Museum of Freemasonry - Masonic Library
Brethren. In so respectable an assembly, and before such competent judges of real merit, it may probably be deemed arrogant or presumptuous in an individual to offer his sentiments; especially when convinced that neither his knowledge of language, or his talents for eloquence, can do sufficient justice to the dignity of his theme.

it is not my intention to enter into an elaborate disquisition concerning Masonry. That task far exceeds the limits of my abilities. I shall only venture to submit to your serious consideration a few observations . . .

Those words are not an example of twentieth‑century modesty; they are, in fact the opening words of the Oration given by Brother William Preston himself, in 1772, when he introduced the first of his Masonic Lectures (Illustrations of Masonry).

All the same, those words may be said to sum up the general requirement for a Prestonian Lecture: that it should not be an 'elaborate disquisition', but rather the submission of 'a few observations', and it is in this spirit that the following thoughts are offered on the subject Of MASTERS AND MASTER MASONS.


Let us begin with a quotation that will be familiar to all: 'To distinguish the spot, they stuck a sprig of acacia at the head . . .'

A living sprig from a tree was unceremoniously broken off and hastily thrust into the ground as a temporary measure. So runs the story. But surely that sprig took root in the ground and grew and flourished, until its branches covered the whole earth.

In other words, that sprig of acacia may be said to represent the Third Degree itself, which began as a temporary measure and is now firmly established all over the world. Its light is still darkness, its emblems sombre, its s . . . . s are substituted and its ritual incomplete (as every Companion of the Royal Arch knows), and yet its popularity remains as strong as ever. Perhaps this is because it comes nearer to our own human experience than any of the so‑called 'higher degrees'.

In the ‘retrospect of degrees' through which the candidate has already passed, he is reminded that the First represents man's infancy, a state of helpless indigence in which he is gradually given light and instruction to fit him for his task. The Second develops the intellectual faculty and represents the maturity of man. The Third brings him face to face with his inevitable destiny, the one absolutely certain forecast for each one of us; and it teaches us to face that destiny with fortitude and humble confidence in the Lord of Light who will, in his own good time, restore to us the genuine s . . . . . s denied us in this our mortal existence.


This pattern of degrees in freemasonry is completely logical and understandable. The strange thing is to find that, until two hundred and fifty years ago, masonry in this country acknowledged only two kinds of mason, Apprentices and Fellows, and there is little talk of 'degrees' at all until about 1730 (see A QC, vol 75, p 150). The only reference to a 'Master Mason' applied to the Craftsman who was elected to preside over the lodge.

Confusion arises here because in early days the terms 'Master' and 'Master Mason' were virtually interchangeable: thus in the Haughfoot Minutes for 1704 (see Freemasons' Magazine, 18 September 1869, p 222) it is agreed that John Hoppringle should continue Master Mason till St John's Day next ‑ which obviously means that he should stay in the Chair until then; while at York in 1725 (Gould, History of Freemasonry, vol IV, p 275) at least three brethren in one lodge are referred to simply as 'Masters'. And at Dumbarton in 1726, (A QC, vol 75) Gabriel Porterfield, Fellow Craft, was unanimously admitted and received a Master of the Fraternity.

There is further confusion in the use of words to describe the making of a Master Mason. The word 'raising' does not appear before 1737 (Collected Prestonian  Lectures, Vibert, p 38). One reads of 'making', 'admitting', 'receiving' and even 'passing' Masters ‑which led to the extreme complication of a 'passed master' (p.a.s.s.e.d.) as opposed to a 'past master' (p.a.s.t.) And just to round it off, we actually find our dear friend Brother William Preston at the very end of the eighteenth century laying down ceremonies for 'the initiation of a Master Mason'! (Illustrations of Masonry. 2nd ed, 1775, p 100).


Little wonder, then, that historians have not been able to make any hard and fast statements about the origins of our three‑degree system, or the actual date when it came into being. There were so many threads to draw together: there was the old‑established working of the operative masons where a Master Mason would take on an apprentice in the same way that a Master Printer or a Master Cutler would take apprentices, while between the master and apprentices came the journeymen who worked on their own. Then there was the early Scottish speculative masonry from which derived the titles (though not necessarily the degrees) of Entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft; there were the Knights Templar and Knights of St John who undoubtedly contributed the title 'Grand Master' to freemasonry, and may very well have contributed much more; and there was the old theosophical teaching of the Kabbalah, parts of which probably survive in the Royal Arch.


These and various other threads were all weaving together at the beginning of the eighteenth century and it was clear that some central authority was vitally necessary to co‑ordinate and regularise things into due order. The four London lodges who formed our Grand Lodge in 1717 had just that purpose in view. Within a very few years their Book of Constitutions, under the guiding hand of Brother Anderson, had laid down rules for lodges to make Apprentices and Fellows, ‑ though at this stage it is not clear whether this meant two separate ceremonies or only one. What is abundantly clear, however, is that private lodges were not permitted to .work the Master's Part', and Masters could only be made by and in Grand Lodge itself. In this way, Grand Lodge could keep a firm hand on those to be numbered among the rulers of the Craft, and be able to 'vet' each incoming Master to make sure he was orthodox and suitable.

This state of things lasted a very short time. On the one hand as lodges grew in number it must have become increasingly difficult for candidates to make the necessary journey up to Grand Lodge to be given 'the Master's Part', and on the other hand there were other lodges working in defiance of Grand Lodge who insisted on making Masters themselves; and so we find in 1725 a motion in Grand Lodge repealing Article 13, and saying, 'that the Mast of each lodge with the consent of his Wardens and the majority of the Brn. being Masts may make masts their discretion'. By 1738 there are records of at least eleven such lodges working the 'Master's Part' (Gould: History of Freemasonry, vol IV, p 368).


For a time, then, it seems certain that this third degree of Master Mason was given only to those who were about to become Masters of lodges. This is the only interpretation which makes sense of the idea of a 'Master's Part', and as evidence I rely on the footnote to the Antient Charges printed at the beginning of our Book of Constitutions (1970, p 6).

N.B. In antient times, no brother, however skilled in the craft, was called a Master Mason until he had been elected into the chair of a Lodge.

The expression 'in antient times' is certainly vague; but here at any rate is a direct connection between Master Mason and Master Elect ‑ not Master, you notice, but Master Elect; and this perhaps provides the clue to the way in which things then developed.

No doubt because of the difficulties of travel and the infrequency of such ceremonies, it became the practice to get the Master's Part conferred, in one of the 'Masters' Lodges', on Fellowcrafts who were qualified by experience and skill to occupy the chair some time in the fairly near future, so as to have a reserve of qualified candidates for installation without having to send each one up for his third degree after becoming Master Elect. In much the same way that on board ship, almost every Mate will already hold a Captain's ticket in preparation for the day when he may be given a ship of his own.


And so there began to be found this new phenomenon, the Craftsman who had 'taken the Master's Part' but had not yet been installed in the Chair. He was not a Master in the sense of 'Installed Master', and yet he was obviously more than a Fellow Craft. He was in fact, and still is, a Master Mason.

Those Antient Charges in our Book of Constitutions again seem to support this theory:

No Brother can be a Warden until he has passed the part of a Fellow Craft, nor a Master until he had acted as a Warden.

or again,

The most expert of the felloweraftsmen shall be chosen or appointed the Master.

And notice that in our Installation ceremonies we still acknowledge the old working, and go on behaving as though the degree of Master Mason did not exist! For example, the Master Elect is presented and obligated not in the third degree but in the second. (For, don't forget, that according to the Antient Charges, a Warden only needed to be a Fellow Craft.)

The Installing Master addresses the Brethren:

From ancient times it has been the custom . . . to select . . . an experienced craftsman to preside as Master

not 'an experienced Master Mason', but 'an experienced craftsman', who must have been elected by his 'Brethren and Fellows'. The Master Elect advances and takes his obligation in the position of a Fellow Craft. The lodge is then opened in the third degree, but nothing whatever is done in it, and all below the rank of Installed Master retire immediately. I suggest to you that in the early eighteenth century it was at this point, and originally at this point only, that the third degree as we know it, was conferred on the Master Elect.


Of the inner working of the Board of Installed Masters one can obviously say nothing here, except to mention that when the new Worshipful Master is invested with his collar he is informed how the Square is to be applied by Master Masons. Is this a slip of the tongue or a printer's error? Should the Square have been applied by Installed Masters rather than Master Masons? Or is this not just one more indication that the new Master is also a new Master Mason?

When the brethren return after their temporary absence, the only visible difference they find is that their newly installed Master now wears the collar and jewel of his office, and some new symbols on his apron, and we might stop for a moment here to consider what these new symbols are.

They are usually described as 'levels', and indeed they do bear a superficial resemblance to that particular working tool; but they are certainly not intended to be levels ‑ and in any case the level is the jewel of the Senior Warden and not of the Worshipful Master.

They are neither explained nor even referred to in the inner working, so we can get no help there. The Book of Constitutions describes them cautiously and mathematically, without saying what they are: 'perpendicular lines one inch each upon horizontal lines two inches and a half each, thereby forming three several sets of two right angles'. This latter description will sound familiar to Companions of the Royal Arch who will see in this a separation of certain elements which are gathered together in new form in that supreme degree. Others have likened them to 'T‑squares', or 'two squares back to back', while some writers have gone into fanciful references to phallic symbolism and the cult of Osiris.


None of these explanations would seem entirely satisfactory and I want to suggest another idea altogether, which fits in completely with what we have been saying so far.

Remembering that, under the old system, only Installed Masters were considered to be in possession of the third degree it therefore follows that only they had taken the three regular sps in freemasonry. But recollecting how those sps are formed my submission is that each of these symbols which we call levels or perpendicular and horizontal lines is in fact a picture of a l.f. with a r.f. in its h., thus showing that the wearer of this apron has taken the three regular sps. Now there is no proof of this, but it seems reasonable, especially when we consider the evolution of the apron generally.


In every case, speculative masonry has formalised and standardised what it took from operative masonry. Thus the large protective leather apron of the operatives, which covered him from chin to below the knee, has been reduced to (again to quote the Book of Constitutions, 1970) 'a plain white lamb‑skin from fourteen to sixteen inches wide, twelve to fourteen inches deep, with a flap'. The flap, of course, is all that remains of the upper part that formerly went up to the chin. This plain white lamb‑skin is, as the Senior Warden tells the newly made brother, the badge of a mason ‑ not just the badge of an Entered Apprentice, but the badge of a mason. In time it may get covered with rosettes and symbols, sky blue, garter blue and gold braid, but all the time the plain white lamb‑skin is still there, as it was on the night he was initiated. It is rather impressive to read the description in the Book of Constitutions which begin, as quoted, with the plain white lamb‑skin for the Entered Apprentice, and then goes on:

Fellow Craft, the same, with two rosettes. Master Mason, the same, with three rosettes and a light blue edging

etc, and so on up the scale, through 'Provincial Grand Officers, the same, with garter blue edging and gold cord' until last of all comes

Grand Master, the same, with the blazing sun in the centre, an edging of pomegranate, lotus and seven‑eared wheat, and a fringe of gold bullion.

but the most important word in all those descriptions is 'the same', the plain white lamb‑skin.


The origin of rosettes is obscure. Could they have started as buttons or buttonholes which, when no longer required, were left in position like the two useless buttons on the back of a tail coat? Brother Vibert in his Prestonian Lecture for 1925 made this suggestion:

The MM may have worn it (the apron) with the flap down as we do today; the EA and FC keeping the flap up, buttoned to the waistcoat, the EA further turning up one corner. The rosettes . . . may have been adopted in Germany in the 18th century; they seem to represent original buttonholes for the turned up corners. Brother Hills in 1916 (Somerset Masters Transactions) wrote:

The ... rosettes . . . possibly originated in some contrivance, a loop or a buttonhole, which appears in old illustrations, for fastening the flap up against a brother's coat

and he adds,

In the USA the ordinary apron is simply a white-skin. and the rank is distinguished by the EA wearing the flap turned up, the FC the flap turned down. whilst the MM has the corner of his apron turned up.

Against this there is a statement in the Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry (Hawkins & Hughan, 1920)

There is evidence in some old American aprons still existing that rosettes were formerIv worn but have since been discarded.

Therefore, though the idea of 'functional' button‑rosettes is attractive, it seems more probable that the two rosettes of a FC were purely ornamental, to distinguish him from the EA. There is such an apron in the museum at Freemasons' Hall with two rosettes, dated 1795.

Meanwhile the Master had lined and edged his apron, first with white silk and by 1770 with blue, together with those indications that his three sps had now been completed. But if there were still brethren who had 'taken the Master's Part' but had not yet occupied the chair; how could they be distinguished? And if, by then, the symbols on the apron had become a regular part of the Installed Master's regalia, then a new form would have to be evolved. Why not add one more rosette to the Fellow Craft's? A third 'button' to indicate that here is a craftsman marked out for promotion, and on his way to the chair.

Now I realise that this has considerably simplified and streamlined the history of aprons. It is not as easy as all that. For many years there was no set pattern for aprons at all, and they were decorated with painted, embroidered or printed designs incorporating pillars, working‑tools, all‑seeing eyes and practically anything else you can think of. But by the end of the eighteenth century a set pattern had started to emerge, and I submit that my explanation is not unreasonable.


Before we leave this subject we must not lose sight of the great division that existed during the eighteenth century between the so‑called Antients and the Moderns, with two Grand Lodges both claiming supremacy. (The Moderns, in spite of this name which their rivals bestowed on them, represented the premier Grand Lodge established in 1717; the self‑styled Antients were constituted in 1751, claiming that they alone preserved the ancient customs and practices of masonry. The division was only finally healed by the Union of 1813 into the United Grand Lodge of England.)

The Antients were concerned about the third degree for quite another reason: in their system the Royal Arch was an integral part of the Craft working. Their Grand Secretary, Laurence Dermott in 1764 (Ahiman Rezon) calls it 'the very essence of masonry' and in another place says he 'firmly believes it to be the root, heart and marrow of masonry'. 'A Modern', says Dermott, 'is unqualified to appear in a Master's Lodge nor in a Royal Arch Lodge [sic] until he has been installed'.

And he has hard things to say about 'those who think themselves Royal Arch Masons without passing the chair in regular form'.

Now there seems no particular reason why an uninstalled Master Mason should not be exalted into the Royal Arch. There is certainly nothing in our present installation ceremony which would be necessary for that purpose, and in fact Master Masons are readily exalted every day into our Chapters; but it would make complete nonsense of the Royal Arch ceremony to confer it on a Fellow Craft who would not have the necessary background to understand what it is all about.


And so, among the Antients, the same sort of subterfuge was adopted to allow brethren to proceed to the Royal Arch without actually going through the chair they were made Master Masons. Thus Brother Gould expresses an opinion in an article (in the Freemason, I September 1883) on Rights and Privileges of Past Masters that the 'degree of Master . . . was invented by the (Antient) Grand Lodge to serve as a constructive passing of the chair, and thereby qualify Brethren for the degree of Royal Arch which could only be conferred on actual Past Masters of Lodges'. The same author in his History of Freemasonry (vol IV) admits that under both Grand Lodges the practice of 'passing Brethren through the chair ‑or in other words conferring upon them the degree (without serving the office) of Installed Master, which had crept into the ritual of the Antients, was very common'. If, by this, Brother Gould means that craftsmen were given the 'Master's Part' to proceed to the RA before being installed in the chair of a lodge, then surely it has become so common that it is now the normal procedure.

One more point about regalia: not all the old customs have survived. Laurence Dermott, in reference to the Moderns, informs us that each Apprentice carries a plumb, Fellow Crafts carry a level, and 'that every person dignified with the title of a Master Mason [italics sic] should wear a square pendant to his right leg' (Ahiman Rezor, 1764, 2nd ed. p xxx).

Laurence Dermott is not entirely trustworthy, and here he is obviously being facetious at the expense of his rivals, but even so there is surely something significant in applying to every Master Mason the pendant Square which is now worn only by the Master of the Lodge ‑ albeit on a collar and not on his leg.


For two hundred and forty years, then, the three degrees as we know them have been generally practised with this strange mixture of logic and illogic, with so much of the third degree being more appropriate to an Installed Master:

Look at the working tools. In the first degree they are menial ‑ measuring, hammering, smoothing, but never finishing. In the second degree they are responsible, the tools for finishing the job, trying, adjusting, fixing. But the third degree tools are not the tools of a workman at all; they are the instruments of the architect, the Master himself, laying lines, drawing designs and rendering the circle complete.

The sps in the first are hesitant but growing bolder; in the second ascending towards the place of reward. The bold marching sps of the third would carry us right up to the chair itself if they had not been diverted on the way.


Which brings us to Hirant Abif and the masonic traditional history. That there was such a person there is no doubt. He is mentioned several times in Scripture where he appears as a highly skilled craftsman sent to King Solomon by Hiram King of Tyre to supervise the building of the Temple. He was of mixed race, his father being a man of Tyre and his mother a widow of the tribe of Dan or Naphtali. The legend of his death and its consequences will not be found in Scripture, but only in our masonic ritual. This is not to say, as some have suggested, that the story was only invented 250 years ago when the third degree took its present form; but one of the handicaps which our society has to accept is the absence of documentary evidence. One can say that there is no written evidence of the Hiramic legend before the eighteenth century, but that does not prove that the oral tradition did not exist, for masonic ritual was not written down at all in those days but passed on by memory and word of mouth. (Perhaps it would make for the better preservation of our secrets if the same practice were still observed today.)


There is, however, one piece of historical evidence that has sometimes been overlooked, and that is the name by which we refer to our hero ‑ Hiram Abif. Where does it come from? Certainly not from the Authorised Version of the Bible which tells us plainly about Solomon King of Israel and Hiram King of Tyre, and merely mentions a third man called Hiram or Huram. But there are two texts where this name appears to be qualified in some way. As we shall be referring to these two texts quite extensively, let us call them, for convenience, text (a) and text (b). Text (a) is in fact I] Chronicles 11, 13, and text (b) II Chronicles IV, 16. In the Authorised Version they read as follows:

The first is part of the letter from King Hirant to King Solomon:

(a)            'And I have sent a cunning man, endued with understanding, of Huram my father's.'

The second is at the end of the list of ornaments:

(b)            'And all their instruments did Hurant his father make to King Solomon for the house of the Lord of bright brass.'


Both obviously refer to this Hirant or Huram who was a skilled craftsman, but what is the significance of 'my father's' and 'his father'? Look now at the original Hebrew: in text (a) we find' Huram Abi' (aleph, beth, jod). In text (b), 'Huram AbW (aleph, beth, jod, vau). The Hebrew word 'Ab' means 'Father', 'Abi' means 'My father', and AbW means 'His father'. So far, so good; but the trouble is that 'Huram my father's' and 'Huram his father' just don't make sense, for this Hiram could hardly have been the father of King Hiram, and certainly wasn't the father of King Solomon.


The Greek version of the Septuagint ignores the dilemma and just calls him ,Cheiram', but St Jerome and the Latin Vulgate plumped for the literal translation:

(a)             Mihi ergo tibi virum prudentem et scientissimum Hyram patrent meum ...

(b)             Omnia vassa fecit Salamoni Huram pater eitts.

It was this version that was followed by most subsequent translators, so that the first English Bible of Wyclif in 1388 has:

(a)             I sente to ve a prudent man and most kunnvnge Huram my fader

(b              Hyram ye fader of Salomon made to hym alle vessels in ye hous of ye Lord

The Great Bible of 1539 which was the parent of the Authorised Version varies this slightly:

(a)            a man whom my father Hyram did use

(b)            did Hyram (his father) make.


The Bishops' Bible 1572 repeats this, omitting the parenthesis in (b)              did Hirant his father make', and adds this interesting footnote: 'Hiram is called Solomon's father because Solomon reverenced hyrn and favoured hyrn as his father'. This shows that the editor was unhappy about the text and felt he must attempt to justify it. So also in the version printed by Christopher Barker in 1599 with most profitable annotations upon all the hard places, and other things of great importance', text (b) reads:

'All these vessels made Huram his father', and the marginal note says,

whom Salomon reverenced for his gifts that God had given him, as a father. He had the same name also that Huram the King of Tyre had; his mother was a Jewesse and his father a Tyrian. Some reade, for his father, the author of this work.

This latter statement represents yet another tradition to which we shall be returning presently.


However, not all editors agreed that the 'fatherhood' referred to Solomon; some thought it referred to the King of Tyre. Thus the Douai Bible 1635 makes that King write in text (a):

'I have sent thee a man wise and most skilful, Hiram my father', explaining in the marginal note,

It is probable that this man had instructed the King of Tyre in true religion of One God, whom he confesseth in verses 11 and 12, and that therefore the King called him his father.

From then onwards, until the Revised Standard Version of 1952, all English Bibles have stuck to the plain 'my father's' and 'his father', without any attempt at explanation.


Now in all this wilderness of translations and marginal notes, there have been one

or two lone voices which have insisted that if a description doesn't make sense, then the likelihood is that we are dealing with a proper name and not a description at all. The earliest I can find of these is Martin Luther in Germany in the 1520s who made his own translation of the Bible, going back when possible to original manuscripts. Here is his version of our texts:

(a) . . . einen weisen man der verstand hat Huram Abi.

(b) ... und alle ihr gefess macht Huram Abif dem Konige Solomo.

In 1528, Myies Coverdale. one of the leaders of the English Reformation, finding England too dangerous for him, fled to Hamburg where he met William Tyndale and helped him to translate the Pentateuch. By 1535, Coverdale had produced a complete translation of the Bible into English, using not only the Latin Vulgate but also Luther's German Bible as his sources. And so it is that in Coverdale's Bible, published only in three years 1535, 6 and 7, we find in text (a) the name Hiram Abi, and in text (b) Hiram Abif. Not 'Huram' but 'Hiram'‑ Hiram Abif, in two distinct words with a capital H and a capital A.

This is the one and only place in the whole of English literature outside masonic ritual that I have been able to find the full name printed in this particular manner. In 1537 the 'Matthews' Bible, which drew upon Tyndale and Coverdale, prints 'Abi' in both places, but by 1539 the Great Bible had arrived with 'my father' and 'his father', and the old name was lost again.


It reappears in the French Bible of D'Osterwald in 1881 as'Huram‑Abi' in both texts, with a capital 'A'but hyphenated, but we do not find it again in English until the Revised Standard Version of 1952 where it is printed in both texts as Huram‑ hyphenated and without the capital 'A'. It is repeated in this form in the Jerusalem Bible of 1966.

It remains to account for the third possible reading of the original Hebrew, hinted at in that marginal note of 1599: 'Some reade, for”hisfather, the author of this work” ', suggesting that it means, 'The work was done by Hiram who was the author or father of it'. Later translators have observed that the word Ab' besides meaning 'father' could possibly bear the meaning of 'author', 'originator' ‑ or even 'master'. This is the sense in which the Esperanto Bible of 1890 took it, using 'mian majstron Hurarn' 'lia majstro Hurarn', and it is interesting to note that this is the interpretation accepted by the most recent translation of all, the New English Bible 1970, in which our two texts are given as:

(a) I now send you a skilful and experienced craftsman, master Huram.

(b) All these objects master Huram made of bronze, burnished work for King Solomon.


Out of all this bewildering mass of material, one fact of great significance emerges clearly: that in England the name Hiram Abif had appeared in print but once, in a little known Bible of 1535, and nothing like it was used again in Scripture for 400 years. Yet freemasons in 1723 were apparently familiar with the name and did not find it necessary to explain it in any way. Can we really suppose that Anderson and his brethren invented a legend. and took the trouble to dig out a name from a Bible of two centuries earlier to go with it? Is it not far more probable that the name Hiram Abif was in regular use among masons even before Luther and Coverdale came across it. and that it has been in continuous use among masons ever since? Perhaps someone should do a little research on the relationship between Luther and the Craft, to see which way round the borrowing took place!

The story of Hiram Abif, then, cannot be proved as history, but neither can it be disproved. It is therefore aptly described in our ceremony as a 'traditional history', and as such it still can and still does teach Master Masons many great and useful lessons.


Let us turn now to the Tracing Board of this degree.

The first thing to notice about it is that it stands the opposite way round, compared with the other two, for its head is towards the west and its foot to the cast. * Here, surely, is yet another indication that the third degree is the 'Master's part', for the other two Boards are placed so that they can best be seen by the brethren on the floor, but the Third is placed so that it can best be seen by the Worshipful Master in the chair. (Tracing‑boards are, of course, of comparatively late origin, but this pattern had become well established towards the end of the eighteenth century.)

Round the edge of the Board are the points of the compass, with the rest of the emblems occupying the centre. This degree attaches a great deal of importance to the Centre: the lodge is opened on it; we hope to find the genuine secrets with it; ashes are to be burnt on it, and the sign recovered on it. And now we find in the description of the dimensions that they are to be measured 'from the centre, 3 ft. E and 3 ft. W'.

For in this degree it is implied that we can now work to render our circle complete. But the first thing necessary for making a circle is to establish a centre, and then one can trace the circumference, every part of which will be equidistant from that centre.

However, the compasses, we are told, belong to the Grand Master in particular as being the supreme authority by which we are kept within due bounds. The compasses, together with the VSL, and the S are described as the three Great Lights; they are symbols of authority and command. On a French tracing board of 1745, a pair of compasses is depicted in the east and a square in the west. This seems to fit in with that early eighteenth‑century catechism described in the exposure called Masonry Dissected: (reproduced in Early Masonic Catechisms, Knoop & Jones, p 168).

Q. How came you to be pass'd Master?

A. By the help of God, the Square and my own industry.

Q. How was you pass'd Master?

A. From the Square to the Compass.

*This statement maybe disputed by lodges who are accustomed to stand all their boards against a pedestal or hang them on the wall but the fact remains that most boards have the points of the compass inscribed round the edge, and if boards are place d on the floor with the 'N' to the north and the 'E’ to the east. it will be found that the first two face one way and the third the other.

Can this be interpreted as anything less than a reference to the passing of a Master into the chair of authority in his lodge?


But to go back to the emphasis laid on the Centre in this degree, and the enigmatic statement that with it we hope to find the genuine. Let us take it that the Centre whose aid we seek is in some way connected with the grave of Hiram Abif who is certainly the central character in this story.

There is a grave, from the centre 3 ft. E and 3 ft. W, 3 ft. between N and S, and 5 ft. or more perpendicular . . .

We solemnly recite those dimensions, but what do they mean? Certainly they represent the sort of grave one would expect for a man of average height; but the measurements are so specific: let us try multiplying them together and see what happens. 6 ft long by 3 ft wide gives us an area of 18 square ft. Now multiply this 18 by the 5 ft perpendicular, and we get a total volume of 90 cu ft ‑ ninety degrees, or the fourth part of a circle. In other words, Hiram Abif is buried on the Square. But he is also buried on the Centre, the point within the circle.

'How will you be proved?'

'By the Square and Compasses'‑ in other words, by the test of the perfection of Hiram Abif. It is for this reason that we hope to find that which is genuine 'with the Centre', for this Centre contains an example of the perfect mason.

But where is this Centre? The First TB tells us that in every regular well‑formed constituted lodge there is a point within a circle round which the brethren cannot err. On the upper part of this circle rests the VSL. So the Centre is located as close to the Holy Word as it can be. And our Master was ordered to be re‑interred as near the SS as Israelitish law would permit. In fact it would seem that we are to understand that his sepulchre was right in front of the SS just as the point within the circle is right in front of the pedestal.

Further indications of this are given by Ornaments of a Master Mason's Lodge. There they are, appropriately enough in the centre of our picture.

The Porch is the Entrance, showing that we need go no further than that. Next comes 'the window that gave light to the same'. I am sure that we usually interpret 'the same' as referring to the SS but is this the right interpretation? The SS needed no light, for (Exodus XL, 34) 'the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle'. The light therefore is coming from within, and we should understand that the Porch was the Entrance to the SS, the D the window that gave light from within to that Porch, just as the VSL, that great light in freemasonry, gives light to all who move in the circle before it. And thirdly the reference to the Square Pavement over which the HP walked to approach the Porch, should surely suggest that it was beneath this that Hiram found his last resting place.

In these ways the actual spot where the grave is to be found is disguised under various symbols so as to be intelligible only to those who can understand their meaning. Or, as the Charge after the second section of the third lecture puts it:

To him who did the Temple rear,

Who lived and died within the Square

And now lies buried, none know where

But we, who Master Masons are.


This somewhat extravagant manner of concealing a secret hiding‑place by a series of questions and answers was perhaps not so uncommon as might be supposed. An interesting side light is thrown on the subject by the great detective Mr Sherlock Holmes in the story called The Musgrave Ritual.

For ten generations, the eldest son of the Musgrave family was required to learn and answer a series of questions when he reached the age of twenty‑one, although he had no idea what he was talking about, or why. It remained for a clever and unscrupulous butler ‑ and of course for an equally clever but more scrupulous Sherlock Holmes, to find the place where the treasure was hidden. Compare some of the questions we ask (eg 'How came they lost?',How do you hope to find thern') with these questions in The Musgrave Ritual:

Whose was it?

His who is gone.

Who shall have it?

He who will come.

What was the month?

The sixth from the first.

Where was the sun?

Over the oak.

Where was the shadow?

Under the elm.

How was it stepped?

North by ten and by ten, west by five and by five, south by two and by two. west by one and by one, and so under.

What shall we give for it?

All that is ours.

Why should we give it?

For the sake of the trust.


In the end the treasure of the Musgraves turned out to be part of the crown jewels of King Charles I, concealed in 1649. The clues to their whereabouts had been carefully passed on from father to son, but the identity of the treasure and the meaning of the clues had long been forgotten.

There is much in this fascinating Sherlock Holmes story which will sound familiar to us: a winding staircase, the endeavour to raise something, only achieved with the aid of two others, and a very indecent interment. But this is not really a coincidence, for the author, Brother Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was initiated in the Phoenix Lodge No 257 in Portsmouth in 1887.


Returning to our tracing‑board: every coffin carries an inscription, and this one is no exception. On the plate on this coffin is the statement ‑ so we are told, that here lies Hiram Abif who was slain three thousand years after the creation of the world.

How do we arrive at this' By interpreting the masonic cipher in which it is written. These ciphers and codes were very popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but have since fallen out of use ‑ mainly because they are so easy to find out.

First of all, as one can guess from the figures, the writing is back to front 'Mirror writing', in imitation of Hebrew which is written from right to left. Next, all the letters and symbols are made up of straight lines and dots ‑ the usual thing for masons' marks which have to be made with the straight edge of the chisel or with the point of a compass. The alphabet was constructed by making two sets of crossed parallel lines (as if about to play 'noughts and crosses') and inserting letters in the angles so formed, from right to left, starting with 'A' in the top right‑hand corner. This diagram will accommodate the first nine letters of the alphabet (AA), and the process is then repeated for the next nine (J‑R). The last eight letters are shown in the same way in two saltire crosses. To write in code, all that was necessary was to depict the section of the diagram in which the letter is situated, and this now stood for the letter. To indicate a letter from A to I, the section was drawn plain; to indicate a letter from J to R, it was shown with a dot in it. Similarly S to V were plain, W to Z with a dot. With the aid of these diagrams the inscription can now be clearly understood.


Very often on a third Tracing‑Board you will also find three '5's, or else three Hebrew characters which are in fact the letter 'He', the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet which has the same numerical value. These allude to the fifteen trusty fellow crafts who divided into three lodges of five each, and they further allude to the five sns, the five Ps of F and the salute of five which all Craftsmen give to their new Master when they enter the Lodge after their temporary absence.

And so we return to that sprig of acacia at the head. Plucked in haste it may have been, and temporary it was intended to be, but the more you think about it, the more you will realise that there could have been no more appropriate symbol to adorn the grave of Hiram Abif.

For first, the acacia which grows in Israel is an evergreen, a symbol of immortality containing all the hope and expectation of the life to come.

Secondly the acacia was a sacred tree, the Hebrew 'shittim', and of its wood Moses was commanded to make the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of Shew‑ and all the furniture of the Tabernacle.

Thirdly the word 'acacia' itself is a Greek word signifying 'innocent' or 'guiltless'.

Here, then, in this symbol of innocence, holiness and immortality, are summed up all the mysteries of life and death, of time and eternity, of the present and of the future.


Such, then, are the ‘observations which I submit to your serious consideration'.

And what conclusions can we draw from them? Surely that the office of Master and the degree of Master Mason have been torn away from each other, just as a sprig is torn from a tree. The logical pattern of the three degrees only remains logical if the third degree leads straight to the chair. The reluctance of the first Grand Lodge to let this degree pass out of their hands, the evidence of the Antient Charges in the Book of Constitutions, the curious way in which modern installation ceremonies ignore the third degree, the sps, the working‑tools, the symbols on the apron, the relationship to the Royal Arch, the square, the compasses, the Tracing Board ‑ all these point to the identification of Master and Master Mason as one and the same person.

Not that one would wish turn back the clock. We may indeed be thankful that every installation does not have to include the working of the third degree on the same evening, and thousands of Master Masons all over the world have cause to be eternally grateful to those eighteenth‑century pioneers who evolved a means whereby a man need not remain a Fellow Craft until elected to the chair, but can now participate in the mysteries of a Master Mason to prepare himself for the day when he may be called on to preside as Master of the lodge.

From being an elite minority, Master Masons now form the overwhelming majority of the membership of the Craft: the sprig has grown bigger than the original tree. Thus that 'one great and useful lesson more' has been taught to so many who can profit by it. Courage, faithfulness, truth and honour are qualities which the modern world does its best to devalue, and virtue is constantly under attack in our permissive society.


It was surely no accident that the third degree, as we know it, dates its popularity from the early eighteenth century: for this was an age when death held many terrors; when public executions were common; when churches were empty and prisons full. It was the age of Hogarth's 'Rake's Progress', of Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and similar anti‑heroes glorifying crime; an age of piracy and 'hijacking', with outbreaks of violence in the streets coinciding with a fashion among young men for growing their hair long.

As far as morals were concerned, notice that it was found not only desirable but apparently necessary to insert a clause in the Ob to protect the chastity of those nearest and dearest to a Brother Mason ‑ even defining the relationship to include sisters as well as wives and children. Notice also how this seems to suggest, by implication, that the chastity of any other female can still be fair game, even to a man of honour and a Master Mason. Such was life in the early eighteenth century.

However, the picture was not entirely gloomy, for you will observe that this same Ob does not consider it necessary to define what it means by 'the posture of my daily supplication'; the reference to a knee was quite sufficient to take that for granted. They may not have been great churchgoers but it could be safely assumed that every Brother said his prayers every day. I venture to believe that this could also be assumed about far more brethren in 1971 than any sort of statistics would be likely to show.


There is great encouragement in this. For the age of Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard was quickly followed by the age of Wesley and Wilberforce, of John Howard and Elizabeth Fry ‑ a complete swing of the pendulum, made possible only because there were sufficient individuals who prized honour and virtue above the external advantages of rank and fortune, who kept faith with the past, and gave hope to the future.

And so, perhaps the origins and history of the third degree are after all the least important parts of it. What really matters is the meaning of it today ‑ a call to us in another age of moral and spiritual chaos to hold on steadfastly to what we know to be right, at whatever cost, confident that the pendulum is about to swing again, if we keep faith.

I quoted Brother William Preston at the beginning of this talk. Let him also have the last word, for he sums it all up better than I can, and thus he ended his lecture on the third degree:

The whole serves to commemorate the life and death of our Grand Master Hiram Abif whose extensive genius was amply displayed by his works, while the fidelity to his trust and his manly behaviour at the close of life must inspire every generous mind with gratitude and render his name everlasting to our annals. His example must teach us a noble and heroic fortitude. to defend our virtue when exposed to the most severe attacks, and to preserve our honour at the risk of our lives.*

* As transcribed in MS by John Henderson, 1837. for the Lodge of Antiquity.

The Prestonian Lecture For 1971
The Rev Canon Richard Tydeman