Monday, January 28, 2008

How the Degrees Came to Exist

In this article I am presenting a very complicated subject, but it shall be put forth as simply as possible. Each degree deserves multiple chapters in a book, but will only get here a brief description. Masonic Lodges originally worked a Two-Degree system:

The Entered Apprentice degree is the most obvious. It is the foundation of our Masonic journey, and while its lecture contains allusions to Solomon's Temple, its other content is almost entirely "operative." It obligates us, teaches us to behave in a proper manner, and gives us secrets whereby to recognize one another. In its simplicity, it represents the pure Masonry of time immemorial, having received very little amendment.

The Fellowcraft Degree is the original reward for being able to demonstrate quality Masonic work. The medieval guilds also used the name "Journeyman" for Fellowcrafts. They (originally) could begin to travel, work, and receive wages for their labors. We see in the Fellowcraft degree, the introduction of a complex system of symbolism, the birth of speculative Masonry, which most of all exhorts us to study the various arts an sciences and to make our life a well-spent one.

The Mark Man, or first section of York Rite's fourth degree, "Mark Master Mason" has elements which were originally taught to Fellowcraft Masons, including selecting a distinctive mark and learning to mark your work accordingly, and how to receiving the wages of an operative Fellowcraft Mason. Its lessons, from an operative point of view, seem particularly suited towards how to get along while working with a large groups of other Masons.

Lodges originally consisted of a number of Apprentices and Fellowcrafts, presided over by an elected Master. The positions of Master and the two Wardens were originally able to be held by Fellowcraft Masons, and the Mark Master, or second section of York Rite's "Mark Master Mason" degree probably at one time constituted the ceremonies given to a Fellowcraft upon becoming the Master of a Fellowcraft Lodge. The "Installation Ceremony" of a Worshipful Master was probably also used at this time, and is essentially a set of oaths and an investment with various items pertaining to the government and operation of the Lodge.

The first Grand Lodge was formed in 1717, and the Master Mason Degree was probably developed somewhere close to this time as a way of making the process of becoming Master of a Lodge more meaningful, beautiful and instructive. The ceremonies of Installation were probably moved from bing given with the Mark Master to the Master Mason. Eventually, probably owing to the growing membership in lodges, it was determined that the Master Mason Degree be given to all worthy brethren, rather than only one a year who was being installed. At this time, the Installation Ceremony itself became divorced from the Master Mason degree. The Installation ceremony is still used for annual installations in Blue Lodge, and has also developed into the fifth, or "Past Master" degree of York Rite.

But, at this time, the Master Mason Degree included the communication of the true Master's word. Soon, for some mysterious reason, the Hiramic Legend was introduced, and the concept of the Loss of the word, and its subsequent Recovery, was placed into the degree. My speculation is that this may have reflected genuine feelings of the loss and recovery of traditions relating to the reasoning behind many (particularly Irish) masons banding together to form the Antients Grand Lodge of England.

Upon the union of 1813, the recovery of the word was removed from the degree (it being already gone in the work of the "Moderns") , and the ceremony explaining its recovery was moved into what would become the Royal Arch Degree. The part of the degree which remained became the Master Mason Degree, being in essentially the same form as we know it today.

The Irish masons conferred a degree called Excellent Master as a preparation for the Royal Arch. This was a veil-working ceremony involving blue, purple, scarlet, and white veils and an allegory of the return from the Babylonian Captivity, which has been incorporated into the Royal Arch Degree itself as it is worked in the USA.

Meanwhile, Masonry had also traveled to France, and many degrees both spurious and valuable had arisen. Two of these eventually found their way to the United States as side-degrees of the Scottish Rite. They were Royal Master and Select Master. They were recognized to bee particularly applicable to explanation of the York Rite's Royal Arch Degree, and so the Supreme Council of the 33rd Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite had no argument with letting these degrees become organized independently and become a fixture within the York Rite system. (However, the Supreme Council technically still possesses the authority to confer them if they choose to do so.)

Thomas Smith Webb later adopted the Most Excellent Master Degree to fill a remaining gap in the legend by celebrating the completion of the Temple. There is a rumor that he authored the degree wholecloth, but documented evidence exists that a degree of this name was being conferred around the time Brother Webb was born, and the various elements of which this degree consist certainly predate the degree itself within Masonry. This degree fits chronologically between the Master Mason and Royal Arch Degree.

In summary:
  • 1° Entered Apprentice - Remains Intact.
  • 2° Fellow Craft - Today it is missing pieces.
  • 3° Master Mason - Today it is missing pieces.
  • 4a° Mark Man - Completes the Fellowcraft Degree.
  • 4b° Mark Master - Is itself an older type of "Master Mason" Degree.
  • 5° Past Master - Installation was probably the oldest form of the Master Mason Degree.
  • 6° Most Excellent Master - Adopted into this sequence by T.S.Webb.
  • 7° Royal Arch Mason - Completes the Master Mason Degree.
  • 8° Royal Master - Developed in France.
  • 9° Select Master - Developed in France.
You will observe that it is only the 6, 8, and 9° that do not have a claim to be part of Ancient Craft Masonry, as defined in the 1813 Articles of Union, "that pure Ancient Masonry consists of three degrees, and no more, viz., those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason, including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch."

These other "degrees" are merely portions or different versions of the authentic three degrees which have become fragmented into pieces. It is unclear, however, which parts, if any, of the Royal Arch Degree constitute the "Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch" (the original conclusion ofo the Master Maso Degre, beyond the short exaltation ceremony itself.