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Dispensations of Religion

An attempt has been made to symbolize the Pagan, the Jewish, and the Christian Dispensations by a certain ceremony of the Master's Degree which dramatically teaches the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul. The reference made in this ceremony to portions of the First, Second, and Third Degrees is used to demonstrate the differences of the three dispensations in the reception of these two dogmas. It is said that the unsuccessful effort in the Entered Apprentice's Degree refers to the heathen dispensation, where neither the resurrection of the body nor the immortality of the soul was recognized; at the second unsuccessful effort in the Fellow Craft's Degree refers to the Jewish dispensation, where, though the resurrection of the body was unknown, the immortality of the soul was dimly hinted; and that the final and successful effort in the Master's Degree symbolizes the Christian Dispensation, in which, through the teachings of the Lion of the tribe of Judah, both the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul were clearly brought to light. This symbolism, which is said by Brother Mackey to have been the invention of a peripatetic lecturer in the South many years ago, is so forced and fanciful in its character, that it did not long survive the local and temporary teachings of its inventor, and is only preserved here as an instance of how symbols, like metaphors, may sometimes run mad. But there is another symbolism of the three Degrees, as illustrating three dispensations, which is much older, having originated among the lecture makers of the eighteenth century, which for a long time formed a portion of the authorized ritual, and has been repeated with approbation by some distinguished writers. In this the three Degrees are said to be symbols in the progressive knowledge which they impart of the Patriarchal, the Mosaic, and the Christian dispensations. The First, or Entered Apprentice's Degree, in which but little Masonic light is communicated, and which, indeed, is only preparatory and introductory to the two succeeding Degrees, is said to symbolize the first, or Patriarchal Dispensation, the earliest revelation, where the knowledge of God was necessarily imperfect, His worship only a few simple rites of devotion, and the religious dogmas merely a general system of morality.

The Second, or Fellow Craft's Degree, is symbolic of the second or Mosaic Dispensation, in which, while there were still many imperfections, there was also a great increase of religious knowledge, and a nearer approximation to Divine truth, with a promise in the future of a better theodicy. But the Third, or Master Mason's Degree, which, in its original conception, before it was dismembered by the innovations of the Royal Arch, was perfect and complete in its consummation of all Masonic light, symbolizes the last, or Christian Dispensation, where the great and consoling doctrine of the resurrection to eternal life is the crowning lesson taught by its Divine Founder. This subject is very fully treated by the Rev. James Watson, in an address delivered at Laneaster, England, in 1795, and contained in Jones's Masonic Miscellanies (page 245); better, in Brother Mackey's opinion, by him than even by Hutchinson.

Beautiful as this symbolism may be, and appropriately fitting in all its parts to the laws of symbolic science, it is evident that its origin cannot be traced farther back than to the period when Freemasonry was first divided into three distinctive Degrees; nor could it have been invented later than the time when Freemasonry was deemed, if not an exclusively Christian organization, at least to be founded on and fitly illustrated by Christian dogmas. At present, this symbolism, though preserved in the speculations of such Christian writers as Hutchinson and Oliver, and those who are attached to their peculiar school, finds no place in the modern cosmopolitan rituals. It may belong, as an explanation, to the history of Freemasonry, but can scarcely make a part of its symbolism. Here a brief note may be added to the above comments by Brother Mackey on this important subject to say that a notebook formerly in the possession of Brother John Barney, whose field of instruction in the Masonic ceremonies extended through Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois, has a monitorial teaching pertaining to the three Dispensations concluding with Christianity, a lecture ready for use when desired but which could easily be omitted on other occasions. Such a lecture is unknown to the practice of-the present generation.

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