Jacob’s Ladder and Freemasonry

Through centuries of tradition and the transfer of knowledge from one generation of the previous, the many rituals of Freemasonry were formed. Lodges around the world continue to share allegories that convey the ethical principles that can allow a man lead a noble and upright life. These symbols are from the ancient world, cyphers which have guided men in thought as well as deed since the Middle Ages. Jacob’s Ladder is a symbol of antiquity.

A picture of the Jacob’s Ladder from the original Luther Bibles

The Ladder to Heaven

Jacob’s Ladder appears for the first time in Jacob’s dream, Genesis 28:10-22. This passage is found during Jacob’s journey from Beersheba.

Jacob left Beer-sheba and headed toward Haran. He lighted on the spot, and stayed there until the sun set. Then he took one the stones from the site, and placed it under his head. Finally, he fell asleep in the same place. He dreamed and saw a ladder on the ground. The top reached up to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descended on it. The LORD appeared beside him and said, “I am the LORD, God of Abraham, thy father, God of Isaac.” The land that thou hast lied, I will give it to thee and to thy seeds. Thy seed will be like the dust of earth and thou shall spread to the west, the east, the north and the south. All the families of the earth will be blessed if they have faith in you and in thy seeds.

The meaning of Jacob’s dream, like many biblical passages has been long debated. Although there are many interpretations of the ladder across Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), they all have a similar meaning within each. It is interpreted as a metaphorical pathway to heaven, which can be used to receive gifts from Heaven; and, according to one interpretation, it represents the progress of man’s behavior and how these behaviors bring us closer to God.

Jacob’s Dream by José de Ribera depicts a sleeping Jacob and the ladder of his dream behind. Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1639.

The Masonic Ladder

In that it is a symbol taken directly from the Bible, the Masonic Ladder stands out among all other Craft symbols. It is found in both the Entered Apprentice degree in Blue Lodge Masonry and the degrees in York Rite Masonry. The ladder is unique in that the meaning and depiction of the ladder are slightly different between degree systems.

The Masonic Ladder was believed to have entered ritual in 1776, when Brother Thomas Dunckerly took it from ancient Hermetic traditions. Dunckerley was, in his own right, a prominent Freemason from England who is believed to have created Mark Degree. He was a strong advocate of Royal Arch Masonry, and was the first Grand Masters of the Masonic Orders of the Knights Templar. Although this was the first time the ladder was used in ritual, Trestle Boards depicting it have been discovered before Dunckerly.

The First Degree

The ladder, a core symbol of the Entered Apprentice degree is often depicted as three’staves’ or rounds disappearing into the sky. It has the sun, moon and stars surrounding it. The candidate is shown in the first degree ritual that the round represent the three “theological virtues” Faith, Hope, Charity. Others believe they signify the three stages of life, namely youth, adulthood and old age. Another way to look at the ladder is as a symbol of the journey of a new Mason.

Bro. W. L. Wilmhurst stated in his The Masonic Initiation that Jacob’s vision and ladder exemplify Initiation. This is the expanding of consciousness that occurs when the Light of The Centre is found. Jacob’s Ladder, when taken in the same way as Wilmhurst described it, reveals how Freemasonry’s ethical teachings can help us to heaven. We fulfill our moral obligations and nourish our spirit by serving our communities and God in our daily lives.