The Substitute Ark & the Substitute Word

The following entries appear on pp. 77-78 and p. 734 of the 1912 edition of “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” by Albert G. Mackey.

The Substitute Ark.

The chest or coffer which constitutes a part of the furniture, and is used in the ceremonies of a Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, and in a Council of Select Masters according to the American system, is called by Freemasons the Substitute Ark, to distinguish it from the other ark, that which was constructed in the wilderness under the direction of Moses, and which is known as the ark of the Covenant. This the Substitute Ark was made to represent under circumstances that are recorded in the Masonic traditions, and especially in those of the Select Degree.

The ark used in Royal Arch and Cryptic Freemasonry in the United States is generally of this form:

Prideaux, on the authority of Lightfoot, contends that, as an ark was indispensable to the Israelitish worship, there was in the second Temple an ark which had been expressly made for the purpose of supplying the place of the first or original ark, and which, without possessing any of its prerogatives or honors, was of precisely the same shape and dimensions, and was deposited in the same place. The Masonic legend, whether authentic or not, is simple and connected. It teaches that there was an ark in the second Temple, but that it was neither the Ark of the Covenant, which had been in the Holy of Holies of the first Temple, nor one that had been constructed as a substitute for it after the building of the second Temple. It was that ark which was presented to us in the Select Master’s Degree, and which being an exact copy of the Mosaical ark, and intended to replace it in case of its loss, which is best known to Freemasons as the Substitute Ark.

Lightfoot gives these Talmudic legends, in his Prospect of the Temple, in the following language:

“It is fancied by the Jews, that Solomon, when he built the Temple, foreseeing that the Temple should be destroyed, caused very obscure and intricate vaults under ground to be made, wherein to hide the ark when any such danger came; that howsoever it went with the Temple, yet the ark, which was the very life of the Temple, might be saved. And they understand that passage in the II Chron. xxxv. 3, ʻJosiah said unto the Levites, Put the holy ark into the house which Solomon, the son of David, did build,ʼ etc., as if Josiah, having heard by the reading of Mosesʼ manuscript, and Huldahʼs prophecy of the danger that hung over Jerusalem, commanded to convey the ark into this vault, that it might be secured; and with it, say they, they laid up Aaronʼs rod, the pot of manna, and the anointing oil. For while the ark stood in its place upon the stone mentioned—they hold that Aaronʼs rod and the pot of manna stood before it; but, now, were all conveyed into obscurity—and the stone upon which the ark stood lay over the mouth of the Vault. But Rabbi Solomon, which useth not, ordinarily, to forsake such traditions, hath given a more serious gloss upon the place; namely, that whereas Manasseh and Amon had removed the ark out of its habitation, and set up images and abominations there of their own-Joshua speaketh to the priests to restore it to its please again. What became of the ark, at the burning of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar, we read not; it is most likely it went to the fire also. However it sped, it was not in the second Temple; and is one of the five choice things that the Jews reckon wanting there. Yet they had an ark there also of their own making, as they had a breastplate of judgment; which, though they both wanted the glory of the former, which was giving of oracles, yet did they stand current as to the other matters of their worship, as the former breastplate and ark had done.”

The idea of the concealment of an ark and its accompanying treasures always prevailed in the Jewish church. The account given by the Talmudists is undoubtedly mythical; but there must, as certainly, have been some foundation for the myth, for every myth has a substratum of truth. The Masonic tradition differs from the Rabbinical, but is in every way more reconcilable with truth, or at least with probability. The ark constructed by Moses, Aholiab, and Bezaleel was burned at the destruction of the first Temple; but there was an exact representation of it in the second.

The Substitute Word.

This is an expression of very significant suggestion to the thoughtful Master Mason. If the Word is, in Freemasonry, a symbol of Divine Truth; if the search for the Word is a symbol of the search for that Truth; if the Lost Word symbolizes the idea that Divine Truth has not been found, then the Substitute Word is a symbol of the unsuccessful search after Divine Truth and the attainment in this life, of which the first Temple is a type, of what is only an approximation to it. The idea of a substitute word and its history is to be found in the oldest rituals of the eighteenth century; but the phrase itself is of more recent date, being the result of the fuller development of Masonic science and philosophy.

The history of the Substitute Word has been an unfortunate one. Subjected from a very early period to a mutilation of form, it underwent an entire change in some Rites, after the introduction of the high degrees; most probably through the influence of the Stuart Masons, who sought by an entirely new word to give a reference to the unfortunate representative of that house as the similitude of the stricken builder. (See Macbenac.) And so it has come to pass that there are now two substitutes in use, of entirely different form and meaning; one used on the Continent of Europe, and one in England and the United States.

It is difficult in this case, where almost all the knowledge that we can have of the subject is so scanty, to determine the exact time when or the way in which the new word was introduced. But there is, as Dr. Mackey believed, abundant internal evidence in the words themselves as to their appropriateness and the languages whence they came (the one being pure Hebrew, and the other, in Dr. Mackeyʼs opinion, Gaelic), as well as from the testimony of old rituals, to show that the word in use in the United States is the true word, and was the one in use before the revival.

Both of these words have, however, unfortunately been translated by persons ignorant of the languages whence they are derived, so that the most incorrect and even absurd interpretations of their significations have been given. The word in universal use in the United States has been translated as “rottenness in the bone,” or “the builder is dead,” or by several other phrases equally as far from the true meaning.

The correct word has been mutilated. Properly, it consists of four syllables, for the last syllable, as it is now pronounced, should be divided into two. These four syllables compose three Hebrew words, which constitute a perfect and grammatical phrase, appropriate to the occasion of their utterance. But to understand them, the scholar must seek the meaning in each syllable, and combine the whole. In the language of Apuleius, we must forbear to enlarge upon these holy mysteries.

The full text of the 1912 edition of Mackey’s “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” may be found at:

Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry: Volume I

Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry: Volume II