As we are aware this symbol is displayed on the Tracing Board in the Entered Apprentice Degree and history tells us that the first publication was that of a certificate which came into use in 1819. The certificate shows a pedestal with a circle; on the pedestal stands the Volume of the Sacred Law “supporting Jacob’s Ladder”, the top of which reaches the Heavens. This ladder normally consists of three ‘staves or rounds’ and disappears into cloud, or a glory of light, with the sun, moon and seven stars placed around.
Dr George Oliver ( Doctorate in Divinity and an Anglican Minister) (circa 1860) in Signs & Symbols made comparisons with the mysteries in other parts of the World and expressed some surprise that Masonic Symbolism of the ladder was built around three principal staves, whereas in all parallel instances he finds the number used to be seven. He says, for example, of the Indian Mysteries
“The ladder with seven steps was used in the Indian Mysteries to designate the approach of the soul to perfection. The steps were usually denominated gates. The meaning is undoubtedly the same; for its is observable, that Jacob, in reference to the lower stave of his Ladder, exclaimed ‘this is the house of GOD and the gate of heaven.’ Here we find the notion of ascending into heaven by means of the practice of moral virtue, depicted by the Hebrew Patriarchs and by a remote idolatrous nation under the idea of a ladder; which we may hence conclude was a Masonic Symbol”
It is true of course that in some other aspects of masonry, a ladder of seven steps may be found. In all early Masonic systems, somewhere there is found some attempt to show positive progress by rising above the ground and there is some confusion between the use of a ladder and the use of a staircase to illustrate this, as well as to the number and significance of the steps concerned. In the lecture forms current today, the three principal steps of Faith, Hope & Charity are merely described as principal steps out of many, with no specific Total Number given. As numbers became associated with degrees, the number three was that for the apprentice, while the ladder also became more used as the path upwards connected with that degree. In the same book Dr Oliver summarized the Masonic symbolism of the ladder:
“Thus the dark clouds of divine wrath are dissipated, the heavens are opened; and we enjoy the ray of his glory in the celestial covering of the Lodge. And more than this the same divine being has taught us how to attain the summit of the same, by means which are emblematically depicted by a ladder consisting of the three principal ROUNDS or STAVES, which point to the three Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope & Charity.
We are now to consider the origin and application of this Symbol, by which a communication is opened between the creature and his creator, with the gracious design of restoring to man that supreme happiness which was forfeited by Adam’s transgression.
The application of this emblem is said to be derived from the vision of Jacob. When the Patriarch, to avoid the wrath of his brother Esau, fled to Padanaram; benighted and asleep, with the Earth for his bed, a stone for his pillow, and the cloudy canopy of heaven for the covering, he beheld a Ladder, whose foot was placed on the spot where he lay, and its summit lost in the heavens. On this ladder, angels were continually ascended and descended, to receive communications from the Most High, who visibly appeared above the uppermost round of the Ladder; and to disseminate their divine commissions over the face of the Earth. Here God graciously condescended to enter into a specific covenant with the sleeping Patriarch; who was hence so impressed with the feelings of gratitude and devotion, that when he awoke, he pronounced this sacred spot “the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.
In Ancient Masonry, the Ladder was figuratively said to rest on the Holy Bible,(Volume of the Sacred Law) and to consist of Three Principal staves, although the general number was indefinite, pointing to Faith Hope and Charity, as the fundamental virtues which exalt mankind from heaven to heaven.
You have here a most extraordinary coincidence of custom with respect to the Masonic Ladder, existing in every region of the World, and all equally applicable to a gradual ascent to heaven by the practice of moral virtue.
Amongst us this practice is founded on the strong basis of FAITH, which is the first step of the Ladder resting on the Word of God.
It produces a well grounded HOPE of sharing the promises recorded the Sacred Volume; and this is the second step in the Masonic Ladder. The third or more Perfect Step is CHARITY, by which we attain the summit of the Ladder, metaphorically speaking, the dominion of Bliss, and the mansion of pure and permanent delight.”
With the coming of the Union of Grand Lodges and the resulting decision to make Masonry in England NON- Denominational from a religious point of view, efforts were made, when new tracing boards were designed, to us symbols not associated with Christianity.
I find it interesting that in MODERN conversation we find the use of expressions such as,
“Is that on the LEVEL” and “climbing the LADDER of success”
Undoubtedly there are many more, however, these are just two that come to mind.