Mark Master Degree - Its Ritual and Antiquity

R. E. Trebilcock


The degree of Mark Master has continued with as few changes as any Masonic degree of which we have knowledge. It is impossible for anyone to specify accurately what the ritual consisted of previous to 1797, but in that year, Thomas Smith Webb issued the first complete Masonic Monitor which included the Capitular degrees.

We have before us, as we write, this first edition of Webb; in it he says of the degree:

The first section explains the manner of convocating and opening a Master Mark Lodge. It teaches the duties of the respective officers, and recapitulates the mystic ceremony of introducing a candidate. In this section is exemplified the regularity and good order that was observed by the craftsmen on Mount Libanus, and in the plains and quarries of Zeredathah, and ends with a beautiful display of the manner by which one of the principal events took place.

In the second section, the Master Mark Mason is particularly instructed in the history of this degree, and the increased obligation he is under to stretch forth his assisting hand to the relief of an indigent and worthy brother.

The distinguishing marks and characteristics are also explained and illustrated in this section. In the course of the lecture the following texts of Scripture are recited, viz.:

Then follow five quotations taken from Psalms, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts all having to do with the "stone which the builders rejected." In many jurisdictions this has been changed by using quotations which are not so monotonous, since references are made throughout the degree to the same passages.

The Charge which follows is identical with that in use to this day; the Parable of the Vineyard occupied an important place; and the Mark Master Song, as now used, was printed in full.

The degree of Mark Master in 1797 is that of 1964!


Quotations from the Scriptures appear very prominently throughout the ritual of the Mark Master degree, beginning with the opening and appearing also in the closing ceremonies.

These include extracts from I Peter, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Revelations, Matthew and Proverbs. In a few instances not all of the verse has been used, to enable it to fit into the ritual ceremony. A few changes are necessary so as to be inoffensive to any religious belief.

An instance of this appears in the opening ceremonies as taken from I Peter:

Wherefore, laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings; if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious; to whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious; ye also as lively (changed to "living") stones, be ye built up a spiritual house (change to "are built up, etc.), an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. ("by Jesus Christ" stricken out to make acceptable to Hebrew and Moslem.)

Verse 3 is omitted entirely, having no connection with the ritual. Instead of continuing to quote from Peter, the next section jumps over to Isaiah 28:16:

Therefore thus saith the Lord God (changed to "Wherefore, also it is contained in the Scripture")

Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; he that believeth shall not make haste to pass it over. ("to pass it over" is stricken out in the ritual.)

And there are changes made in verse 7 of I Peter, 2:

Unto you therefore which believe he is precious (ritual reads "it is an honor") but unto them which be disobedient (ritual says "and even to them which be disobedient,"), the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the comer.

And jumping to verses 15-17 of the same chapter, we read:

For so is the will of God (the ritual says "Brethren, this is the will of God"), that with well doing, ye may put to silence ("may" is left out of the ritual), the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your liberty for a cloke (spelled cloak in ritual), of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King. (The ritual says: "Honor all men; love the brotherhood; fear God.")

The Scripture of the perambulations is taken from Ezekiel 44, verses 1, 2, 3, and 5, and there is no change in the ritual from that of the Scripture. These passages refer to the vision of Ezekiel, to understand which we must refer to Ezekiel 40 v. 2-3:

In the visions of God brought he me into the land of Israel, and set me upon a very high mountain ... and he brought me thither, and behold, there was a man whose appearance was like the appearance of brass ... and he stood in the gate (of the City of Jerusalem).

The "man" thereupon conducted him about the Temple giving information and instruction to Ezekiel, when, finally,

He brought me back the way of the gate of the outward sanctuary which looketh toward the east; and it was shut.

Then follows verses 2, 3, and 5, omitting 4, which has no connection.

We encounter in the ritual, the following:

what you give, give freely, for the Lord loves a cheerful giver.

The passage is taken from II Corinthians 9:7:

Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.

A passage from Ezekiel is twice used in the ritual (Ezekiel 44:5), where Ezekiel is told to listen carefully to all that has been said; this applies equally to the instruction being given the candidate:

Mark well, and behold with thine eyes, and hear with thine ears, all that I say unto thee concerning all the ordinances of the house of the Lord, and all the laws thereof, and mark well the entering in of the house with every going forth of the sanctuary.

In the Revelation of St. John the Divine appears a passage of importance to the Mark Master. It is in Revelation 2:17, and refers to the message to the churches:

To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he hath received it.

The white stone with the name written thereon is one of the principal pieces of furniture of a Mark Master lodge and its traditions and symbolism are carefully explained to each candidate. Not only did the "white stone" convey the name, but it was also the stone found necessary in completing the temple. Just so is the name essential for completing the spiritual temple.

And finally, we come to the beautiful parable of the vineyard, quoted exactly from Matthew 20:1-16. The quotation follows a conversation between Jesus and Peter, his disciple. The discussion is on the matter of everlasting life and the parable is used to impress upon Peter that whosoever seeks eternal life shall find it whether that search begins in youth, in manhood, or in age when one comes in "at the eleventh hour," "receiving as much as they who have borne the burden of the day."

How appropriately it is introduced into the Mark Master degree, only those who receive it, and study it, may know.

The closing passage of scripture is taken from Proverbs 3:1, and carries on the story of eternal life by calling attention to those things necessary to attain it.

Read it:

Forget not God's law; but let thine heart keep his commandments; for length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee.

Let not mercy and truth forsake thee; bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart: so shalt thou find favor and good understanding in the sight of God and man.

And what a fine theme on which to close a Masonic degree!


Why were the chisel and mallet chosen as the working tools of a Mark Master? What particular relationship do these tools have with the degree of Mark Master?

First, let us see what we are told about these implements:

The Mallet morally teaches us to correct irregularities, and to reduce man to a proper level; so that, by quiet deportment, he may, in the school of discipline, learn to be content.

What the Mallet is to the workmen, enlightened reason is to the passions; it curbs ambition, depresses envy, moderates anger, and encourages good dispositions; whence arises among good Freemasons, that comely order, Which nothing earthly gives, or can destroy; The soul's calm sunshine, and the heartfelt joy.

The Chisel morally demonstrates the advantages of discipline and education. The mind, like the diamond in its original state, is rude and unpolished; but as the effect of the Chisel on the external coat soon presents to view the latent beauties of the diamond, so education discovers the latent virtues of the mind, and draws them forth to range the large field of matter and space, to display the summit of human knowledge, our duty to God and to man.

A progressive study of Masonic working tools will show both a practical and a symbolic use of these instruments; this is the teaching of Freemasonry, and how well we absorb this teaching will decide how good a Freemason we are.

In the first place, their practical purpose is explained in the Mark Master lecture; but the candidate is not told that with these tools he can communicate with another brother, for it is with these instruments that he makes the Masonic cipher alphabet. It is with these instruments that he can place his individual mark upon each piece of work which he may complete for the building of the temple. And here for the first time he is taught individual responsibility. Heretofore he has been working for the combined interest of the human family; now he is taught that he has an individual responsibility, and that each piece of work which he presents has a distinct personal value; that his work must be square and true and that those who inspect will: through his mark, be able to detect imperfect work, or work presented by imposters.

But most important is the thought that each of us must perfect our own lives; that it is in our power to build a substantial structure or an imperfect one. Our lives are like blocks of stone which the sculptor, by striking off bits here and there, may form into a beautiful work of art, the value of which depends solely on the vision of the artist himself. The Chisel and Mallet are his instruments for producing his masterpiece. So, does the Mark Master, using his Chisel and Mallet as spiritual instruments, perfect his character by striking off all those vices and irregularities which mar a life, and reveal a perfect character, the finest gift one can offer to the Great Overseer.

In the lodge we are taught the value of each stone that goes into the temple, materially and spiritually. In the chapter we are taught that we are the architects of our own lives and that it is within our power to say whether that life be good or bad.

How important to us, as Freemasons, are the teachings of the Chisel and the Mallet which give us an insight into our duties and our possibilities!


William J. Hughan, the most famous of the English Masonic historians says of the Mark degree:

The antiquity of Mark Masonry cannot be doubted. Operatively considered and even speculatively, it has enjoyed special prominence for centuries; records of the custom being followed by speculative brethren, according to existing records, dating back to 1600, in which year, on the 8th day of June, "Ye principal warden and chief master of maisons, Wm. Schaw, master of work to ye Kingis Maistie", met members of the Lodge of Edinburgh (Now No. 1) at Holyrood House, at which meeting the Laird of Auchinleck was present, and attested the minutes of the assembly by his Mark, as did the operatives, in accordance with the Schaw Statutes of December 28, 1598, which provided "That the day of reassauying (receiving) of said fellow of craft or master be ord'lie buikit and his name and Mark insert in the said buik."

Another minute book of the same lodge contains a list of members in 1767, setting out after each name the date on which the member received the degree of R.A. The earliest date given is 1745.

Turning to America, we find a reference in a minute book of a lodge in Virginia of the degree being conferred in 1753.

Castells in his book "Organization of the Royal Arch Chapter Two Centuries Ago" says, in his opening chapter, that

"The question of the fons et origo of our Supreme Degree is a problem; but we claim that we have solved it, for we have shown in previous works that the Royal Arch is only a dilution of Kabbalism."

Let us see on what this claim is founded. He admits in his preface that he had only at his disposal "a few scraps of information, which are like the tiny bits of a jigsaw puzzle, most difficult to combine into a pictorial design," but he believes he has put them together in the right order. But do the scraps of information justify the conclusion at which he has arrived?

The Kabbala was a secret science of the Jewish Rabbis for the interpretation of the hidden meaning of the scriptures, claimed to be handed down by oral tradition.

In his chapter on the Kabbalistic Degrees, the author refers to an ancient work known as the Sepher-ha-Zohar, a book that appeared in Spain in the thirteenth century. The copies of this book (there are two or three still in existence) were in the manuscript of a professional copyist, who apparently had an earlier copy in his possession.

The subject matter is undoubtedly considerably older than the 13th century, but probably had been handed down by tradition and reduced to writing only in then comparatively recent times. It professes to be the work of one Simeon bin Jochai who lived in the first century A.D.

Speaking of the first word with which we of the R.A. are familiar, Simeon says,

"Now come and see the mystery of the Word. There are Three Degrees (in the word) and each Degree, exists by itself, and although the Three constitute One, they are closely united into One, and are inseparable from each other."

Simeon was discussing the word, and had explained that there were three ways of writing it:

  1. The simple four-lettered word, without points;
  2. The same four letters with certain vowels, taken from another sacred word;
  3. The same with the vowel points of still another sacred word.

From this Castells infers "that the unwritten word of Kabbalism. consisted of three particles, or syllables, each one being capable of standing by itself; and as it had a meaning of its own, it could be considered either singly or separately. The three syllables, however, formed one word, and were actually united and inseparable. This answers exactly to the Word which the R.A. Companions know of."

So far we may, perhaps, agree with Castells, but he goes further, and claims that "The statement of the Zohar implies that each part of the Sacred Word was communicated and shared piecemeal by the three who bore sway among the old time companions, and this was done by them as they passed successively from chair to chair, until the climax was reached when the whole Word became known."

He submits, therefore, that the passage refers to the Second Word with which we are familiar "which was the Masonic Word" of the seventeenth century.

I would like to be able to agree with Castells in this last deduction, but I am afraid he has built too much on very slender premises.

Be that as it may, he proves nothing. The first Word (except as to its correct pronunciation) is known to all the world, and has so been known for many centuries, so the possession of it by the R.A. does not indicate that it came from the Kabbalists. As to the second word, Castells' claim that it was possessed by the Kabbalists is entirely without foundation.

Further, there is more in our traditions than the knowledge of a word — the tradition as to the finding of what was lost. Even Castells does not suggest that the Kabbalists had a tradition of a loss of something important and its subsequent discovery. If it could be shown that they had, then the conclusion that our Order was a descendant of Kabbalism would be almost irrefutable.

Castells says

"the analysis of Kabbalism … leaves no room for doubt … Kabbalism in this country (England) degenerated and gave rise to Freemasonry…. Our views have now been before Masonic students for some years, and if there be any fallacy in them, let those who can disprove them."

The fallacy is obvious. He has based his views on insufficient data; the "tiny bits" of his "jigsaw puzzle" are too few and too small to warrant the picture he has built out of them.

No, we can trace the Royal Arch back with certainty to a few years before 1744 (say 1740), and the place, England. It is probably very much older, but there we must leave it. Some day, perhaps, some old manuscript may turn up which will give it still greater antiquity, but it is not likely.

The Royal Arch Mason — Fall 1972