By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
A business tycoon I knew had received limited schooling. In time he received honorary degrees from several places. He then told me, “I got my education by degrees”. The Freemason likewise gets an education by degrees, but both the education and the degrees take a quite different form and they cannot be conferred without a course of studies.
The three craft degrees did not develop at the same time. First, about 1300, was probably the Second or Fellow Craft Degree; the original name was Fellow of Craft – another name was journeyman or day worker (from French “jour”, a day). There was no lower degree, since apprentices were dependent on their masters, living in the master’s house and taking years to learn the trade. There was no higher degree, since a Fellow of Craft was qualified to be a Master. The Entered Apprentice Degree arose around 1500, reflecting the enhanced status of apprentices. The Third Degree arrived after the operative period. It is possibly the creation of the more politically motivated amongst the 18th century speculatives.
The Third Degree completed the basic structure of modern craft Freemasonry. Harry Carr acknowledges in his essays, “The Freemason at Work”, 1977 (page 169) that the last quarter of the 18th century was “the most fruitful period” in the development of Masonic ritual. Whatever the origins of the Third Degree it enabled the aspiring Freemason to move through three levels of thought and avowal – from the dawning interest of an Entered Apprentice through the sober commitment to hard work of the Fellow Craft to the realism of the Master Mason who knows that difficulties can be overcome.
Indicating its more recent arrival, the Third Degree ritual seems the most sophisticated in language and philosophy. All three degrees, however, remained religious, working “to the honour and glory of (God’s) Holy Name”, invoking Divine blessing on their undertakings, and reading the Scriptures. The Scriptural passages varied, and increasingly were limited to the Old Testament (favourite choices were Gen. 4:22, Judges 12:5-6, Ruth 2:19, I Kings 7:21, Amos 7:7, Psalm 133, Eccl. 12 and II Chron. 6; where New Testament readings were retained they were often Matt. 22:39, John 1:1 and II Peter).
Masons were part of a tradition of craftsmen’s guilds. Ancient cultures ranging from India to Egypt had their trade groups. In the case of the Jews, the different groups had their own synagogues or sections of synagogues: Jerusalem, for instance, had its Synagogue of the Copper Workers. The Muslims may have introduced an intellectual element into the craft guilds, encouraging members to analyse and articulate their occupational knowledge. Masons were more mobile than other groups, since they were not limited to any one area but could take their skills where needed, with special ways to recognise each other. With the industrial and social changes all the guilds declined, but Masons possibly even more than others, for reasons given in a separate chapter. In order to survive, their guilds must have seen the need to accept honorary members who studied and promoted the craft lore without engaging in the operative work. Hence the emergence of Speculative Freemasonry and the non-emergence of what might have been, for example, Speculative Copper-Working.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.
Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.