To become a Freemason, a candidate is required to complete three lessons called degrees before he becomes a Master Mason and a full-fledged member of the fraternity. The degrees and rituals upon which the craft of Freemasonry is built utilize symbols and lessons rooted in the practices of the medieval stonemasons. From the moment a man enters the Masonic lodge, these symbolic teachings arm him with the knowledge required to build and shape themselves into a man of integrity.
When a man first embarks on his journey toward enlightenment through Freemasonry, he is taught that he is unformed, rough, and lacks the knowledge of an expert craftsman. The Masonic degrees gradually turn him into a Master Mason by teaching him how to live the values of Freemasonry, be a good man, and fulfill the design of his creator.
The Tools of the Entered Apprentice
Entered Apprentice is the first degree of Freemasonry and acts as an introduction to the principles, values, and symbols of our craft. It instills foundational moral and ethical principles in the candidate, such as the importance of self-improvement, charity, and brotherly love. We become an Entered Apprentice by recognizing our personal, rough and imperfect state. We are inexperienced and lacking knowledge of the craft, and just as a builder must work on an unshaped block of stone to fit his needs, so must we as Freemasons gain education, understanding, and control of our many imperfections.
When a prospective Freemason becomes an Entered Apprentice, he is handed a common gavel. With this tool, he, like generations of Masons before him, can begin his work smoothing away his imperfections. It is a basic tool for the less skilled craftsmen to meditate on. As a Freemason journeys deeper into the teachings of the craft, the symbolism and practical application of each tool becomes more complex and layered, with meanings that require a lifetime of study and exploration to understand.
Using the Common Gavel
Within the Lodge room, the common gavel has a special purpose and application in our ceremonies and rituals, carrying both an operative and symbolic message. The common gavel has a gable on one end and a flat surface on the other and is used by stonemasons to break off the rough parts of a stone. It is an essential Masonic tool and a foundational symbol of the craft, for with the common gavel, a Freemason begins removing his imperfections and prepares to build himself into a forthright man of outstanding character.
Author Oliver Street described the common gavel well in his book Symbolism of the Three Degrees, published by the Masonic Service Association of the United States in 1924. He wrote:
“It is not adapted to giving polish or ornamentation to the stone, and hence it should symbolize only that training of the new Freemason which is designed to give some limited skill and moral training, and to teach that labor is the lot of man and that “qualities of heart and head are of limited value ‘if the hand be not prompt to execute the design’ of the master.”
In other words, the gavel reminds us of our need for self-improvement, hard work and reflection. It is a symbol of our responsibility to ourselves, our brethren, and our communities, and calls us to labor under the guidance and direction of the master craftsman and the Great Architect. It represents our opportunity to become better men and Freemasons by removing the vices and distractions that may lead us astray so that we may instead focus on what is truly important to living a meaningful and satisfying life and achieving our true potential.
Want to learn about other Masonic symbols? Read our full series: Behind the Symbol and dive deeper into the symbology of our craft!