BROTHERS and BUILDERS:, The
Basis and Spirit of Freemasonry.
BY: JOSEPH FORT NEWTON
THE MASTER'S PIECE.
IN the olden time it was no easy matter for a man to become
a Freemason. He had to win the right by hard work, technical
skill, and personal worth. Then, as now, he had to prove
himself a freeman of lawful age and legitimate birth, of sound
body and good repute, to be eligible at all. Also, he had to
bind himself to serve under rigid rules for seven years, his
service being at once a test of his character and a training
for his work. If he proved incompetent or unworthy, he was
In all operative Lodges of the Middle Ages, as in the guilds of
skilled artisans of the same period, young men entered as
Apprentices, vowing absolute obedience, for the Lodge was
a school of the seven sciences, as well as of the art of
building. At first the Apprentice was little more than a
servant, doing the most Menial work, and if he proved
himself trustworthy and proficient his wages were increased;
but the rules were never relaxed, "except at Christmastime,"
as the Old Charges tell us, when there was a period of
freedom duly celebrated with feast and frolic.
The rules by which an Apprentice pledged himself to live, as
we find them recorded in the Old Charges, were very strict.
He had first to confess his faith in God, vowing to honour the
Church, the State and the Master under whom he served,
agreeing not to absent himself from the service of the Order
save with the license of the Master. He must be honest and
upright, faithful in keeping the secrets of the Craft and the
confidence of his fellows. He must not only be chaste, but
must not marry or contract himself to any woman during the
term of his apprenticeship. He must be obedient to the
Master without argument or murmuring, respectful to all
Freemasons, avoiding uncivil speech, free from slander and
dispute. He must not frequent any tavern or ale-house,
except it be upon an errand of the Master, or with his
Such was the severe rule under which an Apprentice learned
the art and secrets of the Craft. After seven years of study
and discipline, either in the Lodge or at the Annual Assembly
(where awards were usually made), he presented his
"Masterpiece," some bit of stone or metal carefully carved,
for the inspection of the Master, saving, "Behold my
experience!" By which he meant the sum of his experiments.
He had spoiled many a hit of stone. He had dulled the edge
of many a tool. He had spent laborious nights and days, and
the whole was in that tiny bit of work. His masterpiece was
carefully examined by the Masters assembled and if it was
approved he was made a Master Mason, entitled to take his
kit of tools and go out as a workman, a Master and Fellow of
his Craft. Not, however, until he had selected a Mark by
which his work could be identified, and renewed his Vows to
the Order in which he was now a Fellow.
The old order was first Apprentice, then Master, then Fellow
- mastership being, in the early time, not a degree conferred,
but a reward of skill as a workman and of merit as a man.
The reversal of the order today is due, no doubt, to the
custom of the German Guilds, where a Fellow Craft was
required to serve two additional years as a journeyman
before becoming a Master. No such custom was known in
England. Indeed, the reverse was true, and it was the
Apprentice who prepared his masterpiece, and if it was
accepted, he became a Master. Having won his mastership,
he was entitled to become a Fellow - that is, a peer and
Fellow of the Craft which hitherto he had only served.
Hence, all through the Old Charges, the order is "Masters
and Fellows," but there are signs to show that a distinction
was made according to ability and skill.
For example, in the Matthew Cooke MS. we read that it had
been "ordained that they who were passing of cunning
should be passing honoured," and those less skilled were
commanded to call the more skilled "Masters." Then it is
added, "They that were less of wit should not be called
servant nor subject, but Fellow, for nobility of their gentle
blood." After this manner our ancient Brethren faced the fact
of human inequality of ability and initiative. Those who were
of greater skill held a higher position and were called
Masters, while the masses of the Craft were called Fellows.
A further distinction must be made between a "Master" and a
"Master of the Work," now represented by the Master of the
Lodge. Between a Master and the Master of the Work there
was no difference, of course, except an accidental one; they
were both Masters and Fellows. Any Master could become a
Master of the Work provided he was of sufficient skill and
had the fortune to be chosen as such either by the employer
or the Lodge, or both.
What rite or ritual, if any, accompanied the making of a
Master in the old operative Lodges is still a matter of
discussion. In an age devoted to ceremonial it is hard to
imagine such an important event without its appropriate
ceremony, but the details are obscure. But this is plain
enough: all the materials out of which the degrees were later
developed existed, if not in drama, at least in legend.
Elaborate drama would not be necessary in an operative
Lodge. Even to-day, much of what is acted out in an
American Lodge, is merely recited in an English Lodge.
Students seem pretty well agreed that from a very early time
there were two ceremonies, or degrees, although, no doubt,
in a much less elaborate form than now practiced. As the
Order, after the close of the cathedral-building period,
passed into its speculative character, there would naturally
be many changes and much that was routine in an operative
Lodge became ritual in a speculative Lodge.
This is not the time to discuss the origin and development of
the Third Degree, except to say that those who imagine that
it was an invention fabricated by Anderson and others at the
time of the revival of Masonry, in 1717, are clearly wrong.
Such a degree could have been invented by anyone familiar
with the ancient Mystery Religions; but it could never have
been imposed upon the Craft, unless it harmonized with
some previous ceremony, or, at least, with ideas, traditions
and legends familiar and common to the members of the
Craft. That such ideas and traditions did exist in the Craft we
have ample evidence. Long before 1717 we hear hints of
"The Master's Part," and those hints increase as the office of
Master of the Work lost its practical aspect after the
cathedral-building period. What was the Master's Part?
Unfortunately we cannot discuss it in print; but nothing is
plainer than that we do not have to go outside of Masonry
itself to find the materials out of which all three degrees, as
they now exist, were developed.
Masonry was not invented; it grew. To-day it unfolds its wise
and good and beautiful truth in three noble and impressive
degrees, and no man can take them to heart and not be
ennobled and enriched by their dignity and beauty. The first
lays emphasis upon that fundamental righteousness without
which a man is not a man, but a medley of warring passions
- that purification of heart which is the basis alike of life and
religion. The Second lays stress upon the culture of the
mind, the training of its faculties in the quest of knowledge,
without which man remains a child. The Third seeks to
initiate us, symbolically, into the eternal life, making us
victors over death before it arrives. The First is the Degree of
Youth, the Second the Degree of Manhood, the Third the
consolation and conquest of Old Age, when the evening
shadows fall and the Eternal World and its unknown
adventure draw near.
What, then, for each of us to-day, is meant by the Master's
Piece? Is it simply a quaint custom handed down from our
ancient Brethren, in which we learn how an Apprentice was
made a Master of his Craft? It is that indeed, but much more.
Unless we have eyes to see a double meaning everywhere
in Masonry, a moral application and a spiritual suggestion,
we see little or nothing. But if we have eyes to see it is
always a parable, an allegory, a symbol, and the Master's
Piece of olden time becomes an emblem of that upon which
every man is working all the time and everywhere, whether
he is aware of it or not-his character, his personality, by
which he will be tested and tried at last. Character, as the
word means, is something carved, something wrought out of
the raw stuff and hard material of life. All we do, all we think,
goes into the making of it. Every passion, every aspiration
has to do with it. If we are selfish, it is ugly. If we are hateful,
it is hideous. William James went so far as to say that just as
the stubs remain in the check book, to register the
transaction when the check is removed, so every mental act,
every deed becomes a part of our being and character. Such
a fact makes a man ponder and consider what he is making
out of his life, and what it will look like at the end.
Like the Masons of old, apprenticed in the school of life, we
work for "a penny a day." We never receive a large sum all
at once, but the little reward of daily duties. The scholar, the
man of science, attains truth, not in a day, but slowly, little by
little, fact by fact. In the same way, day by day, act by act,
we make our character, by which we shall stand judged
before the Master of all Good Work. Often enough men
make such a bad botch of it that they have to begin all over
again. The greatest truth taught by religion is the forgiveness
of God, which erases the past and gives another chance. All
of us have spoiled enough material, dulled enough tools and
made enough mistakes to teach us that life without charity is
cruel and bitter.
Goethe, a great Mason, said that talent may develop in
solitude, but character is created in society. It is the fruit of
fellowship. Genius may shine aloof and alone, like a star, but
goodness is social, and it takes two men and God to make a
brother. In the Holy Book which lies open on our altar we
read: "No man liveth unto himself; no man dieth unto
himself." We are tied together, seeking that truth which none
may learn for another, and none may learn alone. If evil men
can drag us down, good men can lift us up. No one of us is
strong enough not to need the companionship of good men
and the consecration of great ideals. Here lies, perhaps, the
deepest meaning and value of Masonry; it is a fellowship of
men seeking goodness, and to yield ourselves to its
influence, to be drawn into its spirit and quest, is to be made
better than ourselves.
Amid such influences each of us is making his Master's
Piece. God is all the time refining, polishing, with strokes
now tender, now terrible. That is the meaning of pain,
sorrow, death. It is the chisel of the Master cutting the rough
stone. How hard the mallet strikes, but the stone becomes a
pillar, an arch, perhaps an altar emblem. "Him that
overcometh, I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. "
The masterpiece of life, at once the best service to man and
the fairest offering to God, is a pure, faithful, heroic, beautiful
"Oh! the Cedars of Lebanon grow at our door,
And the quarry is sunk at our gate;
And the ships out of Ophir, with golden ore,
For our summoning mandate wait;
And the word of a Master Mason
May the house of our soul create!
"While the day hath light let the light be used,
For no man shall the night control!
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, Or broken the golden
bowl, May we build King Solomon's Temple
In the true Masonic Soul!"