Masonry is a philosophical society which traces its roots to the old operative Masons who actually built buildings. Legendarily, we trace the origins of Freemasonry to the building of King Solomon's Temple in approximately 950 B.C. Historically, however, some trace the origins of Masonry to the building of the Gothic cathedral of Strasbourg in France in the year 1275 A.D.
In the Middle Ages, there was very little formal education, particularly for the working man. The secrets of engineering and art so beautifully executed by the Masons in all of the great cathedrals of Europe were taught in the Masonic Lodges in which these Masons associated. The tools of these operative or building Masons, such as the square, level, plumb and gavel, were the most commonly used instruments in the erection of those magnificent edifices.
The medieval Masons prided themselves on their work and accepted among them only those who were willing to learn the craft with the exactitude necessary to complete perfectly the buildings to which the Masons of the day were called to work. If one was a Mason, he was then known to be proficient in the technical art of construction and therefore could be hired by the local authority constructing the building with confidence that this person could adequately discharge any assignments received. These operative Masons were also known for their honesty and fair dealing. They wished to maintain the reputation of their craft and to assure any potential employer that honest work would be received for wages paid.
To assure honesty and fair dealing, philosophical lessons to inculcate those principles were taught the apprentices, who were learning to become Masons, through the symbolism of the Mason's tools. As the practical use of each tool was taught, the philosophical lesson symbolized by the tool was explained also. As the building of the monumental stone edifices of Europe declined in the 17th Century, the number of operative Masons or those who actually constructed the edifices declined also. Freemasonry began to admit members who did not actually intend to build buildings with their hands. They were admitted to speculate or study the philosophical teachings which Masonry had developed around its building tools. Today, we use the working tools of the ancient, operative Masons as symbols, to teach certain lessons of morality. With these working tools, today's Mason is taught to erect his spiritual temple, as his operative predecessors with the same implements so constructed their material temples.
Our Master wears the square. The square is an instrument having two sides that form an angle of 90 degrees, used for laying out or testing right angles. This is one of the most important and significant symbols in Freemasonry and is part of the emblem by which we are typically known: the square, the compass and the letter "G". The ancient stonemason used the square to test the accuracy of the sides of a stone and to see that its ends subtend the same angle. If the stone were not square, the building erected upon it could not rise straight and square from the ground.
In Freemasonry, the square is a symbol of morality, of truthfulness and of honesty. As the square to the old operative Masons tested whether a stone was fit to be used in the construction of a building, Masons today are taught that it is the square of morality, of truthfulness, of honesty and of virtue by which they should test their actions in life toward God and man. So universally accepted is this symbolism that it may be found outside the Masonic order. To play upon the square is proverbial for to play honestly. A moral, truthful and honest person is noted by his or her square dealing. From the earliest times of speculative Masonry, God and the square, religion and morality, must be present in every Lodge as governing principles. That a man should abstain from doing unto others what he would not desire that they should do unto him is acting on the square.
Our Senior Warden wears the level. The level is an instrument for determining whether a surface is on an even horizontal plane or for adjusting a surface to such a plane. The ancient stonemasons assured themselves that each stone was laid in a level fashion. No matter how square a stone was, unless it were laid level, the building would never lie square and erect from the ground. The level therefore became a symbol of equality.
As each part of the stone was level, with no point rising above another, so should it be with man. Yet, it is not that equality which some latter-day social scientists believe should eliminate all distinctions among men. In no society can every member be equally qualified to do every task. Every person in society may be superior in one or more ways to its other members in performing the functions which society needs. The equality of the level in Freemasonry is the fraternal equality which, recognizing the fatherhood of God of all men, admits as a necessary corollary the brotherhood of all of God's children. It, therefore, teaches us that, in the sight of God or the Great Architect of the Universe, his creatures, who are at an immeasurable distance from him, move upon the same plane. In this, the level teaches us that all people are equal, subject to the same infirmities, hastening to the same goals and preparing to be judged by the same immutable law. As a Mason acts by the square, he meets his fellow man on the level of equality.
The plumb is worn by the Junior warden. A plumb is typically a lead weight hung at the end of a line, used to determine whether a wall is vertical. Again, together with the square and level, the plumb was used by the ancient stonemason to assure himself that the building being constructed was rising straight and square.
As the plumb tests whether the building is rising straight and upright, the plumb became a symbol of rectitude of conduct and inculcates that integrity of life and undeviating course of moral uprightness which can alone distinguish the good and just person. As the ancient stonemason erected his temporal building with strict observance of that plumb line, which will not permit him to deviate a hairs-breadth to the right or to the left, so does Freemasonry today teach that all people should be guided by the unerring principles of right and truth inculcated in the symbolic teachings of the same implements. One should be steadfast in the pursuit of truth, neither bending beneath the frowns of adversity nor yielding to the seductions of prosperity, deviating neither a hairs-breadth to the right nor to the left from that which is true. The English word "rectitude" derives from the Latin "rectum", which signifies at the same time, a right line and honesty or integrity.
The common gavel was a working tool given to the most inexperienced apprentice in the Masonic Lodge. It was used by the old operative stonemasons to break off the corners of the rough stone or ashlar, thus the better to fit it for use by the more sophisticated craftsmen who would further chisel the stone into a perfect cube or rectangular solid for installation in the building. The true form of the common gavel is that of the stonemason's hammer. It is to be made with a cutting edge, that it may be used to break off the corners of rough stones, an operation which could never be effected by the common hammer or mallet. It borrows its name from its shape, being that of a gable or gavel end of a house.
Symbolically, the common gavel admonishes us of the duty of divesting our minds and consciences of all the vices and impurities of life. Just as the common gavel was used to divest the stone of its rough and superfluous parts, so should the common gavel symbolically divest our hearts and minds of all the vices and superfluities of life, thereby fitting our minds as living stones for that spiritual building, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
In addition to the common gavel, the youngest apprentices of the Lodge used a 24 inch gage or 2 foot ruler. The gage, of course, was used as an instrument to measure the size of the stone as it was being chiseled with the common gavel to determine if it would remain of an appropriate size for the desired use in the construction of the building. Divided into 24 equal parts, the ruler became a symbol of the Mason's day, each inch of the measure symbolizing an hour of a Mason's day. The youngest Entered Apprentice was thereby taught to devote 8 hours of his day to the service of God and a worthy distressed brother, 8 hours to his usual vocation as a stonemason's apprentice and 8 hours to refreshment and sleep. The 24 inch gage thus became a symbol of time well employed. with time well employed, we are always prepared to meet whatever challenge may come to us.
Another important working tool of a Mason was and is the compass. Together with the square and the letter "G" in the center, it forms the most familiar symbol associated with Freemasonry. A compass is an instrument consisting of two pointed legs connected at one end by a pivot, used for drawing arches or circles and taking measurements. The operative Mason used the compass for determining the proportions between the various aspects of the plans for the building and enabled him to give those just proportions to the building which would ensue its beauty as well as its stability. It became the symbol of that even tenor or deportment and that true standard of rectitude which alone can bestow happiness.
As the Holy Bible gives us the light to understand our duties to God and the square illustrates our duties to act by the square of honesty and virtue to our neighbor, so the compass instructs us in the duty we owe to ourselves: the great, imperative duty of circumscribing our passions and keeping our desires within the due bounds of the circle surrounding us, as drawn by the compass. People of untamed passions cannot be free as they lack the ability to control themselves in achieving the desired goals of life. As the square tests the stone to prove its fitness for the builders, use, thereby perfecting the stone for integration in the building for which it was intended, so do we square our actions toward our fellow man by morality, truthfulness and honesty, thereby fitting ourselves as worthy members of society. And in doing such, we should live circumspect ourselves, never allowing our actions to go beyond the circle around us drawn by the compasses, never allowing our own passions to distract us from our desired goals and never infringing upon the rights of others.
Each member of Freemasonry, upon completing his three degrees of our order, receives a trowel. The trowel is a thin, flat, pointed metal tool for applying and shaping mortar, as in bricklaying. As the common gavel was given to the youngest member of the Lodge in order to begin the preparation of the stone for the builder's use, the last tool given was the trowel. It was only given to the most experienced members who would take the chiseled and squared stones and, properly leveling them and testing them by the plumb, add the appropriate mortar on each additional stone until the building is complete. It was therefore the most experienced members of the Masonic Lodge who, using the trowel, fitted the perfected stones into the perfect building.
As the operative stonemason used the trowel to spread the cement which unites all parts of the building into one common mass, Masons today are taught to spread the cement of affection and kindness which unites all mankind, of whatever race, color or creed, into one companionship of brotherly love and affection. The youngest members of the Lodge engaged in preparing the rude materials, which required only the gavel to give them their proper shape. The Fellowcrafts or those with more experience placed them in their proper position by means of the square, level and plumb. But the Master Mason alone, having examined their correctness and prove them true and trusty, secures the stones permanently in their place by spreading, with the trowel, the cement that irrevocably binds them together. So should the cement of brotherly love and affection irrevocably bind together all mankind in the search for truth and morality that all good people seek.
These principles of right conduct are not limited to those who may be Masons. They teach principles by which all men and women should live. We should all square our actions by truth and morality, thereby harmonizing our conduct at all times with these noble purposes.
We should live on the level, ever remembering that we are all descended from the same common stock and partake of the same nature, having the same faith and same hope of salvation. While distinctions necessarily may arise among mankind, yet elevation of station should not make us forget that we are all descendant from the same God with the same hope for redemption. A time will come, and the wisest of men know not how soon, when all distinctions, except for goodness, will cease, and death, that great leveler of all human greatness, will bring us to a level at last.
We should ever act with the plumb in view, walking erect and upright in our individual vocations, not leaning to one side or another, but holding the scales of justice in equal poise, observing the just medium between temperance and intemperance, and making our several passions and prejudices coincide with our line of duty to treat all people honestly and fairly. It is by these principles which Masons should be known and it is by these principles that all mankind should act, meeting on the level of equality, acting by the plumb of upright conduct and parting always on the square of truth and morality.