Vol. XXXIX No. 3 — March 1961

Movable and Immovable

Conrad Hahn

A regular and well-governed lodge of Master Masons has six jewels, which are part of the furnishings of the lodge. They are not precious stones or items of personal adornment, although the three principal officers wear badges that represent three of these particular objects. They are called “jewels” because they are among the most valued tools of operative builders and because they are highly regarded symbols of morality for Speculative Freemasons. Like all the fundamental emblems of the Craft, they are essential tools in the arts of construction. The six jewels of a Masonic lodge are the square, the level, and the plumb, the rough ashlar, the perfect ashlar, and the trestle or tracing board.

The square teaches morality. It has always symbolized honesty, justice, and wisdom. The level points out the ideal of equality among enlightened builders.

Consequently, it suggests the moral value of true humility, without which the proper appreciation of another's equality is impossible. The plumbline teaches rectitude of conduct and symbolizes the upright life, which neither ignorance nor passion can sway from the perpendicular of virtue.

The rough ashlar is a stone in its rude and natural state as taken from the quarry. It represents the natural man of good character and ability, but uneducated and unaware of his duty to society. The perfect ashlar is a stone that has been squared and polished by the proper tools in the hands of competent workmen. It symbolizes the educated and enlightened man whose social conscience has been developed by the skills and labors of speculative craftsmen. The trestleboard is for the master workman to draw his designs upon. It symbolizes not only the Volume of Sacred Law, which is a Masons “spiritual trestleboard,” but also the plans and purposes of a well-trained builder on the temple of universal brotherhood.

These jewels are divided into two groups, the movable and the immovable, a description that has nothing to do with their physical properties, since it is obvious that all of them can be moved from place to place. Even the ashlars, as symbols, may be of any convenient size and shape. In some lodges they are small enough to be carried in one hand.

They are called movable and immovable to point out certain symbolic qualities that they have suggested to modern Freemasons. Some of these interpretations were unknown to the operative builders. They are “refinements” which sprang from the imagination of speculative ritualists. As such, they have also undergone changes, so that today we find British and United States Freemasonry using the terms in direct opposition to each other.

Grand lodges in the United States define the square, the level, and the plumb as the immovable jewels of a lodge. British Freemasonry describes the rough ashlar, the perfect ashlar, and the tracing board as immovable; the square, the level, and the plumb are movable. To quote from Mackey’s Encyclopedia:

The Immovable Jewels are the Square, the Level, and the Plumb. They are termed Immovable, because they are appropriated to particular parts of the lodge, where they should be found, namely, the Square to the East, the Level to the West, and the Plumb to the South. In the English system the division is the reverse of this. There, the Square, Level, and Plumb are called Movable Jewels, because they pass from the three officers who wear them to their successors. . . . The movable jewels, so called because they are not confined to any particular part of the lodge, are the Rough Ashlar, the Perfect Ashlar, and the Trestleboard.

It must be acknowledged that this difference of nomenclature in American grand lodges is due to a more or less deliberate change adopted by the Baltimore Convention in 1843 (although it had appeared earlier), but it also points to the fact that the whole concept of movable and immovable jewels was never a fixed or static “landmark.” It is a modern interpretation that grew out of the “ritual tinkering” of the eighteenth century, when Speculative Freemasonry was in its most formative process.

In some of the older Masonic catechisms, which may represent the oral traditions of pre-grand lodge Masonry, the jewels of a lodge are specified as “a square ashlar, a diamond, and the common square.” (In modern rituals one of these is movable, one immovable, and the second is no longer included.) Among the jewels of a lodge mentioned in other old Masonic manuscripts are the square pavement, the blazing star, the indented tessel, the perpend ashlar, and the broached thurnel, a small square stone with a turret or spire springing from it. Most of the furnishings of a Masonic lodge have at one time or another been designated as “jewels.”

However, the earliest division of the jewels into the two categories, movable and immovable, is to be found in Prichard’s Masonry Dissected, the first expose of Masonic ritual, published in 1730. In this little book the movable jewels are the “Square, Level, and Plumb Rule,” while the immovable jewels are the “Tarsel Board, Rough Ashlar, and Broached Thurnel,” the first designed “for the Master to draw his Designs upon, Rough Ashlar for the Fellow-craft to try their Jewels upon, and the Broached Thurnel for the Enter’d ’Prentice learn to work upon.”

Whatever one’s preference may be regarding this classification of the two kinds of jewels, one must admit that it is impossible to prove which is correct. So many changes have been wrought on Masonic ritual during the last few centuries that our present catechisms or “workings” represent modern predilections as well as additions to “ancient usage.”

To the brother who finds the contradiction between British and American jewels displeasing or illogical, one may say with sympathy as well as encouragement, “Let us rejoice that we have such a rich heritage to enjoy. . .” for even these differences and contradictions add to the suggestiveness of Masonic symbolism and imagery. Whether the square, level, and plumb are movable or immovable is not nearly so important as the question, “Has the newly admitted Entered Apprentice grasped the idea that the working tools of a Mason are unchanging and unforgettable moral principles to guide and direct his conduct throughout life?”

Jonathan Swift was a sardonic commentator on English life during the early eighteenth century. He once cast a jaundiced eye at the blossoming Freemasonry of the day. In Gulliver’s Travels he satirized the petty quarrels of the British nobility. In A Voyage to Lilliput, the land of the tiny people, the court was made ridiculous by a controversy between the “Big Endians” and the “Little Endians” who tried to compel each other to break eggs at the “correct” extremity. Over zealous ritualists, who would like to enforce uniformity of practice in naming the movable and immovable jewels, might succeed only in dividing their brethren into the Movabilious and the Immovabilious, whose ardor would be to better applied to more constructive activities.

The significant word in these descriptions of Masonic symbols is jewel. Regardless of its derivation from a French word meaning “a bauble, or plaything,” its important connotation for the modern craftsman is its suggestion of “a precious thing.” Long before the era of grand lodges, Shakespeare had helped to fix the meaning of jewel as a rare and valuable object or possession. The word should help to convey to the newly-made Mason the idea that he has acquired something of great value, “a precious thing,” through his understanding of the symbols that the tools of Freemasonry represent.

Nevertheless, there is considerable value in exploring the terms, movable and immovable. They take us back to the connections between ancient craft Masonry and its modern offspring. Such historical perspective is always useful to Masonic teachers who wish to interpret the past in order to illuminate the present, and to preserve the essential spirit of Freemasonry for the future.

Why did some of the jewels come to be regarded as immovable? For example, why is the trestle or tracing board described as immovable in the British “workings”? The history of that instrument goes back to the drawing boards of the medieval builders. Tracing boards are listed in the inventory of equipment for the year 1399 in the Fabric Rolls of York Minster. They were really drawing boards on which the Master Mason designed and laid out details for the guidance of the craftsmen.

In the early days of Symbolic Lodges the brethren used to mark out on the floor the actual form of a lodge; they drafted a symbolic building in temporary lines on the floor boards, using a mixture of chalk, charcoal, and clay. It was easily erased, as it had to be, since lodges met in the rooms of inns and taverns. After the ceremonies, the initiate had to take a mop and pail of water and wash off the design.

The form of the lodge varied with the particular degree that was being exemplified. It was usually the tiler’s job to prepare “the tracing board,” that is, the floor. With the gradual passing of this cumbersome and inconvenient method of preparing the trestleboard, Freemasonry lost much of the emphasis that was originally placed on this emblem of spiritual growth and development.

The practice of drawing the lodge on the floor must have created difficulties. For example, mistaken directions to the tiler sometimes caused postponement of the ceremonies. If the lodge floor had been prepared for the Master’s Degree when the candidate was to be made an Entered Apprentice, the lodge couldn’t function. A careless initiate, who used more water than energy with the mop, sometimes got the lodge into trouble with the landlord when he “erased” the lodge.

It was inevitable that the floor lines were sooner or later replaced by floor cloths of some kind. These were probably painted canvas. In this development, however, one can see the gradual loss and abandonment of the original purpose of the floor drawings, and with it much of the instruction in the architectural “secrets of a Master Mason.”

Floor cloths cost money. As carpets they probably didn’t wear well, so that soon they became wall charts or cloths draped over a table or a trestle. The painted canvas “lodge” developed into a composite picture of Masonic symbols — and the familiar “hieroglyphic chart” was established. But the original lodge on the floor survives in the modern trestle or tracing board, which came into general use in the late eighteenth century to represent the symbolic instruction of the master to the craft.

As an essential instrument for the labors of a lodge it came to be regarded as immovable, not only because of its traditional importance and necessity, but especially by contrast with the earlier designs that were laid out on the floor and removed after every meeting. “Immovable” had a literal as well as an abstract meaning for earlier Speculative Masons.

In English lodges the tracing board is still used to illustrate the lectures of the symbolic degrees. Many American lodges use stereopticon slides projected on a screen. In a few places it is still customary for brethren to give good and wholesome instruction in the form of literary or scientific lectures that are illustrated by designs upon the trestleboard. If modern Freemasons need more Masonic information and instruction, might it not be good Masonic teaching to move the immovable jewel of the tracing board into a prominent place within the lodge room? It could become the emblem as well as the lectern of committees on information and instruction.

In reality, of course, every one of the jewels of a Masonic lodge has both an ordinary and a symbolic meaning. Each is a tangible object. Each has a practical use in the mechanical process of erecting a building. Each may be moved or permanently located in the lodge room. Certainly the square, the level, and the plumb may be described as immovable because each is appropriate to a particular station in the lodge and should always be found there. But they are also movable in a ritualistic sense, because they are carried from place to place by the officers during the conferring of degrees.

In a speculative or philosophical sense, each jewel can be both movable and immovable, depending on the application of the symbol to a particular purpose or idea. Every Master Mason is constantly admonished to meet, act, and part by virtue of those symbols that are defined as movable in British lodges, but immovable in the United States. To practice the tenets of his profession a Mason must carry the jewels within his heart and intellect — in other words, he must carry the symbols from one activity to another throughout his lifetime. At the same time, he must make the ideas that the jewels represent the immovable, the fixed and constant principles of his conduct.

May it not be, that in the grand design of the Supreme Architect, the movable must also be immovable, and the immovable must likewise put on movability? The laws of finite human progress are expressed by paradox and contradiction. Only the Infinite, the Divine, is eternally fixed and immutable.

The Masonic Service Association of North America