More light on the Royal Arch

More light on the Royal Arch


By Comp. Harry Carr, P.G.St.B.

An Address given to Members of the London First Principals’ Chapter, No. 2712.

These notes must begin with an apology, because it is fairly certain that some of the points to be made will seem surprising, if not actually rather shocking. I need only add that they will be explained as simply as possible and in the light of the best that is known in modern Masonic scholarship.

 The Royal Arch made its first appearance in England during the 1740s. We may assume that the seeds of this new ceremony were germinating for several years before we have records of it, but we cannot date the practice of the Royal Arch earlier than c. 1740.

The reasons for the Royal Arch

If the question is asked, “Why did the Royal Arch appear?”, the answer is that a further ceremony, or a separate “Fourth Grade”, was inevitable, and this can best be explained by our knowledge of the evolution of the three Craft degrees.

If we go back as far as we dare in English Masonic history to the point where the separate grades or degrees were being evolved, it is almost certain that the first Masonic ceremony was designed for the Fellow or Fellow-craft, i.e., the fully trained Craftsman.

The system of apprenticeship in England makes its first appearance in the 1200s, and it is fairly safe to assume that the next degree was evolved as an admission ceremony for apprentices.

At this stage, and up to the late 1600s, it is certain that the Craft had no more than two admission ceremonies: one for the Apprentice or Entered Apprentice and the other for the “Fellow-craft or Master”. Sooner or later it was inevitable that there would be a demand for a separate ceremony to distinguish the Master from the Fellow-craft; both were equal in their technical capacity, but the Fellow-crafts were employees, and those who were fortunate enough to be able to set up as Masters would quite naturally have wanted a separate degree to themselves.

The third degree appeared in England some time around 1724-1725 and, by 1730, it was already fairly widely known, though not widely practiced.

 At this stage all three working grades within the Craft were covered by separate ceremonies only one grade remained unrepresented in this fashion. There was still no distinguishing ceremony for the men who had presided in a Lodge, i.e., for the Masters of Lodges, and inevitably a ceremony appeared around 1740.

This is, of course, an over-simplification of the whole story and it represents my own opinions, but they are based entirely on historical foundations and the dates mentioned here are supported by documentary evidence.

The origins of the Royal Arch Ceremony

If we exclude the minor details, the main body of the Royal Arch Ceremony is based upon two separate stories:

1. The true Biblical story describing the return from Babylon and the building of the Temple.

 2. The ancient legend describing the discovery of the Vault, the Altar and the Sacred Word.

The Biblical portion is pure history. The legend, in documentary form, goes back to the early Fathers of the Church. About the year A.D. 400, Philostorgius, writing of the rebuilding of the Temple, gives a recognizable account of the discovery of the Vault, and this appears to be the earliest framework of the legend that has survived. Nine hundred years later, in the fourteenth century, Nicephorus Callistus, in his account of the building of the fourth Temple, enlarged in great detail upon the Philostorgius version. The story is given in such splendid detail that it deserves reproduction word for word:

“When the foundations were a laying, as I have said, there was a stone among the rest, to which the bottom of the foundation was fastened, that slipped from its place, and discovered the mouth of a cave which had been cut in the rock. Now when they could not see to the bottom by reason of its depth; the Overseers of the building being desirous to have certain knowledge of it, they tied a long rope to one of the Labourers, and let him down: He being come to the bottom, found water in it, that took him up to the mid-ancles, and searching every part of that hollow place, he found it to be four square, as far as he could conjecture by feeling. Then returning towards the mouth of it, he hit upon a certain little pillar, not much higher than the water, and lighting with his hand upon it, found a book lying there wrapped up in a piece of thin and clean linnen. Having taken it into his hands, he signified by the rope that they should draw him up. When he was pulled up, he shews the book, which struck them with admiration, especially seeming so fresh and untoucht as it did, being found in so dark and obscure a hole. The Book being unfolded, did amaze not onely the Jews, but the Grecians also, holding forth even at the beginning of it in great Letters (‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’). To speak plainly, that Scripture did manifestly contain the whole Gospel, which the Divine tongue of the Virgin-Disciple had declared.” (From A.Q.C., vol. Ixix, p. 43.)

 I have given here the translation of the original, as it appears in English, in 1659, in a work by Samuel Lee entitled Orbis Miraculum. Two points must be noted. First, that our form of the R.A. legend was not an invention or an innovation; it was a pure piece of religious legend going back to the fifth century A.D., and probably even earlier than that.

 Secondly, the Holy Book that was discovered in the Vault was not the Old Testament, with our customary words: “In the beginning God created . . .” ; it was the Gospel of St. John, a purely Christian text, and at the time when the Royal Arch first appeared it was a purely Christian degree. To this day, our R.A. ceremonies open with a Christian prayer, and the whole of the work is full of Trinitarian ideas and symbolism, so that, despite its beautiful Old Testament background, a very strong Christian influence still remains.

Place of origin

It is impossible to say with certainty that the R.A. took its rise in any particular country, but it seems possible that the ceremony came into England from Ireland. Several of the earliest references to the R.A. are undoubtedly Irish, and when the second Grand Lodge, the “Antients”, was founded in 1751 it recognized the R.A. as a more-or-less essential adjunct to the normal Craft degrees.

There is, however, another possibility, that the ceremony originated in France, where a great number of Masonic innovations and expansions made their appearance in the early 1740s. In particular, there is an interesting reference in the Sceau Rompu, an exposure dated 1745, to a superior class of Masons with a ceremony designed to commemorate the masons who worked “with trowel in hand and sword by their side”. Several similar items of evidence support the view that certain characteristic features of the R.A. ceremony, by whatever name, were already known on the Continent at an early date, but this cannot be taken as proof of origin.

 The first Grand Lodge, the “Moderns,” gave no official recognition or support to the ceremony, although it was practised in several “Modern” Lodges, and it is interesting to notice that although the ceremony was not regarded as an integral part of the three Craft degrees, it was nevertheless worked in ordinary lodges. R.A. Chapters did not yet exist as separate organizations for conferring the new grade, and there was, of course, no supreme controlling authority.

The first Grand and Royal Chapter of the Royal Arch of Jerusalem (“Moderns”) was constituted in July 1767. The “Antients”, who had always counted the ceremony as the “root, heart and marrow of Masonry,” had not realized the need for a separate controlling body, and their Grand Chapter minutes begin in 1782, after a series of resolutions in their Grand Lodge in December 1771.

Development of the Royal Arch

As to the development of the R.A. ceremony, there is every reason to believe that it was designed, originally, for Masters of Lodges or for men who had passed the Chair, and although there is some difference of opinion as to the interpretation of the evidence on this point, there is, in fact, a great deal of valuable evidence to support this view. In 1744, Dr. Fifield Dassigny published a book with an enormous title, A Serious and Impartial Enquiry into the Cause of the present Decay of Freemasonry in . . . Ireland, and, speaking of the Royal Arch, he described it as “… an organis’d body of men who have passed the chair”.

Twelve years later, Laurence Dermott, Grand Secretary of the “Antients” Grand Lodge, wrote scornfully of those “who think themselves Royal Arch Masons without passing the Chair in regular form” (Ahiman Rezon, 1756, p. 48.) But in those days, when Masonry was not nearly so widespread as it is today, a restriction of this kind ? had it really been enforced ? would have made the new ceremony almost impossible, because there would never have been enough candidates to keep it alive so, at a very early date, we begin to find evidence of the introduction of a kind of artificial “Chair Degree” in which prospective members of the R.A. were given a sort of imitation Installation in order to qualify them to go on to the R.A.

 Minutes for the early period of the R.A. (i.e., c. 1740 to 1760) are exceedingly rare and uninformative, but there is a record of an emergency meeting at Bolton in 1769, at which three men were successively installed as Master, and afterwards the actual Master of the Lodge was re-installed. At Mount Moriah Lodge, now No. 34, London, it was resolved in June, 1785, “…that Bro. Phillips shall pass the Chair upon St. John’s Day in order to obtain the Supreme Degree of a Royal Arch” At the Philanthropic Lodge, Leeds, now No. 304, the minutes for May, 1795, record that “Bro. Durrans past the chair in order to receive the Royal Arch”. Numerous records of a similar character make it evident that a “fictitious passing the chair” ceremony was being widely practised in the second half of the eighteenth century.

When the rival Grand Chapters were united in 1817, the “chair-degree” was officially abolished, but it continued to be worked in many places until the 1850s.

To this day, in many of the American jurisdictions, the entrusting, which forms a preliminary to their R.A., is a brief ceremony which contains recognizable elements of our Installation work.

The ritual of the Royal Arch

As to the development of the ritual of the R.A., it is surprising to find that, allowing for inevitable expansions and gradual changes in style and presentation, the essential elements are much the same today as they were in the 1760s. The earliest evidence we have on the subject for that period indicates that the candidate, h… w … d, discovered a scroll which was found to contain the opening words of the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the Word…” The Sojourners enacted the story of the “Discovery”, and the remainder of the ceremony, like the ordinary Craft working of those days, consisted of a Catechism of some 18 to 20 questions and answers. This may be described as the R.A. ritual of the first period.

The second period covers roughly the years 1780 to 1835. In the Craft, this was the period of the greatest stylistic advance in the presentation of the explanatory and symbolical elements of the ritual. In the Royal Arch, the essence of the ceremony remained largely unchanged, but, instead of only 18 to 20 questions in the Catechism, there were now some 80 to 100 questions, with lengthy answers covering much of the material that is given nowadays in the Historical, Symbolical and Mystical Lectures. Much of our present-day material was already there, not as straightforward pieces of recitation, but in the form of Q. and A.

 The ineffable Name was not “shared”; the “four-language compound word” was “shared”. There were no letters yet on the angles of the T:. The Triple T:. did not appear until c. 1820. The R.A. ceremony was in a state of flux, subject to local variations as well as to the ability or limitations of its expounders. The two Grand Chapters apparently made no attempt to disseminate a standard ritual, and it was not until the union of the rivals in 1817 that there arose the possibility of an attempt to introduce a reasonable uniformity of practice.

The first moves towards this end were made in the early 1830s, and a Committee was appointed by the Supreme Grand Chapter. The work seems to have been dominated by the Rev. G. A. Browne, sometime Grand Chaplain of the United Grand Lodge, who was singled out at one of the meetings with special thanks for his services. In November, 1834, the ceremonies were rehearsed and approved by Supreme Grand Chapter, and a Chapter of Promulgation was formed in 1835, for six months only, to work as a Chapter of Instruction and, in particular, to ensure uniformity of practice throughout the Order. It demonstrated the newly-approved forms of the Installation and Exaltation ceremonies in a whole series of meetings held from May to August, 1835, and in November, 1835, to avoid misconception, the Grand Chapter “resolved and declared that the ceremonies adopted and promulgated by special Grand Chapter on the 21st and 25th of November, 1834, are the ceremonies of our Order which it is the duty of every Chapter to adopt and obey”. DOMATIC, ALDERSGATE, STANDARD and several other versions are all descended from the R.A. ritual of November 1834.

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