Having given an example of the manner in which symbolical Masonry explains, as if almost on its own part, how the old craft guild was taken over and transformed, and--although it is by no means suggested that Mary's Chapel and Canongate Kilwinning should burn their earliest records--having seen that the surface explanation is characterised by great insufficiency, I will now show another side of the same subject, prior to which it is assumed that even if craft Masonry may be subject to certain errors of enthusiasm, it has always good faith on its side. On the other hand, outside its records and their inferences, and shipped upon the great sea of speculation, I have seldom met with any subject which has produced more explicit falsehood in the manufacture of historical materials
than has the question of the origins of Masonry. There is no need to specify the mendacious legends of some of the high degrees, for they carry their proper seals and marks upon their mere surface. Let us rather take for our illustration one great name in the literature of the craft, for I suppose that there is none more respected in its own country than is that of J. M. Ragon among the Masons of France. I believe that, on questions of historical fact, his authority has been regarded as almost final. He appears indeed as a sober and careful recorder, though it is obvious that he had several strong prejudgments interleaving his notes of researches, and these would, in any case, make his impartiality doubtful. It must, however, be said that between his materials, some of which must have come to him already tinkered, and his peculiar construction of facts, it is almost pure incautiousness to take anything that he says unverified. He is at the same time the one writer in modern times--that is to say, in and about the year 1853--who has spoken with the most unhesitating voice on the origin of symbolical Masonry outside any natural development of the old craft mystery. In order that I may do no unconscious injustice, I will put his thesis as nearly as possible in his own words.
"Philosophical Masonry," he says, "which neither in fact nor in name had any existence previously, was conceived and embodied in three rituals, in the year 1646, by Elias Ashmole, who rediscovered antique initiation, as Mesmer rediscovered magnetism" (Orthodoxie Maconnique, p. 5). "It is from this primitive source that the Masonic world has drawn that light which illuminates its labours" (ib.). In the same year, being that which saw the reception of Ashmole into the old building guild, a society of Rosicrucians, formed on the plan of Bacon's New Atlantis, assembled at Freemason's Hall, London. Ashmole and the other brethren of the Rose-Cross, seeing that speculative Masons already exceeded the diminishing remnant of operative members,
concluded that the time had come to abrogate the old form of reception and to substitute a written method of initiation, based upon the Ancient Mysteries, and especially those of Egypt and Greece. "The first grade was composed, substantially as we now have it" (p. 29). It received the approbation of the initiates, and the grade of Fellow-Craft was devised in 1648, being followed by the Grade of Master a short time subsequently. The specific object of Ashmole was to regenerate, under the veil of architecture, the mysteries of ancient Indian and Egyptian initiation and to provide the new association with a bond of union, fraternity, perfection, equality and science, grounded upon the laws of Nature and the love of humanity (ib., p. 99). The learned alchemist codified all the oral traditions; they assumed a form and body; and this was the true and proper beginning of Freemasonry, as we now have it (ib., p. 292).
It will be seen that I have not overestimated the force and finality of these statements; it would appear almost incredible that they could be a pure invention of Ragon, or a mere fable which he took over from some earlier source that cannot now be identified; yet this is the case actually, and outside the bare fact that Ashmole was received into the old craft guild, as he records in a few cold and detached lines of his private diary, there is no particle of evidence to support it. That it were otherwise I could well desire, for I have said that the craft was acquired, and that which took it over knew well enough the purport of the Ancient Mysteries, or, under all its veils and subterfuges, we could never have had the legend of the Chief Degree, nor the equally memorable closing which is attached thereto. But the bodies of tradition, which may coincide, and that closely--which may reflect on one another--which may independently testify to each other--are not derived from one another, and the Alchemists, as such, did not invent Masonry. I do not propose to go
over the ground which I have traversed in some previous writings and in particular to recite the conclusions of my Studies in Mysticism as to spiritual rebirth in connection with Masonic Doctrine and Symbolism. That herein lies the true understanding of the Craft Degrees, I am entirely certain, and it is to this point that the grades lead up from the beginning. That the mysteries which we call ancient--though I think that in some form they are always in the world--were concerned with no other subject, I am not less certain. Outside all offices of Masonry there are derivations of the Rosy Cross which, although at a great distance, testify concerning the same doctrine and the same high experience; the old records of the brotherhood also testify; and as there is at least one school of alchemical literature which has inwritten the secret life of the soul under the veil of metallic transmutation, there would be no cause for surprise if we could trace the interference of one or other of the Hermetic fraternities in the transformation of the building guild into symbolical Freemasonry. But the evidence of fact is wanting, either by the way of record or otherwise; while as regards the change in itself, this is much too general in its character to show the hand of an individual school. We must be content therefore with the voice of the grades themselves, with the legends and the symbolism which they involve.