Poking the Beehive: Is there an “English Rite”? (Part III)

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Before reading this post, I advise you to read (or re-read) part 1, and part 2. Otherwise, it will not make much sense.

Continuing the “quest” for definitions of rite, we start with no less than Albert Mackey. His life is worthy of a full post, dedicated to his talents and deeds. Suffices to say that Mackey was a physician, a journalist, and most importantly, an educator. Mackey dedicated most of his life to the study of languages, the middle ages, and Freemasonry, among other topics.

From his extensive bibliography, I picked two that will fit our purpose here: find definitions that were written to be definitions. For the distance of both works in time, it is also interesting to notice the adjustments made by Mackey. In the first work selected, “A Lexicon of Freemasonry” (1845, but the quote is from 13th ed. 1869), he defined Rite in a paragraph constituted of two phrases. In the first one, he defines rite in masonry, in the second one, a Masonic rite. Although complementary, they bring different pieces of information.

“RITE. A modification of masonry, in which the three ancient degrees and their essentials being preserved, there are varieties in the ceremonies, and number and names of the additional degrees. A masonic rite is, therefore, in accordance with the general signification of the word, the method, order, and rules, observed in the performance and government of the masonic system.” (p.410)

Albert Mackey (1807-1881), as he appears in several editions of his books. Worthy of attention is the 33º degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in his chest.

Here, Mackey brings a word that will be mingled with rite quite often across masonic literature: system. However, Mackey brought the term without specifying what he meant by “Masonic system”. But let’s fast forward some years and consult Mackey’s masterpiece “Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” (1873), in which he establishes a more concise, and polished definition.

“Rite. A method of conferring Masonic light by a collection and distribution of degrees. It is, in other words, the method and order observed in the government of a Masonic system.” (vol.2, p.626)

To match our previous post, it is pivotal to bring an English author with his definition of rite. He was writing at almost the same time, but on the other side of the pond. A. F. A. Woodford was one of these nineteenth-century Freemasons that through research took the Order to another level. Besides being a reverend of the Anglican Church, Woodford was an avid Masonic practitioner and researcher. He was behind the formation of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge, and of English publications on Freemasonry, such as “Freemasons” and “Masonic Magazine”. The publisher of these two magazines, George Kenning, sought the editorial niche of Freemasonry and issued the “Kenning’s Masonic Cyclopaedia”, in 1878. The book was edited by Woodford, by the time a Past Grand Chaplain of the UGLE, and shows a view as authorial as well-supported of the topics to be defined. He wrote

“Rite – Though in our English Craft Masonry we only know of or recognise the Three Degrees and the Royal Arch, yet in a Cyclopaedia we have to recognise that, for good or evil, there are so-called Masonic Rites in the world. Some of us may be disposed to reject this multiplication of Rites; others may look favourably upon some, at any rate; and therefore, in a work of reference, we have to mention them, whether we approve of them or not, whether we believe in them or not. It is impossible to give all here, as it would, we think, be profitless. Some say there are 108 rites and 1400 grades; but many of them are clearly only quasi-Masonic, and some not Masonic at all. We therefore only propose to give today those we have considered in our studies, or which our readers are likely to meet with in Masonic works…” pp.578-579

Adolphus Frederick Alexander Woodford (1821-1887). The regalia he is wearing is of Grand Chaplain of the United Grand Lodge of England.


Other works, like “The Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia” (1877), by Kenneth Mackenzie, just bring some considerations about rites (as something implicit) without any definition other than the dictionary one. However, the theme “rites”, or “rituals” for that matter, gained several publications over the twentieth century. A list of these works would be fascinating but terribly extenuating. Let’s fast forward to 2014, to a chapter on the “Handbook of Freemasonry” named “Masonic Rites and Systems” written by one of the finest researchers on Freemasonry of this day and age: Mr. Arturo de Hoyos.

As in any handbook, de Hoyos had few pages to give an introductory, but deep, account of that topic. Instead of a single definition, he broadened the explanation, showing the differences of understanding that “rite” could acquire to Freemasonry, and for Freemasons. Nevertheless, he inserted in the title the word systems, as a separated although conjoined matter: “Masonic Rites and Systems”. I shall go back to that in the next post.

Arturo de Hoyos, among several of his qualifications and Masonic titles, is the Grand Archivist and Grand Historian of the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite in the Southern Jurisdiction.


For now, it is important to close this series on definitions of Masonic Rite. I strongly advise everyone to read de Hoyos’ chapter (actually, the whole book is precious) since, to the purpose of my reasoning, I will be cherry-picking some of the definitions for “rite’ that he offers. After the lexicographic definition, de Hoyos informs, among other things:

“There are two main types of rites in Freemasonry: (1) a procedure with a symbolic or defining nature, such as the rites of circumambulation, discalceation, or investiture, which may be grouped to form a larger ceremony (or degree), and (2) the linking of masonic degrees, for initiation or instruction, under administrative or governmental authority. This chapter focuses on the latter application. […] In a general sense a Rite is any number of degrees grouped together. A Rite may be compared with a staircase, which is comprised of individual steps. The steps represent individual masonic degrees, whereas the staircase as a whole is analogous to a Rite. The degrees of a Rite will usually, although not always, have a numerical designation or fixed position on a calendar or schedule. The Rite may be further divided into sub-organizations (‘lodges’, ‘chapters’, ‘councils’,and so on), just as a staircase may be divided by a number of ‘landings’ which connect the stairs between floors. The degrees which comprise a Rite may be arranged in a particular sequence for any number of reasons, including mythology, chronology and/or tradition, or they may appear to be unrelated to each other, having been derived from various sources, or having been aggregated at different times.” pp.355-356

It is possible to verify how Arturo de Hoyos condensed and sophisticated the definition of Rite to comprise all the variations of conferring Masonic degrees. However, in the same article, he points out some differences that I understand as pivotal for a narrower definition of Masonic rite. In the next post, I will try to condense these understandings of Masonic Rite and check what these same authors have to say about the existence of an “English Rite”.


Poking the beehive: Is there an “English Rite”? (Part II)

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In the last post, I have introduced the question of whether there is an “English Rite”. As I also stated in the previous text that the inverted commas and the questioning itself are enough to show that I am casting doubt over an expression that is used by some researchers, and some Freemasons.

I demonstrated, briefly, the definitions of the word rite in the dictionary and that such definitions were enough for us to say that yes, there is an “English Rite”. However, Freemasonry is complex as any old institution, have a history, vocabulary, idioms[1], customs of its own, and on top of that, the broadening of the Masonic phenomenon across the globe added some more terms, customs, degrees, etc.

So, a next step is trying to establish what a Masonic Rite is, mostly for the Freemasons. For this purpose, some Masonic reference works should be used. I will bring them forward in chronological order so it will be possible to follow the development of this understanding of rite for Freemasonry.

Of course, this small research is far from exhaustive, being limited by works which I have instant access to and that bring some definition of rite. Like the “A Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry”, from 1853, which was “compiled from the best Masonic authorities” by the Rev G. Oliver. According to the title page “A Past Deputy Grand Master, and Honorary Member of Many Private Lodges and Literary Societies; Author of ‘The Historical Landmarks of Freemasonry’ Etc. Etc.”

NPG D13664; George Oliver after Unknown artist
George Oliver, after Unknown artist, stipple and line engraving, mid 19th    century. 8 5/8 in. x 5 3/4 in. (220 mm x 145 mm) paper size. Given by Henry Witte Martin, 1861. NPG D13664. National Portrait Gallery


In his definition it is possible to see the bifold interpretation that will prevail, as a structure, to explain until today what is a Masonic rite. Oliver wrote that a rite “is an item in the ceremonial of conferring degrees” (p.311), that is, every Masonic meeting is formed by a set of small rites put together. In the English case, examples would be the procession, the circumambulation, the opening of the lodge, etc. To this definition he added “[…] although in some countries it is extended to include a number of degrees and orders, as in the French rite ‘ancien et accepté’ which comprehends […]” (p.311) then enlisting some of the degrees of that rite.

Robert Macoy was one of these American phenomena when it comes to Freemasonry. Not only was he a prominent Mason, but also the founder of a Masonic publishing and supply company. Like that was not enough, Macoy is also known for his “General History, Cyclopaedia and Dictionary of Freemasonry”, first published in 1870, with several other editions until today. In the encyclopaedic part of his work, he expands the definition of (Masonic) rite, after giving a dictionarist definition, like I did, adding: “Freemasonry, although uniform and immutable, in its principles and general laws, exists, nevertheless, in a variety of methods or forms, which are called rites.” (p.326)

Robert Macoy depicted in the title page of the first edition of “General History, Cyclopaedia and Dictionary of Freemasonry” (1870)


According to Macoy, we could characterize rite as one method or form in which Freemasonry presents itself. One out of many. Further, he concludes that these differences are unimportant since they don’t affect in the least the fundamental plans of the order, nor disturb their harmony. Still, he writes about “legal” rites, implying the existence of “illegal” ones. In its first edition, available at the webpage of the Hathi Trust (hathitrust.org), on the “dictionary part” of his work, he republished Rev. G. Oliver’s “A Dictionary of Symbolical Masonry”.

It worth remarking that Oliver was an English Freemason and Macoy an American Freemason. More than cultural differences, there were dissimilarities of Masonic practices between the two authors. Oliver is careful to put (Masonic) rite as a collection of degrees and orders, as something practiced in “some countries”. Although rather insignificant now, we will highlight this information again in the future. Macoy, adopts a more ecumenical stance towards Freemasonry which will characterize the American Craft (South, Central, and North American) until today.  We will get back to that as well.

Coming next… Mackey, Kenning, and others

[1] I refer here to word combinations that have a different figurative meaning

History of Freemasonry, an “unexplored” field

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After some years of working on history of Freemasonry, doing my Ph.D., going to conferences, and so on, it is clear that researchers in this field, have a characteristic phrase, a conversation starter if you like: “Freemasonry is an unexplored field”. Is this right? Well, yes and no.

First, I must explain something, and this can sound quite naïve. I had no previous knowledge about the way some people choose their topics of research. In my happy-go-lucky, bookworm, humanities lover mind, you would pick a theme by research convenience, or because you have a deep, four-years-worth curiosity about it. Then, I was exposed to a very popular “method”, only a few years ago: to pick the theme by the scarcity of researchers in the given field.

This is definitely a clever way of picking a research topic since a job after the doctorate is highly desirable. However, I’m sorry to inform that Freemasonry is not one of these unexplored, goldmine fields. This, for starters. Additionally, I have to inform that in the entire world we have one, yes, one, university program – hence a chair – on history of Freemasonry.

Passed the “cold shower” announcements, I have to adopt a more optimistic approach. There are several books, papers, catalogs, dictionaries, and conference transactions, on history of Freemasonry. Between professional and amateur research and publications, there is an overwhelming amount of information. After starting its academic rise in the 1980s, mainly with researchers like Margaret Jacob and David Stevenson, nowadays, there is not a year that goes by without an International Conference on the theme.

So why do we have this feeling that Freemasonry is an Antarctica of academic research? Because as Professor José Antonio Ferrer Benimeli (the Dean of academic masonic studies in Europe) emphasized in one of his articles, there is still a “divorce between Masonic History and the Professional Historian”. So, although we have an abundance of studies of the most varied topics on Freemasonry, there is not a culture of research, hence, fewer follow-ups, less disputing, fewer conventions, which I will talk about in a future post.

Amateur researchers look satisfied in their “islands” of knowledge and dilettante ways of, as Phillipe Ariès puts it, “a Sunday Historian”. Professionals are, on the other hand, usually but unconfessably overwhelmed by the specifics of the topic, and are also rapidly drawn to the reality of bigger fields of study in which they must find, a secondary, slot for their studies on Freemasonry.

The fact that we have to build bridges between History and Freemasonry, is indisputable. The question now is how can we build more permanent ones?