Vol. XXVI No. 10 — October 1948

Masonic Stones

Stone has played a great part in the history of man. A stone was the first tool, the first hammer, the first weapon by which a man might kill or wound his enemy at a distance. Stone was the first building material; stone walls antedate wooden fences by untold thousands of years. Stone formed the first altars. Stone, solid, dependable, intractably difficult to cut and shape, useful, easily became considered more than natural and so stone worship arose. When it became possible to cut and carve stone, statues were made of it as the most permanent possible and the worship of the stone as stone became worship of the stone image.

The workers in stone of ancient days were the skilled workmen, the artists, the poets of their day; stone in buildings, in statues, in temples became symbols of higher matters. In the early and Middle Ages the builders were a race apart, men who worked with the most difficult of materials were therefore men of the most skill.

As operative masons were the progenitors of our Speculative Craft it would be more than remarkable if the material with which they worked, the substance which was the object of their tools, their skill and their labors, had not become integrated with Speculative Masonry which has taken so much from operative building in symbols, allegories, myths, legends and illustrations.

Among the stones referred to in Masonry (either now or in the past) are the rough ashlar, the perfect ashlar, the perpend ashlar, the foundation stone, the cornerstone, the capstone (copestone), the keystone, the broached thurnel, the cubical stone.

The rough and perfect ashlars — stone as taken from the quarry and stone after being cut and shaped by the workmen — have long been Masonic symbols. They appear in the Entered Apprentice Degree with appropriate ritual showing their association first with the uninstructed, then the properly taught workman. In many lodges actual rough and perfect ashlars are to be seen, either at the warden’s stations or in the East. Usually these are oblong instead of cubical, to which purists in Masonic symbology object, in the belief that the cubical stone is the correct form of the ashlar for symbolic teaching. They base their belief on the ancient “science of numbers” as applied to the cube, which has six equal sides and twelve equal edges, from which combinations of numerous mathematical symbologies may be worked out. They also contend that as the cube is a symbol of perfection the ashlars should be cubical, that the perfect ashlar may deserve its name when made from the rough ashlar.

Much excellent Masonic teaching is concealed in the ashlars; especially, that perfection is to be had by a process of taking away; the perfection is already within, obscured by roughness and excrescences on the outside which must be removed to find the hidden beauty. In the Great Light is written “The Kingdom of God is within you” — and, again “Ye that seek the Lord, look unto the rock whence ye are hewn.”

The perpend ashlar is no longer met within our Masonic ritual, but at one time it was of importance. The perpend ashlar is a stone long enough to go completely through a wall; it is carefully dressed only on the two ends which show on the outside and inside of the wall. In modern parlance a perpend ashlar is really a bonder or bond-stone. This is not the same shape as the Masonic perfect ashlar, but perpend ashlar was apparently the original term which was corrupted into perfect ashlar. A curious old lodge minute of nearly two hundred years ago indicates that the perpend ashlar was as important then as a symbol as the perfect ashlar is today. In the records of Lodge No. 9, Wapping, England, 1754, April 11, is found: “Resolved, that a New Perpend Ashlar Inlaid with Devices of Masonry, valued at two pound, twelve, six, be purchased.” In the Royal Order of Scotland, the perpend ashlar represents “The Great Architect of the Church, who called Himself the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley” referring to King Robert Bruce, who, according to legend, formed the Royal Order in honor of the Masons who had fought under him at Bannockburn.

Foundation stone and cornerstone are often confused; while all modern cornerstones of buildings — meaning an inscribed stone, with a well or opening in the center for a deposit, and usually with an inscription on the outside, laid either by Masons or other organizations with formal ceremony — are foundation stones, not all foundation stones have been cornerstones. Indeed, foundation stones may yet be laid for railroads or for roads, or undertakings other than buildings; such, having no corners, cannot properly have cornerstones.

In 1667 the Royal Exchange in London, destroyed in the Great Fire, was rebuilt. King Charles II laid its “foundation stone” in October of that year, the stone being at the base of one of the pillars. Antiquity Lodge No. 2 of London has a mallet or gavel on which is an inscription, “To commemorate that this being the same Mallet with which His Majesty King Charles the Second, levelled the foundation stone of St. Paul’s Cathedral, A.L. 67, A.D. 1673, was presented to the Old Lodge of St. Paul’s, now the Lodge of Antiquity, Acting by Immemorial Constitution by Brother Sir Christopher Wren, R.W.D.G.M:, Worshipful Master of this Lodge and Architect of this Edifice.”

Whether Sir Christopher Wren was a Mason, a master, or Right Worshipful Deputy Grand Master, is not for these pages to dispute or discuss; the quotation given above is merely to emphasize the difference between the cornerstone and the foundation stone.

The foundation stone — often spoken of as the stone of foundation — belongs among the myths and allegories of Freemasonry; it is a symbol, not a fact. The legends regarding it are not recitals of history. It is to be regarded in Freemasonry as its story in ancient history is to be read; as the garment clothing a great truth, not as a literal exposition. According to the Masonic legend, the stone of foudation was placed in the first temple of Solomon; aftewards incorporated in the Holy of Holies of the second temple. It was a perfect cube and inscribed on its upper surface was the Tetragrammaton or Ineffeable Name of Deity. The Talmudists speak of it as having been laid by Jehovah as the foundation of the world. One of the Apochryphal Books of Enoch speaks of the “stone which supports the corners of the earth.” Among many passages of magnificent poetry in the Old Testament is this (Job 38:4-6)

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understand­ ing. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fas­ tened? Or who laid the cornerstone thereof?

One old legend has Jacob anointing the stone of foundation with oil although Genesis says only that he anointed the stones he used for pillows with oil; hence the legend makes his stone pillow, when he dreamed of the ladder, this same stone of foundation. Another legend has the stone in the possession of Adam, when he used it as an altar, and so loved it that he carried it with him when expelled from the Garden of Eden. Still another legend relates that the stone was eventually in the possession of Seth, from whom it passed eventually to Noah, who took it into the Ark and used it as the first altar on which to make a thank offering when the Ark landed. Later Abraham has it.

There are many more legends of the stone, some of them developed in other rites of Masonry than the Symbolic lodge. Its symbolism, however, is equally important to all Masons; the stone of foundation with the Ineffeable Name upon it, is the teaching that all life, efort and accomplishment is founded upon a rock: the stone of foundation of the universe is Deity.

Albert Gallatin Mackey develops this further, and beautifully, by calling attention to the stone of foundation, first laid in the first temple, as a symbol that knowledge of Deity is first necessary to man in this life. Legend transfers the stone of foundation to the second temple, emblematic to Masons of the life to come, where the stone of foundation is equally necessary to the “spirit which returns unto God who gave it.”

The cornerstone, important to Masons, taught of in the Entered Apprentice Degree, will here only be mentioned, as its story and the sad tales of the foundation sacrifices associated with it, were set forth in the Short Talk BulletinCornerstone” July 1936. But all Masons will do well to make their own the symbol of the stone which commences a building, the symbolic stone upon which a Mason is to erect his spiritual building, his moral and Masonic edifice.

The capstone (more properly copestone, except that the former word is universal Masonic usage) is met in Capitular Masonry, not the Symbolic lodge. It is the last stone laid; the top of the building, the pinnacle of the tower. Placing it completes the structure, and therefore marks a time of celebration and rejoicing. The celebration of the laying of the capstone is sometimes held even today by builders.

It is not to be confused with the keystone; “the stone which the builders rejected, is become the head of the corner.” (Mark 10:12) The keystone, larger above than below, is placed in the center and at the top of an arch, to secure its firmness and stability. Anciently it was customary for workmen to put a mark on the stones they cut and set. The keystone, most important in any arch, was usually cut and set by the architect, the artist in charge. It is this story which is so prominently identified with the Royal Arch Degree, originally a part of Symbolic Masonry. Readers will recall that when the rival Grand Lodges of England composed their differences and became the United Grand Lodge of England, they set forth (second in the Articles of Union) “It is declared and pronounced that pure ancient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more: viz., those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellowcraft and the Master Mason (including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch).”

The broached thurnel belongs among the antiquities of Masonry and is no longer met with it in any rite. It was anciently an “immoveable jewel,” the others then being the tarsel (tracing board) and the rough ashlar. It was then said that “the broached thurnel is for the Entered Apprentices to learn to work upon.”

There are two schools of thought as to the real meaning of the words; one often accepted is that the broached thurnel was a stone shaped like a cube below, but with a pyramidal apex; the whole forming a “spired turret.” This idea is derived from the ancient meaning of the word broche, meaning spire, and thurnel supposedly derived from the old French tournelle, meaning little turret or tower.

The idea that the term means stone on which an apprentice could learn to work seems to be strengthened by the Scotch term broach, meaning to rough-hew.

A contrary view is held by some, who also refer to the Scotch terms broaching thurrnal or thurner, a name given to a chisel by which rough or broached work is done.

Dr. Charles E. Funk of Funk and Wagnals (Standard Dictionary) offered a learned discourse on the possible derivation of the word thurnel and suggests with much etymological skill its derivation from the word former, described in 1888 as “a chissel used before the paring chissel in all works.”

There is here room for dispute; a smoothly finished stone with a cubical base and a pyramidal top is hardly that which would be given an apprentice to learn to cut again into some other shape. If broached thurnel was a tool, rather than an ashlar, it does not belong in this category of Masonic stones, but there is enough evidence that at least it might have been a “spired turret” of stone to warrant its inclusion here if only as one of the curiosities of Freemasonry.

Another curiosity is the Annapolis Stone, discovered in 1827 on the Annapolis Basin, Nova Scotia. It was, or is, a slab on which was inscribed a square and compasses and a date, 1606. The discoverer, Dr. Charles T. Jackson, presented the stone to Justice T. C. Halliburton, who gave it to his son, who presented it to the Canadian Institute, in Toronto, where it was incorporated in the walls of the Institute’s then-new building. Workmen plastered the stone when they set it, stupidly covering the inscription and now no one knows just where in the wall it is! It seems to indicate that a Mason, at least sufficiently speculative in character to know of the compasses and square combined as a symbol, was on this continent earlier than any other known Masonic record; indeed, a year before the settlement of Jamestown and fourteen years before the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers.

Someday the walls of the Institute will come down, when age or the need of a new building makes it necessary; the Masonic world probably will have to wait until then for the rediscovery of what seems to be its oldest continental Masonic record. Dr. Melvin M. Johnson, in the monumental Beginnings of Freemasonry in America states that the stone has been looked for and a reward of a thousand dollars offered for its recovery. The stone was photographed and a copy is in the possession of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. The date is plain enough but to an unprejudiced eye, the ‘square and compasses” seem a little fanciful. Whatever the truth, the story at least is fascinating.

There is so much to be said about stones and their intimate connection with Speculative Freemasonry that this Bulletin might easily become many times its necessarily short length. A pair of curious references, however, must not be omitted:

In Hebrew and in Egyptian symbology, stone was sometimes a symbol of falsehood; Typhon, the Egyptian principle of evil was written with characters denoting a hewn stone. In Exodus 20:25 it is written: And if thou will make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone; for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” In Joshua 8:31 is an altar of whole stones over which no man hath lift up any iron.

Masonic thought considers the rough or unhewn stone as signifying ignorance; the perfect ashlar, the instructed and perfect Mason. Apparently, then, the Masonic symbolism of the stone owes nothing to Hebrew or Egyptian sources. As Masonry owes so much to both these in other matters, it is curiously interesting that here operative practice has been more powerful than these ancient influences.

Masonry makes much of the Mason as “a living stone in that spiritual building, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” In the Great Light man is referred to as a "living stone.” But to the sculptor the “living stone” is stone not quarried, not removed from where nature made it. “Carved in the living rock” to the sculptor means a statue such as the Lion of Lucerne in Switzerland; the Confederate Memorial, on Stone Mountain in Georgia, the great statues carved in Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota.

Anyone’s guess is as good as another’s as to why the sculptor chose “living” as an adjective to describe unquarried rock, or why the ancients who wrote the Book of Books called men “living stones.”

Here is one thought on the matter which may be food for reflection; it is not the geographical location of “living stone” which the artist admires; it is the fact that the stone is untouched by another’s tools; that no other chose for him the material on which he is to work, no other quarried, moved, or brought it to his studio. The artist chooses his own “living stone” and takes it for his statue as God made it.

Masonry chooses her own material — no other than the brethren pick the candidates from which the lodge will attempt to make “living stones” for the final building. . . .

The Masonic Service Association of North America