Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Masonic Week 2010: The Operatives


Alice, Wiley and I fought our way home through yet another avalanche of global warming and made it home yesterday afternoon from Alexandria and a tremendous Masonic Week. I chose to stay an extra day and took the first two degrees of the Operatives, or as it is more correctly known, the Worshipful Society of Free Masons, Rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviors, Plaisterers and Bricklayers. I am now officially a member of the Bryn Athyn Quarry Assemblage in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The degrees of the Operatives were designed as a memorial of the practices of operative Free Masons, prior to the development of modern speculative Freemasonry.

Membership in the Society is restricted to those who are Master Masons, Mark Master Masons and Holy Royal Arch Companions in good standing.

From the Society's website:

The Society exists to perpetuate or preserve a memorial of the practices of operative Free Masons existing prior to, or continuing independently of, modern speculative Freemasonry.

It does not claim to be the successor to or connected with any former society of the same or any like name, nor that the ceremonies in fact represent precisely the practice of stonemasons, although some elements certainly reflect former practices. For instance, anyone wishing to learn the craft of stonemasonry in days gone by would do so in two ways; by either watching and practising next to an experienced workman (i.e. 'Sitting by Nellie', as it was known), or by entering into a formal apprenticeship deed with a master. This latter method is reflected in our Society today and, on joining, a candidate does not promptly become a 'mason' but is known as an Indentured Apprentice until through time and experience he is able to progress through the seven degrees of the Society, which are:

Grade I……. Indentured Apprentice

Grade II…… Fellow of the Craft

Grade III ...... Fitter and Marker

Grade IV…... Setter Erector

Grade V…… Intendent, Overseer, Super Intendent and Warden

Grade VI …..Passed Master (Note for Masons: Not Past Master)

Grade VII…. Master Mason, of whom three are Grand Master Masons
The Society is governed by three Grand Master Masons who traditionally hold their offices ad vitam, but waive that right. The First Grand Master Mason retires after a tenure of five years and the Second Grand Master Mason after a period of three years (although both are eligible for reappointment), whilst the office of Third Grand Master Mason terminates annually with the enactment of the Ancient Drama one year after his appointment.

The three Grand Masters are the sole members of the seventh degree Lodge, all others being said to be members of the seventh degree
honoris causa.
[snip]

"The Society has ordinarily generated considerable loyalty and affection among its members and, in addition to the merits of its ceremonies and practices, one reason is that the Society fills a notable gap in the masonic structure.

Speculative masons are happy to trace their origins to the practices of the ancient stone masons, but many then tend to forget all about them."

The Operatives exist to ensure that we do not all forget!


The founder of what is now the Operatives was Clement Edwin Stretton, who was an English civil engineer in the 1860s. As part of his training, Stretton was sent to a quarry in Derbyshire as a month-long crash course in learning something of how the building trade worked from the stone quarry to the job site. In those days, the operative stonemasons' guilds were dwindling in size and influence, but they were still in existence. While he was treated with indifference at first, his application to join the Guild masons opened up a whole new world to him. The Guild still conferred a series of seven operative degrees upon its stone working members, and its traditions long predated the formation of speculative Freemasonry.

Stretton became a Freemason in 1871, but was struck by the many differences between the two organizations. he believed the alterations and innovations made by the premiere Grand Lodge in London had diluted the philosophy and teachings of the original Guild Masons. Even though he went on to serve in many active officer positions in Craft and Royal Arch Freemasonry, he believed that the Master Mason degree that was added by the Grand Lodge in the 1720s was actually based on inadequate knowledge of the Operatives’ Annual Festival that commemorated the slaying of Hiram Abif. So, Stretton dedicated his later life to preserving the Operative degrees. Today, the Society now has more than two thousand members worldwide.

(Read a detailed history of Stretton and the tale of the Operatives here).

The event on Sunday was outstanding. There were 48 candidates for the first two degrees of the Operatives, including brethren visiting from Hawaii. The three Grand Master Masons of the Order braved the miserable weather and were in attendance from England: Rt W Bro Arthur Craddock, VII°, First Grand Master Mason; Rt W Bro David Kibble-Rees, VII°, Second Grand Master Mason; and Rt W Bro James W. Turner, VII°, Third Grand Master Mason.

Many thanks to Worshipful Brother Matthew D. Dupee VI°, Deputy Master Mason, and all of the officers of the Bryn Athyn Quarry Assemblage.

6 comments:

Mike said...

It was one of the best Masonic experiences in which I have had the pleasure to participate. It was quite a learning experience and I believe that the Operatives have much to offer any Speculative Mason. I look forward to my next degree in June (with a smaller number of candidates). I would be remiss if I did not mention the excellent buffet brunch that followed with a mountain of delicious bacon.

Chris Hodapp said...

You were, in fact, attempting suicide by bacon.

Greg said...

That sounds like an amazing experience....I have seen their site and read some of the history.

Suicide by bacon - if you have to go, well...... ;)

Paul said...

I am not an operative, as I have not joined any other organizations besides my Blue Lodge. (Being an officer is enough.) But I do hope you will make time to come to the Allentown temple. It's an older building, but it really is a jewel. We have 4 Blue Lodges that meet there, as well as several York Rite bodies. And if you're in a Scottish Rite frame of mind, the Valley of Allentown is literally right behind us. Sad i missed the conference but glad the Brethren that went had such a good time.
-Bro. Paul M. Chamberlin
Senior Deacon
Greenleaf Lodge 561

Chris said...

Welcome to the Operatives! I am a brother of Bentley Priory Assemblage here in London, and will be taking my IIIrd in March.

Bro. Chris Hansen, MM, SW
Goliath Lodge #5595, UGLE

MP said...

I'm curious - how do Masons who are members of GL's which have something similar to Massachusetts code 701 (the bodies which Massachusetts GL allows its members to join) justify joining this, as most of those codes do not list the Operatives.