The Builders – Chapter 7 Fellowcrafts

In 1915, Joseph Fort Newton’s book, ‘The Builders: A Story and Study of Freemasonry’ was published.

It has become a Masonic classic in as much that it really does lay the foundations of knowledge for us to build upon.

Noe person (of what degree soever) shalbee accepted a Free Mason, unless hee shall have a lodge of five Free Masons at least; whereof one to be a master, or warden, of that limitt, or division, wherein such Lodge shalbee kept, and another of the trade of Free Masonry.

That noe person shalbee accepted a Free Mason, but such as are of able body, honest parentage, good reputation, and observers of the laws of the land.

That noe person shalbee accepted a Free Mason, or know the secrets of said Society, until hee bath first taken the oath of secrecy hereafter following:

“I, A. B., doe in the presence of Almighty God, and my fellows, and brethren here present, promise and declare, that I will not at any time hereafter, by any act or circumstance whatsoever, directly or indirectly, publish, discover, reveal, or make known any of the secrets, privileges, or counsels, of the fraternity or fellowship of Free Masonry, which at this time, or any time hereafter, shalbee made known unto mee soe helpe mee God, and the holy contents of this booke.”

—HARLEIAN MS, 1600-1650

Chapter 7 – Fellow crafts


HAVING followed the Free-masons over a long period of history, it is now in order to give some account of the ethics, organization, laws, emblems, and workings of their lodges.

Such a study is at once easy and difficult by turns, owing to the mass of material, and to the further fact that in the nature of things much of the work of a secret order is not, and has never been, matter for record.

By this necessity, not a little must remain obscure, but it is hoped that even those not of the order may derive a definite notion of the principles and practices of the old Craft-masonry, from which the Masonry of today is descended.

At least, such a sketch will show that, from times of old, the order of Masons has been a teacher of morality, charity, and truth, unique in its genius, noble in its spirit, and benign in its influence.

Taking its ethical teaching first, we have only to turn to the Old Charges or Constitutions of the order, with their quaint blending of high truth and homely craft-law, to find the moral basis of universal Masonry.

These old documents were a part of the earliest ritual of the order, and were recited or read to every young man at the time of his initiation as an Entered Apprentice.

As such, they rehearsed the legends, laws, and ethics of the craft for his information, and, as we have seen, they insisted upon the antiquity of the order, as well as its service to mankind—a fact peculiar to Masonry, for no other order has ever claimed such a legendary or traditional history.

Having studied that legendary record and its value as history, it remains to examine the moral code laid before the candidate who, having taken a solemn oath of loyalty and secrecy, was instructed in his duties as an Apprentice and his conduct as a man.

What that old code lacked in subtlety is more than made up in simplicity, and it might all be stated in the words of the Prophet: “To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God”,—the old eternal moral law, founded in faith, tried by time, and approved as valid for men of every clime, creed, and condition.


Halliwell MS or Regius Poem
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Turning to the Regius MS, we find fifteen “points” or rules set forth for the guidance of Fellowcrafts, and as many for the rule of Master Masons.[1]

Later the number was reduced to nine, but so far from being an abridgment, it was in fact an elaboration of the original code; and by the time we reach the Roberts and Watson MSS a similar set of requirements for Apprentices had been adopted—or rather recorded, for they had been in use long before.

It will make for clearness if we reverse the order and take the Apprentice charge first, as it shows what manner of men were admitted to the order.

No man was made a Mason save by his own free choice, and he had to prove himself a freeman of lawful age, of legitimate birth, of sound body, of clean habits, and of good repute, else he was not eligible.

Also, he had to bind himself by solemn oath to serve under rigid rules for a period of seven years, vowing absolute obedience—for the old-time Lodge was a school in which young men studied, not only the art of building and its symbolism, but the seven sciences as well.

At first the Apprentice was little more than a servant, doing the most menial work, his period of endenture being at once a test of his character and a training for his work.

If he proved himself trustworthy and proficient, his wages were increased, albeit his rules of conduct were never relaxed. How austere the discipline was may be seen from a summary of its rules:

Confessing faith in God, an Apprentice vowed to honor the Church, the State, and the Master under whom he served, agreeing not to absent himself from the service of the order, by day or night, save with the license of the Master.

He must be honest, truthful, upright, faithful in keeping the secrets of the craft, or the confidence of the Master, or of any Free-mason, when communicated to him as such.

Above all he must be chaste, never committing adultery or fornication, and he must not marry, or contract himself to any woman, during his apprenticeship.

He must be obedient to the Master without argument or murmuring, respectful to all Free-masons, courteous, avoiding obscene or uncivil speech, free from slander, dissension, or dispute.

He must not haunt or frequent any tavern or ale-house, or so much as go into them except it be upon an errand of the Master or with his consent, using neither cards, dice, nor any unlawful game, “Christmas time excepted”.

He must not steal anything even to the value of a penny, or suffer it to be done, or shield anyone guilty of theft, but report the fact to the Master with all speed.

After seven long years the Apprentice brought his masterpiece to the Lodge—or, in earlier times, to the annual Assembly [2] —and on strict trial and due examination was declared a Master.

Thereupon he ceased to be a pupil and servant, passed into the ranks of Fellowcrafts, and became a free man capable, for the first time in his life, of earning his living and choosing his own employer.

Having selected a Mark [3] by which his work could be identified, he could then take his kit of tools and travel as a Master of his art, receiving the wages of a Master—not, however, without first reaffirming his vows of honesty, truthfulness, fidelity, temperance, and chastity, and assuming added obligations to uphold the honor of the order.

Again he was sworn not to lay bare, nor to tell to any man what he heard or saw done in the Lodge, and to keep the secrets of a fellow Mason as inviolably as his own—unless such a secret imperiled the good name of the craft.

He furthermore promised to act as mediator between his Master and his Fellows, and to deal justly with both parties.

If he saw a Fellow hewing a stone which he was in a fair way to spoil, he must help him without loss of time, if able to do so, that the whole work be not ruined.

Or if he met a fellow Mason in distress, or sorrow, he must aid him so far as lay within his power.

In short, he must live in justice and honor with all men, especially with the members of the order, “that the bond of mutual charity and love may augment and continue.”

Still more binding, if possible, were the vows of a Fellowcraft when he was elevated to the dignity of Master of the Lodge or of the Work.

Once more he took solemn oath to keep the secrets of the order unprofaned, and more than one old MS quotes the Golden Rule as the law of the Master’s office.

He must be steadfast, trusty, and true; pay his Fellows truly; take no bribe; and as a judge stand upright.

He must attend the annual Assembly, unless disabled by illness, if within fifty miles—the distance varying, however, in different MSS.

He must be careful in admitting Apprentices, taking only such as are fit both physically and morally, and keeping none without assurance that he would stay seven years in order to learn his craft.

He must be patient with his pupils, instruct them diligently, encourage them with increased pay, and not permit them to work at night, “unless in the pursuit of knowledge, which shall be a sufficient excuse.”

He must be wise and discreet, and undertake no work he cannot both perform and complete equally to the profit of his employer and the craft.

Should a Fellow be overtaken by error, he must be gentle, skilful, and forgiving, seeking rather to help than to hurt, abjuring scandal and bitter words.

He must not attempt to supplant a Master of the Lodge or of the Work, or belittle his work, but recommend it and assist him in improving it.

He must be liberal in charity to those in need, helping a Fellow who has fallen upon evil lot, giving him work and wages for at least a fortnight, or if he has no work, “relieve him with money to defray his reasonable charges to the next Lodge.”

For the rest, he must in all ways act in a manner befitting the nobility of his office and his order.

Such were some of the laws of the moral life by which the old Craft-masonry sought to train its members, not only to be good workmen, but to be good and true men, serving their Fellows; to which, as the Rawlinson MS tells us;

“divers new articles have been added by the free choice and good consent and best advice of the Perfect and True Masons, Masters, and Brethren.”

If, as an ethic of life, these laws seem simple and rudimentary, they are none the less fundamental, and they remain to this day the only gate and way by which those must enter who would go up to the House of the Lord.

As such they are great and saving things to lay to heart and act upon, and if Masonry taught nothing else its title to the respect of mankind would be clear.

They have a double aspect: first, the building of a spiritual man upon immutable moral foundations; and second, the great and simple religious faith in the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of man, and the Life Eternal, taught by Masonry from its earliest history to this good day.

Morality and theistic religion—upon these two rocks Masonry has always stood, and they are the only basis upon which man may ever hope to rear the spiritual edifice of his life, even to the capstone thereof.



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Imagine, now, a band of these builders, bound together by solemn vows and mutual interests, journeying over the most abominable roads toward the site selected for an abbey or cathedral.

Traveling was attended with many dangers, and the company was therefore always well armed, the disturbed state of the country rendering such a precaution necessary.

Tools and provisions belonging to the party were carried on pack-horses or mules, placed in the center of the convoy, in charge of keepers.

The company consisted of a Master Mason directing the work, Fellows of the craft, and Apprentices serving their time.

Besides these we find subordinate laborers, not of the Lodge though in it, termed layers, setters, tilers, and so forth.

Masters and Fellows wore a distinctive costume, which remained almost unchanged in its fashion for no less than three centuries.[4]

Withal, it was a serious company, but in nowise solemn, and the tedium of the journey was no doubt beguiled by song, story, and the humor incident to travel.

“Wherever they came,” writes Mr. Hope in his “Essay on Architecture”, “in the suite of missionaries, or were called by the natives, or arrived of their own accord, to seek employment, they appeared headed by a chief surveyor, who governed the whole troop, and named one man out of every ten, under the name of warden, to overlook the other nine, set themselves to building temporary huts for their habitation around the spot where the work was to be carried on, regularly organized their different departments, fell to work, sent for fresh supplies of their brethren as the object demanded, and, when all was finished, again they raised their encampment, and went elsewhere to undertake other work.”

Here we have a glimpse of the methods of the Free-masons, of their organization, almost military in its order and dispatch, and of their migratory life; although they had a more settled life than this ungainly sentence allows, for long time was required for the building of a great cathedral.

Sometimes, it would seem, they made special contracts with the inhabitants of a town where they were to erect a church, containing such stipulations as, that a Lodge covered with tiles should be built for their accommodation, and that every laborer should be provided with a white apron of a peculiar kind of leather and gloves to shield the hands from stone and slime.[5]

At all events, the picture we have is that of a little community or village of workmen, living in rude dwellings, with a Lodge room at the center adjoining a slowly rising cathedral—the Master busy with his plans and the care of his craft; Fellows shaping stones for walls, arches, or spires; Apprentices fetching tools or mortar, and when necessary, tending the sick, and performing all offices of a similar nature.

Always the Lodge was the center of interest and activity, a place of labor, of study, of devotion, as well as the common room for the social life of the order.

Every morning, as we learn from the Fabric Rolls of York Minster, began with devotion, followed by the directions of the Master for the work of the day, which no doubt included study of the laws of the art, plans of construction, and the mystical meaning of ornaments and emblems.

Only Masons were in attendance at such times, the Lodge being closed to all others, and guarded by a Tiler [6] against “the approach of cowans [7] and eavesdroppers.”


Stone masons working on blocks of stone, making cisterns, columns, building parts etc. Woodcut by J. Amman..
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Thus the work of each day was begun, moving forward amidst the din and litter of the hours, until the craft was called from labor to rest and refreshment; and thus a cathedral was uplifted as a monument to the Order, albeit the names of the builders are faded and lost.

Employed for years on the same building, and living together in the Lodge, it is not strange that Free-masons came to know and love one another, and to have a feeling of loyalty to their craft, unique, peculiar, and enduring.

Traditions of fun and frolic, of song and feast and gala-day, have floated down to us, telling of a comradeship as joyous as it was genuine.

If their life had hardship and vicissitude, it had also its grace and charm of friendship, of sympathy, service, and community of interest, and the joy that comes of devotion to a high and noble art.

When a Mason wished to leave one Lodge and go elsewhere to work, as he was free to do when he desired, he had no difficulty in making himself known to the men of his craft by certain signs, grips, and words.

Such tokens of recognition were necessary to men who traveled afar in those uncertain days, especially when references or other means of identification were ofttimes impossible.

All that many people knew about the order was that its members had a code of secret signs, and that no Mason need be friendless or alone when other Masons were within sight or hearing; so that the very name of the craft came to stand for any mode of hidden recognition.

Steele, in the Tatler, speaks of a class of people who have “their signs and tokens like Free-masons.” [8]

There were more than one of these signs and tokens, as we are more than once told in the Harleian MS, for example, which speaks of “words and signs.” What they were may not be here discussed, but it is safe to say that a Master Mason of the Middle Ages, were he to return from the land of shadows, could perhaps make himself known as such in a Fellowcraft Lodge of today.

No doubt some things would puzzle him at first, but he would recognize the officers of the Lodge, its form, its emblems, its great altar Light, and its moral truth taught in symbols. Besides, he could tell us, if so minded, much that we should like to learn about the craft in the olden times, its hidden mysteries, the details of its rites, and the meaning of its symbols when the poetry of building was yet alive.



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This brings us to one of the most hotly debated questions in Masonic history—the question as to the number and nature of the degrees made use of in the old craft lodges.

Hardly any other subject has so deeply engaged the veteran archaeologists of the order, and while it ill becomes any one glibly to decide such an issue, it is at least permitted us, after studying all of value that has been written on both sides, to sum up what seems to be the truth arrived at. [9]

While such a thing as a written record of an ancient degree—aside from the Old Charges, which formed a part of the earliest rituals—is unthinkable, we are not left altogether to the mercy of conjecture in a matter so important.

Cesare Cantu tells us that the Comacine Masters “were called together in the Loggie by a grand-master to treat of affairs common to the order, to receive novices, and confer superior degrees on others.” [10]

Evidence of a sort similar is abundant, but not a little confusion will be avoided if the following considerations be kept in mind:

First, that during its purely operative period the ritual of Masonry was naturally less formal and ornate than it afterwards became, from the fact that its very life was a kind of ritual and its symbols were always visibly present in its labor.

By the same token, as it ceased to be purely operative, and others not actually architects were admitted to its fellowship, of necessity its rites became more formal—”very formall,” as Dugdale said in 1686, [11] —portraying in ceremony what had long been present in its symbolism and practice. 

Second, that with the decline of the old religious art of building—for such it was in very truth—some of its symbolism lost its luster, its form surviving but its meaning obscured, if not entirely faded.

Who knows, for example—even with the Klein essay on The Great Symbol [12] in hand—what Pythagoras meant by his lesser and greater Tetractys?

That they were more than mathematical theorems is plain, yet even Plutarch missed their meaning.

In the same way, some of the emblems in our Lodges are veiled, or else wear meanings invented after the fact, in lieu of deeper meanings hidden, or but dimly discerned.

Albeit, the great emblems still speak in truths simple and eloquent, and remain to refine, instruct, and exalt. 

Third, that when Masonry finally became a purely speculative or symbolical fraternity, no longer an order of practical builders, its ceremonial inevitably became more elaborate and imposing—its old habit and custom, as well as its symbols and teachings, being enshrined in its ritual.

More than this, knowing how “Time the white god makes all things holy, and what is old becomes religion,” it is no wonder that its tradition became every year more authoritative; so that the tendency was not, as many have imagined, to add to its teaching, but to preserve and develop its rich deposit of symbolism, and to avoid any break with what had come down from the past. 

Keeping in mind this order of evolution in the history of Masonry, we may now state the facts, so far as they are known, as to its early degrees; dividing it into two periods, the Operative and the Speculative. [13]

An Apprentice in the olden days was “entered” as a novice of the craft, first, as a purely business proceeding, not unlike our modern indentures, or articles.

Then, or shortly afterwards—probably at the annual Assembly—there was a ceremony of initiation making him a Mason—including an oath, the recital of the craft legend as re-corded in the Old Charges, instruction in moral conduct and deportment as a Mason, and the imparting of certain secrets.

At first this degree, although comprising secrets, does not seem to have been mystic at all, but a simple ceremony intended to impress upon the mind of the youth the high moral life required of him.

Even Guild-masonry had such a rite of initiation, as Hallam remarks, and if we may trust the Findel version of the ceremony used among the German Stone-masons, it was very like the first degree as we now have it—though one has always the feeling that it was embellished in the light of later time. [14]

So far there is no dispute, but the question is whether any other degree was known in the early lodges.

Both the probabilities of the case, together with such facts as we have, indicate that there was another and higher degree.

For, if all the secrets of the order were divulged to an Apprentice, he could, after working four years, and just when he was becoming valuable, run away, give himself out as a Fellow, and receive work and wages as such.

If there was only one set of secrets, this deception might be practiced to his own profit and the injury of the craft—unless, indeed, we revise all our ideas held hitherto, and say that his initiation did not take place until he was out of his articles.

This, however, would land us in worse difficulties later on. Knowing the fondness of the men of the Middle Ages for ceremony, it is hardly conceivable that the day of all days when an Apprentice, having worked for seven long years, acquired the status of a Fellow, was allowed to go unmarked, least of all in an order of men to whom building was at once an art and an allegory.

So that, not only the exigencies of his occupation, but the importance of the day to a young man, and the spirit of the order, justify such a conclusion.

Have we any evidence tending to confirm this inference? Most certainly; so much so that it is not easy to interpret the hints given in the Old Charges upon any other theory.

For one thing, in nearly all the MSS, from the Regius Poem down, we are told of two rooms or resorts, the Chamber and the Lodge—sometimes called the Bower and the Hall—and the Mason was charged to keep the “counsells” proper to each place.

This would seem to imply that an Apprentice had access to the Chamber or Bower, but not to the Lodge itself—at least not at all times.

It may be argued that the “other counsells” referred to were merely technical secrets, but that is to give the case away, since they were secrets held and communicated as such.

By natural process, as the order declined and actual building ceased, its technical secrets became ritual secrets, though they must always have had symbolical meanings.

Further, while we have record of only one oath—which does not mean that there was only one—signs, tokens, and words are nearly always spoken of in the plural; and if the secrets of a Fellowcraft were purely technical—which some of us do not believe—they were at least accompanied and protected by certain signs, tokens, and passwords.

From this it is clear that the advent of an Apprentice into the ranks of a Fellow was in fact a degree, or contained the essentials of a degree, including a separate set of signs and secrets.

When we pass to the second period, and men of wealth and learning who were not actual architects began to enter the order—whether as patrons of the art or as students and mystics attracted by its symbolism—other evidences of change appear.

They, of course, were not required to serve a seven year apprenticeship, and they would naturally be Fellows, not Masters, because they were in no sense masters of the craft.

Were these Fellows made acquainted with the secrets of an Apprentice? If so, then the two degrees were either conferred in one evening, or else—what seems to have been the fact—they were welded into one; since we hear of men being made Masons in a single evening. [15]

Customs differed, no doubt, in different Lodges, some of which were chiefly operative, or made up of men who had been working Masons, with only a sprinkling of men not workmen who had been admitted; while others were purely symbolical Lodges as far back as 1645.

Naturally in Lodges of the first kind the two degrees were kept separate, and in the second they were merged—the one degree becoming all the while more elaborate.

Gradually the men who had been Operative Masons became fewer in the Lodges—chiefly those of higher position, such as master builders, architects, and so on—until the order became a purely speculative fraternity, having no longer any trade object in view.

Not only so, but throughout this period of transition, and even earlier, we hear intimations of “the Master’s Part,” and those hints increase in number as the office of Master of the Work lost its practical aspect after the cathedral-building period.

What was the Master’s Part? Unfortunately, while the number of degrees may be indicated, their nature and details cannot be discussed without grave indiscretion; but nothing is plainer than that we need not go outside Masonry itself to find the materials out of which all three degrees, as they now exist, were developed. [16]

Even the French Companionage, or Sons of Solomon, had the legend of the Third Degree long before 1717, when some imagine it to have been invented.

If little or no mention of it is found among English Masons before that date, that is no reason for thinking that it was unknown.

Not until 1841 was it known to have been a secret of the Companionage in France, so deeply and carefully was it hidden. [17]

Where so much is dim one may not be dogmatic, but what seems to have taken place in 1717 was, not the addition of a third degree made out of whole cloth, but the conversion of two degrees into three.

That is to say, Masonry is too great an institution to have been made in a day, much less by a few men, but was a slow evolution through long time, unfolding its beauty as it grew.

Indeed, it was like one of its own cathedrals upon which one generation of builders wrought and vanished, and another followed, until, amidst vicissitudes of time and change, of decline and revival, the order itself became a temple of Freedom and Fraternity—its history a disclosure of its innermost soul in the natural process of its transition from actual architecture to its “more noble and glorious purpose.”

For, since what was evolved from Masonry must always have been involved in it—not something alien added to it from extraneous sources, as some never tire of trying to show—we need not go outside the order itself to learn what Masonry is, certainly not to discover its motif and its genius; its later and more elaborate form being only an expansion and exposition of its inherent nature and teaching.

Upon this fact the present study insists with all emphasis, as over against those who go hunting in every odd nook and corner to find whence Masonry came, and where it got its symbols and degrees.


1. Our present craft nomenclature is all wrong; the old order was first Apprentice, then Master, then Fellowcraft—mastership being, p. 129 not a degree conferred, but a reward of skill as a workman and of merit as a man. The confusion today is due, no doubt, to the custom of the German Guilds, where a Fellowcraft had to serve an additional two years as a journeyman before becoming a Master. No such restriction was known in England. Indeed, the reverse was true, and it was not the Fellowcraft but 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 Fellowcraft—that is, a peer and fellow of the fraternity which hitherto he had only served. Also, we must distinguish between a Master and the 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 (or Fellow) could become a Master of the Work at any time, provided he was of sufficient skill and had the luck to be chosen as such either by the employer, or the Lodge, or both.


2. The older MSS indicate that initiations took place, for the most part, at the annual Assemblies, which were bodies not unlike the Grand Lodges of today, presided over by a President—a Grand Master in fact, though not in name. Democratic in government, as Masonry has always been, they received Apprentices, examined candidates for mastership, tried cases, adjusted disputes, and regulated the craft; but they were also occasions of festival and social good will. At a later time they declined, and the functions of initiation more and more reverted to the Lodges.


3. The subject of Mason’s Marks is most interesting, particularly with reference to the origin and growth of Gothic architecture, but too intricate to be entered upon here. As for example, an essay entitled “Scottish Mason’s Marks Compared with Those of Other Countries,” by Prof. T. H. Lewis, British Archaeological Association, 1888, and the theory there advanced that some great unknown architect introduced Gothic architecture from the East, as shown by the p. 132 difference in Mason’s Marks as compared with those of the Norman period. (Also proceedings of A. Q. C., iii, 65-81.)


4. History of Masonry, Steinbrenner. It consisted of a short black tunic—in summer made of linen, in winter of wool—open at the sides, with a gorget to which a hood was attached; round the waist was a leathern girdle, from which depended a sword and a satchel. Over the tunic was a black scapulary, similar to the habit of a priest, tucked under the girdle when they were working, but on holydays allowed to hang down. No doubt this garment also served as a coverlet at night, as was the custom of the Middle Ages, sheets and blankets being luxuries enjoyed only by the rich and titled (History of Agriculture and Prices in England, T. Rogers). On their heads they wore large felt or straw hats, and tight leather breeches and long boots completed the garb.


5. Gloves were more widely used in the olden times than now, and the practice of giving them as presents was common in mediaeval times. Often, when the harvest was over, gloves were distributed to the laborers who gathered it (History of Prices in England, Rogers), and richly embroidered gloves formed an offering gladly accepted by princes. Indeed, the bare hand was regarded as a symbol of hostility, and the gloved hand a token of peace and goodwill. For Masons, however, the white gloves and apron had meanings hardly guessed by others, and their symbolism remains to this day with its simple and eloquent appeal. (See chapter on “Masonic Clothing and Regalia,” in Things a Freemason Should Know, by J. W. Crowe, an interesting article by Rylands, A. Q. C., vol. v, and the delightful essay on “Gloves,” by Dr. Mackey, in his Symbolism of Freemasonry.) Not only the tools of the builder, but his clothing, had moral meaning.


6. Tiler—like the word cable-tow—is a word peculiar to the language of Masonry, and means one who guards the Lodge to see that only Masons are within ear-shot. It probably derives from the Middle Ages when the makers of tiles for roofing were also of migratory habits (History of Prices in England, Rogers), and accompanied the Free-masons to perform their share of the work of covering buildings. Some tiler was appointed to act as sentinel to keep off intruders, and hence, in course of time, the name of Tiler came to be applied to any Mason who guarded the Lodge.


7. Much has been written of the derivation and meaning of the word cowan, some finding its origin in a Greek term meaning “dog.” (See “An Inquiry Concerning Cowans,” by D. Ramsay, Review of Freemasonry, vol. i.) But its origin is still to seek, unless we accept it as an old Scotch word of contempt (Dictionary of Scottish Language, Jamieson). Sir Walter Scott uses it as such in Rob Roy, “she doesna’ value a Cawmil mair as a cowan” (chap. xxix). Masons used the word to describe a “dry-diker, one who built without cement,” or a Mason without the word. Unfortunately, we still have cowans in this sense—men who try to be Masons p. 139 without using the cement of brotherly love. If only they could be kept out! Blackstone describes an eavesdropper as “a common nuisance punishable by fine.” Legend says that the old-time Masons punished such prying persons, who sought to learn their signs and secrets, by holding them under the eaves until the water ran in at the neck and out at the heels. What penalty was inflicted in dry weather, we are not informed. At any rate, they had contempt for a man who tried to make use of the signs of the craft without knowing its art and ethics.


8. This subject is most fascinating. Even in primitive ages there seems to have been a kind of universal sign-language employed, at times, by all peoples. Among widely separated tribes the signs were very similar, owing, perhaps, to the fact that they were natural gestures of greeting, of warning, or of distress. There is intimation of this in the Bible, when the life of Ben-Hadad was saved by a sign given (I Kings, 20:30-35). Even among the North American Indians a sign-code of like sort was known (Indian Masonry, R. C. Wright, chap iii). “Mr. Ellis, by means of his knowledge as a Master Mason, actually passed himself into the sacred part or adytum of one of the temples of India” (Anacalypsis, G. Higgins, vol. i, 767). See also the experience of Haskett Smith among the Druses, already referred to (A. Q. C., iv, 11). Kipling has a rollicking story with the Masonic sign-code for a theme, entitled The Man Who Would be King, and his imagination is positively uncanny. If not a little of the old sign-language of the race lives to this day in Masonic Lodges, it is due not only to the exigencies of the craft, but also to the instinct of the order for the old, the universal, the human; its genius for making use of all the ways and means whereby men may be brought to know and love and help one another.


9. Once more it is a pleasure to refer to the transactions of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge of Research, whose essays and discussions of this issue, as of so many others, are the best survey of the whole question from all sides. The paper by J. W. Hughan arguing in behalf of only one degree in the old time lodges, and a like paper by G. W. Speth in behalf of two degrees, with the materials for the third, cover the field quite thoroughly and in full light of all the facts (A. Q. C., vol. x, 127; vol. xi, 47). As for the Third Degree, that will be considered further along.


10. Storia di Como, vol. i, 440.


11. Natural History of Wiltshire, by John Aubrey, written, but not published, in 1686.


12.  A. Q. C., vol. x, 82.


13. Roughly speaking, the year 1600 may be taken as a date dividing the two periods. Addison, writing in the Spectator, March 1, 1711, draws the following distinction between a speculative and an operative member of a trade or profession: “I live in the world rather as a spectator of mankind, than as one of the species, by which means I have made myself a speculative statesman, soldier, merchant, and artisan, without ever meddling with any practical part of life.” By a Speculative Mason, then, is meant a man who, though not an actual architect, sought and obtained membership among Free-masons. Such men, scholars and students, began to enter the order as early as 1600, if not earlier. If by Operative Mason is meant one who attached no moral meaning to his tools, there were none such in the olden time—all Masons, even those in the Guilds, using their tools as moral emblems in a way quite unknown to builders of our day. ’Tis a pity that this light of poetry has faded from our toil, and with it the joy of work.


14. History of Masonry, p. 66.


15. For a single example, the Diary of Elias Ashmole, under date of 1646.


16. Time out of mind it has been the habit of writers, both within the order and without, to treat Masonry as though it were a kind of agglomeration of archaic remains and platitudinous moralizings, made up of the heel-taps of Operative legend and the fag-ends of Occult lore. Far from it! If this were the fact the present writer would be the first to admit it, but it is not the fact. Instead, the idea that an order so noble, so heroic in its history, so rich in symbolism, so skilfully adjusted, and with so many traces of remote antiquity, was the creation of pious fraud, or else of an ingenious conviviality, passes the bounds of credulity and enters the domain of the absurd. This fact will be further emphasized in the chapter following, to which those are respectfully referred who go everywhere else, except to Masonry itself, to learn what Masonry is and how it came to be.


17. Livre du Compagnonnage, by Agricol Perdiguier, 1841. George Sand’s novel, Le Compagnon du Tour de France, was published the same year. See full account of this order in Gould, History of Masonry, vol. i, chap. v.

Article by: Joseph Fort Newton


Rev. Newton (1880–1950) , was an American Baptist minister,  authored a number of masonic books, including his best-known works, The Builders, published in 1914, and The Men’s House, published in 1923.

He received the third degree of Freemasonry on May 28, 1902 in Friendship Lodge No. 7, Dixon, Illinois, later affiliating with Mt. Hermon Lodge No. 263, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

He also served as Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge of Iowa from 1911 to 1913 and Grand Prelate of the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar.

The Builders has been called "an outstanding classic in Masonic literature offering the early history of Freemasonry."

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