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THE ESSENES

An Association of Men Resembling Freemasons

Lawrie, or I should rather say Brewster, was the first to discover a connection between the Freemasons and the Jewish sect of the Essenes, a doctrine which is announced in his History of Freemasonry. He does not indeed trace the origin of the Masonic Institution to the Essenes, but only makes them the successors of the Masons of the Temple, whose forms and tenets they transmitted to Pythagoras and his school at Crotona, by whom the art was disseminated throughout Europe.

Believing as he did in the theory that Freemasonry was first organized at the Temple of Solomon by a union of the Jewish workmen with the association of Dionysian Artificers - a theory which has already been discussed in a preceding chapter - the editor of Lawrie's History meets with a hiatus in the regular and uninterrupted progress of the Order which requires to be filled up. The ingenious mode in which he accomplishes this task may be best explained in his own words:

To these opinions it may be objected, that if the Fraternity of Freemasons flourished during the reign of Solomon, it would have existed in Judea in after ages, and attracted the notice of sacred or profane historians. Whether or not this objection is well founded, we shall not pretend to determine; but if it can be shown 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 force of the objection will not only be taken away, but additional strength will be communicated to the opinion which we have been supporting. The association here alluded to is that of the Essenes, whose origin and sentiments have occasioned much discussion among ecclesiastical historians. They are all, however, of one mind concerning the constitution and observances of this religious order.[i]

The peacemaking quality of "if " is here very apparent. "If it can be shown" that there is a chronological sequence from the builders of the Temple to the Essenes, and that there is a resemblance of both to the Freemasons in "the nature, ceremonies, and object of their institution," the conclusion to which Brewster has arrived will be better sustained than it would be if these premises are denied or not proved. The course of argument must therefore be directed to these points. In the first place we must inquire, who were the Essenes and what was their history? This subject has already been treated to some extent in a previous portion of this work. But the integrity of the present argument will require, and I trust excuse, the necessity of a repetition.

The three sects into which the Jews were divided in the time of Christ were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. Of these, while the Savior makes repeated mention of the first two, he never alludes in the remotest manner to the third. This singular silence of Jesus has been explained by some imaginative Masonic writers, such, for instance, as Clavel, by asserting that he was probably an initiate of the sect. But scholars have been divided on this subject, some supposing that it is to be attributed to the fact (which, however, has not been established) that the Essenes originated in Egypt at a later period; others that they were not an independent sect, but only an order or subdivision of Pharisaism. However, in connection with the present argument, the settlement of this question is of no material importance.

The Essenes were an association of ascetic celibates whose numbers were therefore recruited from the children of the Jewish community in which they lived. These were carefully trained by proper instructions for admission into the society. The admission into the interior body of the society and to the possession of its mystical doctrine was only attained after a long probation through three stages or degrees, the last of which made the aspirant a participant in the full fellowship of the community.

The history of the Essenes has been so often written by ancient and modern authors, from Philo and Josephus to Ginsburg, that an inquirer can be at no loss for a knowledge of the sect. The Masonic student will find the subject discussed in the author's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, and the ordinary reader may be referred to the able article in McClintock and Strong's Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. I shall content myself, in fairness to the theory, with quoting the brief but compendious description given by the editor of Lawrie's History.

It is in the main correct and sustained by other authorities, except a few deductions which must be attributed to the natural inclination of every theorist to adapt facts to his hypothesis. A few interpolations will be necessary to correct manifest errors.

When a candidate was proposed for admission, the strictest scrutiny was made into his character. If his life had been hitherto exemplary, and he appeared capable of curbing his passions and regulating his conduct according to the virtuous though austere maxims of their order, he was presented, at the expiration of his novitiate, with a white garment, as an emblem of the regularity of his conduct and the purity of his heart.

It was not at the termination, but at the beginning of the novitiate, that the white garment or robe was presented, and it was accompanied by the presentation of an apron and a spade.

A solemn oath was then administered to him that he would never divulge the mysteries of the Order that he would make no innovations 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.

This is a mere abstract of the oath, which is given at length by Josephus.

It was not, however, administered until the candidate had passed through all the degrees or stages, and was ready to be admitted into full fellowship. Like Freemasons, they instructed the young member in the knowledge which they derived from their ancestors." He might have said, like all other sects, in which the instruction of the young member is an imperative duty. "They admitted no women into their Order." Though this is intended by the editor to show a point of identity with Freemasonry, it does no such thing.

It is the common rule of all masculine associations. It distinguishes the Essenes from other religious sects, but it by no means essentially likens them to the Freemasons. "They had particular signs for recognizing each other, which have a strong resemblance to those of Freemasons." This is a mere assumption. That they had signs for mutual recognition is probable, because such has been in all ages the custom of secret societies. We have classical authority that they were employed in the ancient Pagan Mysteries.

But there is no authority for saying that these signs of the Essenes bore any resemblance to those of the Freemasons. The only allusion to this subject is in the treatise of Philo Judaeus, De Vita Contemplativa, where that author says that – “the Essenes meet together in an assembly and the right hand is laid upon the part between the chin and the breast, while the left hand hangs straight by the side." But Philo does not say that it was used as a sign of recognition, but rather speaks of it as an attitude or posture assumed in their assemblies.

Of the resemblance, every Mason can judge for himself.

They had colleges, or places of retirement, where they resorted to practice their 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 allotted a certain quantity of provisions to every individual.

This was the common meal, not partaken on set occasions and in a particular place, as the writer intimates, but every day, in their usual habitation and at the close of daily labor.

They abolished all distinctions of rank and if preference was ever given, it was given to piety, liberality, and virtue. Treasurers were appointed in every town to supply the wants of indigent strangers.

The Essenes pretended to higher degrees of piety and knowledge than the uneducated vulgar, and though their pretensions were high, they were never questioned by their enemies. Austerity of manners was one of the chief characteristics of the Essenian Fraternity. They frequently assembled, however, in convivial parties, and relieved for a while the severity of those duties which they were accustomed to perform."

In concluding this description of an ascetic religious sect, the writer of Lawrie's History says that "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."

Another, and, perhaps, a better reason to account for these coincidences will be hereafter presented. While admitting that there is a resemblance in some points of the two institutions to each other, such as their secrecy, their classification into different degrees, although there is no evidence that the Essenian initiation had any form except that of a mere passage from a lower to a higher grade and their cultivation of fraternal love, which resemblances may be found in many other secret associations, I fail to see the identity "in the nature, the object, and the external forms of the two institutions" which Brewster claims. On the contrary, there is a total dissimilarity in each of these points.

The nature of the Essenian institution was that of an ascetic and a bigoted religious sect, and in so far has certainly no resemblance to Freemasonry. The object of the Essenes was to preserve in its most rigid requirements the observance of the Mosaic law; that of Freemasonry is to diffuse the tolerant principles of a universal religion, which men of every sect and creed may approve.

As to the external form of the two institutions, what little we know of those of the Essenes certainly does not exhibit any other resemblance than that which is common to all secret associations, whatever may be their nature and objects. But the most fatal objection to the theory of a connection between them, which is maintained by the author of Lawrie's History, has been admitted with some candor by himself. "There is one point, however," he says, "which may, at first sight, seem to militate against this supposition. The Essenes appear in no respects connected with architecture; nor addicted to those sciences and pursuits which are subsidiary to the art of building."

The Temple of Solomon was finished about a thousand years before the Christian era, and, according to the Masonic legendary account, the builders who were engaged in its construction immediately dispersed and traveled into foreign countries to propagate the art which they had there acquired. This, though merely a legend, is not at all improbable. It is very likely that the Tyrian workmen, at least (and they constituted the larger number of those employed in the building), returned to their homes after the tasks for which they had been sent to Solomon, by the King of Tyre, had been accomplished.

If there were any Jewish Masons at all, who were not mere laborers; it is not unreasonable to suppose that they would seek employment elsewhere, in the art of building which they had acquired from their Tyrian masters. This is a proper deduction from the tradition, considered as such. Who, then, were left to continue the due succession of the fraternity? Brewster, in Lawrie's History, and Oliver, in his Antiquities, affirm that it was the Essenes. But we do not hear of this sect as an organized body until eight centuries afterward.

The apocryphal statement of Pliny, that they had been in being for thousands of years -"pler seculorum millia" has met with no reception from scholars. It is something which, as he himself admits, is incredible; and Pliny is no authority in Jewish affairs. Josephus speaks of them, as existing in the days of Jonathan the Maccabaean; but this was only 143 years before Christ. They are never mentioned in any of the books of the Old Testament, written subsequently to the building of the Temple, and the silence of the Savior and the Apostles concerning them has been attributed to the fact that they were not even at that time an organized body, but merely an order of the Pharisees.

The Rabbi Nathan distinctly says that "those Pharisees who live in a state of celibacy are Essenes;" and McClintock collates from various authorities fourteen points of resemblance, which are enumerated to show the identity in the most important usages of the two institutions. At all events, we have no historic evidence of the existence of the Essenes as a distinct organization before the war of the Maccabees, and this would separate them by eight centuries from the builders of Solomon's Temple, of whom the theory under review erroneously supposes them to be the direct descendants.

But Brewster[ii] seeks to connect the Essenes and the builders of Solomon through the Assideans, whom he also calls "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." He adds that:

…this association was composed of the greatest men of Israel, who were distinguished for their charitable and peaceful dispositions; and always signalized themselves by their ardent zeal for the purity and preservation of the temple.

Hence, he argues that "the Essenes were not only an ancient fraternity, but that they originated from an association of architects who were connected with the building of Solomon's temple." 

It is, however, the style, now nearly obsolete, it is to be hoped, in which Masonic history has been written. The fact is that the Assideans were not of older date than the Essenes. They are not mentioned by the canonical writers of the Scriptures, nor by Josephus, but the word first occurs in the book of Maccabees, where it is applied, not, as Brewster calls them, to men of "peaceful dispositions," but to a body of devoted and warlike heroes and patriots who, as Kitto says, rose at the signal for armed resistance given by Mattathias, the father of the Maccabees, and who, under him and his successors, upheld with the sword the great doctrine of the unity of God, and stemming the advancing tide of Grecian manners and idolatries. Hence the era of the Assideans, like that of the Essenes, is removed eight centuries from the time of the building of the Solomonic Temple.

Scaliger, who is cited in Lawrie's History as authority, only says that the Assideans were a confraternity of Jews whose principal devotion consisted in keeping up the edifices belonging to the Temple; and who, not content with paying the common tribute of half a shekel a head, appointed for Temple repairs, voluntarily imposed upon themselves an additional tax. But as they are not known to have come into existence until the wars of the Maccabees, it is evident that the Temple to which they devoted their care must have been the second one, which had been built after the return of the Jews from their Babylonian captivity.

With the Temple of Solomon and with its builders, the Assideans could not have had any connection. Prideaux says that the Jews were divided, after the captivity, into two classes - the Zadikim or righteous, who observed only the written law of Moses, and the Chasidim or pious, who superadded the traditions of the elders. These latter, he says, were the Assideans, the change of name resulting from a common alteration of the sounds of the original Hebrew letters. But if this division took place after the captivity, a period of nearly five centuries had then elapsed since the building of Solomon's Temple, and an uninterrupted chain of sequences between that monarch's builders and the Essenes is not preserved. After the establishment of the Christian religion we lose sight of the Essenes. Some of them are said to have gone to Egypt, and there to have founded the ascetic sect of Therapeutists. Others are believed to have been among the first converts to Christianity, but in a short time they faded out of all notice.


[i] Lawrie's "History of Freemasonry," p. 330. 

[ii] The unfairness of the author of Lawrie's "History" is apparent when he quotes the "Histoire des Juifs," by Basnage, as authority for the existence of the Essenes three hundred years before the Christian era. Basnage actually says that they existed in the reign of Antigonus, but this was only 105 B.C.

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