“Get knowledge, get wisdom; but with all thy gettings, get understanding,” exclaims the
old Teacher, in a counsel that may well be commended to the Masonic Fraternity to-day,
which so little understands its own system. – W. L. Wilmhurst
In this post we’ll be checking in and look a little deeper with Walter Leslie Wilmshurst (22 June 1867 – 10 July 1939) was an English author and Freemason. He published four books on English Freemasonry and submitted articles to several magazines.
In an excellent paper entitled,
“IN SEARCH OF THAT WHICH WAS LOST:
THE PERSPECTIVE OF W.L. WILMSHURST ON THE ESSENCE OF THE CRAFT”
by Jeffrey P. Modzelewski
Member, Texas Lodge of Research
Past Master, Harmony Lodge No. 6 (Texas)
We find that Wilmshurst was many things and concerned himself with the more mystical or spiritual side of Freemasons and Freemasonry.
“The typical man who petitions for admission into Freemasonry does so for a variety of
reasons but with little or no detailed concept of the essence of the Craft.”
“Essence,” as defined by Webster’s New World College Dictionary, is “… the inward nature
of anything, underlying its manifestations; true substance…,”
and the fact that the average petitioner is not cognizant of the Craft’s “true substance” is, perhaps, not surprising.
It is a fact, of course, that Masonry has been the focus of numerous exposés, both accurate
and not, throughout its history. Many non-Masons have, in recent years, even viewed its degree rituals broadcast on television.
Most frequently, however, such publicity has concentrated on what the dictionary definition
cited above terms “manifestations” – the external forms and ceremonies of the brotherhood
rather than its “inward nature,” because it is the mystique and exotica of the former that are most alluring to the profane. But the renown of the organization’s secretiveness did not arise without reason, and, given this characteristic, one should not wonder that most prospective candidates are ignorant of the true purpose for which the Fraternity exists.
What may indeed be surprising, however, is that the majority of long-time Masons are
likewise unable to articulate an opinion on the essence of the Order. We hear and echo discrete catchphrases such as: “Masonry proclaims the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God”; “Masonry is a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols”; and “The principal tenets of Freemasonry are brotherly love, relief and truth.” We may sense – and if so, we believe implicitly – that Freemasonry was developed for a great purpose, one that is pure and of great import, but we find ourselves at a loss for words to describe this purpose in an integrated, comprehensive fashion.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, English Freemason Walter Leslie Wilmshurst
wrote of this matter thusly:
“The meaning of Masonry… is a subject usually left entirely unexpounded and that
accordingly remains largely unrealized by its members save such few as make it their
private study…. It seems taken for granted that reception into the Order will automatically be accompanied by an ability to appreciate forthwith and at its full value all that one there finds. The contrary is the case.
So what is the author of the paper and ultimately Wilmhurst trying to say? If we accept the axiom that Masonry is a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory, then we actually have the key to unlock it. There is also another clue to what Wilmhurst is expounding on in the acronym V.I.T.R.I.O.L. For those unfamiliar with this acronym it is the abbreviation for a sentence in the Latin;
Visita Interiora Terrae, Rectificando, Invenies Occultum Lapidem”, translated it means “Visit (Visita) the Interior (Interiora) of the Earth (Terrae), and by purifying (Rectificando), you will Find (Invenies) the Hidden (Occultum) Stone (Lapidem).”
The Symbol associated with this term is:
Without going into the specifics (as that is fodder for another post) suffice to say that the term, the symbol and associated symbols within are of Hermetic and Alchemical origins.
Wilmhurst saw the confusion when a man first entered Freemasonry and his struggles to define what it is exactly and how to put it into terms he could understand.
“Even after his [a candidate’s] admission he usually remains quite at a
loss to explain satisfactorily what Masonry is and for what purpose his Order exists.”
Wilmhurst’s early life and interest in Freemasonry begins at an early age.
Walter Leslie Wilmshurst was born 22 June 1867 in Chichester, Sussex, seventy miles from
London on the southern coast of England. He began his Masonic journey in 1889, and for the
next half-century he labored effectively in the quarries, holding stations in local, provincial and
national lodges, presenting Masonic lectures, and contributing erudite writings to the body of
Included in this spiritual arena of interests was the study of the occult, a word derived from
the Latin occultus, meaning “concealed.” However, When he talked of ‘the occult’ he meant none of the connotations that have now become associated with the word. He merely meant that which is hidden from ordinary perception by our five commonly recognised [sic] senses.
Wilmshurst felt much concern about Masons’ lack of knowledge of the meaning of their own Fraternity and the scarcity of materials available to help impart this knowledge to them. He believed that Freemasonry was developed for a divine, spiritual purpose, but that most Masons erroneously considered its essence to reside in its ritual and its elemental teachings.
“We meet in our Lodges regularly; we perform our ceremonial work and repeat our catechetical instruction-lectures night after night with a less or greater degree of intelligence and verbal perfection, and there our work ends, as though the ability to perform this work creditably were the be-all and the end-all of Masonic work.”
“Those who enter it [the Order], as the majority do, entirely ignorant of what they will find there, usually because they have friends there or know Masonry to be an institution devoted to high ideals and benevolence and with which it may be socially desirable to be connected, may or may not be attracted and profit by what is disclosed to them, and may or may not see anything beyond the bare form of the symbol or hear anything beyond the mere letter of the word.”
Wilmshurst believed that that purpose went unfulfilled. He stated;
“The work of the Order is to initiate into certain secrets and mysteries, and obviously if the Order fails to expound its own secrets and mysteries and so to confer real initiations as distinguished from passing candidates through certain formal ceremonies, it is not fulfilling its original purpose whatever other incidental good it may be doing.”
In 1922 he published several of these papers as a single volume which became his most widely known work, The Meaning of Masonry. When a man becomes a Master Mason, it is logical that his enthusiasm for his new endeavor may cause him to immerse himself in all things Masonic. Often he is overwhelmed by all of that to which he has recently been exposed – the degrees, the explanatory lectures, the legend of the events that occurred during the erection of King Solomon’s Temple, the lodge opening and closing rituals, the memorization of the esoteric work, the opportunity to fill an officer’s station or place.
Too frequently, however, time passes and that once-newly-made Mason no longer ponders whether a deeper meaning underlies the lodge administration and ritual. As Wilmshurst explains, the brother remains at that;
“… stage of knowledge… in which he takes a literal, superficial and historic view of the
subject-matter of the doctrine; in which ability to perform the ceremonial work with
dignity and effectiveness and to know the instruction catechisms by heart, so that not a
syllable is wrongly rendered, is deemed the height of Masonic proficiency….”
Wilmhurst continues the thought;
“It is absurd to think that a vast organization like Masonry was ordained merely to teach to
grown-up men of the world the symbolical meaning of a few simple builders’ tools, or to
impress upon us such elementary virtues as temperance and justice:—the children in
every village school are taught such things; or to enforce such simple principles of morals
as brotherly love, which every church and every religion teaches; or as relief, which is
practised [sic] quite as much by non-Masons as by us; or of truth, which every infant
learns upon its mother’s knee… The Craft… has surely some larger end in view than
merely inculcating the practice of social virtues common to all the world and by no
means the monopoly of Freemasons.”
It is that “larger end view” which the thinking Mason should ponder and consider for themselves. The Meaning of Masonry” by W.L. Wilmshurst is a collection of papers rather than a book and the online PDF is available for free. Considering it is only about 91 pages long, it’s a good Masonic discussion piece to bring to a study group or to discuss Wilmhurst’s ideas in your Lodge.
Wilmshurst’s Tracing Board of the Centre
Whilst cataloging and transcribing the note-books of W. L. Wilmshurst the following drawing of a tracing board was discovered. It was signed by Wilmshurst and is a symbolical summary of his thoughts on the significance of the Masonic symbol of the Centre. (seen in the post heading and copied below).
Writing in his book The Meaning of Masonry, Wilmshurst described the centre in the following terms.
“What then is this ” Centre”, by reviving and using which we may hope to regain the secrets of our lost nature? We may reason from analogies. As the Divine Life and Will is the centre of the whole universe and controls it; as the sun is the centre and life-giver of our solar system and controls and feeds with life the planets circling round it, so at the secret centre of individual human life exists a vital, immortal principle, the spirit and the spiritual will of man. This is the faculty, by using which (when we have found it) we can never err. It is a point within the circle of our own nature and, living as we do in this physical world, the circle of our existence is bounded by two grand parallel lines; “one representing Moses; the other King Solomon”, that is to say, law and wisdom; the divine ordinances regulating the universe on the one hand; the divine “wisdom and mercy that follow us all the days of our life”
Masonry, then, is a system of religious philosophy in that it provides us with a doctrine of the universe and of our place in it. It indicates whence we are come and whither we may return. It has two purposes. Its first purpose is to show that man has fallen away from a high and holy centre to the circumference or externalized condition in which we now live; to indicate that those who so desire may regain that centre by finding the centre in ourselves, for, since Deity is as a circle whose centre is everywhere, it follows that a divine centre, a “vital and immortal principle”, exists within ourselves by developing which we may hope to regain our lost and primal stature. The second purpose of the Craft doctrine is to declare the way by which that centre may be found within ourselves, and this teaching is embodied in the discipline and ordeals delineated in the three degrees. The Masonic doctrine of the Centre – or, in other words, the Christian axiom that “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you” – is nowhere better stated than by the poet Browning”
” Truth is within ourselves. It takes no rise
From outward things, whate’er you may believe. There is an inmost centre in ourselves Where truth abides in fullness; and to know
Rather consists in finding out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape Than by effecting entrance for a light Supposed to be without.”