Freemasonry has existed for over five hundred years making it the oldest spiritual self-help philosophy in the western world and over the centuries it has changed. When it began, back in the fifteenth century, most of its members, in common with the bulk of the population, were illiterate. But those early Freemasons recognised that certain symbols had a powerful impact on the way people behaved and could carry complex messages which transcended language. They began the tradition of studying the import of symbols and using symbols as a means of developing systematic thinking. Over the years this approach to studying the import of symbols inspired some Freemasons to develop powerful symbolic reasoning systems such as algebra. Others encouraged the application of the new symbolic reasoning to the study of the hidden mysteries of science and nature. The Royal Society grew out of this trend and the application of algebra to science, as developed by Bro John Wallis, has given us the wonderful benefits of science in the form of amazing new methods of communicating.
When Freemasonry began the only way to transfer information was to transmit it verbally or by drawing temporary symbols on the floor of the lodge. This tradition endues to this day in the form of our ritual working in the Temple and our use of tracing boards. But with the spread of public literacy, Freemasons appointed lodge secretaries and started to record minutes, written in books, and to published printed constitutions. Over time the Order adopted the use of printed ritual books as pioneered by A Lewis, and by the eighteenth century writers such as William Preston and Richard Carlile had published widely read accounts of the purpose and practices of the Order.
The spread of literacy was absorbed into Freemasonry’s way of working and during the early twentieth century items such as summonses, minutes and accounts were posted out to Lodge members so they could keep in touch with their lodge brethren. Grand Lodges began to publish Books of Constitutions and Year Books, and Lodges produced printed books of by-laws. Freemasonry has moved a long way from its early verbal beginnings in the way it transmits its ancient wisdom. Slowly but surely it has adopted new methods of communicating its teachings to its apprentices, whilst remaining cautious about adopting new ways of sharing its message.