Mark Master’s Degree

In ancient times, stonemasons placed an identifying symbol upon their work. This symbol was known as their “Mark”. Wheter this practice was utilized during the building of the Great Temple in Jerusalem in accordance with Masonic allegory is uncertain. However, “Operative” Masons in England and on the continent of Europe have left their “Marks” on stonework dating from the dark ages.

The Marks were normally inscribed upon the work with an engravers chisel and mallet and therefore consisted primarily of a combination of straight lines.

The Mason’s Mark served several purposes; to identify the work of each craftsman, and to serve as signature in a period when most people were illiterate. While the mark had no symbolic meaning in operative craft, the workman was classed by the quality of his work. Therefore, most of the stonemasons strove to do their best work prior to identifying the piece by placing their mark upon it.

The medieval lodges of Freemasons maintained a Book of Marks wherein were registered the “Marks” of their members. Several of these volumes have survived to the present day. This practice has been carried over into our speculative craft and each American Chapter maintains a Book of Marks of its members.

At a meeting of the operative Lodge of Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 8, 1600, the presiding Master and the members present certified the minutes by placing their marks upon them.

The first reference to the conferral of a Mark degree is found in the minutes of Phoenix Royal Arch Chapter, working with Friendship Lodge at Portsmouth, England, on September 1, 1769. In that account,Thomas Dunckerley, the Pro Grand Master of the “Modern” Grand Lodge delivered the Warrant to the Chapter and “he made the brethren ‘Mark Masons’ and ‘Mark Masters’, and each chose their Mark”. So, in this first reference, we encounter two degrees concerning the Mark. As written rituals did not exist in those days, we do not know of what those degrees consisted. However, we can well assume that these degrees had existed prior to that date. The Mark Mason degree was conferred in Fellowcraft lodges and the Mark Master in Master Masons lodges.

The ritual of the Mark Master degree very impressively illustrates the inherent values found in honest employment and charitable activity.

Excerpted from: A History and Handbook, The York Rite of Freemasonry, by Frederic G. Speidel

Past Master’s Degree

(Virtual Past Master, Installed Master)

The degree of Past Master is not rooted in antiquity. The earliest reference to this degree occurs in the middle of the 18th century in England, where the degree was conferred for one of two purposes: First, a number of English lodges conferred the degree of Installed Master upon the Masters of symbolic lodges. The degree possibly included a secret word and grip and could only be conferred in the presence of Installed Masters. This practice varied with the lodges in different parts of England and also within the two Grand Lodges of Antients and Moderns. There were no standards whatsoever for the degree. Second, it was originally the custom of many lodges and chapters to only confer the degree of the Holy Royal Arch upon Installed Masters of lodges. As the craft became more speculative, it became the practice to confer the degree of (Virtual) Past Master as a prerequisite to the conferral of the Royal Arch. This latter procedure created much turmoil in English Masonry for over a century. Almost all of the Grand Chapters presently working in the United States require this degree prior to conferral of the Royal Arch.

Additionally, several American Grand Lodges believe that it is desirable for a Master-elect to receive particular instruction for governing a lodge. These Grand Lodges require that the Wardens of their subordinate lodges recive the Past Master’s Degree of the Chapter prior to their Installation into the office of Master. Arrangements are made with neighboring Royal Arch Chapter to confer this degree upon the Wardens of surrounding lodges. This ceremony also fulfills the requirement of several Grand Lodges which states that the Master of a Symbolic Lodge be installed by an esoteric ritual.

Excerpted from: A History and Handbook, The York Rite of Freemasonry, by Frederic G. Speidel

Most Excellent Master Degree

A number of degrees with a similar title were conferred in the British Isles in the 18th century. They were, Excellent Masons, Super Excellent Mason, Excellent Master, and an obscure degree in Scotland called Most Excellent Master. These degrees differed in content but were each considered to be prerequisite to the Royal Arch Degree in whatever jurisdiction they were worked.

Many Masonic historian credit Thomas Smith Webb with fabricating the Most Excellent Master Degree as it is worked in modern America. He may have written the American ritual, however, the main theme is that of the Most Excellent Master Degree known in Scotland in the 18th century.

The earliest references to woeking this degree in America were in Middletown, Connecticut in 1783, and in Newburyport Chapter in Massachusetts on January 1, 1797. The degree could well have been conferred here prior to 1783.

This is the only Masonic degree that deals with the completion of the temple. The craftsman is confronted with many valulable lessons for his future development.

Excerpted from: A History and Handbook, The York Rite of Freemasonry, by Frederic G. Speidel

Royal Arch Degree (The Holy Royal Arch)

The Royal Arch is the capstone (Copestone) of the craft (symbolic) degrees. In other words, without the craft degrees, the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch has no foundation. Therefore, the development of the degree of the Holy Royal Arch has been, necessarily, linked to the development of the craft degrees.

A number of theories have been advanced over the past 200 years as to possible origins of this degree. These theories have been explored by outstanding Masonic historians and many of the theories have been laid to rest. Suggestions that the Royal Arch legend was originally a part of the Hiramic legend has been discredited because of the objections the premier (Modern) Grand Lodge of England had toward the conferral of the Royal Arch by its subordinate lodges.

The first reference to the existence of this degree occurred in England in 1730’s, prior to the establishment of the Antient Grand Lodge. These references appear in Masonic literature of the 1730’s but not in the lodge minutes. Some of these accounts reveal that the Modern Grand Lodge did not consider the Royal Arch a part of the craft degrees, indicating that an “original” connection did not exist. At that early period of the Modern Grand Lodge (founded in 1717) it is entirely probable that they were having sufficient problems in achieving a standard working of the craft degrees without injecting further controversy. Similarly, the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland frowned upon its use in the early 18th century. Controversely, the Antient Grand Lodge (founded in 1752) accepted the Royal Arch degree as the completion of the Hiramic legend and permitted its conferral in their symbolic lodges from the outset.

The Royal Arch Degree, as practiced today in a major part of the world, is a refinement of a number of degrees, legends, and traditions that existed under that, or similar, name in the early 18th century in the British Isles. The legends refer to a “crypt”. The type of crypt and its location, whether subterranean or above ground, varied. The stated origins of the crypt differed by several millenia. The only point of similarity in the legends was that the crypt was constructed to preserve valuable secrets for future generations.

The Royal Arch degree concerns itself with the discovery of a crypt and the value of the resulting discoveries in bringing additional Masonic light to the discoverers.

The value of the discovery, which resulted in completing the Hiramic legend, could not long be overlooked by the Modern Grand Lodge of England. Therefore, because they had previously declared that this was not a craft degree, they eventually formed Royal Arch Chapters within their lodges to confer this degree. While the Grand Lodge of Ireland and Scotland did not officially recognize the degree, many of their lodges conferred it anyway.

The Antient Grand Lodge had permitted the use of the Royal Arch degree within its subordinate lodges from the beginning of its existence. However, reasons for conferring the degree differed in various lodges. A number of lodges conferred it as a 4th Degree. Others utilized it as a second part of the Master Mason’s Degree. Some only conferred it on Past or Installed Masters after they had received the Mark Degree, and Installed Master (Past Master) Degree. There was no uniformity for its conferral in the early days.

Surviving lodges minutes of the early 18th century seldom refer to degree conferrals, possibly because they considered it secret work, or, in the case of the Royal Arch, because they had no real authority to confer it. While the degree of the Royal Arch had definitely been conferred in the 1730’s in England, the earliest surviving minutes recording the conferral of the degree was in “Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons”, Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 22, 1753.

The Fredericksburg Lodge (now No.4) at that date was a “time immemorial” lodge, operating without a Charter. A tradition indicates they may have had dispensation from Massachusetts. According to the minutes, the lodge opened, formed a “Royal Arch Lodge” with a visitor presiding, and conferred the degree on three candidates, one of whom was the regular Master of the lodge. The Royal Arch Lodge was then “shutt” and an Entered Aprentices Lodge opened.

This is the lodge that raised George Washington to the degree of Mater Mason on August 4th of that year. The lodge later received a Charter from the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1758. These minutes and Charter are on display in the replica lodge room in Fredericksburg, Virginia, along with other historic memorabilia.

References to Royal Arch Masons begin to occur with more frequency in Britain during the 1750’s but there are few accounts detailing the basis for conferring this degree.

The earliest reference to conferral of the Royal Arch Degree in English lodge minutes appears in a “Modern” lodge in Bristol in 1758, prior to the establishment of the Grand Chapter. This substantiates that, while the degree was not recognized by Grand Lodge, subordinate lodges of that jurisdiction were working on it.

 Excerpted from: A History and Handbook, The York Rite of Freemasonry, by Frederic G. Speidel