The Book of Constitutions for Craft Masonry reminds Freemasons that by the solemn Act of Union between the two Grand Lodges of Freemasons of England in December 1813 it was ‘declared and pronounced that pure Antient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more viz., those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch’.
This is a somewhat remarkable and contradictory statement bearing in mind that prior to the union of the two Grand Lodges in 1813, a form of Mark Degree was extensively worked both in London and the Provinces. There is documentary evidence that the degree was worked in 1756 in Durham: “There being met part of the body of the Lodge they taking in their serious consideration that no member of the said Lodge shall be made a Mark Mason without paying the fee of one Scots Mark………’. According to one Masonic scholar, however, ‘there is no record of conferring the Mark as a degree before 1 September 1769’ when the ubiquitous Thomas Dunckerley made several Brethren Mark Masons and Mark Masters in the Royal Arch Chapter of Friendship at Portsmouth.
Other records show that the degree was worked thereafter in lodges and chapters in many parts of England, Scotland and Ireland. In English Masonry both at home and abroad the degree was regularly worked in lodges under the Antients’ Grand Lodge (formed in 1852) where it was a necessary step to their version of the Royal Arch Degree. To this day in other Constitutions throughout the world, the Mark is part of either Craft or Royal Arch Masonry, and a candidate may be given the Mark Degree as soon as he has become a Master Mason, either in the Craft Lodge or in the Royal Arch Chapter as a preliminary degree. In Scotland, for example, the degree is worked in the Craft and in Ireland in the Royal Arch.
William Henry Leigh, Lord Leigh of Stoneleigh in Warwickshire, Provincial Grand Master of the Craft in Warwickshire for fifty three years from 1852 until 1905, was elected as the first Grand Master of ‘The Grand Lodge of Mark Masters of England and Wales, and the Colonies and Dependencies of the British Crown’ in London on 23 June 1856. On 28 June the new Grand Lodge advertised itself in The Times. Grand Lodge issued Warrants of Confirmation to existing Mark Lodges wishing to regularise themselves under the authority of an England based governing body, the first five of which were Bon Accord Lodge, Royal Cumberland Lodge of Mark Master Masons, Northumberland and Berwick upon Tweed Lodge of Mark Masters, Old Kent Lodge and the Phoenix Lodge of Mark Masters No 2, which today are known as the Five Founding Lodges.
The Mark Degree is one of hope and encouragement and the ritual is built on a single verse from Psalm 118 “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head stone of the corner.” It deals with the building of King Solomon’s Temple and the various Craftsmen employed, but its real message is one of contemplation of human strength and weakness. The Degree contains many messages for the discerning man and illustrates that the wisest of men can be mistaken, that the experts are often wrong, that the weakest often display perseverance far better than the strongest, that the insignificant has a potential for distinction and that we all have a part to play in the Building of Life.
It is for each to put his own interpretation on the message which the Degree proclaims, but there is a clear encouragement that no man is beyond redemption, and the possibility of distinction is always within our power. Whatever one’s religion there is a clear message of hope and for the Christian, Peter, in the Book of Acts, states of Jesus, “This is the stone which was set at naught by you builders, which is become the Head of the Corner”.
Finally the Degree reminds us that when all the wisest and cleverest of men were gathered together only one looked towards the West and saw a sunbeam strike the roof of the Temple. The Degree represents the everyday life of each one of us, for the stone hewn from virgin rock depicts us all on our journey through life. Its final recognition as perfection should be the guide to our conduct through life that “we may be found worthy”.
Mark Masonry is known as the ‘friendly Degree’ and this is emphasised in our ritual when the newly advanced Mark Master Mason is told towards the end of the ceremony that ‘among Mark Master Masons you will ever find friends’. There could not be a truer statement.