Abe Lincoln's Axe
By Jim Tresner
he story is told of a historian, record-
ing folk history in Illinois in the 1970's.
Several people in the countryside had told
him of a farm family which possessed the
axe Abraham Lincoln had used when split-
ting logs for a living as a young man.
The historian finally found the farm,
and found the farmer in the yard splitting
wood for the living room fireplace. He
asked him about the story.
"Yes," said the farmer, "it's true. Abe
Lincoln lived around here as a young man,
and he worked for a while splitting wood
for my great-great-grandfather. Happened
he'd bought a new axe from a peddler the
day before Abe Lincoln came to work here,
and he gave it to Lincoln to use. We've
kept it ever since."
"That's a real historical treasure," said
the historian. "It really ought to be in a
museum. Would you mind going into the
house and bringing it out so I could see it?"
"Oh we know it's important," said the
farmer. "I take it to the school from time to
time and tell the kids about it and Lincoln.
Seems to sorta make him real for them. But
I don't have to go into the house, I've got it
He handed the horrified historian the
axe he had been using.
"You mean you're still USING it?!"
"Sure thing. An axe is meant to be
The historian looked it over carefully.
"I must say your family has certainly taken
good care of it."
"Sure, we know we're protecting his-
tory. Why we've replaced the handle twice
and the head once."
In many ways, Masonry is like Abe
Lincoln's axe. All of us tend to assume that
Masonry has always been the way it was
when we joined. And we become fiercely
protective of it in that form. But, in fact,
we've done more than replace the handle
twice and the head once.
For example, the Eulogy to Mother was
added to the stairway lecture in Oklahoma
sometimebetween 1924and 1930. Almost
no other state uses it.
When Oklahoma Territory and Indian
Territory merged to form the Grand Lodge
of Oklahoma, major changes in the ritual
(both esoteric and exoteric) were made for
at least 6 years as the two rituals were
When Brothers George Washington,
Benjamin Franklin, and Paul Revere (and
the other Masons of their era and for de-
cades to come) joined the Fraternity, they
did not demonstrate proficiency by memo-
rizing categorical lectures. Instead, the
same evening they received a degree they
sat around a table with the other Brethren
of the Lodge. The Brethren asked each
other questions and answered them for the
instruction of the new Brother. They asked
him questions, and helped him with the
answers. The discussion continued until
they were confident that he understood the
lessons of the Degree. They then taught
him the signs and tokens, and he was
proficient. In many cases, he took the next
Degree the next night. The system of
demonstrating proficiency by memorizing
categorical lectures is less than about twice
as old as the average Mason in Okla-
homa--not too long a span in the 1,000
year history of the Fratemity.
The custom of allowing 28 days to pass
between Degrees came about for no other
reason than the fact that most lodges only
met every 28 days, on the nights of the full
moon. There was no mystery behind that.
Very few horses come equipped with head-
lights, and only on nights of a full moon
could people see well enough to leave their
homes in the country and come into town
for a meeting safely.
The names of the 3 ruffians have
changed at least 3 times since the Master
Mason Degree was created around 1727.
More importantly, the nature and pur-
pose of the Fratemity has charlged radi-
cally over time. It certainly is no longer a
protective trade association, nor a political
force amounting almost to a political party,
but it has been those over its long history.
So yes, Masonry changes. It changes
fairly frequently and sometimes dramati-
cally. Far from being a bastion of conser-
vative resistance to change, through most
of its history it has been a major change
agent--fostering revolutions in political
life (the American revolution, for example)
and social life. It created the tax-supported
public school system. It created homes for
the elderly and orphanages, and then worked
for the sort of social legislation to make
those wide-spread. It sought economic
development for states and communities.
Until the late 1940's and 50's, it was one of
the most potent forces for change in
And Masonry is like Abe Lincoln's axe
in another way. For, although the handle
and head had been replaced, that axe was
still the one used by Abe Lincoln in truth if
not infact. The farmer used it to teach. He
told children about it and about Abe Lin-
coln. He helped make the past real to them,
so that they could learn the great values of
honesty and hard work which Lincoln typi-
It's the same with Masonry. In spite of
the many changes which have already hap-
pened and the changes which are bound to
happen in the future--for Masonry, like
any living thing, must change and grow or
die--it is still the same. It's essence--the
lessons it teaches, the difference it makes in
the lives of men, that great moment of
transformation which is the goal of Ma-
sonry, when a man becomes something new
and better than he was when be came in the
door as a candidate--that essence cannot
and will not be lost, as long as Brothers
meet in the true Masonic spirit, to work and
learn and study and improve themselves
and the world.
That's Masonry. And like Abe Lincoln's
axe, it was meant to be used, not to rust
away in a museum case. That use keeps it
bright and sharp and Masonic, no matter
how often the handle and head need to be
The Oklahoma Mason April-May, 1995