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 here."

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 used."

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 combined.

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 America.

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- fied.

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 replaced.

The Oklahoma Mason April-May, 1995