Vol. XXIII No. 8 — August 1945

Freemasonry’s Candles

“There is something brave about a candle burning in the darkness. Some people are brave only when they are part of a crowd, but a candle — why, not all the darkness of the universe can smother even one little candle! It maybe a dim and feeble thing in the daylight or in a blazing array of its fellows, but alone in the dark it rises to the occasion and sends out its beams as fearlessly as the brightest sun. If all other light were blotted out, the light of a single candle could be seen in every part of the universe, given a telescope strong enough to overcome the distance.”

— Joseph Earl Perry, P.G.M., Massachusetts.

In every American Masonic lodge are three candles — or electric or gas substitutes therefor — which we now call the Lesser Lights. To many it seems regrettable that lodges are willing to use electric lights instead of the old fashioned burning tapers.

True, the electric light is clean and convenient and very easy to turn on and off. But the electric light is but a symbol of a symbol — and symbols grow thin when they in turn are symbolized.

No man knoweth who made the first candle. A rush on which some grease was accidentally spilled may have been its inspiration. Candles are old, old — they were familiar to the writers of the Old and the New Testaments; doubtless they came into use as soon as a wick dipped in oil became the first lamp.

The candle was early connected with religion. In the first days of Christianity the gentle doctrines of the Man of Galilee were proscribed; to be a Christian was to be persecuted. Christians were driven underground, secretly to meet and hold their worship. The catacombs of Rome were then as now dark to blackness. Candles were essential if the worshipers were to find their way, see their fellows, and observe the sacred writings. In later years when the Christian religion could come to the surface and Christians could assemble as such without risk of torture and other punishment, the candles came up, too. At least one church today still prescribes candles — and not substitutes therefore! — as a part of its ritualistic observances.

There is deep symbolism in the naked flame that consumes the substance of the candle to give fight to those who use it. To give light to ones fellows a man must consume himself; he must live and display and disburse energy. No philosopher who put no energy into his doctrines could gather disciples; no man who counts among his fellows for anything that is good in life but gives ceaselessly and generously of his powers.

In time all men die, but some rust out while others burn out! Those who burn out may go the more quickly, but at least they go gloriously. So is it with the candle which consumes itself to give light; just before it dies it flares up, as if to make its final effort its best.

Lesser Lights in lodge which represent so much to Masons and by the light of which they first see the Great Lights, when actual candles are a tie to the days when there were no substitutes — a tie with Masonry as old, at least, as 1730; a connection with the religion and with the Great Light which mentions them often, and frequently as symbols of something high and holy, as when Job lamented:

Oh, that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me; when his candle shined upon my head, and when by his light I walked through darkness. (29:2)

The Psalmist sang:

For thou wilt light my candle; the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness. (18:28)

And, of course, the familiar passage from Revelation:

And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth the light and they shall reign for ever and ever. (25:5)

Some prefer electricity to a naked candle flame in lodge because the electric light does not blow out and a candle flame may. But here again the symbolism is lost; the burning flame that may so easily be extinguished seems to plead with those who use it for care that its warmth and light be not snuffed out. It is so easy to extinguish human enthusiasms, human plans and aspirations, human good works, without care and kindness to keep them alight. But note, too, that the candle flame, weak though it may be and easily quenched, is powerful enough to light a great conflagration, just as some human enthusiasms and plans are enough to kindle a nation into flame for the right and the just. A candle is as readily lit as extinguished, and here, too, is symbolism — the initiate who kneels at the altar may have the candle of his soul ignited by the enthusiasm of those who give him Masonic light, so be it the stuff of which he is made is inflammable by touch with the heat of new truth and new experience.

One Lesser Light represents the Master of the lodge — he who sits in the East and from whom comes Masonic light. To give light, a candle must burn. To burn it must be hot and give out heat. No lukewarm candle will light; no lukewarm Master ever kindled the souls of his brethren to high endeavor!

One candle may light another provided there is contact. One candle will never light another at a distance; only when flame touches wick.

One brother may kindle the fire of another, but not by standing aloof and away — only by intimate contact of mind with mind and heart with heart may the holy fire pass from man to man.

Find such symbolism and such lessons in electric candles who may, the naked flame needs no searching to disclose them.

Shakespeare said, "How far that little candle throws its beam! So shines a good deed in a naughty world”

And the gentle light of the Masonic candles at the altar has indeed thrown far — it has girdled the globe — it is gone into the far places; it has been the comfort and the stay of tire sore beset to the uttermost ends of the earth

A curiously interesting statement of how the three candles came into the lodges and why they are Lesser Lights, appeared in the Freemasons Magazine in 1865. It has at least plausibility and is abstracted here for its intrinsic interest:

The medieval lodge was a frame structure erected close to the church in process of building. It had three main windows — in the East, the West, and the South. There was none in the North, because the lodge was always built on the southern side of the church and close to it for the advantages of light and warmth of a southern aspect. These windows were termed the “three great lights,” the words lickter, light, and the windows being synonymous.

These windows are represented on early tracing boards and are alluded to in old rituals of 1725 and 1730. In the latter they are termed “fixed lights,” their uses being “to light the men to, at and from their work.” It is expressly stated that these fixed lights “are three windows supposed to be in every room where a lodge is held.”

At the three windows were seated the master and wardens; the Fellowcrafts had their appropriate positions, and the Apprentices were placed in the North as they required less light than the more skillful and advanced Fellowcrafts. The ritual of 1730 places the Junior Entered Apprentice in the North, his business being “to keep off all cowans and eavesdroppers,” because the narrow space between the lodge and the church would form a convenient hiding place for cowans and eavesdroppers.

Work was performed during daylight. When brethren met for social enjoyment or business at night, candle light became necessary. The officers retained their usual positions and before each was placed a candle. These three candles were now termed “the lights.”

In the ritual of 1736 the three lesser lights are “three large candles placed on high candlesticks; they represent the sun, moon, and Master Mason.” When lodges were held in taverns, the three windows disappeared but the candles were retained.

The Volume of the Sacred Law is not mentioned as a Great Light in the literature of the Craft prior to 1760. Nor is there reference to the Lesser Lights before that date, although the "lights” or “fixed lights" appear as early as 1730. In that year appeared Prichard’s Masonry Dissected in which curious old document appears the following catechism:

Q. Have you any lights in your lodge?

A. Yes; three.

Q. What do they represent?

A. Sun, Moon and Master Mason.

(N.B. These lights are three large candles placed on high candlesticks.)

Q. Why so?

A. Sun to rule the Day, Moon the Night, and Master Mason his lodge.

Q. Have you any fixed lights in your lodge?

A. Yes.

Q. How many?

A. Three.

(These fixed lights are three windows supposed to be in every room where a lodge is held.)

Q. How are they situated?

A. East, South and West.

Q. What are their uses?

A. To light the men to, at and from their work.

Q. Why are there no lights in the North?

A. Because the sun darts no rays thence.

The arrangement of the candles (or their substitutes) as Lesser Lights is anything but uniform in America’s forty-nine Grand lodges; indeed, it is not always uniform within the jurisdiction of a grand lodge. The Builder, famous Masonic magazine, in September 1918, published an exhaustive study of the positions about or near the altar occupied by the Lesser Lights. Tireless Masonic researcher Harold V. B. Voorhis extended and corrected this study a few years back, publishing his results in the Square and Compass of Denver.

From his paper the following facts are taken and his diagram remade. (N.B. Changes have occured since 1945.)

All arrangements of the Lesser Lights fall into two classifications: small groupings to form either right angle or equilateral triangles, placed near, the altar, and large triangles, literally “about the altar” or "around the altar.”

There are seven different arrangements of candles in the small triangular groups and seven of the larger groups; twenty-six grand lodges use the larger and twenty-three the smaller groupings.

Lesser Lights

In detail, seventeen grand lodges use the arrangement in figure 1; Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

Twelve grand lodges use the arrangement in figure 2; Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

Four grand lodges use arrangement No. 3; Alabama, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Three grand lodges arrange the lights as in figure 4; Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Tennessee.

Three grand lodges place the candles as in figure 5; Connecticut, Michigan, and Wyoming.

Two grand lodges use the arrangement shown in figure 6; Idaho and Oklahoma.

Georgia places the Lesser Lights as in 7, Iowa as in 8, North Dakota as in 9, Kansas as in 10, Vermont as 11, Minnesota as in 12, Maryland as in 13, and Maine as in 14.

Some grand lodges have legislated on the matter; others follow custom. In some grand lodges different positions of the lights are used in each of the three degrees. In some grand lodges the Lesser Lights are lit when lodge is opened and extinguished when it is closed; others light the lights only during the Entered Apprentice Degree; some fight them during the conferring of all the degrees, but not at all unless a degree is being given.

Every grand lodge, doubtless, can give a reason for the arrangement used. Those which prefer the right angle-triangle, whether small or large, may point to the Forty-Seventh Problem of Euclid, which of course includes the right-angled triangle. Those which prefer the equilateral triangle may say that this, rather than the right triangle, was the early symbol of Deity.

In some grand lodges a distinction is made in the ritualistic expressions; those which say of the Lesser Lights that they are placed in a triangular form “about” the altar differ in their interpretation from those which have the lights “around” the altar. As a result, in some lodges the Lesser Lights are beside the stations of the master and wardens — these are undoubtedly “around” the altar, while those grand lodges which prefer the lights in the small triangles undoubtedly have them “about” (that is, near to) the altar.

In some lodges in which candles are used instead of electric lights, a pretty custom has grown up around their formal lighting and extinguishing. In these lodges it is considered that the Great Light should never be opened or closed in “darkness” — therefore the Lesser Lights — candles — are lit before the Volume of the Sacred Law is displayed, and the Great Light is reverently closed before the candles are extinguished. In such lodges the candles are lit in regular order, not haphazard, that in the East being first to glow, the West second and the South last; they are extinguished in the reverse order.

With electric lights it is so easy to light or extinguish all at once by the pulling of a switch that usually no special ceremony is observed, although some lodges do keep to an older tradition by fighting and unscrewing the electric bulbs in their sockets.

“Around” the altar or “about” it; in small right-angle or larger equilateral triangle; by self-consuming candles with naked flames or electric substitutes, the Lesser Lights shed their gentle radiance with important meaning for those who have eyes to see.

As the triangle is a symbol of The Great Architect, the candles of Masonry, burning near or surrounding the altar, show to all who there gather that the altar of Freemasonry is a holy place. As they give forth light by which the Great Lights may be observed, they tell their story of importance and of worth to all brethren on whom falls their radiance.

For without “more light” for her brethren, Freemasonry hath no purpose in the world.

The Masonic Service Association of North America