In the days before 1717, when the first Grand Lodge of modern Speculative Freemasonry was organised, the First Degree - it was called the "Apprentice's Part" then - must have been a less elaborate ceremony than it is now. In Scotland one Mason could, and often did, make another merely by communicating the "Mason's word." (What it was we do not know now.) In England the ceremony was richer than this, but even so was doubtless very bald as compared with the work as we of the twentieth century have come to know it. There are many scholars who believe that the old Freemasonry of Ireland was more complete than that of England (by this fact they help to explain the famous so-called "schism," and which was "healed over" in 1813), but even if it was it could not have compared with the ritual of today which has grown to such proportions as would require a man years of study in order to master its history and meaning.
It appears that the great revival of Freemasonry which occurred in 1717, and out of which grew the first Grand Lodge mentioned above, was in reality a very complete reorganisation of Freemasonry, though it may well be that no such radical changes were made as some of our more extreme scholars have believed. The Fraternity prior to that date had become very much demoralised and divided; lodges had lost touch with each other; and many Masons had no understanding at all of the meaning of the ceremonies they performed. After the Fraternity began to make a new start a center was established about which Masons could rally and to which they could all furnish their own traditions and records. In consequence of this it seems that the ritual grew with such rapidity that after a few years it became necessary to fabricate more degrees. What had been the First was divided into the new First and the new Second; what had been the Third was continued as such, though much amplified. This division was completed by 1738, since which time and by the addition of Preston's lectures, etc., the machinery of the degrees has reached its present perfection.
It is impossible to know exactly how the candidate was given the "Apprentice's Part" in the old days when Freemasons were still operatives engaged in the construction of actual buildings, but many hints have been left us embedded in the Old Charges, as the ancient Manuscript constitutions and traditions are usually called. E. L. Hawkins, who edited a well-known Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry, collated all these references and out of them composed a mosaic picture of the old-time ceremony "The meeting was opened with prayer-the legendary history of the Craft was then read-then the candidate was led forward and instructed to place his hand on the Volume of the Sacred Law, which was held by one of the `Seniors,' while the articles binding on all Masons alike were read, at the conclusion of which a brief obligation was imposed upon the candidate, all present joining in it; then followed the special charges for an apprentice, concluding with a longer obligation by which the candidate specially bound himself to secrecy with regard to what was about to be communicated to him; then the secrets, whatever they were (modes of recognition), were entrusted to him, and the proceedings terminated."
Before receiving the First Degree the youth was obliged to prove himself well qualified, of lawful age, freeborn, sound in mind and limb, of clean habits, and in good repute. At the same time he was compelled to bind (or "indenture") himself to a Master Mason for a term of years, usually seven: this master set him his tasks, taught him the methods of the trade, and saw to it that he faithfully observed the rules and regulations of the Order and kept inviolate the secrets of the Craft and of his fellow workmen. At first the Apprentice was little more than a servant, performing menial tasks; but as his skill increased he was given more important duties. Meanwhile, "he must be obedient to the faster without argument or murmuring, respectful to all Freemasons, 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, or 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 any one 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 ('bodies not unlike the Grand Lodges of to-day') - and on strict trial and due examination was declared a Master. Thereupon he ceased to be a pupil and a 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." (See The Builders, by Dr. J. F. Newton, page 129.)
The Apprentice was a learner in those old days; he is a learner still. The word itself is found in many languages: "apprenti" in French; "apprendenti" in Italian; "Lehrling" in German ; etc.: but whatever its form it means, at bottom, a "learner." Being a learner he is said to be in the Porch, and his Apprentice Lodge is said symbolically to be in the Porch of King Solomon's Temple. Time was when all business was transacted in a lodge on the First Degree in the United States, but now the Apprentice is not considered a full member of a lodge, and is not entitled to vote, to hold office, to walk in a funeral procession, or to receive Masonic burial, though it is true that Grand jurisdictions differ somewhat among themselves in these last-mentioned details.
In a symbolical sense the Apprentice may be likened to a human embryo about to be born into a new world; he does not have power over himself, and he does not know anything about the new life upon which he is entering, and therefore it is necessary that he follow his guides with implicit and unquestioning obedience, for not otherwise can he advance a step.
From one end to another, accordingly, the great note struck in the First Degree is Obedience, and this virtue - it is a virtue in all strict senses of the word, though many young men of today have grown to dislike that fact - is impressed upon his heart by every device of symbolism, by every art of ceremony.
In learning any art Obedience must come first, Obedience to the teachers and Obedience to the rules. The boy who learns to ride a bicycle must obey the laws of equilibrium with slavish carefulness; a girl must abjectly follow the laws of music if she would become the mistress of her piano; and so is it in every trade and in every accomplishment, for he who would master an art must begin as a servant of its regulations, whether it be moulding iron, planting corn, or writing poems. This is not the slavery that leads to slavery; it is the slavery that leads to freedom, for after one has mastered the technique of his art his mind is set loose to work with power. If the vice of our day is slipshod work and slovenly art it is because our young people are lacking in the patience and in the perseverance to win mastership. But the young man who passes through the First Degree learns differently; the Craft causes the great importance and necessity of obedience to bite deeply into his heart, and he is made to know that no man can ever become a master who scamps his work.
If obedience must come first in order to master an art or a craft so it is the first of virtues in that which is the most difficult of all the greater arts - LIFE itself. This is the truth which the First Degree emphasises above all else. If the candidate is to be a builder in the speculative (that is, in the moral, intellectual, and spiritual) sense, building and built upon, he must learn to serve the laws of that difficult architecture. If he thinks of himself as a student learning a Royal Art he must obey the rules of that Art. If he considers himself a babe passing into birth and into a new world, he must place himself under the laws according to which that life can alone fulfill itself. If he pictures himself as a type of "the natural man" (if one may thus use the old theological expression) in his ignorance, his raw untutored condition, seeking to live the life of the spirit which rises above ignorance as a temple rises above the crown of a hill, above all he must learn to know and to obey the awful but benignant statutes of the soul.
Of all the various interpretations - they vary as much in value as in theory - of the First Degree, one of the noblest that I have ever discovered is that given by Dr. J. D. Buck in an essay published in The New Age (Volume vii, page 161): "Reflect a moment on the condition of the candidate on first entering the lodge room. He is not only in darkness, going he knows not where, to meet, he knows not what, and guided solely by the J.D., but he bears the mark of abject slavery. He is spared the shame of nakedness and the pride of apparel, and his feet are neither shod nor bare. He is poor and penniless, no external thing to help or recommend him. The old life with all its accessories has dropped from him as completely as though he were dead. He is to enter on a new life in a new world. His intrinsic character alone is to determine his progress and his future status. If he is worthy and well qualified, and duly and truly prepared for this, and, if he understands and appreciates what follows in symbols, ceremonies, and instruction, the old life in him will be dead for ever."
These eloquent sentences make abundantly
clear the importance of the First Degree, which is the Drama of
Beginnings; for, though the Apprentice himself is but a babe,
a beginner, a learner, not for that reason is the ceremony to
be made easy or careless, but quite the opposite, for it carries
within itself all the dignity and the mystery of birth. Therefore
should a lodge see to it that the "Apprentice's Part"
is conducted with solemnity and with beauty; its impressions are
the candidate's first experience of Masonry, and they will consequently
remain with him the longest and influence him the most.
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