Symbolical Design and Historical Summary of the Most Excellent Master Degree

The following monitorial instructions on the Most Excellent Master degree appear on pp. 65-72 of “The Book of the Chapter” by Albert G. Mackey.

Symbolical Design.

The sixth degree, or that of Most Excellent Master, is as intimately connected with the third or Master Mason’s as the Mark Master’s is with that of the Fellow Craft. The Master Mason’s degree is intended, in its symbolic design, to teach the doctrines of the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul. But this corruption can only put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality by a passage through the portals of the grave. And here the degree of Most Excellent Master comes forward with its beautiful symbolism, to represent the man prepared to enter upon that eventful passage. In the preceding degrees the duties of life have been delineated under various types—the virtuous craftsman has been assiduously laboring to erect within his heart a spiritual temple of holiness, fit for the habitation of Him who is the holiest of beings. If the moral and religious precepts of the order have been observed, stone has been placed upon stone—virtue has been added to virtue—and the duties of one day have been scrupulously performed, only that the duties of the next may be commenced with equal zeal.

And now all is accomplished—the spiritual edifice which it was given to man to erect—that “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”—upon the construction of which he has been engaged, day by day and hour by hour, from his first entrance into the world—has become a stately and finished building, and there remains no more to be done, save to place the cape-stone, DEATH, upon its summit.

This—the last condition of man on earth, when all his labors have been completed—when he is about to lay aside for ever all his projects of ambition, of pleasure, or of business—to dissolve the ties which have bound hint to the companions of his toils, and to go forth a wanderer on the unknown shores of eternity—to abandon, as useless, the implements of this world’s work, and to leave the temple of life—is the solemn scene which is symbolically commemorated in the impressive ceremonies of the Most Excellent Master’s degree.

Historical Summary.

The legend or tradition upon which the degree of Most Excellent Master is founded, is thus recorded in the Book of Constitutions:

“The temple was finished in the short space of seven years and six months, to the amazement of all the world; when the cape-stone was celebrated by the fraternity with great joy. But their joy was soon interrupted by the sudden death of their dear master, Hiram Abif, whom they decently interred in the lodge near the temple, according to ancient usage.

“After Hiram Abif was mourned for, the tabernacle of Moses and its holy relics being lodged in the temple, Solomon, in a general assembly, dedicated or consecrated it by solemn prayer and costly sacrifices past number, with the finest music, vocal and instrumental, praising Jehovah, upon fixing the holy ark in its proper place between the cherubim; when Jehovah filled his own temple with a cloud of glory.” [Anderson, James. Constitutions of the Free and Accepted Masons, edit. 1738. p. 14.]

The ceremonies commemorated in this degree, refer, therefore, to the completion and dedication of the temple. It is reasonable to suppose that, when this magnificent edifice was completed, King Solomon should bestow some distinguished mark of his approval upon the skillful and zealous builders who had been engaged for seven years in its construction. No greater token of that approbation could have been evinced than to establish an order of merit, with the honorable appellation of “Most Excellent Masters,” and to bestow it upon those of the craftsmen who had proved themselves to be complete masters of their profession. It was not conferred upon the whole body of the workmen but was confined, as Webb remarks, to the meritorious and praiseworthy—to those who, through diligence and industry, had progressed far toward perfection. Such is the traditional history of the origin of the degree. And it is still retained as a memorial of the method adopted by the wise King of Israel to distinguish the most faithful and skillful portion of his builders, and to reward them for their services by receiving and acknowledging them as Most Excellent Masters, at the completion and dedication of the temple.

The Temple of Solomon.

As this degree refers to that important period when the temple erected by King Solomon for the worship of Jehovah was completed, and presented in all its glory and beauty to an admiring people, it is proper that the masonic student should here receive some brief details of this magnificent structure.

Mount Moriah, on which the foundations of the temple were laid, was a lofty hill, situated almost in the very northeast corner of the city of Jerusalem, having Mount Zion on the south-west, with the city of David and the king’s palace on its summit, and Mount Acra on the west, whereon the lower city was built.

The summit of the mountain on which the temple was built, which, although not very high, was exceedingly steep, occupied a square of five hundred cubits, or two hundred and fifty yards on each side, being encompassed by a stone wall one thousand yards in extent, and twelve yards and a half high.

King Solomon commenced the erection of the temple on the second day of the Hebrew month Zif, in the year of the world 2992, which date corresponds to Monday, the first of April, 1012 years before the Christian era.

The foundations were laid at a profound depth, and consisted, as Josephus informs us, of stones of immense size and great durability. They were closely mortised into the rock, so as to form a secure basis for the superincumbent structure.

The building does not appear to have been so remarkable for its magnitude as for the magnificence of its ornaments and the value of its materials. Lightfoot gives us the best idea of its size and form when he says that the porch was one hundred and twenty cubits, or two hundred and ten feet high and that the rest of the building was in height but thirty cubits, or fifty-two feet and a half, so that the form of the whole house was thus: It was situated due east and west, the holy of holies being to the westward, and the porch or entrance toward the east. The whole length from east to west, was seventy cubits, or one hundred and twenty-two feet and a half. The breadth, exclusive of the side chambers, was twenty cubits, or thirty-five feet; the height of the holy place and the holy of holies was thirty cubits, or fifty-two feet and a half, and the porch stood at the eastern end, like a lofty steeple, one hundred and twenty cubits, or two hundred and ten feet high. In fact, as Lightfoot remarks, the temple much resembled a modem church, with this difference, that the steeple which was placed over the porch was situated at the east end. [Lightfoot’s “Prospect of the Temple,” opp. vol. ix., p. 247. The engraving here given is taken from Samuel Lee’s “Orbis Miraculum,” a rare and valuable description of the temple of Solomon. It gives a rude but accurate idea of the form of the body of the temple.]

Around the north and south sides and the west end were built chambers of three stories, each story being five cubits in height, or fifteen cubits, twenty-six feet nine inches in all—and these were united to the outside wall of the house.

The windows, which were used for ventilation rather than for light, which was derived from the sacred candlesticks, were placed in the wall of the temple that was above the roof of the side chambers. But that part which included the holy of holies was without any aperture whatever, to which Solomon alludes in the passage, “The Lord said that He would dwell in the thick darkness.”

The temple was divided, internally, into three parts—the porch, the sanctuary, and the holy of holies; the breadth of all these was of course the same, namely, twenty cubits, or thirty-five feet, but they differed in length. The porch was seventeen feet six inches in length, the sanctuary seventy feet, and the holy of holies thirty-five, or, in the Hebrew measure, ten, forty, and twenty cubits. The entrance from the porch into the sanctuary was through a wide door of olive posts and leaves of fir; but the door between the sanctuary and the holy of holies was composed entirely of olive wood. These doors were always open, and the aperture closed by a suspended curtain. The partition between the sanctuary and the holy of holies partly consisted of an open network, so that the incense daily offered in the former place might be diffused through the interstices into the latter.

In the sanctuary were placed the golden candlestick, the table of shew tread, and the altar of incense. The holy of holies contained nothing but the ark of the covenant, which included the tables of the law.

The framework of the temple consisted of massive stone, but it was wainscoted with cedar, which was covered with gold. The boards within the temple were ornamented with carved work, skillfully representing cherubim, palm leaves and flowers. The ceiling of the temple was supported by beams of cedar wood, which, with that used in the wainscoting, was supplied by the workmen of Hiram, King of Tyre, from the forest of Lebanon. The floor was throughout made of cedar, but boarded over with planks of fir.

The temple, thus constructed, was surrounded by various courts and high walls, and thus occupied the entire summit of Mount Moriah. The first of the Courts was the court of the Gentiles, beyond which Gentiles were prohibited from passing. Within this, and separated from it by a low wall, was the Court of the Children of Israel, and inside of that, separated from it by another wall, was the Court of the Priests, in which was placed the altar of burnt offerings. From this court there was an ascent of twelve steps to the porch of the temple, before which stood the two pillars of Jachin and Boaz.

For the erection of this magnificent structure, besides the sums annually appropriated by Solomon, his father, David, had left one hundred thousand talents of gold, and a million talents of silver, equal to nearly four thousand millions of dollars. [According to the accurate tables of Arbuthnot, reduced to Federal currency. a talent of gold is equal to $24,309.00, and a talent of silver to $1,505.625. Hence, a hundred thousand talents of gold—$2,430,900,000. and a million talents—$1,505,625,000, and the whole—$3,936,525,000, the exact amount of gold and silver left by David for building the temple.]

The time occupied in its construction was seven years and about six months, and it was finished in the month Bul, in the year of the world 3000, corresponding to October, 1004, of the vulgar era. The year after, it was dedicated with those solemn ceremonies which are alluded to in this degree. The dedicatory ceremonies commenced on Friday, the 30th of October, and lasted for fourteen days, terminating on Thursday, the 12th of November, although the people were not dismissed until the following Saturday. Seven days of this festival were devoted to the dedication exclusively, and the remaining seven to the Feast of Tabernacles which followed. The eighth chapter of the First Book of Kings contains an account of the solemnities of the occasion, and to that the reader is referred.

The full text of Mackey’s monitorial instructions on the Most Excellent Master degree may be found at:

Most Excellent Master from Mackey’s “The Book of the Chapter”