In the latest issue of The Journal of the Masonic Society is my review of Bro. Jay Kinney’s new book.
In 1737, a Scotsman living in France named Andrew Ramsay prepared a speech to deliver before the Grand Lodge of France. Known as “Ramsay’s Oration,” this piece of literature is the basis for Freemasonry’s “high grades” of knighthoods, and the inexplicable belief held by so many even today that the medieval Knights Templar are the ancestors of Freemasonry. Kinney explains that not only is the content of this oration laden with factual inaccuracies, but it also isn’t even an oration because Ramsay never delivered it orally. You see, Ramsay was a Roman Catholic convert, and when Cardinal Fleury, the cardinal minister to King Louis XV, used the police to ban all meetings of Freemasons, our dauntless hero Ramsay went as far as to withdraw from the Craft. In Kinney’s telling, Ramsay’s stay in France coincided with the exile of the Stuarts, the royal family of Catholics succeeded on the English throne by the Hanovers from Protestant Germany, and so Ramsay had hoped to build a coalition of Freemasons, Jacobites, and the Catholic Church. “An attractive marketing angle,” writes Kinney. Fleury “was having none of it” and his ban on Masonic meetings predates even Pope Clement XII’s infamous bull that proscribed Masonic membership for Roman Catholics.
Of course these obstacles did not prevent the births of numerous rites and degrees in France. “Eccosais (Scottish) Masonry became synonymous with degrees and rites that purported to be the oldest or the highest. Whether such degrees actually originated in Scotland is something else again,” Kinney writes. Indeed he distills to two sentences the growth of Masonry from Britain to Europe:
“Espousing universal brotherhood is one thing, but practicing it is something else again, and it is difficult to imagine the bewigged brethren of the French aristocracy and intelligentsia sitting in lodge with anyone too far beneath them in social standing. Indeed, Masonry on the Continent rapidly expanded from merely honoring the symbolic meaning of stonecutters’ tools and customs into a whole new universe of armchair chivalry, “higher” degrees soaked in mystical and esoteric symbolism, and grandiose titles accompanied by ornate regalia and jewelry.”
It is tempting to walk you all the way through Kinney’s plain-spoken Masonic history, but that may deprive you the pleasure of reading his book. And if you are unacquainted with Bro. Kinney, please do not think he is immune to the mystique of genuine symbolism and esoterica; in fact he is world renowned for his scholarship, and he is esteemed as having been the publisher of the sorely missed Gnosis magazine, the journal of Western inner traditions, published bi-annually, then quarterly, from 1985 to 1999. Most issues are available here. In 2005 he was made a Fellow in the Scottish Rite Research Society and was awarded that prestigious group’s Albert Gallatin Mackey Award for excellence in Masonic scholarship. He knows of what he speaks. And writes.
Kinney’s mission is not to denude Freemasonry of the respect it has earned; he wants to help all concerned to understand that the best way to honor Freemasonry is to learn the truth about it. Legendary histories and misunderstandings of rituals, no matter how time-tested they may be, still obscure truth. This book serves like the focus ring on a camera lens: It eliminates blur while allowing the viewer to choose depths of field. As one example of a close-up, the author explains autobiographically:
“It was my good fortune to join a lodge that prided itself on performing excellent ritual, and there was something very touching in realizing that these men, some of whom had been Masons for as long as fifty years, had gone to the trouble of practicing these rituals and delivering whole lectures from memory, all for the sake of giving candidates – including me – a memorable initiation. Further, the realization that generation after generation of Masons had been doing this for some three hundred years or more established a palpable link with the past, a sense of roots that is scarce in today’s attention-deficient culture.”