OES #446

Sisters and Brothers, I recently read a book about Freemasonry and its "mystic tie" during the Civil War written by Allen E Roberts entitled "House Undivided." When I came to Chapter 10 in this book I was somewhat surprised to find Rob Morris' name mentioned with no small measure of disfavor by the several Grand Lodges then extant. That same brotherhood which was later to bestow upon him the prestigious Poet Laureate award. I would like to share with you what I read. What follows is a verbatim account of this chapter excluding the last two and a half pages.

The Conservators

It would be interesting to know what might have happened should the Civil War not have occurred just at the height of the movement. It is our opinion that the Civil War, intervening as it did, prevented the dispute from becoming more bitter than it did; the war sapped the resources of the Conservators and occupied the attention of Grand Lodges to such an extent that the attacks made upon the Association were probably lessened in character.

Ray V Denslow

From the time of George Washington, who was proposed as a good prospect for general grand master of Masons in America, until the present day, there have been movements for the establishment of a national "general grand lodge." Most such movements were primarily designed to bring uniformity in the ritual throughout the country.

In Washington on March 9, 1822 a convention was held with the avowed purpose of laying the foundation for a general grand lodge. Although the much respected Henry Clay of Kentucky was behind the movement, his grand lodge, as well as many others, turned a deaf ear to the proposal.

The next major convention took place after the "Morgan Affair" had passed from the Masonic scene. It was the Baltimore Convention of 1843. Its results were fairly successful, for it did set up a uniform standard or "work" which some grand lodges adopted, most of them with some reservations.

Then a man named Robert Morris appeared on the scene with an organization that was to plague every grand lodge in America during the trying days of the Civil War. That organization was styled "Conservators of Symbolical Masonry," although it became better known simply as "The Conservators."

Rob Morris, the founder and "Chief Conservator," was initated in Oxford Lodge No. 33, Mississippi, on March 3, 1845, at the age of 26. Three years later, according to one of his friends, he started to inquire, "either personally or by correspondence, with every elderly Mason known to have been bright in his early days." In all, he "conferred with 50,000 Masons.......[and] visited nearly 2000 lodges." He was elected grand master at Lexington, Kentucky, on October 11, 1858 and less than two years later started his "Conservator" movement, for which he was to be condemned by his grand lodge, as well as many others thoughout the United and Confederate States.

Ray V Denslow, in his book, The Masonic Conservators, writes:

The Conservator movement without "Mnemonics" would have been a failure; its use was the key to whatever success it may have had as an organization. Instructors in Masonic ritual were few; Grand Lecturers were a rarity, and few lodges ever recieved the assistance of qualified instructors; the brethren were clamoring for some method whereby they might become proficient in Masonry.

The "key" or "code" which put all of the exoteric, as well as the esoteric, work into a form that could be read by anyone possessing the key that untangled the complicated system, aroused the ire of most of the grand lodges. Leverett B Englesby, the grand master of Vermont, on January 14, 1863, stated: "To no man's sleeve should Masonic or any other faith be pinned. Our traditions are verbal--not written--transmitted from mouth to ear, and so handed down."

During 1863, a committtee of nine appointed by the Grand Lodge of Michigan conferred with Morris on several occasions, and on January 14, 1864, sumitted a lengthly report which indicated it had made an exhaustive search for the facts about the "Conservators." It concluded "the scheme to be unlawful, unmasonic, and opposed to the real interest of Masonry." The committee then listed a summary of 12 points of the obligation of a full "Conservator":

1. To secrecy.

2. That every document furnished the candidate as a member of the Conservator's association, whether written or printed, is to be considered as between himself and the Chief Conservator; that no one was to have access to any such document, to be informed of its allusions or its existence, except those directly accredited by the Chief Conservator.

3. To answer and obey all summonses by the Chief Conservator, and of such as may be duly accredited to him, without question as to the object or intent thereof.

4. To aid and help all Conservators in distress or in need of help, with advice, money, information, service, or in any other way, in preference to any other persons, and especially in any way that will advance the interests of their association.

5. That the great end of the Association shall be constantly kept in view, and uniformity of work, upon the basis prescribed by the Chief Conservator, commonly called the Webb-Preston system, shall be strenuously urged, to the exclusion of all other systems.

6. Every Conservator is bound to use all his influence to obtain and hold the first three offices in his lodge; to teach the Morris system and no other, and to seek by every available means to obtain possession of the Grand Lodge so as to compel all Lodges to adopt and use the above named system of work.

7. To root out all the old Masons who adhere to any other system from office; to depreciate and diminish their influence, to seduce them to their support, when necessary or advisable, by giving them unimportant offices; to create divisions and jealousies among them; to attack them and drive them from all participation in the business or counsels of the Craft.

8. To menace and threaten all brethren who will not submit to their terms; to aggravate and persistently annoy them until they commit some indiscreet act so that they may take advantage of the same.

9. To make use of power when obtained to propagate the system of work dictated by the Chief Conservator, and to break down every Lodge that stands in its way.

10. To keep all secrets communicated by Conservators, without exception, let their character or objects be what they may.

11. To insist everywhere, and at all times, that the system of the Chief Conservator is the only true system, and that all other systems are illegitimate.

12. Not to assist in the making of a Conservator, who had not previously declared, in writing, that he will fully conform to all the rules of the order.

The report of the committee was adopted as was the following resolution:

Resolved, That any attempt, by any person or body of men, to introduce or teach any change of our long established lectures, is unconstitutional, unmasonic, and deservs the most severe reprehension, and is by this Grand Lodge strictly forbidden within its jurisdiction.

While the vast majority of Grand Lodges fought Morris and his movement, he was not without his defenders. Members of every Grand Lodge then in existence, except Colorado, District of Columbia, Oregon, and Virginia, had anywhere from one to more than one hundred "Conservators" among them. Indiana had by far the most members of the movement, and Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, and New York had more than 100. The states with only one or two included Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Washington, according to the partial listing of membership. The adverse publicity kept the full list from ever being published, but it is estimated that more than 3000 Masons became "Conservators" during its five years of existence.

Shortly after the close of the war, on June 24, 1865, the life of the "Conservator" association ended, but its influence went on for several years. Ray Denslow believes there are many states that follow closely today the ritual of the Mneumonics, although the movement did not accomplish its avowed purpose, which was uniformity of ritual. Some grand lodges, which during the Civil War condemned Morris and his coded ritual, use the method they then abhorred to teach the Masons of their jurisdictions today.

The movement, born on June 24, 1860, could not have picked a more inopportune time for its purpose, for less than a year later the country was embroiled in the strife that came to be known as the Civil War. Masons were uprooted from their homes and sent from state to state. Those who had become "Conservators," or who leaned toward Morris, were unacceptable to those who felt he was trying to become a Masonic dictator. The unkindly feelings were sharper between those for and against Morris than they were between the Masons of the North and South.

Many grand lodges adopted resolutions forbidding their members to associate with "Conservators"; no grand lodge adopted a resolution forbidding the Masons from either the North or South to meet in Masonic fellowship. A few grand masters did try to have such an edict enforced, but did not succeed. Far more grand masters rebuked individual lodges and Masons for refusing to admit members on the opposite side of the conflict.

The reunification oath of the Grand Lodge of Missouri was harsh:

I do solemly declare, on my honor as a Master Mason, that I have never belonged to the so-called Conservators' Association; that I do not now belong, to the same; and that I do, and will, forever denounce and repudiate the system, and all connected therewith.

The following year, realizing the harshness of the above, it was changed to a milder form.

In 1861 Rob Morris had been elected an honorary member of the Grand Lodge of Michigan; in 1864 that Grand Lodge rescinded its action of three years earlier. From Maine to Oregon, Robert Morris was condemned. Thousands of unkind words were written about him; as were hundreds of words of praise. With the end of his dream for a uniform ritual came the end of the bitterness he had invoked. Gradually what he had attempted to do was erased from the minds of Masons, and as his poetry again appeared, he was received in many of the grand lodges which had refuted him. Typical was the warm welcome he received in Missouri in 1886 from a grand lodge that had once considered him a traitor.

Today, Robert Morris is best known as the "Poet Laureate of Freemasonry," and as the author and founder of the Order of the Eastern Star.


Sisters and Brothers, the chapter continues on for a couple of more pages but does not signifigantly address this issue so I have elected to cut it off at this point. I just thought it would be an interesting side of Dr Morris that you may not have been aware of.