Vol. XL No. 7 — July 1962

Three Distinct Knocks

Conrad Hahn

Knocking on the outer door of a lodge is a Masonic custom well known to every candidate for admission. Much of its symbolism comes from the familiar, homely knock on the door of one’s house, which has been a figure of speech in almost every era. “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

All sorts of symbolic meanings have been read by Masons into the three distinct knocks on the outer door, some of them at a very early date in the development of Speculative Freemasonry. Unfortunately, many a modern brother has never given much more thought to this action than to regard it as a request for admission.

Such a brother has failed to comprehend and to put to use the symbolic explanation of the three knocks in the Fellowcraft Degree, where he is reminded of the talents that every Speculative Builder should develop: a willingness to learn the skills of his trade, the utilization of good Masonic instruction and literature, and devotion to the teachings of the Craft as well as the preservation of its “secrets.”

The triple nature of this symbolism is one of the commonest features of Masonic ritual and phraseology. Not less than three members shall congregate to form a lodge. There are three symbolic degrees. A lodge has three principal officers, three supports, three greater and three lesser fights, three movable and three immovable jewels, three principal tenets, etc. Everywhere among the ancients three was the most sacred of numbers. Pythagoras called it perfect harmony.

The three distinct knocks serve the immediately practical purposes of “alarming” the lodge and notifying the master that the candidate is duly and truly prepared for admission. What are the ends to be gained by his entrance? Once more the candidate is taught “by threes.” He is reminded that he sought admission into a Masonic lodge because he was desirous of receiving a part of the rights, lights, and benefits of the Fraternity. Those three nouns denote the privileges, the knowledge and inspiration, the moral and spiritual enrichment that membership in Freemasonry makes possible.

The candidate is also reminded that the opening of the door after three distinct knocks thereon illustrates a Scriptural promise, which is also expressed as a triad: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

The candidate had to ask for membership, since no one solicited him to join; he had to seek admission of his own free will and accord, since no tangible or material benefits could be offered him as an inducement to become a Mason; and he had to knock on the door with his own right hand to cause it to open. Therefore, the three distinct knocks also symbolize his freedom of action in joining a Masonic lodge, his sincerity of purpose in becoming a “son of the Light,” and his determination to proceed in a course of honorable action that his vigorous knocking initiates.

Only infrequently, however, is the candidate aware of or given further instruction about the scriptural passage quoted above. It is found in the seventh verse of the seventh chapter of Matthew and in the ninth verse of the eleventh chapter of Luke, a chapter that begins with this significant description: “And it came to pass, that as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, one of His disciples said unto Him, ‘Master, teach us to pray. . . .’” (Luke 11:1)

In responding, Jesus gave His disciples the prayer that has become known throughout the world as Our Father, which art in heaven. . .” It was no mere accident that brought this reference into Masonic ritual in the eighteenth century, for those ancient brethren, the “ritual tinkerers,” were deeply religious men. Most of them being Christians, they understandably chose allusions from the Volume of the Sacred Law most familiar to them.

Their purpose, however, was not sectarian or theological. They sought no converts; they pretended no dogmatic infallibility. Their purpose was to endow a ritualistic act with sacred overtones and elevating spirituality. That scriptural passage seemed to be an appropriate commentary on the act of knocking on the door to gain admission into a fraternity whose principal tenets are brotherly love, relief, and truth. All honor to those ritualists who conceived the symbolism of the three distinct knocks as an act of prayer and praise and supplication! It is in keeping with the loftiest aspirations of freemasonry. It endows the act of entrance with far-reaching spiritual implications.

The Lord’s Prayer, to which the scriptural passage alludes, is one of the simplest but most effective entreaties ever made for physical and spiritual well-being. Jesus also taught “by threes,” for His prayer divides itself naturally into three parts: adoration of the Great Creator, a request for “daily bread,” and a plea for spiritual health and growth.

In explaining the purpose of prayer, the Master also told His disciples that “everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” Not satisfied with such a literal promise, Jesus finally emphasized the meaning of prayer as follows: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?” (Matthew 7:11) With that question He made it perfectly clear that those who truly seek the Light of the Spirit will find that their prayers are answered.

It may be seriously doubted, however, that either the candidate for the Masonic degrees or the officers of the lodge entertain such ideas about the meaning of prayer when the explanation is made that the three distinct knocks were given “to remind you of a certain text in Scripture.” It is too much to expect that every man has reviewed the passage thoroughly before performing this part of the ritual; but it does suggest an area in which the worshipful master can give good and wholesome instruction to his brethren.

If the three distinct knocks symbolize a petitioner’s prayer and supplication for Masonic Light, if he that seeketh shall find, and if to him that knocketh it shall be opened, a lodge of Master Masons must not only know what a candidate is seeking; it must also make clear to the initiate what he may expect to find when the door is opened, after he gives three distinct knocks thereon with his own right hand.

What came you here to do? The usual answer to this question is contained in the ritual, but it is so archaically expressed and so briefly comprehensive in the phrase, “to improve myself in Masonry,” that most initiates fail to grasp the all-embracing meaning of that commitment. A better understanding of the purposes of Freemasonry before they knocked upon the door would have helped them tremendously.

Even before he presents himself at the lodge room for initiation, the average candidate is more or less aware of the opportunities for new friendships and worthwhile social intercourse that being a Mason will provide. He probably believes that he will have certain duties of attendance and lodge business to attend to, once his membership is consummated. He may even be eager to complete the degrees because he can then participate in the activities or other orders and associations. It is possible that he realizes that as a Mason he will have opportunities to participate in “good works” of a charitable nature.

Praiseworthy as each of these expectations undoubtedly is, they are insufficient to give the candidate a true appreciation of what a Mason really should be seeking. He is unaware of the spiritual significance of the three distinct knocks he will symbolically make on the door of the lodge. A Mason is something more than a member of a club; he represents more than so many dollars of dues and contributions. Freemasons themselves must bear the blame for this lack of understanding on the part of new members.

Masons have been too secretive about the teachings of the Fraternity. It maybe that they haven’t understood them very well themselves, for lack of adequate instruction. Some have been too eager to exaggerate the words and action of their ritual performances, instead of the inspiring meanings of the symbolism that they illustrate. In fact, too many candidates expect buffoonery or a “third degree” when they appear at lodge for initiation. They have been misled by well-intentioned “joiners” who never really became Masons in their hearts.

Too many serious new Masons have come away from lodge meeting disappointed and a hungering. Instead of further light and inspiration to supplement their experience during initiation, they merely witness the same monotonous and uninspiring degree work that left their questions unanswered, and does nothing to answer them now that they are actually Freemasons. They gave three distinct knocks; the door was opened; but they still haven’t found that which they are seeking. They still aren’t sure that they know what it is.

If each seeker of the Light in Masonry could be helped to understand the symbolism of the three distinct knocks, it would strengthen his devotion to the laudable purposes of his undertaking. When a poor blind candidate knocks upon the door of a great Fraternity whose tenets are brotherly love, relief, and truth, let him understand that his knocking represents a prayerful petition for those spiritual gifts — and his experience throughout his initiation will be richer and more significant. He will be more duly and truly prepared to learn that Freemasonry is a never-ending search for Light and Love.

The Masonic Service Association of North America