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Freemasonry’s structure is organized and orderly, and members are separated and identified by their degrees, which represents the steps the brother has taken on his journey within Freemasonry to date.
In the present day, there are many different degrees that include symbolic, chapter, and historical degrees, to name just a few. But within Freemasonry, it is widely accepted that there are only three degrees of Masonic rite.
In this post, we explore Freemasonry’s different degrees and understand how a brother can move from one degree to the next.
What are the degrees of Freemasonry?
As with many of Freemasonry’s elements today, the Masonic degrees are rooted in history and come from the Blue Lodges of Freemasonry. Today, the three degrees of Masonic rite are:
- Entered Apprentice
- Master Mason
Each of the degrees was adopted from the middle ages’ craft guilds, where the craftsman was required to become proficient within each degree before progressing through to the next stage.
Although what is deemed as proficient today within Freemasonry is not the same as what it was during the middle ages, the symbolic journey through the degrees is closely emulated by modern-day masons.
Before we look at each degree of Freemasonry in more detail, we need first to understand how one can qualify to be a mason, as the requirements are strict and very specific.
Qualifications of a petitioner
Before a man is welcomed and initiated into Freemasonry, he is known as a petitioner. In order for the petitioner to qualify to become a mason, the following must apply:
- He must be a man of 18 years or older
- He must be free of any previous ‘felonious criminal convictions’
- He must be of good moral character
- He must believe in a Supreme Being
- He must believe in the immortality of the soul
The qualifications of a petitioner must be met if a man is to become a mason. The physical qualifications (his age and gender) must be met because a man must be free to make his own decisions and be responsible for his own actions. This rules out children and is why there’s an age limit imposed.
Regarding the moral qualifications, in order for a man to uphold Freemasonry’s moral values, he must be of good character, which is why the emphasis is placed on his life being free from crime.
Finally, regarding the two spiritual qualifications, all brothers must believe this to ensure they seek to progress through Freemasonry’s degrees and live to the code that is expected of a mason.
When brought together, a petitioner’s physical, moral, and spiritual qualifications are a pre-requisite of becoming a Freemason. From this foundation, they are expected to grow and evolve within the institution.
The secret ballot
If a candidate meets the physical, moral, and spiritual requirements, he is permitted to apply for membership. As part of this process, his background is investigated by members of the lodge that he is hoping to join. Once this process is completed, lodge members vote by way of a secret ballot and decide whether or not to accept or reject him.
The secret ballot is another of Freemasonry’s ancient rituals, and the voting in of new members is an integral part of the masonic roles and responsibilities. To an outsider, the way the secret ballot works may be construed as a little unfair.
Every brother must cast his vote, and the candidate needs to receive a positive vote from every brother. If one negative vote is cast, then the candidate’s application will be denied.
Freemasons defend the practice of the secret ballot and suggest that the reason that more men are accepted than rejected is an indication of the fact that the fraternity attracts the interest of predominantly good men who adhere to the moral code of Freemasonry.
Once a candidate has passed the secret ballot, he is then invited to join the lodge as a voluntary applicant. Let’s now take a look at the first degree of Freemasonry.
After the stage of the secret ballot is concluded, the candidate is invited to join the lodge. It is here that many of the rituals and ceremonies begin. The Entered Apprentice’s first condition is that he must come to the door of the first meeting of his own free will and with a belief in a Supreme Being.
After entering the lodge, the candidate is welcomed and given details about the fraternity, as well as necessary instruction on how he should conduct his behavior.
An essential part of an Entered Apprentice’s education is that he symbolizes a man living in the world, searching for education and truth. He is also introduced to much of Freemasonry’s symbolism and is encouraged to learn about Freemasonry more broadly.
An Entered Apprentice is then entrusted with certain secrets of the fraternity, which he must only communicate in accordance with Masonic Law. Only once the candidate proves his proficiency in the Entered Apprentice’s work will he be considered for a position in the second degree.
The second degree of Freemasonry is known as ‘The Fellowcraft.’ The word has its origins in the guilds of the operative masons in the middle ages and referred to those among them who were fellows of the craft or skilled craftsmen.
In the middle ages, the craft was not split into three degrees, only two, meaning the fellows could instruct other brothers in the art of stonemasonry. Today, the fellowcraft degree is the stage at which brothers complete a more advanced search for Masonic light.
In modern-day Freemasonry, those in the second degree emphasize the importance of philosophy, intellectual enlightenment, and wisdom. They are tasked with further secrets of the order, and their pledge of secrecy is strongly reinforced.
Moreover, the brother is being prepared for the third degree of Freemasonry, where he becomes a Master Mason, meaning he is proficient in the lessons of the fellowcraft degree and can inform others of the practice of the society.
Learn more: What Is The Master Mason Degree?
The Master Mason
The crucial defining feature of the third degree of Freemasonry is maturity. Becoming a Master Mason is a sign that the bother has progressed through Freemasonry’s degrees with advanced wisdom and knowledge and is entitled to all the society’s rights and privileges.
Master Masons are taught about virtue and morality, as well as all of the other duties and responsibilities expected of Master Masons. It usually takes several years to reach the degree of Master Mason, and it is from here that he accesses information about the inner-workings of the fraternity.
Master Masons are also eligible to become officers of their respective lodges, which is another signifier of their maturity and the trust placed in them by their fellow brothers.
What about all of the other degrees of Freemasonry?
We have explored the three basic degrees of Freemasonry, but it’s important to note that there are many others. For example, if we take a look at the Scottish rite, which is an offshoot of Freemasonry, there are 33 degrees in total.
Thirty of these degrees are known as ‘appendant degrees, ‘ meaning they are lateral and not higher in rank than the others. These additional degrees are widely thought of as honorary or ceremonial and presented to Masons who have contributed significantly within the order.
However, certain degrees within the Scottish rite are particularly prestigious. To achieve the 32nd degree, you must have been a Mason for fourteen years, have been elected as a Master of your lodge, and have served the supreme council.
The 33rd degree is an honor bestowed on approximately 4,000 people only, and it is highly prestigious within Freemasonry.
As well as the Scottish rite degrees, there are also the New York rite degrees and the Swedish Rite degrees; all said to represent different elements of a brother’s journey throughout Freemasonry.
Conclusion: The importance of the degrees of Freemasonry
As has been explored, Freemasonry’s degrees form a crucial part of the brotherhood and symbolize the ancient traditions of progression of the stonemasons of the middle ages. Although they represent different things today, they are representative of the same journey of understanding and enlightenment.
Once a candidate has met the criteria and been invited to join a lodge, he begins his education journey throughout Freemasonry and hopes to become a Master Mason. Although this journey can take several years, it is of paramount importance to all brothers. Ultimately, the three degrees of Freemasonry are the way by which brothers identify one another, and the degrees symbolize a brother’s progression through the order.