summer 2013 | scottish rite masonic museum & library

T

he Museum’s Van Gorden-
Williams Library and Archives 
maintains a large collection 
of Masonic and fraternal 

ritual books and manuscripts. Sixteen 
of these important works will be on 
exhibit in the library’s reading room 
beginning July 20. The exhibition fea-
tures rituals of the Symbolic Lodge, 
the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry— 
including its well-known 33°—and 
rituals of other fraternal or-ganizations 
that were influenced by Freemasonry. 
Objects on view range from a hand-
written 33° ritual from 1801 to a 
printed Masonic cipher from the 
1930s. All are historic and do not 
represent present-day ritual. 
 Ceremonial initiation is a defining 
element of Freemasonry and of other 
fraternal groups. During initiations, 
candidates participate in a series of 
dramatic ritual ceremonies called  
“degrees.” These degrees teach moral 
and ethical lessons through symbol 
and drama. For members, ritual pres-
ents an opportunity to initiate new 
members through a solemn, dramatic 
ceremony that they have experienced 
themselves. 
 Ritual initiation degrees can be 
thought of as plays, which feature  
the candidate as the main protagonist, 
while other members of the lodge take 
on other dramatic roles in the cast. 
Most ritual degrees involve a journey 
—narratively, figuratively, or, often-
times, both. Ritual books—like those 
on display in the exhibition—contain 
the scripts to these plays. As with a 
play, the participants memorize their 
lines. These books were not used  
during the degree ceremony, but to 
help participants prepare.
 Non-members have long been   
fascinated with ritual because of its 
association with secrecy. Members  

Secret Scripts:

 Masonic and Fraternal Ritual Books 

of fraternal organizations have not 
always agreed about what parts of  
ritual may be described and what 
should not be divulged to the uniniti-
ated. Organizations privately published 
ritual books and distributed them to 
members. Many Masonic rituals have 
been printed in cipher, insuring that, 
even if a non-member saw a ritual 
book, he could not read it.

 Ritual initiation is an experience 
that, some initiates say, one must  
go through in order to comprehend. 
Although ritual books and manuscripts 
are essential to ritual, they are just 
one piece of a dramatic whole. The 
objects on view in the exhibition offer 
us a glimpse into the mysteries of  
initiation that—over time—all new 
candidates have come seeking.

opeNs July 20, 2013

“Grand, elect, Perfect and sublime master mason,” from The Secret Directory: Book I, 1867.  

supreme Council, 33°, northern masonic Jurisdiction, boston, massachusetts. rare 14.71 .D4-14 

1867. Photograph by David bohl.