Vol. XXVIII No. 5 — May 1950

The Royal Arch

Among the many fascinating stories of the early days of the Ancient Craft, few hold more mystery or have been more eagerly investigated than those which cluster about the beginning of Royal Arch Masonry.

Where did the Rite come from? Who originated it? If it was once a part of Symbolic Masonry, why was it separated to become another Rite?

There have been many theories. R. F. Gould held out for its origin in France, in the degrees which sprang up in that country at the time when the Stuart cause was uppermost in many minds.

Findel also inclined to a French origin. Kloss says the Royal Arch was “introduced” into England in 1774 although he concedes the English Craft knew of the degree as early as 1741, and that it was first given to English Masons in Austria!

Some have tried to establish that Laurence Dermott, the fighting Irish secretary of the “Antients,” invented the Royal Arch is obviously nonsense, since Dermott was initiated in 1740 and became a Royal Arch Mason in 1746, and there is mention of the Royal Arch as early as 1743. Ramsey and Dunckerly have also had their proponents as the “inventors" of the Royal Arch Degree, but those theories are now discredited.

Hughan, whose Masonic scholarship was above speculation and improbable theories, believed the Royal Arch was originally a part of Symbolic Masonry as one of the earliest “additional ceremonies,” and this is the present belief of well-informed Masonic historians.

The first mention of Royal Arch that we have was in an account of Lodge No. 21, Youghal, Ireland, 1743. Members walking in procession were said to include “The Royal Arch carried by two Excellent Masons.” What was the Royal Arch which was “carried”? A representation of an arch? A banner with a picture? No one knows.

The first book mention of the words, as far as historians know, was in a volume published in Dublin, Ireland, in 1744. It is called A Serious and Impartial Inquiry into the Cause of the Present Decay of Free-Masonry in Ireland written by Dr. Fifield Dassigny. This old book disappeared from sight until 1867, when Hughan discovered a copy; another copy was subsequently found.

This volume states that in York, England “is held an Assembly of Master Masons under the title of Royal Arch Masons, who, as their qualifications and excellencies are superior to others, receive a larger pay than working Masons.”

He then wrote the following curious account — curious, because it demonstrates that the imposter and charlatan was early at work in Masonic circles and also as mentioning the ceremony of “passing the chair”:

A certain propagator of a false system, some few years ago, in this city (Dublin), who imposed upon several very worthy men, under a pretence of being Master of the Royal Arch, which he asserted he had brought with him from the city of York, and that the beauties of the Craft did principally consist in the knowledge of this valuable piece of Masonry. However, he carried on his scheme for several months, and many of the learned and wise were his followers, till, at length, his fallacious art was discovered by a Brother of probity and wisdom, who had some small space before attained that excellent part of Masonry in London, and plainly proved that his doctrine was false: whereupon the Brethren justly despised him; and ordered him to be excluded from all benefits of the Craft, and although some of the Fraternity have expressed an uneasiness at this matter being kept a secret from them, since they had already passed through the usual Degrees of probation, I cannot help being of opinion that they have no right to any such benefit until they make a proper application, and are received with due formality, and as it is an organized body of men who have passed the chair, and given undeniable proofs of their skill in architecture, it cannot be treated with too much reverence, and more especially since the character of the present members of that particular lodge are untainted, and their behavior judicious and unexceptionable, so that there cannot be the least hinge to hang a doubt on, but that they are most excellent Masons.

Mackey thinks this passage demonstrated that the Royal Arch Degree was conferred in London about 1740, and that York was its place of origin.

One of the oddities of Masonic research is the fact that the earliest known account of a Royal Arch degree actually worked is not in either Ireland or England, but in our own country. In the minutes of Fredericksburg lodge of Virginia (now No. 4 on the Virginia Registry, then a lodge without either a charter or a number — a “time immemorial” lodge) appears the following:

December 22, $753, which night the lodge being assembled was present Right Worshipful Simon Frazier, G.M.; Judge Hudson, S. Ward; Robert Armistead, J. Ward, of Royal Arch lodge. Transactions of the night — Daniel Campbell, Robert Kohlerston, Alex. Woodrow, raised to the degree of Royal Arch Masons.

This was but a little more than three months after Washington was raised a Master Mason in “The lodge at Fredericksburg.” Another interesting mention is in the minutes of the “Antients” (a Grand Lodge of England formed subsequent to the original or mother grand lodge which was denominated by the “Antients” as “Modern”):

March 4, 1752: A formal complaint was made by several brethren against Thomas Phelon and John Macy, better known as “leg of mutton Masons,” for clandestinely making Masons for the consideration of a leg of mutton for dinner or supper. Upon examining some members whom they pretended to have made Royal Arch Masons, the parties had not the least idea of that secret. The grand secretary had examined Macy and stated he had not the least idea or knowledge of Royal Arch Masonry, but instead thereof, he had told the people he had received a long story about twelve white marble stones, etc., and that the rainbow was the Royal Arch, with many other absurdities equally foreign and ridiculous.

It is indeed “foreign and ridiculous” to consider the Royal Arch as the rainbow, or vice versa, and yet the thought persists to this day; even high officials of Royal Arch Masonry sometimes refer to the Royal Arch as a rainbow! A companion signing himself only “Grand High Priest, Texas” in 1925 said (The Builder, August 1925):

The most important degree in Masonry, regardless of Rite, is called the Royal Arch, but in reality this name should be applied only to York Rite Masonry in its entirety, since it alone is the stupendous Royal Arch, the rainbow of hope set in the heavens, with one end resting upon Eden and the other on the crumbled ruins of the world.

The Royal Arch came to America apparently as a “side degree” or “additional ceremony” in Symbolic lodges. Even today the ceremony of “passing the chair” — required in many jurisdictions before a brother not a virtual past master in a Royal Arch Chapter may be installed as master of his lodge — is worked in a lodge of actual past masters and of course the Past Masters Degree of the Royal Arch is a ceremony of “passing the chair.”

But the Royal Arch degrees as a whole did not long remain in Symbolic lodges. A chapter of Royal Arch Masons was in Philadelphia in 1758 and in 1795 the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania permitted the establishment of a Grand Royal Arch Chapter, which, however, was under the supervision as well as sanction of the grand lodge.

Ray V. Denslow, noted Masonic student, author and researcher in the quarries, who is Past General High Grand Priest of the General Grand Chapter of the United States, says:

The Grand Chapter established at Philadelphia in 1795 was not, however, a Grand Chapter in the same sense as that attached to the body organized in the Northern states, for it was merely an instrument of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. Webb claimed, and rightfully so, that no grand lodge could claim or exercise authority over any Convention or Chapter of Royal Arch Masons. The Grand Chapter established at Philadelphia in 1795 was only an organization for the more convenient administration of Royal Arch Masonry in the bosom and under the superintendency of the grand lodge. The Grand Chapter established in 1798 at Hartford was based on very different principles of Masonic law and to it, therefore, must be given the precedence of date as being the first independent Grand Chapter established in the United States, and in fact the first in the world, as the Grand Chapters previously established in England were dependent instruments of the grand lodge.

The degree, under various modifications, was introduced into the United States principally by the group known as ‘Ancient York Masons.’ Thomas Smith Webb, the founder of the system, tells us that during that period a competent number of Companions 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 neighboring Chapter was deemed useful, if not proper.

From the earliest period, it has been necessary that the candidate should have passed the chair, either by election or disposition, before receiving the Royal Arch degree. Typical of the manner in which the degree was first conferred is the record of a Chapter in Augusta, Georgia. The record reads:

“At a meeting of the subscribers, Royal Arch Masons, 29 February 1796, read a petition from Bros. Hutchinson, Dearmond and McGowan, Master Masons of Forsyth lodge, praying to become Royal Arch Companions and the same being agreed to, a Masters’ lodge was then opened. . . . These Brothers were regularly passed the chair and obtained the degree of past master, the lodge was then closed. A Royal Arch Chapter was then opened in ancient form, the brethren received the preparatory degrees and then were raised in succession to the Super Excellent degree of Royal Arch Masonry.”

Thus, it is shown that the chapter degrees were conferred under the sanction of a warrant of a Masters’ lodge, but the body in which the Royal Arch degree was given was called a Chapter.

Grand Chapters of Royal Arch Masonry exist in every state in the Union. Pennsylvania and Virginia have never worked under the authority of the General Grand Chapter.

This body, the formation of which was a most important step not only in Capitular but in Symbolic Freemasonry, had its origin in a meeting of delegates in Boston, October 24, 1797. After discussing the matter, the meeting adjourned to meet again in Hartford, Connecticut in 1798, where the “Grand Royal Arch Chapter of the Northern States of America” was formed. In January of 1799 action was taken to change the name to “General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons for the Six Northern States of America.” In 1806 the name was changed to the “General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masonry for the United States of America,” which name continued as official until 1946, when the title was changed to “The General Grand Chapter,” after it had accepted membership of three Canadian Grand Chapters.

This body meets every three years and has done so since its beginning with interruptions caused by the war between the states and the travel restrictions during World War II, in 1945.

The Constitution of the General Grand Chapter limits its powers to matters of ritual, the establishment of chapters in “unoccupied territory,” and the powers and establishment of new Grand Chapters. State Grand Chapters are otherwise self-governing.

It must be noted that at the union of the “Antients” and the “Moderns” in England, in 1813, which produced the present Grand Lodge of England, universally looked upon as the Mother Grand Lodge of all Symbolic Masonry in the world, the Articles of Union set forth: That pure ancient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more; viz., those of the E.A., the F.C., and the M.M. including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch.

No thoughtful Mason who has found interest, instruction and inspiration in the Symbolic Degrees, and has then been admitted to a Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, but has been thrilled by the additional light thrown upon the Symbolic lodge story by the truly inspiring degree of the Royal Arch.

Denslow speaks of the triple series of opposites set forth in Masonry — ignorance and knowledge, darkness and light, loss and recovery. It is with loss and recovery that the Royal Arch degree is especially concerned and its development of this theme is dramatic, thought provoking and beautiful.

The truth of this statement is evidenced by the fact that the more than six hundred thousand Royal Arch Masons in this country continue to cherish Capitular Masonry, and find in its elaborate and at times spectacular symbolism a touch with the past and an illuminating conclusion to the Symbolic Degrees which offer much in the way of Masonic satisfaction.

The Masonic Service Association of North America