The Three Degrees of Ancient Craft Masonry
This chapter reviews Masonic philosophy, addresses the preparation and proper regard for candidates, and provides an overview of the Masonic journey developed in our three degrees.
The Philosophy of Freemasonry
Behind the ceremonies and lesson of each Masonic degree lie fundamental philosophical concepts. These concepts concern the nature of the world in which we live and our place in it. They are similar to the guiding principles of many religions and to philosophical systems which have been foundational in our western culture. Central is the belief in a Supreme Being who created the universe and implanted in man those abilities necessary for building a better world.
Masonry in not concerned with theological efforts which attempt to characterize the Supreme Being or in stipulating liturgical forms of worship. In simplest terms Freemasonry, while deeply religious, makes no claim to be a revealed Religion. It emphasizes three fundamental ideas:
first, that God exists; second, that men are put on earth to exercise their faculties and work as God’s instruments; third, that their work is to be performed in accordance with the principles of morality and justice as indicated in the laws of nature and in the revaluation of the Sacred Writings which, within the Grand Lodge of Maine, is taken to be the Holy Bible.
Masonic ritual embodies the building of a better way of life and a finer world symbolized as a temple of reason and compassion. All masons are intended to be builders engaged in building this Temple of Light according to their various abilities and skills and under the direction of overseers called Masters and Wardens.
Each workman understands that the successful completion of the Temple depends upon his individual effort as well as the united cooperation and harmony of the entire body of brethren known as the Craft. Each brother understands that there can be no cessation of the work until the Temple is completed and the betterment of the entire human race is accomplished.
The Masonic lessons portrayed in the degree journey, which all Masons experience as a part of their training, are not intended to be a fanciful excursion nor is the work designed for an evening’s entertainment. Instead, the Masonic story faithfully represents the life of a man in search of significance and personal meaning. Throughout the lessons of the three degrees, the candidate finds that in this world, he must work if he is to receive the wages of life. Such wages consist not merely of the food, clothing and shelter needed for a comfortable living, but also those equally essential satisfactions: interest in life, happiness and contentment. Man finds that he cannot always choose the work he would like to do, but must often adapt himself to the conditions and circumstances imposed by a power outside himself. He receives directions for doing his work from studying the forces and the laws that govern the natural world and from written words of wisdom embodied in sacred scripture.
He finds that he cannot work alone, that his work is dependent on mankind and that mankind depends on him. Governments, societies and other organizations are formed for cooperative effort. He sees many things happen to himself and to others, the reason for which he cannot fathom. At one time the world seems good, at another bad. Sometimes the work he is doing appears without purpose and without result. He continues to put forth effort only because he must.
The ritual harmonizes these discordant impressions. The Temple that is being built is the Temple of character, the great books of Nature and Revelation are the Trestle-Board, the voice of conscience is their interpreter, man is the workman, and the Supreme Architect is God. In short, our Masonic degrees present a journey involving solemn lessons important to a Mason’s quality of life and his service to family, church, community, and country.
In a following section you will find brief descriptions of each degree.
Proper Preparation of the Candidate
Before reviewing the principle lessons of our degrees attention should be given to the preparation of candidates. The proper preparation of the candidate for Masonic degrees is the duty of every Mason with whom he come in contact including the member with whom he first discusses the Craft, the investigation committee, the members who learn of his interest in becoming a Mason, and the officers and members who welcome him into the Lodge to receive his degrees.
To ensure the greatest benefit from the Entered Apprentice Degree, the candidate should be urged to enter the Lodge with a mental attitude that enables him to appreciate the serious and solemn ceremonies through which he will pass. This requires serenity of mind, humility of spirit, and intent to search and discover additional significance in his life. He should be encouraged to be attractive to the ceremony so that he may gain an understanding of the teachings of Freemasonry.
The candidate will not be familiar with the Masonic rites and methods of teaching (i.e. the use of allegory and symbolism within a ritual journey) and may, therefore, be uneasy about the unknown. While a program of Masonic education and the use of instructional videos are important in orienting and assisting the candidate, every brother in the Lodge should be involved in treating the candidate with dignity and respect thus assuring him that he is entering a society of friends and brothers.
The Three Degrees
The new mason as well as those who have been members of our Craft for years will find the following essays on the significance of our degree experience profitable and inspiring. An additional wealth of information on specific features and symbols found in our degrees is provided in the last section of this manual (see in the Compendium of Masonic Symbols and Instructional Elements).
The First Degree – Entered Apprentice
With the Entered Apprentice degree, the candidate commences a quest for the Light of understanding, for compassion and for the discipline of responsibility. Here he begins a new life embraced within the mystic tie.
The adventure begins not with the proclamation of far arching truths but with three simple questions which plumb the heart of the candidate: does he seek the mysteries of Masonry of his own free will; is he dedicated to the service of his fellow-creatures; does he agree to conform to the usages and customs which are to blaze the path he is to follow? Swiftly and at the very commencement of his journey, he is taught that he must seek, that he must commit, that he must trust. Thus in ceremony rites as ancient as it is immediate, the covenant is made between a searching individual and the promise of awaiting significance. Here a promise of mutual caring is made between a new Mason and his brothers.
The candidate, blind and devoid of those comforting trappings of pride and fortune, knocks and is conducted across the threshold to commence the Masonic enterprise. And what an extraordinary enterprise it is! Moments ago he stood in a world confused and concerned with self, in a world struggling to find a worthy vision and in a place without the extended hand of brotherhood. Now in quiet dignity and through ceremonies which emerge from the mists of our human past to embrace the future, he is afforded an opportunity to examine his own being and condition, to join in an enterprise that is greater than himself, to build a life vibrant in its quest for truth, richer through its giving, and stronger in the keeping of its obligations his God, his neighbor and himself.
Lit by the long experience of mankind, the lesser lights will illuminate the candidate kneeling at the altar while his brethren beseech God’s aid upon this undertaking. The chaplain will pray that this man may dedicate himself to the service of the Divine and the moral law, that he may be blessed with wisdom and purpose, and that he may “display the beauties of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth. So in prayer the candidate first learns of the noble tenets of his profession as a Mason, and while still kneeling, he hears that eternal imperative “Let there be Light!”
Thus this grandly important journey begins. The candidate discovers, and we who participate rediscover, that Freemasonry is about life — about the essentials of being, about the realities both stem and filled with joy, about building, death, and the dignity of each soul.
The Second Degree – Fellow Craft
One needs to approach the Fellow Craft Degree with care. There is at stake in this degree far more than may first appear. The degree is a marvel of compression. It portrays a liberal education in miniature, and by means of a rapid succession of references and symbolisms conducts us upon a journey of time — our time of youth, manhood and age and that time which is the history of our race. We participate in an exploration of knowledge, of human potential and of creative aspirations. We ultimately arrive upon the threshold of the Sublime Degree. The eager mason, the man seeking understanding and wisdom, will spend years unpacking this middle portion of our degree journey, but such a dedication is the only way to become a true Fellow of the Craft.
In simplest terms the Fellowcraft Degree is about passages and purposes. Out of the dawn of human consciousness arise two great pillars symbolic of the will to establish and the strength to endure. They mark the beginning of a pathway toward the presence of our Creator who first implanted in us ability for science and the gift of ingenuity. It is between these two pillars and along a pathway of quest that we, as Masons, must travel.
Our pathway presents us with a flight of stairs up which we must climb. These are stairs of endeavor and discipline which climb in anticipation of fascinating discoveries and which also turn within a world of uncertainty.
On our adventure, we carry three tools essential to our profession as Builders: the level of equality, the plumb of rectitude, and the square of moral relationships. As we climb, we perceive more clearly their noble uses. A sweeping view opens to us. We see the reciprocal inspiration of nature and architecture and hear the calling to build a temple of happiness for all mankind against the ruthless had of ignorance and the ravages of war. We learn of the disciplines required for our achievement. They are symbolized in the old division of a university curriculum — the trivium: grammar, rhetoric and logic; and the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music Each of these adventures of mind will extend and provide more Light, but it is upon the art and science of Geometry that our attention is especially directed. We are wisely told that geometry is the root of the mathematics. However, by analogy there is still greater meaning to be discovered. We seem to see the great compasses of God sweeping out the patterns, the arches and circles of the universe. With this vision, we approach the middle chamber from which there streams a Light more wondrous than we have seen. Ahead awaits the inspiration of the Middle Chamber Lecture with its depiction of the majesty of God and the persistence of the Craft as the servant to His purposes here on earth.
But before this goal is reached, there remains one passage more. Before us is a crossing over which there hangs the symbol of the plenty. This plenty, the plenty of the spirit, we cannot have nor can we proceed unless each one of us has acquired by discipline, by practice, and by love that which is required. Here, with the drawn sword of truth, awaits the guardian of the passage. Here the test and the challenge. Have we by virtue of our endeavors become significant human beings and true Fellows of the Craft?
The Third Degree – Master Mason
This is the sublime degree and the highest degree that can be conferred upon any Mason. For the mason experiencing the opening section, it becomes immediately obvious that his duties as a man and as a Mason have greatly increased. Valuable information on the significant aspects of the first section along with the symbols used in the lectures is provided in the Compendium provided at the back of this manual. What follows is a consideration of the second section that constitutes the final drama of our ritual journey. Here we approach the heart of our teachings — the core that gives substance to our beliefs and pulse to all our Masonic undertakings. In this drama is laid bare our human experience in all its multiplicity and levels of meaning. Here the warnings heard in the Fellow Craft Degree concerning the ruthless hand of ignorance and the ravages of time take on reality, and the glorious dream of a new temple where the spirit of God may dwell amidst the people seems wrenched from our grasp. Even the Light which has illuminated our hopes seems eclipsed.
As at the beginning of the degree journey, the whole focus is upon the candidate. This is his opportunity to feel and to witness — to represent Hiram Abif, a man in whom the Divine Light has found expression. He is the master builder who understands the value of tradition and appreciates invention. He is a man of compassion, a servant leader, a man who keeps the moral law and who is unconcerned with self. If ever a man deserved to live and prosper it is he. Yet the shadows fill the passage though it is still high noon — the dark shadows of greed, reckless ambition, of avarice, self importance, expediency, impatience. Three dark shapes block the gateways. One feels the presence of death.
Yet Hiram Abif refuses to break the covenant, retract his word, or undo the mystic tie. But there is more at stake here than the life of one man-even so good a man and master builder. Before us drawn from ancient sources and mystery erupts the titanic struggle of the Light versus the darkness. Here is our struggle between that which is good and that which is evil, between law and anarchy, between integrity and infidelity, and finally between hope and despair. But this is not the final message of the Sublime Degree. Here is not an end but rather a beginning. The dream of a new temple, of a society where joy abides, will not be put down. Hiram Abif and all he stands for lives again through each of us!
This great second section is intended to be acted out as a drama of fidelity, inspiration and ultimate purpose. It is not for the faint of heart. Neither is it a place to titillate our own coarser humor or amuse those who, through their ignorance, scandalize its serious intent.
As we approach this climax of our degree lessons, let us consider again what it was which we came here to do. Was it not to emulate Hiram Abif, the master builder? Let us remind ourselves how deeply at odds our Masonic intent is to the desire for earthly power, for material wealth, for self aggrandizement, for immediate pleasure, for so many desires and ambitions which seem so prevalent in our world and little lives. Let us be determined that in times of testing we will not take the easy path but follow the great builder.
And finally, as we reenact the legend of Hiram Abif, we are conscious of a meaning deeper still and speaking of our underlying faith:
There’s a world where all are equal, we are hurrying to it fast,
We shall meet upon the level there when the gates of death are passed.
We shall stand before the Orient, and our Master will be there,
To try the blocks we offer with his own unerring square.
Brother Robert Morris
Symbols and Instructional Elements
The ritual journey of the three degrees is illuminated by a constellation of powerful symbols, powerful figures of speech, and rich instructional images. While each of these provide the opportunity for extensive study and exploration, the following presentation provides a sound review and foundation. The entries are arranged by degree. Further information and background can be found in books listed in this manual’s bibliography and in the Grand Lodge of Maine’s revised Instructor’s Manual.