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beyond the northeast corner

the three degrees: A Progressive science


Richard h. sands


MASONRY IS A PROGRESSIVE SCIENCE in several senses. In the first place, it comprises a series of degrees, admission to each being dependent not only on approval of the brethren, but also on having received certain previous degrees; one progresses from one degree to the next. Secondly, there is a continuing flow and expansion of central ideas and ideals as one moves from degree to degree; each degree reveals progressively more of the overall Masonic idea and tradition. Thirdly, within the Floor cloth ca. 1764   interior structure  common  to our degrees, progressive changes occur which are significant in teaching the brethren (not just the candidate) the ideas being presented.

The degrees of Masonry represent a man’s journey through life (e.g., youth, manhood and age).  The Entered Apprentice Degree represents the physical side of man … yet to be tempered by enhancing his mind in the Fellowcraft Degree and finally, spiritually, in the Master Mason Degree. In a way, the Masonic ritual represents the rebirth of man.  He begins in a state of darkness, and only through the aid of another can he begin to progress.  He follows the route of the sun (from East to West) and, through preparation, begins to educate himself for the work God and man have laid out for him.

The idea of progressive grades, or degrees, within a restricted or private society is at least as old as organized religion. Passing through the grades established rank, privilege, and prestige. The underlying objective was, however, control of knowledge. In the open society today there is increasing pressure against secrecy or control of knowledge in any form. Let us admit that, in the past, there has been some over-emphasis on the secrecy of Masonry. Nevertheless, in the human situation, some restriction of knowledge is a necessity for man's own good. The confidential relation between doctor and patient is morally inviolable. There must be some secrecy in government for the peace, good order, and well-being of society; e.g., to protect the state, to guard against crime, to prevent exposure of plans for contingency and disaster which every good government must make, to negotiate sensitive issues, and, at times when decisions are being made, to avoid over‑reaction on the part of the public to partially formulated plans which may never mature.

The progression of Masonic degrees is a much simpler matter. In the operative Masons' Guilds of the middle ages, there were apprentices and established members or fellows. As accepted Masonry was being born there was almost certainly only one degree. It probably contained reference to the two great pillars of King Solomon’s Temple. From this, the Entered Apprentice degree was divided out. The third degree, introduced later, also borrowed slightly from the earlier ceremony, although it contains much that is new. If this reconstruction is correct, our second degree has evidently lost much of its original substance. But a progression of degrees was established and was later extended throughout the entire present Masonic system.

The central theme of our Craft degrees is nothing less than the whole of human life and existence. In the first degree we receive a remarkable introduction to Masonry and to Masonic knowledge. We are confronted with our common humanity, with our humanness, with both the limitations of and the essential need for material things, with the necessity for a moral society under the Grand Architect of the Universe, and so we move from darkness towards the light. In the second degree, we recognize that we are in a world of nature and science. That some of the presentation is rudimentary or antiquated by present standards is understandable when the date of its formulation is considered. The necessity is that of moving individually with continuing perseverance from ignorance toward knowledge. In the third degree, we become acutely aware of our personal limits in the flow of time. We recognize that the most important of all human studies is a knowledge, in the fullest sense, of oneself, and we look with hope through death toward immortality.

These three progressions are reflected in many of the features common to our degrees, and appear in the details of our ceremonies in a manner which is highly instructive.

Before Entering the Lodge for the Degree

Examination. There are four examinations. The first is unrehearsed and occurs before initiation. For the candidate, it verifies that he comes of his own free-will and accord, that he comes with a favorable opinion of the order, that he has a desire for knowledge and a wish to be of service to his fellowman and that he will cheerfully conform to all the ancient established usages and customs of the fraternity. Finally, that he places his trust in God. Each Mason has answered the first question in the affirmative. The other questions are usually answered similarly, but it is an excellent sign when the candidate goes beyond this, or probes for what is meant before answering. A thoughtful answer is always best.

By contrast, the remaining examinations have been rehearsed. If (unfortunately, only if) the candidate has thought about, or questioned the reason for the answers, he has recognized an important method of Masonic instruction, and has come to understand some part of what the previous degree was all about. It is in this sense that they are progressive.

These examinations are also a means by which Masonic status may be established when visiting a strange lodge. Some jurisdictions have a much more detailed and expanded examination than our jurisdiction requires. If you visit a lodge elsewhere you may be asked a question which is new to you. The situation is easily met by explaining what was done in your own lodge.

Preparation. The preparation for the degrees is also progressive. A partial explanation of your preparation for initiation was given to you in the first part of the lecture. You demonstrated symbolically that you were unarmed and unguarded, that you had complete confidence in your brethren-to-be, and, to quote words used in another jurisdiction, "that you were no impostor". Your preparation let you demonstrate humility; at the same time the ancient custom of slipping off the shoe in a holy place was observed. You recognized and realized that wealth was not a proper criterion for Masonic admission or advancement and that secrecy was respected until Masonic ties were established.

The preparation for the second degree is "in a manner somewhat similar" to that of the previous one. This is a natural result of their origin as a single degree. Preparation for the third degree is a combination, not a variation. Perhaps the meaning is that, as we contemplate futurity, we need everything that we have learned before.

From Admission Until the Approach to the Altar

Admission and Reception. Your admission in each degree was by permission of the Worshipful Master, after he was assured that you met the required conditions. At your first admission these included the formal requirements of application, ballot, and preparation but, no less, the assurance that you came freely and voluntarily, that you were of mature age, and that there were witnesses to your good character. These conditions remained inferred in subsequent admissions, and to them was added your personal hope and desire for advancement in Masonic knowledge.

Your reception was always instructive of the degree to be conferred. First, Masonic secrecy is to be protected but is essentially a thing of conscience. Secondly, self-controlled virtue is of great importance throughout the whole human situation, and not least so among Masons. Thirdly, whenever we act as Masons, it is essential that morality and brotherly love co-exist with virtue.

Invocation. Read the three invocations which are printed in your Ritual. Consider the meaning for yourself. You will note that these prayers and the charges given at the end of each of our degrees are printed and given to all Masons. Obviously they are in no sense Masonic secrets.  Notice the progression in the charges.

Circumambulation. Your travel around the lodge symbolizes that just as life is a journey so is its counterpart, Masonry, a journey. We progress through life's happenings, through differing situations, to new places, finding out things we did not know before, pressing forward with many questions as yet unanswered, with many problems as yet unresolved. We need to be reminded of Aldous Huxley's definition of experience. "Now experience is not a matter of having actually swum the Hellespont, or danced with the dervishes, or slept in a doss‑house. It is a matter of sensibility and intuition, of seeing and hearing the significant things, of paying attention at the right moments, of understanding and coordinating. Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him." That is why our symbol is a moving symbol. Life and Masonry are moving and each of us moves in life and in Masonry also.

In each degree we first repeat and then extend our symbolic journey. In each successive degree we review some previous happenings and symbolically prepare for what is at the time just over the horizon. Thus we progress and thus we establish a basis for future action.

Approach to the Altar. The progress and development of our central theme is very strongly symbolized in our approach to the Masonic obligation. In the first degree, we take a single step on our weaker side. Our steps, while still in darkness, are uneven and few. Yet they convey a message, perhaps intuitive, but anticipated from Light itself, that the Supreme Being embraces something of an undivided threefold action. This fact has been recognized outside the context of the Christian teaching. Within the Divine Unity there is Will or Power which creates. Love which with Wisdom directs Power to the Good, and Intelligent Activity by which created things become vibrant and alive. Again, within the progressive flow of time, the Unity functions by the activities of Creation or Formation, of Dissolution or Destruction of the obsolete, of Renewal or Regeneration to start afresh at a higher level. We use differing terms for the Supreme Being in our degrees. Each of us must, individually, seek the Light. Each of us must, individually, formulate answers for himself. There is nothing dogmatic in any of this. The symbol is there for our consideration, reflection, and guidance.

In the Second Degree our two steps are regular because order is essential to any knowledge of nature and science. The universe is of a stuff we call "cosmos" (the Greek word for "order"), never a purposeless, incomprehensible chaos.

In the Third Degree we add one more step and carefully distinguish between those which recognize our life-span and those, going directly forward, which symbolize our fondest hope of that which is beyond the limits of our own body. Our steps also comprise a "perfect" number, as is proper if we would approach the Most High.

At the Altar

The Obligation. The position of the candidate at the altar reflects the character of each degree. Review your own experience and recognize how some of our signs are derived from what occurred at the altar. Consider the limitations of what you were able to see as you sought (without fully recognizing it at the time) first light, second knowledge, and third hope.

Each Obligation involves a promise of secrecy, an undertaking of new duties, a reference to a penalty, and a solemn act of Obligation. The objective of secrecy has been dealt with above. New duties and responsibilities are a proper result of accomplishment. The best reward for success is increased opportunity for service. The best consequence from Masonic attainment is an increased recognition of our responsibilities to our brethren and to mankind.

The traditional penalties are part of our Masonic secrets. It must be remembered that they come from a bygone age when treatment of malefactors was very different from that of today. In the early years of the premier Grand Lodge physical characteristics of three penalties not unlike those used today were included, in various combinations, and sometimes likewise united with other penalties, in the Obligations used in Masonic ceremony. This fact is amply documented in British and French monitors and exposures of the period 1725‑1750 (see Knoop-­Jones‑Hamer, Early Masonic Catechisms, pages 100, 126, 156, 178, 198; Carr, Early French Exposures, pages 20‑21, 69, 111, 213, 268‑269, 300, 432). It provides additional proof that our present system evolved from a single original degree. The detail of the traditional penalties must not be thought of as a hodge‑podge designed to frighten the candidate. The particulars have their origin in ancient methods of punishing traitors and other criminals so vile as to have no survival value in human society, nor even in human memory.

The act of solemn Obligation was taken on the Volume of the Sacred Law, that is to say, on sacred writings which the candidate himself believes to contain expressions of the will of his Supreme Being. For the Christian this will be the Bible; for the Jew, the Torah; for the Moslem, the Koran. By this means, the candidate binds himself in the most solemn manner possible. In our jurisdiction the Book is open at a text appropriate to the degree. The presence of the Supreme Being is recognized under differing appellations, successively, the Grand Architect of the Universe, emphasizing the cosmic source of awareness, comprehension, and light and finally, Oh Lord My God, indicating the cosmic omnipotence, at once everlasting, transcendent, yet imminent, by Whom and in Whom we live and move and have our being.

The Great Lights. In our lodges the great lights are always present, always together on our altar in the center. They are there whether the candidate sees them or not. They are a continuing witness to the spiritual content of Masonry. They are symbols of the common problems of mankind, of the scope of the universe, and of a Divine message. All the brethren know that they are always there.

The Volume of the Sacred Law must be open so long as the lodge is at work. In some English lodges it is opened at random. In the present-day English Emulation Ritual the same passage is exposed to view for all degrees: 2 Chronicles 6, Solomon's prayer at the consecration of the Temple. At various times and in sundry workings of the three degrees, certain other specific passages have been designated for this purpose. They include Genesis 4:22 (the first metal worker); Judges 12:6 (the slaughter of the Ephraimites); Ruth 2:19 (the great grandfather of David); Ruth 4:7 (on plucking off the shoe); 1 Kings 7:21 (the two great pillars); Psalm 133 ("Behold, how good . . . it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!"); Ecclesiastes 12 ("Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth"); Amos 7:7 ("Behold, the Lord stood upon a wall . . . with a plumbline in his hand"); John 1:1 ("In the beginning was the Word"); and 2 Peter 1:5‑7 ("Add to your faith virtue, . . . knowledge, . . . brotherly kindness, . . . charity").

In the Grand Lodge of Michigan, the Volume of the Sacred Law is opened at a different passage for each degree—one which has reference to the ceremony of the degree. By this we are reminded that the Book is applicable to many differing situations in life. The position of the lesser lights also remains the same for the instruction of the candidate.

After Leaving the Altar

The Secrets. Review for yourself the sequence of steps and grips as they were explained to you in successive degrees.

The Apron and the Apron Charge. The presentation of an apron at an appropriate part of the ceremony, to serve as a distinguishing mark of a Mason, is universal. The method of wearing the apron, and the modifications in the apron from degree to degree, are not uniform between jurisdictions. You will see several variations when visitors enter your lodge, and when you visit lodges other than your own. In each case a progressive sequence is involved. You may find an opportunity to enquire courteously about the details of and reasons for a system other than your own.

The investiture with the apron is by authority of the Worshipful Master, delegated to the Senior Warden after the former has presented the candidate with it. We emphasize the presentation in the first degree. Some jurisdic­tions develop the presentation in the third degree more fully. There is, as expected, a progressive sequence, each presentation adding to the preceding. We stress, first, the antiquity and honor of the apron, the necessity for harmony within the lodge, and the constant admonition it carries to those who wear it. Subsequent presentations recognize the wider and widening horizon of knowledge to which we are directed, and our duty to assist and instruct our brethren according to our knowledge and ability.

The Working Tools. In a sense the Working Tools too are progressive, though the progressive nature of their sequence is not immediately obvious. We are accepted and not operative Masons. Nevertheless ideas must mature into action before they become complete. The working tools with which we are presented apply not only to our morals, but to our action, our living, as well.

Initially we are given novice's tools, for preparation of the work. A gauge for measurement reminds us that work has size and dimensions, that it fits into the order of things. A striking instrument follows by which we wield force with our hands.

On a second occasion, we are given journeyman's tools, for inspection or testing while the work is in progress. First, we must test the form. Does it belong in its surroundings? Then we must check its suitability. Does it level with its objectives? Finally, we must make sure of its uprightness. Does it avoid the extremes and excesses which are so effectively explained during the presentation?

On still another occasion we are presented with all of the tools of Masonry but especially the Trowel.  The third and last is to encompass the whole—a reminder that, by recognizing the limits as well as the possibilities of our work, we may unite art, skill, and labor to erect a structure worthy of the builder.

May we, indeed, so unite and build.

The Trestle or Tracing Boards

From an early period it was the custom at each meeting of Freemasons to draw diagrams on the floor, including an outline of the holy part of the lodge, certain lines to guide the candidate, and some symbols. Naturally these also differed from degree to degree. In those days the task of preparing, or "forming", the lodge required considerable time and skill. When the brethren were called from labor to refreshment the drawings would be rubbed or scrubbed out. As late as 1811 in England the tyler's equipment sometimes included a mop and pail for this purpose.

The drawings were done with chalk, charcoal, and clay, which therefore were part of the regular equipment of the lodge. A hidden significance was seen in them, and they were said to symbolize the qualifications of the Entered Apprentice’s servitude to the Master, namely Freedom, Fervency, and Zeal. The symbolism is still retained in our jurisdiction, where the following explanation is given: "…there was nothing more free than chalk, which upon the slightest touch leaves a trace behind, nothing more fervent than charcoal to which when well lighted most obdurate metals will yield, nothing more zealous than clay or our mother earth, which is constantly employed for man’s use and is continually reminding us that as from it we came, so to it we must as surely return.”

As early as 1726 these floor drawings were supplemented by colored tapes nailed to the floor. Even so, the process of preparing the lodge must have been slow and inconvenient; we know that sometimes the work of the meeting had to be deferred, because the lodge had been formed in the wrong degree, and there was not time to redo it properly. We can also readily imagine how the innkeeper in whose establishment meetings were held would not be enthusiastic about the writing, washing, and hammering on his floors.

From 1733 on we find mentions of a substitute, in the form of ready-made floor-cloths, one for each degree, on which designs were permanently painted. (See, for example, the picture at the beginning of this chapter.) At first this innovation was greeted with hostility, on the grounds that it increased the risk of disclosure. Even after the practice came to be accepted there were still drawbacks. The floor-cloths were hardly durable enough to serve as satisfactory carpets, and it soon became normal to rescue them from the floor and to display them on the wall or on a table.

They are still found in lodges, although they have been reduced drastically in size, and their original function as a floor covering is no longer remembered. In our and some other parts of the world they are called trestle-boards, apparently from the trestle tables on which they were formerly set. In other jurisdictions they are known as tracing boards - the same name as the first of the immovable jewels - to remind us that they are descended from the drawings made under the direction of the Worshipful Master before the work of the lodge began.

The custom of having a permanent diagram for each degree on a tracing board was well established in England by 1800. There is no such thing as an authorized design, and various artists prepared their own individual renderings, which achieved a greater or lesser degree of currency. Those which are most commonly used in the Province of Ontario are copies of a set made originally by the English miniaturist and draftsman John Harris (about 1791‑1873). His designs came to be associated with the Emulation Lodge of Improvement, which is used in the Grand Lodge of Canada in the Province of Ontario, for example. That work still includes explanations of two of the tracing boards, given in the Entered Apprentice degree, and in the Fellow Craft degree.

There is as well a trestle board for the Master Mason Degree, which hangs on the wall of many lodges; in fact a form of it, known as the Master’s Carpet, is still used as a floor-cloth in part of the ceremony. The lecture on it includes the Three Steps, the Pot of Incense, the Beehive, the Book of Constitutions, the Sword, the All-seeing Eye, the Anchor and the Ark, the 47th Problem of Euclid, the Hour-glass, the Scythe and the Setting Maul, Spade and Coffin.

Other symbols often appearing on the chart are the mason's square, the Working Tools of the degree, the Tools with which Hiram Abiff was slain, and the entrance to the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Temple with its veil drawn aside. In the Province of Ontario the figures 5‑5‑5 at the East, South, and North allude to the three Fellow Craft lodges. On the name plate just above the center of the chart are written certain characters in an unfamiliar alphabet, often wrongly described as "Hebrew". In reality they belong to the so-called "Harris code", named after the artist who is mentioned above.

In any event, if you are ever in Ontario for a degree, you can ask the Officers.


After this preliminary survey of those features which are common to all three Masonic degrees, we are the better enabled to distinguish and appreciate the connection of our whole system, and the relative dependence of its several parts. Let us now proceed to look at each degree more closely, repeating certain details, enlarging on others, and in general explaining what may be obscure. By this means we may hope to discover the particular lesson of each degree.

Selected References

T.O. Haunch, "Tracing Boards: Their Development and their Designers", A.Q.C., volume 75, 1962, pages 182‑203.

Bernard E. Jones, Freemasons' Guide and Compendium, revised edition,George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., London 1957.

"Bible Openings", A.Q.C., volume 77, 1964, pages 299‑300.

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