Book Reviews: Background

March-April 2011

By James T. Tresner II, 33°, Grand Cross, Book Review Editor

So imagine the legendary “visitor from Mars” dropped down in the middle of a Masonic degree. In one of my favorite fantasies, he would salute the Wardens and Master and be escorted to a seat in the East, but the chances are he would simply be confused. Even if he knew the language, he would lack the background. Most of our young Masons are not from Mars (well, there are one or two of whom I am not certain), but time can separate us even more than interplanetary distances.

To really understand the culture of Masonry, to have a “feeling” for it, it’s very helpful to know something of the culture and history of the times from which it came. It greatly enriches the experience when we can relate the ceremonies of Masonry to our other knowledge and information.

Fortunately, there are sources available which can give us a sense and feeling of the background culture of Masonry without expensive study. In fact, they can be downright fun. I’d like in this column to suggest some sources on DVD which give that background and can help a lot. These first suggestions are not specifically dealing with Freemasonry, but they are great guides to the Zeitgeist of our past.

I have not given ordering information with these first few examples. If you want to own a copy, you can find them easily on the Internet. But you can also find most of them to rent on Netflix, and you can probably borrow most of them “free for nuthin’” at your local library.

Kenneth Clark, Civilization, produced by the BBC and first aired in 1969.
I can remember when this first hit television, and I doubt if those who did not experience it can believe the impact it made. It is the great granddaddy of all documentaries, and it took America by storm. It was popular across the cultural and economic board, and when Clark visited America he was greeted and followed by masses of people. He was even recognized by Congress. His love and passion were as clear as his diction. If you have never seen the series, I’d suggest you watch the whole thing. But, especially, I would suggest you watch episode two which explores the Romanesque and gothic cathedrals along with the style and spirit which created them. I would strongly suggest the episode entitled “The Smile of Reason,” which deals with the Age of Enlightenment. You will find the origins of much Masonic teaching and philosophy right there, in a very palatable form.

David Macaulay, Cathedral, first aired on PBS in 1986.
This delight of a program runs a little less than an hour, and combines animation and live action in a skillful and rewarding production. While the specific cathedral built in the program is fictional, it is a compilation of many that are real and are shown in the program. The story starts when a fire destroys an existing cathedral, and the Chapter decides to build another. We meet good people and bad, skilled and not skilled, but there is much good information about building techniques of the operative craft and about the background of faith which inspired the structure. The whole family will enjoy this one.

Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth, an adaptation of Follett’s massive novel of the same title which originally aired on PBS, 3-disk set first available in 2010.
Probably not for young children to watch (13th-century views of nudity are not quite the same as ours), but a powerful and skillful adaptation of the novel. This story also begins with a fire, and the main character of the novel, Tom Builder, an operative stone mason, is involved in the construction of a new cathedral.

Of the sources I have mentioned, this one, being a novel, gives a more complete experience of the emotional context and physical culture of the time. It is a gripping story, which accounts for the success of both the novel and the series. It is probably as close as we can come to an understanding of the background from which the operative craft emerged.

Bro. Tobias Churton, A Mighty Good Man, 2008 production, based on the book by the same title.
Considered just as a work of theatre, I must admit I greatly want to edit this DVD. There is a lot more of Ashmole “pricking on the plane” (as Spencer hath it) than is needed. But excessive horsemanship aside, this is a highly informative video version of the book by the same title. The “mighty good man” referred to is Elias Ashmole, one of the first men to be admitted to a Masonic Lodge who was not an operative Mason. The video gives us a good picture of this remarkable and complex man who was one of the intellectual giants of his age and who founded the first public museum. (Interesting side note: in his early years, Kenneth Clark was the director of the Ashmolean Museum, which still exists at Oxford.)

But what I would especially recommend is the section of the video which recreates a portion of an early “making” or initiation ritual. Drawing from records and early exposures, Churton recreates the reception of Ashmole as a Mason. You will hear echoes of ritual you know and see forerunners of the ceremonies we practice.

Dwight L. Smith Lodge of Research, Grand Lodge F&AM of Indiana, Worldwide Exemplification of Freemasonry www.weofm.org
This is the brainchild of Bro. Albert H. McClelland, PM, QCCC, MPS, with the support of the Grand Lodge of Indiana, and it is an exciting project. They have put together a series of important writers and researchers in Freemasonry, including people like Prof. Jessica L. Harland Jacobs, Prof. Steven Bullock, Robert G. Davis, Dr. S. Brent Morris, Dr. John S. Nagy, Stewart W. Miner, and Timothy Hogan, among many others. A few of the topics include:

“The Old Charges Revisited,” “Why Ancients and Moderns?” “Albert Pike and the Five Civilized Tribes,” “Masonic Jurisprudence,” “Freemasonry in India,” and “The Alchemical Influence on the Gentle Craft.” You can see the most recent list of topics and presenters by visiting the web site and clicking on the Trestle Board button.

Each Saturday, at 8:00 PM, Eastern Time, a new presentation will be shown, followed by an hour of chat with the presenter via Internet. The presentation will be available until noon on the following Saturday. It’s free, and not limited to Masons as viewers, so there is no need to qualify for viewing, just click and view.

This is a really exciting project and one I think you will truly enjoy.

Now for a couple of new offerings.

Bro. Duncan Moore, A Guide to Masonic Symbolism, Hersham, Surrey, UK: Lewis Masonic, 2009, Hardcover, 208 pages, many illustrations, ISBN 978-0-85318-294-8 cover price $27.95, available on the Internet, new and used, from about $17.00
I strongly recommend this little jewel of a book for your own personal Masonic library as well as that of your lodge. Brother Moore, a very well qualified and active Freemason, has researched and written a book which is easy to read for the novice Mason, but also full of exciting insight for those of us long in the Masonic tooth.

The first chapter, concerning the origins and development of symbolism is concise, and yet covers a great deal of ground. Best of all, it is reasonable, engaging in neither unsupported fancy nor excessive speculation; and what speculation is there is clearly identified as such—a set of virtues which many of us know to our sorrow is not always present in such books.
And Bro. Moore does not limit his discussion to symbols which are images (e.g. the bee hive and the letter G) but rightly includes actions which are symbolic in intent, such as the preparation of the candidate, the restoration of light, and the circumambulations.

Of special interest and some delight to American Masons is the chapter on “Symbols no longer used,” most of which are still used in American Lodges. But setting aside the differences in American and United Kingdom Freemasonry, this is a great little book and one I think you will enjoy. 

Bro. Shawn Eyer, Editor, Ahiman: A Review of Masonic Culture and Tradition, Vol. I, Plumbstone, 2010, paperbound, 148 pages, illustrations, many in color, ISBN-13 978-1603023658 available from the publisher or on the Internet from about $26.
In a letter to me, Brother Eyer wrote, “This anthology of new and classic material is intended to support the growing number of Freemasons who are exploring the philosophical elements of the Craft. The historical argumentation of articles in Ahiman is grounded in scholarly method, and this is intended to overcome the longstanding and unnecessary dichotomy between the authentic/historical school and those researchers who are fascinated by Masonic symbolism and the meaning of the work.”

A worthy goal indeed! and this is a noble publication, well produced and well presented. Articles include “A Spiritual Vision of the Liberal Arts and Sciences,” “The Memory Lodge: Practicing the Art of Memory,” “An Angle of Perfect Sincerity,” “The Allegory of the Cave,” and “Silence and Solemnity in Craft Masonry,” among others. The publication also includes poems, articles by the great writers of the past, such as Joseph Fort Newton, and much to make one think. It is an enjoyable book which provides both background and much for thinking into the future.