Masonry is a unique institution that has been a major part of community life
in America for over 250 years. Masonry, or more properly Freemasonry, is America's
largest and oldest fraternity and one that continues to be an important part of
many men's personal lives and growth.
Many years ago in England it was described as "a system of morality, veiled
in allegory and illustrated by symbols." It is a course of moral instruction
using both allegories and symbols to teach its lessons. The legends and myths
of the old stonecutters and Masons, many of them involved in building the great
cathedrals of Europe, have been woven into an interesting and effective way to
portray moral truths.
In Masonry, the old tools and ways of the Craftsmen are used to help dramatically
portray those moral truths. Two examples are the 24-inch gauge and the common
gavel. Just as the ruler is used to measure distance, the modern Mason uses it
as a reminder to manage one of his most precious resources, time. And, as the
gavel is used to shape stones, so it is also the symbol of the necessity for all
of us to work to perfect ourselves.
One modern definition is: "Freemasonry is an organized society of men,
symbolically applying the principles of Operative Masonry and architecture to
the science and art of character building." In other words, Masonry uses
ageless methods and lessons to make each of us a better person.
An emblem connected with the Third Degree, according to the Webb lectures, to remind us by the quick passage of its sands of the transitory nature of human life. As a Masonic symbol it is of comparatively modern date, but the use of the hourglass as an emblem of the passage of time is older than our oldest known rituals. Thus, in a speech before Parliament, in 1627, it is said: "We may dan dandle and play with the hour-glass that is in our power, but the hour will not stay for us; and an opportunity once lost cannot be regained." We are told in Notes and Queries (First Series, v, page 223) that in the early part of the eighteenth century it was a custom to inter an hour-glass with the dead, as an emblem of the sand of life being run out.
There is in Sir John Soane's Museum, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, a manuscript account book, of 1614- 41, once owned by Nicholas Stone, Mason to King James I and Charles I, which on the title page has the following written note:
In time take time while time doth last,
For time is no time wheel time is past.
A few sad and studious lines written in his Bible by Sir Falter Raleigh are found in Cayley's biography of him (volume in, chapter ix):
E'en such is time! which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and an we have
And pays us naught but age and dust,
Which, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days.
And from which grave, and earth, and dust
The Lord will raise me up, I trust.
Longfellow, in his "Sand of the Desert in an Hour glass," has written thus:
A handful of red sand from the hot clime
Of Arab deserts brought
Within the glass comes the spy of Time,
The minister of Thought.
An hour-glass is in the possession of the Lodge at Alexandria, Virginia, of which our Brother George Washington was Master.
That old treasure, a measure of the flying moments, well exhibits the changing methods brought about in time.
In nearly all Masonic rituals in the United States, these two emblems
of the third degree are explained in practically the form given by
Thomas Smith Webb:
“The Hour-Glass is an emblem of human life; behold! how swiftly the
sands run, and how rapidly our lives are drawing to a close. We
cannot, without astonishment, behold the little particles which are
contained in this machine, how they pass away almost imperceptibly,
and yet to our surprise, in the short space of an hour, they are all
exhausted. Thus wastes man! today, he puts forth the tender leaves
of hope; tomorrow, blossoms and bears his blushing honors which upon
him; the next day comes a frost, which nips the shoot, and when he
thinks his greatness is still aspiring, he falls, like autumn leaves,
to enrich our mother earth.
“The Scythe is an emblem of time, which cuts the brittle thread of
life and launches us into eternity. Behold, what havoc the scythe of
time makes amongst the human race; if by chance we should escape the
numerous evils incident to childhood and youth, and with that health
and vigor arrive to the years of manhood, yet withall we must soon be
cut down by the all-devouring scythe of time, and be gathered into
the land where our fathers are gone before us.
Both these emblems seems to be inventions of the ingenious and
resourceful American who left do tremendous an imprint upon our
ceremonies. MacKensie, the English Masonic encyclopedist, says of
the hour glass: “Used in the third degree by Webb - but not
essential nor authorized in any way.
Of the scythe, he says: “Since the time of Webb, the scythe has been
adopted in the American system of Freemasonry, as an emblem of the
power of time in destroying the institutions of mankind. In England
it is no regarded as of any typical meaning.”
Woodford, in Kenning’s Encyclopedia, says: “Hour Glass - Said by
some to be a Masonic symbol, Oliver inter alios, as an emblem of
human life; but in our opinion, not strictly speaking so. Woodford
does not mention the scythe.
Mackey, (Clegg revised edition)b credits the hour glass to Webb and
states: “As a Masonic symbol it is of comparatively modern date.”
The familiar illustrations of these emblems, shown on many if not
most Lodge charts, and in that collection of monstrosities which
commercial companies have sold to confiding Lodges on lantern slides
to illustrate the lectures, are based on the Doolittle pictures in
the “True Masonic Chart” of Jeremy Cross.
Here the scythe appears in the drawing of the marble monument, held
under the arm of the very chubby Father Time, who is provided with a
most substantial p[air of wings. It also appears as a separate
illustration for the “scythe of time.” In the same quaint work the
hour glass is illustrated with a pair of open wings.
If young in Freemasonry, both scythe and hour glass are very old.
Old Testament days knew the sickle; ancient Egypt had reaping knives.
Just when the knife or sickle was curved into the familiar two-handed
tool with the crooked handle is less important than that it was earl
associated with a symbolic meaning, as an instrument for the reaping
of humanity, the cutting off of life. Revelation 14-14 to 20
inclusive, is illustrative:
“And I looked, and behold a white cloud, and upon the cloud one sat
like unto the Son of man, having on his head a golden crown, and in
his hand a sharp sickle. And another angel came out of the temple,
crying with a loud voice to him that sat on the cloud, Thrust in thy
sickle, and reap; for the time is come for thee to reap; for the
harvest of the earth is ripe. And he that sat on the cloud thrust in
his sickle on the earth; and the earth was reaped. And another angel
came out of the temple which is in heaven, he also having a sharp
sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, which had power
over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle
Thrust thy sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth;
for her grapes are fully ripe. And the angle thrust in his sickle
into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into
the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was
trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even
unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred
Ancient Greece and Rome knew three cruel fates; Clotho, Lachesis and
Atropos. Clotho held the distaff from which the thread of life was
spun by Lachesis, while Atropos wielded the shears and cut the thread
when life was ended. They were deemed cruel because neither she who
held the staff of life, she who spun the thread nor she who cut it,
regarded the wishes of any man.
In the Sublime Degree Freemasons hear a beautiful prayer, taken
almost wholly from the Book of Job (14, to 14 inclusive). Just why
the fathers of the ritual thought they could improve upon Job, and
left out here a verse, thee substituted a word, is a sealed mystery.
The phrases of the King James version seem intimately connected with
the ritual of our hour glass and scythe of time:
Man that is born of a woman is of a few days and full of trouble. He
cometh forth like a flower, and is cut ; he fleeth also as a shadow,
and continueth not. And dost thou open thine eyes upon such a one,
and bringest me unto judgment with thee? Who can bring a clean thing
out of an unclean? not one. Seeing his days are determined, the
number of his months are with thee, thou hast appointed his bounds
that he cannot pass; turn from him, that he may rest, till he shall
accomplish, as an hireling, his day. For there is hope of a tree, if
it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch
thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the
earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet through the scent
of water it will bud, and bring boughs like a plant. But man dieth,
and wasteth away; yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As
the Waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up;
so man lieth down and riseth not; till the heavens be no more, they
shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep. O that thou
wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest
appoint me a set time and remember me! If a man die, shall he live
again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change
“If a man die, shall he live again?” Job’s cry of despair has rung
down the centuries; it is one of Freemasonry’s glories that her
answer is as ringing! Her tragedy ends in hope; her assurances of
immortality are positive. Ritual of hour glass and scythe, if read
alone, is gloomy and disheartening, but not as parts of a whole which
end in a certainty of immortality.
Measurement of time has demanded the attention of learned men in all
ages. Our modern clocks, watches and chronometers have a long and
intricate history, and many ancestors quite unlike their descendants;
among them the sun dial and hour glass. Just how old the instrument
is which measures time by the slow dropping of liquid or running sand
is not easily stated; ancient Egypt knew a water clock and Plato is
said to have invented the “Clepsydra,” in water drips from container
to container, marking hate passing of hours. The substitution of
sand for water must have occurred early, sand having the great
advantage that it runs more slowly than water and does not evaporate
in the process. The sealed semi-vacuum double bulbs of more modern
days were then, of course, unknown.
Nor can the earliest symbolic relationship between the passage of
hours and days and man’s life both here and hereafter be stated; the
connection between time and life is so intimate that it is difficult
to believe that ideas of duration as a factor of life, as well as a
practical matter of eating, sleeping, etc., did not arise
Both old and New Testaments have this poetry; Isaiah 38-10:
“I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the
grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years.”
and John 5-25:
“Verily, verily, I say unto you; The hour is coming, and now is, when
the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear
The brethren who built upon the simple esoteric work of operative
Lodges the magnificent system of philosophy, life and morals which is
our Freemasonry, wrought with the viewpoint of their times. Yet the
abiding spirit of the ritual is a reality, otherwise it would not
have lived in men’s hearts and worked its gentle miracles for so long
a period. Apparently taking some somber pleasure from dwelling on
mortality, decay, the evening of life, old age and death; these early
Masonic ritualists nevertheless builded well when they endeavored to
impress upon all brethren the vital importance of time. Indeed, time
is so intimately interwoven in the degrees of Freemasonry (see Short
Talk Bulletin, January, 1928) that it very obviously has a symbolic
ass well as moral significance.
Shakespeare wrote of “the inaudible and noiseless foot of time,” and
“time the nurser and breeder of all good.” Richter denominated time
“the chrysalis of eternity;” Franklin called it “the herb that cures
all diseases.” Tusser said: “Time tries the truth in everything,”
echoing Cicero’s “Time is the herald of truth.” Paine dug the meat
from this nut in writing “Time makes more converts than reason.”
Freemasonry’s ritual deals with time in a strictly limited sense; we
speak of a definite number of years the temple was in building; of
the days the Master was buried; of the scythe of time, which cuts the
brittle thread of life; of the hour glass which marks the passing of
life. But in the symbolic sense Freemasonry makes of time a vast
conception, allied with the very fundamentals of God and the
hereafter. Her whole teaching is of the preparation for another and
better life by a substantial and an honorable living of this one.
Freemasonry makes a very clear distinction between everyday time,
which all men share; - eight hours for labor, eight hours for God and
a worthy brother, and eight hours for refreshment and sleep - and the
time his immortal part must spend in the hereafter.
The scythe of time “cuts the brittle thread of life and launches us
into eternity.” The immortal part of man “never, never, never,
dies.” “Time, patience and persever-ance will accomplish all
things.” “Through the valley of the shadow of death, he may finally
arise from the tomb of transgression to shine as the stars, forever
Quotations might be multiplied; they will occur to all whom the
ritual is familiar. Lucky the Master Mason who has grasped the
deeper meanings of the hour glass and the scythe, and comforted is he
who see behind their gloomy outlook a gleam of light; “In the night
of death hope sees a star and love can hear the flutter of an angel’s
wing,” as the great agnostic phrased it.”
The timelessness of time is a hard conception; that eternity has
neither beginning nor ending is beyond the mental grasp even of great
philosophers. Let a poet bring the unbringable within reach: