By Bro. Lionel Vibert, P.A.G.D.C.
The Prestonian Lecture for 1925
Prepared in this format by Bro. Mike Lawrence
At a later date we meet with a constructive degree, introduced to give brethren the qualification then required for the Royal Arch in exactly the same way, I submit, the genesis of the Fellow Craft degree was that it was a constructive degree, introduced to enable the Private Lodges to give their own members the necessary qualification for their Master’s Chair; without involving a recourse to Grand Lodge.
The qualification was that he was to be among the Fellow‑Craft; this is the phrase of Anderson in 1723, at a date when no such degree was in existence. The law of the day was that the Master’s Part was only to be conferred in Grand Lodge. The solution of the difficulty is readily arrived at. We shall in our Lodges confer a chair degree, and we shall call it Fellow‑Craft, and in order to avoid any suggestion of trespassing on Grand Lodge’s province we shall construct it exclusively from material available to us in the existing Acceptance, or associated with it.
The degree itself complies absolutely with this description of what it was necessary it should consist of if it was to serve its purpose. It does not appear that originally it had so much as a separate obligation of its own. It was simply a chair degree arrived at by repeating the Entered Apprentice degree and emphasising one of the two words already associated with it, so that inevitably in a very short time each degree took exclusive possession of one of the two words.
Other differences were introduced as time went on, but with regard to the names we still talk of their conjoint signification; we still re‑assemble the emblems which were in 1725 disrupted to suit the purposes of the Private Lodges of the period. And we can, I think, assume that there was not at this stage either in the Fellow Craft or in the Master’s Part, now become the Third Degree, any introduction of entirely new material.
Had there been any such innovation we may be quite certain not only that the old masons would have been up in arms, but that Grand Lodge would have made it a pretext for condemning the new departure. There was apparently some discontent and we can see the reasons for it, but there was as yet no suggestion of any disunion, nor do we get any accusation of departing from old customs until Grand Lodge itself changes the order of the words in the first two degrees after 1730.
In course of time the Second Degree gained in character and in incident. But it was long before the Third Degree arrived at the position that it now holds in the system.
So late as 1752 it was not required as a step to any rank or promotion, for we find in that year that the first Prov. G.M. of Cornwall was installed, and the Brother who presided on the occasion was only a Fellow‑Craft. At the present day there is nowhere in the Book of Constitutions any direction that the Master of a Lodge or any holder of Grand Rank, except the Tyler and two other officers, shall be a Master Mason. For years, therefore, it was merely a luxury, but fortunately one that gradually became increasingly popular. What happened was that the degree was only conferred for special reasons at special Lodges of Masters summoned by the W.M.
An ordinary Lodge had every right to confer the degree but it would only do so very occasionally. Not all the members took the degree. And as a necessary consequence in a number of Lodges they were unable to work the ceremony, and we find as early as 1738 eleven Lodges in London specifically described as Master’s Lodges.
This does not mean that they alone might work the degree; but it does imply that they specialised in it and apparently conferred it for the benefit of other Lodges who were not familiar with the working of it (Hughan, Origin of the English Rite, page 53). It is not till 1738 that we find the distinction made of speaking of the admission to the Master’s Part as raising. But in course of time the Lodges generally took over the degree and by a natural process it became the rule to select the Master from the brethren with the higher qualification. Preston says: “From this class of the Order the Rulers of the Craft are selected,” and exposures of the years just before the Union say in terms that the first qualification for the office of Master is that he be regularly and lawfully raised. This still suggests that he was only raised when it became a question of having the qualification, because Preston also remarks “The Third Class (i.e., M.M.) is restricted to a selected few,” but we may, I think, take it that by the Union it was the usual practice to take the degree.
The course of development then, apart from any reasons for it, is that in 1721 Grand Lodge recognised two degrees, an Acceptance and a Master’s Part, and that from 1725 there were three, a new degree being dovetailed in. The Master’s Part is the true predecessor of the Third Degree today. The 1723 exposure has the phrase: “I know the Master’s Part full well, as honest Maughbin will you tell.” The allusion is one we can still appreciate, and it involves the inference that the Master’s Part was concerned with the Hiramic Legend. We are often told that both legend and degree were constructed in the early years of Grand Lodge presumably therefore in or before 1721.
But it is to me, at all events, difficult of acceptance that so drastic an innovation‑for such it would assuredly have been‑was not only permitted but was endorsed by the Antients when, in 1751, they came to restore the old systems and remove the alterations introduced by the Premier Grand Lodge. Not only do the minutes of Haughfoot and Kelso, of 1702, unmistakably indicate two degrees, but we have the records of the London Acception which show in 1635 members paying for admission, and making a second payment to become masters. I think we can assert unhesitatingly that the Master’s Part, and therefore the Hiramic Legend, antedates the Grand Lodge era.
Let us therefore move the enquiry yet one more stage further back and endeavour to ascertain what can be said as to the Craft when the Lodge was still the workroom of a gild of working masons, engaged on some great cathedral or abbey of medieval England, and by what process it gathered together that wonderful accumulation of legend, symbolic morality and philosophy that was surely already part of the system when the first Grand Lodge assembled at the Apple Tree in Charles Street, Covent Garden.