Once considered the most important Degrees in the early years of Freemasonry and so dogmatic was the Mother Grand Lodge – from which all Speculative Masonry derives – that in 1813, when the two grand lodges in England united, a firm and solemn landmark was adopted and placed in the Articles of Union to guide Masons throughout the world forever on this matter: “Pure Ancient Freemasonry consists of but three degrees, viz., that of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch.” The landmark remains to this day. Naturally, this is as it should be, because a man is not a Master Mason until he receives the Master’s Word and he can only receive it in the Royal Arch.
Mark Master Degree
The Mark Master Degree is believed to have originated as a ceremony of registering a craftsman’s mark in those years distinguished by operative craft masons and their temple building. It was later developed into a full-fledged degree by the Masonic fraternity as we know it today, Some scholars say it was the earliest degree and may predate all others by many years. It is highly regarded by students in all Masonry, teaching lessons that have proven of value in all walks of life. Some Grand Lodges place so high an eminence on the Mark Master Degree, that they confine it to the jurisdiction of a separate grand body, the Grand Lodge of Mark Masters.
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Past Masters Degree
The Past Master Degree came into being because originally the degree of Royal Arch was conferred by the Symbolic (Blue) Lodge only on actual Past Masters. This degree was instituted to make it possible for all worthy Brethren to receive the Royal Arch degree. The first record of its conferral is found in 1768 in England. Most Excellent Master The Most Excellent Master Degree is a product of American innovation. It was conferred in a Royal Arch Chapter as early as 1783 in Middletown, Conn. It is by far the most spectacular degree in all Freemasonry. It is the only degree that brings forcibly to our attention the completion and dedication of King Solomon’s Temple. The very idea upon which all Masonic symbolism has been based.
Holy Royal Arch
The Royal Arch Degree is the climax of Ancient Craft Masonry and Masonic Symbolism. It is described as “the root and marrow of Freemasonry.” It is the complete story of Jewish History during some of its darkest hours. Jerusalem and the Holy temple are destroyed, The people are being held captive as slaves in Babylon. Here you will join with some slaves as they are set free to return home and engage in the noble and glorious work of rebuilding the city and the Temple of God. It is during this rebuilding that they make a discovery that brings to light the greatest treasure of a Mason -the long lost Master’s Word.
Many historians have traced the earliest origins of the Royal Arch Degree to Ireland, late in the 17th century and in England in 1738, In 1752, ambulatory or military warrants for Lodges were introduced. This was instrumental in placing the Royal Arch Degree on a par with the Master Mason Degree.
Military lodges were greatly responsible for planting Freemasonry in the Colonies and also gave birth to the use of the Marl and Royal Arch degrees in the “New World.” Lodge records show that the Royal Arch Degree was conferred at Fredericksburg No. 4 on December 12, 1753. George Washington was raised in this lodge a few months prior to this date.
The value of Royal Arch Masonry will be appreciated by all who are exalted to that most sublime degree, particularly by those who are seeking to complete their Masonic education. It reveals the full light of Ancient Craft Masonry, presents it as a complete system in accordance with the original plan and justly entitles you to claim the noble name of Master Mason.
The Word Capitular
The degrees of the York Rite are classified as Symbolic (Lodge of Master Masons). Capitular (Chapter of Royal Arch Masons), Cryptic (Council of Cryptic Masons), and Chivalric (Commander of Knights Templar). The Capitular Degrees derive their name from the title of a meeting of Royal Arch Masons – a Chapter. The word chapter comes from Middle English chaptre, variant of chapitre,chapter , chapiter. Which is turn from from Old French, alteration of chapitle, – a derivitive of the Latin capitulum, diminutive of caput, head. Chapters of Royal Arch Masons are deemed to be the head of Antient, or York , Freemasonry.
A Master Mason should be interested in Masonic advancement and the lessons exemplified in the York Rite degrees lessons of honesty, charity, harmony, justice, spirituality, service, fortitude, hope, prudence, fidelity, truth, religion, faith, love, and toleration, become part of one’s life as a Mason. The York Rite becomes that teacher of the philosophy of the Blue Lodge Mason.
A History of the Capitular Degrees
To understand the Capitular Degrees, it is important to understand 18th century Masonic history. Prior to the second quarter of 18th Century, it becomes difficult to prove that anything more than two Degrees of Freemasonry existed ? Entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft. Current research suggests the Master Mason Degree appeared no earlier than 1721, with some research placing the date as far out as 1738. Up to this point, it is believed that all Freemasons were Fellow Craft, with what we now call the Worshipful Master, being the only Master Mason within a Lodge. When the term as Master Mason was completed, the Brother was again a Fellow Craft, but also, secretly made a Past Master, by those who were also Past Masters.
As the influence of PGL increased outside of London, Lodges came into increasing contact with outlying Masonic practices. Overtime some of these influences were accepted, others were deemed officially irregular. As PGL waned from lack of proper leadership, Brothers deemed irregular began to band together, and in 1751 coalesced, forming a rival Grand Lodge, calling themselves Antient (AGL).
Ancients, in addition to consisting of a wider variety of Masonic influences from Scotland and Ireland, also styled themselves York Masons suggesting that they were, as their name implied, of an Ancient origin specifically the city of York . The City of York has long been of great interest to Freemasonry. The Regius poem and other ancient legends relate that King Athelstan was a great patron of Masonry, and that he constructed many abbeys, monasteries, castles, and fortresses. He studied Geometry and imported learned men in these arts. To preserve order in the work and correct transgressors, the king issued a Charter o the Masons to hold a yearly assembly at York . He is also reputed to have made many Masons. The legends proceed to relate that Athelstan appointed his brother, Edwin, as Grand Master and that the first Grand Lodge was held at York in 926. The accounts state that the constitutions of English Masonry were there established and were based upon a number of old documents written in Greek, Latin and other languages. Aside from the direct implications of this legend, it is interesting to note that the King and Prince were patrons of Masonry and as such were probably speculative, rather than operative members of the craft. The fact that this concept prevailed as early as 1390 A.D., and possibly earlier, makes is easier to account for the fact that so many speculative members of high rank joined the craft in the 17th and 18th centuries.
While no connection can be made between AGL and ancient York Masonry, their assumption of a York title no doubt increased the appeal and standing of AGL in the eyes of the public. As the AGL grew in numbers, power and patronage, they came to hold several charges against PGL:
- Transposed the modes of recognition in the First and Second Degrees. ‘Antients’ regarded this as a complete innovation, an alteration of a landmark, something quite impossible to be countenanced.
- Omitted prayers. The charge is unproved and quite unlikely to be well founded.
De-Christianised the ritual, Anderson’s ” Constitutions” of 1723 being offered as proof. From catechisms preserved to us in various ways, we learn that the ritual had originally (perhaps only in some lodges) a definitely Christian character. It is thought, too, that the early Royal Arch system included the Christian element, one of the reasons, it is alleged, why the ‘Modems’ disliked the Royal Arch. In existence is the alleged fragment of a Craft ritual, apparently of some such date as 1800, which, if genuine, shows the persistence of Christian symbolism in some lodges.
- Ignored and neglected the Saints’ Days-that is, with holding their festivals on days that were not the days of St John. These saints’ days were a veritable shibboleth of the eighteenth-century mason of ‘Antient’ sympathies. The custom of observing these days still persists.
- Omitted in some cases to prepare Candidates in the customary way. It is not known how much truth there was in the accusation, but ‘Antients’ regarded the alleged omission as outrageous.Abbreviated the ritual, in particular having neglected the so-called lectures, actually catechisms, attached to each degree. ‘Antients’ regarded the lectures as essential, and their omission as being nothing less than sacrilege.
- Ceased to recite the Ancient Charges at Initiations. The Old Charges had lost much of their point, and probably their omission was justified, but the ‘Antients’ felt that yet another landmark was being thrown over.
- Introduced austerity into the ceremonies, in particular having no place for the sword in the Initiation ceremony, except that the Tyler (and the Inner Tyler, where there was one) wore a sword. The ‘Antients’ wore swords in lodge, but for what purpose it is difficult to see. The French masons developed a very colourful ceremony, in which, if we may trust old French engravings, the Initiate suddenly found himself confronted by many sword-points. This undoubtedly was adopted as sound ‘Antient’ working, and we find it surviving to-day in the old Bristol working and in the Irish working.
- Allowed the esoteric ceremony at the installation of a Master to fall into disuse, although some of their lodges did work such a ceremony at an early date and continued unofficially to do so. The ‘Antients’ insisted upon an esoteric ceremony, and would not allow a Brother who had not passed it to be exalted to the Royal Arch Degree, which degree the ‘Moderns’ would not accept until a late date as any part of freemasonry. The ‘Moderns’ had still less place for the additional degrees, the so-called higher degrees. On the other hand, the ‘Antients had a liking for the additional degrees, and particularly encouraged the Knight Templar and the Rose Croix.
- Departed from the ancient method of arranging the lodge. The Three Great Lights probably had different positions in lodges under the two constitutions; the situations of the Wardens, too, were different. The working was not the same in opening and closing the three degrees.
- Ignored the Deacon. ‘Modern’ lodges generally had no Deacons until about 1809, their work being done by Stewards; where ‘Modern’ lodges had Deacons, it was an indication of the ‘Antient’ influence. The Deacon was well regarded by the ‘Antients’ and the Irish lodges. The latter had Deacons as early as 1727. It must be said that the ‘Moderns’ regarded many of the particular differences in (j) and (k) as being the result of innovation by the ‘Antients.’
In the United States, Masonry reflected England with great antagonism between Ancient and Modern Lodges. Benjamin Franklin as Past Grand Master of a modern bent was denied a Masonic funeral by his mother Lodge which by the time of his death had become Ancient. However like their English brethren who in 1813 merged the competing systems, American Antients and Moderns coalesced forming Ancient Free & Accepted Grand Lodges, and forming a Degree system of the Blue Lodge, with the York Rite forming an appendant Degree system, evening though the Degrees of AF & AM (and F&AM) Grand Lodges are proper York Ritual.
The York Rite as practiced in America contains many vestiges of Antient influence including the Past Master Degree, the Mark Master Degree (the completion of the Blue Lodge Fellow Craft Degree), and of course the Holy Royal Arch which is the true completion of Craft Freemasonry.