The Principles of Masonic Law/Chapter XV

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I have already discussed the right of Past Masters to become members of a Grand Lodge, in a preceding part of this work,[1] and have there arrived at the conclusion that no such inherent right exists, and that a Grand Lodge may or may not admit them to membership, according to its own notion of expediency. Still the fact, that they are competent by their masonic rank of accepting such a courtesy when extended, in itself constitutes a prerogative; for none but Masters, Wardens, or Past Masters, can under any circumstances become members of a Grand Lodge.

Past Masters possess a few other positive rights.

In the first place they have a right to install their successors, and at all times subsequent to their installation to be present at the ceremony of installing Masters of lodges. I should scarcely have deemed it necessary to dwell upon so self-evident a proposition, were it not that it involves the discussion of a question which has of late years been warmly mooted in some jurisdictions, namely, whether this right of being present at an installation should, or should not, be extended to Past Masters, made in Royal Arch Chapters.

In view of the fact, that there are two very different kinds of possessors of the same degree, the Grand Lodge of England has long since distinguished them as "virtual" and as "actual" Past Masters. The terms are sufficiently explicit, and have the advantage of enabling us to avoid circumlocution, and I shall, therefore, adopt them.

An actual Past Master is one who has been regularly installed to preside over a symbolic lodge under the jurisdiction of a Grand Lodge. A virtual Past Master is one who has received the degree in a chapter, for the purpose of qualifying him for exaltation to the Royal Arch.

Now the question to be considered is this. Can a virtual Past Master be permitted to be present at the installation of an actual Past Master?

The Committee of Correspondence of New York, in 1851, announced the doctrine, that a Chapter, or virtual Past Master, cannot legally install the Master of a Symbolic Lodge; but that there is no rule forbidding his being present at the ceremony. This doctrine has been accepted by several Grand Lodges, while others again refuse to admit the presence of a virtual Past Master at the installation-service.

In South Carolina, for instance, by uninterrupted usage, virtual Past Masters are excluded from the ceremony of installation.

In Louisiana, under the high authority of the late Brother Gedge, it is asserted, that "it is the bounden duty of all Grand Lodges to prevent the possessors of the (chapter) degree from the exercise of any function appertaining to the office and attributes of an installed Master of a lodge of Symbolic Masonry, and refuse to recognize them as belonging to the order of Past Masters."[2]

Brother Albert Pike, whose opinion on masonic jurisprudence is entitled to the most respectful consideration, has announced a similar doctrine in one of his elaborate reports to the Grand Chapter of Arkansas. He does not consider "that the Past Master's degree, conferred in a chapter, invests the recipient with any rank or authority, except within the chapter itself; that it no ways qualifies or authorizes him to preside in the chair of a lodge: that a lodge has no legal means of knowing that he has received the degree in a chapter: for it is not supposed to know anything that takes place there any more than it knows what takes place in a Lodge of Perfection, or a Chapter of Knights of the Rose Croix;" and, of course, if the Past Masters of a lodge have no such "legal means" of recognition of Chapter Masters, they cannot permit them to be present at an installation.

This is, in fact, no new doctrine. Preston, in his description of the installation ceremony, says: "The new Master is then conducted to an adjacent room, where he is regularly installed, and bound to his trust in ancient form, in the presence of at least three installed Masters."[3] And Dr. Oliver, in commenting on this passage, says, "this part of the ceremony can only be orally communicated, nor can any but installed Masters be present."[4]

And this rule appears to be founded on the principles of reason. There can be no doubt, if we carefully examine the history of Masonry in this country and in England, that the degree of Past Master was originally conferred by Symbolic Lodges as an honorarium or reward bestowed upon those Brethren who had been found worthy to occupy the Oriental Chair. In so far it was only a degree of office, and could be obtained only from the Lodge in which the office had been conferred. At a later period it was deemed an essential prerequisite to exaltation in the degree of Royal Arch, and was, for that purpose, conferred on candidates for that position, while the Royal Arch degree was under the control of the symbolic Lodges, but still only conferred by the Past Masters of the Lodge. But subsequently, when the system of Royal Arch Masonry was greatly enlarged and extended in this country, and chapters were organized independent of the Grand and symbolic Lodges, these Chapters took with them the Past Master's degree, and assumed the right of conferring it on their candidates. Hence arose the anomaly which now exists in American Masonry, of two degrees bearing the same name, and said to be almost identical in character, conferred by two different bodies under entirely different qualifications and for totally different purposes. As was to be expected, when time had in some degree obliterated the details of history, each party began to claim for itself the sovereign virtue of legitimacy. The Past Masters of the Chapters denied the right of the Symbolic Lodges to confer the degree, and the latter, in their turn, asserted that the degree, as conferred in the Chapter, was an innovation.

The prevalence of the former doctrine would, of course, tend to deprive the Symbolic Lodges of a vested right held by them from the most ancient times--that, namely, of conferring an honorarium on their Masters elect.

On the whole, then, from this view of the surreptitious character of the Chapter Degree, and supported by the high authority whom I have cited, as well as by the best usage, I am constrained to believe that the true rule is, to deny the Chapter, or Virtual Past Masters, the right to install, or to be present at the installation of the Master of a Symbolic Lodge. A Past Master may preside over a lodge in the absence of the Master, provided he is invited to do so by the Senior Warden present. The Second General Regulation gave the power of presiding, during the absence of the Master, to the last Past Master present, after the lodge had been congregated by the Senior Warden; but two years afterwards, the rule was repealed, and the power of presiding in such cases was vested in the Senior Warden. And accordingly, in this country, it has always been held, that in the absence of the Master, his authority descends to the Senior Warden, who may, however, by courtesy, offer the chair to a Past Master present, after the lodge has been congregated. Some jurisdictions have permitted a Past Master to preside in the absence of the Master and both Wardens, provided he was a member of that lodge. But I confess that I can find no warrant for this rule in any portion of our fundamental laws. The power of congregating the lodge in the absence of the Master has always been confined to the Wardens; and it therefore seems to me, that when both the Master and Wardens are absent, although a Past Master may be present, the lodge cannot be opened.

A Past Master is eligible for election to the chair, without again passing through the office of a Warden.

He is also entitled to a seat in the East, and to wear a jewel and collar peculiar to his dignity.

By an ancient regulation, contained in the Old Charges, Past Masters alone were eligible to the office of Grand Warden. The Deputy Grand Master was also to be selected from among the Masters, or Past Masters of Lodges. No such regulation was in existence as to the office of Grand Master, who might be selected from the mass of the fraternity. At the present time, in this country, it is usual to select the Grand officers from among the Past Masters of the jurisdiction, though I know of no ancient law making such a regulation obligatory, except in respect to the affairs of Grand Wardens and Deputy Grand Master.


  1. Book I., chap. iii.
  2. Proceedings of Louisiana, an. 1852.
  3. Preston, Oliver's Edit., p. 76 (U.M.L., vol. iii, p. 62).
  4. Ibid.