Monday, April 03, 2017


Lyttleton Masonic Lodge, New Zealand (c. 1858, eight years after European settlers first came here)

[Image source: ]

Walton Hannah: Darkness Visible (1952)

Subtitled: A Revelation and Interpretation of Freemasonry.

The life of the Anglican clergy of the 1950s is almost as shrouded in mystery as the life of freemasons, as far as I'm concerned. So I think this is an interesting book.

Some years ago a brother priest approached me with a view to my becoming a brother Mason. He kept within the law by not asking me outright, but indicated that it would be a very good thing if I did so, and that he would always be glad to propose me. It really comes to the same thing. I replied that I was extremely reluctant to join any organization of which I was allowed to know almost nothing in advance. To which he answered that if everyone felt that way there would be no Masons at all, for no one outside the Craft could possibly discover its secrets, and what was good enough for the bishops who had become Masons ought to be good enough for me.

It was that reply which interested me in the subject. I remembered a Member of Parliament telling me (long after such a revelation could  have been indiscreet) that even at the secret sessions of the House of Commons during the war it was considered too dangerous to reveal top secrets of policy and strategy even to some six hundred trusted M.P.s, and that in general they were occasions for members themselves to discuss such delicate topics as shipping losses and tank deficiencies. Was it then probable or even possible that an organization of some five million people, doubtless including good, bad and indifferent, which had been in existence for over two centuries could really keep the rest of the world in complete darkness as to their secrets? I was intrigued, and started to investigate.

I was surprised at the facility with which information could be unearthed in a manner explained in the first chapter, – and yet increasingly perturbed at the nature of that information. Accordingly I wrote to a Masonic bishop whom I had once met personally setting forth some of these perplexities, mentioning the inclusion of Baal in the secret name of God in the Royal Arch, making it quite clear that I was asking him for guidance as a bishop in a matter which concerned faith and morals.

The reply was more taken up with surprise tinged with indignation that I had discovered supposed secrets than with any anxiety to allay my misgivings. He said very courteously that if I did not like Freemasonry I had better not join, but he was not allowed to discuss these things with any who were not Masons. To which I wrote in return that I was truly appalled at the implications of this remark. I had made a prima facie case (and I then claimed no more) for the Craft being incompatible with Christianity, and appealed to a bishop for guidance. And his reply that he was bound by oath not to refute or even discuss such matters, although they admittedly concerned faith and morals, with any who were not similarly oath-bound to secrecy clearly implied that his Masonic obligation took precedence over his Episcopal oath to banish strange and erroneous doctrine. But there was no reply.

Admit it, you’re hooked. So was I, and so, clearly, was Hannah himself, intoxicated by the self-evident justice of his position.

The bulk of Darkness Visible consists of collated transcripts of masonic rituals. So far as English masonry is concerned, this is more or less a complete liturgy, excluding only certain higher degrees which are not universally practiced. This material (generally said to be secret) is, Hannah informs us, relatively easy to obtain, e.g. from masonic publishers. But their work sometimes abbreviates certain phrases in order to maintain a formal cloak of secrecy. Hannah expands these abbreviations by referring, for example, to the many published exposures of masonry. The result was, at the time, the most complete guide that was easily obtainable. Masons themselves are said to have found it useful.

However, the intended audience was, of course, members of the Church of England. Hannah had raised the question, not by any means a new one, of whether it was appropriate for members of the clergy (including bishops and indeed the then-current archbishop of Canterbury) to be freemasons. Transcripts of masonic ritual were included in order to counter the argument that non-masons lacked the materials to form an opinion. The introductory Part I, written by Hannah, is a formidable polemic against clerical freemasonry.

It is pleasingly written, logical and by its own lights completely persuasive. Freemasonry clearly claims to be a religion, or super-religion. It proclaims as something adequate a body of teaching that pointedly excludes all mention of Christ. Anglican clergy who become masons cannot possibly be acting in accord with their clerical duties. Hannah did not, it seems, receive any answer in his own terms; indeed, it is hard to conceive one. As he anticipated, he met with ad hominem attacks, cold shoulders, light dismissals and a wall of silence. It must have been infuriating, but he had set himself up for that. A few years later he converted to Catholicism (the Roman Catholic church prohibited clerical and indeed lay freemasonry in 1738). Doing so must have adversely affected the impact of his polemic on the Anglican community, but presumably he no longer cared.

Some of the ad hominem attacks may have been justified. He was not exactly a standard country vicar. I have found a biographical note that tells us: “Walton Hannah was born in England ca. 1910. His father, Ian Campbell Hannah, was a teacher of theology, a writer, and a Member of the British House of Commons 1935-1944. His mother, Edith Brand, was an American and developed an international reputation as a painter.” He was clearly well educated and well versed in the ways of the world. He became a priest in the 1930s and from the start his passion was collecting materials about Freemasons and other secret and occult societies. He denies ever having been a mason, but may have used some equivocal methods to gather his material. Some masonic correspondents addressed him as “Brother”.

I have described Hannah’s argument as logical. The hair-raising masonic oaths must be either rashly taken (in advance of knowing what they entail) or else frivolous (since they are sworn on the Bible, that would make them blasphemous anyway). If you accept, as Hannah clearly did, that of two logically contradictory opinions you can only believe one, then you cannot justify clerical freemasonry. Augustinian Christianity, with its emphasis on the moral and spiritual status of right belief, ultimately depends on that sort of logic. It leaves no room for woolly liberal Anglicanism, and no room either for the rapprochement with other churches and religions that, of course, was just then beginning to gather momentum. Though Hannah’s subject is freemasonry, the dubious ground he opposes had analogues in the church’s attitude to many other subjects, and of course far beyond the church walls too.

I take some more homeopathic pillules for my indigestion, and they do me good.

The problem with Hannah’s argument is that, not only may we do things that we cannot justify logically, but we may also say things without any corresponding belief. He makes a good deal, for example, of the middle element of JAH-BUL-ON (which is inscribed on the masonic Altar); it is cognate with the Assyrian deity Baal. (The third element is the Egyptian On or Osiris.) But if these, like the rest of masonic ritual, are merely verbal patterns that the participants can believe anything they like about, then it all becomes much more imponderable. An Augustinian view of belief has difficulty dealing with behaviour that is not grounded in anything so definite as belief. But this aspect of freemasonry was in fact portentous. What it already was in 1952 is what most western religion was tending to become: a sponge not a sword.

The relevance of Hannah’s dilemma to those of us who are not Anglicans or masons may perhaps be made clearer from the following passage. Hannah is considering the response that, whatever view he may take of the words of masonic ritual, his views are of no account because he has not experienced the atmosphere or context of the ritual as actually practised. He says:

A play can be understood, and understood with accuracy by reading it and following the stage directions. Even though it may come to life only by being performed, the meaning and significance of it remain fundamentally unchanged however much different nuances of interpretation are acted into it.

It would be ridiculous to blame Hannah for not being a literary theorist. And while we might not want to use exactly these words, what he says here does represent fairly accurately the principle, embedded deeply in our educational system, on which all readers actually operate when they pick up a volume of Chekhov or Shakespeare. The potential difficulties with this view become manifest when Hannah argues that participating in Masonic ritual is very different from acting in a play:

For the Freemason identifies himself with the mysteries, not in the sense that a good actor identifies himself with his part, but by a solemn oath and in the name of God he participates in the paganism of the play, and associates himself spiritually with it.

This is much as to say, as he does elsewhere (in rebuttal of the argument that a priest going to the masons is merely like a priest mixing with his parishioners down at the local), that “initiation into Masonry is not merely ‘meeting’ people at any level at all. It is joining them – identifying oneself by solemn oath with those people and with their sub-Christian beliefs”. But plainly the distinction between meeting and joining is in fact a blurry one. In popular drama (which today means on a screen) both audience and makers are pushing hard towards the point at which the frame between enacted fiction and real life break down. From one direction this leads us toward reality TV; in the other direction it reflects our desire to enter the fictional frame ourselves and to inhabit it. Our drama moves towards being real event, e.g. economic triumph, violent humiliation, sexual act, endurance test or perhaps even religious ceremony; at the same time as being entertainment and sometimes art. Yes, to imagine oneself participating in the drama does entail jettisoning logical belief, but that’s OK. Like drinking or taking drugs, it’s what keeps things ticking over tolerably for us; in short, it sustains our civilisation. And thus Hannah, though admirably unassailable, bought himself only a shrug of the shoulders.

Some of Hannah’s points depend on a historical orthodoxy that even many Christians will now reject (e.g. the objectionableness of Baal). However, I think this passage, on a fundamental moral dilemma of Masonry, merits consideration from anyone.

Not every Mason, not even every Christian Mason, could reasonably be expected to be a theologian or perhaps to realise even the possibility of his Craft being at variance with the exclusiveness of the Christian faith. Yet surely anyone capable of clear thinking must realise that in Masonry is an inescapable and insoluble moral dilemma.

If Freemasonry claims to possess secrets the knowledge of which would benefit all mankind in enabling a man to lead a higher and more moral life, it is immoral to keep that knowledge to itself.

If Freemasonry does not possess such secrets, it is equally immoral for it claim that it does possess them.

And after all, why should any knowledge about morals and the nature or name of God be kept secret? The Tracing Board Lecture of the first degree attempts an answer, it is true, but an answer which would be scorned as fatuous in an enlightened twentieth century. For this lecture implies that the teachings of Masonry are kept secret for the same reason that higher knowledge was the secret and oathbound possession of the few in ancient Egypt, because it conferred occult powers which might be mis-used in unworthy hands.

But can our democratic and enlightened Masons of to-day think of a better answer? Their own ritual nowhere suggests one, but it is difficult even after the most exhaustive examination to consider that ritual ‘enlightened’. However symbolically the turgid nonsensicalities of its mysteries may be interpreted, this, apparently, must always remain an unexplained mystery. Even to Freemasons.   

Close examination (the sort that you make when you’re typing something out) reveals this not to be a true dilemma at all, since “Masonry does not claim to possess secrets with such straightforward benefits” avoids both horns. The secrets of Masonry, if there really are any, are perhaps better named mysteries. One does not “possess” a mystery; one, well, joins it. As I’m typing up, thinking at the same time of the Rudyard Kipling who wrote “The Church that was at Antioch”, it occurs to me that the general form of the answer that I’m framing can only be: But life is not that simple! The same answer, perhaps, that now seems the best way of defending the “foolishness” of the Cross. 

To end with, we ought to have a sample of the “turgid and nonsensical ritual” itself. From an outsider’s perspective it does seem quite dreary. Even here, in the obligation of a candidate to the Third Degree, potentially sensational content seems to be undercut so that it ends up meaning nothing much at all. I suppose it’s a playscript you need to perform.

And finally, that I will maintain a Master Mason’s honour and carefully preserve it as my own; I will not injure him myself, or knowingly suffer it to be done by others if in my power to prevent it; but on the contrary, will boldly repel the slanderer of his good name, and most strictly respect the chastity of those nearest and dearest to him, in the persons of his wife, his sister, and his child.

All these points I solemnly swear to observe, without evasion, equivocation, or mental reservation of any kind, under no less a penalty, on the violation of any of them, than that of being severed in two, my bowels burned to ashes, and those ashes scattered over the face of the earth and wafted by the four cardinal winds of heaven, that no trace or remembrance may longer be found among men, particularly Master Masons. 


The official current Anglican position on freemasonry (General Synod, 1987), which is not dissimilar to Hannah's, is described here:

Despite this there have long been cordial and sometimes close relations between masonry and Anglicanism.


Though there are numerous irregular Masonic orders admitting women, mainstream and Grand Lodge masonry excludes women from membership, as per Anderson's Constitutions, which says that candidates must be "good and true men, free-born, and of mature and discreet age and sound judgement, no bondmen, no women, no immoral or scandalous men, but of good report..."



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