"The fact remains that there is no trace of chivalric degrees in Freemasonry prior to Ramsay's Oration." These are the words of Stephen Dafoe in his book "Compasses and the Cross". Ramsay who ironically was not of noble birth (thereby ineligible for knighthood) is credited with giving a speech that would give birth to the various theories of Masonic Knighthood.
Who was Chevalier Ramsay?
Andrew Michael Ramsay was born on 9 January circa 1681 in Ayr, Scotland. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh he was employed (through much of his life) as a tutor to the children of the aristocracy. Ramsay was made a Freemason on 26 March 1729 at Horn Lodge in the Palace Yard, Westminster. In 1730, Ramsay was employed in France and here it is said he was a member of Louis l'Argent Lodge where he held the office of Orator. He is said to have been a Grand Orator, but it seems to be more of an honorary title held between Lodges as at the time there was no Grand Lodge formed in France. And as Bro. Dafoe puts it in his book, "It was in his capacity as Orator that Ramsay prepared and delivered an address that would form the building blocks upon which chivalric Masonry would rise." This address he is said to have given on 21 March 1737.
Regardless of when he gave it and what office he held, the biggest question is why he gave this address. It is noted by many that in England, Freemasonry while held for those of the upper echelon of society, it was still by large a gentleman's club. It is possible that Ramsay was trying to market Freemasonry to the French aristocracy who would not have had any interest in joining an organization that descended from working-class men. This is supported by the Oration itself wherein he talks about not taking the name of 'Freemason' literally and looking to see there were "religious warriors and princes".
There is very little doubt about the fact that Ramsay invented this chivalric history of Freemasonry, but nonetheless, he sparked the fire that would be the creation of Chivalric Masonic orders. He may not have invented these "high degrees", as they were once called, but he played a very important role.
The noble ardor which you, gentlemen, evince to enter into the noblest and very illustrious Order of Freemasons, is a certain proof that you already possess all the qualities necessary to become members, that is, humanity, pure morals, inviolable secrecy, and a taste for the fine arts.
Lycurgus, Solon, Numa, and all political legislators have failed to make their institutions lasting. However wise their laws may have been, they have not been able to spread through all countries and ages. As they only kept in view victories and conquests, military violence, and the elevation of one people at the expense of another, they have not had the power to become universal, nor to make themselves acceptable to the taste, spirit, and interest of all nations. Philanthropy was not their basis. Patriotism badly understood and pushed to excess, often destroyed in these warrior republics' love and humanity in general. Mankind is not essentially distinguished by the tongues spoken, the clothes worn, the lands occupied, or the dignities with which it is invested.
Our Society was at the outset established to revive and spread these essential maxims borrowed from the nature of man. We desire to reunite all men of enlightened minds, gentle manners, and agreeable wit, not only by a love for the fine arts, but much more by the grand principles of virtue, science, and religion, where the interests of the Fraternity shall become those of the whole human race, whence all Nations shall be enabled to draw useful knowledge, and where the subjects of all Kingdoms shall learn to cherish one another without renouncing their own country. Our ancestors, the Crusaders, gathered together from all parts of Christendom in the Holy Land, desired thus to reunite into one sole Fraternity the individuals of all nations. What obligations do we not owe to these superior men who, without gross selfish interests, without even listening to the inborn tendency to dominate, imagined such an institution, the sole aim of which is to unite minds and hearts in order to make them better, and form in the course of ages a spiritual empire where, without derogating from the various duties which different States exact, a new people shall be created, which, composed of many nations, shall in some sort cement them all into one by the tie of virtue and science.
The second requisite of our Society is sound morals. The religious orders were established to make perfect Christians, military orders to inspire a love of true glory, and the Order of Freemasons, to make men lovable men, good citizens, good subjects, inviolable in their promises, faithful adorers of the God of Love, lovers rather of virtue than of reward.
"Polliciti servare fidem, sanctumque vereri Numen amicito, mores, non munera amare.
Nevertheless, we do not confine ourselves to purely civic virtues. We have amongst us three kinds of brothers: Novices or Apprentices, Fellows or Professed Brothers, Masters or Perfected Brothers. To the first are explained the moral virtues; to the second the heroic virtues; to the last the Christian virtues; so that our institution embraces the whole philosophy of sentiment and the complete theology of the heart.
Because a sad, savage, and misanthropic Philosophy disgusts virtuous men, our ancestors, the Crusaders, wished to render it lovable by the attractions of innocent pleasures, agreeable music, pure joy, and moderate gaiety. Our festivals are not what the profane world and the ignorant vulgar imagine. All the vices of heart and soul are banished there, and irreligion, libertinage, incredulity, and debauch are proscribed.
Our banquets resemble those virtuous symposia of Horace, where the conversation only touched what could enlighten the soul discipline the heart, and inspire a taste for the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Thus the obligations imposed upon you by the Order, are to protect your brothers by your authority, to enlighten them by your knowledge, to edify them by your virtues, to succor them in their necessities, to sacrifice all personal resentment, and to strive after an that may contribute to the peace and unity of society.
We have secrets; they are figurative signs and sacred words, composing a language sometimes mute, sometimes very eloquent, in order to communicate with one another at the greatest distance, and to recognize our brothers of whatsoever tongue. These were words of war that the Crusaders gave each other in order to guarantee them from the surprises of the Saracens, who often crept in amongst them to kill them. These signs and words recall the remembrance either of some part of our science, or of some moral virtue, or of some mystery of the faith.
That has happened to us which never befell any former Society. Our Lodges have been established, and are spread in all civilized nations, and, nevertheless, among this numerous multitude of men never has a brother betrayed our secrets. Those natures most trivial, most indiscreet, least schooled to silence, learn this great art on entering our Society.
Such is the power over all natures of the idea of a fraternal bond! This inviolable secret contributes powerfully to unite the subjects of all nations and to render the communication of benefits easy and mutual between us. We have many examples in the annals of our Order. Our brothers, traveling in divers lands, have only needed to make themselves known in our Lodges in order to be there immediately overwhelmed by all kinds of succor, even in time of the most bloody wars, and illustrious prisoners have found brothers where they only expected to meet enemies. Should any fail in the solemn promises which bind us, you know, gentlemen, that the penalties which we impose upon him are remorse of conscience, shame at his perfidy, and exclusion from our Society, according to those beautiful lines of Horace:
Est et fideli tuta silentio Merces
vetabo qui Cereris sacrum
Vulgarit arcanae, sub isdem
Sit tragibus, fragilemque mecum
Yes, sirs, the famous festivals of Ceres at Eleusis, of Isis in Egypt, of Minerva at Athens, of Urania amongst the Phenicians, and of Diana in Scythia were connected with ours. In those places, mysteries were celebrated which concealed many vestiges of the ancient religion of Noah and the Patriarchs. They concluded with banquets and libations, and neither that intemperance nor excess was known into which the heathen gradually fell. The source of these infamies was the admission to the nocturnal assemblies of persons of both sexes in contravention of the primitive usages. It is in order to prevent similar abuses that women are excluded from our Order. We are not so unjust as to regard the fair sex as incapable of keeping a secret. But their presence might insensibly corrupt the purity of our maxims and manners.
The fourth quality required in our Order is the taste for useful sciences and the liberal arts. Thus, the Order exacts of each of you to contribute, by his protection, liberality, or labor, to a vast work for which no academy can suffice, because all these societies being composed of a very small number of men, their work cannot embrace an object so extended.
All the Grand Masters in Germany, England, Italy, and elsewhere, exhort all the learned men and all the artisans of the Fraternity to unite to furnish the materials for a Universal Dictionary of the liberal arts and useful sciences, excepting only theology and politics. The work has already been commenced in London, and by means of the union of our brothers, it may be carried to a conclusion in a few years. Not only are technical words and their etymology explained, but the history of each art and science, its principles and operations, are described. By this means the lights of all nations will be united in one single work, which will be a universal library of all that is beautiful, great, luminous, solid, and useful in all the sciences and in all noble arts. This work will augment in each century, according to the increase of knowledge, and it will spread emulation and the taste for things of beauty and utility over all of Europe.
Every family, every Republic, every Empire, of which the origin is lost in obscure antiquity, has its fable and its truth, its legend and its history. Some ascribe our institution to Solomon, some to Moses, some to Abraham, some to Noah, and some to Enoch, who built the first city, or even to Adam. Without any pretense of denying these origins, I pass on to matters less ancient. This, then, is a part of what I have gathered in the annals of Great Britain, in the Acts of Parliament, which speak often of our privileges, and in the living traditions of the English people, which has been the center of our Society since the eleventh century.
At the time of the Crusades in Palestine many princes, lords, and citizens associated themselves and vowed to restore the Temple of the Christians in the Holy Land, and to employ themselves in bringing back their architecture to its first institution. They agreed upon several ancient signs and symbolic words drawn from the well of religion in order to recognize themselves amongst the heathen and Saracens. These signs and words were only communicated to those who promised solemnly, and even sometimes at the foot of the altar, never to reveal them. This sacred promise was therefore not an execrable oath, as it has been called, but a respectable bond to unite Christians of all nationalities in one confraternity. Some time afterward our Order formed an intimate union with the Knights of St John of Jerusalem. From that time our Lodges took the name of Lodges of St John.
This union was made after the example set by the Israelites when they erected the second Temple, who whilst they handled the trowel and mortar with one hand, in the other held the sword and buckler.
Our Order therefore must not be considered a revival of the Bacchanals, but as an order founded in remote antiquity, and renewed in the Holy Land by our ancestors in order to recall the memory of the most sublime truths amidst the pleasures of society.
The kings, princes, and lords returned from Palestine to their own lands and there established divers Lodges. At the time of the last Crusades, many Lodges were already erected in Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and from thence in Scotland, because of the close alliance between the French and the Scotch.
James, Lord Steward of Scotland, was Grand Master of a Lodge established at Kilwinning, in the West of Scotland, MCCLXXXVI, shortly after the death of Alexander III, King of Scotland, and one year before John Baliol mounted the throne. This lord received as Freemasons into his Lodge the Earls of Gloucester and Ulster, the one English, the other Irish.
By degrees our Lodges and our rites were neglected in most places. This is why of so many historians only those of Great Britain speak of our Order. Nevertheless it preserved its splendor among those Scotsmen to whom the Kings of France confided during many centuries the safeguard of their royal persons.
After the deplorable mishaps in the Crusades, the perishing of the Christian armies, and the triumph of Bendocdar, Sultan of Egypt, during the eighth and last Crusade, that great Prince Edward, son of Henry III, King of England, seeing there was no longer any safety for his brethren in the Holy Land, from whence the Christian troops were retiring, brought them all back, and this colony of brothers was established in England. As this prince was endowed with all heroic qualities, he loved the fine arts, declared himself protector of our Order, conceded to it new privileges, and then the members of this fraternity took the name of Freemasons, after the example set by their ancestors. Since that time Great Britain became the seat of our Order, the conservator of our laws, and the depository of our secrets. The fatal religious discords which embarrassed and tore Europe in the sixteenth century caused our Order to degenerate from the nobility of its origin. Many of our rites and usages which were contrary to the prejudices of the times were changed, disguised, suppressed.
Thus it was that many of our brothers forgot, like the ancient Jews, the spirit of our laws, and only retained the letter and shell. The beginnings of a remedy have already been made. It is only necessary to continue, and to at last bring everything back to its original institution. This work cannot be difficult in a State where religion and the Government can only be favorable to our laws.
From the British Isles the Royal Art is now repassing into France, under the reign of the most amiable of Kings, whose humanity animates all his virtues, and under the ministry of a Mentor, who has realized all that could be imagined most fabulous.
In this happy age when love of peace has become the virtue of heroes, this nation one of the most spiritual of Europe, will become the center of the Order. She will clothe our work, our statutes, and our customs with grace, delicacy, and good taste, essential qualities of the Order, of which the basis is the wisdom, strength, and beauty of genius. It is in future in our Lodges, as it were in public schools, that Frenchmen shall learn, without traveling, the characters of all nations, and that strangers shall experience that France is the home of all peoples.
Patria gentis humano.