What Is Royal Arch Masonry?

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This may seem to be a foolish question to pose to the readers of a magazine published for Royal Arch Masons. If you will bear with me, for a few minutes, I believe you will see the method in my madness.

We may begin our explanation of the question with some definitions. Mackey, in his Encyclopaedia, states that the Royal Arch is the seventh degree granted in the American York Rite system. A former General Grand High Priest called it the capstone of Symbolic Masonry. Brother, the Reverend, John T. Lawrence, in “Sidelights of Freemasonry” says it is not a degree but the completion of one. Many of us call it “home grown” Masonry to indicate that we operate in the local Masonic Temples and help in the support of local Lodges.

All of these, in their way, are valid definitions, but I believe that we, as Royal Arch Masons, should be aware of a “higher and more noble” definition. My theory is that we are a living symbol. We present, allegorically, as our forefathers intended, the precept that Masonry, as we know it, is of relatively recent origin. While it is based on an ageless foundation, changes have been made and we exist to reveal these facts to the “industrious and inquiring mind. “

We are all familiar with the gradual evolution of the Craft from Operative to Speculative Masonry. By the end of the Seventeenth Century the evolution had been completed and the Craft was, to a large extent, Speculative only. It had also fallen on hard times and there was disorder and disarray in the founding and operation of Lodges, and in the Lectures involved. Mackey records the dismissal of a Mason for making Masons of all who had the required fifteen shillings. He also refers to “leg of mutton Masons” who would confer what they said were Masonic Degrees for the price of a dinner.

In 1715, five London Lodges, seeking to establish order and regularity in the Craft, met together and organized a Grand Lodge. They sought to regulate the forming of Lodges and establish uniformity in the “work.” We must avoid the pitfall of accepting that the “work” was as we know it today.

At that time there was only one obligatory degree. The Entered Apprentice was obligated, probably, much as we are today. That obligation bound him to protect and keep secret the hidden mysteries and secrets that he was eligible to receive. The titles of “Fellow of the Craft” and Master, were granted after the passage of time and the attainment of certain skills and abilities. They were not degrees, as we know them, but titles of respect and honour. This was a carry over from the Operative Lodges from “whence we came. “

The earliest references to “Degrees” began appearing, in Lodge records, around the end of the first quarter of the Eighteenth Century. One reference, of that era, stated that to be a member of the Grand Lodge a Mason must be a Fellow-Craft.

The conferring of the degree of Fellow-Craft, and Master Mason, emerged gradually over a period of about fifty years. It is another instance of Masonic evolution comparable to our change to Speculative Masonry. This evolution does not indicate the “discovery” of these degrees, but rather that they were formulated and refined over this period of time.

The first forty to fifty years of the Seventeen Hundreds was a period of flux for the Fraternity. Degrees were being instituted, Anderson presented his Constitutions, and Preston and others were promoting series of “lectures” or systems of work. In 1757 five Lodges, who were dissatisfied with changes in Ritual and philosophy, seceded and formed the “ancient” Grand Lodge. Obviously the objections were not to the added degrees both Ancients and Modems practised the three Degree system. Rather, it seems to have been on word differences and other minor changes. Whatever the reasons, the schism existed until the reconciliation and consolidation of the two factors under the United Grand Lodge.

In the midst of this change and confusion something began to take shape. That something eventually became the Royal Arch. No exact date can be established for the birth of the Royal Craft. In another instance of evolution, it grew and prospered as the Three Degree System had done before it. Earliest references to the Royal Arch date from about 1730. Members of the “ancient” Grand Lodge began working and conferring the degree in their lodges and under the authority of their charters. It was not included as part of the Master Mason Degree, but was conferred as a natural follower of that degree. The myth that the Royal Arch was removed from the Master Mason Degree evidently grew from the early practice of working it in, and under, Lodge auspices.

The Royal Arch was accepted by the Ancient Grand Lodge as well as in Scotland and Ireland. In fact, the Degree may have originated in Ireland. However, that is another matter, best left for consideration at another time. The “Modern” Grand Lodge was very negative about the Degree until shortly before the reconciliation. However, many of the “Modem” members became Royal Arch Masons and began planning a Grand Chapter to confer the Degree on their terms. As a result of this action in 1750's and 1760's, the Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, in England, was organized in 1766.

The Grand Chapter was organized to encourage, assist, and regulate the growth and existence of the Royal Arch. Under it, the Chapters continued to operate in Masonic Temples, but as separate entities under separate charters.

The Craft continued its growth and expansion under the two Grand Lodges until, in 1813, after some years of negotiation, the United Grand Lodge of Freemasons of All England was Constituted by combining the two Grand Lodges. As part of this reconciliation, a phrase was included that “Masonry shall consist of three degrees, Entered Apprentice, Fellow craft, Master Mason, and the Holy Royal Arch, and no more.

Why was this so clearly spelled out? I firmly believe it was done to establish that the Royal Arch is to be the reminder that our Craft was based on an institution, from time immemorial, that was modified and added to over a period of time, and finally emerged as the Fraternity that we know and love today.

Let us examine our Chapter Degrees, not from a ritualistic viewpoint, but symbolically. In the Mark Master we expand upon the Symbolic Degrees of Fellow craft, register our Marks, and are accepted as skilled workmen qualified to work on the Temple. In the Most Excellent Master Degree, we complete the first Temple and are greeted as Most Excellent Masters and empowered to travel and work in foreign countries, and receive Masters wages. In both cases we have explored, and expanded on, the Degrees that were added to the original obligatory Degree of Entered Apprentice. The Past Masters Degree is an even newer addition and allows us to circumvent the original requirement of being actual past masters.

The Past Master Degree has nothing to do with the legend or philosophical approach to the Royal Arch and is an obvious afterthought and addition. The original thought, I believe, of our Companions was to use the actual Past Master requirement to keep the body, holding our information, small. They must have realized that this was a self defeating approach and in a very few years had added the present Past Master Degree. They used it to confer virtual Past Master standing, meet the requirements, and at the same time, expand the base of membership in Royal Arch Masonry.

Returning to our examination of the Degrees, we find, in the Royal Arch, that we return from captivity and exile to recover that which was lost in the Master Mason Degree. We find it while erecting the Second Temple on the ruins of the First Temple. How can we be more strongly reminded that our Craft has extracted information from and built on the foundation left by our predecessors?

Take this symbolism and add the changes and additions made before the Union, add the fact that the Royal Arch appeared in the middle of that period of flux, and the injunction to include it in the total of Craft Masonry, and I believe that my case is made. The Capitular Degrees were created as a reminder of the nature of Symbolic Masonry as we know it. This does not negate the lessons and philosophies that are given in these degrees, but is, I feel, the underlying reason for our existence.

We owe an undying debt of gratitude to those architects who had the wisdom to plan, and execute, programs which have come down to us as vital, living, Masonic organizations. We can trace the basic precepts to antiquity, and that some of the ritual is only two hundred years old makes no difference. It serves so well, the purpose for which they designed it to provide us with lessons and precepts, symbolically and allegorically, to guide the construction of our own moral edifices.


Encyclopaedia of Free Masonry, Albert G. Mackey and Charles T. McGlenachen, revised edition by Edward L. Hawkins and William J. Hugan.

History of Masonry and Concordant Orders, Henry L. Stillson, Editor-in-Chief.

Proceedings of By-centenary Convocation of the Supreme Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of England.

The York Rite o Freemasonry, a History and Handbook, Frederick G. Speidel.

Sidelights of Freemasonry, Brother, The Reverend, John T. Lawrence.

Essays on Freemasonry, R. F. Gould.

John J. Olk (Wisconsin)
Royal Arch Magazine Summer 1988 Vol. 16. No. 2.