The Third Degree


The success of the lodge and the Masters year is not measured in the number of candidates initiated, or the number of visits, or even the state of the finances. The real success of a Lodge is in the Fellowship it creates, the tolerance that it generates and the understanding that it builds in the principals of Freemasonry.

The better understanding of the history of Freemasonry and the meaning of its symbols, promotes a greater pleasure and enjoyment from the ritual, this in turn will contribute to the success of your lodge.

When I was asked if I would give a talk on the third degree it presented quite a challenge, for the third degree is probably the most complex of all the degree’s. My problem is that in the presents of such a respectable assembly and before such competent judges of real merit, that I do not have the knowledge for language or the talents of eloquence to do justice to the dignity of this theme.


Before starting I would like to refer to the opening remarks of a very distinguished lecturer who started one of his talks with these words.

“It is not my intention to enter into an elaborate discourse 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 were the opening words of the Oration given by Brother William Preston, in 1772, when he introduced the first of his Masonic Lectures.

All the same, two hundred years later those words sum up the requirements for any talk: that it should not be an “elaborate discourse”, but rather the submission of “a few observations”, and it is in this spirit that the following thoughts are offered on the subject of the MASTER MASONS DEGREE.


The problem with this degree is where to start and I suppose the sprig of acacia is a good a place as any. The sprig of acacia may be said to represent the Third Degree, which began as a temporary measure and is now firmly established. The Third Degree started out as a temporary measure because of the circumstances at the time.

In the sixteen hundred there were no degrees, the reference to separate degrees started after 1730. In the sixteen hundred and the early seventeen hundred there were only apprentices and Fellows. The only reference to a Master mason applied to the Craftsman who was elected to preside over the lodge.

Confusion of Titles

A confusion arises because in our old records the use of Master and Master Mason were interchangeable, further confusion because of the making of Masters. There is no reference to raising until after 1737. There was no fixed period of time that the Master should govern the lodge. One point that is very clear at this period in time is that no private lodge was permitted to work “The Masters Part”.

Brother Anderson’s Book of Constitutions laid down rules for lodges to make Apprentices and Fellows, it is not clear at this stage whether this was two separate ceremonies or only one. In order to keep control of those who could rule and govern the craft, the work of the Masters part, and the making of Masters could only be done by and in the Grand lodge. By these means Grand Lodge was able to vet each incoming Master to make sure that he was suitable.

The Masters Part

For a time, it seems certain that the Masters Part was conferred on those who were about to become Masters of a lodge. As lodges grew in number it became difficult and inconvenient for candidates to make the necessary journey to Grand Lodge to be given the Masters Part.

In order to create a pool of candidates from which to elect the Master, several Fellow Craft would attend Grand Lodge and get the Masters Part. This situation created a new class of mason, those who had received the Masters Part and have not occupied the Masters Chair. He became what we now refer to as a Master Mason.

The Installation

The ancient charges state: - “The most expert of the Fellow craftsmen shall be chosen or appointed the Master”, also it states that: - “No Brother can be a Warden until he has passed the part of a Fellow Craft, nor a Master until he has acted as a Warden.”. Even now in our ceremony of installation we still follow the old workings, for the Master elect is obligated not in the third degree but in the position of a Fellow craft. This is a logical position for at the period in time that we are referring to there was no higher degree for craft masons.

The Installing Master then addresses the brethren:

"From ancient times it has been the custom for the Brethren and Fellows to select from their number an expert craftsman to preside as Master”

The Master Elect would then take the obligation for the duties of the Master and all those who were not Passed Masters would then retire. It is at this stage in the proceedings that the Legend of HA is conferred on the Master Elect.

Royal Arch

This in turn created a problem for the Royal Arch, for at this time to proceed on it was necessary to “Pass the Chair” in regular form. This implied that he had to be installed as a Master. However, there were now this other class of Mason who considered themselves Master Masons 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 was all about.

The Master Mason

To place a precise time on when the third or Master Masons Degree appeared cannot be done, it is fair to say that it evolved over a period of about thirty years. There is no doubt that it was in place in 1717, there is also no doubt that the ledged of HA had been in existence long before this.

So now we come to the ceremony of the Master Mason.

Most of the lessons of the Third degree are obvious, but others that could be the most important are grasped only after a long association with Freemasonry. The teaching of Craft Masonry is intended to represent the stages of man passing through life, the first being the time to learn, the Second the time to work, it is the third that is referred to as the sublime degree, and is the Degree that is the most dramatic and complex, it represents old age and death. But the G or T of this Degree is the first of the five points of Fellowship, and these teach us how to live.

What was Lost

In the opening of the Third Degree the Wardens are journeying towards the West to seek for that which was lost. This is one of the first things that seem to be out of place in this Degree. The West is a place of darkness; we travel towards the East in search of Light. What then is the reason then for travelling towards darkness? The philosophy of masonry teaches us that there can be no death without a resurrection, on the same principle it follows that what is lost must eventually be recovered. If we are to recover the genuine secrets of a MM, then we must travel beyond the grave to find them and to do this we are travelling through darkness. That which was lost was symbolically the symbol of Divine Truth, so when we open the Third Degree we are entering into a search for the truth.

The Centre

The Lodge is opened on the Center in this Degree. This is a point within a circle that has no dimension and all parts of the circumference are equally distant. Masonicaly speaking this point is considered perfection. In the other Degrees you cannot claim a condition of perfect equality, for there could be Entered Apprentices and Fellow Craft present. This Degree attaches a great deal of importance to the center: 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. In the First T.B. we are told that in all regular and well-formed lodges there is a point within a circle round which a Mason cannot err.

The central character in the story of the Third Degree is H.A. and when his body was returned to J. It was buried as near to the S.S. as the law would permit in a grave “from the center” three feet East and three feet West. In this Degree you are proved by the “Square and Compasses” in other words by the test of perfection of H.A. It is for this reason that we hope to find what is genuine on the center, for the Center contains the example of the perfect Mason.

The Prayer

The candidate re-enters the Lodge now in total D...... and kneels for the prayer, part of which is “passing safely .... “, the D.... in this case signifies the unknown, the shadow of the valley of death. He has to pass through this D.... proving that he has learned the lessons of life on each perambulation, and finally proving that he has the integrity to go on to a glorious immortality. He now stands at the “head ..........” and takes seven steps, the first three .............. and the last four .............., how many realize then or even now that they are stepping over their own G.... and then take four steps beyond the G......

The Obligation

The obligation in the Third is vastly different to those of the first and second, in the first two degrees you undertake to keep the secrets of the degree, but in the Third Degree, not only do you promise to keep the secrets, but also in this obligation you promise to live by a code of conduct, “the five points of Fellowship” and to protect the integrity of other Brethren. This again is an example of how to live, not how to die.

The retrospect’s follows at this point and is self-explanatory, and leads into the Raising. This is the whole purpose of the Third Degree, in Ancient Mysteries the doctrine of regeneration was taught by symbols, here we have a symbolic D.. after which there is a resurrection. From temporal D... to eternal life, or out of darkness into eternal light.

The Working Tools

There is an obvious difference in the Tools of a master Mason, in the other two Degrees the tools are those that would be used for manual labor, however this is the Degree of the Master and the tools are those that would be used for design and for setting out the Work. There is an exception to this in the American lodges for instead of the Skirrit they have the Trowel, with this the M.M. is to spread Masonic knowledge

The Skirrit

This is a very ancient implement, there are examples that have been found in tombs' three and four thousand years old. The fact that it was buried with its owner would infer that it was an object of importance to their lives. What was found strange to those who discovered these tools was that some of them contained twelve equally spaced knots along the length of the string. (Demo)

The Pencil

This reminds us that our thoughts and action are being recorded, what it does not emphasize is that we should take more care of our actions. Every thought we have and every action we take will in some way effect someone else. Our everyday thoughts will mold our character, if we are having a bad day it is easy to say or do something that will upset someone else, and now you have spoilt their day also, then you get the violent and turbulent thoughts of the fanatic, who will affect the lives of thousands as was done at Port Arthur. The Masonic doctrine requires that every thought we have and every action we take should be undertaken with good intentions.

The Compasses

In the earliest rituals the Compasses are said to be part of the furniture of the lodge, and are said to belong to the Grand Master in particular. For the Operative mason they were used for measurement of the architect’s plans, and to enable him to give just proportions and to insure beauty as well as stability to his work. From an 18th century catechism part of the installation went like this: -

Q. How came you to be passed Master

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

Q. How was you passed Master.

A. From the Square to the Compass.

The Tracing Board

In talking about the Tracing Boards I would ask you to visualize them as floor cloths spread out on the floor as was done two hundred years ago.

The Tracing Boards are an item that has undergone great change over the years, from an early beginning of being drawn on the floor, and later to floor cloths that would have had the appearance of a Tapestry, and finally to our present day boards. The early Boards that were drawn on the floor were contained within a heavy cord and on each corner there was a tassel and there would be a lover’s loop on the sides. This was also depicted on the Floor cloths, but our Tracing Boards have replaced the cord with the tessellated border, but quite often you will still find the tassels and the knot.

The first thing to notice about the Third Tracing Board is that it stands the opposite way round, compared with the other two, for its head is towards the West and the foot towards the East. Here is another indication that the Third Degree is the “Master’s part”. The first 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 be seen by the Master from the chair

The inscription on the plate that is part of the coffin

No Accident

It was surely no accident that the third degree, as we know it, date's 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 an age of piracy and hi-jacking and Jack the Ripper. In an age such as this it was apparently necessary to insert a clause into the Oblige. To protect the chastity of those nearest and dearest to him.

Such, then are the “observations which I submit to your serious consideration”. I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. From being an elite minority, Master Masons now form the overwhelming majority of the membership of the craft: Thus that “one great and useful lesson more” has been taught to so many who can profit by it. Courage, faithfulness, truth and honor are qualities which the modern world does its best to devalue, and virtue is constantly under attack in our permissive society.

I started this talk with a quote from a lecture by William Preston. He sums up that lecture with these words

The third Degree serves to commemorate the life and death of our grand Master H.A. whose extensive genius was amply displayed by his works, while the fidelity to his trust and his manly behavior at the close of his life must inspire every generous mind with gratitude and render his name everlasting in our annals. His example must teach us to defend our virtue when exposed to the most sever attacks, and to preserve our honor at the risk of our lives.

Lodge Lakehaven Daylight June 1996

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J. Simpson Africa Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, Lodge 628, 

is part of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania