Vol. XXIII No. 2 — February 1945


The dictionary definition is “A placing in position for use” whether what is installed is a piece of machinery or an officer of a lodge. When the master of a lodge or the grand master of the grand lodge is installed, he is, indeed, “placed in a position for use.”

Some form of ceremony of installation of a master and officer is a very ancient practice. According to the eminent Scottish Masonic authority, A. S. McBride, who compared William Preston’s ceremony of installation with those used in England, the old and the new are practically the same. He believes that the ceremony, given with a fair amount of detail by Preston, was in general use in England from 1717, or shortly afterwards. The differences between the 1717 and present day versions are insignificant. He thought that during two hundred and more years no ceremony of the Craft suffered less change so far as the exoteric part is concerned. Regarding the esoteric part there is no data. We can only assume, from the fact given by Preston that the new master was conducted to an adjacent room and therein obligated, that secrets were then imparted and that, practically, these were the same as are now given to masters in some grand lodges in what is now known as the “Chair Rite,” and which is experienced by those who receive the Past Masters Degree in a Royal Arch Chapter.

According to Speth (the noted English Masonic authority) the “Ancients” invented the installation ceremony and the Past Masters Degree. The “Ancients” were the schismatic body which split off from the original grand lodge in England (1717), finally to come back in the “Union of 1813.” Speth thinks the “Moderns” (the older, parent body) had no special ceremony of installation and that the “Modern” masters were installed merely with congratulatory admonitions, and received no “secrets.” Not until the reunion of 1813 did the installation ceremony become obligatory; from that time to the present in England the ceremony has grown in importance until now it is among the principal observances of all English lodges.

In the Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts is a very detailed account of the installation of John Rowe as provincial grand master for all North America in Boston, November 23, 1768. There is no mention of a Past Masters Degree, or any “secrets” in connection with what must have been, according to the detailed account, a solemn, beautiful but simple ceremony.

According to Roscoe Pound, eminent American Masonic jurist and scholar:

The first known reference to the Royal Arch is in 1741. In that year the records of a lodge (21) set forth that in a procession the Master was “preceded by the Royal Arch carried by two excellent Masons.” In 1744 Dassigny, an Irish Mason, tells us that there was an assembly of Royal Arch Masons at York, that the degree had been brought from York to Dublin, and that it had been practiced in London (some small space before.) He also tells us that the Royal Arch Assembly at York was “an organized body of men who have passed the chair.” The evidence seems clear that this was the first additional or high degree. On the whole we may be pretty sure it was worked in England at least from 1740 and Gould thinks it has its origin in the alteration of the Master’s Creed in the Constitutions of 1723. The Past Masters Degree does not appear till the Grand Lodge of the so-called Ancients in 1751, and this was not admitted by the regular or so-called Modern Grand Lodge till 1810. But gradually, as the thirst for high degrees grew, probably influenced not a little by the growth of elaborate “systems” of high degrees on the Continent, a practice arose of conferring the Royal Arch upon Masons not qualified to receive it, by a fictitious or constructive “passing” them through the chair, and thus a Past Masters Degree arose and in effect, a new rite. For this a new ceremony was evolved which, it is shown clearly enough has no relation to the simple communication of secrets known to Payne, Desaguliers, and Anderson. This rite or these degrees were worked in the Craft lodges, and during the schism both the Modern and the Ancient Grand Lodges came to permit them indifferently. Thus at the union it was possible to recognize the Royal Arch as a component part of ancient Freemasonry.

Whoever invented it, where it came from, how old it is, is anyone’s guess; the fact remains that all Masonry in the United States came from England, Ireland or Scotland, or two or more of them, and that almost a third of American grand lodges do require an elected master to be in some way in possession of the Past Masters Degree.

To be exact, of the forty-nine United States grand lodges, twelve require an elected master to “pass the chair” — that is, receive the Past Masters Degree in a lodge of past masters, or to have received the Past Masters Degree in a Royal Arch Chapter. An additional five grand lodges require the elected master to “pass the chair” but do not recognize the Past Masters Degree of the Royal Arch as an adequate substitute.

It is interesting to note that of these seventeen grand lodges thirteen are in the East, and two in the “Middle East.” As a generality the Eastern states, which received their Masonry either mediately or immediately from the British Isles, continue the requirement brought to these shores; grand lodges further west (with two exceptions), formed of brethren who might easily have known little or nothing of the esoteric ceremonies prerequisite to installation, do not hold to this tradition.

Whatever the grand lodge requirement before a brother may become a master is wholly the concern of the grand lodge. That in which all forty-nine grand lodges are united is in the provision of some form of installation, a ceremony approved by grand lodge. In forty-one grand lodges the use of the prescribed ceremony is mandatory, and all desire it to be used; obviously all American grand lodges attach the importance of solemnity and dignity to the ceremony by which a brother is elevated to the Oriental Chair, and the lesser officers to their respective stations and places.

In this reverent approach to the assumption of responsibility, brethren are reminded that grand lodges attach great importance to the authority of Masonic office. In the building of the Temple of Solomon, thousands of workmen carried out each some part of the architect’s plans. At his installation each officer of a lodge receives some reminder of his duties and their value to the lodge.

Of all places a lodge is one where most beautifully unity of spirit and purpose may be found. While every act in a lodge is private from the profane, nothing is private from the membership. All take part in all deliberations; all take part in all degrees; all receive the benefits of lodge prayer. So it is when officers are installed; while each is installed individually, collectively they form a team, work together, supplement and complement the efforts of each by all.

Installation means new blood, new viewpoints, a redistribution of responsibilities and duties. Except for secretary and treasurer the majority of lodges change their officers yearly. It is to remind the brethren, as well as the new incumbents, of the importance of their labors that grand lodges provide installation ceremonies and ritual and, usually, require these to be observed.

In only ten grand lodges must installation invariably be private. Thirty-five grand lodges permit public installations; one permits it by special dispensation from the grand master; in three the law is silent on the subject.

That the great majority of American grand lodges permit public installations has been a matter of wonder to some Freemasons from foreign grand lodges, who are puzzled as to how an installation can take place except in a lodge, and if in an open lodge, how can a profane be present?

American grand lodges have no difficulty with that standpoint. They point to the laying of cornerstones by lodges and grand lodge — undoubtedly a lodge laying a cornerstone is open, even if but upon the first degree, yet profanes are present. Similarly, a lodge conducting a funeral service for a departed brother is open, although the public is present at the ceremony.

The grand lodges which authorize public installations of officers find no difficulties to be surmounted. The grand lodges which prefer the ceremony to be private find little or no demand for public installations, so all are satisfied.

In four grand lodges the installing officer need be neither master nor past master. In three grand lodges the law is silent. In all others, either the retiring master or a past master must perform the ceremony, and in all grand lodges it is usual.

That the Oriental Chair be handed down from master to master is a tradition; that it is broken in some places does not alter the fact that at one time it was universal.

This should not be overlooked when considering that the ceremony has both use and meaning. That the authority over a lodge be unbroken from master to master makes of the office an endless cabletow, binding the brethren together. Whether the retiring master himself hands the gavel of authority to his successor, as he performs the installation, or hands it first to another who has filled the Oriental chair, for him in turn to hand it on, makes little difference to the thought. The torch is lighted when the lodge is consecrated and the first master installed. That same torch of “light from the east” is handed on from authorized hands to authorized hands.

Individual brethren, alas, die and pass this way no more. The lodge, and the authority of its officers, lives from generation to generation.

In city lodges in expensive temples, in lodge rooms superbly decorated in gold and blue, often with music, frequently to an audience of brethren in evening dress, with past masters, and District Deputies, gleaming jewels reflecting myriad lights; in small and plain lodge rooms in unpretentious Temples in little towns throughout the nation, in nearly sixteen thousand lodges every year occurs this simple but solemn ceremony of installation, signifying a new birth of authority, a new responsibility in the East, a new lease of life for the lodge.

Happy these brethren who see it as the great Scottish “intender,” A. S. McBride, saw it in a little town in his home country. He described it in language as simple as the ceremony, as full of meaning as the installation service, a quarter of a century ago:

We are in a dimly lighted room in a small village inn, some 24 by 16 feet in size and of somewhat plain and simple aspect, packed, with sixty or more Masons, among whom are six or seven past masters. There is more than the usual number of grey heads present, for it is Saint John’s Night, and strong associations of Auld Lang Syne have drawn them, some from a distance of five or six miles, to spend a few hours together; and then to wend their way homeward through the murk and storm of a dark December night.

These old members range from thirty to fifty years’ standing, and they love their Mother lodge.

As usual on Saint John’s night, the meeting for installation has been preceded by a torchlight procession through the village. In an upper window of the inn a transparent picture of the venerable saint, with his long flowing beard, has been placed with sufficient lighted candles behind it to make clear and life-like his striking figure and features, to the delight and wonderment of the villagers, old and young, who are congregated outside.

The din and busde of the entrance of the processionists having subsided, the lodge is opened on the first degree. The Minutes of the election are read and the Installing Master, who is also the Retiring Master, briefly addresses the meeting and calls on the Master-elect to come forward to the east.

The Installing Master is a man above fifty years, of average stature, dark, stout, and somewhat round shouldered. He is not blest with a great store of knowledge and still less with the gift of expression; yet he has a rough dignity of manner, and the knack of giving to certain parts of the ceremony an impression of mystery and importance which, to the general audience, is perhaps all the more impressive in consequence of the very nebulosity of his phrases.

The Master-elect is twenty-two years of age, fair, of medium height and, through exercise, spare in figure. By fortuitous circumstances he has been unanimously elected into the chair. He feels as if he was a pretender being crowned, without the smallest right to the throne. His only claim is a popularity that attributes gifts and virtues to him which he devoutly wishes he possessed. By force of circumstances and not by choice he is in a position for which he has not had the requisite training and experience; and, consequently, feels somewhat disquietful and perplexed.

The Installing Master reads the Charge from the book of the Laws and Constitution of the grand lodge, administers the 'oath de fideli,’ invests the Master-elect with his apron and jewel; and then, forming a half-circle of past masters in front of the chair (thus screening himself and the Master-elect from the brethren generally) he seizes the latter by the arm, in the same way as is now done in a Board of Installed Masters, places him in the chair and whispers in his ear the word of an Installed Master.

The Masonic Service Association of North America