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Third Degree

controversy and compromise

In a society that prizes harmony, few issues have created as much controversy as the Third Degree. The revival of the annual St John's day feast in London in 1717 at The Goose and Gridiron tavern brought together four lodges that worked the two degrees of Entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft. As freemasonry became fashionable, a Grand Lodge was formed, which began to extend its influence beyond London. A play about Hiram Abif attracted widespread interest. By combining stories about Noah and his three sons with stories about the building of King Solomon's Temple, the legend of Hiram Abif was created. Initially participation was restricted to Fellow Craft who had been elected Master of a lodge.

The story of Noah and his three sons building the ark had always held a fascination for the builders of medieval cathedrals with vaulted naves resembling the keel of a ship. The word nave was derived from the Medieval Latin navis meaning "ship". The nave was the part of the cathedral for the laity, while the chancel and choir were reserved for the clergy. Before the Protestant Reformation, a rood screen separated the sanctuary from the nave. The Covenant with Noah and his descendants was considered a basis of ethical values and principles for all humanity.

The Temple of Solomon was of great interest to Sir Christopher Wren. The geometry of this temple was a major obsession in the 17th and 18th centuries. If London was to be the New Jerusalem, then St Paul's Cathedral would be the new Temple of Solomon.

Master with Royal Arch jewel

The idea of a third degree did not gain universal acceptance and some lodges began to work a different third degree, which became known as the Holy Royal Arch degree. A somewhat confusing compromise was reached in 1813 with the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England when it was declared that Freemasonry, "consists of three degrees . . . the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch."

When the Lodge of Reconciliation was concluded, a number of compromises had been reached. Although the Holy Royal Arch retained references to Christian religion, the three degrees were resticted to references from the Old Testament. The revolts against the Duke of Sussex over this issue are understandable. A century of innovation had transformed the remnants of a medieval Christian guild into a universal brotherhood.

While removing references to the Christian religion may be consistent with a desire not to make windows into mens souls, some freemasons are not aware that the King James Bible is the source of many word and phrases. Obscuring sources creates the potential for pagan fantasies and spurious folk history.

Goliath taunted David with the following words:

"Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field."

Then David said to the Philistine:

"Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. And all this assembly shall know that the LORD saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give you into our hands."

The theme of "the stone rejected by the builders" and parts of the earlier Fellow Craft degree were explored in the Mark degree. Later the Mark degree could be explained as the initial rejection of David, the father of Solomon by reference to Psalm 118:22. Eventually references to the Christian religion were also removed from the Holy Royal Arch.

stamp with dove bearing an olive branch

Emulation Ritual

Since the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813, the Deaconís jewel has been a dove with an olive branch in her beak. This is found as a collar jewel, and is usually found on top of the Deaconís wand. The dove with an olive branch is a symbol from the Biblical story of Noah and the Flood. The substitution of a Syrian architect for Noah was a creative response to experiments with triangular prisms that produced the colors of the rainbow from sunlight.

"Not long after the Union, and when the members of the United Fraternity were somewhat reconciled, and the more turbulent spirits a little subdued, and brought to reflection, the Grand Master at a Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge, made the following statement, that he would on that occasion reobligate the Masters and Wardens, with the "new obligation" and that the Masters were to do the same to all members of their respective lodges. For which purpose, the Grand Master retired to one of the large rooms of the Tavern, and we were conducted to him in parties of about eight, when there, he requested us to kneel around the Pedestal, and place one hand on the Sacred Volume, and in that position we were obligated, it was the E.A. as now used. When he came to the word "Hele" he made a pause, and stated that it must be used in future, it is (he remarked) an old Saxon term, and signifies (sic) to Hide or Cover." George Claret in his Masonic Gleanings (1844)

Many Christian symbols have been retained in freemasonry

  • The anchor is a very early Christian symbol that has been found in the catacombs. It brings together the cross and the various nautical Christian symbols (fish, boat,), and signifies hope in Christ.
  • Because of its beauty and majesty, the cedar of Lebanon represents Christ. It has also come to symbolize eternal life because of its height and long life. (Ezek 17:22)
  • The circle, having no beginning or end, symbolizes eternity or God.
  • The dove represents the Holy Spirit and is a symbol of peace. The image of seven doves symbolize the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, and praise (Rev. 5:12).
  • The eye, or "all-seeing eye," represents God's omniscience and omnipresence. From the late Renaissance, the eye was pictured within a triangle and with three rays of light.
  • The lamb represents Jesus, "the lamb of God" (agnus Dei). (Jn 1:29, Rev 5:12)
  • A plumb line represents judgment (Amos 7:7-8). Christ is sometimes portrayed holding a plumb line in his role as the Judge.
  • The pomegranate, with its many seeds unified in one fruit, symbolizes the universal church.
  • The ship signifies the church, conveying its members to safe harbor. It may derive from Noah's ark or Jesus' calming of the storm (Mk 4:37)
  • A skull represents death, it illustrates St. Paul's declaration that "as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." (1 Co 15:22)

Numbers were used frequently in medieval cathedrals to signify various theological concepts. Following are the most commonly accepted interpretations of numerical symbols:

  • One signifies unity; both the unity of God and the unity of members of the Church.
  • two symbolises the divine and human natures of Christ or the material and the spiritual.
  • three represents the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.)
  • four represents the Four Evangelists (authors of the Gospels), the four corners of the earth, or the four seasons.
  • five symbolizes the five wounds Christ suffered on the cross (hands, feet, and side), and by extension represents sacrifice.
  • seven is the number of perfection. God rested on the seventh day, Paul lists seven gifts of the Spirit and Jesus spoke seven utterances from the cross. The number seven is especially prominent in the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, in which there are seven seals, seven churches and many other things numbering seven.
  • twelve is often used to signify the whole church, since there were 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles.

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