Written Mnemonics - Deciphering a Controversial Ritual
October 01, 2013
Most Masonic ritual, if it is not printed in plain English,
is written in a cipher that works as a prompt for a script that has already
been memorized. In other words, it is not a cipher that requires a key to read.
Instead, the key to reading it is, almost counter-intuitively, previous
knowledge of the text. Ritual books are what a Mason uses to learn his part.
Here’s an example of how you might be able to read a similar kind of cipher to
a text you already know:
I pldg allgnce t Ћ flg oЋ Un St o Am & t Ћ repblc fr wh i stnds, 1 ntn undr Gd…
The cipher pictured above was published in 1860, and is titled Written Mnemonics: Illustrated by Copious Examples from Moral Philosophy, Science and Religion. It is an example of a Masonic ritual cipher that was encrypted – that is, a text which can be read if one has the key to decrypt it (see our post on the Ast Ritual, for another example of an encrypted cipher ritual). Written Mnenomics is currently on view in Secret Scripts: Masonic and Fraternal Ritual Books in the Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.
A group known as “The Conservators,” led by Freemason Rob Morris, published this book, which is an unusual-looking cipher containing the Craft degrees. The Conservator movement was short-lived, only lasting from 1860 until 1865. Their goal was to disseminate a standard Craft ritual for the United States, at a time when (as today) Masonic ritual was not uniform from state to state. The Conservators tried to recruit prominent Masons who were either in influential positions within their Grand Lodge or who were noted for their ritualistic ability. In the end, around three thousand Masons joined the Conservators.
While it may be hard to imagine that such an impenetrable looking cipher could have provoked strong opinions, Written Mnemonics had vocal detractors. The objection was two-fold: the first was about the accuracy of the ritual and the second was about whether Morris had violated his Masonic oath.
In trying to create a uniform ritual, Morris used the ritual and lectures popularized by Thomas Smith Webb (1771-1819), who himself built on the work of Wiliam Preston (1742-1818). Morris claimed that Written Mnemonics contained the true “Preston-Webb” work. Many detractors doubted the authenticity and accuracy of Morris’s ritual, a criticism that Morris refuted in the pages of the movement’s official magazine, The Conservator.
But the largest part of the objections made against Written Mnemonics centered around Morris’s Masonic obligations. Many Masons objected to this book’s publication, claiming that, because the book could be read by anyone who had the key, its publication violated Morris’s Masonic oath. The objectors’ main concern was that the publication included – albeit in code – the tokens, grips, and signs that all Masons promised not to reveal.
For those wondering how complicated decryption of the text is, Ray V. Denslow, in his book about the Conservator movement described the encryption of Written Mnemonics this way:
"The inside [i.e. of Written Mnemonics] contained little but a jumble of figures and letters arranged in eighteen columns and twenty-five rows. But the book, itself, was not complete; to be able to read the volume required the "spelling book" and an additional page of instructions. The latter told where to begin; sometimes the searcher for authentic ritual would read up, at other times down; and again, cross-wise. To be a Conservator, and a student of Mnemonics required an exercise of those truly Masonic and Conservator virtues of Time, Patience and Perserverance.
If you are interested in reading more about Written Mnemonics and the Conservator movement, look no further than Ray V. Denslow's book, The Masonic Conservators (Grand Lodge of Missouri, 1931). It is the definitive work on the topic. (Denslow's book can be read online through a digitized copy on the HathiTrust Digital Library website.)
Caption:Rob Morris, Written Mnemonics: Illustrated by Copious Examples from Moral Philosophy, Science and Religion, 1860, Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives Collection, RARE 14 .W7 1860.