Some Notes on the History and Symbolism
of the Royal Arch Degree
Harold V. B. Voorhis
This paper is deliberately headed "some notes" because the subject is far too extensive to be handled in a single paper. This applies to the historical portion, as I am at loss as to how to do much with the symbolism part of it when addressing those who have not taken the Royal Arch Degree itself. The intent is rather to provide some thoughts for individual research, for such activity produces advancement in Masonic knowledge. No attempt is made to propagate a particular school of thought. It is more factual than dogmatic and the parts are not necessarily co-related.
In particular, it seems pertinent to point out to those who are at some pains to interpret symbolism in an esoteric sense, that the symbols in the various Masonic degrees were originally put there by mortal men. Esoteric knowledge is not a modern achievement, and even the motives behind such demonstrations have changed over the centuries. Ceremonial Freemasonry was born in England early in the eighteenth century and dramatized in the United States of America in the next century. The rituals were fabricated by two classes of men — those possessing considerable, if not great, occult knowledge and those possessing none. The one group strove to make the rituals occult, esoteric and ceremonial while the other strove to simplify everything or provincialize it. We might illustrate the situation by comparing two religious groups — men from the Roman Church, the Church of England and Greek Church on the one hand and men from the converts to Protestantism unceremonialized, such as Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc., i.e., conformists and nonconformists.
It must be kept in mind, too, that the knowledge of occult symbolism was derived from an already existing store of such knowledge, some of which was already grafted onto the already existing Operative Masonic lodges by the early Speculative Masons, who, in their turn, learned from Rosicrucians like Henry Adamson, Sir Robert Moray, Thomas Vaughan and certainly Elias Ashmole, who was made a Mason in Warrinton in 1646. That Freemasonry took its symbolism from definite earlier groups is borne out by the fact that there is not a scrap of evidence to show that ceremonial Freemasonry, as we now know it, existed before 1717-23, nor that the Royal Arch degree existed in any form before 1738.
J.E.S. Tuckett ("Origin of the additional Degrees" A. Q. C. XXXII, page 5) has fairly conclusively proved that no Masonic degrees were formed (i.e., new degrees) on the Continent prior to 1850. We must, therefore, assume that the Royal Arch was "made in the British Isles" even though we do not know who made it or in what original form. None of the various theories have evidence to substantiate them. It might be well, in passing, to mention what early pieces of evidence regarding the degree are extant; simply some references as to an existence of something called Royal Arch or the like. They are the Youghal procession reported in 1743; Dr. Fifield Dassigny's "Serious and Impartial Inquiry" of 1744, in which he states that the Royal Arch Degree was worked in London and York in 1740 and a little later in Dublin; and a further undocumented statement in various sources that the degree was worked in Sterling before 1743. In 1746, Lawrence Dermott, Grand Secretary of the Antients, was exalted in Dublin, we know, but there is no written minute of the mention of such a degree until December 22, 1753, contained in the records of The Lodge at Fredericksburg, Virginia in the Colonies.
The Antients, a group of Irishmen who formed the famous "rival" Grand Lodge in England in 1751, considered the Royal Arch the very "Root, Heart and Marrow of Freemasonry." The Grand Secretary of the original Grand Lodge. termed the Moderns, said in 1759 that "Our Society is neither Arch, Royal Arch, nor Antient."
It is impossible to give voice to the symbolism of the Royal Arch Degree without exposing the degree itself. As a matter of fact it would be difficult to understand the references without having taken the degree. Consequently, but a few general statements must suffice in this department.
The Royal Arch Degree is a Jewish degree and based on Kabbalistic philosophy. If we examine the TREE OF LIFE we find three triangles, the Supernal, the Ethical and the Astral. Freemasonry can be fitted onto the TREE with the Craft degrees falling in the Astral Triangle, the Royal Arch in the Ethical and certain additional grades in the upper portion of the TREE.
In discussing a Royal Arch ritual, one would have to decide which ritual design he was symbolically explaining as there are a number of allegories and a number of differences which are sufficient to change the whole picture. There are early and late rituals in England, Ireland, Scotland, the Americas and the Sydney ritual, this latter being so different that the normal Royal Arch Mason might not recognize it at all. Besides there are degrees of a similar design in the Scottish Rite. Some refer to repairing the First Temple and others to rebuilding it. Then there is the matter of the presiding officer being the King or the High Priest. For those interested in the Biblical references to the two Temples — see II Kings, Chapters 22 to 25 for the repairing of the first Temple and Erza, Chapters 3 to 6 for the rebuilding of the second Temple.
Then there are the emblems of Royal Arch Masonry, the Triple-Tau and the Tetragramaton. So much has been written about these that it is simply suggested that you read items in A.E. Waite's Encyclopedia; Kenneth R. H. Mackenzies "Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia"; Castell's "Antiquity of the Holy Royal Arch" for early writers, and articles by Pike, Hughan, Mackey, Oliver and Morris for opinions of another decade. And, finally, recent writers such as Snodgrass, Steinmetz and Cummings, the latter being the very finest material on the whole subject, but only scattered in various Masonic publications.
However, a warning must be given that every writer has his own particular views as to the symbolic meaning of what the Royal Arch Degree is. Some points are common to most all, but not many. For a degree which can be found dispersed in all sorts of Rites and Systems of Freemasonry — greater than any other except the Hiramic Legend of the first three degrees, it is not to be wondered that there is so much written about its lessons and with such wide variance. Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought concerning the message of the degree or its purpose: one group lines itself up as believing that it is the completion of the Master Mason's Degree; the other that it is an explanation of the Master's Degree. A check made among a great number of Royal Arch Masons showed that about half of the rank and file of the membership thought it a completion of the Craft degrees. For my part, I consider the two ideas the same with some interpolations. It is obvious to Brethren who have not received the Royal Arch Degree that something is left wanting in the Master Mason Degree. But it is likewise obvious to those who have been exalted to this degree that they have not fully received what they were looking for, although much has been added to the allegory, but symbolically and materially.
In building up a symbolic story of the Royal Arch Degree it must be warned also that there are definite sections in the rituals which seem to have no bearing on the general theme whatever. They appear in the rituals at different dates seemingly out of nowhere. One in particular, given here as an instance, has been definitely traced. It is an elaborate lecture on the Royal Arch Jewel. It appeared first in the English ritual after publication on page 374 of the "Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia" of Mackenzie — word for word. It crops up later, with minor changes, in the Irish and Scottish rituals.
Then there are the various transplantings of the "Passing of the Veils" ceremony into the Excellent Master Degree (English) and in other places — and back again into the Royal Arch rituals of the United States of America.
Next, there is the symbolism of the candidate finding various items in the Vault. The differences in what is found would confuse a magician. The largest collection is a cube, three squares, coins, medals, a jewel and the V.S.L. (Irish) and then the Ark and its usual contents — four or five in number.
The words of a Royal Arch Mason might be mentioned for symbolic comment were it possible without giving away the heart of the degree. I can say that the ritual explanations of these are silly. As it wasn't possible to read Egyptian hieroglyphics when the explanation of our M.M. Word was devised, so it is with the others for similar reasons. Thus, when they are all taken together these explanations simply do not make sense materially, practically or historically.
Castells believes that the Elements of the Royal Arch Degree (Enoch or Hiramic versions, I suppose) probably came from the Rosicrucian side and he makes out a very good case, too. He also suggests that the Burning Bush might be a symbol of the TREE OF LIFE.
The Vault, in one form or another, appears to be the center of the Royal Arch symbolism. This links it to the Rosicrucian "Fama," which tells the story of the finding of the vault of Christian Rosenkreutz (1614). The discovery in Royal Arch Masonry, by way of the ring in the slab of stone, is in exact correspondence with the "Fama" story.
Historical research has shown that differences in Royal Arch rituals exist as the result of what might be termed "political" action, or as the outcome of rival beliefs and jealousies. It is left to the individual to make up his mind as to which is likely to be the most valid, if such a term can be applied to any ritual which was compiled in the first place by a man or a body of men who may have had other ideas as to what was the right thing.
How are we, then, to place before the Brethren or Companions a set of standard symbolic views of such a degree? Further it is utterly incongruous to take any one of the three main Royal Arch rituals and build up a single symbolic system for propagation, except for the use of those who have seen it conferred or (clandestinely, shall I say) have read such a ritual. Even then it would be a man's, or group of men's, opinions.
Therefore, our suggestion is to receive the Royal Arch Degree. Then read two or three treatments, and, with these ideas as a background, add your own ideas (keeping within decent bounds) and build up a theory of the symbolism of the allegory based on the symbols used in the degree as conveyed to your mind. As imperfect as the degree is made out to be by certain liturgists, it is the ONLY degree which offers the BASE MATERIAL for a full and more perfect study of the Art — Freemasonry.