The word degree, in its primitive meaning, signifies a step. The degrees of Freemasonry are, then, the steps by which the candidate ascends from a lower to a higher condition of knowledge. It is now the opinion of the best scholars, that the division of the Masonic system into Degrees was the work of the revivalists of the beginning of the eighteenth century; that before that period there was but one Degree, or rather one common platform of ritualism; and that the division into Masters, Fellows, and Apprentices was simply a division of ranks, there being but one initiation for all.
In 1717 the whole body of the Fraternity consisted only of Entered Apprentices, who were recognized by the thirty-nine Regulations, compiled in 1720, as among the law-givers of the Craft, no change in those Regulations being allowed unless first submitted "even to the youngest Apprentice."
In the Old Charges, collected by Anderson and approved in 1722, the Degree of Fellow Craft is introduced as being a necessary qualification for Grand Master, although the word degree is not used. "No brother can be a Grand Master unless he has been a Fellow Craft before his election." And in the Manner of constituting a New Lodge of the same date, the Master and Wardens are taken from "among the Fellow Crafts," which Dermott explains by saying that "they were called Fellow Crafts because the Masons of old times never gave any man the title of Master Mason until he had first passed the chair." In the thirteenth of the Regulations of 1720, approved in 1721, the orders or Degrees of Master and Fellow Craft are recognized in the following words: "Apprentices must be admitted Masters and Fellow Crafts only in the Grand Lodge." Between that period and 1738, the system of Degrees had been perfected; for Anderson, who, in that year, published the second edition of the Book of Constitutions, changed the phraseology of the Old Charges to suit the altered condition of things, and said, "a Prentice, when of age and expert, may become an Entered Prentice or a Free-Mason of the lowest degree, and upon his due improvements a Fellow Craft and a Master-Mason" (see Old Charge Ill, Constitutions, 1738, page 145).
No such words are found in the Charges as printed in 1723; and if at that time the distinction of the three Degrees had been as well defined as in 1738, Anderson would not have failed to insert the same language in his first edition. That he did not, leads to the fair presumption that the ranks of Fellow Craft and Master were not then absolutely recognized as distinctive degrees. The earliest ritual extant, which is contained in the Grand Mystery, published in 1725, makes no reference to any Degrees, but gives only what we may suppose was the common understanding of the initiation in use about that time.
The division of the Masonic system into three Degrees must have grown up between 1717 and 1730, but in 80 gradual and imperceptible a manner that we are unable to fix the precise date of the introduction of each Degree. In 1717 there was evidently but one Degree, or rather one form of initiation, and one catechism. Perhaps about 1721 the three Degrees were introduced, but the second and third were probably not perfected for many years. Even as late as 1735 the Entered Apprentice's Degree contained the most prominent form of initiation, and he who was an Apprentice was, for all practical purposes, a Freemason. It was not until repeated improvements, by the adoption of new ceremonies and new regulations that the Degree of Master Mason took the place which it now occupies; having been confined at first to those who had passed the chair.