When this symbol, which is taken from Jacob's Vision (Genesis xxviii), was introduced into English Speculative Freemasonry is not exactly known. But we find allusions to it a little after the middle of the last [18th] century. It apparently was not originally a symbol of Speculative Masonry, but was probably introduced from Hermetic Masonry, about 1776. But we fancy that it came from Hermeticism, of which it was a favorite symbol. Certain it is that we do not find it in any of our far oldest known rituals if indeed they can be depended upon. Gadicke says of it:
"Either resting upon the floor cloth or on the Bible, the compasses, and the square, it should lead the thoughts of the brethren to heaven. If we find that it has many staves or rounds, they represent as many moral and religious duties. If it has only three, they should represent Faith, Hope and Charity. Draw Faith, Hope, and Charity from the Bible with these three encircle the whole earth, and order all thy actions by the square of truth, so shall the heavens be opened upon thee."
Curiously enough, in Germany, the 'Handbuch' tells us this symbolism is not used, nor on the continent generally. It has been pointed out by Oliver, by the 'Handbuch,' and by others, that this is a mystical ladder to be found in the teaching of most other occult systems. Thus in the Mithraic mysteries the seven-runged ladder is said to have been a symbol of the ascent of the soul to perfection. Each of the rungs was termed a gate, and the 'Handbuch' declares that the aspirants had to pass through a dark and winding cavern. The last, or Adytum, was full of light, and also assures us that in the old Hebraic Cabala the number of steps (for they had a cabalistic ladder also), was unlimited, until the Essenes reduce the number to seven. The latter Cabalists are said to have made ten Sephriroth — the Kingdom, the Foundation, Splendor, Firmness, Beauty, Justice, Mercy, Intelligence, Wisdom, and the Crown, by which we arrive at the Infinite, as Mackey and others put it.
It is alleged that in the mysteries of Brahma and in the Egyptian mysteries this ladder is also to be found. But this fact seems a little doubtful especially as the Egyptian mysteries little is known. The ladder is, however, to be seen among the hieroglyphics. In the Brahmic mysteries there is, we are told a ladder of seven steps, emblematic of seven worlds. The first and lowest was the Earth; the second, the World of Pre-Existence; the third, Heaven; the fourth, the Middle World, or intermediate region; the fifth, the World of Births; the sixth, the Mansions of the Blest; and the seventh, the Sphere of Truth. Some little difference of opinion exists as to the representation of the Brahmic teaching. It has been stated that in Hermetic or higher Masonry, so-called, the seven steps represent Justice, Equality, Kindness, Good Faith, Labor, Patience and Intelligence. They are also represented as Justice, Charity, Innocence, Sweetness, Faith, Firmness and Truth, the Greater Work, Responsibility. But this is quite a modern arrangement in all probability.
In Freemasonry it has been said that the ladder with its seven rungs or steps represents the four cardinal and three theological virtues which in symbolism seems to answer to the seven grades of Hermetic symbolism. It must be remembered that we have no actual old operative ritual before us, and on the other hand we must not lay too much store by the negative evidence of later rituals — that is, because we do not find until then actual mention of certain words and symbolisms therefore conclude they did not exist earlier. On the whole, Jacob's ladder in Freemasonry seems to point to the connection between Faith and Heaven, man and God, and to represent Faith, Hope and Charity; or, as it is declared, Faith in God, Charity to all men, and Hope in Immortality.