The Lesson of the Three Great Lights

The Masonic Monthly 1865

The three chief symbols of the antient Fraternity Masons, were the
Bible, Square and Compass. In the mediaeval lodge they were
always to be found on the Master's table, and were termed the
"three great lights." The old Lectures declare that the Bible was
given to the Craft to rule and govern their faith; the Square, to
square their actions; the Compass, to keep them within bounds
with all men, particularly with a brother.

Thus, in these symbols, still preserved and revered by the
Fraternity of the present day, as the furniture of the lodge, we
recognize the identical ideas which constitute the basis of modern

In the centre of this group of symbols is placed the Square,
(Norma, the law) "to square our actions," - that is to say, the Moral

Self-consciousness and freedom of the mind, are the special
prerogatives which belong to man alone, of all created beings. All
the rest of nature obeys eternal immutable laws; but the will of
man belongs to a different sphere, in which the ideas of cause and
effect, as found in the material world, are of no authority. Man is
subject only to those laws which he gives himself.

What use then should man make of this privileged autonomy of
self-government, that he may prove worthy of this high
prerogative? What principle should govern his actions? By what
square should he construct those laws which he gives himself?

There can be but one simple answer to these questions, namely:
"so to act, that the principle of his actions may be exalted to a law
of nature; to act in that manner only in which he thinks that He
who has given to nature its immutable laws, would have compelled
him to act, had He chosen to introduce compulsion into the realm
of mind, in order to realize his design."

This principle of the moral law gains dignity and sanctity, through
the idea of the Deity, symbolized by the Bible in conjunction with
the Square.

Were Nature but the aggregate of accidental and transitory
phenomena, without internal organism, it would be immaterial
whether man, as a free being, sought to act in harmony with it, or
whether, as might suit his pleasure or caprice, he forcibly
encroached upon this, to him, strange world of phenomena.

But beneath all the diversity of this world of phenomena, there lies
a unity, - beneath the changing, an unchangeable, - beneath the
whole, an eternal order, - the Absolute, the Deity, - before whom
our views and contemplations of time and space, are as nothing.

When we elevate ourselves to this idea, and under its influence
apply the Square, we then assume the character of free-will
co-laborers on the building of the moral system of the world, and
therefore, the moral law is necessarily a holy law, and requires for
its maintenance no mean incentive, no fear of punishment, nay, not
even the hope of a reward. He who suffers himself to be influenced
by these selfish motives divests himself of the dignity of a free
man, and falls to the level of a miserable slave or venal mercenary,
when he should be a master of himself, doing good for the sake of
doing good alone, and therein finding a sufficient reward.

The individual having adopted these ideas, and beholding by his
aide a multitude of beings, formed and endowed as himself, must
recognize in them colaborers on the moral system of the world; it
must be evident to him that the realm of mind, like that of the
material world, is also a great organic whole, to which he stands in
the relation of an individual member merely. If then he would
remain faithful to his principles, and truly honor the Square, he
must act in reciprocity with these, his fellows and equals, and not
only not impede them in their designs, (here we have the idea of
justice) but also make their designs his own, (the idea of love,) and
thus, he finally attains to the idea of humanity, as a superior unity,
his relation to which is symbolized by the Compass the instrument
with which the architect describes the circles on his plan and
defines the relations existing between the separate parts and the

Our "three great Lights" thus point us to the idea of the individual
man as a free-will subject of the. moral law, ennobled through the
idea of the Deity, and reminded of his destiny by the idea of
universal humanity.

It is evident from the explanation given in the ancient ritual, that
the Bible is not here meant to be the source of a positive religious
creed, for like the Square and Compass, it is explicitly alluded to as
signifying something else, and indeed it signifies a great light that
beams on Masonry, that is to say, an idea, the knowledge of which
is necessary to us, if we would act with justice, and that idea is the
idea of the Deity.

It follows, therefore, that the Fraternity may not question the
individual as to his idea of the Deity, for it neither uses violence
towards conscience, nor tolerates hypocrisy; the religious belief of
the individual is left to himself as a private matter, which he must
settle with his own faith and powers of comprehension.

We sometimes find the opinion expressed that only the professors
of a certain religious creed are fit to be Freemasons, but this is
directly at variance with the pure doctrine of Masonry. It is
certainly true that the practical portion of the Christian doctrine,
the universal love of man, first taught by Christ, is also the essence
of Masonry, and thus we might indeed say, that he who does not
acknowledge this doctrine cannot be a Mason; but this would
simply be tautology and mean nothing more, but that he who does
not comprehend the foundation of Masonry cannot co-operate in
its building.

But what right have we to go farther and say, that he who is not
outwardly accepted into the community of Christians or who does
not believe in the truth of all the historical and speculative tenets
taught by the church, can be no brother of ours, even though he has
adopted the practical portion of the Christian doctrine and actually
lives up to it?

Dare we say that he is not worthy of our brotherly love? Would not
this be falsification a mutilation of the practical Christian doctrine
itself? - Would we not thus substitute in the place of that universal
mankind which we are to love, a posthumous picture of a new
chosen people? In what else then consists the progress of Judaism
to Christianity, if not in the fact that it had torn down every barrier,
every obstacle to the love of our neighbor, that it has opened our
hearts to all?

In what then would consist the superiority of Christianity over
Judaism, if it had merely changed the form, or altered the position
of those barriers, but left them barriers still?

Or, can we say that he who does not outwardly acknowledge
Christ, the Messiah, is not fit for that universal love taught by him?

Is this practical Christianity then, something that is of value or
authority, merely because at some time or in some place, it was
invented or devised, and that consequently he only can receive
who acknowledges the supremacy and peculiar vocation of Him
who first uttered it?

Is its truth dependent upon the legitimacy of its first teacher,
dependent on the truth of any one historical fact and the belief in
that fact?

Is man, then, indeed merely a wild plant, which though guarded
with the tenderest care, can mature no worthy fruit, unless a
worthier scion be engrafted on it?

No, my brethren, no 1

The Christian moral law and the law of Masonry is no invention, it
is but the discovery of a truth as old as man himself. It was written
on the heart of the first man, though man indeed only learned to
read it in the course of time. It may be compared to an ancient
faded palimpsest, which some ignorant monk has used as
parchment on which to transcribe his legends, and which some
future fortunate inquirer has successfully restored and deciphered.

To say that he who does not believe in the historical Christ cannot
adopt his doctrine, and is unfit to practice it, is to say as much, as
that be who believes not in Johannes Guttenberg can never read a

Or that he who believes not in Christopher Columbus cannot
believe in the existence of America !

Or that he who believes not in Pythagoras can never perceive that
the square described on the hypothenuse of a right-angled triangle
is equivalent to the sum of the squares described on the two other
sides !

Or that he who does not believe in the ancient building
corporations and is no architect, can never be a Freemason!

These views are confirmed by two ancient documents of our
Fraternity. In the so-called Constitutions of York, the third charge
ordains that "You shall be friendly toward all men, and so far as
you can, preserve true friendship with them, and not hinder them
because they are of a different religion or opinion." And the fourth
charge runs thus: "In particular you must be ever faithful to one
another, instruct and aid each other in the art, and also do among
you as you would that others should do unto you. Should a brother
offend, or otherwise do wrong, all must aid him to make good his
fault, until he has amended."

In the so-called Examination of a Mason under Henry VI.; among
the "Arts of Masonry" is mentioned "the skill of becoming good
and perfect, without the help of fear and hope."

Thus, these ancient Masons taught and practised a nobler art, a
purer morality than that which was taught and practised in the
Eleusinian Mysteries, of which Sophocles could only say: "O,
thrice happy he, who beholds this consecration, he goeth down
comforted into the lower world. Such only are permitted to dwell
there, for all others only horrors wait!"

These facts should convince us that we have no reason to be
ashamed of our actual ancestors in the culture of humanity and as
teachers in the art of life, that we lose none of our internal worth
by relinquishing our claims of being inheritors of Egyptian and
Eleusinian Mysteries, or of numbering among our ancestors the
builders of the Solomonian Temple.

In conclusion, we will cite one passage more, from the
Examination, before alluded to, which in its very simplicity will
speak more forcibly to our hearts than any flow of rhetorical
eloquence that could be employed:

"Q. Do Masons love each other mightily as hath been said?

A. Yea verily, and it may not otherwise be; for good men and true,
knowing each other to be such, do always love the more as they be
more good."