Symbolical Design and Historical Summary of the Royal Arch Degree

The following monitorial instructions on the Symbolical Design and Historical Summary of the Royal Arch Degree appear on pp. 93-97 of “The Book of the Chapter” by Albert G. Mackey.

Symbolical Design.

In the preceding degrees we see the gradual progress of man from the cradle to the grave, depicted in his advancement through the several grades of the masonic system. We see him acquiring at his initiation the first elements of morality, and when about to represent the period of manhood, invested with new communications of a scientific character, and discharging the duties of life in various conditions. Again, at a later stage of his progress we find him attaining the experience of a well-spent life, and in the joyful hope of a blessed resurrection putting his house in order, and preparing for his final departure.

And now with reverential awe we continue the sacred theme, and in the last degree symbolically allude to the rewards prepared for those who, in the pursuits of life, have distinguished themselves by a patient “continuance in well-doing.”

Life, without some definite object in view, would be but a wearisome and monotonous existence. Every man, therefore, by the very instinct, as it were, of his nature, sets out with the proposed pursuit of some particular aim. To one it is wealth—to another, fame—to a third, pleasure. But whatever it may be, its attainment is considered as necessary to the happiness of the party seeking it.

The great object of pursuit in masonry—the scope and tendency of all its investigations—is TRUTH. This is the goal to which all masonic labor evidently tends. Sought for in every degree, and constantly approached, but never thoroughly and intimately embraced, at length, in the Royal Arch, the veils which concealed the object of search from our view are withdrawn, and the inestimable prize is revealed.

This truth which masonry makes the great object of its investigations, is not the mere truth of science, or the truth of history, but is the more important truth which is synonymous with the knowledge of the nature of God—that truth which is embraced in the sacred tetragrammaton or omnific name, including in its signification His eternal, present, past and future existence, and to which He Himself alluded when He declared to Moses—“I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty: but by my name Jehovah was I not known unto them.”

This knowledge of divine truth is never thoroughly attained in life; the corruptions of mortality, which encumber and cloud the human intellect, hide it as with a thick veil from mortal eyes. It is only beyond the tomb and when released from the burthen of life, that man is capable fully of receiving and appreciating the revelation. Hence, when we figuratively speak of its discovery in the Royal Arch degree, we mean to intimate that that sublime portion of the masonic system is a symbolic representation of the state after death. The vanities and follies of life are now supposed to be passed away—the first temple which we had erected with such consummate labor and apparent skill, for the reception of the Deity, has proved an imperfect and a transitory edifice; decay and desolation have fallen upon it, and from its ruins, deep beneath its foundations, and in the profound abyss of the grave, we find that mighty truth, in the search for which, life was spent in vain, and the mystic key to which death only could supply, when, having passed the portals of the grave, we shall begin to occupy that second temple, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Historical Summary.

Every reflecting mason must at once be struck with the fact that the third degree, or, as Hutchinson calls it, “The Master Mason’s Order,” presents all the appearance of being in a mutilated condition—that it is imperfect and unfinished in its history, and that, terminating abruptly as it does, it leaves the mind unsatisfied and craving for something that it does not and cannot supply. Now a reference to this fact is the first step towards an acquaintance with the true origin of the Royal Arch degree.

As an independent degree, given under a distinct jurisdiction and furnished with a separate but appropriate ritual, it is undoubtedly a modern degree, of comparatively recent establishment; but as a complement of the Master Mason’s order, as supplying the deficiency of that degree in masonic symbolism it is, and of course must be, as old as the organization of which it forms so important and so necessary a part. The third degree is a symbolic memorial of events which took place at the first temple. The Royal Arch is equally a symbolic memorial of events that occurred at the second, and as the one would be incomplete without the other, we have every reason to suppose that each was adopted at the earliest period of the modem organization of Freemasonry as a memorial system. Indeed they must go together. The Royal Arch is the cape-stone of the masonic edifice, but the third degree is its foundation, and without the presence of both the building would be incomplete. The Royal Arch is absolutely necessary to the perfection of the Master’s degree as a science of symbolism, and the latter cannot be understood without the developments of the former. They are the first and second volumes of a continuous history, and the absence of either would mutilate the work.

All of this, it must be remembered, is to be understood of the two degrees, simply in their modern organization, as a record, appropriated to a symbolic purpose, of the events to which they allude. Of course no one can indulge in the absurdity of supposing that the Royal Arch degree could have existed contemporaneously with the Master’s at the time of the building of the first temple. Neither degree, in fact, in its present form is to be dated even at the later period of the building of the second. The events which they record of course occurred at the correct historic periods; but the organization and establishment of these degrees as records or memorials of these events, must have been a subsequent invention, when, we know not; nor is it essential to know. Certainly it was at a period beyond the memory of man, and outside of the records of history.

The Third Degree records a loss intrinsically of but little value, yet, in its symbolical reference, of the utmost importance. The Royal Arch records a recovery which is equally symbolical. The recovery cannot be appreciated unless we have first experienced the loss, and the loss would be unmeaning did we not subsequently meet with the recovery.

Accordingly, the Royal Arch degree was, anciently, always considered as a complement of the Master’s, and was, therefore, originally conferred in symbolic lodges under the sanction of a Master’s warrant. But as to the time when it was first dissevered from this connection and placed under a separate jurisdiction,masonic writers were not able to agree until the lucid explanations of the venerable Oliver have completely settled the long vexed question. [See Oliver, George. Some Account of the Schism which took place during the Last Century amongst the Free and Accepted Masons in England, showing the presumed Origin of the Royal Arch Degree; &c.]

It seems to be evident, from the researches of this learned masonic historian, that until the year 1740, the essential element of the Royal Arch constituted a component part of the Master’s degree, and was of course its concluding portion; that as a degree, it was not at all recognized, being but the complement of one; that about that time it was dissevered from its original connection and elevated to the position and invested with the form of a distinct degree by the body which called itself “the Grand Lodge of England according to the old Constitutions,” but which is more familiarly known as the Dermott or the Atholl Grand Lodge, and frequently as “the ancients,” in contradistinction to the legitimate Grand Lodge which was styled “the moderns.”

The jurisdiction of the degree still however continued to be under Master’s lodges, and many years elapsed before it was taken thence and placed under the control of distinct bodies called Grand Chapters. In America it was not until 1798 that a Grand Chapter was formed, and many lodges persisted for some years after in conferring the Royal Arch degree under the authority of their warrants from Grand Lodges.

The full text of Mackey’s monitorial instructions on the Royal Arch degree may be found at:

Royal Arch from Mackey’s “The Book of the Chapter”