The Three Apprentices: An Experiment- Chapter One

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Adam Thayer

I recently took the first of my three apprentices. That is probably a bit of an obscure statement to most people, so please allow me to explain.

In the Schaw Statutes, which laid out some basic rules for Operative Masons, and set the groundwork for the transition to Speculative Masonry, there is a rule that is often overlooked, and I have only very rarely heard it discussed. It reads, “No master shall take more than three 'prentices in his lifetime, without the special consent of all the wardens, deacons, and masters of the sheriffdom in which the to-be-received 'prentice resides.”

Of course, in terms of Operative Masonry, this statute makes great logical sense: to protect the reputation and income stream of the order. If anyone could become a stonemason, the supply would quickly exceed the demand, and income for the working masons would quickly drop. Even worse, if someone less than reputable performed shoddy work at an inflated price, all stonemasons would suffer for it; for anyone needing a modern example, consider the auto mechanic. While most mechanics are good, honest people making a living, there are some who use their specialized knowledge to rob from those who don’t know any better, and so in the eyes of the general public (and especially stand up comics), all mechanics are out to “rip us off.”

The Schaw Statutes go on to further lay out some rules for apprenticeships, such as the term (fourteen years total, which may be abridged by a vote of the lodge), how the Master should care for the apprentice (he can’t, for instance, sell him to another Master), and some fines for breaking these rules (40 pounds, or approximately $11,234 in today’s money, if the University of Wyoming can be trusted to calculate the inflation properly). While this information is definitely interesting from a historical perspective, and is worth your time to read over, it doesn’t directly pertain to the topic of this paper and can safely be ignored for now.

Is there a value to following this same guideline today? If you’ve read any of my other papers, you know I don’t ask a rhetorical question like that unless I plan to address it in a way that supports my intention for writing the paper. But first, as is usually my habit, I’m going to go on a long winded rant that will describe the problem in enough detail that even those unfamiliar with the situation can understand why the solution is important.

In my few years of Masonry, I have seen many men get rushed into Masonry, and then, for various reasons, leave again. Some of them went on to be a part of the higher grades of Masonry, such as the various Rites, some were absorbed directly into the Shrine, but many of them just disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Now, I know we’ve all talked about the “membership issue” from many different thought processes (I personally like “we’re not declining, we’re refining”), but this is one angle that I haven’t seen discussed yet: what a WASTE that system is.

It’s a waste of a man who, if given the proper guidance and training, may have been an amazing asset to the lodge. It also means that if he ever does receive what he came to us for (improvement of self through esoteric knowledge), it won’t be from us, and we are supposed to be the experts on the topic!

Equally bad, it’s a waste of our time, and I can’t speak for you, but my time is severely limited. In addition to the time spent on the degrees themselves, there is the time the lodge spends practicing in preparation, and the time each brother spends individually practicing to give the candidate the best degree possible. (At least, I really HOPE you are, and if you need any motivation as to why you should be giving the best degree possible, go read my paper titled “On The Membership Issue or: Why The Troma Rules of Products Doesn’t Apply to Freemasonry”) That time is time that I could use for a dozen other things, like writing papers, or playing with my daughter. I definitely don’t want to waste it on someone who isn’t going to stick around.

“Someone who isn’t going to stick around”... That sentence sounds so much like I’m blaming the candidate for leaving us, but the truth is, it’s very rarely his fault for leaving, it’s almost always our fault for not keeping him. Shame on us.

So, what is the solution?

I truly believe that most men today come to Masonry to receive deeper learning that will help them improve themselves, even if they can’t put it into words, and all throughout the degree process we work directly with them, teaching them some basics, and promising they will learn everything once they have completed their degrees. Once they have finished their degrees, we tell them “Well, you get out of it what you put into it” and then turn our focus to the next candidate. What message does that send our new brothers? “Hey, we got you in, now you’re not important to us any more.”

Some of the smarter lodges will assign a mentor, who will work one-on-one with the candidate during the whole degree process, to help him memorize the ritual work he will have to recite, and even answering the occasional question, if it isn’t too complicated. This man will continue to work with the new brother until after he has completed his Master’s proficiency, but will most likely move on to the next as soon as that is finished.

To paraphrase Andrew Ryan, I reject those answers; instead I choose something different. I choose the impossible. I choose apprenticeship.

It may seem that taking an apprentice isn’t really that different from being a mentor, however there are some key differences. “Apprentice” implies first that he will be learning everything I know to teach him, not just the memory work for his proficiency. Now, I’ll grant that I know only a small portion of everything there is to know Masonically, but it is my hope that in the process of teaching, I’ll also be learning from him, and so we both become better Masons for it!

“Apprentice” also implies a longer process; the Schaw Statute recommends seven years of teaching followed by seven years of practicing before he can move from an apprentice to a fellow of the craft. Unfortunately, I don’t believe our Grand Lodge would be ok with me holding a man as an EA for seven years, and even if they did, I don’t know that I have enough to teach on a single degree for that long. Instead of seven years, let’s decide on “longer than the one month per degree that most men experience.”

Since (per the Schaw Statute) we are limited to three apprentices in a lifetime, I must be significantly pickier about who I choose for this process, as making a mistake in the selection means a large waste of time and resources, and it also means that someone who would benefit more from it is missing out. Note, I do plan to stick to this very strictly, unless (as Schaw later allows for) there is an extremely extenuating circumstance, in which case I will seek guidance from my three apprentices as to how they believe I should proceed. I will be turning to them instead of to all the masters and wardens, because I have no idea how large my sheriffdom is.

Finally, “apprentice” implies a significantly more intimate connection than a mentorship under the current process achieves. It is my hope that by the end of the apprenticeship, his family and my family have become friends, and that he and I are truly like brothers because of our shared experiences studying. In short, I hope that we have become what our founders envisioned us to be.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions, things I’m not quite sure how to tackle, but I’m hoping that once we get started it will become an organic process. I also imagine there will be quite a lot of adjusting course as we go along, so I’m trying to keep my plans flexible. As I said in the title, this is an experiment. Hopefully, the results will inspire some of you to try it as well, and the details of the process will help you avoid some of my pitfalls.

So, as I said at the start, I’ve taken the first of my three apprentices. His name is Neil, and over the next year or so you will get to experience his journey along with him, both through my observations (again, remember this is an experiment), and through his own words. His Entered Apprentice degree is in the very near future, so we will have quite a lot to talk about in the near future!
Until then.

WB Adam Thayer is a grumpy-ish past master of Oliver #38 in Seward, NE and Lancaster #54 in Lincoln, NE. He continues to be reappointed to the Grand Lodge of Nebraska Education Committee, as well as being an occasional host on the Whence Came You Podcast. He may be reached directly at or summoned by placing a certain number of lapel pins in a special pattern around a petition for an appendant body.

1 comment:

  1. I read the second essay in this series and, after enjoying it a good bit, decided to take your advice and go back to read the first. What an excellent idea expressed in this essay! If we wonder why our numbers decrease as much as they have over the last couple of decades, we should consider returning to the rules of our heritage, when the craft was widely respected as one to follow by most men in society. That's not to insult the Craft as it is now, but it is a minority of fine men who aspire to freemasonry. In order to avoid over-stretching ourselves, limiting Master Masons to three apprentices at a time would not just avoid burning out the Masters who are self-motivated to mentor. It would also further develop those Master Masons who are hesitant to mentor. This should be seriously considered and discussed by Grand Lodges as well as the constituent lodge level, perhaps not necessarily as a 'rule' but more as a guideline that is highly encouraged and rewarded in some tangible sense by the Grand Lodge.


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