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Masonic ritual and symbolism

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A masonic initiation. Paris, 1745.

Masonic ritual is the scripted words and actions that are spoken or performed during the degree work in a Masonic lodge.[1] Masonic symbolism is that which is used to illustrate the principles which Freemasonry espouses. Masonic ritual has appeared in a number of contexts within literature including in "The Man Who Would Be King", by Rudyard Kipling, and War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy.


Freemasonry is described in its own ritual as a "Beautiful and profound system of morality, veiled in allegories and illustrated by symbols". The symbolism of Freemasonry is found throughout the Masonic lodge, and contains many of the working tools of a medieval or renaissance stonemason. The whole system is transmitted to initiates through the medium of Masonic ritual, which consists of lectures and allegorical plays.[2]

Common to all of Freemasonry is the three grade system of Craft or Blue Lodge freemasonry, whose allegory is centred on the building of the Temple of Solomon, and the story of the chief architect, Hiram Abiff.[3] Further degrees have different underlying allegories, often linked to the transmission of the story of Hiram. Participation in these is optional, and usually entails joining a separate Masonic body. The type and availability of the Higher Degrees also depends on the Masonic jurisdiction of the Craft lodge that first initiated the mason.[4]

Broadly stated, two of the most common Masonic rites, which are groupings of rituals are the Scottish Rite and the York Rite.

Lack of standardisation[edit]

Freemasons conduct their degree work, often from memory, following a preset script and ritualised format. There are a variety of different Masonic rites for Craft Freemasonry. Each Masonic jurisdiction is free to standardize (or not standardize) its own ritual. However, there are similarities that exist among jurisdictions. For example, all Masonic rituals for the first three degrees use the architectural symbolism of the tools of the medieval operative stonemason. Freemasons, as speculative masons (meaning philosophical rather than actual building), use this symbolism to teach moral and ethical lessons, such as the four cardinal virtues of Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance, and Justice, and the principles of "Brotherly Love, Relief (or Morality), and Truth" (commonly found in English language rituals), or "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" (commonly found in French rituals).

Symbols in ritual[edit]

A Third Degree tracing board

In most jurisdictions, a Bible, Quran, Tanakh, Vedas or other appropriate sacred text (known in some rituals as the Volume of the Sacred Law) will always be displayed while the lodge is open (in some French and other Continental lodges, the Masonic Constitutions are used instead). In lodges with a membership of mixed religions it is common to find more than one sacred text displayed. A candidate will be given his choice of religious text for his Obligation, according to his beliefs. The United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) alludes to similarities to legal practice in the UK, and to a common source with other oath taking processes.[5][6]

In keeping with the geometrical and architectural theme of Freemasonry, the Supreme Being is referred to in Masonic ritual by the titles of the Great Architect of the Universe, Grand Geometrician or similar, to make clear that the reference is generic, and not tied to a particular religion's conception of God.[7]

Some lodges make use of tracing boards: painted or printed illustrations depicting the various symbolic emblems of Freemasonry. They can be used as teaching aids during the lectures that follow each of the three degrees, when an experienced member explains the various concepts of Freemasonry to new members.

Solomon's Temple is a central symbol of Freemasonry which holds that the first three Grand Masters were King Solomon, King Hiram I of Tyre, and Hiram Abiff – the craftsman/architect who built the temple. Masonic initiation rites include the reenactment of a scene set on the Temple Mount while it was under construction. Every Masonic lodge, therefore, is symbolically the Temple for the duration of the degree and possesses ritual objects representing the architecture of the Temple. These may either be built into the hall or be portable. Among the most prominent are replicas of the pillars Boaz and Jachin through which every initiate has to pass.[8]

Historically, Freemasons used various signs (hand gestures), grips or "tokens" (handshakes), and passwords to identify legitimate Masonic visitors from non-Masons who might wish to gain admission to meetings. These signs, grips, and passwords have been exposed multiple times; today Freemasons use dues cards and other forms of written identification.[9]

Overlap with symbolism in the Latter-day Saint Movement[edit]

Worship in temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shares a commonality of symbols, signs, vocabulary and clothing with Freemasonry, including robes, aprons, handshakes, ritualistic raising of the arms, etc.[10] However, the meanings of each are different for the Freemasons and the Latter-day Saints.

Speaking in 1877 at the St. George Temple, Brigham Young related LDS temple worship to the story of Hiram Abiff and Solomon's Temple, though he believed the ceremony had not been practiced in its fullness.[11][12]

Perceived secrecy of Masonic ritual[edit]

Freemasons often say that they "are not a secret society, but rather a society with secrets". The secrets of Freemasonry are the various modes of recognition – grips (handshakes), words (akin to modern passwords), and signs (hand gestures) that indicate one is a Freemason. While these and the rest of masonic ritual have all been exposed multiple times through the years, Freemasons continue to act as if they were secret, and promise not to discuss them with outsiders more out of tradition than a need for actual secrecy.[13] Indeed, as all of these gestures are readily available for the public to find, the responsibility is on individual masons to memorize and not disclose these secrets, and not necessarily for lodges to prevent their “leakage”. Such is the de facto lack of secrecy that lodges frequently post pictures and documents showing these rituals and gestures on their websites or social media accounts.[14][15] The secrets are not an end in themselves, but rather a reflection of history, values, and fraternity.

Over the years, a variety of exposures have been published which purport to represent Masonic ritual, including Masonry Dissected by Samuel Prichard in 1730,[16] Three Distinct Knocks in 1760,[17] Jachin and Boaz in 1762,[18][19] and Morgan's Exposure of Freemasonry in 1826.[20]

Nonetheless there is a perception of more extensive secrecy among non-Freemasons. This perception of secrecy has led to the creation of many Masonic conspiracy theories.

The Morgan Affair and its aftermath[edit]

The mysterious disappearance of William Morgan in 1826 was said to be due to his threat to publish a book detailing the secret rituals of Freemasonry.

An attempt was made to burn down the publishing house, and separately, Morgan was arrested on charges of petty larceny. He was seized and taken to Fort Niagara, after which he disappeared.[21] The suspicion behind this led to the creation of the Anti-Masonic Party, which enjoyed brief popularity but rapidly became defunct after they fielded a former Freemason as their presidential candidate in 1832.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Snoek, Jan A. M. (2014). "Masonic Rituals of Initiation". In Bodgan, Henrik; Snoek, Jan A. M. (eds.). Handbook of Freemasonry. Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion. Vol. 8. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 319–327. doi:10.1163/9789004273122_018. ISBN 978-90-04-21833-8. ISSN 1874-6691.
  2. ^ UGLE website Archived 2017-01-29 at the Wayback Machine What is Freemasonry, retrieved 12th Jan 2013
  3. ^ Pietre-Stones Kent Henderson, The Legend of Hiram Abif, retrieved 12th Jan 2013
  4. ^ Fred L. Pick, The Pocket History of Freemasonry, pp. 268–280.
  5. ^ "What promises do Freemasons take?". United Grand Lodge of England. 2002. Retrieved 2007-05-08.
  6. ^ Jacob, Margaret C. (2005). The origins of freemasonry: facts & fictions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0812239010. OCLC 61478025.
  7. ^ King, Edward L. (2007). "GAOTU". Archived from the original on 2022-04-01. Retrieved 2007-04-09.
  8. ^ James Stevens Curl, The Art and Architecture of Freemasonry, Overlook Press, New York, 1991, 56–62.
  9. ^ Hodapp, Christopher. Freemasons for Dummies. Indianapolis: Wiley, 2005. pp. 18, 25.
  10. ^ Goodwin (1920, pp. 54–59).
  11. ^ "It is true that Solomon built a temple for the purpose of giving endowments, but from what we can learn of the history of that time they gave very few if any endowments, and one of the high priests [Hiram Abiff] was murdered by wicked and corrupt men, who had already begun to apostatize, because he would not reveal those things appertaining to the priesthood that were forbidden him to reveal until he came to the proper place." Brigham Young (January 1, 1877), "Remarks by President Brigham Young". Journal of Discourses Vol. 18, page 303. Also quoted in "Temple and Salvation for the Dead", Discourses of Brigham Young, compiled by John A. Widtsoe, Deseret Book Company, 1977
  12. ^ Michael W. Homer (2014). "Utah Freemasonry: Solomon Built a Temple for Giving Endowments". Joseph's Temples: The Dynamic Relationship Between Freemasonry and Mormonism (ebook). The University of Utah Press. ISBN 978-1-60781-346-0.
  13. ^ Hodapp, Christopher. Freemasons for Dummies. Indianapolis: Wiley, 2005. pp. 17–18, 154.
  14. ^ Old ritual book: https://www.shrinersinternational.org/en/news-and-events/news/2022/05/aaonms-ritual-book
  15. ^ UGLE museum website with picture of secret grip: https://museumfreemasonry.org.uk/blog/learn-about-freemasonry-what-freemason-handshake
  16. ^ Prichard, Samuel (1730). Masonry Dissected: Being a Universal and Genuine Description of All Its Branches from the Original to this Present Time. As it is Deliver'd in the Constituted Regular Lodges ... To which is Added, the Author's Vindication of Himself. The Second Edition. By Samuel Prichard, ... J. Wilford.
  17. ^ V-n, w-o- (1785). The Three Distinct Knocks, Or the Door of the Most Antient Free-Masonry Opening to All Men. ... Being an Universal Description of All Its Branches. ... By W- O- V-n, Member of a Lodge in England at this Time. T. Wilkinson.
  18. ^ S, R. (1776). Jachin and Boaz; Or, an Authentic Key to the Door of Free-masonry, Both Antient and Modern: Calculated Not Only for the Instruction of Every New-made Mason; But Also for the Information of All who Intend to Become Brethren. ... To which is Now Added, a New and Accurate List of All the English Regular Lodges in the World, According to Their Seniority with the Dates of Each Constitution, and Days of Meeting. W. Nicoll, at n ̊51, St. Paul's Church-Yard.
  19. ^ Jackson, A. C. F. (1986). The English Masonic Exposures of 1760–1769: With Full Transcripts of Three Distinct Knocks, 1760, Jachin and Boaz, 1762, Shibboleth, 1765. Lewis Masonic. ISBN 978-0-85318-145-3.
  20. ^ Murderous Character of Freemasonry: Freemasonry Exposed by Captain Wm. Morgan, History of His Abduction and Murder, Confession of His Murder by Valance, Bernard's Reminiscences of Morgan Times, Oaths and Penalties of Thirty-three Masonic Degrees ... E.A. Cook & Company. 1882.
  21. ^ Peck, William F. (1908). History of Rochester and Monroe county, New York. The Pioneer publishing company. p. 63. Retrieved 2009-05-02.
  22. ^ Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon “The Morgan Affair aftermath”, retrieved 21 September 2013


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