Vol. XLIV No. 9 — September 1966

Past Master Honoris Causa?

Conrad Hahn

The title of this Short Talk is a long-winded way of saying “honorary past master.” This essay is a reply to those who occasionally ask the question, “Is it all right to make a brother an honorary past master?”

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As the New Jersey farmer is supposed to have said two or three generations ago, when he looked at a dromedary at the visiting circus, “There ain’t no such animal!”

Having seen a great many exotic “animals” in the “circus” of Freemasonry, our reply is a little more cautious: “There shouldn’t be any such animal!”

(Our caution is prompted by the fact that there are Honorary past masters. In Illinois, for example, a past master who demits to another lodge is an honorary past master, to differentiate him from the actual past masters of the lodge he is joining.)

Nevertheless, to confer an honorary past mastership on one who has never served in the East would appear to be a legal and semantic impossibility. Most grand lodges have spelled out or implied the definition of “past master” in their constitutions or rules and regulations.

“A past master is one who has been installed as master of a Symbolic Lodge.” Sometimes the definition is amplified to read, “. . . and who has served to the close of his term.” Grand lodge definitely has something to say on this subject!

If a brother who has never been installed and who has never served to the close of a term in the master’s chair were declared a past master, just “for the honor of the thing,” the Constitution, Rules, or Regulations would be violated, would they not?

“He should have been. . . .” “He might have been. . . .” He could have been our worshipful master.” These are the usual reasons advanced for the desire to confer an honorary past mastership. All of them, however, are really “wish fulfillments” which seek to wipe out conditions like these: “. . . if he hadn’t had opposition;” “. . . if he had had more time”; or “. . . if he’d wanted to.”

All of them ignore the rather obvious but unflattering second conclusion: “But he didn’t!” To try to change a fact by pretending to ignore it is to be guilty of the same semantic tyranny practiced by Humpty Dumpty in his dialogue with Alice in Wonderland: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Viewed from this angle, an “honorary” past master is a “Might-Have-Been-but-Never-Made-It” master of the lodge — neither more nor less. There “can’t be no such animal,” obviously. Who would want it?

If a lodge wants to make a brother an honorary past master because it feels guilty that an outstanding builder has never been elected to the oriental chair, let justice be done the Masonic way. Elect him worshipful master!

The only technical requirement for that office, which comes down from the Ancient Regulations, is that he have served as a warden. In some jurisdictions that requirement is one of the landmarks.[1] A brother doesn’t have to spend a whole decade “going through the chairs,” if a lodge really wants the benefit of his outstanding skills in the leadership of the lodge.

As the Ancient Charges express it,

All preferment among Masons is grounded upon real worth and personal merit only; that so the lords may be well served, the brethren not put to shame, nor the Royal Craft despised: therefore no Master or Warden is chosen by seniority, but for his merit. (So mote it be.)

However, since the desire to make an honorary past master usually springs from more praiseworthy motives — to do honor or to pay homage to — objections to it should point out the weaknesses or dangers inherent in such a course of action.

What kind of honors will such a title carry? Is an honorary past master entitled to the rights of actual past masters? There are really very few such prerogatives, but they are distinctive and mark a man of some consequence among Masons.

Is an honorary past master “entitled to a seat in the East”? May he exercise the right of presiding over the lodge in the absence of the worshipful master and with the consent of the senior warden, or of the junior warden, if the senior warden is absent? Does an honorary past master have the right to install the officers of the lodge?

Since past masters are eligible to election to the chair without again passing through the office of warden, does an honorary past master have the same right? In jurisdictions where past masters are eligible to membership in the grand lodge, would honorary past masters have similar eligibility?

It is obvious that some of these rights cannot be accorded to honorary past masters without subverting some of the ancient regulations and the intent underlying them. “It’s just a title,” comes the reply. “No rights of a past master are conferred on an honorary one.”

To which one is prompted to reply, “A meaningless title, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”! Why set up a class of past masters who neither were masters of lodges nor can act as past masters? Why dilute the fine old concept of worshipful master by creating a legion of non-masters who go by the name of past master?

And a mighty legion it would become, if honorary past masterships became “a way of life”! “My name is Legion,” cried the unclean spirit when Jesus commanded him to come forth. Sixteen thousand lodges, each making only two or three honorary past masters annually, could conceivably make every Master Mason an honorary past master in less than a century! Long before that, the discriminating Mason would begin to refuse such a vulgarized “honor.” Like the little boy in Sunday School, “I don’t want to go to heaven if that mob’s going.”

It is probable that some of the lack of discrimination in the desire to award honorary past masterships springs from the fact that a Degree of Past Master is conferred in the Chapters of Royal Arch Masonry. A member of that order has become a past master by virtue of one of the degrees he experienced in that body.

Originally, when chapters of Royal Arch Masonry were under the government of lodges in which the degree was then always conferred, it was part of the regulations that no one could receive the Royal Arch degree unless he had previously presided in the lodge as master.

When the chapters became independent of the Symbolic Lodges, the regulation could not be abolished, since that would have been an “innovation.” The difficulty was met, however, by making every candidate for the degree of the Royal Arch a Virtual Past Master before he was exalted. (Virtual means “considered as such, but not one in fact.”)

Virtual Past Masters have no rights or titles as such in a Symbolic Lodge. It seems, however, that by a process of loose thinking some brethren arrive at the conclusion that honorary past masterships can be conferred on individuals as readily and as widely as on all candidates for the Royal Arch degrees.

In approximately one-fourth of the Grand Lodges of the United States, it is required that an elected worshipful master, before his installation, have conferred on him the degree of Actual Past Master. This is done either by an association of actual past masters composed of all past masters in a specified area or district, or by a convocation of the actual past masters of the lodge that the new master will govern. In South Carolina this degree is part of the installation ceremony, with only actual past masters present during the ceremony.

The degree of Actual Past Master, however, is an honorary degree, in which the newly elected master is given necessary instruction about various ceremonies of the Fraternity and the standards of behavior that are essential in a master or overseer of the work. From the earliest days of Speculative Freemasonry (inherited probably from operative practices) the outgoing master, or his substitute, performed some kind of ceremony while installing his successor. In this sense, every worshipful master is made an honorary past master before he is finally installed.

To confer this title on any “deserving” brother, regardless of his never having been elected to office, is to detract from the honor and dignity of the office of worshipful master.

What kind of ceremony is to be performed in the making of an honorary past master? Is he to be put in possession of “the secrets of the chair”? The answers seem obvious. “There ain’t no such animal.”

To honor a brother for his devotion or special services to the lodge is a laudable undertaking. In doing so, however, the lodge ought to display some originality and imagination in doing something appropriate for an individual.

Merely to call all such “deserving” brethren honorary past masters is to take the easy way out, while at the same time risking the charge of making an innovation on the body of Freemasonry.

Worshipful masters should realize that they have a responsibility in this matter also. The master who merely “goes through the motions,” presiding over his lodge aimlessly and carelessly, making no real effort to see that his lodge is active and effective, is partially responsible for the attitude that says, “Anyone can be a past master if we just give him the title.”

Finally, actual past masters, yours is the ultimate responsibility for maintaining the honor and dignity of the title, past master. That is an honorable (not merely honorary) title so long as you make it so, by your interest, your attendance, your devoted labors, and your zeal.

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  1. Even this landmark is subject to an exception. The master of a lodge under dispensation, an appointee of the grand master, may not have been a warden. However, if the lodge is never warranted and constituted, be does not become an actual past master.

The Masonic Service Association of North America