Rob Morris

Written Mnemonics - Deciphering a Controversial Ritual

Written_Mnemonics_webMost 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.)


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.

The Prudence Book: A List of All Masons (For Detecting Masonic Impostors)

Prudence_Book_cover_web1Four years ago, our very first blog post was on the topic of Masonic impostors. Each May since then, we've follow up with another post on the same topic. Our earlier posts looked at Masonic impostors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but today we're going further back in time and looking at the subject of Masonic impostors in 1859.

The Prudence Book of Freemasonry for 1859 was compiled and published by Rob Morris (1818-1888), a well-known Masonic author and book publisher based in Louisville, Kentucky. Morris was a high-profile Mason who wrote extensively and served in many high Masonic offices. Indeed, he was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky when The Prudence Book was published.

Although rather mundanely titled and brief (64 page), Morris's booklet was ambitious. It sought to become a tool that could be used to identify non-Masons intent on imposing upon the good will and charity of Masonic lodges by posing as Masons in need of financial assistance. Morris gives many examples of Masonic impostors on the back inside cover (below, right) of The Prudence Book, including this colorful description: "Mr. A.G. Jones has committed depredations upon the fraternity in Decatur county, Ga. and other places. He is badly pock-marked, and quite loquacious. Beware of him."

At first glance, The Prudence Book seems like an odd title, but it alludes to a line from Freemasonry's "Ancient Charges," quoted by Morris on the cover of the booklet (pictured above, left):

"You are cautiously to examine a strange brother in such a manner as PRUDENCE shall direct you, that you may not be imposed upon by an ignorant, false pretender, whom you are to reject with contempt and derision, and beware of giving him any hints of knowledge."

Prudence_Book_inside_back_cover_web1This issue of Morris's Prudence Book was the first of what he planned to be six separate 64-page booklets, which collectively would do one simple thing: list every Mason in the United States (and British provinces).

Morris's hope was that the Secretary of every lodge in the United States would purchase these booklets so that they would have a current - or current as possible - list of every Mason in the U.S., listed alphabetically by last name within each state. According to an advertisement in the December 15, 1859 issue of The Voice of Masonry and Tidings from the Craft - the Masonic newspaper for which Morris was editor-in-chief - five issues of The Prudence Book had been published. (The ad also indicates that there would be eight issues, rather than the six Morris had originally predicted. Our library only owns the first issue.)

Morris's preface to The Prudence Book succinctly lays out his vision of the need for such a resource and how it would benefit the fraternity:

"But few remarks of a prefatory character are needed. The general call for a publication of this sort has become urgent, clamorous, irresistible. The Masonic periodicals all confirm it. Proceedings of Grand Lodges everywhere confirm it. My correspondence is filled with evidence of it.
Hereafter, when a visitor calls upon you, it will be a matter of course to look for his name in the PRUDENCE BOOK. If not there, a satisfactory explanation of the omission will be expected of him.

Hereafter, when an applicant for relief makes known his wants, you have something in the PRUDENCE BOOK which will strengthen or invalidate his claims; and if you are imposed upon in spite of this aid, you have the means at command to discover the fact, and avoid a second loss. Heretofore, you have had neither.

And, by means of the PRUDENCE BOOK, you can trace out distant acquaintances, refresh your mind with the grand array of our noble Institution, far and near, watch its progress and career; and, when preparing to sojourn to other countries, carry with you, in a single volume, a Roll of the workmen nearly as large as that of King Solomon."

Although, in this first issue, Morris states that he intends to continue to update The Prudence Book every year, the whole enterprise still raises the question that dogged later Masonic organizations who tried to stay ahead of traveling Masonic impostors: can the information about who is and who isn't a Mason travel faster than the Masonic impostors themselves?

Rob Morris. The Prudence Book of Freemasonry for 1859: Being a Catalogue from the Latest Official Data, of the Grand Lodges, Subordinate Lodges, and Individual Masons, Members of the Lodges in the United States and British Provinces, with the Seal of Each Grand Lodge: The Whole Affording a Means of Recognition and a Test to Try Impostors. Louisville, KY: Rob Morris, 1859.
Call number: RARE 01.M877 1859

Rob Morris's Poetic Allusions to the Battle of Lexington

Morrismasonicodes_web_3 As blogs go, you won't find much opinion at ours, but I'm going to break that just for a moment to say that, as a poet, Rob Morris is no Charles Simic. Yet while Morris may not be to everyone's poetical tastes, that doesn't make him any less interesting as a historical figure.

Like Simic, Rob Morris (1818-1888) is - or, rather, was - a poet laureate. While Simic is the current poet laureate of the United States (news-flash: Kay Ryan was recently named the new poet laureate, but she doesn't start until the fall), Morris was the Poet Laureate of Freemasonry. When first hearing this, I thought that perhaps Morris was a self-styled poet laureate, but, no, in fact, he was officially recognized as such at a ceremony that took place on December 17, 1884 at the Grand Lodge of New York in New York City. Only one other poet had been dubbed the Poet Laureate of Freemasonry before - Robert Burns. Yes, the Robert Burns. Most folks who don't read poetry have likely heard of Burns, and even if you don't think you know Burns's work, you do: he wrote Auld Lang Syne ("Should auld acquaintance be forgot..."). Burns, a Freemason, was made the Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No. 2, Edinburgh, Scotland in February of 1787.

In an article entitled "A Successor to Robert Burns," the New York Times described the crowning of Morris as the new poet laureate of Freemasonry at a ceremony which included a procession marching to the William Tell Overture, as well as an actual crowning of Morris with a laurel wreath. Of course, succeeding Burns is, some might say, no small task, but if anyone was going to be crowned poet laureate of Freemasonry at the time, Morris seemed like the man to pick.

Morris wrote and lectured extensively on Freemasonry. He also founded the Order of the Eastern Star and wrote its ritual. Morris's Masonic accomplishments are vast and it's difficult to understate his involvement with Freemasonry. His various affiliations and accomplishments are too many to list here.

Pictured above is the cover to the 1875 edition of Morris's Three Hundred Masonic Odes and Poems, published by William T. Anderson's Masonic Publishing Company in New York in 1875 [Call number: 63.1 .M877m 1875]. The book was published eleven years before Morris became poet laureate, illustrating, perhaps how the choice of Morris as poet laureate was, to many, a no-brainer. (If not Morris, who?)

Among the three hundred odes and poems, I found one that seems perfect for those of us writing from an American history museum founded by Freemasons and located in Lexington, Massachusetts. So, for your enjoyment and edification, I include the first stanza of Morris's poem "Lines to Lexington Lodge, No. 310, at Brooklyn, NY," from Three Hundred Masonic Odes and Poems, a poem in which Morris alludes to the Battle of Lexington, the presumed namesake of the lodge:

A fire was kindled on the plain
Of Lexington that gloweth yet;
Each blood-drop from a patriot's heart
A lasting horror did beget,
Of tyrant's chain and despot's rule,
With which our sorrowing world is full.

We have many works by and about Morris in our collection, far too numerous to list here. You can see what titles we have by searching our online catalog.