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E.4 The Craft Degrees

Masonic history cannot tell us how the degrees came in existence, nor their content, or how many there were at the beginning of the eighteenth century. It is generally agreed that two degrees were worked in 1723, and perhaps even before, but we do not know how it went from two to three. Initially there were not many lodges and most of them were isolated in the country. These lodges were completely independent, and they did what they thought was the best for them. Some lodges inside and outside the 1717 Grand Lodge organisation did not adopt the Third Degree until the 1750’s. It must be remembered that the Grand Lodge was not formed to control the ritual followed by all the lodges in England but, mainly, as a rallying point for the London and Westminster lodges. This explains why the lodges outside London -and some inside- continued their independent existence as before with their own ritual.

The word “degree” appears in some medieval manuscripts of the mason Craft, but it does not mean that the old operative lodges, or even the early speculative ones, used the word in the same way as we do to day. It is not even certain that it was used in the present sense in the 1723 Constitutions, although some texts of 1730 do. At the time of Elias Ashmole, there were at most two degrees, and this lasted probably until the first Grand Lodge was formed in 1717, although some individual lodges could have worked three. This, we will assume to be true.

If we assume that initially there were two degrees, then the first one, or Initiate’s Degree, included both our present Entered Apprentice and Fellowcraft Degrees, even if the candidate initiated in this degree was an Apprentice. He was not a Fellowcraft until he was “raised” or “passed” to the next degree, the content of which varied from lodge to lodge. This second degree must then correspond to our present time Third Degree, at least in name if not in content. In summary, we can say that 1723, when the Anderson’s Constitutions were written, there were only two degrees, that is the Apprentice Degree and the Fellow or Fellowcraft Degree. This second degree, in early speculative English Masonry, was the highest grade a Brother could reach, and it allowed him to become Warden, Master, Grand Warden, or Grand Master. This second degree, for many years after 1717, could only be given by the Grand Lodge and not by the ordinary, private lodges. In other words, the Grand Lodge controlled who could become a Lodge Master.

As we have seen, initially the Craft was working two degrees, and we do not know how things changed to arrive to the present three degrees. The correlation between the old two-degree system and the actual three degrees is unknown, and left to the imagination of the experts. For instance, we do not know if the present day third degree was already included in the initial two, or if it is a new one. If it is a new one, it must have been introduced about the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. It is easier to believe that the old first degree is the base for the present first and second degree, and that the old second degree is the foundation for the actual third degree. Unfortunately these are only assumptions and no historical evidences allow us to know the truth.

What is certain is that about 1730 most lodges under the Grand Lodge worked the three-degree system. Most probably, there was not a brutal change from the two degrees system to the three degrees’, but a gradual awakening to the three degrees system with the third one linked to the Hiramic legend. As a kind of evidence, it must be recorded that in the early eighteenth century the qualification requested to become Master of a Lodge was that the candidate had to be a Fellowcraft. This shows that only two degrees existed at that time, and that the third one, with a completely new content, was created later on. Even the present day Constitutions state that the possession of the Fellowcraft degree qualifies a Brother for the chair of Master of the Lodge and Warden. However in practice these days, only Third Degree Masons are elected to the office of Master of their Lodge, even if the rules have not been changed or adapted at the new situation.

It is true that as far back as 1711 three levels of Brethren were known in some lodges: Entered Apprentices, Fellowcrafts and Masters each with their own secrets. Some documents dated 1726 (for instance the Graham MS) imply that a certain form of third degree existed already during the seventeenth century. From 1726/1727 the mentions of the existence of the third degree are recorded in the minutes of many lodges. In conclusion, it must be admitted that by 1730 many lodges worked the three-degree system, while some others only knew two degrees. However, at that time, the third or Hiramic degree did not improve the qualifications of the Masons who went through it, since it was not requested to fill the high offices in the lodges, or even in the Grand Lodge. The three-degree system is thought to have been worked in France in 1731, in Scotland in 1735, and in Sweden in 1737.

In early speculative Masonry the senior Fellow present was often acting as the Master of the Lodge. Later on, a Fellow was elected Master of the lodge for a limited period of a few months or one year. There was no special ceremony or transmission of secrets until about 1750 when the “Antients” alone introduced the installation ceremony that required the presence of Past Masters. The “Antients” went as far as saying that the installation was an old ceremony that had been abandoned by the “Moderns” in favour of a much simpler one.

To “install” means to put a person in a seat or a chair, and the word was first used in Masonry in the Constitutions of 1723. It is only used in connection with the Master of the Lodge when he is put into the chair, and not with the other officers who are clothed with insignia of their office (the column and gavel to a Warden, the wand to a Deacon, the sword to the Tyler, as well as, for all officers, the collar with the emblem of their office). After the Union of 1813 the installation ceremony took place in all the lodges. The Lodge of Promulgation said that the ceremony of Installation was one of the true landmarks of the Craft and ought to be observed. Although Installation is not officially a fourth degree in English lodges, it is however true that the Master Mason going through an Installation ceremony is given an important boost in his Masonic career equivalent to a fourth degree. Scotland did not follow this practice until the 1780’s.

It soon became the practice to call the Master of a lodge “Worshipful”. Sometime the words “Right Worshipful” Master have been used too, but now this title is reserved in England for the deputy or Assistant Provincial and District Grand Masters and for the Grand Wardens. To be “Worshipful” means to be honourable and worthy.

The purpose of the Masters’ Lodge in the eighteenth century was “to pass”, later “to raise”, Brethren to the rank of Master Mason. Initially a Master of a Lodge was a Fellowcraft and, later, it was a Brethren who had gone through the Hiramic Degree. Whatever the ceremony worked initially in the Masters’ Lodge, with the changes that came later on in the ritual and with the general use of the Hiramic Degree, the Masters’ Lodge was reserved for the Brethren who had been raised to the Third Degree. The ceremony worked in it at that time was the raising of the Fellowcraft, but there was large difference between the lodges even after the creation of the Grand Lodges. In any case, Masters’ Lodge worked a degree that made Masters, and was not involved with the initiation of candidates. Some lodges worked on some days as a Masters’ Lodge, and the remaining of the time as an ordinary lodge although, in general, Masters’ Lodges were independent lodges working only the Third Degree. There is no evidence that the operative masons used Masters’ Lodges. It seems more probable that it came with the Grand Lodges’ Regulations calling for Masters and Fellows to be made at Grand Lodges only. It could also be the consequence of the introduction of the Hiramic Degrees that few Brethren could work. In a certain sense any lodge working the Third Degree is a Masters’ Lodge, but to day the term is used to describe lodges whose members are installed Masters.

It is believed that only the “Moderns” worked the Third Degree in Masters’ Lodges, whereas the “Antients” worked it in their ordinary lodges as well as other degrees such as the Royal Arch and Mark Degrees. The “Moderns” did not approve officially of these other degrees, but it is well known that many of their lodges worked them as well. The first written evidence of a Masters’ Lodge dates from 1727, and by 1740/1750 many Brethren had gone through the Third Degree that was now common. As a result the Masters’ Lodges lost their utility and disappeared, the Third Degrees being worked in ordinary lodges like the first two. It is thought, but there is no evidence, that they became Royal Arch and Mark Lodges.

The ceremony known as “passing the chair” was invented during the second part of the eighteenth century to qualify Master Masons, who had not been Masters of their Lodge, for the Royal Arch Degree. This procedure implied the resignation of the real Master of the Lodge, the election of a Brother in his place followed by his immediate resignation, and the re-instalment of the real Master. In this way more than one brother could “past the chair” in one evening. To day this is not required anymore except for the principal officers of the Royal Arch who must have been Installed Masters. The “Antients” used this procedure with many of their members, these Brethren being then known as “Past Masters of Art and Science”, a kind of Fourth Degree.

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