Symbolism in the Three Degrees

by MasterMason
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This Prestonian Lecture for 1937 was written by Bro.The Rev. Joseph Johnson. P.A.G. Chaplain and shared with me by The Masonic Service Association of North America.



The whole trend of Masonic symbolism leaves no shadow of doubt with me that Freemasonry rests on God, lives in God, and that it can be made a powerful influence in leading Brethren both in thought and attitude towards God.  Every symbol and every phase of Masonic ritual from the first step the Initiate takes toward the east, right through to the point when he becomes a Master Mason, has reference to the Divine Being, without whom Freemasonry would have no real meaning.  In the reference of that second enquiry addressed to every candidate, viz: “In all cases of difficulty and danger, in whom do you put your trust?” we are called upon to acknowledge God—God the first truth and final reality—though it is not without significance, that in the introductory stages of a man’s admission into Masonry, God is described as the Great Architect of the Universe, which description fittingly synchronizes with the symbolism of the first Degree.  By implication and atmosphere, Masonry brings it adherents into the very presence of God, and my own personal judgement is that but for its spiritual basis, Freemasonry could never have survived and become the force it is today….

Every brother needs education in the mission and purpose of Freemasonry, which is to bind men together in one circle of love and service, and to ensure that, as a great moral force, it breaks down the barriers separating men from each other, thereby diffusing the spirit of benevolence and peace.  It cannot be too strongly stressed that Freemasonry is founded on the eternal principals of truth, dedicated to fraternity, equality, and charity as broad as the (human) race.  The antiquity of Masonry need not necessarily concern us.  The glory and charm of Freemasonry are not in its antiquity but in its high ideals and its noble principles—the principles of high character and upright conduct it enforces throughout its teaching.  Those privileged to come within the scope of Masonry’s mystic circle, are encouraged by its teaching to build on a trustworthy foundation and develop a staunch and stalwart manhood.

Masonic students have accustomed themselves to regard the Lodge as a symbol of the world and its rituals as the drama of man’s life.  The Lodge is one of the oldest shrines of humanity and the idea and art of Initiation date back to the earliest ages.  The Men’s House was the rallying centre of tribal society, the place where the novice was tried, taught and trained in the secret lore of the race.  The rites of those early days were designed to test men before entrusting to them the treasures, which had cost so much and must not be lost, and the crowning rite of initiation was a drama of the immortal life—life that defies death and continues through endless ages of the future.  Later, by some mystic insight, the art of initiation was linked with the art of building and, behind this blending of the two arts, was a recognition of the principle of law and order.  Thus it was that every Lodge came to be regarded as a symbol of the world, its floor the earth, its roof the heavens, and its ritual the drama of man’s life, showing the passage of the soul to Eternity.

The Preparation of the Candidate for Initiation has much significance as a symbol of birth, out of the dim sense of life, into a world of moral values and spiritual vision…

Masonry can be wonderfully helpful to men in finding their right niche, and the right application of the (Apprentice’s working tools) symbolizes this.  We have a wealth of symbolism in Masonry drawn from the art of building, also from the immortal tools and their remarkable traditions, and much of this symbolism points to the work of preparing the material fit for its place in the building.

Viewed by itself, the second, or what is more generally described as the Fellow-Craft Degree, is probably the least understood; and yet, when we remember that it is part of human allegory, of which the Entered Apprentice’s Degree is only the beginning and the Master Mason’s Degree the completion, it is not so difficult to comprehend, especially when we keep in mind that the Fellow-Craft Degree is as distinctly intellectual in its purpose and spirit as the Entered Apprentice’s degree is moral, and that the first part of the Fellow-Craft Degree is chiefly a reiteration of the moral teaching of the Entered Apprentice’s Degree.  In the Entered Apprentice’s Degree we are symbolically born out of darkness into the light of moral truth and duty, out of a merely physical into a spiritual world.  Symbolically, we enter into a new environment, as the child does at birth, with a new body of motive and law, taking vows to live by the highest standard of values; whereas, in the Fellow Craft Degree it is presumed that we are entering on an advanced stage of life, where we are face to face with serious labours and struggles, and the dominant note of the Degree is self-improvement.  In this Degree, its symbolism teaches us that virtue is always to be our primary consideration, and that, no knowledge, nor success purchased at the sacrifice of morals, honour or integrity, is of abiding value.  The pathway of strict rectitude and justice is emphasized as the only safe pathway.  The Fellow-Craft Degree also teaches that, as the Operative Mason, in building an upright structure, was compelled to adhere to the laws of architectural and building construction and to work rigidly by the (tools of that Degree), so, in the building of personal character, we must live and work in harmony with the moral principles which the working tools of the Second Degree symbolize.

Masonry having come down to us at least from the middle ages, a period in which trade guilds flourished, a time in which many of our great European medieval cathedrals were erected, when operative masonry was at the zenith of its power and at the heyday of its art, it is not difficult to discover side-lights it throws on some phases of the Fellow-Craft Degree.  For example, those guilds had three great divisions, viz; Apprentices, Journeymen and Masters.  Apprentices were those who  received instructions in their art, Journeymen were those who had completed their apprenticeship and moved from post to post to gain experience, and Masters were those who had become fully qualified to instruct their apprentices and give oversight and further counsel to Fellow Crafts.

In the Master Mason’s Degree we are symbolically brought into the presence of the Deity.  It is the Holy of Holies, the sublimest Degree in Freemasonry.  The allusions of this Degree are not only to the inner chamber of King Solomon’s Temple but to the inner chamber of each Brother’s life, calling upon him to make it a fit dwelling place for Deity.  King Solomon’s Temple was extremely sacred to the ancient Jew; his veneration for the Temple was and always has been remarkable.  This explains in some measure the aptness of the Temple as a figure of speech, in symbolizing the human body as a dwelling place of Deity.

Some of the symbols of the Master Mason’s Degree are common to all three Degrees in Craft Masonry, so the briefest reference only is necessary to those of the Master Mason’s Degree.  A few of the symbols common to all the Degrees however, seem to develop an increasingly serious and deeper meaning as we pass from one Degree to another.  In the Entered Apprentice’s Degree as well as in that of the Fellow Craft, the Lodge symbolizes the world where men labour in useful avocations and in the acquisition of knowledge, wisdom and virtue; but in the Master Mason’s Degree, it represents the Sanctum Sanctorum of King Solomon’s Temple, a symbol of Heaven.  Nothing common nor unclean was allowed to enter therein, and it was there that the visible presence of Deity was said to dwell between the Cherubim.  In the Master Mason’s Degree we have our attention symbolically and solemnly directed to death and the future life; also the deeper symbolism of this Degree leads us in thought to the sacred chamber of that spiritual temple of self, and we are entreated to make it a fit dwelling place for Deity.  It is worthy of note that whilst Light in the Entered-Apprentice and Fellow-Craft Degrees symbolizes the acquisition of human knowledge and virtue, in the Master Mason’s Degree it symbolizes the revelation of Divine truth in the life that is to come.

The Third Degree unites men by the five mystic points of fellowship, binding them in a bond of fraternal fellowship and brotherly love, and in a vivid manner, portrays the darkness of death, and the obscurity of the grave, as the forerunner of the larger and fuller life beyond.  In no uncertain way this Degree teaches us immortality, not by means of argument but by the presentation of a ceremonial picture.

In that great drama of the ceremony of Raising, we are shown the tragedy of life in its most dismal hour and the forces of evil cunningly tempting the soul to treachery.  We are shown also in that ceremony, a noble and true man smitten in the moment of his loftiest service to man.  It is a picture so true to the bitter and old reality of this dark world that it makes the soul shudder.  Then out of the shadow, there rises like a beautiful star, that in man, which is most akin to God—his love of truth, his loyalty to the ideal, and his willingness to go down into the night of death, if only virtue may live and shine like a flame of fire in the evening sky.  Whilst Freemasonry does not exact a declaration of belief in the immortality of the soul as a prerequisite to admission into its fellowship, yet it undoubtedly teaches this doctrine most impressively.

In conclusion, therefore, I would remind you that you and I are only here for an allotted period of time.  If Freemasonry is what we believe it to be, we ought to be better men for our association with it.  In a short while, and the wisest of us know not how soon, we shall come to the fatal threshold where the philosopher ceases to be wise and the song of the poet is silent, where Dives bids farewell to his millions and Lazarus to his beggary, where the poor man is rich as the richest and the rich man is as poor as the poorest, where the strongest man has no supremacy and the weakest needs no defence, where the proud man surrenders his dignities and the worldling his pleasures, and where the creditor loses his usury and the debtor is acquitted of his obligation.   We shall come then face to face with the record of our thoughts, words and actions by the most High, Who will reward or punish, as we have obeyed or disregarded His Divine commands.  Let us therefore renew our dedication to the high ideals of our Order and practice everywhere—in the home, in social as well as public life, in business and every other sphere, the duties we have been taught in Masonry, and thereby prove to the world the happy and beneficial effects of our ancient and honourable Institution.



I find it incredible that this article was written when I was but three years old, and it is as applicable to us all in today’s society as it was then. This simply adds to my personal opinion that there is really nothing new in Freemasonry, only the next persons’ opinion on same. It also supports the writers comment that

Freemasonry has lasted all these years due to its SOLID Foundations.



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