Sublimis, in Latin, referred to something high, lofty, exalted, like a city set on top of a hill, or an eagle’s nest atop some lonely crag. It refers to that which is eminent, of superlative degree, moral grandeur, spiritual exaltation. Inasmuch as the Third Degree is at the top of the system of Ancient Craft Masonry, it is known as “The Sublime Degree.
- Source: 100 Words in Masonry
The word is from the Latin Sublimis, meaning lofty, an allusion properly expressive of the teaching in the final symbolic ceremony of our ancient Craft. The Third Degree is called the Sublime Degree of a Master Mason, in reference to the exalted lessons that it teaches of God and of a future life. The epithet is, however, comparatively modern. It is not to be found in any of the rituals of the eighteenth century. Neither Hutchinson, nor Smith, nor Preston use it; and it was not, probably, in the original Prestonian lecture. Hutchinson speaks of "the most sacred and solemn Order" and of "the Exalted," but not of "the Sublime" Degree. Webb, who leased his lectures on the Prestonian system, applies no epithet to the Master's Degree. In an edition of the Constitutions, published at Dublin in 1769, the Master's Degree is spoken of as "the most respectable" and forty years ago the epithet "high and honorable" was used in some of the instructions of the United States.
The first book in which we meet with the adjective sublime applied to the Third Degree, is the Masonic Discourses of Dr. T. M. Harris, published at Boston in 1801. Cole also used it in 1817, in his Freemasons' Library; and about the same time Jeremy Cross, the well-known lecturer, introduced it into his teachings, and used it in his hieroglyphic Chart, which was, for many years, the text-book of American Lodges. The word is now, however, to be found in the modern English lectures, and is of universal use in the rituals of the United States, where the Third Degree is always called the Sublime Degree of a Master Mason.
The word sublime was the password of the Master's Degree in the Adonhiramite Rite, because it was said to have been the surname of Hiram, or Adonhiram. On this subject, Guillemain, in his Recueil Précieux, or Choice Collection (i, page 91), makes the following singular remarks: "For a long time a great number of Masons were unacquainted with this worth and they erroneously made use of another in its stead which they did not understand, and to which they gave a meaning that was doubtful and improbable. This is proved by the fact that the first knights adopted for the Master's Password the Latin word Sublimis, which the French, as soon as they received Masonry, pronounced Sublime, which was so far very well. But some profanes, who were desirous of divulging our secrets, but who did not perfectly understand this word, wrote it sublime, which they said signified excellence. Others, who followed, surpassed the error of the first by printing it Giblos, and were bold enough to say that it was the name of the place where the body of Adonhiram was found. As in those days the number of uneducated was considerable, these ridiculous assertions were readily received, and the truth was generally forgotten."
The whole of this narrative is a mere visionary invention of the founder of the Adonhiramite system; but it is barely possible that there is some remote connection between the use of the word sublime in that Rite, as a Significant word of the Third Degree, and its modern employment as an epithet of the same Degree. However, the ordinary signification of the word, as referring to things of an exalted character, would alone sufficiently account for the use of the expression.
- Source: Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry
Learned students of art have discovered that the word "Sublime" as
applied to the degree of Master Mason is not one of those matters
which are of an antiquity of "Time Immemorial." It seems to have
made its appearance in print first about 1801. Today, its use is
That the degree "Is" sublime, in all the highest meanings of that
much abused word, is not a matter for discussion or proof; it is
sublime if we feel it as sublime; it is just an ordinary ceremony if
that is all it is to us. Sublimity is not in the thing, but in us.
The Forty-Seventh Problem of Euclid in its absolute perfection is
sublime to a mathematician, to a six year old child or a savage who
cannot count beyond ten, it is less than nothing. The most beautiful
sunset which ever thrilled the senses of color could not be sublime
to a blind man, nor can harmonies of Beethoven or Wagner be sublime
to a man born deaf. If the Master Mason degree is sublime, it is
because of what it is and what it does to a man's heart.
The Master Mason's degree is immensely different from the two
preceding ones. It has the same externals as far as entry and
closing are concerned; it uses also a circumambulation, a passage
from Scripture, has an obligation and a bringing to more light - "All
The Light Which Can Be Communicated To You In A Blue Lodge." But its
second section departs utterly from the architectural symbolism of
the fist two degrees, and concerns itself with a living, a dying and
a living again. It is at once more human and more spiritual than the
preceding degrees. It strikes in upon the heart with the force and
effect of a great bell, heard in a silent place; no thoughtful man
receives, or ever sees this degree, with any understanding of its
symbolism, who does not feel a sense of awe and wonder that a mind of
man could conceive it, put it together, place so much of wisdom in so
simple a vehicle, give so much light in so few words and in so short
The Master's degree as whole is a symbol of old age; of wisdom and
experience. It is a symbol of preparation for that other life which
it so grandly promises. It brings to the initiate the symbolism of
the Sprig of Acacia, and tells him in one breath that a man must
stand alone, even while he must lean upon the Everlasting Arms. It
lays before him the whole drama of man's longing for a Something
Beyond; it tells the tale of what ignorance and brute strength may do
to destroy knowledge and virtue, even while it shows that, never can
darkness overcame light, never can evil win over what is good, never
can error prevail over truth.
There are those who find in the symbolism of the Third Degree a
promise of the resurrection of the body. None can blame them; the
symbolism is there. Nor can one blame the miner who digs in the
earth after the outcroppings of an ore, for believing that the ore is
al he can expect to find; even when a later delver in the earth goes
through the ore and finds a diamond. If, to a devout and orthodox
Christian the Master Mason degree is symbolic of the resurrection of
the body, that doctrine of bodily resurrection is in itself a symbol
of a spiritual raising. Each of us, then, may interpret this part of
the degree in according to the light which is given him, and no man
has either the wisdom or the right to say, "That Interpretation is
True, This One False."
There have been some twenty or more interpretations of the whole
degree; they range all the way from the story of the Garden of Eden
to a sort of cipher drama of the violent death of King Charles the
First. Modern students, however, are reasonably well agreed that the
Hiramic Legend is a retelling of the immortality of the soul; it
belongs with the story of Isis and Orsiris, and the most beautiful of
the early religious myths, the Brahmanic story of Ademi and Heva.
Thus interpreted, the soul, mind or spirit; after it acquires
knowledge, is subjected to temptation. It must bargain with
conditions, make a pact with evil, compromise with reality, or
suffer. Every life demonstrates the truth of this; we are all
tempted to compromise with the best that is in us for the sake of
expediency. Not infrequently, we, as did a Certain Three, think to
win knowledge, power, place, and reward for themselves; not be
patient effort, but by force alone.
In the sublime degree there is no compromise. Those who seek
unlawfully are bidden to wait until they are found worthy . . . but
there is no suggestion of yielding to their importunity if they will
not. Nor do they wait. For a time it appears that force is superior
to righteousness, that evil can overcome good. But only for a time.
And while, indeed, That Which Was Lost has never been recovered, yet
the manner of its losing has been an inspiration to all men in their
search for it ever since; a just retribution overtook the evil and
the consequences of wrong doing are set forth unequivocally.
It is difficult to write about that which is sublime, translate it
into words of everyday, and at the same time comply with the
statutory requirements. All Master Masons will forgive the seeming
vagueness of these references; indeed, they should not find them
vague. But in any attempt to translate the symbolism into words, it
loses in two ways; first, as any symbol must lose (can you describe a
rose so that it appears beautiful or put the majesty of a mountain or
the magnitude of the ocean in a phrase?); second, because the appeal
of the symbol is to the heart, the soul or the spirit; when one
attempts to make of it also an appeal to the mind, the spirit
symbolism becomes clouded over with materiality; the bloom is gone
from the petal; the butterfly is crushed.
The moral lessons in the degree are many; the virtue of loyalty is
most obvious and, perhaps, least important, symbolically. That truth
wins in the end; that evil does not flourish; that strength of heart
is greater than strength of arm; that it is by the spirit of
brotherhood, not by one man alone, that which has fallen can be
raised; that in his greatest extremity man has but One to Whom to
turn; that beyond brotherhood the soul stands always, and must always
stand, alone before God, when no prayers save its own may avail; That
he who would win true brotherhood must give proof of his fitness to
be a brother; these, and many more can be read from the degree by the
most casual minded.
But there is a deeper lesson, for him who is minded to dig far
enough. There are certain matters which can be proved by logic, and
by experiment. Thus, we know not only by vision, by experience and
by counting on the fingers that two added to two make four, but also
by demonstrating this fact by mathematics.
It is entirely obvious to all scientists that the laws of nature are
constant; they do not vary between here and there. But it is not
demonstrable! We are confident that the laws of motion and
gravitation as we see them demonstrated on earth and in the solar
system, are the same in some far off planet of an unknown sun, in
some other solar system of the existence of which we do not even
know. But we cannot prove it.
In this sense we cannot prove either God or Immortality. A God who
could be proved to a finite mind by a finite means would be a finite
God, and The Great Architect we believe to be infinite. The crux of
the whole controversy between those who profess a science and those
who profess a religion, has been over this demand on the part of
those scientists that religion reduce God to figures and prove Him by
a Rule; while the follower of a religion founded entirely on faith
demands that the scientist forego his reason and believe without
In other words, one all Mind demands that one all Soul work and talk
wholly in terms of Mind. One all Soul insists that Mind forget its
reason and its logic and deal wholly in belief and faith.
But a man is not only Mind, nor is he only Immortal Soul.
The ego is made up of both. When they become at war with each other
we have either a religious fanatic or an atheist. Luckily for most
of us, there is no conflict; we believe the things of the heart
because of proofs the mind cannot understand, just as we know the
demonstrable truths of science with expositions which mean nothing to
The esoteric meaning the Sublime Degree of Master Mason is not at all
for the mind. To the mind it is not a proof of anything. But it
truly is the Forty Seventh Problem of Euclid of the heart!
As that strange and wonderful mathematic wonder contains the germ of
all scientific measurement, so does the symbolism of the Third Degree
contain the germ of all doctrines of immortality, all beliefs in a
hereafter, all heart certainty of a beneficent Creator Who has us in
His Holy Keeping.
There have been those who, fearing that Freemasonry was about to set
up a doctrine and a church to teach it, have frowned upon Freemasonry
because of this symbolism. But note carefully, there is not in all
the Master Mason Degree any suggestion of creed or dogma or even of a
"Way to Heaven." The Mohammedan who believes that the way to Allah
is to kill a Christian or two, will find no contradiction of his
queer faith in the Master Masons degree. The Christian who sincerely
believes that only by Baptism can he be "Saved" will find nothing in
the Master Mason degree to hurt that faith. The Spiritualist who
feels that unseen friends are waiting to receive him and carry him
forward, can be a good Master Mason. The Third Degree teaches not
how to win immortality, not how to get to heaven, not any particular
way to worship the Great Architect; it teaches that immortality is;
that God is; and leaves to others the fitting of those ineffable
truths into what frames they please.
How could the degree be otherwise than sublime? It contains the
greatest thought, the most intense hope, the most sincere prayer
which all mankind possesses. From the dawn of humanity man has tried
to see God. He has believed in God. He has struggled toward the
light, often stumbling, often failing; but always stretching forth
hands upward, winning his slow way to a little better spiritual
comprehension of the Great Mystery.
The Sublime degree of Master Mason is at once a promise and a
performance; an exposition and a demonstration; a doing and a
believing of the loftiest aspirations in the heart of humanity. Of
course it is sublime; and, equally of course, many who fail to see
its inner meaning do not find it so. The beauty of the unseen sunset
is there only for eyes which can see. The man who finds the degree
otherwise than sublime must blame the man, not the degree. For it is
not of the earth, earthy; there is in this ceremony and its simple
but awful words, something as much beyond the minds of the
generations of men who made it, as there is in its mystery.
Something Beyond the comprehension of those who give it, and they,
fortunate among men . . . who receive it and take it to their hearts.