Back in the ages, when existence was perilous and life severe, and when Man was seeking some noble purpose to pursue, feasting became a major diversion. Its origin was in the demands of the physical body, but its prevalence was due to the social desires of his soul.
First there were family feasts, then religious feasts, then national feasts, and finally fraternal feasts. The feasts that are probably the oldest of all fraternal feasts are the feasts of the “Mysteries” of Ancient Egypt, the so-called “Sons of Light”. The oldest feasts of Masonic origin, of which we have any record, were the feasts upon being “entered”, and being “passed to a Fellow of the Craft”. How old these are, we cannot say, but they go back far beyond the records of organized Masonry.
In 1717, in order to revitalize the Lodges in and around London, a Grand Lodge was organized. The reason given was: “To cement under a Grand Master as the center of union and harmony”, and, “to revive the Quarterly Communication and hold the Annual Feast”. The latter was the most important, and Masonic historians are pretty well agreed, that the move was especially designed to improve the “feast, fun and fellowship” of the Craft.
A few years later, at the direction of the Grand Master, there was installed the “old, regular and peculiar Toasts and Health’s of Freemasons”. In 1723 there was published “The Constitutions”, in which feasts were further encouraged, and the rules and regulations which controlled them were in detail.
Lawrence Dermott, one of the leaders of early Masonry and the author of the first “Ahiman Rezon”, remarked: “It was thought expedient to abolish the old custom of studying geometry in the Lodge, and some younger Brethren made it appear that a good knife and fork, in the hands of a dexterous Brother, over proper materials, would give greater satisfaction and add more to the conviviality of the Lodge than the best scale and compasses in Europe”.
From the idea of the feast, and the desire to promote a greater degree of fellowship and kinship in Masonry, was born the Table Lodge. Both the affection of friends and love for the Fraternity flourished within its walls. Its meetings were more like a reunion than a regular Lodge, and it became a center of relaxation, celebration and inspiration in Freemasonry.
The Table Lodge had a most unusual pattern. Its entire meeting was conducted around the table, and the helpings of food and beverage were served in such a way they did not interfere with the other concerns of the Lodge. The arrangement of tables resembled a giant horse-shoe, with the Worshipful Master in the East, at the center, and both Wardens in the West, at the opposite ends. The Lodge was opened with an invocation and closed with a song.
At first, there was an address, followed by many toasts and songs, but as time went by the lecture was omitted and the number of toasts and songs decreased. The final figure that was set for the toasts was seven, and in some Jurisdictions that number is still retained today. Pennsylvania has designated three toasts: To the Right Worshipful Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania and Masonic Jurisdiction Thereunto Belonging; to the Memory of Our Deceased Brother, George Washington; and to Freemasonry Around the Globe.
The Table Lodge is a tiled Entered Apprentice Masons Lodge. This had several advantages. One, it permitted the attendance of Entered Apprentice and Fellowcraft, and thus promoted their early fellowship in the Lodge. The other was it provided waiters to serve the food during the progress of the meeting. They were obtained from the Entered Apprentice and Fellowcraft who were present, a procedure which was in accord with the ancient custom, that initiates serve in that capacity during the period of “refreshment” in the Lodge.
In our Colonial days the Table Lodge was Freemasonry’s greatest asset. It buoyed up the spirit of the Brethren when the spirit of the colonists was low. The repast may have been limited under these conditions, bread, cheese, and wine perhaps, but the fervor was there. The moment the Table Lodge opened, there was added to the speech of those present an assortment of military terms.
Under its skillful formula, the names of objects in the room were changed. The table was the Trestle Board, the cloth – the Standard, the food – the materials, the glasses became cannons, the beverage – powder, the bottles – casks, the napkin a flag, forks were pickaxes, knives were swords, and spoons were trowels. To fill the glass was to “charge” it, and to drink it was to “fire”.
Although Masonic records are brief, indications are that the Table Lodge was an enjoyable experience. Dr. George Oliver, one of the most prolific writers of early Masonry, wrote in his memoirs of the effect of the Table Lodge upon those present. These are his words: “The song appears to have more zest than in private company, the toast thrilled more vividly upon recollection, and the small modicum of punch with which it was honored, retained a higher flavor than the same potion if produced at a private board”.
Alcoholic beverages were not a necessary adjunct to the Table Lodge, although they did contribute to the festivities in days of yore. Wine was the libation, but that changed in our land when the 18th Amendment was adopted. Then, out of respect for the Law, a substitute was selected, and although Prohibition was later repealed, Freemasonry did not follow suit. It retained the substitution, partly because it had always cautioned temperance in the behavior of Masons, but more especially, as an expression of respect for the abstinent Brethren on its rolls. Today we use fruit punches, or juices, and one Jurisdiction has recently authorized a hot spiced punch. Grape juice is often used in Pennsylvania.
It is not what the glass contains, but the concept that it offers. That is the major idea behind every toast. Our Ancient Brethren recognized this fact, even in the early Table Lodge, for they approved of the use of water when a participant was so disposed. There is an old Masonic poem, entitled, “Come Quaff the Mason’s Bowl”, published in 1847, when wine was the custom. It emphasized symbolism of the Cup in Freemasonry.
The Table Lodge is a heritage of our past. It has been stated that “the Table Lodge is the summary of Masonic doctrine”. It prescribed reverence for Divinity and moral law. It strengthened the devotion that Masons held for Lodge and Country. It increased the unity and fellowship of the Craft.
Lodges in Pennsylvania planning and scheduling Table Lodges should first clear it with the District Deputy Grand Master and should also consult with the School of Instruction for procedure.