I doubt anyone disputes the conclusion that operative stonemasons ‘marked’ stones prepared by them. Similarly, I think it safe to say two general types of marks existed – one to identify the position and orientation of the ashlar in the final assembly, and another attesting to the workman who rendered the stone.
As an economic force, operative stone masonry emerged the early 11th century with the Saxon builders and intensified in the centuries following the Norman conquest.
By the 14 th century building had reached a scale that required the trade to be regulated in its customs and practices. The first regulatory body was the Masons’ Company, formed in London sometime before 1375, later known as the London Masons’ Company. It was granted a coat of arms in 1472. These arms were later adopted by the first Grand Lodge soon after its foundation in 1717, and still form one half of the arms of the present United Grand Lodge of England.
The earliest known document regulating the trade is the Regius Manuscript of c.1390. These and later documents, now referred to as the Old Charges, are the origins of the present charges found in the Craft Book of Constitutions, abbreviated forms of which are delivered to each new Mason and to the Master before his installation.
The most authoritative are the Statutes of William Shaw, Master of Works to James VI of Scotland. The first published in 1598 and the second in 1599.
Although the origins of speculative Freemasonry are unclear, it is evident that it has borrowed heavily from the medieval operative stone masons’ trade in a number of respects – including the symbolism of working tools and gauges in the Craft and other Masonic Orders, and the use of marks in speculative Mark Masonry. The earliest authenticated record of a man being made a truly speculative Mason – is that of John Boswell, 3rd Laird of Auchinleck who being a non-operative was recorded attending the meeting of Edinburg Lodge on June 8th, 1600.
The first Grand Lodge was founded at the Goose and Gridiron Alehouse, St Paul’s Church Yard, in the City of London in 1717 and this marked the start of organized Freemasonry. Because of disputes about certain practices and principles, a breakaway rival Grand Lodge was formed in 1751. The two Grand Lodges eventually reconciled their differences and the Act of Union was signed in 1813 when the present United Grand Lodge of England came into being. As to the ritual, we know (from early exposures) that a system of three Craft Degrees was well developed by 1730 and that the Scotch Master & Royal Arch emerged in the mid-to-late 1730s and 1740s respectively. The first mention of a brother being made a Mark Mason was at a Lodge in Newcastle in January 1756, although earlier references to a brother having “received his mark’ are known. But it is not clear from these records whether a degree ceremony was being worked.
The earliest records of a speculative Mark degree being worked in England are those of Royal Arch Chapter No 257 at Portsmouth on 1 September 1769 when several brethren were made Mark Masons and Mark Masters. It is apparent from this working that the Mark Man degree was conferred on Fellow Crafts and the Mark Master Degree on Master Masons.
The early Mark Degrees were closely associated with the Scotch Master and Royal Arch. Many different ceremonies were known to exist, parts of which would be recognizable to the present day. It is also clear that the Mark Degrees were worked in Craft Lodges and in Royal Arch Chapters up until 1813. The existence of independent Mark Lodges at this time is not known, although one lodge, the Lodge of Hope, Bradford, conferred the Degree under a constitution originating from a body called “The Grand Lodge of All England, held at York”. Its influence in this country was confined to York, Cheshire and Lancashire. It was formed in 1725 and existed until 1792 but its influence abroad is more important.
There is a well-known statement that was agreed upon in the Act of Union between the Premier and Antients Grand Lodges in 1813 – it appears at the front of the Book of Constitutions of the United Grand Lodge of England. It is a declaration that Pure Antient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more, namely, those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch.
The fact that a second Grand Lodge (the “Antients”) emerged in 1751 was largely because of a disagreement over ritual content. It is therefore hardly surprising that, eventually, in order to achieve harmony a considerable amount of ground had to be conceded by both parties. The Premier (or “Moderns”) Grand Lodge did not recognize the Royal Arch, or even the Installation Ceremony, as part of pure Masonry – so they evidently conceded much to the Antients in order to achieve the Union. Against this background the Mark and other Masonic Orders were left in in a state of neglect. We had in fact a good old compromise that left many brethren discontented.
So, what was emerging as a closely related set of “Solomonic” degrees, i.e. symbolism based on Solomon’s Temple (or, in the case of the Royal Arch, on the building of the Second Temple) became split. Mark was no longer to be considered by the Craft as part of pure Antient Masonry. After 1813 the Mark Degree continued to grow in popularity and was worked, unofficially, in Craft Lodges and Royal Arch Chapters – a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.
The Mark Master Mason degree entered the American rite largely through the efforts of Thomas Smith Webb and his ‘Monitor’. This work being one of the first, and most successful American exposures, it spread throughout the US rapidly, as American Masons learned they hadn’t heard the entire truth of the Master’s Word. The popularity of this work, lead it to be used, and later adopted as official Work for Lodges and Grand Lodges, and became the seed of reconciliation on America between the Antients and the Moderns.
However, compromises or not, the purely logical argument is that the Mark is, in reality, as much part of pure Freemasonry as the Royal Arch, or the Master’s Degree for that matter.
So why is the Mark so central to Freemasonry? It is sometimes said to be an extension of the Second Degree in the Craft. But this rather simple assertion belies the fact that the ceremony of admission, called Advancement, is longer in content than the Third Degree. As previously mentioned, the present ceremony is derived from the earlier practice of conferring the degree of Mark Man on Fellowcrafts and the degree of Mark Master on Master Masons.
The ceremony of Advancement is based on the preparations for the building of KST and follows the fate of an ambitious craftsman (the candidate) seeking promotion in his trade by demonstrating his skill and ability. In the early part of the ceremony his talents go unrecognized and his hopes are dashed but eventually he triumphs over adversity and is justly rewarded for his work. It is a wonderful ceremony containing elements of drama and humor, and, above all, strong moral lessons. The concept of Masons as “living stones” being built into a spiritual house, in parallel with the construction of the Temple, is a powerful theme in the Degree.
Additionally, the Mark Degree, allows the Mason to more fully appreciate the structure and beauty of Solomonic Masonry as revealed in the Royal Arch Degree.
Many reasons could be advanced, and some have already been alluded to, but three are of special importance. Firstly, it greatly enhances his knowledge of Craft Masonry. Secondly, it teaches, in a delightful way, many important practical lessons about life. Thirdly, it gives a greater appreciation of the Royal Arch and provides an essential qualification to other Orders in Masonry.
The first reason: There are many terms and phrases, even Biblical characters, introduced in the Craft that remain a mystery to many brethren. For example, what does the Senior Warden mean, at the closing of the Lodge, by the expression “…having seen that every Brother has had his due”? This is but one many peculiarities of the Craft that become much clearer in the Mark.
In fact, this can be traced Scottish Operative lodges creating a special tier Apprentices, or Mason Burgesses. At some point the cost and effort of passing to fellow craft and becoming a member of the corporation was so great, and the benefit membership so little, that many apprentices opted to labor as unpassed journeyman, creating an economic disadvantage to the Incorporations. To alleviate this, apprentices vowing to continue in their development, were allowed to marry, participate in deliberations and legislation pertaining to their rank, work for pay, and received other benefits – the receipt therefore was their selecting for themselves a Mark on the rolls of the Incorporation.
No doubt others come to mind, but the curious effect of modern Speculative Masons, paying a Fellowcraft with the wages of an Entered Apprentice, has no doubt caused many to wonder, just when is one paid their wages, or is the Senior Warden, a miser.
The second reason: Mark is not only a true craftsman’s degree but it also teaches invaluable lessons about life, for example:
Such lessons the craftsman learns, in a dramatic way, in the ceremony. He is, of course, to apply them, not just to the immediate task of symbolically building the Temple, but in the way he conducts himself through life.