The History of the High Degrees of the York Rite by Brother Brent Morris
I’m going to speak about the High Degrees of Freemasonry. Now I know it may be politically incorrect to say that there is anything higher than the Master Mason degree , but in fact High Degrees is the term that has been used for centuries to define the various degrees and ceremonies and rites that exist after the Master Mason degree. So I’m not going to be politically correct. I am going to use simple terminology that everyone understands . These are the degrees that occur after the Hiramical legend in the Master Masons degree.
The High Degrees are broadly termed as high degrees and it’s an area of research I’m very interested in . Now I know that some contemporary authors, in fact many [masonic] authors through the years have maintained that pure Masonry is the Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, Master Mason, and sometimes they throw in and include the the Royal Arch. They believe that everything beyond that is not part of Masonry and really is just superfluous and is dragging down the enterprise. I take a contrary position I believe that the High Degrees of Freemasonry have been an integral part of Freemasonry from our earliest days as a speculative institution, and they deserve our respect and our support because it’s part of the entire body a Freemasonry.
Okay, let’s let’s get a few terms laid out here. We know the Freemasonry was an organized institution in the British Isles and traces back to 1390 or so. This is the Regius Poem which was published then and it is basically the bylaws of a guild trade association. Organized Freemasonry probably goes back a few decades before that but not much more. Probably certainly no or earlier than 1300. By the way I utterly reject the Knights Templar theory, the ancient mysteries theory, and all the other theories. I firmly believe that Freemasonry originated as a trade guild or as as a labor union, if you will, and then evolved, or transformed, or transitioned into a men’s fraternity in the eighteenth-century.
In the late 1590’s William Shaw in Scotland, the Kings Master Mason, issued an order to the lodges in Scotland that they should start keeping minutes and it is from that period forward that we get the first records of individual Masonic lodges. So in 1390 or so we have the bylaws of the trade association of the guild. My historian friends told me that it’s a really a specific term applying to a city , but we’ve got the trade association for the freemasons from 1390. About two hundred years later we start getting minutes.
The oldest lodge minutes are of the Lodge of Aitchison’s and Haven in Scotland. The Lodge is now extinct but you can see that on the ninth day of January they had a new member, Robert Widderspoon (probably Witherspoon) and he became a “fellow the craft” and he chose George Aytone and Johne Pedded to be his intends and instructors, very much like we do today. He paid a fee of twenty shillings and he presented gloves to every Master. The gloves we have discontinued having, the fee we still have, and having instructors we still have. Now that record is in 1598.
The next year we have excellent minutes from the Lodge in Edinburgh number one. The the organization still exists. The Lodge still meets but here is what, to me is significant in these early minutes… You can see that Brother George Patroon was chastised by the Lodge because he had hired a cowan to one to work on a chimney at the job site. A cowan is a scab laborer. A Mason who had not gone through the guild training system . It didn’t mean that he was not skilled or that he didn’t do good work, but it did mean that he didn’t belong to one of the local Lodge’s. What is significant is this is a labor organization behaving like a labor organization; their chastising a member for not maintaining a closed shop and not using members of the Lodge.
Now at this point, Freemasonry is a trade association. There’s very very little speculative nature to it. Probably some simple moralizing on the working tools. Square your actions by the square virtue, walk up rightly before God and before man, and such like that. Circumscribe your passions with the compasses, and so on, and at this point Freemasonry consists of two degrees, Entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft. Now there were Masters, there were two types at Masters. The presiding officer of the Lodge who was elected from time to time was the “Master of the Lodge.” The member of the Lodge that won the contract for a job site became the Master Mason at the job site. So this year I might be the Master Mason as we’re working on the tower at the church. Two or three years later another member my Lodge might be the Master Mason at the job site when they’re working on the chapel at the at the worksite. There was a transition, or a constant flow between being a Fellow of the Craft and being a Master. Master was a temporary position of administration that you held.
Now in 1717 as we all know the first Grand Lodge is formed in London. They didn’t need Grand Lodges in Scotland because the local Lodge system was strong enough that it operated well, but by 1717 they were getting gentlemen Masons in significant numbers, probably due to the Great Fire of London in 1666. The city had to be rebuilt and the monopoly that the London Company of Masons exercised for stone work in the City of London was abrogated by the government. Any man who could pick up a stone, or carry a trowel, suddenly became a Mason. They didn’t have time to wait for an Apprentice-ship system. In 1717 the organization is pretty well transformed itself into a speculative organization the gentlemen’s group because we think the London company of Mason started admitting honorary members after it lost its royal monopoly over are the construction trade. In 1717 when the Grand Lodge is formed it has two degrees; The same as they had in Scotland at Mary’s chapel. As far as we can tell the same that they had from the earliest records that of Apprentice and that of a Fellow Craft. In 1723 , James Anderson publishes his Constitutions of the Free Masons, again when you read it carefully you see that there are only two types of members; Apprentices and Fellow Crafts. Now there are hints, the grand manuscript from the 1690 give hints, of a ceremony beyond the Fellow Craft degree but there’s no hard evidence. The hard evidence does not come until 1725.
There at a meeting of Philo Musicae et Architecturae Societas, you can see the Charles Cotton and Papillon Ball were regularly housed Masters and that brother Geminiani was regularly passed Fellow Craft and Masters. So there we have in 1725 the first High Degree in Freemasonry. And a High Degree being a ceremony that continues and expands upon the earlier degrees, continuing the legends, expanding on the legends, and bestows an additional level of membership.
So in 1725 High Degrees are introduced to Freemasonry. Now what’s interesting to me is the response of the Grand Lodge which is “this is nice. if you don’t rock the boat, y’all come on.” So the Master Masons degree was instantly absorbed into the Grand Lodge structure. In 1730 the absolute air tight evidence of a new degree occurs when we see “Masonry Dissected” published that year. Masonry Dissected was an expose over the secrets a Freemasonry and the the most complete and detailed of its time and includes the ceremonies of Enter Apprentice, Fellow Craft and Master. Now here’s an interesting side information about Masonry Dissected which let’s make some deductions. October 22, 1730 the first addition was advertised. The 21st and 23rd the second addition is advertised. That means they sold out in one day. On the 24th its reprinted and are in Reed’s Weekly Journal. On October 31st a third edition is advertised they’ve sold out again, and by November 3rd, were talking about are some so only two weeks after it comes out, a pirated edition is available, and it went through addition after addition and people bought them as fast as they could print them. Now certainly there was interest among the citizens of London in Freemasonry. They were interested in the rituals. I don’t think there was the interest there that was going to have a sellout of these additions. Here’s what Harry Carr had to say about it; Freemasonry was growing in popularity… there was a total absence of printed materials and Masonry Dissected provided the best guidance to Lodges in doing and operating the new ceremony a Master Mason.
So there’s our first high degree, 1725 the Master Masons degree. It did not exist prior to that. It certainly did not exist in any of the the written documents of Freemasonry. Their are hints of it existing earlier but there it is, 1725 . Now a mere eight years later in 1733 we have published Rollinson’s List of Lodges, it lists all the lodges in London, and we see that Lodge number 115 in London was a “Scotch Mason’s Lodge.” Now what is significant about this is when you look at the list, they either say nothing or they say it’s a Master’s Lodge, a Master Masons lodge, and then here they have a Scotch Mason’s Lodge. The next year in 1734 Pines listed Lodges again includes number 115 describes it as a Scotts Mason’s Lodge. We don’t know what they were doing but it was something different than a Master Masons lodge. 1735 we get to the Lodge at the Bear , and this would be a tavern or a pub that had the sign of a bear outside it in bath. There in the minutes we see that a Lodge of Masters met, and they made an admitted Scott’s Master Mason’s. Some different ceremony is going on.
So 1717 the Grand Lodge is formed, 1723 we have the Constitutions in the Freemasons, and we’re still operating as a two degree system. 1725 the Master Masons degree appears in the militant books . 1730 a full exposure occurs and Pritchard’s Masonry Dissected, and three years after that we start seeing evidence of a new degree, a Scots Master’s degree. So here in our timeline something is happening . Now we don’t have any records of the Scots Mason’s Degrees yet but we know that something different is happening.
Now in 1737, again now it’s only four years after the first mention of the Scots Masons Lodge, Michael Andrew Ramsey gives his famous oration in Paris. It’s known as Ramsey’s oration. Here’s what’s significant about this, is we now have a new ritual thread introduced into this mixture. Ramsey announces, without any evidence , that our ancestors the Crusaders, and so now he’s introducing the idea into Freemasonry, that the Craft originated with the Crusades. This is at a time when there’s high interest in things chivalric, a knighthood, the history of knights is of great interest. Ramsey’s seed is going to bear fruit a few years later.
1738, the year after Ramsey’s oration, in Lisbon there is a Lodge simply called the Irish Lodge. The first papal bull came out against Freemasonry and the Worshipful Master gave orders that there should be no more meetings of the Lodge, he closed it down. The Inquisition none the less called in the Master of the Lodge and interviewed him. Hugo O’Kelly says before the imposition, and we know this because the minute so the Inquisition have been preserved, “and there are more classes which they call Excellent Masons, and Grand Masons, which are above all others…” Now we’re not sure what he means. is a Grand mason simply Grand Lodge officers, so that the Grand Deacons, the Grand Wardens, the Grand Master s above all others, or is this the name of a different degree and what about Excellent Mason? is this a different degree? does this mean if you’re a Past Master your Excellent Mason? we’re not sure but we do know that by 1738 the Inquisition is told that there exist other classes of Masons.
1740 in Old Lodge number 1, this is the Lodge Antiquity, now number 2 in in London. 9 members were this evening made Scots Master Mason’s… Something’s going on. The same year at the Lodge the Rummer in Bristol ordered and agreed other members of this Lodge that are already Master Masons may be made Scots Master. Now that’s significant. We know him of seven years after the first appearance above the Scotch Master Lodge. That if you going to be a Scots Master you must already be a Master Mason. So 1740 is only fifteen years after the first written appearance of the Master Mason Degree, and now being a Master Mason is established as a foundation and then you can take the next step to that have Scotch Master.
Now it’s very exciting that we have preserved the minutes from a Berlin lodge in 1742. That they exist is a miracle. During World War 2 the Nazis captured and confiscated the records of the Grand Orient de France and carried them back to Berlin. When the Russians captured Berlin the Nazi records were carried back to Russia , and only within the last few decades have the records been returned from Russia to the Grand Orient de France, and we can see that in 1742 there is a Scottish lodge in Berlin . So now we have minutes of a Scottish lodge. We still don’t know what they were doing but it was something different above and beyond the Master Mason degree. Now in 1742 there is a very curious newspaper account of a parade in Dublin. It’s maybe the first evidence the Royal Arch degree and I say maybe because the newspaper account is ambiguous. They’re describing a parade… ” fourthly the Royal Arch carried by two Excellent Mason’s. Fifthly, the Master with all his proper implements.” Now what does it mean to carry the Royal Arch? Are they carrying a replica of the ark of the covenant? That could be the Royal Arch, or are they carrying a replica of Noah’s Ark? In French a arch in French or means both an arch and then a boat arc also, so perhaps they were carrying a replica of Noah’s Ark perhaps it was a replica of the Ark the Covenant or since this was a parade perhaps the the deacons were carrying two staffs that had an arch and perhaps with with ribbons hanging down from it and the master was walking underneath the arch . We don’t know. So maybe, just maybe this is the first reference to the Royal Arch degree.
1743 and London the next year we now have evidence the of the Royal Order of Scotland. The Scotch Herodom of Kilwinning is the organization, we know it today as the Royal Order of Scotland, and so here we have records in 1743 that it’s holding a meeting in London. The same year, 1743 , another very interesting and significant event occurs . Baron von Hund of Paris claims that he was initiated into a branch of Masonry when he was visited by the Red Feather Knight. Masked men appeared and initiated him into a branch of Masonry and basically the secret of this branch of Masonry is that Freemasonry is descended from the Knights Templar. Now recall that when Michael Andrew Ramsey gave his oration, it was the Crusaders . Now the Crusaders have become more specific in their the Knights Templars. What we have is von Hund is told that there are unknown superiors, secret men that run the order Freemasonry of Templars and they have selected von Hund to spread this branch of Masonry throughout Europe. Von Hund does this. The Knights Templar, or in fact the organization is called the strict observance because members swear to strictly follow, to strictly observe the instructions of their unknown superiors, this spreads throughout Germany, throughout France, throughout Europe , and all of a sudden the Templar tradition has now become a part of Freemasonry, so you can see layer after layer we are building up on the body of Freemasonry. And we’re talking ethnic earlier stages. 1743. This is only 28 years after the formation in the first Grand Lodge. Something is going on…
Now in 1743 in France, this is a big year for freemasonry, we find out that Scottish Masters, Maitres Ecossais say they exist in France. This is yet another degree in Masonry, and it appears that a provincial Lodge writes to the Grand Lodge in the saying these guys are showing up to our meetings say they have special privileges. Among the privileges are they don’t have to take their hats off, they don’t have to remove their swords , they don’t have to stand when everyone else stands because they are Scottish Masters and they’re asking for instructions from headquarters.
In 1744 in France there’s an expose, Le Franc Meissen. It talks about Maitres Ecossaise. So it is a fourth-degree of Masonry, and now we’re getting more and more written evidence that something is there. We switched back on the other side of the channel to 1744, and I might add that these evolutions, the evolution of these High Degrees and the structure of Freemasonry is occurring continuously on both sides the channels, in various cities. these are just the fragments of evidence that have survived, and so now in 1744 we have some pretty clear evidence that their is an additional degree known as the Royal Arch. Here’s Fifield D’Assigny, a serious and impartial inquiry that was published in Ireland, and he says he is informed that in the city of York is held an assembly a Master Masons , under the title Royal Arch Masons. Okay, this is now a special group of men known as the Royal Arch, so while that 1742 newspaper account might or might not have referred to the Royal Arch degree , we now see in 1744 that there is in York, evidence of the Royal Arch existing. This is probably where the name York Rite comes from , because here the first evidence that the Royal Arch existed or is published is in York. Now in 1744 the same year another expose is published in France, La Parfait Masson, the Perfect Mason. Now we have a hint of what the Scots Mason’s Degree maybe . Now I qualified all of that. It is a hint, it maybe, because you have to take exposes with a grain of salt. Are they reporting accurately a universal ritual or truth of Freemasonry? Are they reporting accurately a local variation or a local custom? Have they filled in the blanks with their imagination? Are they just trying to make a buck and they don’t care what they say? We’re not, sure but we do know that in 1744 a Parfait Mason says that instead weeping over the Ruins of the Temple of Solomon the Maitres Ecossais are concerned with rebuilding it, and Zerubabel returns to rebuild the temple. Now this we know is a biblical story. We also know it is one of the most common threads of High Degree Freemasonry. Zerubabel, returning from babble on to Jerusalem, he brings Jewish Mason’s with them, they are going to rebuild the Temple of Solomon. This is the Temples Zerubabel, the Second Temple and so it is a common ritual theme, a common plot theme if you will , in the High Degrees of Freemasonry.
1745 , the broken seal. They are talking about the Crusader princes, and so now we see Ramsey, and they’re talking about rebuilding the temple, so now we see a blend of the Crusader myth and the rebuilding myth. 1745 “The Order The Freemasons Betrayed” they are talking about the Ecossais Mason’s of a Higher Degree. 1750 more evidence of the Royal Order of Scotland, the Brethren of the Heirdom desired to take notice , and Haredim is the name uniquely associated with the Royal Order of Scotland.
1752, we now have strong evidence to the Royal Arch degree is being practiced in England. There has been a fraud perpetrated in London. Gentleman known as Leg of Mutton Mason’s , are taking men on for a fee. The fee is a dinner of mutton and they will give them a degree. Presumably they would continue conferring these degrees as long as they got free dinners. While these Leg of Mutton Mason’s are examined by the Grand Lodge of Ancients and what they find in the examination is they determine that they know nothing about the Royal Arch degree. Well here is evidence, I think pretty air tight evidence that the Grand Lodge of Ancient s are working the Royal Arch degree, and thinks it’s important enough that the exam on these fraudsters, these hoaxers, the scam artist to see if they know anything about the Royal Arch.
Now the next year comes the big even in Royal Arch Masonry. The first record, the first minute of the Royal Arch degree being conferred. Just as in 1725 we have the first minute of the Master Mason degree being conferred, in 1753 (this is only 28 years after the first conferral of the Master Masons Degree) the Royal Arch degree is recorded in a minute book. And this occurs in Fredericksburg Virginia. It’s not in London. It’s not in Ireland, or Paris or Edinburg. It’s in Fredericksburg Virginia. And we have three men who are raised to the degree of Royal Arch Mason. We can absolutely date from 1753 onward that the Royal Arch degree is part of the fabric of Masonry.
Now here’s an interesting thing that happens in England. By the time they start talking about the Royal Arch degree they stop talking about the Scots Master’s degree. It’s as if all the Scots Masters Lodges disappeared and suddenly springing up are Royal Arch lodges . What happened?
Well one of the things that may have happened is that in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie returns to Scotland, raises an army with the plans of invading England and resuming the throne as the Stewart’s should have it. He’s the Catholic pretender, his father James is the Old Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie is the young pretender and at the Battle of Culloden, Scots forces supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie, are utterly destroyed, utterly routed. Bonnie Prince Charlie returns to France and is never seen again. However from 1745 onward it is not politically correct to be Scottish in England. The Scots are viewed as traders to the United Crown. They are viewed with suspicion as people that are not loyal and want to overthrow the King. So perhaps what happened is all the Scots masters lodges suddenly became Royal Arch lodges. They suddenly took a prominent feature of the Scots Master ceremony and transformed and change the name and kept everything else the same. We don’t know, but it makes sense.
In 1761 we have another event happen in the evolution of High Degree Freemasonry. Stephen Morin, a french men from Bordeaux, he was someone who’s a wine merchant. He’s immigrating to the Caribbean where he’s going to setup a business , and the Emperors on the East and West, and this could be a separate and distinct organization, there some evidence that this is simply the Grand Lodge of France the same men changing the color of their jerseys at a meeting and now they are the Emperors the East and West . Whatever the group is, they issue a patent to Morin to establish Perfect and Sublime Masonry in all parts of the world. Perfect Masonry are the Degrees conferred in the Lodge Perfection, Sublime degrees are the Degrees above the Lodge Perfection. So that would be the Princes of Jerusalem, from the Knights Rose Croix, and the Knights of Kadosh.
In 1763 Morin arrives in Santo Domingo and the Caribbean . What we don’t know is we don’t know what degrees constitute fully Perfect and Sublime Masonry. We know that’s what he’s authorized to spread and we know that today we understand those as the Lodge of Perfection and then the Higher Degrees, but we don’t know what he had in 1763. Well in 1763 we have the first two major expose have High Degree Freemasonry that achieved any success, Les Plus Secrets Mysteries Des Hauts Grades De La Maconnerie, The Most Secret Mysteries of the High Degrees of Freemasonry Unveiled. It has a seven degree system. Perfect Elect Mason, Elect of the Fifteen, Senior Architect, Prussian Knight, Elect of Perignan, Junior Architect, Knight of the Sword. These degrees, when that you read, are incredibly similar to Scottish Rite Degrees that we confer today. Now you look at some other degrees in and say ‘where on earth did these come from?’ You look at other degrees you say ‘oh my gosh if we chop this in half would have the ninth degree and the 10th degree’, or you’d look at it you say “I recognize the Prince’s Jerusalem here” or part about ceremony. So we’ve got in 1763 the year that Morin lands in the Caribbean an expose of the High Degrees appearing.
Now in 1763 Stephen Morin creates a new organization and he’s now talking about The Order of the Royal Secret. It’s also known as the right to Perfection and the question is, is this 25 degrees system what Marin brought with him from France that was given to him by the Emperors of the East and West, or is this something that he created entirely himself out of the existing pieces? Perhaps he had a copy or obtained a copy of Le Plus Secret and took portions are those degrees and put them into his new work. We don’t know but there’s a strong suspicion that Morin was the driving force behind this.
Now sometime between 1763 in 1767 Morin appoints Henry Andrew Franken who is a Dutch merchant head quartered in Albany who makes his living going down the Hudson sailing to the Caribbean selling cheap goods from New York, picking up cheap goods from the Caribbean, going back up to New York and selling them there. So Franken is going back and forth. We know that Morin arrives in the Caribbean in 1763 and we know that in 1767 Franken establishes a Lodge of Perfection in Albany New York. So sometime in that four-year period Franken and Morin meet. We don’t know exactly when they met but we know it had to be before 1767 and it had to be after 1763. Now the most significant thing that Franken did is he transcribed the rituals or Royal Secret into at least four books. So there we have the earliest english-language version of the High Degrees a Freemasonry. 1769, two years after the lodge of Perfection in Albany, we have the first evidence of the Knights Templar degree being conferred. Now I want to emphasize here that I talk about evidence of the degree. This is when we have minutes, we have announcements, we have something that tells it’s actually going on. The ceremonies probably existed earlier than that, but up to that they just made it into the minute books. Now interestingly the Knights Templar first appear in the United States in minute books, and Saint Andrews Royal Arch Lodge, this is the famous Lodge that met at the Green Dragon Tavern. Paul Revere was a member of Saints Andrews Lodge, Joseph Warren, John Hancock. It was out of the Green Dragon Tavern that the wild tribe of Mohawk Indians went down to the docks in through tea overboard into the Boston Harbor.
Now taking a much larger leap forward, in 1801 the Supreme Council the Scottish Rite is created in Charleston. Stephen Morin’s 25 degree Order of the Royal Secret has now had an additional eight degrees added do it . Some administrative weaknesses, fatal weakness, is from an organizational point of view have been corrected and now we have a new high degree system created in Charleston of all places . It’s interesting to me that the first appearance the Royal Arch is in Fredericksburg Virginia. The first appearance for the Knights Templar is in Boston, and then the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite is formed in Charleston. So we know are getting sophisticated, highly organized high degree systems all on top a Freemasonry, and yet again the reaction of the Grand Lodges is ‘this is interesting. if you don’t rock the boat you all can come aboard.’ So that has been the approach a Freemasonry to the High Degrees…
..which we still historically portray today in the work of the York Rite. If you are already a Master Mason, and would like to learn more about becoming a Royal Arch Mason you can contact the Dallas Love Field York Rite Bodies to learn more.