"Are you a Master Mason?"
Every member of the Fraternity has answered this challenge
affirmatively, even if only passively, during the ceremonies of
opening and closing a lodge. What the words have actually meant to
every individual Brother is anybody's guess; but it is a safe
assumption that the reply was at least intended to signify
membership in the world's oldest fraternal organization.
Unfortunately, too many members have never gone beyond that
definition of a Master Mason. They know that they "took" the three
degrees: The last was the Master Mason degree. Upon its completion,
they were acknowledged as regular members. They knew that they were
To be sure, every member has been made aware of some of the legends,
symbolism, and philosophy of freemasonry during his initiatory
experiences. This is one of the great achievements of the immemorial
phrases of Masonic ritual; even the least attentive and absent
member remembers the glimpses he had of the "genius of Freemasonry".
The lapse of time, however, tends to erase those vivid impressions,
so that the non-attender comes to think of a Master Mason merely as
a member of a club or society.
This is a problem for Masonic education,- for the individual
"mentor", "intender", or committee on instruction or information. It
is not the subject of this Short Talk Bulletin, however. This essay
is an attempt to amplify the average Brother's concept of a Master
Mason, and as such it may be helpful in correcting the "average"
impressions sketched above.
Historically, the Term Master Mason comes from the operative
builders organizations of the Middle Ages, although the concept of a
master, or skilled boss of the workmen, is as old as civilization.
The Roman builders were directed by their most skillful craftsmen,
the magister of the collegia. References to Master Mason occur in
English building records as early as the thirteenth century: at that
time they were still given Latin names. e.g., magister cementarius
(master of the stone-cutting masons) and magister operacionum
(master of the works), or general contractor.
Detailed rules existed for the government of the masons connected
with a lodge, which originally designated the shed or structure in
which stonemasons dressed the stones for a large undertaking. The
Regius Poem (c. 1390) is a compilation of some of these rules which
had been in existence for a long time.
The supervision of the masons was the business of the principal and
second master masons, who, upon assuming these offices by
appointment from the King or clerics who had ordered the building of
a structure were required to take a solemn oath to enforce the
The master mason had to see that the work started promptly and to
report to the master of the works and the "keeper of the rolls" any
faults or defects of the workmen. Fines for defective work were
imposed as a result of his reports. The hiring of workmen was done
with his advice and consent. He had to make certain that a craftsman
was "worthy and well-qualified".
Generally speaking, the master mason had authority over the workmen
and the actual construction of the building, while his colleague,
the "keeper of the rolls" was chiefly concerned with accounts and
finance; but the master mason necessarily had a share in the
responsibility for expenditures and accounts, since he decided such
things as the kind of stones to be used, from which quarries they
were to be bought, as well as quantities and prices of other tools
and materials, like sand and lime for mortar.
In fact, many a master mason achieved that rank because of his early
experiences as a purveyor of stones and building materials. He had
been able to accumulate the necessary capital, experience, and
influence to become a freeman burgess, and to learn the mason's
trade as one of its principal suppliers. Sometimes a master mason
had achieved his rank because of his administrative skill in
securing and organizing a dependable labor force.
Nevertheless, most master masons achieved their eminence by learning
the masons' trade "from the bottom up". They may have made money on
the side by furnishing building stones or other supplies, but they
possessed the builder's skills and secrets to such a degree that
they achieved distinction primarily by merit. some of them were
actually skillful architects and designers, whose gifts stimulated a
wide-spread demand for their services. Like so many creative artists
of the Middle Ages, these unusual master masons had more than one
string on their bow, for they were good surveyors, accountants,
superintendents of property, and civil servants as well as stone
dressers and spreaders of mortar. One of them, as a matter of fact,
William of Wykeham, became Bishop of Winchester in 1367.
At that time, however, a master mason was a man who had accumulated
sufficient skill and capital to set himself up in business as a
contractor or superintendent of the words. The title of "master" was
conferred not by a lodge of masons, but by the City Council or its
agency for regulating trade. To become a "master" a workman had to
purchase his "freedom" to make contracts, by becoming a burgess,
i.e., a municipal taxpayer with a certain civic obligations, like
going "watch and ward" duty and supplying military arms or service
if it became necessary. The capital for such advancement usually
came from "side" activities, such as dealing in stone or being in a
position to make contracts for building or supplying labor.
Few operative masons became masters. It required more money and
ability than the average stonecutter or layer possessed. Even Master
masons differed widely in their earning power and financial success.
The building projects in the early Middle Ages were too few to
require a large force of specialized administrative builders.
Master masons were naturally paid more for their labors than "rough
masons" or apprentices. Attempts were made regularly to fix the wage
scales of all types of artisans and workmen, but it was the masters
who most frequently enjoyed bonuses and rewards. The master of a
large building project not only received daily wages which might
rise as high as six times those of the ordinary laborer; he would
also receive extra payments, sometimes so regularly in both amount
and time of payment that they may have been part of his official
"salary". No wonder the phrase, "a masters wages", carried overtones
of considerable prestige into modern Speculative Masonry!
Sometimes a reward was paid not in money, but in the form of a robe
or livery. such an honorarium rarely was paid to any but a master
mason in a responsible position, like the architect or
superintendent of the work. At the building of Eton College in
1445-46."cloth was purchased for the liveries of the chief mason, of
the warden, and of the purveyors"- the sub contractors.
In some cases the attention of the master mason was not needed
constantly: he could work elsewhere with the permission of the
authorities who had engaged him. In such cases, his remuneration was
usually an annual fee, plus a per diem wage for each day that he was
present and working at the building. The position of such a master
mason was appointed for life, he was given "social security" in the
form of maintenance in sickness and old age.
The importance of master masons varied with the size and cost of the
structures they were working on. The master builder of a cathedral,
however, was a highly skilled workman and administrator. He had to
have the ability to draw plans and elevations. He had to be able to
compute the quantities of material and labor needed; he had to
manage his workmen effectively and fairly. since he had the final
authority to "hire and fire, he had to know good work from bad work,
good masons from poor ones. He had to administer with justice and
"equal regularity". A master mason was a man of worth and dignity.
During the seventeenth century, from the days of Queen Elizabeth to
the institution of "constitutional" monarchs in England after the
reign of James II, masons' lodges underwent a considerable change,
and early in the eighteenth century they evolved into their modern
fraternal form, especially with the organization of Grand Lodges
from 1717 on.
Lodges were still associations of stoneworkers and masons, but the
cessation of cathedral building and the expansion of overseas trade
lessened the importance of the masons' companies to the point where
they had to change to survive. From the active trade associations
whose primary function was the regulation of workers and their
qualifications, as well as their working conditions, wages, rights,
and responsibilities, they gradually became mutual benefit societies
concerned largely with charity and relief for the destitute and
It was during this century that non-operative members began to be
accepted in ever-increasing numbers, largely to build up the
financial reserves for the lodges' philanthropic designs. Especially
welcome were members of the professional, educated, and titled
classes, not merely because they could afford the higher "entry"
fees for accepted masons, but also because they could help to
restore the waning prestige of the craft associations.
Up to this time, a Fellow of the Craft was a workman who had passed
two stages of admission. There were no more. A Master Mason was a
Fellow of the Craft who had bought his status, not from the lodge,
but from the Town Council of its trade incorporators. So far as a
lodge was concerned, a Fellow of the Craft and a Master were
practically the same thing.
With the change from operative to Speculative Freemasonry, however,
the lodges began to record members in three different categories:
apprentices, fellowcrafts, and masters. Since accepted masons could
not become operative master masons, lodges began to grant the title
of Master to non-operative masons in their ranks. The only
requirement seems to have been the payment of another fee: no
special ceremony was performed to make such accepted masons Masters.
So far as can be determined from records and historical papers, the
ceremonies of the Master Mason degree were a product of the
transformation achieved by modern Speculative Freemasonry. In the
change from operative craft lodges of skilled stonemasons to lodges
of accepted Masons, the status of master masons declined from that
of outstanding leadership in skills and management to that of mere
membership in a fraternal organization. Part of our modern problem
about the answer to the question, "Are you a Master Mason?" is a
built-in weakness which has been inherited form the practices of
operative masons in the period of transition.
Part of the problem undoubtedly lies in the failure of modern
Freemasonry to make the title of Master Mason truly "proud" and
"sublime". We may surmise that this in one reason why Speculative
Freemasonry adopted the ceremonies of the third degree so rapidly
and universally during the first decades of the Grand Lodge era.
They are impressive; they do give the initiate a distinct impression
of the grandeur and the lofty possibilities of Freemasonry's
ultimate designs. This may also be the reason that additional rites
and degrees proliferated so rapidly in the first century of modern
But ceremony and ritual, no matter how superbly executed, are not
enough to really make a man a Master Mason. An operative master of
the craft has to acquire certain skills, specific knowledge, and
practical experience over a period of years before he could qualify
for the title of master mason. A speculative Master, or overseer of
the work, must likewise demonstrate in his own life the qualities
and experiences which alone can make him a symbolic Master of the
builders of Brotherhood. Ritual and ceremony can help him to define
and to recognize those spiritual skills. The important question,
therefore , is not "Are you a Master Mason?" It is the more
searching and difficult query, "What is a Master Mason?"
Reverence for the Great Architect of the Universe is a first
characteristic. It cannot be exemplified merely in a lodge. It must
be a way of thinking and acting, which manifests itself at a man's
place of business, in his home, at the club, -- in his activities to
promote and encourage the work of a church or synagogue.
Benevolence is the next significant quality; but it must be more
than dutiful acts of charity and relief which alleviate the distress
of a fallen brother, his widow, or his orphans. Benevolence means
literally "well wishing", which to a Master Mason means an attitude
of helpful interest to every member of the whole family of mankind.
Tolerance also characterizes the true Master Mason -- not merely the
tolerance which suffers or endures that which is inimical or
distasteful, but that spirit of "bear ye one another's burdens"
which permits real understanding of and sympathy for those with whom
we disagree. One reason that Freemasonry is so concerned about
freedom, political as well as spiritual, is that Freemasonry knows
the absolute necessity of mutual tolerance if men are to live in
freedom and justice.
Respect for knowledge and the skills dependent thereon is the
significant lesson of the Fellowcraft degree. But such respect is
part of a larger reverence which the true Master Mason accords to
excellence in every form. And the true Master Mason has the courage
to define and to insist on excellence, whether he is dealing merely
with the ritual labors of his lodge, or with the performance of his
fellow-workers in business, government, and community affairs. But
since excellence alone can recognize the excellent, he reverences
all knowledge and experience which have helped men everywhere to
achieve excellence. the true Master Mason is not satisfied with the
"average": he dares to be better than that.
An operative master mason was trained individually to be an
architect or overseer of the work. He was a man of worth and
dignity. The Speculative Master Mason must also trained individually
to be a master of the moral and spiritual skills of the Builders of
Brotherhood. His excellence must make him a man of worth and
Are you a Master Mason?