forum for twenty years. I’m not going to say any more on it at this time.

Instead, I’d like to propose what might be a contributing factor to the turn-around we sense is happening. It is an element of the North American Masonic Renewal program our Lodges are implementing with speed and sincerity. It is the element of applying the latest technology and methodology to turning our Lodges around, to making them relevant in the community and more attractive to candidates.

As we have seen in the Training Kits and the Membership Development Kits, there is a great dependency on conveying our important messages by means of videotapes, 35mm slides, overhead slides, and three-ring binders full of descriptive material and formats for collecting and using data.

From the time they enter nursery school today, our grandchildren are trained and educated with the same techniques. Persons entering a new work environment or learning about a new product or service use these same methods, and also a host of computer hardware and software programs.

All of these are essential to instruction.

When we are successful in applying “proper solicitation” and we bring a candidate into a Lodge for his initiation, we bring him in from an environment where he has become familiar with, and dependent on, all of the latest methods of instruction and education. The same methods by which he has survived and often prospered in today’s society.

Does he not have a right to expect that he can apply them to all he has to learn in and about Freemasonry? Or do we substantiate the rumours and half-truths about our fraternity being mired in the dark ages, and full of last year’s principles? What will be his first and lasting impressions?

Can we make them more positive??

I feel we can.

What I am about to suggest is not radical. It will not stray from our landmarks, from our basic tenets, or from our ancient history. It can only serve to enhance them.

Suppose, for a moment, we hearken back to Elias Ashmole. He wrote a diary entry that he was made a Freemason on October 16, 1646, 348 years ago. Then, 36 years later, in 1682, that he became a Fellow of the Craft was another diary entry. These are among the very earliest references to speculative Freemasonry. Elias Ashmole was not a stonemason, he was a learned man and collector of antiquities, connected closely with Oxford University and a friend of many men who belonged to the London Company of Masons – the builders of the day.

A second speculative Mason of note in early history was one Randle Holme, another historian and teacher. He wrote in 1688, in An Academia of Armoury, “I cannot but honour the Fellowship of the Masons because of its antiquity, and the more as being (myself) a member of that Society called Free-masons. “

A scrap of paper in his handwriting, found in his manuscript of The Constitutions of the Masons, deemed to have been written in the 1640-50 period, reads:

“There is sure all words and signs of a Free Mason to be revealed to you, which as you will answer: before God at the Great and terrible day of judgment, you keep secret and not to reveal the same to any in the hears of any person whatsoever but to the Masters and Fellows of the said Society of free Masons so help me God.”

Words that sound familiar to all of us, with some slight changes.

I point to these citations as examples of references to our fraternity written long before 1717, and containing information to which the writers were sworn to secrecy, as we are today, yet which appear in historical libraries and reference works.

Our libraries contain volumes of works dealing with Freemasonry. There are some very instructive and informative manuals to which Masonic scholars and those of us who must do research for our own edification, or for papers such as this one, can turn for assistance. 1 shall refer to a couple of them more specifically, later.


As we witness and participate in degree work, and even as we demonstrate, as Grand Lodge Officers, how well we can do it, most of us are painfully aware that we are not doing it as well as it can be done. I venture that if I were to ask this gathering to stand and demonstrate the grand hailing sign, or the five points of fellowship, there would be several variations. I do not refer to the variations between the American and the Canadian ritual. I am referring to the variations that come from the way we were taught as individuals, the way we learned them.

When we participated in Area meetings and District meetings and Lodges of instruction while we worked our way to our present offices, we witnessed many demonstrations and probably did some demonstrating ourselves. We heard, and likely participated in, discussions about the “right way” and the “wrong way” to give all or any of the signs. What was used as the arbiter? Where do we have access to truth?

The Grand Secretary and the Custodians of the Work have access to the truth, and are the authority we most often turn to. But how many of our Lodge brethren go through their Masonic lives without access or reference to these authorities? And how many of these well-meaning brethren are being called upon, year after year, to give instruction on these very subjects to our newest Masons?

This is the area of instruction I suggest must be considered a very serious matter for change and improvement.

Our Wardens and Deacons Lectures are among the most meaningful teachings in Freemasonry.

Indeed, they are the very heart of our Masonic instruction. We’ve all done all or most of them ourselves. Have we done them justice? Have the candidates we were instructing learned everything we wanted them to learn? Or were they sitting there politely, wondering where all this was leading, and wondering why their lecturer seems to be reciting prose rather than imparting knowledge?

In my Mother Lodge, founded in 1802, the lectures were accompanied by slides projected on a yellowing wall by a huge, ancient projector, the glass slides being dropped into place individually, in sequence, I think, by the Secretary. In 1890, this was the very latest in instruction methods. They were still using them in 1975. Today, they have replaced the slides with framed Tracing Boards, such as those in use in most of our Lodges. A Warden with a pointer is the teacher. The only sign of life in the instruction is the deep breaths and hesitations on the part of the instructor. Or the prompting from the Secretary. How can we expect to remember or to be impressed?

I exaggerate only slightly here.

The point of this past few minutes is that there 11 a better way. And there is more of our Masonic teaching that could be given greater life and more precise example.

The Grand Lodge of Oklahoma has recently produced a series of videotapes, which I purchased and have here for your information. These tapes get a little closer to the principles of our current “mentor program”, which invite us to take a new candidate through the process of his three degrees after the actual ceremonies and explain the details covered in the lectures. They give a great deal of information in their tapes, and they do present views of our teaching in a memorable fashion.

These tapes were produced in Guthrie, Oklahoma, at the Scottish Rite Temple, by Scottish Rite officials and members. They are instructive, informative, entertaining and very memorable. But they still don’t go far enough, in my estimation.

I propose that in some jurisdictions, with the guidance of the detailed Book of the Works and under the supervision of the most knowledgeable authority, a videotape be produced, containing instruction on the “Proper” way to received Grand Lodge Officers, and other points of instruction. This would be a good start. This tape could be made available to any Lodge that wants to use it. It can be rendered uncopyable, although I don’t feel that is necessary, and it could and should be used after each degree and as a tool for a Lodge of Instruction. It would go a long way toward standardizing our ritual work and make our Lodge openings and closing more precise, more meaningful, more pleasurable, and easier to understand as new Masons begin their visitations.

This is not an attempt to turn Masons into military robots. It is an attempt to show the Masonic world that we have emerged from our dark ages. It is an attempt to apply the same methods in our Lodges as are being applied to the teachings we are subjected to in every other walk of life. It can only improve our well-being and get us into a more receptive mode for the influx of new Masons we are all hoping to enjoy.

In considering the wisdom of committing portions of our Masonic work to a medium other than print and memory, I have done a fair bit of research. I am aware there will be a strong feeling of repulsion at the suggestion. But, let us revisit history and see what has gone before us.

We have evidence of the first document, from 1696, which describes the ceremonies used in the two degrees of Freemasonry at that time. The document, found in the Public Record Office of Edinburgh, is called the “Edinburgh Register House Manuscript”. The document describes how the candidate ‘was put to his knees’, subjected to some serious rough play, and made to ‘take up the book’ and take the oath. The oath is cited in full, in the language of that day, including the words, “indite, carve, mark, engrave or otherwise them delineate”. It is noted that there was no penalty in this obligation, just a plain obligation of secrecy. So much for secrecy, with this document in publication in 1696.

This document, explicit in its description of the Fellow Craft ceremony, was not alone on the shelf for long. Two other texts, “Chetwode Crowley MS” circa 1700, and the “Kevan MS”, circa 1714, also give detailed descriptions of the ceremonies of the two Masonic degrees then existing. to quote Harry Carr, in “Harry Carr’s World of Freemasonry”, “Three marvelous documents …if we dare to trust them …because they were written in violation of an oath”. Harry’s feeling is that there was not evidence that these rituals were ever used in a Lodge. But then he uncovered another piece of a document that proved conclusively that at least some of the words have been used. And he has detailed other publications, in his book, that are in today’s libraries, that give great detail about our rituals, as they were then and are now, in great part.

I cite this merely as precedent of about 300 years ago.

During the years that followed, there were many records of our work passed down, in variousforms, languages, and jurisdictions. But the “true” words were divided between two very strong factions by the end of the 1700s – the Moderns and the Antients. Each was certain they had the true ritual. Each was certain they had history on their side.

From the “Freemasons’ guide and Compendium” by Bernard E. Jones, we have a good account of the unification of these bodies. A Lodge of promulgation existed from 1809 to 1811, with the duty of promulgating the ancient landmarks and instructing Masons in the “moderns” body in the alterations found necessary.

It is generally conceded that this committee very largely restored the Antient forms and ceremonies and, in so doing, considerably revised the first three degrees, either revised or remodelled the installation ceremony and found a working place in the Lodge for the Deacons.

The ‘moderns’ adopted the installation ceremony as from 1810, at which time the phrase “Board of Installed Masters’ is believed to have taken its rise. In the report this Lodge of Promulgation made to the Grand Master a suggestion was made for “the institution of the Office or Degree of a Masonic Professor of the Art and Mystery of speculative Freemasonry, to be conferred by Diploma on some skilled Craftsman of distinguished requirements and general fitness…” The report recommended that the Professor should select and instruct a number of assistants, after he had constructed a syllabus or book of reference, “comprising an clear and comprehensive digest of everything related to the Art, save and except those particulars which are forbidden to be committed in writing”.

To quote Bernard Jones again, “The suggestion unfortunately came to nothing, but it will never be too late for it to take effect.”

This clear intention to provide a conclusive guide to the fine tuning of our Craft would have been, in its day, what I propose we consider as we enter another century. The actual union of the “Antients” and the “moderns” took place in Freemasons’ Hall on St. John’s Day, December 27, 1813. There followed a period of our history during which the Lodge of Reconciliation, which was formed under the articles of union, visited many Lodges and gave instruction on the unified version of the works.

Records of these meetings are scant and inconclusive, but some records show proof of variations from one demonstration to the next. There is no doubt that brethren would go from these rehearsals to their own Lodges, where they would teach the new forms, and every one of them would have a slightly different idea of the details. The Board of General Purposes, in its wisdom, decided that since the charges had not been written out, “As long as the Master of any Lodge observed the Landmarks of the Craft he was at liberty to give the Lectures in the language best suited to the character of the Lodge over which he presided.”

That opinion, not of course to be interpreted too literally, holds good today.

There have been a number of works published which attempted to spell to spell out in all detail the degree work of Masonic Lodges.

Two of them, at least, are available through publishing houses today, and I have a copy of each of these here.

One of them is called Duncan’s Masonic Ritual and Monitor and can be found in public libraries under the ISBN number: 0-679-50626-8.

The other is called Richardson’s Monitor of Free-Masonry and bears the ISBN Number: 156619-236-6. This edition was published by Barnes and Noble in 1993.

I point to these as proof that nothing we do or say in our Lodges is truly secret. A videotape showing the proper way to perambulate the precise way to give the casual signs, tokens and words, and other physical elements would not betray us.


A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry, Arthur Edward Waite, University Books Inc., MCMLXX, published by Weathervane Books.

Harry Carr’s World of Freemasonry, Harry Carr, 1983, Published by Lewis Masonic Freemasons’ Guide and Compendium, Bernard E. Jones, 1950, Reprinted by Harrap Limited in 1982

Jurisprudence of Freemasonry, Albert G. Mackey, 1947, renewed 1975, Charles T. Powner Co.

The Meaning of Freemasonry, W.L. Wilmshurts, 1927, Copyright 1980 by Crown Publishers Inc.

Duncan’s Ritual of Freemasonry, Malcolm C. Duncan, David McKay Company, Inc. New York

Richardson’s Monitor of Free-Masonry, Jabez Richardson, Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 1993

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