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Gavels in Freemasonry – article

Gavels in Freemasonry
by Paul M. Bessel
February 1995

“Perhaps no lodge appliance or symbol is possessed of such deep and absorbing interest to the craft as the Master’s mallet or gavel. Nothing in the entire range of Masonic paraphernalia and formulary can boast of an antiquity so unequivocally remote,” according to Joseph F. Ford in Early History and Antiquities of Freemasonry. (Hunt)

Gavels, hammers, mallets, or mauls, have both practical and symbolic uses in lodges and other meetings, as well as both practical and symbolic uses in operative and speculative Freemasonry.

Keeping order and punctuating actions

The gavel has been generally adopted by Masonic bodies and many other groups as a means to call meetings to order, keep order, announce the results of votes, and otherwise punctuate actions of the group. (Coil) However, it is a mistake for the presiding officer to try to stop noise and keep order by pounding with the gavel. (Roberts)

The use of a hammer to keep order was common in medieval institutions such as an Elizabethan guild in Exeter where, “the governor having a small hammer in his hands made for the purpose, when he will have scilence to be hadd shall

knocke the same upon the Borde, and who so ever do talke after the second stroke to paye without redempcion two pence.” (AQC, XL) There is also a reference in a biography of the founder of the Cistercians to “the harsh strokes of the wooden mallet used for calling the brethren together.” (AQC, XL)

Symbol of authority

In a larger sense, gavels symbolize the executive power, as this is the instrument which strikes blows (Hunt), or it can be thought of as a symbol of authority without the use of force. (Haywood)

The gavel is an emblem of the authority of the Master in governing the Lodge. (Macoy) At the installation of a Master he is informed, upon being tendered this implement, that it constitutes the essential element of his authority over the assembled brethren, without which his efforts to preserve order and subordination would be ineffectual. It is the symbol that inducts him into the possession of the Masonic lodge. (Hunt)

In the middle ages mallets were thrown and all ground over which they traversed were acknowledged to be possessed by the thrower. This practice gave rise to the symbolism of the mallet indicating the Master’s possession of his lodge. (Hunt and Haywood) A somewhat different use of a thrown hammer is shown in an English ordinance of 1462 which is said to have declared that lewd women should remain as far from the territory of Masonic lodges as a hammer could be hurled. (Hunt)

The appropriate item for this purpose should be wooden with a flat surface at one end and a pointed surface at the other. French and Spanish Freemasons sometimes refer to it as the “president’s hammer” and use an instrument that is flat at both ends, then slightly pinched, and larger again in the middle. (Macoy) The gavel should not resemble a setting maul. (Hunt)

The gavel is sometimes confused with the setting maul which is a different instrument used for different purposes. (Macoy) The gavel is a implement of both the Master and his Wardens, and is an emblem of power, while the maul is a heavy wooden hammer with which the mason drives his chisel. The maul is also the weapon with which the Master was traditionally said to have been slain, so it is an emblem of violent death. It is incorrect to use a gavel instead of a heavy maul in the dramatization of the third degree. (Jones) It is also inappropriate to use a little auctioneer’s hammer in place of a gavel, as this may connote that the initiate is being sold. (Mackenzie)

The gavel of the Master of a Lodge is also called a “Hiram” (Macoy) because, like that architect, it governs the Craft and keeps order in the Lodge as Hiram did in the Temple (Mackey and Hunt), or because of the use made of the maul in the third degree. As early as 1739 both gavels and mauls were referred to by that name. (Jones) A negative sense of this implement is found in the Bible, Proverbs XXV, 18, “A man that beareth false witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow.”

Use by Operative and Speculative Masons

Mackey and Coil say the gavel used as a hammer has one flat face opposite the sharp end so that from the top it resembles a gabled roof on a house, and because of this, “gable” becomes the German word “gipfel” meaning summit or peak (Mackey, Coil, Hunt) or “giebel” (Macoy) and then the English word “gavel,” although in German lodges the gavel is called the “hammer.”

It is one of the oldest working tools used by man, as illustrated by stories of Scandinavian mythology where Thor, the principal god, was given a special hammer or mallet which always struck its targets with great force and then returned to the thrower without any injury to him. Symbolically, as the hammer of Thor destroyed his enemies, so it should continue to be used to destroy the enemies of that which is good and true. (Hunt)

It is used on stone to make a rough shaping or dressing, with the finishing done with a chisel and mallet or maul. Gavel is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (1901) as a mason’s setting maul or a presiding officer’s hammer, and it is said to be an American usage. (AQC, 101 and XL) The name “gavel” was not known in England before the nineteenth century. (Jones)

Freemasons are taught that the common gavel is one of the working tools of an Entered Apprentice. It is used by operative masons to break off the corners of rough ashlars and thus fit them the better for the builder’s use. It is not adapted to giving polish or ornamentation to the stone, and hence it should symbolize only that training of the new Freemason which is designed to give some limited skill and moral training, and to teach that labor is the lot of man and that “qualities of heart and head are of limited value ‘if the hand be not prompt to execute the design’ of the master.” Its meaning has been extended to include the symbolism of the chisel, to show the enlightening and ennobling effects of training and education. (Street)

The gavel is adopted in Speculative Freemasonry to admonish us of the duty, often painful (Hunt), of divesting our minds and consciences of all the vices and impurities of life, thereby fitting our bodies (Mackey and Macoy) or minds as living stones for the spiritual building, not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (Mackey)

The gavel represents the force of conscience. (Jones) It is our will power, through which we govern our actions and free ourselves from debasing influences. It requires repeated exercise of our will power to subdue our passions. Will power is common to all and it is fittingly symbolized by the “common” gavel, but just as the gavel is of no worth unless it is used, so is our will power. (Hunt)

The gavel is an instrument common to the lowest and the highest in the Lodge. The common gavel is shown to each Entered Apprentices to remind him that symbolically he should use it in Freemasonry to divest himself of the vices and superfluities of life. Years later, even when one has attained the highest rank in the Lodge by becoming its Master, the same implement of a gavel is placed in his hand as a reminder that we all need to continue to strive for improvements in our manner and character. (Mackenzie)

Albert Pike felt the mallet and chisel (and gavel) symbolized development of the intellect of each individual and of society. He wrote, “…a man’s intellect is all his own, held direct from God, an inalienable fief. It is the most potent of weapons….Society hangs spiritually together….The free country, in which intellect and genius govern, will endure….To elevate the people by teaching loving-kindness and wisdom, with power to him who teaches best; and so to develop the free State from the rough ashlar;—this is the great labor in which Masonry desires to lend a helping hand.”


References (in order of reference in article)

Hunt, Charles C., Masonic Symbolism, published by Laurance Press Co., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1939, pages 251-256

Coil, Henry W., Coil’s Masonic Encyclopedia, published by Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply Company, New York, 1961, page 271

Robert, Henry M., Robert’s Rules of Order, published by Scott, Foresman and Company, Glenview, Illinois, 1951, page 293

“Ars Quatuor Coronatorum”, Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, Volume XL, 1928, published by W.J. Parrett, Ltd., Margate, page 202

Haywood, H.L., Symbolical Masonry: An Interpretation of the Three Degrees, published by George H. Doran Company, New York, 1923, pages 160-161

Macoy, Robert, General History, Cyclopedia, and Dictionary of Freemasonry, published by Masonic Publishing Company, New York, 1869, page 153

Mackey, Albert G., (revised and enlarged by Robert I. Clegg), Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, published by Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply Co., Inc., 1946, volume 1, page 388

Jones, Bernard E., Freemasons’ Guide and Compendium, published by Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply Company, New York, 1950, pages 430-431

Mackenzie, Kenneth R.H., IX (editor), The Royal Masonic Cyclopedia of History, Rites, Symbolism, and Biography, published by J.W. Bouton, New York, 1877, page 243

“Ars Quatuor Coronatorum”, Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076, Volume 101 for the Year 1988, published October 1989 by Butler & Tanner Ltd., Frome and London, page 3

Street, Oliver D., Symbolism of the Three Degrees, published by the Masonic Service Association of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1924, pages 32-34

Pike, Albert, Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, published by the Supreme Council of the Thirty-Third Degree for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States, 1871, pages 30-32

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