Museum of Freemasonry - Masonic Library
Question.1 Is there any documented account of the date or year when Masonry, as we know it today, was first practiced?

Answer 1. The essences of this question lies in the words "Masonry, as we know it today." Our present system was virtually standardised in England around 1813-1816, from materials that had been in existence since the 16th century, materials which had been gradually amplified, and later overlaid with speculative interpretation, especially during the second half of the 1700's.

I believe it would be impossible to prove the existence of more that one single ceremony of admission during the 1400's. A two degree system came into use during the early 1500's and in 1598-1599 we have actual Lodge minutes [in tow Scottish Lodges] of the existence of two degrees, the first for the "Entered  Apprentice," and the second for the "Master of Fellow Craft" with evidence that they had been in use for some time.

Outside the Lodge, the Master was an employer and the Fellow Craft was an employee; but inside the Lodge they shared the same ceremony, which was conferred only upon fully-trained masons.  This point is very important when we come to consider the inevitable appearance of a system of three degrees.

The earliest minute recording of a third degree was in a London Musical Society in May 1725, and highly irregular.  The earliest record of a regular  third decree in a Masonic Lodge is dated March 25, 1726 at the second meeting of Lodge Dumbarton-Kilwinning, [now No. 18 on the register of the Grand Lodge of Scotland].

Question 2. What is the meaning of the word "Cable-tow?"  What is meant by the reference to its length?

Answer 2. The Oxford English Dictionary contains a number of cable combinations, eg., "cable-rope, cable-range, cable-stock," etc., but does not give "cable-tow."

The word tow has another significance, in addition to pulling or dragging, it also means the fibre of flax, or hemp, or jute.  A cable might be made of plaited wire, or of metal links, or of man made fibres, but the combination "cable-tow" which seems to be of purely Masonic usage, implies almost certainly the natural fibre from which the rope is to be made.

The "cables length" is a unit of marine measurements, 1/10th of a sea mile, or 607.56 feet. We use the term "cables length" in two senses:

1.   "A cables length from the shore," implying that anything buried at that distance out at sea, could never be recovered.

2.   "If within the length of my cable-tow."  In operative times, attendance at Lodge or assembly was obligatory and there were penalties for non-attendance.  Early regulations on this point varied from 5 to 50 miles, except "in the peril of death." In effect, the length of the cable-tow implies that masons were obliged to attend, so long as it was humanly possible to do so.

Why then does the Candidate wear the cable-tow while taking his Obligation?  He comes of his own free will, yet the cable-tow is a symbol of restraint. With us, the cable-tow serves the practical purpose of restraint. As a symbol it has several different meanings. I suggest:

1 .  The implicit duty of regular attendance, 'if within the length of my cable-tow,

2.    Humility, it, the frame of mind in which one enters the order.

3.   Submission, to the regulations, tenets and principles of the Craft.

4.   The bondage of ignorance until one sees the light.

Question 3:   What is the significance of the tracing Board?

Answer 3: The earliest reference I have been able to find, is in the minutes of the Old King's Arms Lodge, No. 28, London. On Dec. 1st, 1735, the Lodge resolved...that the Foot Cloth made use of at the initiation of new members should be defaced.  The Lodge was ten years old in 1735, and the Foot Cloth must have been worn out. The Tracing Board, or "Floor Cloth" evolved from the early custom of drawing on the floor of the Lodge, a collection of symbols relevant to particular degrees. Originally, it was the Tyler's duty to draw the designs in Chalk and Charcoal, and the Candidates duty at the end of the ceremony to wash out the design with "mop and pail." Later the designs were drawn or painted on "Floor Cloths" for more permanent use, and the collected symbols became the basis for the speculative interpretation of the ceremonies, which were eventually standardised as the Lectures on the Tracing Boards. As to the significance of the Tracing Board's; in the course of time the "Lodge Board" became "the Lodge" and acquired a quality of sanctity. "The Lodge stands on Holy Ground" and none were allowed to stand or walk on it. Finally, when the Consecration ceremony came into use, the essential elements of consecration, Corn, Wine, Oil and Salt were poured on "the Lodge", ie.  on the Tracing Board.

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