Published July 1, 2019
Baron Karl Gotthelf von Hund was depressed. The young heir to a vast fortune, his father, siblings, and sweetheart were all dead. Hoping a change of scenery might raise his spirits, he attended the coronation of Charles VII in Frankfort where he was initiated into Freemasonry. Perhaps desperate for meaning and structure, he then spent a year in Paris during which time he both joined the Catholic Church and progressed through the Masonic chairs with fervor. When he returned to Germany in September of 1743 he was a changed man.
Hund claimed that while in Paris he had been contacted by Scottish knights with an unbroken lineage to the Knights Templar. Supposedly, with the Knights Templar dissolved and Jacques de Molay dead, seven prominent Templar knights and commanders escaped to Scotland and hid themselves among a fraternity of operative stone masons. Indebted to the masons for their protection, they began to teach them the esoteric arts of their order which meant Freemasonry was essentially Templar in origin. Hund claimed to have been initiated into these mysteries by Prince Charles Edward Stewart and several other prominent Jacobites. With a promise that he would be contacted by the “Unseen Elders” that governed the order to be brought into the higher mysteries, he returned to Kittlitz (present day Löbau) and began erecting a massive and ornate castle where he would establish a new Masonic lodge and begin penning the ritual which would become known as the Rite of Strict Observance.
Within ten years, Hund’s Templar system had become the dominant form of Masonry in Germany, which initially seems like an astonishing feat considering his only proof consisted of his word and a letter he was supposedly given by the Elders that is still indecipherable to this day. However, there are several other factors that likely contributed to the Rite’s success. The Rite of Strict Observance appealed to a growing sense of German nationalism and propriety. For example, the Count of St. Germain wrote Hund a letter referring to their shared longing for “the regeneration of the Order of Freemasons in an aristocratic sense”, a sentiment that was shared by nobility that liked the pomp of Masonry but not the mysterious plebian origins, and in fact at the height of the Rite’s influence at least seven princes and dukes had sworn their unquestioning allegiance to these Unseen Elders. Perhaps luckily, the Unseen Elders never spoke and whenever claims of communication were made they were quickly proved to be a forgery. Under “Templar” influence, a myriad of degrees and certificates were offered influenced by Rosicrucian, alchemical, Hermetic, and especially Kabalistic teachings (NOTE- all the wiki articles around the R.O.S.T. falsely claim the Templar system clamped down on occultism in Lodges without citations. This is demonstrably false). Eventually, discontent with the Rite began to rise as it became clear that lodge members would not be initiated into the mysteries of the Unseen Elders, and the court of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach became the epicenter of a small yet determined movement to replace the Rite of Strict Observance.
As a prominent Member of the court of Karl Augustus, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, the interest in Masonry that Goethe had initially picked up from Lessing was cultivated in the largely Masonic court and culminated in his petitioning the lodge at Weimar (Amalia) for membership. Like Lessing however, he harbored a passion for the simplicity and openness of the older rituals, and his demands that he be initiated using the older rite and that he not be blindfolded led to a year of squabbling before the lodge eventually acquiesced and he was raised with the Worshipful Master absent in protest.
Less than a year later, a man appeared in the night requesting an audience with Goethe and Duke Karl Augustus. That man was Frederich Ludwig Schröder, an actor famed for his role in the Hamburg production of Schiller’s Don Carlos. Serving as Worshipful Master of Emanuel Lodge at Hamburg, Schröder had grown extremely disenchanted with the Templar revisionism and wanted to cleanse the ritual. It is likely that, with the Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach court’s well known support of independent judgment and sovereignty, Schröder thought it likely that he could find allies in taking down a ritualistic system so steeped in submission and ceremony. Furthermore, the courts reputation as a cultural beacon in Europe at the time would lend validity to the project he wanted to undertake- the formation of a new Masonic ritual along the lines of the sparse, simplistic English rites. The Duke and Goethe immediately offered their support, with Goethe even providing assistance in Schröder’s attempt to translate the Masonic exposé Jachin and Boaz and use this as the basis for a new Germanic ritual.
In 1801 “Schröder’s System” was adopted by the Provincial Grand Lodge at the urging of Weimar. Several years of infighting ensued, with the Unseen Elders remaining silent as one by one their lodges either closed or adopted the more traditional degrees. By 1808 the Lodge Amalia had reopened under the Schröder ritual with Goethe snidely asking the man that refused to raise him to serve again as Worshipful Master under the new system, an honor which he declined. Goethe would live to celebrate his fiftieth anniversary in Masonry, an event at which he spoke and recited poetry. The Rite of Strict Observance would survive only in small, scattered clandestine lodges until being fully eradicated along with all other Masonic organizations in Germany under the Nazi regime. Even today it is difficult to find copies of the ritual, with only one English translator that operates as a tiled (open only to Masons) subscription service, meaning one must either be a Mason or have access to a Masonic library to study it. Though it seems most likely that Baron von Hund was either a quack or a madman, it’s rewarding to imagine Goethe helping to deal a major blow to one of the shadowy organizations that haunts humanity in darkness by bringing forth more Light.