THE ORIGIN OF THE THIRD OR MASTER MASON’S DEGREE – NEW EVIDENCE
Robert L D Cooper, PM Curator Lodge Sir Robert Moray, No.1641.
As we are now all aware there are written records from Lodges in Scotland from as early as 1598 and there is evidence from non-Lodge sources there were Lodges functioning (but not recording anything in writing) as early as 1481. These Lodges were stonemasons’ lodges but many have a continuous exist to this day. The histories of these early Lodges have previously been posted on this page.
In Masonic circles it is generally accepted that the third or Masters Mason’s degree was ‘invented’ in London, England, during the early part of the 1720’s. There are several reasons for this assumption. Firstly, in the ‘The Constitutions of the Free Masons’ published in London in 1723, makes reference to how the affairs of Grand Lodge are to be conducted. Article XIII (page 61) states: ‘Apprentices must be admitted Masters and Fellow-Crafts only here…’. This led many to believe that in addition to the [Entered] Apprentice degree there were two others that of Fellow Craft and Master Mason.
However as we know in Scotland from the earliest written rituals (the Edinburgh Register House MS (1696), the Haughfoot Fragment (1702) the Airlie MS (1705) and the Chetwode Crawley MS (c.1710) MSS)) the terms Fellow Craft and Master Mason were inter-changeable. In other words these were two terms for the same degree.
Because of the literal interpretation of the rather cryptic (some would say nonsensical) reference to Fellow Craft and Master Mason in 1723 it became ‘fact’ that there were three degrees of Freemasonry. The earlier Scottish rituals were not discovered until much later and could not therefore be used to correct this ‘fact’ that became embedded in Masonic knowledge.
To make matters worse the earliest reference to the conferral of a third degree was also said to have taken place in London in 1725 but not in a Lodge but in a musical society (‘Philo-Musicae et Architecturae Societas Appolloni’). The reference to the Fellow Craft and Master Mason’s was like the reference in the Constitutions of two years earlier taken literally. One error (a ‘fact’) served to confirm the same error as ‘fact’. Masonic historians are now well aware of those errors but they have become so embedded in the lore of the Craft that they are repeated in the most knowledgeable and respected sources of the history of Freemasonry: Coil’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry reprinted as recently as 1996, is the supreme example.
What therefore are the ‘facts’ (not errors masquerading as facts!) regarding the Fellow Craft or Master’s degree. First and foremost we now know far more about the ritual used by stonemasons’ lodges before any Grand Lodge existed and as we know these rituals were all Scottish, all quite similar in content but unknown until relatively recently. The first of the three was not discovered until 1930 and the most recent, the Airlie MS was accidentally discovered a mere eight years ago. Attempting to use these recent documents to overturn almost 300 years of ‘fact’ is an uphill struggle. That said, the attempt should be made and tonight I wish to bring to the attention of the brethren two pieces of evidence that ought, at the very least, cause every respectable Masonic historian to reconsider where and when the Master Mason’s degree originated.
The first piece of evidence is fairly well known but I wish to ‘tease out’ the implications of the evidence in a way that has not been done before. The effect is I believe quite profound. This piece of evidence is to be found in the Minute Books of the Lodge of Dunbarton, No.18, (NOT a stonemasons’ Lodge but a recognisably modern Speculative Masonic Lodge). I will quote the entries in full:
‘At the meeting of the Lodge of Dunbritton [Dunbarton] the 29th day of January 1726 the which day there where present ‘John Hamilton, Grand Master, accompanied with seven Master Masons, six Fellows of Craft and three entered apprentices’
The Minute of the next meeting reads: ‘25th March 1726 – the said day Gabriel Porterfield by unanimous consent of the Masters admitted and received a Master of the Fraternity’.
Gabriel Porterfield was named in the Minute of 29 January a being a Fellow of Craft and on 25 March was admitted and received a Master of the Fraternity.
This clearly shows that in 1726 in Scotland there were three degrees being conferred within Lodges.
BUT there is a much greater implication than just that irrefutable fact – an indisputable written fact and concerns the first Minute mentioned – 29 January 1726. I repeat it again:
‘At the meeting of the Lodge of Dunbritton the 29th day of January 1726 the which day there where present ‘John Hamilton, Grand Master, accompanied with seven Master Masons, six Fellows of Craft and three entered apprentices’
The enormous significance of this is that in January 1726 there were eight members of a Scottish Lodge who were in the possession of the Master Mason’s degree and that they conferred that degree on a Fellow of Craft.
Where, when and how these eight Scottish Freemasons received the Third Degree before it even existed in England is the intriguing part but sadly we are unlikely ever to know because the Minutes only commence at that time. Our best hope is that Minute Books of another, earlier, Lodge reveal to us that it had invented or developed the third degree.
It may strike you as strange to suggest that the third degree was invented or developed in SCOTLAND but there are two reasons why I can make such a claim. The first comes from the earliest rituals in the world, previously mentioned – ERH (1696), Airlie (1705) and CC (c.1710) MSS. At the very end of the Fellow Craft part of these rituals the candidate is asked:
Q ‘Are to a Fellow of Craft?’
Q How many points of Fellowship are there?
A Five, viz: We should all know what they are and so I shall not repeat them here.
The FPOF were therefore an essential part of the second or Fellow of Craft degree – so important in fact that the candidate had to be able to repeat them exactly before he would be accepted a TRUE mason. Where do we find the FPOF today? In the third, or Master Mason’s, degree. Sometime between 1710 (and earlier) part of the Scottish second degree was removed and made part of the third or Master Mason’s degree.
I now come to an artefact, the importance of which has never been fully appreciated before now:
A large brass Square and Compasses (43.7 cm (17.2 inches) wide X (26.5 cm) 10.4 high and weighing slightly more than two pounds (almost one kilogramme).
Inscribed on the arms of the square is the following:
‘This square and compass was gifted to the Lodge of Lanark by’ (the text is interrupted by the insertion of an heraldic shield bearing three boars’ heads) ‘Mr’ a monogram is engraved immediately after ‘Mr’ and the inscription continues ‘Brother to the Laird of Cleghorn’.
After consulting with the Lord Lyon (http://www.lyon-court.com/lordlyon/215.180.html) he has confirmed that this is a Scottish heraldic device and monogram and are those of John Lockhart 13 January 1684 – 26 February 1766.
NOTE the words: This square and compass in other words it was presented to the Lodge a single piece ‘This’ Square and Compass.
However, there remain two more revealing things about this object. Firstly not that the points of the compass are jointed in such a way so that either point, can be concealed behind the arms of the square, or one (or other) point behind one arm of the square or that both points of the compass can be hidden behind both arms of the square. In other words this artefact can be used to position the points of the compass for any of the modern three degrees.
Why should I made such a fuss? – simply because the artefact is dated 1714.