This article is adapted from Arturo de Hoyos, “A Brief History of Freemasonry and the Origins of the Scottish Rite,” Scottish Rite Ritual Monitor and Guide (2010), 77–111.
High Degrees before 1801
Speculative Masonry and the birth of the “high degrees”
On June 24, 1717, four London lodges assembled at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House and institutionalized non-operative Freemasonry when they established the Grand Lodge of England and elected its first Grand Master. The original record, if there was one, cannot be found, but was reconstructed and published by Rev.James Anderson in his New Book of Constitutions (1738):
Accordingly on St John Baptist’s Day, in the 3rd year of King George I. A.D. 1717, the ASSEMBLY and Feast of the Free and accepted Masons was held at the foresaid Goose and Gridiron Alehouse.
Before Dinner, the oldest Master Mason (now the Master of a Lodge) in the Chair, proposed a List of proper Candidates; and the Brethren by a majority of Hands elected Mr. Anthony Sayer, Gentleman, Grand Master of Masons. . . .
It should be recalled that when the premiere grand lodge was formed, there were still only two degrees: Entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft. In the Edinburgh Register House Ms (1696) the “points of fellowship” were a reference to the Fellow Craft, who received two words taken from 1 Kings 7:21 and 2 Chronicles 3:17. Yet other early documents include hints of a separate higher honor bestowed even before the creation of the grand lodge. It included a unique word that was given to the Masters (senior Fellow Crafts) and was associated with the ritual embrace.The Sloane Ms 3329 also describes the “Master’s grip” given with the embrace:
Their Masters gripe is grasping their right hands in each other placing their four finger’s nails hard upon the Carpus or end of others wrists and the thumb nailes thrust hard directly between the second Joynt of the thumb and the third Joynt of the first ffinger but some say the masters grip is the same I last described only each of their middle ffingers must reach an inch or three barly corns Length higher to touch upon a vein yt comes from the heart.
A remarkable transformation occurred a few years later when a separation of the ritual esotery of the senior Fellow Craft’s honor was used to help create the first “high degree”—the Master Mason’s Degree. “By November, 1725, there was in existence a new degree, a degree intermediate between the Acceptance and the Master’s Part, and it was known as the Fellow-Craft.” Thus, we also read of the earliest known conferral of this new high degree, just eight years after the formation of the premiere grand lodge when, on May 12, 1725, Bro. Charles Cotton received the Master Mason’s Degree. The identity of the authors of the new ritual is not known, nor precisely how the transformation occurred. However, we may compare the creation of the Master Mason’s Degree with that of the “virtual” Past Master’s Degree (now part of American York Rite Masonry), which developed from the private installation of a Master of a Craft Lodge. Also called the “Installed Master” Degree (or ceremonial), it is still performed in many jurisdictions. As a part of the ceremony the (Past) Master is “regularly seated” (installed) in a particular manner and given certain “secrets of the chair.” Obviously, since relatively few Masons have the honor of presiding over a lodge, these secrets are withheld from many. However, the honor became a prerequisite to receiving the Royal Arch Degree. To accommodate this requirement, the installation ceremony and its secrets were transformed into a “virtual” Past Master’s Degree. Similarly, the secrets associated with the honor of being a “Master Mason” (senior Fellow Craft) may have been converted and transformed into the Master Mason’s Degree.
The High Degrees and “Scotch Masons’ Lodges”
When we consider the creation of the Master Mason’s Degree—the first “high degree” added to Craft Masonry—it is a remarkable fact that high degree Masonry is virtually as old as Speculative Freemasonry itself. Other high degrees also followed quickly on the footsteps of the Master Mason’s Degree. As early as 1733 a reference to a “Scotch Masons’ Lodge” appeared in a manuscript list of lodges by Dr. Richard Rawlinson, and the following year, it was again mentioned in a printed list of Masonic Bodies. The early designations “Scotts,” “Scotch,” and “Scottish” refer to a type of Masonry practiced, rather than referring to native Scotsmen. Thus, we read that from 1733–40 the “Scotch Master Masons” Degree was being conferred on “normal” Master Masons. For instance, on July 18, 1740, at the Lodge at the Rummer, Bristol, it was “Order’d & agreed That Bro. Tomson & Bro. Watts & any other member of this Lodge. that are already Master Masons may be made Scotch Master. . . .” By 1734–35 additional degrees were invented, two of which were the “Excellent Mason” and “Grand Mason.” These early “Scotts” (or Scottish) Degrees are ancestors of the Scottish Rite in both name and tradition, and represent a type of Masonry almost as old as the Master Mason’s Degree. The tradition of “Scotts” (or Scottish) Masonry is the second oldest type of high degree Masonry known, even surpassing the antiquity of the Royal Arch Degree.
French haut grades Masonry: Stephen Morin and the Order of the Royal Secret
If the high degrees originated in Britain, they flourished in France. In 1732, an English Lodge, appropriately named Loge L’Anglaise, was founded in Bordeaux, France. This lodge was later chartered by the English Modern Grand Lodge and still exists today. An early offshoot of Loge L’Anglaise was the Loge la Française which, as the name implies, was French. The latter lodge had a penchant for the so-called hauts grades (high degrees), then coming into vogue, and it founded Loge Parfaite Harmonie in 1743. Étienne (Stephen) Morin, who would become important in the history of high degree Masonry, was among the founders of Loge Parfaite Harmonie. The book Le Parfait Maçon, published in 1744, has particular relevance to the development of high degree Freemasonry. In a section on the “Secret of the Scottish Masons” (Secret des maçons écossaise), it introduces another direct ancestor of the high degrees, whose theme remains the basis for the Scottish Rite’s 15°, Knight of the East, and 16°, Prince of Jerusalem:
It is said among the Masons, that there are still several degrees above that of the masters, of which I have just spoken; some say there are six in all, & others go up to seven. Those called Escossais [Scottish] Masons claim that they form the fourth grade. As this Masonry, different from the others in many ways, is beginning to become known in France, the Public will not be annoyed if I relate what I have read about it . . . which seems to give the Escossais a degree of superiority above the Apprentices, Fellows, & ordinary Masters.
Instead of weeping over the ruin of the temple of Solomon, as their brethren do, the Escossais are concerned with rebuilding it. Everyone knows that after seventy years of captivity in Babylon, the Great Cyrus permitted the Israelites to rebuild the temple & the City of Jerusalem; that Zerubabel, of the House of David, was appointed by him [Cyrus] the Chief & leader of that people for their return to the Holy City; that the first stone of the temple was laid during the reign of Cyrus, but that it was not completed until the sixth year of that of Darius, King of the Persians.
It is from this great event that the Escossais derive the epoch of their institution, & although they are later than the other Masons by several centuries, they consider themselves of a superior grade.
At this early period, the French Masonic strongholds were in Bordeaux and Paris. On August 27, 1761, the French Grand Lodge at Paris (the Grand and Sovereign Lodge of St. John of Jerusalem), acting with a body of the superior degrees (the Council of the Emperors of the East and West, Sovereign Écossais Mother Lodge), issued a patent to Morin as a Grand Inspector, “authorizing and empowering him to establish perfect and sublime Masonry in all parts of the world.” Around 1763, Morin created and promulgated a Masonic rite of 25 degrees which he called the “Order of the Royal Secret” or “Order of Prince of the Royal Secret” (sometimes mistakenly called the “Rite of Perfection”). This order included many of the most popular degrees worked at the time. Although it was once commonly believed that the Council of the Emperors of the East and West created the Order of the Royal Secret, recent research suggests that Morin was personally responsible for its organization. There also is compelling evidence that, to bolster his authority, he created and backdated documents known as the Constitutions and Regulations of 1762—an act that was not discovered for more than 220 years. About 1763, Morin introduced the Order of the Royal Secret to Kingston, Jamaica, and by 1764, high degrees were brought to North American soil, when they were established in New Orleans, Louisiana. About this time, Morin empowered an enthusiastic Dutch Mason, Henry Andrew Francken, to establish Masonic Bodies throughout the New World, including the United States. Francken soon sailed to New York, and in 1767, he began to confer the high degrees in Albany. Fortunately, he also transcribed several manuscript copies of the rituals of the Order of the Royal Secret, some of which survive today. These copies are known as the Francken Manuscripts. On December 6, 1768, Francken appointed Moses Michael Hays (or Hayes), of Dutch parentage, a Deputy Inspector General of the Rite, for the West Indies and North America. The Hays patent granted authority to confer all the Degrees of Morin’s Order of the Royal Secret.</> The following year, Francken returned to Jamaica, and by 1780, Hays immigrated to Newport, Rhode Island. In 1781, Hays traveled to Philadelphia, where he met with eight Brethren whom he appointed Deputy Inspectors General over given American States, with the exception of Samuel Myers, who presided over the Leeward Islands in the West Indies in the Caribbean. Barend Moses Spitzer, one of the Deputy Inspectors General, lived in Charleston, S.C., from 1770 to 1781 and moved to Philadelphia where he was appointed Deputy for Georgia and, after traveling briefly abroad, returned to Charleston by 1788. On April 2, 1795, Spitzer appointed the Irish-born John Mitchell, then living in Charleston, a Deputy Inspector General of the Order of the Royal Secret. Colonel Mitchell had served as Deputy Quartermaster General of the Continental Army, and was an acquaintance of George Washington.
High Degrees after 1801
Birth of the Scottish Rite: Charleston, May 31, 1801
On May 24, 1801, John Mitchell made the Reverend Frederick Dalcho (a Prussian, born in London) a Deputy Inspector General of the Order of the Royal Secret, and one week later, on May 31, “the Supreme Council of the 33d Degree for the United States of America, was opened . . . agreeably to the Grand Constitutions” in Charleston, South Carolina, with Col. Mitchell and Rev. Dalcho presiding. The Supreme Council was a superior system to Morin’s Order of the Royal Secret; it administered 33 degrees, including all 25 of Morin’s rite. The traditional authority of the Supreme Council stems from the “Grand Constitution of the 33d degree” (also Grand Constitutions of 1786), ostensibly ratified by Frederick II (“the Great”), King of Prussia. The earliest known copy dates from about 1801–02, and is written in Rev. Dalcho’s hand. Its 18 articles are preceded by the title “Constitution, Statutes, Regulations &c. for the Government of the Supreme Council of Inspectors General of the 33rd and for the Government of all Councils under their Jurisdiction.” The Circular throughout two Hemispheres, or “1802 Manifesto” (the first printed document issued by the Supreme Council), also asserted that Frederick the Great instigated its creation:
On the 1st of May, 5786 , the Grand Constitution of the 33d degree, called the Supreme Council of Sovereign Grand Inspectors General, was finally ratified by his Majesty the King of Prussia, who as Grand Commander of the order of Prince of the Royal Secret, possessed the Sovereign Masonic power over all the Craft. In the new Constitution this high Power was conferred on a Supreme Council of nine Brethren in each Nation, who possess all the Masonic prerogatives in their own district, that this majesty individually possessed; and are Sovereigns of Masonry.
The involvement of Frederick II, King of Prussia, was repeated in the “History” which was delivered in the original 33° ritual:
The Most Puissant Grand Sovereign—Grand Master Commander in Chief—Sovereign of Sovereigns of the degree of Prince of the Royal Secret, was our Illustrious brother, Frederick the 2:nd King of Prussia. He established this degree, in concert with our brother, his Serene Highness, Louis of Bourbon, Prince of the Blood Royal of France, and other Illustrious characters, who had received the degrees of K.H. and prince of the Royal Secret. . . . This new Degree he called “Sovereign Grand Inspectors General, or Supreme Council of the 33:rd”
Like Morin’s Constitutions and Regulations of 1762, many modern Masonic historians view the Grand Constitutions of 1786 as “traditional” rather than historical documents. After a detailed investigation into its possible origins, Albert Pike accepted the tradition regarding the king’s involvement, and his reputed role in the creation of the Supreme Council, even though there was no direct evidence that he did so. Pike did argue correctly, however, that whatever the origin, the formal adoption of any law forms a legal basis for government. Modern opinion agrees with the latter and maintains that, at a minimum, the stories regarding the origins of the Constitutions of 1762 and 1786 are akin to the legends preserved in the Old Charges, providing a traditional environment for the degrees, just as the Biblical account of King Solomon’s Temple forms the symbolic setting for Craft Freemasonry’s origins.
Scope and authority of the early Supreme Council
The “Supreme Council at Charleston,” as it was sometimes called, was the first Supreme Council of the 33° in the world. It continues to exist today as the Supreme Council, 33°, Southern Jurisdiction, and its see remains in Charleston, although its residence was moved to Washington, D.C., about 1870, and it now sits at the House of the Temple. As the premiere Supreme Council, it naturally exercised authority over the entire country, and Col. Mitchell was referred to as “Grand Commander in the U[nited]. States of America,” as well as “President of the Supreme Council of Masons of the United States.” In its early days, the Supreme Council issued “warrants of Constitution” to create Sublime Grand Lodges of Perfection (which administered the 4°–14°), and Grand Councils of Princes of Jerusalem (administering the 15°–16°), but it did not involve itself directly in their government or administration. The Supreme Council only exercised direct control above the 16°, Prince of Jerusalem. This was explained in the Circular throughout two Hemispheres as well as Dalcho’s manuscript copy of the Grand Constitutions of 1786:
[Article] 6th The power of the Supreme Council does not interfere with any degree below the 17th or Knights of the East and West. But every Council and Lodge of Perfect Masons are hereby required to acknowledge them in quality of inspectors General, and to receive them with the high honors to which they are entitled.
This limitation was repeated in the original manuscript ritual of the 33°:
The King on the first of May 5786, formed and established the 33:rd Degree to give some elucidations of the K.H.—The King was conscious, that agreably [sic] to the common course of human nature, he could not live many years; & he conceived and executed the glorious design of investing the Sovereign Masonic power which he held, as Sovereign Grand Commander of the order of Prince of the Royal Secret —in a Council of Grand Inspectors General—
that they might, after his decease, regulate, agreably [sic] to the Constitution and Statutes which he then formed, the government of the Craft in every degree, from the 17:th or Knights of the East & West inclusive, leaving the control over the symbolic Lodge—the Grand, Ineffable and Sublime Lodge of Perfect Masons, and the Knights of the East or sword— to the Grand Council of Princes of Jerusalem, whom he conceived to be justly entitled to that Honor and power.
According to the Circular throughout two Hemispheres, at the time of the Supreme Council’s creation, the 30°, 31°, and 32° collectively constituted the Degree of “Prince of the Royal Secret, Prince of Masons.” This means that only 15 degrees were under direct control of the Supreme Council. The government of the entire system, from the 4°, Secret Master, to the 32°, Royal Secret, inclusive, was not assumed until after the revival of American Freemasonry in the 1840s, following the “Morgan Affair.” Although not previously exercised, the authority to govern the entire system resided with the officers of the Supreme Council, who were “Sovereigns of Masonry,” and “possessed the Sovereign Masonic power over all the Craft.” The high degrees often were referred to as the Ineffable and Sublime (or Superior) Degrees. In the earliest days of the Scottish Rite, the high degrees were conferred only on Past Masters, or virtual Past Masters, of Blue Lodges. Frederick Dalcho’s 4°, Secret Master, ritual (dated 1801), noted, “The Blue Past Master or Candidate, must be examined in the Antechamber (by the Master of Ceremonies) in his three first degrees, and in the secrets of the Chair”; and the Circular throughout two Hemispheres explained that Sublime Masons “communicate the secrets of the Chair to such applicants who have not already received it, previous to their initiation into the Sublime Lodge, but they are at the same time informed that it does not give them rank as Past Masters in the Grand Lodge.” A similar requirement exists in the American York Rite, where candidates become virtual Past Masters prior to receiving the degree of Royal Arch Mason. In 1804, Alexandre-Auguste de Grasse-Tilly, a member of the Supreme Council at Charleston, organized a Supreme Council for France. In an agreement made that year between this newly-created Supreme Council and the Grand Orient of France (which operated as a Grand Lodge), the title “Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite” (Rite Écossais Ancien et Accepté) was used for the first time. Beginning with the administration of Grand Commander Albert Pike in 1859, the name came into general use in the Southern Jurisdiction.