Vol. XXVII No. 11 — November 1949

Columns and Pillars

The Freemasonry we know is a development of speculative teaching from an operative craft. It could not, therefore, have been other than repository for architectural allusions. It could not have evolved from stone cutting and setting into a society teaching a moral philosophy, without using the familiar tools and work of everyday as illustrations of her purposes.

The whole internal structure of Freemasonry's ritual is permeated with and built around matters of architecture and of building. Trowel, square, plumbline, level, rule, gauge; rough ashlar and perfect; cornerstone and place where it is laid; point within a circle (originally an operative means of testing a stone mason’s square); setting maul and gavel; the apron which protected the person of the workman and carried his tools; the very words lodge, cowans, eavesdropper; the wages paid a master; the trestleboard, are all from operative days. Now, all these have symbolic meanings. They are with us not used for their original purposes but for “the more noble and glorious purpose” of setting forth some principle of life, some philosophy, some aspect of character making.

It is, then, not surprising that the structures on which operative Masons worked, as well as their several parts, have also contributed to Freemasonry’s ritual and teachings. We make much of Solomon’s Temple, its inner chamber, its Sanctum Sanctorum, its three gates.

We are concerned at one time with its rubbish. And we have several columns and/or pillars, both in the lodge and in the ritual.

The dictionary distinguishes between columns and pillars, but the difference is small. Architecturally columns are of more or less fixed and classical forms; Masonry teaches of the five orders of architecture and illustrates the Fellowcraft Degree lecture with references to the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Tuscan, and Composite columns.

Pillars are columns, but may be plain and unornamented or fancifully designed. How nearly alike in earlier days the words are in meaning is shown in the King James Bible; the word column does not occur at all, while there are more than a hundred references to pillars. In Young’s Concordance, column is given as a synonym, a definition of pillar.

The English word column is from the Latin colonna; the word pillar from old French piler; when stones were “piled” on fields they became “pillars” and gradually the word came to mean any vertical shaft which supported a weight.

Masonry has both columns and pillars in her symbolism, and at times as the basis of some of her philosophies.

Much reference is made in the Fellowcraft Degree to the five orders of architecture. Naturally a speculative craft which developed from operative building should include many references to architectural matters. All the five orders of architecture were old and hoary with years before any organized operative Craft in England existed.

Nevertheless, there is very little about the five orders in what early rituals have come down to us. The several columns, now universally delineated on the master’s carpet, are not to be found in the Legend of the Craft nor in the old manuscript constitutions.

Apparently they came into modern Masonry through William Preston, whose whole philosophy was concerned with making Masonry into a teaching of organized knowledge. It is to Preston that we owe three of the columns as representing “original three grand masters” and as emblematic of Wisdom, Strength and Beauty.

Here Amos Doolittle, engraver of Connecticut, did much, in his illustrations for Jeremy Cross’ True Masonic Chart by his drawings of the five orders as made manifest in columns, and the three columns representing the grand masters. Cross and Doolittle put the historic three on top of gigantic columns; most modern illustrations give them more comfortable and safer positions standing beside or leaning upon another column.

Important in the Fellowcraft Degree are the Pillars of the Porch, 1 Kings 7:21 reads:

And he set up the pillars in the porch of the temple: and he set up the right pillar, and called the name thereof Jachin: and he set up the left pillar, and called the name thereof Boaz.

Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 1, Ch. 2, states:

Moreover, this Hiram made two hollow pillars, whose outsides were of brass, and the thickness of the brass was four fingers’ breadth, and the height of the pillars was eighteen cubits, or twenty-seven feet, and the circumstance, twelve cubits, or eighteen feet; but there was cast with each of their chapiters lily-work, that stood upon the pillar, and it was elevated five cubits, seven and a half feet, round about which there was network inter-woven with small palms made of brass, and covered the lily-work. To this also were hung two hundred pomegranates, in two rows. The one of these pillars he set at the entrance of the porch on the right hand, or South, and called it Jachin, and the other at the left hand, or North, and called it Boaz.

Originally in Masonry, as told in the Legend of the Craft, the archives of Masonry, especially the liberal arts and sciences, were preserved in two great pillars — the legendary “Pillars of Enoch” — which successfully protected them against damage during the Flood, when everything else of man perished except that which Noah had taken into the Ark. Mackey says:

In the Legend of the Craft, contained in all the old Constitutions, we are informed that the children of Lamech “knew that God would take vengeance for sinne, either by fire or water, wherefore they did write these sciences that they had found in twoe pillars of stone, that they might be found after that God had taken vengeance; the one was of marble and would not burne, the other was Latres and would not drowne in water” (Harleian Manuscript; No. 1942). Latres is the Latin word later, a brick. Whiston properly translates the passage, “they made two pillars; the one of brick, the other of stone.” The original Greek word has the same meaning. The word is variously corrupted in the manuscripts. Thus the Harleian Manuscript has latres, which comes nearest to the correct Latin plural lateres; the Cooke has lacerus; the Dowland laterns; the Lansdowne, latherne; and the Sloane, No. 3848, getting furthest from the truth, has letera.

In Masonry these were the original pillars, The more modern Brazen Pillars, spoken of in the above quotation from 1 Kings, have taken the places of the original pillars in our rites.

The globes upon our representations of the Brazen Pillars are modern additions. Doubtless the ancient peoples, or some of them, had globes; certain mathematicians in Egypt had them. Globes were well known in the Middle Ages. Early Freemasons probably used globes only as maps. There is no evidence whatever that our globes terrestrial and celestial were upon the original pillars, whether these be the diluvian pillars of the manuscript constitutions or the brazen pillars of the Bible.

The lily-work we use may originally have been open basket work to hold fire, in humble imitation of the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of cloud by night which guided the Israelites. There is evidence that the Brazen Pillars did at one time, although seldom if ever today, refer to these phenomena of smoke and flame.

As all who have ever been in a Masonic lodge room know, the master sits in the east on a platform of three steps, the senior warden in the west on a platform of two steps and the junior warden in the south on a platform of one step. These are representations of the pedestals of the columns which have especial reference to the "three original grand masters.”

The use of pillars as commemorative of the great, either person or event, is very old; the Old Testament has many such references; for instance, Jacob erected a pillar of stone to commemorate his vision of the ladder. The ancient tribes had no science; they did have the universal human need for some understanding of their world. Hence we find the world supported by pillars (1 Samuel 2:48). The Psalmist sang ‘"The earth and all the inhabitants thereof are dissolved; I bear up the pillars of it.” (75:3) and Job cries; “He shaketh the earth out of her places and the pillars thereof tremble.” (9:6)

Phallicism is probably responsible for ancient pillar worship, the pillars or columns then symbolizing the creative power. But as so often happened in past ages, the worship of the idea symbolized by a thing was soon transferred to the thing itself. Frazier in The Golden Bough refers to the chapel of St. John the Baptist, in Athens, built against a column. Fever patients go to it and attach a waxed thread to the column, believing that the power in the column will draw their fever away!

In some very old rituals the wardens of a lodge sit beside the two columns in the porch of the Temple to oversee or watch, the senior warden over the Fellowcrafts, the junior warden, the Apprentices. Today we have separated the wardens from the brazen pillars but we do give these officers a replica of wood or metal of the column each warden is supposed to sit beside. Once these had another name — Oliver quotes an old inventory of a lodge at Chester, England, which includes "two truncheons for the Wardens.”

As all know the erect or prone position of the special small columns on the wardens’ pillars give information to the Craft as to the state of the lodge.

The Broken Column, part of the symbol of the Monument in the Master’s Degree, is generally believed to have been introduced to the American Masonic rites by Jeremy L. Cross, famous lecturer of the early eighteen hundreds. Historians are not satisfied that he is responsible for the whole symbol — Time, the Beautiful Virgin; the Urn, the Book, the Sprig of Acacia — but are generally agreed that the probabilities are that Cross did introduce the Broken Column; there is some evidence that it was first engraved by Amos Doolittle, who made all the engravings for the first True Masonic Chart produced by Cross (See Bulletin of September 1936, “The Doolittle Pictures”).

A broken column is a very old symbol; it goes back to ancient Egypt as do other parts of the Masonic Monument symbol, as almost universally used. But in spite of this, apparently the broken column, representing the untimely death of a great man, was not introduced into the monument until about the time Jeremy L. Cross lived and worked.

While not in the Masonic system, the ’Prentice Pillar certainly belongs to the Craft. Mackey tells its story as follows:

In the southeast part of the Chapel of Roslyn Castle, in Scotland, is the celebrated column which goes by this name, and with which a Masonic legend is connected. The pillar is a plain fluted shaft, having a floral garland twined around it, all carved out of the solid stone. The legend is, that when the plans of the chapel were sent from Rome, the master builder did not clearly understand about this pillar, or, as another account states, had lost this particular portion of the plans, and, in consequence, had to go to Rome for further instructions or to procure a fresh copy. During his absence a clever apprentice, the only son of a widow, either from memory or from his own invention, carved and completed the beautiful pillar. When the master returned and found the work completed, furious with jealous rage, he killed the apprentice by striking him a frightful blow on the forehead with a heavy setting-maul. In testimony of the truth of the legend, the visitor is shown three heads in the west part of the chapel — the master’s, the apprentice’s with the gash on his forehead, and the widow’s.

A complete study of the pillars and columns of Masonry would fill a large volume; indeed, such studies are already more extensive, in the transactions of research lodges, encyclopedias, books of symbolism and other works about the Ancient Craft.

Here are but a few hundred words; if they succeed in tempting the reader to dig more deeply & read more widely, then this short paper will have achieved its purpose.

The Masonic Service Association of North America