The Symbolism Of Labor
the symbolism of freemasonry
albert gallatin mackey
It is one of the most beautiful features of the Masonic Institution,
that it teaches not only the necessity, but the nobility, of labor. Among
the earliest of the implements in whose emblematic use it instructs its
neophytes is the Trestle Board, the acknowledged symbol of the Divine Law,
in accordance with whose decree199
labor was originally instituted as the common lot of all; and therefore
the important lesson that is closely connected with this symbol is, that
to labor well and truly, to labor honestly and persistently, is the object
and the chief end of all humanity.
To work out well the task that is set before us is our highest duty,
and should constitute our greatest happiness. All men, then, must have
their trestle boards; for the principles that guide us in the discharge of
our duty—the schemes that we devise—the plans that we propose—are but the
trestle board, whose designs we follow, for good or for evil, in our labor
Earth works with every coming spring, and within its prolific bosom
designs the bursting seed, the tender plant, and the finished tree, upon
its trestle board.
Old ocean works forever—restless and murmuring—but still bravely
working; and storms and tempests, the purifiers of stagnant nature, are
inscribed upon its trestle board.
And God himself, the Grand Architect, the Master Builder of the world,
has labored from eternity; and working by his omnipotent will, he
inscribes his plans upon illimitable space, for the universe is his
There was a saying of the monks of old which is well worth meditation.
They taught that "laborare est orare"—labor is worship. They did
not, it is true, always practise the wise precept. They did not always
make labor a part of their religion. Like Onuphrius, who lived threescore
years and ten in the desert, without human voice or human sympathy to
cheer him, because he had not learned that man was made for man, those old
ascetics went into the wilderness, and built cells, and occupied
themselves in solitary meditation and profitless thought. They prayed
much, but they did no work. And thus they passed their lives, giving no
pity, aid, or consolation to their fellow-men, adding no mite to the
treasury of human knowledge, and leaving the world, when their selfish
pilgrimage was finished, without a single contribution, in labor of mind
or body, to its welfare.200
And men, seeing the uselessness of these ascetic lives, shrink now from
their example, and fall back upon that wiser teaching, that he best does
God's will who best does God's work. The world now knows that heaven is
not served by man's idleness—that the "dolce far niente," though it
might suit an Italian lazzaroni, is not fit for a brave Christian man, and
that they who would do rightly, and act well their part, must take this
distich for their motto:—
"With this hand work, and with the other pray,
And God will bless
them both from day to day."
Now, this doctrine, that labor is worship, is the very doctrine that
has been advanced and maintained, from time immemorial, as a leading dogma
of the Order of Freemasonry. There is no other human institution under the
sun which has set forth this great principle in such bold relief. We hear
constantly of Freemasonry as an institution that inculcates morality, that
fosters the social feeling, that teaches brotherly love; and all this is
well, because it is true; but we must never forget that from its
foundation-stone to its pinnacle, all over its vast temple, is inscribed,
in symbols of living light, the great truth that labor is worship.
It has been supposed that, because we speak of Freemasonry as a
speculative system, it has nothing to do with the practical. But this is a
most grievous error. Freemasonry is, it is true, a speculative science,
but it is a speculative science based upon an operative art. All its
symbols and allegories refer to this connection. Its very language is
borrowed from the art, and it is singularly suggestive that the initiation
of a candidate into its mysteries is called, in its peculiar phraseology,
I repeat that this expression is singularly suggestive. When the lodge
is engaged in reading petitions, hearing reports, debating financial
matters, it is said to be occupied in business; but when it is
engaged in the form and ceremony of initiation into any of the degrees, it
is said to be at work. Initiation is masonic labor. This
phraseology at once suggests the connection of our speculative system with
an operative art that preceded it, and upon which it has been founded.
This operative art must have given it form and features and organization.
If the speculative system had been founded solely on philosophical or
ethical principles, if it had been derived from some ancient or modern
sect of philosophers,—from the Stoics, the Epicureans, or the Platonists
of the heathen world, or from any of the many divisions of the scholastics
of the middle ages,—this origin would most certainly have affected its
interior organization as well as its external form, and we should have
seen our modern masonic reunions assuming the style of academies or
schools. Its technical language—for, like every institution isolated from
the ordinary and general pursuits of mankind, it would have had its own
technical dialect—would have been borrowed from, and would be easily
traced to, the peculiar phraseology of the philosophic sects which had
given it birth. There would have been the sophists and the
philosophers; the grammatists and the grammarians;
the scholars, the masters, and the doctors. It would
have had its trivial and its quadrivial schools; its
occupation would have been research, experiment, or investigation; in a
word, its whole features would have been colored by a grammatical, a
rhetorical, or a mathematical cast, accordingly as it should have been
derived from a sect in which any one of these three characteristics was
the predominating influence.
But in the organization of Freemasonry, as it now presents itself to
us, we see an entirely different appearance. Its degrees are expressive,
not of advancement in philosophic attainments, but of progress in a purely
mechanical pursuit. Its highest grade is that of Master of the Work.
Its places of meeting are not schools, but lodges, places where the
workmen formerly lodged, in the neighborhood of the building on whose
construction they were engaged. It does not form theories, but builds
temples. It knows nothing of the rules of the dialecticians,—of the
syllogism, the dilemma, the enthymeme, or the sorites,—but it recurs to
the homely implements of its operative parent for its methods of
instruction, and with the plumb-line it inculcates rectitude of conduct,
and draws lessons of morality from the workman's square. It sees in the
Supreme God that it worships, not a "numen divinum," a divine
power, nor a "moderator rerum omnium," a controller of all things,
as the old philosophers designated him, but a Grand Architect of the
Universe. The masonic idea of God refers to Him as the Mighty Builder
of this terrestrial globe, and all the countless worlds that surround it.
He is not the ens entium, or to theion, or any other of the
thousand titles with which ancient and modern speculation has invested
him, but simply the Architect,—as the Greeks have it, the ἀρχὸς, the chief
workman,—under whom we are all workmen also;201
and hence our labor is his worship.
This idea, then, of masonic labor, is closely connected with the
history of the organization of the institution. When we say "the lodge is
at work," we recognize that it is in the legitimate practice of that
occupation for which it was originally intended. The Masons that are in it
are not occupied in thinking, or speculating, or reasoning, but simply and
emphatically in working. The duty of a Mason as such, in his lodge, is to
work. Thereby he accomplishes the destiny of his Order. Thereby he best
fulfils his obligation to the Grand Architect, for with the Mason
laborare est orare—labor is worship.
The importance of masonic labor being thus demonstrated, the question
next arises as to the nature of that labor. What is the work that a Mason
is called upon to perform?
Temple building was the original occupation of our ancient brethren.
Leaving out of view that system of ethics and of religious philosophy,
that search after truth, those doctrines of the unity of God and the
immortality of the soul, which alike distinguish the ancient Mysteries and
the masonic institution, and which both must have derived from a common
origin,—most probably from some priesthood of the olden time,—let our
attention be exclusively directed, for the present, to that period, so
familiar to every Mason, when, under the supposed Grand Mastership of King
Solomon, Freemasonry first assumed "a local habitation and a name" in the
holy city of Jerusalem. There the labor of the Israelites and the skill of
the Tyrians were occupied in the construction of that noble temple whose
splendor and magnificence of decoration made it one of the wonders of the
Here, then, we see the two united nations directing their attention,
with surprising harmony, to the task of temple building. The Tyrian
workmen, coming immediately from the bosom of the mystical society of
Dionysian artificers, whose sole employment was the erection of sacred
edifices throughout all Asia Minor, indoctrinated the Jews with a part of
their architectural skill, and bestowed upon them also a knowledge of
those sacred Mysteries which they had practised at Tyre, and from which
the present interior form of Freemasonry is said to be derived.
Now, if there be any so incredulous as to refuse their assent to the
universally received masonic tradition on this subject, if there be any
who would deny all connection of King Solomon with the origin of
Freemasonry, except it be in a mythical or symbolical sense, such
incredulity will, not at all affect the chain of argument which I am
disposed to use. For it will not be denied that the corporations of
builders in the middle ages, those men who were known as "Travelling
Freemasons," were substantial and corporeal, and that the cathedrals,
abbeys, and palaces, whose ruins are still objects of admiration to all
observers, bear conclusive testimony that their existence was nothing like
a myth, and that their labors were not apocryphal. But these Travelling
Freemasons, whether led into the error, if error it be, by a mistaken
reading of history, or by a superstitious reverence for tradition, always
esteemed King Solomon as the founder of their Order. So that the first
absolutely historical details that we have of the masonic institution,
connect it with the idea of a temple. And it is only for this idea that I
contend, for it proves that the first Freemasons of whom we have authentic
record, whether they were at Jerusalem or in Europe, and whether they
flourished a thousand years before or a thousand years after the birth of
Christ, always supposed that temple building was the peculiar specialty of
their craft, and that their labor was to be the erection of temples in
ancient times, and cathedrals and churches in the Christian age.
So that we come back at last to the proposition with which I had
commenced, namely: that temple building was the original occupation of our
ancient brethren. And to this is added the fact, that after a long lapse
of centuries, a body of men is found in the middle ages who were
universally recognized as Freemasons, and who directed their attention and
their skill to the same pursuit, and were engaged in the construction of
cathedrals, abbeys, and other sacred edifices, these being the Christian
substitute for the heathen or the Jewish temple.
And therefore, when we view the history of the Order as thus developed
in its origin and its design, we are justified in saying that, in all
times past, its members have been recognized as men of labor, and that
their labor has been temple building.
But our ancient brethren wrought in both operative and speculative
Masonry, while we work only in speculative. They worked with the hand; we
work with the brain. They dealt in the material; we in the spiritual. They
used in their labor wood and stones; we use thoughts, and feelings, and
affections. We both devote ourselves to labor, but the object of the labor
and the mode of the labor are different.
The French rituals have given us the key-note to the explanation of
what is masonic labor when they say that "Freemasons erect temples for
virtue and dungeons for vice."
The modern Freemasons, like the Masons of old, are engaged in the
construction of a temple;—but with this difference: that the temple of the
latter was material, that of the former spiritual. When the operative art
was the predominant characteristic of the Order, Masons were engaged in
the construction of material and earthly temples. But when the operative
art ceased, and the speculative science took its place, then the
Freemasons symbolized the labors of their predecessors by engaging in the
construction of a spiritual temple in their hearts, which was to be made
so pure that it might become the dwelling-place of Him who is all purity.
It was to be "a house not made with hands," where the hewn stone was to be
a purified heart.
This symbolism, which represents man as a temple, a house, a sacred
building in which God is to dwell, is not new, nor peculiar to the masonic
science. It was known to the Jewish, and is still recognized by the
Christian, system. The Talmudists had a saying that the threefold
repetition of the words "Temple of Jehovah," in the seventh chapter and
fourth verse of the book of Jeremiah, was intended to allude to the
existence of three temples; and hence in one of their treatises it is
said, "Two temples have been destroyed, but the third will endure
forever," in which it is manifest that they referred to the temple of the
immortal soul in man.
By a similar allusion, which, however, the Jews chose wilfully to
misunderstand, Christ declared, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I
will raise it up." And the beloved disciple, who records the conversation,
does not allow us to doubt of the Saviour's meaning.
"Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building,
and wilt thou rear it up in three days?
"But he spake of the temple of his body."
In more than one place the apostle Paul has fondly dwelt upon this
metaphor. Thus he tells the Corinthians that they are "God's building,"
and he calls himself the "wise master builder," who was to lay the
foundation in his truthful doctrine, upon which they were to erect the
And he says to them immediately afterwards, "Know ye not that ye are the
temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?"
In consequence of these teachings of the apostles, the idea that the
body was a temple has pervaded, from the earliest times to the present
day, the system of Christian or theological symbolism. Indeed, it has
sometimes been carried to an almost too fanciful excess. Thus Samuel Lee,
in that curious and rare old work, "The Temple of Solomon, pourtrayed
by Scripture Light," thus dilates on this symbolism of the temple:—
"The foundation of this temple may be laid in humility and
contrition of spirit, wherein the inhabiter of eternity delighteth to
dwell; we may refer the porch to the mouth of a saint, wherein
every holy Jacob erects the pillars of God's praise, calling upon
and blessing his name for received mercies; when songs of deliverance are
uttered from the doors of his lips. The holy place is the
renewed mind, and the windows therein may denote divine
illumination from above, cautioning a saint lest they be darkened with the
smoke of anger, the mist of grief, the dust of vain-glory, or the filthy
mire of worldly cares. The golden candlesticks, the infused habits
of divine knowledge resting within the soul. The shew-bread, the
word of grace exhibited in the promises for the preservation of a
Christian's life and glory. The golden altar of odors, the
breathings, sufferings, and groanings after God, ready to break forth into
Abba, Father. The veiles, the righteousness of Christ. The holy
of holies may relate to the conscience purified from dead works and
brought into a heavenly frame."
204 And thus he proceeds, symbolizing every part and utensil of
the temple as alluding to some emotion or affection of man, but in
language too tedious for quotation.
In a similar vein has the celebrated John Bunyan, the author of the "Pilgrim's
Progress" proceeded in his "Temple of Solomon Spiritualized" to
refer every part of that building to a symbolic meaning, selecting,
however, the church, or congregation of good men, rather than the
individual man, as the object of the symbolism.
In the middle ages the Hermetic philosophers seem to have given the
same interpretation of the temple, and Swedenborg, in his mystical
writings, adopts the idea.
Hitchcock, who has written an admirable little work on Swedenborg
considered as a Hermetic Philosopher, thus alludes to this subject, and
his language, as that of a learned and shrewd investigator, is well worthy
"With, perhaps, the majority of readers, the Tabernacle of Moses and
the Temple of Solomon were mere buildings; very magnificent indeed, but
still mere buildings for the worship of God. But some are struck with many
portions of the account of their erection, admitting a moral
interpretation; and while the buildings are allowed to stand (or to have
stood once) visible objects, these interpreters are delighted to meet with
indications that Moses and Solomon, in building the temples, were wise in
the knowledge of God and of man; from which point it is not difficult to
pass on to the moral meaning altogether, and to affirm that the building
which was erected without 'the noise of a hammer or axe, or any tool of
iron,' was altogether a moral building—a building of God, not made with
hands: in short, many see in the story of Solomon's temple a symbolical
representation of MAN as the temple of God, with its holy of holies
deep-seated in the centre of the human heart."
The French Masons have not been inattentive to this symbolism. Their
already quoted expression that the "Freemasons build temples for virtue
and dungeons for vice," has very clearly a reference to it, and their most
distinguished writers never lose sight of it.
Thus Ragon, one of the most learned of the French historians of
Freemasonry, in his lecture to the Apprentice, says that the founders of
our Order "called themselves Masons, and proclaimed that they were
building a temple to truth and virtue."
206 And subsequently he addresses the candidate who has received
the Master's degree in the following language:—
"Profit by all that has been revealed to you. Improve your heart and
your mind. Direct your passions to the general good; combat your
prejudices; watch over your thoughts and your actions; love, enlighten,
and assist your brethren; and you will have perfected that temple
of which you are at once the architect, the material, and
Rebold, another French historian of great erudition, says, "If
Freemasonry has ceased to erect temples, and by the aid of its
architectural designs to elevate all hearts to the Deity, and all eyes and
hopes to heaven, it has not therefore desisted from its work of moral and
intellectual building;" and he thinks that the success of the institution
has justified this change of purpose and the disruption of the speculative
from the operative character of the Order.208
Eliphas Levi, who has written abstrusely and mystically on Freemasonry
and its collateral sciences, sees very clearly an allegorical and a real
design in the institution, the former being the rebuilding of the temple
of Solomon, and the latter the improvement of the human race by a
reconstruction of its social and religious elements.209
The Masons of Germany have elaborated this idea with all the
exhaustiveness that is peculiar to the German mind, and the masonic
literature of that country abounds in essays, lectures, and treatises, in
which the prominent topic is this building of the Solomonic temple as
referring to the construction of a moral temple.
Thus writes Bro. Rhode, of Berlin:—
"So soon as any one has received the consecration of our Order, we say
to him that we are building a mystical temple;" and he adds that "this
temple which we Masons are building is nothing else than that which will
conduce to the greatest possible happiness of mankind."
And another German brother, Von Wedekind, asserts that "we only labor
in our temple when we make man our predominating object, when we unite
goodness of heart with polished manners, truth with beauty, virtue with
Again we have Reinhold telling us, in true Teutonic expansiveness of
expression, that "by the mystical Solomonic temple we are to understand
the high ideal or archetype of humanity in the best possible condition of
social improvement, wherein every evil inclination is overcome, every
passion is resolved into the spirit of love, and wherein each for all, and
all for each, kindly strive to work."
And thus the German Masons call this striving for an almost millennial
result labor in the temple.
The English Masons, although they have not treated the symbolism of the
Order with the same abstruse investigation that has distinguished those of
Germany and France, still have not been insensible to this idea that the
building of the Solomonic temple is intended to indicate a cultivation of
the human character. Thus Hutchinson, one of the earliest of the symbolic
writers of England, shows a very competent conception—for the age in which
he lived—of the mystical meaning of the temple; and later writers have
improved upon his crude views. It must, however, be acknowledged that
neither Hutchinson nor Oliver, nor any other of the distinguished masonic
writers of England, has dwelt on this peculiar symbolism of a moral temple
with that earnest appreciation of the idea that is to be found in the
works of the French and German Masons. But although the allusions are
rather casual and incidental, yet the symbolic theory is evidently
Our own country has produced many students of Masonic symbolism, who
have thoroughly grasped this noble thought, and treated it with eloquence
Fifty years ago Salem Towne wrote thus: "Speculative Masonry, according
to present acceptation, has an ultimate reference to that spiritual
building erected by virtue in the heart, and summarily implies the
arrangement and perfection of those holy and sublime principles by which
the soul is fitted for a meet temple of God in a world of immortality."
Charles Scott has devoted one of the lectures in his "Analogy of
Ancient Craft Masonry to Natural and Revealed Religion" to a thorough
consideration of this subject. The language is too long for quotation, but
the symbol has been well interpreted by him.215
Still more recently, Bro. John A. Loclor has treated the topic in an
essay, which I regret has not had a larger circulation. A single and brief
passage may show the spirit of the production, and how completely it
sustains the idea of this symbolism.
"We may disguise it as we will," says Bro. Lodor, "we may evade a
scrutiny of it; but our character, as it is, with its faults and
blemishes, its weaknesses and infirmities, its vices and its stains,
together with its redeeming traits, its better parts, is our speculative
temple." And he goes on to extend the symbolic idea: "Like the exemplar
temple on Mount Moriah, it should be preserved as a hallowed shrine, and
guarded with the same vigilant care. It should be our pearl of price set
round with walls and enclosures, even as was the Jewish temple, and the
impure, the vicious, the guilty, and the profane be banished from even its
outer courts. A faithful sentinel should be placed at every gate, a
watchman on every wall, and the first approach of a cowan and eavesdropper
be promptly met and resisted."
Teachings like this are now so common that every American Mason who has
studied the symbolism of his Order believes, with Carlyle, that "there is
but one temple in the world, and that is the body of man."
This inquiry into the meaning and object of labor, as a masonic symbol,
brings us to these conclusions:—
1. That our ancient brethren worked as long as the operative art
predominated in the institution at material temples, the most prominent of
these being the temple of King Solomon.
2. That when the speculative science took the place of the operative
art, the modern Masons, working no longer at material temples, but holding
still to the sacred thought, the reverential idea, of a holy temple, a
Lord's house to be built, began to labor at living temples, and to make
man, the true house of the Lord, the tabernacle for the indwelling of the
And, 3. Therefore to every Freemason who rightly comprehends his art,
this construction of a living temple is his labor.
"Labor," says Gadicke, the German masonic lexicographer, "is an
important word in Masonry; indeed, we might say the most important. For
this, and this alone, does a man become a Freemason. Every other object is
secondary or incidental. Labor is the accustomed design of every lodge
meeting. But does such meeting always furnish evidence of industry? The
labor of an operative mason will be visible, and he will receive his
reward for it, even though the building he has constructed may, in the
next hour, be overthrown by a tempest. He knows that he has done his
labor. And so must the Freemason labor. His labor must be visible to
himself and to his brethren, or, at least, it must conduce to his own
internal satisfaction. As we build neither a visible Solomonic temple nor
an Egyptian pyramid, our industry must become visible in works that are
imperishable, so that when we vanish from the eyes of mortals it may be
said of us that our labor was well done."
And remembering what the apostle has said, that we are the temple of
God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in us, we know that our labor is
so to build that temple that it shall become worthy of its divine Dweller.
And thus, too, at last, we can understand the saying of the old monks
that "labor is worship;" and as Masons we labor in our lodge, labor to
make ourselves a perfect building, without blemish, working hopefully for
the consummation, when the house of our earthly tabernacle shall be
finished, when the LOST WORD of divine truth shall at last be discovered,
and when we shall be found by our own efforts at perfection to have done
God service. For so truly is the meaning of those noble words—LABOR IS
199. "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." Gen. iii. 19.
Bush interprets the decree to mean that "some species of toilsome
occupation is the appointed lot of all men."
200. Aristotle says, "He that cannot contract society with others, or
who, through his own self-sufficiency αὐτάρϗειαν, does not need it, forms
no part of the community, but is either a wild beast or a god."
201. "Der Arbeiter," says Lenning, "ist der symbolische Name eines
Freimaurers"—the Workman is the symbolic name of a Freemason.—Encyclop.
204. Orbis Miraculum, or the Temple of Solomon, pourtrayed by Scripture
Light, ch. ix. p. 192. London, 1659.
205. Swedenborg a Hermetic Philosopher, &c., p. 210. The object of the
author is to show that the Swedish sage was an adept, and that his
writings may be interpreted from the point of view of Hermetic philosophy.
206. Cours Philosophique et Interprétatif des Initiations Anciennes et
Modernes, p. 99.
208. Histoire Générale de la Franc-maçonnerie, p. 52.
209. Histoire de la Magie, liv. v. ch. vii. p. 100.
210. Vorlesung über das Symbol des Tempels, in the "Jarbüchern der
Gross. Loge Roy. York zur Freundschaft," cited by Lenning, Encyc., voc.
211. In an Essay on the Masonic Idea of Man's Destination, cited by Lenning, ut supra, from the Altenburg Zeitschift der
212. Cited by Lenning, ut sup.
213. Thus Dr. Oliver, while treating of the relation of the temple to
the lodge, thus briefly alludes to this important symbol: "As our ancient
brethren erected a material temple, without the use of axe, hammer, or
metal tool, so is our moral temple constructed."—Historical Landmarks,
214. System of Speculative Masonry, ch. vi. p. 63.
215. On the Speculative Temple—an essay read in 1861 before the Grand
Lodge of Alabama.
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