Fellow Craft is one of a large number of terms with a technical meaning peculiar to Freemasonry. A “craft” is an organization of skilled workmen in some trade or calling: masons, carpenters, painters, etc. A “fellow” means one who holds membership in such a craft, accepting it’s duties and enjoying it’s privileges.
Since the skilled crafts are no longer organized as they once were, the term is not now used in it’s original sense. In Freemasonry the term “Fellow Craft” possesses two separate meanings, one of which we may call the Operative and the other the Speculative.
In the Operative period Freemasons were skilled workmen engaged in some branch of the building trade. Like other skilled workers, they had an organized craft of their own, the general form of which was called a “guild”. A lodge was a local, and usually temporary, organization within the guild. This guild had officers, laws, rules, regulations, and customs which were rigorously binding on all members.
Membership was divided into two grades, the lower of which was composed of Apprentices. Operative Freemasons recruited members from qualified lads of twelve to fifteen years of age. When such a boy proved acceptable to the members, he was required to swear to be teachable and obedient; thereupon he was bound over to some senior Mason for instruction. If he proved worthy, his name was formally entered in the books of the lodge, thereby giving him his title of Entered Apprentice. For seven years, as a rule, this boy lived with his master, gave him implicit obedience in all things, and toiled much without other recompense than board, lodging, and clothing. In the lodge life he held a place equally subordinate because he could not attend a lodge of Fellow Crafts. During his long apprenticeship he was really a bond servant with many duties, few rights, and little freedom.
At the end of his apprenticeship he was examined by the lodge. If his record was good, if he could prove his proficiency under test, and the members voted in his favor, he was made a full member of the Craft, with the same duties, rights, and privileges as all others. He was called a “Fellow of the Craft”. In the sense that he had mastered the art and no longer needed a teacher, he was called a “Master Mason”. As far as his grade was concerned, however, these two terms meant the same things.
Such was the Operative meaning of Fellow Craft. Now that the organization is no longer Operative the term possesses a very different meaning. Nevertheless, it is still used in its original sense in certain parts of the Ritual, and, of course, it is frequently encountered in the histories of the Fraternity. Operative Freemasonry began to decline at about the time of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century when lodges became few in number and small in membership. A few of these in England began to admit men with no intention of practicing Operative Masonry, men who were attracted by the Craft’s antiquity and for social reasons. These were called Speculative Masons. At the beginning of the eighteenth century these Speculatives so increased in numbers that they gained control, and during the first quarter of that century completely transformed the Craft into the Speculative Fraternity as we now have it.
Although the society adhered as closely as possible to the old customs, some radical changes were made to fit it for its new purposes. One of the most important of these was to abandon the old rule of dividing the members into two grades, or degrees, and to adopt the new rule of dividing them into three. The second degree became known as the Fellow Craft’s Degree, and eventually the third as the Master Mason’s Degree.
The term Fellow Craft is now used as the name of the Second Degree, It refers to the ritualistic ceremonies and other contents of that degree, to a member of it, and to a lodge, when opened on it. You are a Fellow Craft. You have passed through its ceremonies, assumed its obligations, are registered as such in the books of the lodge. You can sit in either a Lodge of Apprentices or of Fellow Crafts, but not of Master Masons. Your duties are to do and to be all that the teachings of the degree require.
Freemasonry is too extensive to be exemplified in a ritual or to be presented through initiation in one evening. There is far too much for a man to learn in many evenings. One degree follows another, and the members of each stand on a different level of rights and duties. But this does not mean that the Masonry presented in the First, or in the Second Degree, as far as its nature and teachings are concerned, is less important or less binding than that presented in the Third Degree. All that is taught in the First and Second Degrees belongs as vitally to Freemasonry as that which is taught in the Third; there is a necessary subordination in the grades of membership, but there is no subordination in the Masonry presented in each grade or degree.
Do not, therefore, be tempted to look upon the Fellow Craft Degree as a mere stepping stone to the Third. Freemasonry gave to you one part of its teachings in the First, another portion in the Second, and in the Third it will give you yet another; but it is always Freemasonry. Therefore, we urge upon you the same studious attention while you are a Fellow Craft that you doubtless expect to give when you are a Master Mason.