Response to The Parrot Mason

By Midnight Freemason Contributor
RWB Michael H. Shirley

Our esteemed editor, Brother Robert Johnson, wrote a post on “The Parrot Mason,” Albert Mackey’s term for a Brother who can recite ritual chapter and verse, but without understanding what it is they are saying. As Mackey put it, 

One who commits to memory the questions and answers of the catechetical lectures, and the formulas of the ritual, but pays no attention to the history and philosophy of the Institution, is commonly called a Parrot Mason, because he is supposed to repeat what he has learned without any conception of its true meaning.

I’m fairly certain that we all know Brethren like this. They are often distinguished by a recitation without affect, for affect in recitation requires a connection to meaning, and Parrot Masons don’t have that connection. That said, Brother Johnson said something that requires clarification: “There is no understanding in rote memorization. Understanding the lessons of the degrees and what happened in them is what matters.” He is, of course, correct, but learning ritual, I would argue, is essential to understanding the meaning of that ritual (I’m pretty sure Brother Johnson agrees with me). As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has demonstrated, we need to know things in order to learn new things. The more ritual I memorize, the easier the nuances of ritual become for me. The more ritual I know, the more I am able to think about its meaning; the more meaning I understand, the more meaningful my degree work is.

To put it simply, rote memorization of ritual is essential. It is not, however, the final goal. It’s the base on which we build understanding of our ritualistic work. The more I know, the more I am able to understand, and memorization of ritual is key to that understanding. After all, I can’t think if I have nothing to think about.


R.W.B. Michael H. Shirley serves the Grand Lodge of Illinois, A.F. & A.M, as Leadership Development Chairman and Assistant Area Deputy Grand Master of the Eastern Area. A Certified Lodge Instructor, he is a Past Master and Life Member of Tuscola Lodge No. 332 and a plural member of Island City Lodge No. 330, F & AM, in Minocqua, Wisconsin. He is Past Most Wise Master of the George E. Burow Chapter of Rose Croix in the Valley of Danville, IL; he is also a member of the Illinois Lodge of Research, the York Rite, Eastern Illinois Council No. 356 Allied Masonic Degrees, Eastern Star, Illini High Twelve, and the Tall Cedars of Lebanon.The author of several article on British and American history, he teaches at Eastern Illinois University.You can contact him at:

1 comment:

  1. With regards to the degrees, I contend that there are 5 stages to mastering them.

    Experiencing the Degree
    Learning the Degree
    Exploring the Degree
    Performing the Degree
    Owning the Degree


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