Lawrie, in his History of Freemasonry, in replying to the objection, that if the Fraternity of Freemasons had flourished during the reign of Solomon, it would have existed in Judea in after ages, attempts to meet the argument by showing that there did exist, after the building of the Temple, an association of men resembling Freemasons in the nature, ceremonies, and object of their institution. The association to he here alludes is that of the Essenes, whom he subsequently describes as an ancient Fraternity originating from an association of architects who were connected with the building of Solomon's Temple.
Lawrie evidently seeks to connect historically the Essenes with the Freemasons, and to impress his readers with the identity of the two Institutions. I am not prepared to go so far; but there is such a similarity between the two, and such remarkable coincidences in many of there usages, as to render this Jewish sect an interesting study to every Freemason, to whom therefore some account of the usages and doctrines of this holy brotherhood will not, perhaps be unacceptable.
At the time of the advent of Jesus Christ, there were three religious sects in Judea- the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes; and to one of these sects every Jew was compelled to unite himself. The Savior has been supposed by writers to have been an Essene, because, while repeatedly denouncing the errors of the two other sects, he has nowhere uttered a word of censure against the Essenes
; and because, also many of the precepts of the New Testament are to found among the laws of this sect
In ancient authors such as Josephus, Philo, Porphyry, Eusebius, and Pliny, who have had occasion to refer to the subject, the notices of this singular sect have been so brief and unsatisfactory, that modern writers have found great difficulty in properly understanding the true character of Essenism. And yet our antiquaries, never weary of the task of investigation, have at length, within a recent period, succeeded in eliciting, from the collation of all that has been previously wriiten on the subject, very correct details of the doctrines and practices of the Essenes.
Of these writers, none, I think, have been more successful than the laborious German critics Frankel and Rappaport. their investigations have been ably and throughly condensed by Dr. Christian D. Ginsburg, whose essay on The Essenes, their History and Doctrines, (Lond., 1864,) has supplied the most material facts contained in the present article.
It is impossible to ascertain the precise date of the development of Essenism as a distinct organization. The old writers are so exaggerated in their statements, that they are worth nothing as historical authorities . Philo says, for instance, that Moses himself instituted the order, and Josephus that it existed ever since the ancient time of the Fathers; while Pliny asserts, with mythical liberality, that it has continued for thousands of ages. Dr. Ginsburg thinks that Essenism was agradual development of the prevalent religous notions out of Judaism, a theory which Dr. Dillinger repudiates. But Rappaport, who was a learned Jew, throughly conversant with the Talmud and other Hebrew writings, and who is hence called by Ginsburg "the corypheus of Jewsih critcs," asserts that the Essenes were not a distinct sect, in the strict sense of the word, but simply an order of Judaism, and that there never was a rupture between them and the rest of the Jewish community. This theory is sustained by Frankel, a learned German, who maintains that the Essenes were simply an intensification of the Pharisaic sect, and that they were the same as the Chasidim, whom Lawrie calls the Kassideans, and of whom he speaks as the guardians of King Solomon's Temple. If this view is the correct one, and there is no good reson to doubt it, then there will be another feature of resemblance and coincidence between the Freemasons and the Essenes; for, as the latter was a religous sect, but merely a development of Judaism, an order of Jews entertaining no heterodox opinions, but simply carrying out the religiousdogmas off their faith with an unusal strictness of observance, so are the Freemasons not a religous sect, but simply a development of the religous idea of the age. The difference, however, between Freemasonry and Essenism lies in the spirit of universal tolerance prominent in the one and absent in the other. Freemasonry is Christian as to its membership in general, but recognizing and tolerating in its bosom all other religous: Essenism, on the contrary, was exclusively and intensely Jewish in its membership, its usages, and its doctrines.
The Essenes are first mentioned by Josephus as existing in the days of Jonathan the Maccabaean, one hunddred and sixty-six years before Christ. The Jewish historian repeatedly speaks of them at subsequent periods; and there is no doubt that they constituted one of the three sects which divided the Jewish religous world at the advent of the Saviour, and of this sect, he is supposed, as has been already said, to have been a member.
On this subject, Ginsburg says: "Jesus, who in all things conformed to the Jewish law, and who was holy, harmless, undefiled, and seperate from sinners, would, therefore naturally associate himself with that order of Judaism which was most congenial to his holy nature. Moreover, the fact that Christ, with the exception of once, was not heard of in public till his thirtieth year, implying that he lived in seclusion with this Fraternity, and that, though he frequently rebuked the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, he never denounced the Essenes, strongly confirms this decision." But he admits that Christ neither adopted nor preached their extreme doctrines of asceticism.
After the establishment of Christianity, the Essenes fade out of notice, and it has been supposed that they were one of the earliest converts to the new faith. Indeed, De Quincey rather paradoxically asserts that they were a diguised portion of the early Christians.
The etomology of the word has not been settled. Yet, among the contending opinions, the preferable one seems to be that it is derived from the Hebrew CHASID, - holy, pious, - which preceded them, and of whom Lawrie says, (quoting from Scaliger,) that they were "an order of the KNIGHTS OF THE TEMPLE OF JERUSALEM, who bound themselves to adorn the porches of that magnificent structure, and to preserve it from injury and decay."
The Essenes were so strict in the observance of the Mosaic laws of purity, that they were compelled, for the purpose of avoiding contamination to withdraw altogether from the rest of the Jewish nation and form a seperate community, which thus became a brotherhood. The same scruple which led them to withdraw from their less strict Jewsih brethren induced most of them to abstain from marriage, and hence the unavoidable depletion of their membership by death could only be repaired by the initiation of converts. They had a common treasury, in which was deposited whatever anyone of them possessed, and from this the wants of the whole community were suppiled by stewards appointed by the brotherhood, so that they had everything in common. Hence there was no distinction among them rich and poor, or masters and servants; but the only graduation of rank which they recognized was derived from the degrees or orders into which the members were divided, and which depened on holoness alone. They lived peacably with all men, reprobrated slavery and war, and would not even manufacture any warlike instruments. They were governed by a president, who was elected by the whole community; and members who violated theur rules were, after due trial, excommunicated or expelled.
As they held no communication outside of their own fraternity, they had to raise their own supplies, and some were engaged in tilling, some tending flocks, others in making clothing, and others preparing food. They got up before sunrise, and, after singing a hymn of praise for the return of light, which they did with their faces turned to the east, each one repaired to his appropiate task. At the fifth hour or eleven in the forenoon, the morning labour terminated. The brethren then again assembled, and after a lustration in cold water, they put on white garments and proceeded to the reflectory, where they partook of the most frugal character. A mysterious silence was observed during this meal, which, to some extent, had the character of a sacrament. The feast being ended, and the priest having returned thanks, the brethen withdrew and put off their white garments, resumed their working-clothes and their several employments until evening, when they again assembled as before, to partake of a common meal.
They observed the Sabbath with more than Judaic strictness, regarding even the removal of a vessel as a desecration of the holy day. On that day, each took his seat in the synagogue in becoming attire; and, as they had no ordained ministers, any one that liked read out of the Scriptures, and another, experienced in spiritual matters, expounded the passges that been read. The distictive ordinaces of the brotherhood of the mysteries connected with the Tetragrammaton and the angelic worlds were the prominent topics of Sabbatical instruction. In particular, did they pay attention to the mysteries connected with the Tetragrammaton, or the Shem hamphorash, the expository name, and the other names of God which play so important a part in the mystical theosophy of the Jewish Kabbalists, a great deal of which has descended to the Freemasonry of our own days.
Josephus describes them as being distinguished for their brotherly love, and for their charity and helping the needy, and showing mercy. He says that they are just dispensers of their anger, curbers of their passions, representative of fidelity, ministers of peace, and every word with them is of more force than an oath. They avoid taking an oath, and regard it as worse than pejury; for they say that he who is not believed without calling on God to witness, is already condemned of pejury. He also states that they studied with great assiduity the writings of the ancients on distempers and their remedies, alluding, as it is supposed, to the magical works imputed by the Talmudists to Solomon.
It has already been observed that, in consequence of the celibacy of the Essenes, it was found necessary to recruit their ranksby the introduction of converts, who were admitted by a solid form of initation. The candidate, or aspirant, was required to pass through a noviate of two stages, which extended over three years, before he was admitted to full participation in the privledges of the Order. Upon entering the first stage, which lasted for twelve months, the novice cast all his possesions into the common treasury. He then recieved a copy of the regulations of the brotherhood, and was presented with a spade, an apron, and a white robe. The spade was employed to bury excrement, the apron was used at the daily lustrations, and the white robe was worn as symbol of purity. During all this period the aspirant was considered as being outside the order, and, although required to observe some the ascetic rules of the society, he was admitted to the common meal. At the end of the probationary year, the aspirant, if approved, was advanced to the second stage, which lasted two years, and was then called an approacher. During this period he was permitted to unite with the brethren in their lustrations, but was not admitted to the common meal, nor to hold any office. Should this second stage of probation be passed with approval, the approacher became an associate, and was admitted into full membership, and at length allowed to partake of the common meal.
There was a third rank or degree, called the disciple or companion, in which there was still closer union. Upon admission to this highest grade, the candidate was bound by a solemn oath to love God, to be just to all men, to practice charity, maintain truth, and to conceal the secrets of the society and the mysteries connected with the Tetragammaton and the other names of God.
These three sections or degrees, of aspirant, associate, and companion, were subdivided into four orders or ranks, distinguished from each other by different degrees of holiness; and so marked were these distinctions, that if one belonging to higher degree of purity touched one of a lower order, he immediatly became impure, and could only regain his purity by a series of lustrations.
The earnestness and determination of those Essenes, says Ginsburg, to advance to the highest state of holiness, were seen in their self denying and godly life, and it may fairly be questioned whether any religous system has ever produced such a community of saints. Their absolute confidence in God and resignation to the dealings of Providence; their uniformly holy and unselfish life; their unbounded love of virtue and utter contempt for worldy fame, riches and pleasure; their industry temperance, modesty, and simplicity of life; their contentment of mind and cheerfulness of temper; their love of order, and abhorreence of even the semblance of falsehood; their benevolence and philanthropy; their love for the brethren; and their following peace with all men; their hatred of slavery and war; their tender regard for children; and reverous and anxious care for the aged; their attendance on the sick,and readiness to relieve the distressed; their humility and magnanimity; their firmness of character and power to subdue their passions; their heroric endurance under the most agonizing sufferings for righteousness' sake; and their cheerfully looking forward to death, as releasing their immortal souls from the bonds of the body, to be forever in a state of bliss with their Creator, - have hardly found parallel in the history of mankind.
Lawrie, in his History of Freemasonry, gives, on the authority of Pictet, of Basnage, and of Philo, the following condensed recapititulation of what has been said in the preceding pages of the usages of the Essenes:
"When a candidate was proposed for admission, the strictest scrutiny was made into his character. If his life had hitherto been exemplary and if he appeared capable of curbing his passions, and regulating his conduct according to the virtuous, through austere, maxims of their order, he was presented, at the expirationof his novitiate, with a white garment as an emblem of the regularuty of his conduct and the purity of his heart. A solomn oath was then administered to him, that he would never divulge the mysteries of the Order; that he would make no immovations on the doctrines of the society; and that he would continue in that honorable course of piety and virtue which he had begun to pursue. Like Freemason, they instructed the young member in the knowledge which they derived from their ancestors. They admitted no women into their order. They had particular signs for recognizing each other, which have strong resemblance to those of Freemasons. They had colleges or places of retirement, where they resorted to practicetheir rites and settle the affairs of the society; and, after the performance of these duties, they assembled in a large hall, where an entertainment was provided for them by the president or master of the college, who alotted a certain quantity of provisions to every individual. They abolished all distinctions of rank; and if preference was ever given, it was given to piety, liberality, and virtue. Treasures were appointed in every town, to supply the wants of indigent strangers."
Lawrie thinks this remarkable coincidence between the chief features of the Masonic and Essenian fraternities can be accounted for only by referring them to the same origin; and, to sustain this view, he attempts to trace to the Kassideans, or Assideans, more properly the Chasidm, "an association of architects who were connected with the building of Solomon's Temple." But, aside from the consideration that there is no evidence that the Chasidim were a body of architects, - for they were really a sect of Jewish puritans, who held the Temple in especial honor, - we cannot conclude, from a mere coincidence of doctrines and usages, that the origin of the Essenes and the Freemasons is identical. Such a course of reasoning would place the Pythagoreans in the same category: a theory that has been rejected by the best modern critics.
The truth appears to be that the Essenes, the School of Pythagoras, and the Freemasons, derive their similarity from that spirit of brotherhood which has prevailed in all ages of the civilized world (Hindu/Persian/Zoroastrian/Zorrobabel/Freemasonry), the inherent principles of which, as the results any fraternity, - all the members of which are engaged in the same pursuit and assenting to the samr religous creed, - are brotherly love, charity,[System of morality veiled in allegory] and that secrecy which gives them their exclusiveness. And hence, between all fraternities, ancient and modern these remarlable coindcidences will be found.
An Encyclopedia of Freemasonry