Vol. XXXVII No. 9 — September 1959


Conrad Hahn

The word apprentice generally suggests a learner or a beginner. An apprentice is also defined as a tyro or novice, one not well versed in a skill or trade. In the world of the ancient craftsman it denotes “one who is bound by indentures or by legal agreement to serve another person for a certain time, with a view to learning an art or trade, in consideration of instruction therein, and formerly, usually of maintenance by the master.” In medieval times there were apprentice silversmiths, apprentice coopers, apprentice wheelwrights, apprentice cordmakers, apprentice stone-squarers, etc. In modern times we speak of apprentice electricians, apprentice plumbers, apprentice machinists, etc.

The early medieval craftsman was really a serf tied to his employer and to his home locality. The modern apprentice, however, works for wages; his dependency on a master is relatively non-existent. While he has agreed to a certain term of service, usually sufficient to acquire the skills of his trade, he no longer lives with or is dependent upon his employer for food and lodging. By comparison with the medieval apprentice, he is really a free agent.

After the Norman conquest in 1066, the construction of buildings was given a great impetus by the kings, nobles, and churchmen into whose hands the ownership of the land had passed. But it was another two centuries before the trade guild system, as we know it, came into prominence. Operative Masonry as a real trade had its rise, we may surmise, in the expansion of building that came to England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, since the erection of castles, fortifications, monasteries, and churches became the great industry of the Middle Ages.

The system of craft apprenticeship in England can be traced back to this building period. References to its existence may be found in records dating from the thirteenth century. Possibly the system existed even earlier; but we know that the guild system was evolving at that time, and that its chief purpose was to regulate conditions of employment and the quality of workmanship under municipal and craft authority.

In the earliest days the status of an apprentice was probably of no great concern to anyone except his employer, the master workman. But as the building trades grew in importance and influence, the apprentice, as a prospective master workman and an employer of labor, and especially as a future teacher of newer apprentices, became an important concern to the guild and required considerable supervision and direction by the rulers of the craft. The regulations in the Regius Poem (ca. 1390) indicate how thoroughly the superintendence of the craftsmen had progressed, not merely in the direction of controlling conditions of employment, but also in determining the moral and ethical standards of conduct required of every good workman.

In the early Middle Ages the number of masons, by comparison with other trades, must have been small. Timber was the principal material used in the construction of dwellings in the medieval towns; masons probably found their chief employment on a few large undertakings that were widely separated. Consequently, the organization of masons’ guilds probably came later than that of other trade associations, but flourished with the glory of the cathedral builders in the later Middle Ages. The first recorded evidence of a masons’ organization is dated late in the fourteenth century. Possibly the earliest system of apprenticeship in the stone-masons’ trade was the father-son relationship, in which the skilled stone-squarer passed on to his son the secrets of his art.

However, we know that in 1319 King Edward II granted new articles and conditions to various trade guilds, including workers in stone, and these foreshadowed an increasing control of the system of apprenticeship by the municipal authorities. Some of the conditions established at that time are of great interest to Masons, because they are echoed in the “Old Charges” and regulations.

Vassalage and serfdom were common to the society of the early Middle Ages. A “bond-man” was really a kind of slave; he was “in bondage” to his feudal lord or master. The children of a bondman belonged to the lord or master of their father. They were not “free-born”; they were born into a condition of villeinage that gave the lord or master a right to their lives and the products of their labors. It was for this reason that masters of craftsmen’s lodges were commanded to accept only apprentices who were “free.” A “bondman,” or the son of a “bondman,” was not at liberty to enter into any contractual arrangements with a master. He belonged to his “lord,” who could take him away for menial or military services, or cause serious trouble for such an employer in one of the trades. Such vassals were absolutely barred from “the freedom of the city”; and most of the craft ordinances of the fourteenth century insist on free birth as an essential qualification for apprenticeship.

The physical qualifications of an apprentice were also spelled out in most of the guild regulations. The crafts generally required that an apprentice should not be maimed or lacking a limb. Some went even further and demanded that an apprentice be “well-favored,” i.e. handsome, as well as “neither crooked or deformed.” Speculative Freemasons will recognize the modern residue of such ancient requirements in the “physical qualifications” of candidates.

However, the regulations of the craft made other qualifications mandatory. While legitimacy of birth was not always insisted on and sometimes was not even stipulated, nationality was a common requirement. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the craft guilds usually required an apprentice to be of English birth. Sometimes there was a ban against Irishmen and Welshmen, and more frequently against Scots and Frenchmen. Generally there was a ban against all aliens and those born beyond the limits of the King’s power. Speculative Freemasonry no longer lays emphasis on the nationality of an applicant, although several grand lodges in the United States specifically require United States citizenship of petitioners for the degrees. (On the other hand several American grand lodges have declared that United States citizenship is not a necessary qualification.)

A definite age, usually twenty-one, is required of modern applicants for Masonry,[1] although it has been permissible in some jurisdictions for a “lewis,” the son of a Mason, to become a member of the fraternity before his majority. In the days of operative masonry no such exact requirement was in effect. However, the masons’ guilds were forced to adopt a general requirement of age, because their labors demanded a certain degree of physical strength and maturity to assist in lifting stones and handling some of the tools. Evidence from medieval records suggests that seventeen or eighteen was the average age at which apprentices were accepted by the masons’ guilds. With seven years’ service as the usual requirement for an apprentice, twenty-four was the normal age at which a worker in stone could expect to become an independent craftsmen. In 1556 the London Common Council enacted a regulation that no man was to be admitted to “the freedom of the city” until he reached the age of twenty-four, and that apprentices’ terms of service were to be arranged so that they reached that age on completion of the term.

In the masons’ lodges, as in other guilds and associations, apprentices became members before the end of their terms of service. They were “entered” in the lodge whenever their progress and skill had reached the point that indicated their eventual success as master workmen. While authorities do not agree on the number of years that apprentices served before they were “entered,” four seems to be the generally accepted period of time in which apprentices served before they became members of a lodge. From the records of Mary’s Chapel Lodge, it appears that apprentices in that old Scottish lodge were “entered” some three years after their first acceptance as trainees.

Such “entering” was usually accompanied by simple ceremonies, in which the old charges and regulations were read to the newest “entered apprentice.” He took an obligation to do good work, to promote the welfare of his brethren and his lodge, and to maintain the secrets of his profession. The majority of any lodge of operative masons was composed of “entered apprentices.” A lodge at labor was largely an assemblage of apprentices engaged in the tasks of cutting, squaring, and polishing stone; hence the custom of our earliest speculative lodges of conducting their meetings “on the first degree.”

While some of the craft guilds of the Middle Ages made literacy a requirement for admission, the masons’ guilds did not insist on such an accomplishment. It was an age when illiteracy was the common inheritance of the masses of men. The builders’ art was transmitted by word of mouth and by daily exercise of the skills that are governed by such practical tools as the line, the rule, the plumb, the square, the mallet, and the compasses. Modern Freemasonry assumes a degree of literacy on the part of petitioners; the completion of the application for membership requires the ability to read and write. Nevertheless, the rules and regulations of a few of our modern “speculative” grand lodges actually impose a test of literacy upon candidates for the degrees.

Apprentices were learners in the world of operative Masonry. While much of what they learned is now relegated to the activities of “unskilled labor,” they were given the inestimable benefit of a moral interpretation and a moral application of every tool they handled and of every skill that they acquired. The line served not merely to determine the location of a foundation stone; it taught rectitude of conduct in all one’s laudable endeavors. The square not only served to correct or prove the workman’s efforts to shape a piece of stone; it reminded him that the vices and superfluities of life needed a similar treatment from his moral “angle of the square.” Learning by doing was not merely a mechanical skill that the medieval apprentice acquired; it was a thorough absorption of life’s fundamental values through the touching and the handling of the great symbols of virtue that he held in his hands. If his moral achievement was not always commensurate with his knowledge or instruction, let us not be hasty in condemning his shortcomings. Speculative Masons still have to demonstrate the effectiveness of their more “literate” instruction on a great number of craftsmen who have really failed “to see the light.”

A speculative Entered Apprentice is also a learner, a beginner. In his understanding and knowledge of Masonic organization, customs, ritual, symbolism, and objectives he is genuinely a novice; indeed, he is usually amazed by the first impressions he receives from the labors of a lodge.

Like an operative apprentice he is required to serve for a definite period of time. Generally speaking, this is comparatively short in the grand lodges of the United States. The usual requirement is two weeks or a lunar month before an Entered Apprentice can be advanced to the degree of Fellowcraft.

This is not the case in many European or South American jurisdictions. In some a candidate must wait at least a year before he can be “entered,” and another year must elapse before he can be advanced to the next degree. In some South American lodges, which labor on all three degrees at every communication, Apprentices must attend a specific number of meetings on the first degree, twelve to sixteen being the commonest requirement, before they can be advanced to Fellowcraft. These meetings need not be at their own lodges; they may visit others in order to expedite the fulfillment of the requirement.

While this helps to increase attendance at lodge meetings — at least for certain parts of them — and while it insures a ready familiarity with the elements of the ritual and the floor work of the Entered Apprentice Degree, it creates some practical difficulties for examining committees and registrars, who must fill out attendance cards for such “travelling” apprentices. It also questionable that such novices are really trying “to learn their trade, when the chief reason for their being present may be another positive notation on their attendance records.

The average American Freemason completes his apprentice training when he has undergone the initiation ceremonies of the First Degree and has memorized the required portions of the lectures and the obligation. While the speculative Entered Apprentice undoubtedly learns much more from the inspiration of the ceremonies, and from the charges and the explanations that he hears., it must be admitted that the average Entered Apprentice in our country has a ridiculously easy “service” to complete to entitle him to advancement, i.e., to wait a few weeks and to do a little memorizing!

With so little time to absorb the deeper significance of his initiatory experiences, and with so little “speculative” effort required of him in his Masonic progress, it is not to be wondered at that so many craftsmen have failed to grasp the underlying purposes to which Freemasonry is dedicated. In recognition of this deficiency, most American grand lodges today have set up committees on Masonic information, education, or culture, whose chief responsibility is to see that the newly admitted craftsmen are given more light, a better understanding of Freemasonry’s purposes, projects, history, government, and symbolism. Some grand lodges, as a matter of fact, are now requiring attendance at lodges of instruction, in addition to the initiation ceremony, before an apprentice can be regarded as duly and truly prepared for the subsequent degree.

In some European jurisdictions, a positive attempt is made to train apprentices in “speculative” labors. Even before the apprentice is “entered,” in the year that must elapse between his petition and his initiation, he is called upon to discuss meaningful philosophic questions at an open meeting of the lodge; reading material is made available to him; and members of the fraternity, not known to him as such, cultivate his acquaintance and share in the growth of his ideas and activities. In the year’s waiting period after his initiation, when he actually serves as an apprentice, he undertakes some arduous assignments involving study and reading about Masonry and its achievements. It is no wonder that such grand lodges have small and restricted memberships. It takes a long time to become a speculative Master Mason.

Regardless of the differences to be found from grand lodge to grand lodge in the training of speculative Entered Apprentices, the qualifications for admission are almost universally the same. In this respect the ruling authorities of Freemasonry have tended to preserve the ancient customs and usages of the craft.

A petitioner for the degrees of Freemasonry must be a man, free-born, of legal age, enjoying a good reputation, and possessed of physical and mental health sufficient to conform to all the ceremonies required in the work and practices of Freemasonry. While definitions of “soundness of limb, without maim or deformity” are subject to varying interpretations today, the tendency in many grand jurisdictions is to let the individual lodges determine the extent of that impairment that renders an applicant incapable of becoming a worthy apprentice.

Above all, a prospective Entered Apprentice must have an unshakable faith in God, a belief in immortality, and a conviction that God has revealed his purpose to man in some volume of sacred law.

When a man possesses such qualifications, it is possible to “contract for his services” as a speculative Entered Apprentice, who, in consideration for instruction in the royal art of brotherhood, will labor, it is hoped, with fervency and zeal in the spiritual building of a temple that is dedicated to brotherly love, benevolence, and truth.

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  1. In 2015, 11 U.S. grand lodges require applicants to be age 21; 2 require age 19; 36 require age 18; 2 did not respond to the survey. (List of Lodges Masonic)

The Masonic Service Association of North America