What really is the “highest” degree in Freemasonry?

Readers of these articles may have read many documents, web pages, books, etc. on Freemasonry, which may have even ended either with an unsavoury opinion of Freemasonry, or, at the very least, very confused. In fact, most that has been written or published on the Internet regarding this subject is inaccurate or opinionated. This may be because, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, and from the 1930’s, Freemasons became part of Hitler’s enemies and were persecuted similarly to the Jewish population (and other minority groups) in Germany and surrounding countries. So after WW2 Freemasons remained underground, so this so called secret society became even more secret and now with membership hidden. People in general and governments in particular, including my country’s government in the UK, began to look upon Freemasonry as a sinister organisation. Freemasons at the time didn’t help matters and very few few books have been produced by Freemasons for fear of further persecution.

Today this is changing, most of all with thanks to the United Grand Lodge of England’s (UGLE) ‘Enough is Enough” campaign of 2017. Prior to the 1930’s persecution many books were produced, for example The History of the Lodge of Edinburgh (David Murray Lyon), The History of Freemasonry (Robert Freke Gould – 1884) and The History of Lodge St. Michael’s Kilwinning (James Smith) – these three were written in the late 19th century.

With the above set aside as an introduction, this article will focus on the various degrees in Freemasonry, but only those degrees recognised by regular Freemasons, as there may be other degrees practised by “irregular” or clandestine Freemasons (see previous article on regular Freemasonry).

So, whilst not going into details of the rituals performed in these degrees (mainly as I have no experience personally), we will examine each group (or Rite) whilst pointing out which degree really is the highest. The three degrees that are conducted in a Craft Lodge, known as the Craft Degrees, are the main degrees in Freemasonry, namely the first or Initiation (into Freemasonry), the second or Fellowcraft (these believed to be the two original degrees from operative masonry), and the third degree, or the degree of a Master Mason. It is the degree of a Master Mason alone that is the highest degree in Freemasonry. From this point onwards all other degrees are considered to be “appendage” degrees, and Master Masons who wish to learn more of our “mysteries” may choose to embark on these appendage degrees. There may be one degree, however, that could be considered the exception to this “rule,” and that is the degree of Royal Arch Chapter, which in England is considered to be a continuation of Craft Masonry and the completion of the third degree. This degree was adopted in Scotland from English and Irish sources towards the middle of the 18th century (the earliest reference to the degree is at Stirling in 1743). In England and Scotland Royal Arch is governed by a Supreme Grand Chapter., but in Scotland Masons are required to take the Mark Degree and the Excellent Master before they can be exalted in to Royal Arch. Although the Royal Arch degree is widespread, there are difference in the USA to that in England.

Many people will have heard the terms Scottish Rite and York Rite degrees and here even your writer becomes confused, as the Royal Arch degree in the USA is governed considerable differently. As stated above, a Supreme Grand Chapter governs Royal Arch Masonry in England and Scotland. Some of these appendant degrees are performed in England and they are governed by the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons and, apart from the Mark Master Mason degree, below is a list of other degrees under this Grand Lodge’s jurisdiction:

  • Royal Ark Mariner; Knights Templar; Knights of Malta; Red Cross of Constantine; Royal and Select Masters; Allied Masonic Degrees; Order of the Secret Monitor; Scarlet Chord; Knights Beneficent of the Holy City.

In the USA the two main groups of these appendage degrees are the York Rite and the Scottish Rite.

The York Rite, or more accurately called the American Rite has a belief that “stands on the records of history as the oldest and purest Rites” as they believe it dates back to King Athelstan time of 926. This legend is taken from the Regis or Halliwell Manuscript (dated around 1390, this date being drawn from the language in the manuscript). This manuscript is believed to list the “old Charges” from which the first Book of Constitutions was formed. Unfortunately, whilst this manuscript may contain a list of charges for a stonemason to follow, it doesn’t contain much in the way of historic truth of the story relating to King Athelstan (Adelstonus in the manuscript), the first king of England. The best list of York Rite degrees (that I found the easiest to follow), listed below in chronological order, commencing with the three craft degrees is:

  • Mark Mason; Past Master (Virtual); Most Excellent Master; Royal Arch Mason; Royal Master; Select Master; Super Excellent Master; Illustrious Order of the Red Cross; Order of Malta; The Order of the Temple. (Note on one Web Site the Royal Arch Mason is not included in the list.)

Now on to the Scottish Rite, which leads to the legendary 33rd Degree in Freemasonry, an honorary degree (around which a lot of stories emanate). This selection of degrees is believed to have been brought across the Atlantic from France by a French Mason named Etienne Morin (a trader) in the mid 18th century. Morin was believed to have founded an “Ecossais” (Scottish) Lodge in France. As with most of the information, its history varies from district to district in the USA, so to readers who wish to pursue the history of the Scottish Rite, may I wish you very good luck in understanding where the truth lies in what you read. One list of degrees in this Rite, taken from the Grand Orient of Maryland Under the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States, is as follows:

  • THE LODGE OF PERFECTION: 4° Secret Master; 5° Perfect Master; 6° Intimate Secretary; 7° Provost and Judge; 8° Intendant of the building; 9° Elu of the Nine; 10° Elu of the Fifteen; 11° Elu of the Twelve; 12° Master Architect 13° Royal Arch of Enoch of Solomon; 14° Perfect Elu.
  • CHAPTER OF ROSE CROIX: 15° Knight of the East of the Sword; 16° Prince of Jerusalem; 17° Knight of East and West; 18° Knight of Rose Crois. 
  • COUNCIL OF KADOSH: 19° Pontiff; 20° Master of the Symbolic Lodge; 21° Noachite of the Prussian Knight; 22° Knight of the Royale Axe or Prince Libanus; 23° Chief of the Tabernacle; 24° Prince of the Tabernacle; 25° Knight of the Brazen Serpant; 26° Prince of mercy; 27° Knight Comander of the Temple; 28° Knight of the Sun or Prince Adept; 29° Scottish Knight of St Andrew; 30° Knight Kadosh.
  • CONSISTORY: 31° Inspector Inquisitor; 32° Master of the Royal Secret.
  • 33° Sovereign Grand Inspector General

However, on another web page pertaining to be the Scottish Rite “Valley of New York City” the list contains names that differ from those above.” Yet in another from the “Valley of Chicago” the names differ yet again. Scottish Rite Freemasonry in the United States is governed by two jurisdictions, the Northern and the Southern Jurisdictions of Scottish Rite Freemasonry.

There is one thing for certain in Freemasonry, variety (and a lot of mystery). Should an opportunity arise to examine the three degrees in Craft Masonry, at least in regular Freemasonry, the degree names will always be the same, but I can assure the reader that the rituals will vary considerably, but will always convey the same message; I wonder if similar can be said with regards to Scottish Rite, different names but same ritual?

In conclusion, the highest degree a Freemason can attain is that of the Third Degree in Craft Masonry, completed by joining a Royal Arch Chapter. The highest honour the Freemasons in your Lodge can bestow on a Master Mason is to be installed in the Master’s Chair and lead your Lodge for one year (or in my case, two years, but that’s another tale).

For those seriously interested in the Scottish Rite I recommend this book: Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry by Albert Pike.

These articles are written by W Bro Steve Froggatt PPJGD, current Chaplain of Neptune Lodge No 5150 EC. Steve was initiated into Freemasonry in 1986.

© Copyright 2019 Al-Khabar/Stephen Froggatt all rights reserved

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About Steve

Steve is part of the publishing team of Al-Khabar. He was initiated into Neptune Lodge 5150 EC In 1986 and completed his third degree by being exalted into Neptune’s Royal Arch Chapter in 1989; he also enjoyed two successive years in the Chair of KS in 1993/4. He has also enjoyed being a Mark Master Mason and a Royal Ark Mariner. He has been honoured with the position of Past Provincial Junior Grand Deacon. All the articles are his own and represent no Official Masonic Body

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