The Three Degrees of Speculative Craft Masonry

Rt. Wor. Bro. S. J. Pudney

A Meditation On The Three Degrees Of Speculative Craft Freemasonry


When you were progressing through the three degrees, no doubt some older Freemasons assured you that there was a deeper meaning to be found in the ritual work. Since then have you ever wondered if that assurance was given in the same vein as the story of The Emporer's New Clothes? Everyone says there is a deeper meaning, so it must be so, even though no one has volunteered to explain it to you, and you certainly wouldn't want to admit that you can't see it.. If this is the case, let me assure you once more that there is indeed a deeper meaning in all Masonic Ritual.

Perhaps most Masons find reward enough in enjoying the warm fraternal and social aspects of our Order, including the opportunity to serve their fellow beings through Masonic Charity. I would never deny the importance of those things, but the one thing that sets us apart, and without which we would be just another service club, is our ritual.

There is no official interpretation of the ritual. The reason being that if there was such a thing, it would tend to establish a religious-like dogma that all Freemasons would be required to accept, and that sort of thing must always be avoided. So I am not going to interpret the ritual as such for you. I will not try to explain every word or posture, but rather I wish to give you a starting point for your own meditation which will develop as you gain more insight, by explaining the THEMES of the degrees.

The only rule of thumb that I would suggest in arriving at your own interpretation is that it must not be far-fetched. It should not require mental gymnastics to make sense. It must be consistent, and with a continuity of theme throughout. It must not infringe into the realm of religion or theology, though where my own explanation can be confirmed by scripture I have used it. This is occasionally necessary since the original authors based their writings on passages from scripture.

While we repeat over and over again that Freemasonry is not a religion, we must emphasize that because our ritual is based on moral geometry, it can only be fully understood if we approach it from a spiritual point of view.

On this continent, as in Europe and other parts of the world where our culture is based upon our Christian-Judaic heritage, we display the Bible on the altars of our Lodges, and we use portions of scripture from that Bible in our ritual. The scripture selected for Masonic purposes is always universal in its teaching, and is acceptable by any man who acknowledges the existence of God, by whatever name he prefers to call Him.

If we were to visit a Masonic Lodge in Asia, we might find other books of scripture being used as the Volume Of The Sacred Law on the altar, and we would find that any texts of scripture they might use would also be universal in their truth and worthy of our acceptance. For our purposes here however, and particularly since I wish to point to the origins of some of our ritual, I will refer only to texts taken from the Bible.

It has always been the idea of Freemasonry to Take A Good Man And Make Him Better and in the early days the authors of the ritual in attempting to continue with the traditions of the Cathedral Building Stone Masons, took their theme from the First Epistle of Peter, Chapter 2, with emphasis on the first phrase of verse 5, which reads, Ye also as lively (living) stones are built up a spiritual house. This is where we get the idea of building TEMPLES OF OUR LIVES. Temples which we hope are worthy for ourselves and our God to dwell in, heeding the advice of King Solomon himself as given in Psalm 127, Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.

This might be a good place to explain why our Craft Lodges are called Blue Lodges. This comes from the Book Of Numbers in the Old Testament, Chapter 4, verses 5 to 15, where you will see that the most sacred things were always wrapped in blue cloth while the tabernacle was on the move. We Masons are always on the move, but we areexpected to carry our Masonic principles into our daily lives. These are sacred and are figuratively wrapped in the blue fabric of our conduct.

Likewise in the Book Of Numbers chapter 15, verses 38 to 40 you will see that we put the blue ribbon border around our aprons to remind us of all the commandments of the Lord, and do them.

The early lodges would often have the V.O.S.L. open at the Second Epistle of Peter, Chapter 1, starting with verse 5, where the ideals of Freemasonry are set out.

5. And beside all this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
6. And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
7. And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.

Verse 8 tells us that if we have these things we will be fruitful spiritually, but verse 9 continues with,

9. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off.

Or as we would say in our Lodges today, He walks in darkness, or, He does not have light. Verse 10 tells us that if we Brethren are diligent and make the right choices as to the way we live, we will not fall !!

The Entered Apprentice

Before anyone can work in a skilled craft or profession a period of training is necessary. Freemasonry teaches that in the art of living this life, particularly if this life is to be a temple an apprenticeship is needed.

You will recall how insistent we were about knowing if you believed in a Supreme Being. The brothers who visited you before you were accepted asked you. The Secretary or some other officer of the Lodge asked you again on the night of your Initiation, and no doubt your sponsor asked you before encouraging you to submit your petition.

Churches have always known that a public declaration of faith has a reinforcing effect. For some reason once a person has made a public statement of his belief he tends to continue on in the belief which he had professed. That is one reason creeds were developed, and why some churches have altar calls.

Now in Freemasonry you are NOT asked to comply with any creed, (Freemasonry is not a Religion) but by making your belief in God a condition of your being accepted into our Order, we can say that you have admitted to us and to all Freemasons, that you do indeed believe in God. Having made that declaration you are ready to begin your apprenticeship, to learn the trade secrets which will enable you to live a life to produce a beautiful spiritual temple.

At your Initiation, from the time you entered the Lodge Room you heard the number three mentioned or things were done in threes. There were three steps taken, all measured in multiples of three inches. There were three great pillars, three grand offerings, there were even clusters of three words used such as, Always hele, ever conceal, and never reveal, and Without evasion, equivocation, or mental reservation. There seemed to be three of just about everything mentioned, whichever way you turned.

The number three from the earliest time has been the number used to represent God. This goes back centuries before the Christian era with its idea of the Trinity. So having declared yourself to be a believer the repetition of this number as you moved along through the ceremony is a reminder that your God is always with you as you move along in your life, to help you, or if need be to confront you should you be tempted to stray.

In the lecture at the North East Angle, another dimension was added. Your attention was directed to you fellow human beings, and one of the fundamental principles of Freemasonry, Charity, was impressed upon you.

In short, the secrets of the trade to be learned by an Entered Apprentice in this business of building a temple of one's life are (1) duty to one's God, or if you prefer, being guided by your spiritual values and (2) duty to one's neighbour, or living by the Golden Rule. A third duty was also pointed out in the very last charge of the ceremony, which is the duty you owe to yourself to live a temperate sensible life style.

When the Lodge is opened in the E.A. degree in many lodges, the 7th verse of Chapter 4 of the Book Of Ruth is recited,-

Now this was the manner in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbour: and this was a testimony in Israel.

When a deal had been made or an agreement reached the giving of a shoe was the outward sign to be seen by witnesses. Only the scribes had the skills of writing. We too have an agreement with you as an Entered Apprentice. We expect you to perform your best workmanship in learning your trade as a spiritual house builder. The outward sign to be witnessed in this case is not the giving of a shoe, but rather your conduct in your daily life.

Of course you were already living a good life before you entered the Order. If you hadn't been, you probably would not have been accepted. So actually when you stop to think about it, you really knew the secrets all along. You now realize that the secrets of the degree, other than the means of recognizing other E.A.'s are not restricted to Freemasons at all. So what is all the fuss about secrecy, and why such a gruesome penalty?

Since we are looking for allegorical meaning in the ritual we must look at the penalty in the same way.

In on of the best known speeches in Shakespeare's play Hamlet, a father is giving advice to his son who is leaving home, on how to lead a happy life. He ends his speech by saying, -This above all, to thine own self be true.- You would not be true to yourself if you acted in a manner contrary to the lessons of this degree. You must cherish these things and protect them. You must HELE them in your heart. (To hele means to cover for protection) If you fail to do so, or if you vulgarize such precepts you will be breaking faith with yourself. You cannot hurt the Craft, but only yourself, and it will be yourself who carries out the penalty, not someone else.

The penalty of the Entered Apprentice is one which dates back to pagan times. It was reserved as punishment for those who were caught stealing precious jewels or vessels from the temples. The temples we are talking about in Freemasonry are the temples of our lives. So what we are saying in effect is, if you continue to act in a way you know is contrary to God's Laws (your own spiritual values) the laws of man, or your own feelings of what is right, you are stealing from your own temple. You would find it very difficult to communicate on a spiritual level, (the tongue) and you would find it difficult to accept spiritual advice or spiritual nourishment from anyone (the throat) and you would cut yourself off from those you know who have held on to their spiritual values (buried in the sand).

When you think about the penalties of the degrees of Freemasonry, remember that not so long ago there were only two kinds of crime. All offenses against the laws of the king were considered to be treason, and were punishable with some form of mutilation, such as the amputation of a hand, or the removal of vital organs, such as being drawn and quartered. To be dismembered even after death was thought to be particularly horrible since it was believed that this made it impossible to answer the trumpet call on resurrection day.

The other kind of crime of course were offenses against the church, and any deviation from the accepted dogma or creed of the church would be classed as heresy, and would be punishable by some degree of burning, whether it was to have a hand scalded, the eyes burned out, or to be burned at the stake.

Once more you are reminded that a crime of infidelity with respect to our tenets is really a crime against yourself, and you might think of how the penalties represent the spiritual and emotional repercussions and pain you would have to face within yourself.

While I said I would only explain the themes of the degrees, there are a few other points that might bear explanation.

  1. The phrase Free By Birth is something you may wonder about. It goes back to the mediaeval stone masons who built the cathedrals, particularly after the Norman conquest. The stone masons were virtually owned by the Norman Barons who held them responsible for the maintaining of their castle fortifications. A stone mason could not decide to leave his present employer a seek work somewhere else, nor could anyone, including the church employ a stone mason until he proved that he had been released by the baron who ruled his home town. Freemasonry has nothing against anyone who may have been born into slavery, but rather when we ask if a candidate is free by birth we are really asking if he is still free to choose, as is his birth right to be engaged in building his spiritual temple, or is he bound by some other master such as drugs, lust, hatred etc.
  2. Similarly in the North east Angle lecture we make sure that the candidate has no metals on him. The ancient builders of temples believed that metals had a contaminating influence both on the building of a temple and on its later use as a place of worship. Ferrous metals were especially forbidden and only vessels of gold or fine brass were allowed. So once again we are asking if the candidate has anything of a contaminating nature about him in the spiritual sense which might hinder or spoil the construction of his own personal temple.
  3. In the Jr. Warden's lecture say that our lodges bring to mind three great offerings which met with divine approbation. Those three were (a) the obedience of Abraham, (b) the pious prayers of King David, and (c) the thanksgivings of King Solomon. According to Hebrew traditional history these three events while happening several years apart, all took place on the spot where the temple was later built. We remember them since those three things, Obedience to God, Piety, and Thankfulness, should be present in the building of a spiritual temple also.

There was a fourth event which according to Hebrew Tradition also took place in that same spot in which the temple was built. It isn't mentioned in scripture as were the first three, and is not used in our ritual but I think it bears telling here nonetheless.

Two Hebrew brothers were farmers with their farms next to each other. The farms were about the same size, and were equally fertile, with the same crop yield of grain. The difference was that one brother lived all alone, while the other was married and had a large family.

One night after the harvest was in the single brother lay thinking to himself, My poor brother with all those extra mouths to feed must need more grain than he has been able to harvest. So he got up and dressed, and under cover of the darkness he loaded two large bags of grain from his barn onto his donkey and secretly took it and put it in his brother's barn.

That same night the other brother lay thinking to himself, My poor brother lives all alone without help to get his crop in. So he too rose and secretly took two large bags of grain to his brother's barn.

The next morning they were both amazed of course to find that they had the same amount of grain still in their respective barns. The next night they both did the same thing and again were amazed in the morning.

Not understanding what was really going on they continued to take bags of grain to each others barns in the darkness of night, until one night they bumped into each other. In unison they asked, What are you doing? In unison they relpied, Taking this grain to your barn. But why? and again in unison they explained, Because you are my brother and I love you.

According to Hebrew tradition the place where they met was also where King Solomon's Temple was built. So add Brotherly Love as another ingredient to be present in your temple foundation.

The Fellowcraft

This degree marks your graduation from the ranks of the Apprentices to the status of a Journeyman Craftsman. The ceremony does not apply only to the candidate taking the degree. It applies to all of us because in this business of living life we have all just completed our learning or training with the moment that just passed by.

This presents an important lesson that Freemasonry has for us. All the great religions of the world teach ways to obtain forgiveness from God. Freemasonry, which is not a religion recognizes that often the more difficult thing to do for a man is to forgive himself.

Apprentices in any trade are usually easily forgiven for their errors. Mistakes are lessons not to be repeated, and his employer will say, He is only an apprentice lacking skill and experience so he is forgiven. So if you are still blaming yourself for some blunder you made, a remark that hurt someone perhaps, or even something in your past that you would be ashamed to admit, FORGIVE YOURSELF, you were only an apprentice.

The important thing is that NOW as a Fellowcraft you have to take responsibility for what you are doing. As a journeyman you must take responsibly for the methods you will use and for the materials you will use in building this spiritual temple of your life.

The materials of course are all the experiences that we allow ourselves. It has been said that we are the sum total of our experiences. The things we do, the habits we form, the persons we allow to share our lives, our friends, our loved ones, all contribute to who and what we are.

Remember the story of how Shibboleth was used to distinguish friend from foe. Just as the rowdy Ephraimites came across the river Jordan where they had no business being, and made demands on Jephtha which they had no right to make, we too have things and sometimes even people who would come into our lives which have no business being there. They make demands on our time, our thoughts and emotions which we should not allow.

We must hold each new encounter up against the Shibboleth of our values, and ask the question, Does it, or he, or she measure up to the standards I have set for the materials to be a part of my temple? As journeymen craftsmen we must make the choice, accepting that which is good and rejecting that which not.

The story about Shibboleth is taken from the 12th chapter of the Book Of Judges in the Old Testament, and it establishes the theme of Choice for this degree. In English the word Shibboleth means,- The criterion by which credibility is established. and in the Hebrew it is a word with several meanings, but only one of those meanings at one time. It can mean an ear of corn, or it can mean a stream of water, and we show both those items on the tracing board, but we can only take one or the other we have to make the choice.

In this degree we take a look at the two porchway pillars. The first is named after a man who was a judge in his community, in the days before Israel had kings. It represents the way we live our daily physical lives, our civil duties, our relationships with others, etc. Being of this world it has a terrestrial globe on its top.

The second pillar was named after an assistant high priest. A man who lived every day in the realm of the spiritual, and the religious, so it represents our spiritual values, and being of the spiritual world we place a celestial globe on its top.

We say that when these two pillars are conjoined they mean stability. That is, they must be in agreement with each other. A very old prayer of confession reads - We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us. There can be no health or stability, spiritual, mental, or even physical if we do not live lives which are in agreement with our spiritual values. As Freemasons we want to choose a lifestyle that will ensure a strong stable temple.

Let us continue on with this theme of responsibility for what we put into our spiritual temples as we consider the penalty of the degree. It is found in both the 33rd verse of Chapter 7, and the 7th verse of Chapter 19 of the Book Of Jeremiah of the Old Testament where the wrath of God is directed against those who had brought their pagan idols into the temple which had been dedicated to Him. Some of the false gods represented by these idols demanded the sacrificing of children.

We still have our idols. Any time we willingly act in a way which we know is contrary to what we know is right we have created an idol and have placed it ahead of God in our personal temple. We all know both men and women who are willing to risk sacrificing their entire families as they selfishly worship at their idols of excessive alcohol, extra-marital affairs etc.

To continue practicing a way of life which we know is contrary to our beliefs will result in our becoming -heartless- which means to become completely unfeeling or callous in a moral sense, and to die spiritually, having lost ones spiritual vitality or -vitals-.

One's reputation is ruined also, and the reference to the birds of the air and beasts of the field is an ancient metaphor going back to Babylon, which reminds us that the gossips (the birds) will spread the story far and wide and the scandal mongers (the beasts) are always ready to tear one apart.

Again this penalty is not carried out as a punishment by someone else in the Craft, but by the guilty man himself.

Two other important Masonic lessons are given in this degree.

(a) We are told to study the arts and sciences. If we look at art we can see that it is also science. For example the beautiful art of music which can soothe the soul, can be described in purely scientific terms such as harmonics, frequencies and time intervals. The lesson for us is that just as art and science are the same thing, for the Freemason there is no difference between the secular and the religious. What is not worthy to done or said in the presence of God is not worthy to be said or done in our business world, with our families, or in our recreation time.

(b) We are told to shield our hearts against the attacks of the Cowans. The Cowans are mentioned in very early writings. The word was first used to designate those semi-skilled stone workers who built small cottages and stone walls, but who were unable to properly cut stone, nor did they use mortar. You might think of them today as shady small time contractors.

At the time of the King Henry VIII's quarrel with the pope, he confiscated much of the property of the Roman Catholic Church in England. Many of the churches and monasteries were left abandoned and today only a few ruins are all that is left of them. These beautiful buildings did not just fall apart as the result of old age or the elements, but instead they were literally taken apart stone by stone by the Cowans who used the beautifully cut stones in their own petty contract jobs. Many great cathedrals, including the largest cathedral ever built in Scotland, (St.Andrew's) completely disappeared in this manner.

These historic ruins are all protected by law now to prevent more stones from being stolen, yet even today there are still unscrupulous stone work contractors who will steal them if given the opportuntiy. When I was visiting Carlisle in the north of England in 1979 such a contractor was charged and convicted of stealing stones from Hadrian's Wall.

The lesson for us as Freemasons is of course that we must never stop work on our personal temples, and we must beware of the Cowans such as hatred, lust, jealousy, etc. who will quickly spoil the good work we have done.

The Master Mason

Both during the ceremony of the degree, and during the examination of a newly raised brother it is said that DEATH is the peculiar object of the degree. The legend acted out in the allegory is the death of Hiram Abif. All of this notwithstanding, Freemasonry does not have anything to say about death itself, except to say that it is preferable to the stain of falsehood and dishonour. The lessons of Freemasonry, even when death is mentioned, are all about living this life, here and now!!

I am sure you remember the name TUBALCAIN. It was used as the word to get you into the Master Mason's Lodge. You will hear some Masons mistakenly praise Tubalcain as if he was a hero, and you will hear how he made the first plow-share. He is mentioned in Genesis 4:22, but he was not a hero and he never made a plow-share. He made weapons, and his name which we say represents Worldly Possessions can be analyzed more properly to mean Greed For Worldly Possessions, since he carries his ancestor's name Caine, who was the personification of greed when he murdered his brother Abel.

Now do you see how appropriate it is that we use the name Tubalcain to admit one into the Darkness. It represents spiritual darkness. With Tubalcain directing our steps we lose those Masonic virtues, without which, Peter said we are blind and cannot see afar off. We have abandoned the way which we were told would keep us from FALLING!! Indeed greed for wealth or for anything worldly such as power or position can set us up for the big fall!

The fall comes when we realize that the worldly things we have valued so highly cannot help us at all when misfortune or personal tragedy strikes. It could be the loss of a loved one, or loss of a job. It could be ruined health or perhaps the universal tragedy that all of us face in growing old, losing both mental or physical faculties. That is what the scripture reading of this degree is all about. (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7)

Hiram Abif had no doubt taught the ruffians who were Fellowcrafts. He had eaten with them and slept in the same lodge with them. They were all Phonecians far from home. He had nurtured them and cared for them, but they demanded more and more of him and when he refused to give in, they killed him.

The real ruffians in our case are those things we often harbour or nurture in our hearts, greed, the desire to get even with someone, ambition to gain power or office regardless of how we do it. We harbour such things or think such thoughts because it makes us feel good. But these things attack us spiritually and will knock us down, especially when we have been devastated by personal tragedy.

Nothing can help then, certainly not anything worldly, nor even the way you have learned to live a life as taught in the E.A. degree, with piety toward God and concern for your fellow beings. That is why the E.A. grip proves a slip. The way you have been careful to live a temperate, sensible, and moral life cannot help either, and that is why the F.C. grip also slips.

Failure to get up out of the grave of despair and bitterness will lead to your rejection of all that you have held sacred. You will feel that even God your spiritual Father has forsaken you and you are truly the Poor Widow's Son. Your ego is reduced to -ashes- and in your despair you will cry within yourself, Is there no help?

It is impossible for you to get up by yourself, but the ceremony points to the way in which you are raised above it all.

The peculiar grip that lifted you is sometimes called the Lion's Paw. Judah was described as the whelp of the lion and was given the name Lion for extraordinary faith. The people of the Tribe Of Judah, the present day Jews, have kept their faith down through the ages through persecutions and holocausts. The grip then represents faith which in turn receives its power through knowledge of The Word. The strange word which was whispered in your ear represents knowledge of your God, whether it be from reading scripture or from deeply thinking about your own spiritual values, and letting those values direct your thinking and actions.

Now add to being raised by faith and knowledge, a determination to live your life based on the Five Points Of Fellowship, not just with other Masons, but with all of humanity, and you are not just raised, but you are raised to a sublime degree. Sublime, having the connotation of being above it all.

The penalty can be traced to the Old Testament story found in the Book Of Genesis 15:7-10, where God promises Abram (later called Abraham) his inheritance. As a sign of this covenant Abram was directed to bring a heifer, a goat, and a ram, which were all slain by cutting them in two at the midst. This gave rise to a ceremony of the Hebrews called cutting the covenant which was used to confirm an agreement or contract between parties.

In this ceremony the two parties would form two lines facing each other, while the elders would take a lamb or other animal specially purchased for the purpose, and would slay it by cutting it in twain at the midst, and passing between the two lines would distribute the meat equally to each side. As the participants received the meat they would say words to the effect that -the only way this covenant can be broken would be for both of us to be severed in twain at the midst-.

You can see then that the ceremony was really just a statement of loyalty and trust. So when we stand To Order as M.M.'s we are also making a statement of our Loyalty to the principles we have promised to live by in the Obligation, including the Five Points Of Fellowship.

You have heard that by the untimely death of Hiram Abiff the genuine secrets of a M.M. were lost, but King Solomon established the substitute secrets which would distinguish M.M.'s from the rest of the world until such time as the genuine ones are restored.

When Hiram was killed the temple was not yet finished, and while he was the principal architect, and he would no longer provide the plans and drawings for the completion of the temple, it was nonetheless completed by the workmen, using what knowledge they did have, and they did a very good job of it too.

So it is with all people in this life. We do not have divine knowledge, but we must go on to build our spiritual temples to the best of our ability with what we do know, imperfect as that knowledge may be. That is was is meant by the substitute secrets. We believe that some day those genuine secrets will be restored to us. In 1st Corinthians in the New Testament, Chapter 13, verse 12, Paul tells us that now it is like looking through a dark glass, which in those days was usually wavy as well so anything looked at through it would be distorted and unclear, but then he goes on to say that some day we will meet God face to face: Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.

Having mentioned the Bible a number of times as being the V.O.S.L. on the altar, you should understand that the book on the altar really is a symbol of our spiritual values, and does not represent the dogma of any particular religion, whether Christian, Moslem, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist. The altar in the centre of the room represents those beliefs which we hold sacred at the very centre of our beings.

At the closing of a M.M. lodge in the long form you will hear that it is the centre of a circle. That circle is the entire sphere of one's life, and being at the centre of that circle, our values are the point from which a M.M. cannot err.

Welcome into the light!