The Evolution of the Three Great Lights

By John L. BelangerNews180424


The study of the Evolution of the Three Great Lights, in my opinion, is a very complex one.  To understand this we must go back in time prior to the three great lights being placed on our altars in modern (Speculative) Masonry.   We will now journey into time together and search the background that it may give us a deeper understanding of our Masonic Heritage.

When we were first made a Master Mason, we saw the Three Great Lights (Holy Bible, Square, and Compasses) and thought that all of our forefathers (Operative and Speculative) saw the same on their Masonic Altar.  Also, most of us thought they always had three degrees in Masonry (Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason) from its conception. I know I did.

We are taught that Masonry is divided into two denominations:

            1. Operative Masonry, which refers to our ancient brethren that built buildings out of mortar prior to 1717; example a square is used to square a building or corners, etc.       

            2.While Speculative Masonry, which started around 1717, uses the same tools; however, we used them in a more practical purpose of life; example the square teaches us to square our actions by the square of virtue, etc.

With this in mind let us begin our journey.

The search will begin in the 1600's with operative Masonry, our heritage. The Guild of Operative Free Masons whose ceremonies the Society wishes to recall and reflect is the Fylfot Cross or better known since World War II as the swastika.  This was long before Hitler hijacked the swastika emblem and turned it into the emblem of hatred which many regards it as today. The Operatives used to have a large white swastika (Fylfot Cross), about two feet by two feet, on the floor of their Assemblages, another on the open Bible, at various points they included them in their ceremonies, and some would occasionally show them after their names, like a sort of Mason’s mark.  It was, they claimed, the Master Mason’s Talisman, its history could be traced for centuries, and it was central to their ceremonies.    

Both Clement Stretton and Dr. Carr claimed that the swastika is probably the most ancient and widely distributed symbol that has ever existed, tracing its origin to the Masons of the Turanians who are said to have lived before the Babylonian Empire and to have carried their craft from central Asia to China, India and Tibet, so that “it has been found on Chaldean bricks; among the ruins of Troy; in Egypt; on the vases and pottery of ancient Cyprus; on prehistoric antiquities of Greece and Mycenae; on the vases and pottery of the ancient Etruscans; on Hittite remains; on rock walls of Buddhist cave temples in India; in China and Japan; in prehistoric American Indian mounds; on prehistoric remains in Central America and South America.  In later or historic times it has been found on Roman altars; on Runic monuments in Great Britain; on Gothic and Scandinavian weapons and ornaments; in the Coptic Church of the Xth Century; on English brasses of the XIIIth and XIVth Centuries, as well as many other parts of Europe” (Carr, 1910) and it is still displayed on the flag of the Jains of India todayIn Britain, it is known as the Fylfot Cross.

It seems that the ancients adopted the swastika as a symbol of the axial rotation of the Big Dipper (sometimes referred to as Ursa Major or the Plough) around the Pole Star which, in turn, they regarded as a symbol of God himself because, in the constantly changing heavens, only the Pole Star remained constant whilst all other stars revolved around it.   A Pole Star cult, it will be remembered, long preceded the Solar Cult with which we are more familiar today.  

The following extract, however, from F. W. Seal-Coon’s account of the Guild’s ‘Midsummer Ceremony’ is given to illustrate the Operative use of the swastika.  The events described occur immediately after five ‘sacrifices’ (from amongst “those without blemish”) have been symbolically slain:

            "Following the sacrifice, thirty-two brother’s form a Gammadion, a figure formed of four mason’s squares (also known as a ‘fylfot’ or ‘swastika’). The squares of the mosaic pavement of an operative lodge were a sacred cubit (21 7/8 inches) in area and on these squares the masons, eight to each arm, formed the Gammadion; the thirty-third square at the centre, under the symbol of the Pole Star from which hung a plumb-line, was left empty."

"Christian Freemasons will have no problem interpreting the number thirty-three, which is just one of the reasons why I hope the Society never abandons the sign completely. Another is that I am personally reluctant to allow something evil, which lasted for only a comparatively short time, to end a tradition which is said to have existed for centuries.  Originally, the swastika was a good luck sign and the word itself was derived from the Sanskrit svastika - ‘su’ meaning ‘good’, ‘asti’ meaning ‘to be’, and ‘ka’ as a suffix.  I prefer to think of it that way."

Creation of the First Grand Lodge in London (Speculative Masonry begins)

Since Speculative Masonry started in England around 1717, there has been no mention of the Fylfot Cross being used at any time in the Masonic Lodges.

English Masonic historians place great importance on June 24, 1717, (St. John the Baptist's day) when four London lodges came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House in St Paul’s churchyard and formed what they called The Grand Lodge of England. Although Freemasonry had existed in England since at least the mid-17th century and in Scotland, since The Schaw Statutes were enacted in 1598 and 1599, the establishment of a permanent Grand Lodge in London in 1717 is traditionally considered the formation of organized Freemasonry in its modern sense. We must remember that they only had two degrees at that time referred to as the 1st and 2nd.  When a brother received the 1st, he was considered a full brother Mason and went to all meetings paying dues.

Creation of the Third Degree

Sometime after 1725, a third degree, the Master Mason's degree, began to be worked in London lodges. Its origins are unknown. While it may be older than its recorded appearance indicates, it does not appear in the records of any lodge until April 1727 (its actual conferral does not appear in the records of any lodge until March 1729). Exposures of Masonic ritual, which began to appear in 1723, refer to only two degrees until the publication of Samuel Pritchard's "Masonry Dissected" in 1730, which contained the work for all three degrees. The Master Mason's degree was not official until the Grand Lodge adopted Anderson's revised Constitutions of 1738.

The "Antients'" and "Moderns" Grand Lodges

Throughout the early years of the new Grand Lodge, there were many lodges that never affiliated with the new Grand Lodge. These unaffiliated Masons and their Lodges were referred to as "Old Masons," or "St. John Masons, and "St. John Lodges".

In 1725, a lodge in York founded the rival "Grand Lodge of All England" as a protest against the growing influence of the Grand Lodge of England in London. During the 1730s and 1740s, antipathy increased between the London based Grand Lodge of England (hereafter referred to as the Premier Grand Lodge) and the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland. Irish and Scots Masons visiting and living in London considered the Premier Grand Lodge to have considerably deviated from the ancient practices of the Craft. As a result, these Masons felt a stronger kinship with the unaffiliated London Lodges. The aristocratic nature of the Premier Grand Lodge and its members alienated other Masons of the City causing them also to identify with the unaffiliated Lodges.

On July 17, 1751, representatives of five Lodges gathered at the Turk's Head Tavern, in Greek Street, Soho, London — forming a rival Grand Lodge — The Most Antient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons. They believed that they practiced a more ancient and therefore purer form of Masonry, and called their Grand Lodge The Antients' Grand Lodge. They called those affiliated to the Premier Grand Lodge, by the pejorative epithet The Moderns. These two unofficial names stuck. Laurence Dermott wrote a new constitution for the Ancients, the Ahiman Rezon as an alternative to the Constitution of the Moderns.

An illustration of how deep the division was between the two factions is the case of Benjamin Franklin who was a member of a Moderns' Lodge in Philadelphia. During his stay in France, he became Master of the Lodge Les Neuf Sœurs in 1779 and was re-elected in 1780. Upon returning from France, it transpired that his Lodge had changed to (and had received a new warrant from) the Antients Grand Lodge; no longer recognizing him and declining to give him "Masonic Honours" at his funeral.

For many years, "The Great Masonic Schism" was a name applied to the sixty-two-year division of English Freemasonry into two separate Grand Lodges. Some even attempted to attribute the division to the changes in passwords made in 1738–39 by the Premier Grand Lodge. Masonic historian Robert F. Gould in his "History of Freemasonry (1885) referred to the Antients Grand Lodge as "schismatics". However, Henry Sadler, Librarian of the UGLE, demonstrated in his 1887 book "Masonic Facts and Fictions" that the Antients Grand Lodge was formed in 1751 primarily by Irish Masons living and working in London, never affiliated with the older Grand Lodge. 72 of the first 100 names on the roll of the new Antients' Grand Lodge were Irish. In 1776, the Grand Secretary of the Moderns' Grand Lodge referred to them as "the Irish Faction (Ye Antient Masons, as they call themselves)". And so the myth of a "Great Masonic Schism" in English Masonry was laid to rest.

Grand Lodges founded during the Colonial Era

Freemasonry spread from the British Isles during the Colonial Era. All of the "original" Grand Lodges began to issue charters to individual lodges in North America, but the two English Grand Lodges (the "Ancients" and the "Moderns") were the most prolific. Starting in 1730, The Grand Lodge of England (Moderns) began to issue Warrants for Provincial Grand Lodges in the colonies. Initially, these Warrants were issued to individuals, to act as deputies for the Grand Master in a given area for fixed periods of time, and some confusion resulted due to overlapping jurisdictions. To confuse matters further, with the formation of the Ancient Grand Lodge, rival Provincial Grand Lodges were chartered under their jurisdiction.

Independent Grand Lodges

After the American Revolution and the incorporation of the Dominion of Canada, the various Provincial Grand Lodges in North America were closed, and the Lodges in each State or Province formed independent Grand Lodges. These, in turn, chartered lodges in the territories in the West and North. As each new State or Province came into being, the lodges that had been chartered within its borders gathered together and formed new Grand Lodges.

Talking to P.G.M. Edward O. Weisser, of Pennsylvania, who stated "In 1731 the Grand Master received the Master Mason Degree only.  Most men only received the EA and maybe the FC.  This is why, at the end of the EA degree, the candidate is told: "now we may call you brother".  Later, it seems to have been decided that each worshipful master had to have earned/received the Master Masons Degree. The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 1731 was called Modern and in 1820 became Ancient which at that time or around then the Master Mason Degree was then it was extended to everyone; thus now, one is not a "full" brother until he has received the Master Mason Degree." This information was found in the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania proceedings.

The Square and Compass (In Kennings Cyclopaedia of Freemasonry, dated 1878) states:

Compass: "A Masonic emblem too well known to need elaboration here, and adhering to our principle, we restrain ourselves from higher tendency of ritualistic explanation."

Square:  "One of the most important and significant of Masonic symbols.  It is often seen in churches, as an emblem of the old operative builders, and is no doubt of very early use. Upon the very early metal square found in Ireland near Limerick, these words, dated 1517,

I will strive to live with ease and care,

Upon the level, by the square.

If this is the operative teaching of 1517, it, of course, points to medieval teaching, akin to present speculative application of the working tools of the operative mason."

In Volume 82 (1969) of Ars Quatuor Coronatorum (i.e. the Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076 and can be found on pp 327-8.  It concerns "Square, Compass and the Points", and is an answer provided by the Editor of the Transactions in the 'Notes and Queries' Section.  It reads as follows:

"The earliest description of the 'points' procedure made its appearance in 1760 in an English exposure (Three Distinct Knocks) which claimed to describe the practices of the Masons under the 'Antients' Grand Lodge.  It is known that this (and other English exposures of the 1760s) betrayed evidence of French influence, and if TDK was indeed describing 'Antients' practice it probably represented some Irish practices, too.  For these reasons, it must be noted that the origins of the procedures cannot definitely be ascribed to any particular country, though we may be reasonably certain that they were current in England - not necessarily widespread - from 1760 onwards. The relevant extract is quoted below, without comment:- The Master always sits in the East, or stands with the Bible before him; and if it is the Apprentice Lecture, he opens it about the Second Epistle of Peter, with the Compass laid thereon, and the Points of them covered with a little Box Square or Lignum Vita, about 4 inches each way, and the Points of the Compass points to the West, and the Two Points of the Square points to the East.  If it is the Craft's Lecture, the Master shows one Point of the Compass, the Bible being open at the 12th Chapter of Judges.  If it is the Master's Lecture, the Bible is opened about the Seventh Chapter of the First Book of Kings, and both the Points of the Compass is shown upon the Square."

As far as when and where freemasons in England first started to display the Square and Compass on the Bible, in the 'Masonic Trowel', an on-line Masonic website, which states that it could not have been before 1535 (because that is when the first complete Bible in English was published in Britain).  Before that, operative masons used to take their Obligation on a copy of the Ancient Charges, the oldest of which (the Regius Manual Script) dates from 1390."

According to the Colne Manual Script No. 1, the first time a bible was used was in 1685, and the relevant instructions state that one of the candidates should lay his right hand upon it when the Charge shall be read. (According to the Edinburgh Register Manual Script of 1696, they did the same thing in Scotland).

In Samuel Prichard's exposure ("Masonry Dissected") of 1730 it describes taking an Obligation " naked Right Hand on the Holy Bible; there I took the Obligation (or oath) of a Mason."

After 1730, "A little later we find the Bible, Square and Compass described as Pillars of the Lodge.  The first known reference to Great Lights is to be found in France in 1745 but this meant what is now called Lesser Lights.  The first reference to the Bible, Square, and Compass as the Three Great Lights appears in English writings about 1760, and this usage was confirmed by the Lodge of Reconciliation set up in the early 1800's to settle differences of practice at the time of the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England."

In Kennings Cyclopaedia of Freemasonry, dated 1878, it explains (on page 603): "Square and Compass":

"A well-known Masonic emblem, and which may often be seen on the great buildings which were raised by the operative masons.  It is idle, we think, to suppose that they are of 1717 use, when much evidence might be adduced, of a far earlier habit, of their familiarity to the operative masons and others."

It is certainly long before 1717, and the square and compass (separately, i.e. not as we put them on the bible these days) are both shown on the Society's Coat of Arms, which date from the 15th century, which proves that the operatives were costumed to using them.  They're hard to see, but they are laying on top of the chevrons on the two left-hand 'quartering's' of the Operatives current Coat of Arms, the original of which is displayed in the Guild Hall in Durham. 

Knowing how masonry evolved from time in Memorial till now we have a better understand where we came from. The questions of when, how, and where the Square, Compass and Holy Bible came to play in Masonry have been answered.

Now, this journey has given us more light in Masonry however, we cannot stop here.  We must now take it to a higher level.  Our own Grand Lodge has the Fellow Craft emblem on the Louisiana Grand Lodge Seal and all regular documents. However, we have learned that our Grand Lodge Seal on the Grand Lodge proceedings is now the Master Masons emblem within the seal rather than the Fellow Craft emblem. 

To understand Louisiana Masonry we must understand the following questions: Why does the Louisiana seal have the Fellow Craft emblem on it? Was it our first and only seal for Louisiana? When and why was it changed in the Grand Lodge proceedings?  When our Grand Lodge was first constituted were we conferring all three degrees, if not why? Lastly, which degree were we first opening our Masonic Lodges and conducting regular business in? Was it the Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, or Master Mason degree?

My brothers, we have learned in this paper and lots of other Masonic papers that every time we think we understand all of Masonry, another door will open with more information.  In our next journey, we will search for these answers from within the Grand Lodge, Masons in Louisiana and various other lodges to possibly bring our search to a conclusion. Until then my brothers, until then.  God Bless you.

 Information obtained from and Additional readings

The Worshipful Society of Free Masons, Rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviors, Plaisterers and Bricklayers" dated 2006)   by 

             David Kibble-Rees, 2nd Grand Master of the Operatives in England

Carr, T. - Operative Free Masons and Operative Free Masonry (1910).

Seal-Coon, F.  - An Old-Time Operative Midsummer Ceremony, in AQC, Vol. 105 (1992), pp. 161-171.

Stretton, C. E. Guild Masonry, in the Transactions of the Lodge of Research No. 2429 (1910)

David Kibble-Rees, 2nd Grand Master of the Operatives in England- who gave me a lot of insight into European Masonry

Kennings Cyclopaedia of Freemasonry, dated 1878

The Masonic Trowel (several Masonic talks) including "The Volume of the Sacred Law" & "The Philosophy of Freemasonry"

Masonic Education Course the European Concept by Kent Henderson and Tony Pahl

Freemasonry and Social England in the Eighteenth Century by W.B. Gilbert W. Daynes

Samuel Pritchard - Masonry Dissected in 1730

Br.*. Gene - Ancients and Moderns

Charles H. Merz - Guild Masonry in the Making (1918)


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