Monday, February 10, 2014

The Iron Worker and King Solomon

Worth (n.) – [ME < OE weorth, to honor]  1. Material value, esp. as expressed in terms of money or some other medium of exchange.  2. That quality of a person or thing that lends importance, value, merit, etc., and that is measurable by the esteem in which the person or thing is held.Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition, 1984.

It was a comfortable spring evening in Philadelphia, 1859, and they were gathered at the La Pierre House in honor of his friend Henry C. Carey, Esquire, who had asked him to speak on the growing tide of industry in the modern world. The gentleman rose from his place, paused to straighten his waistcoat, and approached the dais. As Joseph Harrison, Jr. strode across the room, he met the occasional gaze of a guest with eyes that beheld an air of confidence, but not arrogance.

Harrison cleared his throat, stroked his freshly trimmed goatee, and looked out over the room. He was greeted with the briefest hint of a smile from his friend, the guest of honor, which he returned with a slight nod.

“In attempting to say a few words on the Mechanical Arts, I am sure you will find the task in unworthy, if not in very prejudiced hands.”

And Joseph Harrison, Jr. was very prejudiced indeed – not in thought or action toward his fellow man, but in his love of something much more ordinary. He was one of the very first American engineers and had spent much of his career building European railways and designing locomotive engines in America. His passion, though, was not merely for mechanical constructs or railroads. Harrison had a great appreciation and deep affection for something far simpler, but of much greater importance – iron. Joseph Harrison, Jr. knew its worth. 

In this particular keynote address, one might have expected him to speak of the growth of industry in Philadelphia, the advancement of the railways, or his success as an engineer both at home and abroad. But he didn’t.  Harrison instead spoke of Jehovah as the “first Great Mechanic.” He spoke of Tubal Cain, a great “instructor of every artificer in brass and iron;” of Noah, Hiram of Tyre, and King Solomon himself, as well as “all those who so cunningly worked in iron, and in brass, in gold and in silver, and in cedar wood on the holiest and grandest of temples.”

Yet for Joseph Harrison, all the artists and their craftwork paled in comparison to what he considered the “true precious metal: iron.” And to illustrate this important medium of mechanics, he did not refer to its many uses and benefits in construction, science, and art. No, Joseph Harrison, Jr. instead, told the story of a man.


Upon completion of the Temple at Jerusalem, King Solomon set aside a day for its consecration and invited all of the artisans who had worked on the Temple to the celebration. But as the horns sounded and the throne was unveiled, an Iron Worker was there seated in the place of honor to the right of the King’s seat! A flash of fury spread through the gathered crowd as the Smith, bare-chested and covered in perspiration having come directly from his labors, sat upright with head held high despite the presence of the King. The guards moved immediately to remove the offensive trespasser when Solomon himself cried out: “HOLD! Friend, why are you here?”

The Iron Worker replied, “Great King, did you not declare this a day of consecration and celebration to be shared among the artisans and chief workers on the Temple? I came not unbidden.”

Then the Chief of the Quarry said, “This man is not a stone mason. We do not know him.” And the Chief Woodcutter in charge of shaping the great timbers for the roof said, “Neither is he known to us.” Likewise, an artisan of gilt work spoke up saying, “I do not recognize him as a worker in refined metals, either.”

But the Iron Worker was unmoved and said to the Chief of the Stone Masons, “Who made the instruments with which you carve?” And he answered, “The Blacksmith.” Turning to the Chief Woodcutter, the Iron Worker asked, “Who made the tools you used to cut the timber in Lebanon and shape them for use in the Temple?” And he answered, “The Blacksmith.” And finally, turning to the artisan of gold and precious stones, the Iron Worker asked, “Who made the instruments that enabled you to create the beautiful gilt work adorning this magnificent Temple?” And he replied, “The Blacksmith.”

Then the Iron Worker faced the wise Solomon saying, “Behold, O King! I am the one they call the Blacksmith.” And King Solomon saw his worth and invited the Blacksmith to remain in the place of honor at the right hand of the King. And from then on, the Iron Workers were held in high esteem by all the artisans in the land.


Joseph Harrison, Jr. so loved this tale that he commissioned a painting depicting the story. The artist was Christian Schussele and the canvas was completed sometime between 1862 and 1863. It was later reproduced in 1889 as (fittingly enough) a steel engraving by an artist (and 33˚ Mason) named John Sartain and presently resides in the National Heritage Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The print adorns the walls of literally thousands of Masonic Lodges across the country. The fact that Harrison himself cannot be positively identified as a member of the Fraternity is unimportant as there can be no doubt that he saw the worth of the story. The tale clearly illustrates the wisdom in understanding the importance of the contributions of everyone, no matter how great or small, how decorated or lowly, and regardless of outward appearance. It teaches that we should leave our Masonic mark on everyone we meet and everything we do and be aware that others will leave their mark upon us as well. A good friend and Brother reminded me recently that we all have value, but to remember that much of that value comes from others. Just as the stone worker or woodcutter owes part of a debt to the blacksmith for making his work possible, so too, do we owe a debt to teachers, artists, philosophers, scientists, laborers, Masons, and non-masons alike for leading us to seek more light. For without the efforts of all, the Temple never will be completed.

So where does that leave us today? Have you done work worthy of the temple? Have you done enough to be considered in the ranks of the artisans? Of course you have! Your contributions, no matter how large or how small they may seem to you, how elaborate or simple they may appear to others, or how noticeably or without recognition they may pass, are not only important, but absolutely vital to the continued health and success of Freemasonry. This is the merit King Solomon saw in the Iron Worker. This is why you are here - why you deserve to be here.

And yes, I see your worth.