By Bro. Lionel Vibert, P.A.G.D.C.
The Prestonian Lecture for 1925
Prepared in this format by Bro. Mike Lawrence
The course of events seems to be that the operative Gild custom was to admit the apprentice by a simple oath, but to make the apprentice out of his indentures a freeman and full member of the Gild by a ceremony which included the imparting of the all‑important secret means of recognition, the conferring of the mark and a moral lecture, and concluding with a feast. The Speculatives made these two occasions into one; they would proceed at once on admission to full membership. They also elaborated the actual ceremony considerably, but it is hopeless now to attempt to dissect out what is in fact accretion due to speculative influence and what is genuine survival from the days of the first cathedral builders.
But in the Master’s Part we are confronted with a ceremony of an entirely different character. We have in the first place a narrative, the story of the murder of the builder; in the second the teaching of a great religious truth, not one, however, that was at any time the special property of builders; and we also have an entirely distinct form of greeting, the five points of fellowship.
It seems to be the case that legends of the murder of a builder, which are widespread in folklore, are to be explained as survivals or reminiscences of original completion sacrifices, sacrifices of a human being with the object of giving the newly completed edifice a soul or a protecting demon; and an individual so intimately connected with the building as its architect would be likely to be selected as peculiarly appropriate for such a sacrifice.
It is probable that building communities generally have had such stories, and we find in fact that in France one has at a very early date crystallised into the narrative of the murder of Maître Jacques, the Master who brought the craft itself from Palestine to France. The existence of similar legends in our own country is attested by stories such as that of the Roslyn Pillar. Palestine and King Solomon’s Temple did not form part of our original legend. But they had been adopted at all events by the 15th, and it would appear that during the 16th and 17th centuries the scribes who copied the various versions of our Old Charges had scruples as to writing the name of Hiram the builder, and substituted Anon or Amon or the like for it.
As had been pointed out by W. Bro. Morris Rosenbaum, the double name Hiram Abif was found in the three first English Bibles of 1535 and the following years, but it disappeared from the Great Bible which superseded them in 1539. In 1723 it would, in the ordinary course, have been known only to Hebrew scholars. Yet it is clear that the craft was familiar with it in that year, and this appears to involve that it had come down as a tradition in the Lodges.
Again the explanation we give of MACH is one that cannot be justified philologically; no Hebrew scholar would arrive at such an interpretation independently. But the word actually occurs in the Bible as the name of a captain of the host. Now to the Geneva Bible of 1580 there was appended a concordance in which the Hebrew names were explained, and in that we read that this word means, among other things, “the smiting of the builder”.
The only plausible interpretation of this fact seems to be that the compiler has met with this meaning in some circle to which he belonged, and inserted it on that ground regardless of the philological question. These various considerations make it difficult to avoid the conclusion that there was not merely a murder legend among the Craft in this country from a very early date, but that for two centuries at least it had been definitely a Hiramic Legend. And as such it was the peculiar property of the Masters; and the ceremonies connected with it, whatever they may have been, constituted the Master’s Pan.
Now, the culmination of the five points of fellowship is the whispering of certain words and they refer to the narrative. But they are today explained in a way that is obviously unsatisfactory. We raise the Candidate from a figurative tomb by their means, which is very well; but what we recite as the narrative is a manifest incongruity. Nevertheless it is in Prichard, so that the mistake, as I suppose we may call it, is one of long standing.
Now the Compagnonnage have two elaborate forms of greeting very similar to each other and to our five points of fellowship and in each, words are whispered. One is gone through between the compagnons at funerals. The true state of affairs appears to me to be that just as the Masters had a special ceremony of a distinct type, they also had an elaborate form of greeting and salutation, with which the newly made Master was received.
The Fellow had his simple grip, part of the means of recognition, and we may be fairly certain that the various forms of it that we meet with today as we proceed in the Order, are but variations of late introduction. But the Masters used the five points of fellowship an essential part of which was the communicating of certain words.
But what was the function of this special ceremony in pre‑Grand Lodge days? By the Gild it was no doubt associated with the Master of the Work; and the Masters of the Gild were men of definite standing and authority. But the speculative Craft in the 17th century was in a different position. The language of Ashmole suggests that he was never more than a Fellow and took only one degree. But the phraseology of the Dublin Tripos of 1688 with its reference to being freemasonized the new way is very suggestive of a special speculative ceremony, and this may have been a Master’s Part.
It would appear as though prior to 1721 there was very little occasion for the ceremony and little use made of it. Stukeley writes: “We had great difficulty to find members enough to perform the ceremony”; and this was in London on January 6th, 1721. He can hardly be referring to the ordinary acceptance. Moreover, it is to be noted that from an allusion in a MS. of 1714 we know that certain features of the ceremony were related to what is today our Installation. What appears to have happened is that in 1721, with the introduction of the hitherto undreamt of feature of new Lodges, Masters were necessarily required for them.
The Master’s Part accordingly became of great importance. The Installed Master was given certain portions of the working, but the Part itself was still the pre‑requisite for the holding of the office. There is undoubtedly a contemporary confusion in the terminology which it is not easy to unravel, but when in 1723 Anderson speaks of making Masters and Fellows only in Grand Lodge he is, as we have already seen, referring not to two degrees, but to the Master’s Part alone.
We are now in a position to assess, at all events roughly, the material brought forward to the Grand Lodge which was to form the basis of all that is contained in our ceremonies today.
In the first place: A body of symbolism and teachings based on architecture, working tools, and other material emblems; representing an apprentice admission and the fellow admission of the operative craftsmen greatly elaborated, but fused into one ceremony of admission or Acceptance in the speculative period that preceded Grand Lodge. This was split up in 1725 to form our present First and Second Degrees, and their subsequent history and development has already been described. Parts of the operative material, such as the conferring the mark, were preserved in Scotland but laid aside in England.
Secondly: A murder legend of great antiquity associated at some date undetermined with King Solomon’s Temple and Hiram Abif; and a peculiar form of greeting including the whispering of words referring to the legend. Both these are restricted to Masters and they came forward as the Master’s Part, but one small detail may have been detached from the ceremony in 1721 to meet the requirements of the new office of Installed Master. This Master’s Part is our Third Degree today. But just when it took the actual form in which we now have it is not ascertainable; it underwent a process of modification to which I have already alluded, which continued right up to the time of the Lodge of Reconciliation.
In this analysis of our wonderful system I have, of necessity, proceeded from the known to the unknown, and much must unavoidably be, and remain, matter of hypothesis and opinion. I fully realise that my various hypothetical suggestions invite criticism; if they do not survive it will be because they do not deserve to. But I shall be at one with my critics if I conclude in the words of that worthy old Master, to whose generous provision of more than a century ago, the very delivery of this lecture is due: “He who has studied our teachings in a regular progress from the commencement of the First to the conclusion of the Third degree must have amassed an ample store of knowledge, and will reflect with pleasure on the good effects of his past diligence and attention.”