St. John the Baptist, Patron Saint of Freemasonry
Phillip G. “Phil” Elam, Grand Orator (1999-2000)
Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Missouri
By history, custom, tradition and ritualistic requirements, the Craft holds in veneration the Festival Days of St. John the Baptist on June 24th, and St. John the Evangelist on December 27th. Any Blue Lodge that forgets either of these important Festival Days forfeits a precious link with the past and loses an opportunity for the renewal of allegiance to everything in Freemasonry symbolized by these Patron Saints.
Why the two Saints John?
No satisfactory explanation has yet been advanced to explain why operative Masons adopted these two particular Christian saints, when, for example, St. Thomas, the patron of architecture and building, was already in wide use.
Regardless, Freemasons agree that the choice of these two ancient Brethren was, indeed, wise. No other two great teachers, wise men, or saints could have been found who better exemplified through their lives and works the sublime doctrine and ageless teachings of Freemasonry.
It was a common custom in the Middle Ages for craftsmen to place themselves under the protection of some saint of the church. All the London trades appear to have ranged themselves under the banner of some saint and if possible they chose one who bore fancied relation to their trades Thus, the fishmongers adopted St. Peter; glove makers chose St. Crispin; guards chose St. Matthew; tilers chose St. Barbara; tailors often chose Eve; lawyers selected St. Mark; lead workers chose St. Sebastian; stone cutters chose the Four Crowned Martyrs; doctors chose St. Luke; astronomers chose St. Dominic; and so on.
Eleven or more medieval trade guilds chose John the Baptist as their Patron Saint. Even after exhaustive research by some of the best Masonic scholars, no one can say with any certainty why Freemasons adopted the two Saints John, or why they continue to celebrate feast days when they once held a far different significance. However, the appropriateness of the two Johns is obvious in our system of Great Moral Teachings, if we consider the spiritual suggestion of their lives.
John the Baptist
St. John the Baptist was a stern and just man, intolerant of sham, of pretense, of weakness. He was a man of strength and fire, uncompromising with evil or expediency, and, yet, courageous, humble, sincere, and magnanimous. A character at once heroic and of rugged nobility, the Greatest of Teachers said of the Baptist: “Among them that are born of woman, there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist.”
What do we know about John the Baptist? John was a Levite. His father Zechariah was a Temple priest of the line of Abijah, and his mother Elizabeth was also descended from Aaron. The Carpenter from Nazareth and John the Baptist were related. Their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, were cousins. John the Baptist was born 6 months before the Nazarene, and he died about 6 months before Jesus. The angel Gabriel separately announced the coming births of the Great Teacher Christ and John the Baptist. Zechariah doubted the prophecy, and was struck dumb until John’s birth. John lived in the mountainous area of Judah, between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.
John had a popular ministry. It is generally thought that his ministry started when he was about the age of 27, spreading a message of repentance to the people of Jerusalem. John’s ministry became so popular that many wondered if he was the Messiah prophesized in the ancient Hebrew teachings. We are also told that John the Baptist baptized Jesus after which he stepped away and told his disciples to follow Jesus. It would seem logical that these two would combine their ministries. Oddly enough, however, they apparently never met again.
Descriptions from various historical sources seem to indicate that John was a strong, handsome, well-formed man, and there is every indication that he was attractive to the opposite sex. However, we know that he never married, and chose to devote his life to his ministry. In addition to being concerned with the spiritual reformation of the people of the Hebrew nation, John was also interested in the affairs of state.
John’s ministry and life ended when he admonished Herod and his wife, Herodias, for their sinful behavior. John was imprisoned and was eventually beheaded. Saint Jerome wrote that Herod kept the head for a long time after, stabbing the tongue with his dagger in a demented attempt to continuously inflict punishment upon John. After he was murdered, John’s disciples came and buried his body, and then went and told the Great Teacher all that had happened. The Carpenter responded to the news of John’s death by saying, “John was a lamp that burned and gave Light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his Light.”
Festivals of the two Saints John
On June 24th, we observe the festival of summer sun and on December 27th, we observe the festival of the winter sun. The June festival commemorates John the Baptist and the December festival honors John the Evangelist.
The Festivals of the Saints John bear the names of Christian Saints, but ages ago, long before the Christian era, they bore other names. Freemasonry adopted these festivals and the Christian names, but has taken away Christian dogma, and made their observance universal for all men of all beliefs.
St. John’s the Baptist’s Day, June 24th, marks the summer solstice, when nature attains the zenith of light and life and joy. St. John’s the Evangelist’s, December 27th, symbolizes the turn of the sun’s farthest journey, which is symbolic of the attainment of wisdom, the rewards of a well-spent life, and goodwill toward men. The Catholic Church observes the birth of the Baptist as a hallowed event. Interestingly, they have no such commemoration for the birth of any of the other Saints.
In addition to being the initial Patron Saint of Freemasons, the Baptist was also considered to be the Patron Saint of the following: Bird dealers, convulsions, cutters, epilepsy, furriers, hailstorms, Knights Hospitaller, Knights of Malta, lambs, Maltese Knights, monastic life, motorways, printers, spasms, and oars.
The first Grand Lodge organized in England in 1717, on the Festival Day of the Baptist. The United Grand Lodge of England was created in 1813 on the Festival Day of the Evangelist. The day of St. John the Baptist is truly symbolic of a day of beginnings, while the day of the Evangelist is symbolic of endings.
In the English catechism of the early eighteenth century, the following three questions and answers were included as an explanation of why Lodges were dedicated to the Holy Saints John:
Why to John the Baptist?
In him, we have a singular instance of purity, of zeal, simplicity of manners, and an ardent wish to benefit mankind by his example. To him we are indebted for the introduction of that grand tenet of our institution, which it is our glory to support: Peace on earth, good will toward men.
Did John the Baptist have any equal?
To carry into execution this grand tenet; and to transmit to future ages so valuable a doctrine, an equal has been selected, John the Evangelist, in whom we find talents and learning alike conspicuous. Hence, it is to him we pay due allegiance as the patron of our art.
In what is he considered the equal of John the Baptist?
He is considered to be equal to the former in this. As the personal influence of John the Baptist could not extend beyond the bounds of a private circle or so effectually defuse the benefits of the plan he had introduced, an assistant was necessary to complete the work he had begun. In John the Evangelist, therefore, we discover the same zeal as John the Baptist, and superior abilities displayed to perfect the improvement of man; copying the example of his predecessor we view him arranging and ably digesting, by his eminent talents, the great doctrine which had been issued into the world; and transmitting by his writings, for the benefit of posterity, the influence of that doctrine to which the zeal of his predecessor had given birth. As parallels in Masonry, we rank these two patrons and class them as joint promoters of our system; to their memory in conjunction with Solomon, we are taught to pay due homage and veneration.
Thus, we define the two great characters to whom we owe the establishment of our tenets, and the improvement of our system; while, in the ceremony of dedication, we commemorate the virtues and transmit them to latter ages, we derive from their favor, patronage and protection.
The Volume of Sacred Law tells us that when the multitudes asked of the Baptist, “What shall we do”, John responded, thusly: “He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner.” To the tax collectors, he enjoined then not to exact more than the rate of taxes fixed by law. To the soldiers, who served as the police of those times, he recommended not to do violence to any man, nor falsely to denounce anyone.
St. John the Baptist was a man of character and integrity, and someone we would all do well to emulate. John was a humble man, in the best sense of the word. John preached a message of repentance. Repentance means more than just saying that, “you are sorry.” The Greek word “metanoia,” from which the word “repentance” comes literally means, “to turn around.” In other words, John urged his followers to literally turn around and move in a new direction, i.e., to move toward God instead of away from God. – mere lip service was not enough because actions speak louder than words. John wanted his followers to live lives that demonstrated their orientation toward God. Moreover, he preached this message not only with his words, but through his actions as well.
John the Baptist was simply a man who lived in one particular historical moment. Yet, his message of repentance, humility, devotion and love of God transcends time and culture. It is a message that is just as urgent and just as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. It is a message that was illustrated by John’s daily life. Moreover, it is a message that underscores so many of the values that Freemasons today exalt as ideals for the living of a moral life.
From a Lodge of the Holy Saints John at Jerusalem
Our ritual speaks of a Lodge of the Holy Saints John at Jerusalem. Many Brethren take this to refer to a Lodge at Jerusalem when it actually only refers to the Holy Saints John as being at Jerusalem. Hundreds of years ago, Scottish Lodges were referred to as St. Johns’ Lodges. Therefore, when a Brother referred to himself as coming from a Lodge of the Holy Saints John at Jerusalem, he meant only that he came from a Scottish Lodge.
When were the Holy Saints John selected as patrons of our Order? We do not have exact dates, but our ancient manuscripts indicate that St. John the Baptist was selected by Scottish, and later British, Lodges long before the Evangelist who appears for the first time in any Masonic documents in the 17th century.
We may never know the truth about John’s historical relationship with Freemasonry. We may never find out if he was a member of our Fraternity, although it is highly unlikely that he was. The truth is that it really does not matter if he was a member of our Ancient Craft. Freemasonry honors the humble man who came to be known as St. John the Baptist because his entire life exemplified duty to God through his faith, his religious practices, and through the very living of his life.
It is regrettable that we note an apparent increasing disinterest on the part of Lodges and our Brethren to honor the two Patron Saints of our Order. It is not that these two Saints need to be honored based on any ancient rituals and tradition. Rather, by holding an annual celebration in their honor, we recall to ourselves the great moral lessons each taught, and the example of piety and devotion to Deity they exhibited throughout their lives.
The imminent Masonic scholar, Joseph Fort Newton, wrote, “Righteousness and Love — those two words do not fall short of telling the whole duty of a man and a Freemason.” And Freemasons around the world could do no better in their choice of a Patron Saint and a model for living than they have in John the Baptist – a man whose life continues to shine as an example to us all – Mason and non-Mason alike!
With gratitude and recognition to the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the State of Missouri. All rights reserved.