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Small Causes — Great Effects or the Promotion of the Royal Arch Degree

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Masonry grew by change. It is still changing, right under our very noses. Furthermore, it will continue to change, even after we have all passed on.

All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward. The Aswan Dam was built in Egypt in 1967. It was expected that it would prevent the flooding of the Nile, and produce hydroelectric power. Which it did, but along with the change in the normal flow of the waters came such evils as the loss of the rich silt which for centuries had fertilized the valley. Nutrients were lost with a 97% drop in the local sardine industry. It is estimated that the losses to Egypt due to the Aswan Dam amount to some 550 million dollars per year. Unpredictable results have also happened in Freemasonry. Some adopted changes have proved to be beneficial to the Craft, whereas others have been unexpectedly questionable. The point is that each one of us, one of these days, will be called upon to decide whether to accept or reject some proposed change in our Institution. The decision should be made knowingly, intelligently, and not emotionally. To do so one must be acquainted with the Story of Freemasonry’s evolution, and understand its present structure and mission. It was Confucius who gave the advice “Study the past if you would divine the future. “

As an object lesson two innovations in Masonry can be reviewed, one in America, the other in England. Several American Masonic Jurisdictions sent delegates to the 1843 Baltimore Convention. One of the innovations there adopted was that lodge business should be transacted only in a Master Mason’s lodge. The purpose, apparently, was to block impostors. But the result was that Entered Apprentices and Fellow Crafts were excluded from lodge membership. For instance, Holland Lodge, when under the Grand Lodge of the Republic of Texas, conducted its business in an Entered Apprentice Lodge. Fortunately, some jurisdictions are at this moment attempting to correct that misguided resolution.

In England, in the year 1730, there appeared an Exposure called Masonry Dissected, which proved so very popular that many non-Masons bought the six-pence booklet, learned the secrets, and clandestinely conferred degrees for profit. Grand Lodge was very disturbed and reacted by transposing the words of the two Degrees, the purpose being to make it possible to detect impostors. Unfortunately, other results developed. The Grand Lodge, founded only some fifteen years previously, had limited powers. Some lodges in the City of London and the provinces disagreed with the transposition and began, with recent Irish and Scottish immigrants to form irregular lodges which culminated in the creation of a new Grand Lodge of their own, referred to as the Antients.

“ This new Grand Lodge, under the leadership of its ambitious and pugnacious Grand Secretary, Bro. Laurence Dermott, introduced ceremonial items that emphasized the gap that was to exist between the two Grand Jurisdictions and give the Antients a supposed superiority over the Premier Grand Lodge The first change was to keep the Words of the First Two Degrees in their original order. Secondly, they adopted a new Substitute Word for the Lost Word of a Master Mason. In the third place, they introduced an esoteric portion called the “Inner Working” into the Installation Ceremony. And finally, the biggest innovation in 18th century Freemasonry was the grafting of the Royal Arch as a fourth degree on to Ancient Craft Masonry.

It seems, therefore, that the Premier Grand Lodge’s decision to transpose the words of the first two degrees unwittingly contributed to the start of the rift in the English Craft, which lasted well over half a century. But at the same time it did afford the Antients the opportunity to bring about an almost universal adoption of Royal Arch Masonry.

Early references to Royal Arch Masonry are vague, and it is difficult to say when it became a completely separate degree and attained the full development of its present-day ritual and ceremonial. It may be taken as an accepted fact that the Royal Arch ceremony was being worked at York, London and Dublin about the year 1740 in a systematic way. There is a 1744 reference to the Royal Arch as “an organized body of men who have passed the chair.” Later, in 1746, Laurence Dermott was exalted to the Royal Arch in Lodge No. 26, Dublin, Ireland shortly thereafter he emigrated to England. But the really first unchallenged dates of exaltation are 1752 in Ireland, 1753 in America, 1756 in Scotland and 1758 in England. It is of interest to note that the earliest Minutes which definitely re-cords a Royal Arch Exaltation is of “A Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons” in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The historical Minute of December 22, 1753, record that three Brethren were “Raised to the Degree of Royal Arch Mason.” By the way, one month earlier in this same lodge on November 4, 1753, George Washington had been made a Mason.

So much for a very sketchy description of the Royal Arch’s evolution and acceptance as a Degree of Masonry. The development and growth of its doctrinal content and ritual is also very hazy. There does not seem to be any evidence to support the statement made by some Masonic scholars that the Royal Arch was originally a part of a Craft Degree. The Master Mason’s Degree does not appear to have been mutilated to provide a separate and additional degree. Some students believe the Royal Arch was compiled in France as one of the many degrees created after the spread of Freemasonry to the Continent of Europe, and then “exported” back into England. However, the prominent Masonic writer, Bernard E. Jones, felt that the arranger, editor or compiler might well have been English. For, it is true, that in the years after the establishment of the 1717 Grand Lodge in London, there were those who found themselves dissatisfied with the simplicity of the teachings of the Craft and embellished it with all kinds of additional ceremonial items and degrees.

In that shadowy background from which the Three Degrees of Craft Masonry had emerged, there continued to float around several vague traditions.

There were stories of the loss and recovery of vital secrets; of two antediluvian pillars designed to carry and pre-serve the knowledge of Mankind; and in the Graham MS. of 1726 the legend of the loss of knowledge on the (natural) death of Noah. In the 16th and 17th Centuries literature introduced the idea of a Being so dread that His name was not to be mentioned; and in 1726 an advertisement referred to the necessity for a Master to understand well the Rule of Three. It has to be admitted that early references to Royal Arch Masonry are vague, and it is difficult to say when a completely separate and fully developed Degree emerged.

Although Royal Arch Masonry gained impetus and definitely established itself as a corollary of the questionable “transposition” decision made by the Premier Grand Lodge in 1730, it is also true that much distress was caused by hasty and uninformed decisions of both the Americans and British. It also seems true that the Royal Arch Degree would have eventually gained recognition and acceptance without the help of a disturbing innovation.

In conclusion, a knowledge and an understanding of Freemasonry’s past will help each individual Mason make wise decisions in the future, for the Wisdom of the Ages has already stated that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat the mis-takes of the past. The prophet Hosea (Chapter 4:6) put it this way: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

George H. T. French (Texas)
Royal Arch Magazine Winter1984 Vol 14 No 12