Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Plumb Rule

This article on the Plumb Rule is taken from the excellent website “The Masonic Trowel”, as written and edited by Bro. Joe Sanchez, and is used with his explicit permission (masonictrowel.com).  It is an excellent elemental level exploration of one working tool, its history and implications.  The original article can be found at:

The Plumb Rule

The jewels of the three principal officers of a Lodge are also the working tools of the fellowcraft degree. They are the: PLUMB, LEVEL, and SQUARE. Why are these jewels given these distinctions? There are two basic reasons: First, in earlier times, the fellowcraft was the ultimate degree. There was no Master Mason degree. The fellowcraft was the Journeyman of today. The working tools of a fellowcraft were the tools of a master craftsman or journeyman. When the master mason degree was instituted, other working tools were selected to fulfill the ritual requirements. Secondly, while masonry makes use of many esteemed working tools, (ie: Gavel, 24" gauge, trowel, skirret, chisel, pencil, setting maul, etc..) it is the square, level and the plumb which are the fundamental tools that are absolutely necessary to erect any edifice be it physical or spiritual.

The plumb or plumb rule is an instrument of antiquity. The earliest craftsmen used a weighted cord as a plumb. The Greeks of yore formed a bob of lead on a cord and they gave it a name: MOLUBDOS, meaning lead. From this working tool evolved the name MOLYBDENUM, the name of a well known metal. The ever practical Romans took the word and latinized it to become PLUMBUM, the tool to measure perpendiculars of structures, walls, aqueducts, and fortifications in every corner of the roman empire. The Gauls adopted the tool, and their successors, the Normans, shortened the word to PLOMB. The Britons added the letter "a" to coin a new word: APLOMB, meaning not easily upset -- not off center. Later, Englishmen revised the spelling to PLUMB and it became a verb as well as a noun. Early English mariners used this tool. Shakespeare called it a plummet: "Deeper than ere a plummet sounded." It was the French who began to call the lead bob a ball. In French BOULE, meaning a ball of lead small leaden balls or boules were the primitive BULLETS. The Latins modified the word to BULLA. They used very small bullas which they compressed into a thin wafer, utilizing it as a legal seal for documents. Thus was born the Papal BULL -- it is definitely not of bovine origins!

While originally a simple lead weight on a string, the plumb, when required by expert craftsmen, evolved into the shape of the Junior Wardents jewel, and specifically adapted for operative stonemasons. It is interesting to note that this jewel or tool is sometimes found to be richly embellished with symbols (sun, moon, all-seeing eye, etc.) and at other times very plain.

Reference to the plumb arises throughout masonic rituals and books and throughout the lore of masonic catch-questions: Examples:

Question: How long have you been a mason?

Answer: Ever since I was raised from a dead level to a living perpendicular on the squares by the hand of a friend, whom later I found to be a brother.

If you were to visit an American York Rite lodges you will find that in the FC degree the VSL is opened on the book of Amos; and it contains an excellent example of the beauty of the plumb:

"Behold, the Lord stood upon a wall, with a plumb line in his hand. He said: "Amos, what seeth thou?" Amos replied, "A plumb line." The Lord said, "Behold, I will set a plumb line amidst my people Israel, and I will pass by them nevermore."

To the operative masons, the level and plumb were intertwined, and together they formed a square. Brethren, the plumb rule is an instrument used in architecture by which a building is raised in a perpendicular direction; and it is figurative of an upright and true course of life. It typifies care against any deviation from the masonic upright line of conduct! If you apply the square to the level, you get the PLUMB -- the living perpendicular esteemed by all true craftsmen, and the emblem of growth and immortality. It is a truly magnificent jewel, an indispensable working tool; and when applied to the work with its fellows, the square and the level, it opens the doorway of that middle chamber in those immortal mansions, whence all goodness emanates.

The best logician is our God,
Whom the conclusion never fails;
He speaks - it is; He wills -- it stands;
He blows -- it falls; He breathes -- it lives;
His words are true .-- e'en without proof,
His counsel rules without command,
Therefore can none foresee his end -
Unless on God is built his hope.
And if we here below would learn
By Compass, Needles Square and Plumb,
We never must o'erlook the mete
Wherewith our God hath measur'd us.

Poem: by J.V.A. Andreae, a German and printed in 1623. Translated into English by:- F.F. Schnitger and G.W. Speth
Brethren, I give to you one last reference, from Isaiah XXV, 16-17:
"Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste. Judgment also will I lay to the line; and rightness to the plummet."


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