(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