Almost since the beginning of the Ring of Fire Universe, readers (and writers) have speculated about potential activities by social and fraternal organizations in Grantville and how they might continue to operate in the seventeenth century. In particular, the Masonic Fraternity could have made the journey back in time and sought to function in the down-time environment.
There are a number of obstacles to fraternal activity in the form in which it would have existed up-time, and these place significant constraints on stories set down-time. I have been a writer in the universe for a few years and have had the benefit of excellent advice and editorial direction regarding a large number of subjects; now, as an active Freemason who serves as Grand Historian for the oldest Grand Lodge in North America and as librarian at its library, I have the opportunity to provide my own exposition which I hope will be useful for any writers seeking to work Freemasonry into stories set in the world of 1632.
Freemasonry in Up-time Grantville
Grantville, West Virginia is closely based on an actual town, Mannington, which up-time had a local lodge—Mannington #31, originally chartered (brought into existence) under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Virginia; it was inactive during the Civil War and was reformed and chartered in 1867. While not among the lodges that helped create the Grand Lodge of West Virginia in Fairmont in 1865, Mannington Lodge was still one of the earliest lodges created in the new state, and is still on West Virginia’s rolls today.
Lodges and Grand Lodges
Since the early eighteenth century, a distinct geographical area—a country or region or, in the United States, a state or territory—will have a supernumerary body called a grand lodge. This organization, governed by a grand master, performs the following functions exclusively within its territorial jurisdiction:
- It issues and controls charters: official documents that permit a lodge to perform Masonic functions and admit new members
- It directs the performance of Masonic rituals and determines official protocols under which lodges operate
- It collects fees for new and existing members of lodges.
Though they have done so in the past, Grand Lodges in the United States do not generally confer membership (“the degrees”) on applicants; this is generally reserved to the lodges.
Lodges in the United States vary somewhat in their exact organization, but every lodge—the local, constituent body that actually performs the Masonic ritual—will have a number of officers, either elected by the membership or appointed by the governing officer, who is universally called the Master (or “Worshipful Master”). The next two officers are called Wardens, Senior and Junior; that is the minimum number of officers absolutely required to conduct a meeting. There are varying numbers and types of other officers depending on jurisdiction—Deacons and Stewards to help perform the Masonic rituals, a Marshal (or Master of Ceremonies) to conduct processions, a Chaplain to offer prayers; a Secretary and Treasurer to manage the business of the lodge, a Tyler (who generally remains outside the room to receive visitors and “guard the door”), and even an Organist, if the lodge has an organ or piano, as music has been a part of Masonic meetings for centuries.
The primary function (“work”) of a Masonic lodge is to confer the “degrees”—a series of presentations that teach moral lessons and impose obligations upon candidates. Each degree includes an oath, generally sworn on bended knee at an altar, which includes the obligation to keep secret the “modes of recognition”—signs and handshakes (“grips”) that permit Masons to “recognize” each other. (In modern times, Masons tend to recognize each other by lapel pins, belt buckles, and baseball caps, but that’s beside the point.) It is worth noting that all presentations in lodges are done from memory, and in West Virginia (as in many other jurisdictions) the “work” is taught from mouth to ear, that is, without any sort of textbook. Officers learn their words sentence by sentence from a teacher. This is aided (in West Virginia) by “schools of instruction,” where a teacher might have a printed text of the ritual, but it is not permitted to copy it for personal use. However, much of the “secret work” has been available in one form or another, particularly with the advance of the Internet; it is unclear what might have been available in that form in 2000.
West Virginia lodges generally meet once or twice a month on the same night (“First and Third”); if multiple times they would meet once for business and once to confer degrees. According to the current West Virginia Grand Lodge list, a few lodges meet according to the phase of the moon; this practice was much more common when members needed to find their way home from meetings at night by moonlight.
Most lodges in West Virginia hold special meetings on one or both “Saint John’s Days”—June 24 (Baptist) and December 27 (Evangelist).
While the exact conduct of Masonic meetings might be kept somewhat secret, the Mannington lodge met—and still meets—in a publicly identifiable location at a well-known time; in this case, at 107½ Clarksburg Street on the first and third Tuesdays.
Effects of the Ring of Fire
The single most important effect of the event would be to isolate the Grantville lodge from the rest of the up-time Masonic fraternity. For all intents and purposes, the only Masonic lodge—in the up-time sense—that would exist would be Grantville Lodge. There would be no Grand Lodge to govern it, no neighbor lodges to share duties. It would be effectively alone.
There would be additional complications, not the least of which would be that the first year or two might leave little time to keep up meetings of the lodge.
But there would be an even greater obstacle to conducting Masonic work if some – or most—of the active officers were not in Grantville when the Ring of Fire took it away. If the Master and Wardens lived a few towns away, they would simply be absent and unable to give the memorized lectures that are essential to the conferral of degrees. This might be ameliorated if some of the people who happened to be there on the day of the event—say, one or more male members of the wedding party—happened to be Masons, but if they belonged to a lodge in another jurisdiction, even if they were officers they might be familiar with a completely different version of the lectures. Modes of recognition are fairly universal within the United States, but protocols and practices might be completely different.
For convenience, it might be assumed that at least one of Grantville Lodge’s senior officers came through the Ring of Fire, and if we decide to be generous, that one of the members of the lodge—perhaps a past Master (one who had previously been the presiding officer)—served as a lecturer or instructor and happened to have a copy of the ritual text book. Given those modest assumptions, Grantville Lodge might be able to return to operation a few years after the Ring of Fire. It would effectively be its own Grand Lodge, but depending on the temperament and judgment of its members, it might face insuperable challenges in continuing to function. It could make its own rules—but while that dispenses with many problems, it creates almost as many more.
Freemasonry Outside the Ring of Fire
Here we reach the heart of the difficulty regarding the future of Masonic activity and stories that might be written about it. Well-defined history of the Fraternity dates from the year 1717, when the first Grand Lodge (the “Grand Lodge of London and Westminster,” which ultimately became the Grand Lodge of England, the ancestor of all “regular” Freemasonry in the world) was organized by four lodges in London. The oldest Grand Lodge in the New World, Massachusetts, was created by this Grand Lodge in 1733, with many others not far behind.
However, it is well-known—just not well-documented—that there was considerable Masonic activity, with at least some of the forms and ceremonies resembling the modern ones, well before 1717. This took place all during the seventeenth century, and possibly during the sixteenth century as well. Anecdotal accounts freely mix with legend, and what you believe has a lot to do with what you believe about the origin of the fraternity itself.
Most traditional histories suggest that the “speculative” form of Masonry—the philosophical and benevolent society that doesn’t actually work in stone—grew out of the medieval stonemasons’ guilds, which had codes of behavior, modes of recognition, traditions of charity, and a strong predilection for keeping secrets, including in some cases the identity of its members. At some point these guilds began to admit non-operative members, particularly those who would give the society a cachet.
There is, however, a poorly-supported theory that the Freemasons are, in fact, the descendants of members of the Templar order, who were forced to “go underground” after the order was betrayed and banned by the Church in the early fourteenth century. This theory began to gain popularity in the early- to mid-eighteenth century, and while romantic, it does not stand up to close scrutiny.
Finally, the principles and beliefs of the Masonic fraternity are closely aligned with the Enlightenment—equality, fraternity, freedom of thought—and the modern-day society derives much of its true philosophy from the beliefs of that era; all of that precedes the seventeenth-century incarnation of Freemasonry. In short: whatever the form of the fraternity in the seventeenth century, it will be a lot different than the twentieth-century form. It will be secretive, charitable only within its membership, jealous of its privileges, and—unlike the up-time version—doctrinaire and likely hostile to “outsiders”—even people who know the modes of recognition. Up-time Freemasons will have a tough time cracking the shell of down-time ones.
J. G. Findel’s History of Freemasonry gives an account of the development of the Steinmetzen, a society of stonemasons in the Holy Roman Empire. Findel identifies the headquarters of the organization as Strasbourg, with subordinates—Bauhütten—which might compare with lodges, with the oldest ones in various cities in the Empire dating from the thirteenth century. He notes that there was some decline in the Bauhütten over the next two centuries, but in 1459 a confederation of nineteen Bauhütten formed a new confederation. They gathered in Ratisbon to write a set of Ordinances to govern it, and these statutes became the standard throughout the Empire, confirmed by a series of Emperors. These Steinmetzen—actual operative stonemasons—used recognition modes (Wahrzeichen) and initiation ceremonies that were similar to those used by Freemasons in modern times. The Thirty Years’ War seriously disrupted the fraternal activities of the Steinmetzen, as well as putting many builders and craftsmen out of work.
Understand, however, that the Steinmetzen in the Empire were operative Masons—they actually worked with tools and built things. They were bound together by more than fraternalism; they were professional colleagues.
Interaction Between Up-time and Down-time Masons
Properly treated, the interaction between up-time Freemasons and down-time Steinmetzen would be a good source of interesting stories. The Steinmetzen would by their nature be more secretive and more jealous of their relationships; any chance encounters would be the result of some accident, like an up-time Mason seeing a recognition sign or overhearing a password and then seeking to greet the down-timer. These are unlikely to be received well, at least at the outset. But if a trusting relationship could be established, it would give the Grantville Masons access to a wide network of intelligence and local knowledge.