The Master Mason
By R.J. Meekren
The New York Masonic Outlook May 1925
The title of “Master” is both ancient and honourable. It implies one who has control either over men or things; over men, because of force of character, strength or social position; over things by reason of excelling skill and knowledge. To be a master craftsman in the old days of Operative Masonry implied both meanings—to be able to work, to teach others how to work, and to plan and direct the labour of all of one end.
No discipline can be maintained, without authority, and without power to enforce that authority vested in the ruler, leader, or teacher in charge.
Hence we get the terms “Master Mason,” “Master of a Lodge,” and “Grand, or General, Master of Masons.” The degree and rank of Master is to-day the normal status of Speculative Masons among us, and we are apt to forget all that it implies. The Master Mason is a craftsman who has, or is supposed to have, proved his skill and ability, and is henceforth recognized as fitted and qualified to teach and to rule. From among the Masters one is selected to direct the common labours and to accept Apprentices, and after instructing and examining them, pass them as competent craftsmen worthy of fellowship and employment in the lodge.
Among Operative Masons in ancient times the authority of the Master of the lodge was very much that of the employer or foreman to-day. The unruly workman lost his job, the disobedient apprentice was rebuked, or punished. But one who wilfully transgressed the salutary rules and customs of the Craft was denied the right to exercise it at all, which was essentially the same punishment as suspension or expulsion among ourselves.
In a changed and changing social environment the old organization of Masonry lost its importance, its raison d’être, but before it died out as it normally would have done, it was modified into a Speculative Fraternity. The tools and implements of Masons were given a moral significance, and were retained as symbols only; while the rules, customs and usages of the Craft were given an allegorical, or, as we say, Speculative interpretation. But the old organization persisted, though adapted to new uses; and as the craftsmen had wrought the carved and moulded stones for the buildings they erected in work sheds or lodges, so they continued to meet for their Speculative labours in groups bearing the old name of “lodges,” and under the direction of Masters, who, however, paid them no longer save with emblematical wages.
Doubtless, the two stages overlapped each other; indeed, it is highly probable that the period of transition was much longer than has generally been supposed—a century at least, and possibly even more. During this time the organization was losing its Operative character and developing the Speculative aspect of the Craft. The lodge of the Master Mason, who was a local contractor and builder, with his dozen or so of men and two or three apprentices, might exist alongside a loge composed almost solely of gentlemen or honorary Masons with perhaps only one or two working Masons among them. But whatever variation existed, the organization of the lodge under its Master persisted, even though in some places he does not always seem to have been known by that title, but sometimes, as in Scotland, to have been called the Deacon, and elsewhere possibly the “Warden,” to distinguish his office as ruler of the lodge from his fellows the Masters of the craft. But this appears to have been exceptional, and the Master came to be designated as “Worshipful”; as later still, when the loose organization of local lodges was “cemented” in a new system, at the head of it was put naturally and inevitably a Grand Master, who was Master of the whole Speculative Craft as the W.M.’s were of their lodges; while the “General Assembly” which elected him became the Grand Lodge.
Thus the Grand Master is the successor, and heir, of all the rights and privileges of the old Masters of lodges. For now the particular lodge is subordinate, and subject to the Grand lodge, whereas before each was sovereign in its own right. Yet the Master of the lodge is not a deputy of the Grand Master, but is still ruler of his lodge by the traditional usage of the Craft; it is merely that just as the Master Masons are circumscribed in their inherent rights to teach and direct by the subordination necessary to co-operation in the work of the lodge, so the lodges and their Masters are limited in their powers by the general regulations of the whole Craft as decided and promulgated by the Grand Lodge.
The office, therefore, of Master of a lodge, older than that of any other Masonic office, is one of great honour, and of greater responsibility. His powers and authority far exceed that of the chairman or president of any ordinary society, club or corporation. He is not president merely, but Master. It is his right, and his duty, to set the Craft to work, and also to give them instruction for their labour. This is no empty phrase. Though the Master of a lodge may follow a customary routine in the dispatch of business, it is merely at his own pleasure and convenience that he does so. In ordinary societies and public meetings in which the customary rules of parliamentary procedure are followed, the authority of the presiding officer is subject at all times to the will of the majority; it is always the latter which is the court of appeal. But against the ruling of the Worshipful Master there is no more appeal than the workman in a shop has against his superintendent when he is told to drop one job and take up another; no appeal, that is, save to the Grand Master who, as we have seen, has vested in him the Mastership of the whole Craft.
The Master of a lodge, then, decides when the lodge shall be convened; and he can summon any and all the members to be present, which summons it is a serious offence to neglect or disobey. He decides who shall be admitted, for visitors or even members may be excluded if he thinks best. He decides what shall be done at the meeting, in what order the business shall be taken, and whether any special matter may be brought up, for any motion is out of order if he so rules, and no one may speak except as he permits. It is a simple matter of fact that few monarchs have the absolute power that the Master has in and over his lodge.
But such great powers are not vested in him except for the good of the Craft. With them are corresponding duties and responsibilities. He is sworn to uphold the Constitutions and to observe the Landmarks; to use his authority only to promote the welfare of his brethren and to preserve peace and harmony in his lodge; and finally he is to instruct the brethren. He is responsible for seeing that the Entered Apprentices are taught what it is necessary for them to know, and he should see to it that the Fellowcrafts and Masters do not neglect or forget what they have learned. It is all “up to him,” and if he has not fitted himself for the position his work will be more or less completely a failure, for what he has undertaken is indeed a real man’s job.