The First Degree of Freemasonry, in all the rites, is that of Entered Apprentice. In French it is called apprenti; in Spanish, aprendiz; in Italian, apprendente; and in German, lehrling; in all of which the radical or root meaning of the word is a learner.
Like the lesser Mysteries of the ancient initiations, it is in Freemasonry a preliminary degree, intended to prepare the candidate for the higher and fuller instructions of the succeeding degrees. It is, therefore, although supplying no valuable historical information, replete, in its lecture, with instructions on the internal structure of the Order.
Until late in the seventeenth century, Apprentices do not seem to have been considered as forming any part of the confraternity of Free and Accepted Masons.
Although Apprentices are incidentally mentioned in the 01d Constitutions of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, these records refer only to Masters and Fellows as constituting the Craft, and this distinction seems to have been one rather of position than of degree. The Sloane Manuscript, No. 3,329, which Findel supposes to have been written at the end of the seventeenth century, describes a just and perfect Lodge as consisting of “two Entered apprentices, two Fellow Crafts, and two Masters,” which shows that by that time the Apprentices had been elevated to a recognized rank in the Fraternity.
In the Manuscript signed “Mark Kipling,” which Hughan entitles the York Manuscript, No. 4, the date of which is 1693, there is a still further recognition in what is there called “the Apprentice Charge,” one item of which is, that “he shall keep council in all things spoken in Lodge or chamber by any Masons, Fellows, or Freemasons.” This indicates they had close communion with members of the Craft. But notwithstanding these recognitions, all the manuscripts up to 1704 show that only “Masters and Fellows” were summoned to the Assembly.
During all this time, when Freemasonry was in fact an operative art, there was but one Degree in the modern sense of the word. Early in the eighteenth century, if not earlier, Apprentices must have been admitted to the possession of this Degree ; for after what is called the revival of 1717, Entered Apprentices constituted the bulk of the Craft, and they only were initiated in the Lodges, the Degrees of Fellow Craft and Master Mason being conferred by the Grand Lodge.
This is not left to conjecture. The thirteenth of the General Regulations, approved in 1721, says that “Apprentices must be admitted Masters and Fellow Crafts only in the Grand Lodge, unless by a Dispensation.”
But this in practice, having been found very inconvenient, on the 22d of November, 1725, the Grand Lodge repealed the article, and decreed that the Master of a Lodge, with his Wardens and a competent number of the Lodge assembled in due form, can make Masters and Fellows at discretion.
The mass of the Fraternity being at that time composed of Apprentices, they exercised a great deal of influence in the legislation of the Order; for although they could not represent their Lodge in the Quarterly Communications of the Grand Lodge—a duty which could only be discharged by a Master or Fellow-yet they were always permitted to be present at the grand feast, and no General Regulation could be altered or repealed Without their consent; and, of course, in all the business of their particular Lodges, they took the most prominent part, for there were but few Masters or Fellows in a Lodge, in consequence of the difficulty and inconvenience of obtaining the Degree, which could only be done at a Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge.
But as soon as the subordinate Lodges were invested with the power of conferring all the Degrees, the Masters began rapidly to increase in numbers and in corresponding influence. And now, the bulk of the Fraternity consisting of Master Masons, the legislation of the Order is done exclusively by them, and the Entered Apprentices and Fellow Crafts have sunk into comparative obscurity, their Degrees being considered only as preparatory to the greater initiation of the Master’s Degree.
– Source: Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry