AT the union of the two Grand Lodges of England in 1813 it was "declared and pronounced that pure Ancient Masonry consisted 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 Royal Arch." This declaration has been a part of the Constitution of the United Grand Lodge of England from that day to this and its prominent place in that constitution implies that the Master Mason's Degree is not complete without the Royal Arch.
Where and when this degree originated we do not know. Some students claim it was at one time a part of the Third Degree and that this degree was later divided into two parts, "The Master's Part" and "The Royal Arch." Others contend that it is a new degree invented either in France or England about the year 1740 A.D. We have no means of proving or disproving either assertion.
The earliest known reference to this part of Masonry is in an account of a Masonic procession in which it states that the Master was preceded by "The Royal Arch carried by two Excellent Masons." The next mention of it we have is in a book published in 1744, in which the writer makes several references to "Royal Arch Masons."
It is interesting to note that the earliest known record of the conferring of the Royal Arch Degree is in the early minutes of Fredricksburg Lodge, of Virginia, the lodge in which George Washington received his Masonic degrees. The Minutes of this lodge state that on December 22,1753, three brethren were raised to the degree of Royal Arch Mason.
Thus, the Royal Arch was first worked in a lodge, and under the authority of a lodge charter. However, the lodge charter made no mention of the degree and the so-called Modern Grand Lodge of England took no notice of it. Thus it was no more than a side degree and as many abuses grew up around it, it did not prosper. This led to a demand for some governing body to regulate it. As Thomas S. Webb, in the second edition of his Monitor published in 1802 said:
Until the year 1797, no grand chapter of royal arch masons was organized in America. Previous to this period, a competent number of companions of that degree, possessed of sufficient abilities, under the sanction of a master's warrant, proceeded to exercise the rights and privileges of royal arch chapters, whenever they thought it expedient and proper; although in most cases the approbation of a neighbouring chapter was deemed useful, if not essential.
This uncontrolled mode of proceeding, was subject to many inconveniences; unsuitable characters might be admitted; irregularities in the mode of working introduced; the purposes of the society perverted; and thus the order degraded, by falling into the hands of those who might be regardless of the reputation of the institution. If differences should arise between two chapters, who was to decide upon them? If unworthy characters, who for want of due caution had gained admission should attempt to open new chapters, for their own emolument or for the purposes of conviviality or intemperance, who was to restrain them? If the established regulations, and ancient landmarks should be violated or broken down where was there power sufficient to remedy the evil?
Sensible of the existence of these and many other inconveniences to which the order were subjected, the chapters of royal arch masons, in various parts of the United States, have, within a few years past, taken the proper and necessary measures for forming and establishing grand royal arch chapters, for their better government and regulation.
On Oct. 24, 1797, a convention of committees from St. Andrew's Chapter, Boston, Temple Chapter, Albany, and Newburyport Chapter, met in convention at Masons' Hall, Boston, Mass., and resolved to take steps necessary to forming a Grand Royal Arch Chapter for the states in the northeastern part of the United States. Thomas Smith Webb was chosen chairman of this convention. They therefore issued a circular letter to the chapters in these states asking them to send one or more delegates to represent their chapter at a meeting to be held in the city of Hartford, Conn., on the fourth Wednesday of January, next ensuing.
Most of the chapters invited accepted the invitation, and on Jan. 24, 1798 the delegates from the several chapters met at Hartford, Conn., and organized the Grand Royal Arch Chapter of the Northern States of America, consisting of the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, and New York. A constitution was adopted and officers elected, among them being Ephriam Kirby, of Litchfield, Conn., as Grand High Priest, and Thos. Smith Webb, of Albany, N.Y., Grand Scribe.
The first meeting of the Grand Chapter after its organization was held on the third Wednesday of September, 1798, in the city of Middleton, Conn. The second meeting was held on the second Wednesday of January, 1799, at Providence, R.I. At this second meeting the Constitution was amended and the name changed to the General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons for the Northern States of America. This change was apparently made because of the fact that some of the states had organized Grand Chapters of their own under the original Grand Chapter, and the name was changed to General Grand Chapter to indicate the superior body.
Provision was also made for future organization of other State Grand Chapters, and for meetings every seven years after 1799, instead of annual meetings as had been the ease before.
The third meeting was, therefore, held in 1806. At this meeting requests for charters were received from Georgia and South Carolina. Therefore the Constitution was again changed to enable them to take in Grand Chapters from other states. The new name was General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons for the United States of America. Since that time other Grand Chapters have been organized under the General Grand Chapter, and at the present time all the Grand Chapters in the United States, with the exception of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas, are members of the General Grand Body.