The following entry appears on p. 546 of the 1912 edition of “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” by Albert G. Mackey.
An honorary degree usually conferred on the Master of a Lodge at his installation into office. In this degree the necessary instructions are conferred respecting the various ceremonies of the Order, such as installations, processions, the laying of corner-stones, etc.
When a Brother, who has never before presided, has been elected the Master of a Lodge, an emergent Lodge of Past Masters, consisting of not less than three, is convened, and all but Past Masters retiring, the degree is conferred upon the newly elected officer.
Some form of ceremony at the installation of a new Master seems to have been adopted at an early period after the revival. In the “manner of constituting a new Lodge,” as practiced by the Duke of Wharton, who was Grand Master in 1723, the language used by the Grand Master when placing the candidate in the chair is given, and he is said to use “some other expressions that are proper and usual on that occasion, but not proper to be written” (Constitutions, 1738, page 150). Whence we conclude that there was an esoteric ceremony. Often the rituals tell us that this ceremony consisted only in the outgoing Master communicating certain modes of recognition to his successor. And this actually, even at this day, constitutes the essential ingredient of the Past Master’s degree.
The degree is also conferred in Royal Arch Chapters, where it succeeds the Mark Master’s degree. The conferring of this degree, which has no historical connection with the rest of the degrees, in a Chapter, arises from the following circumstance: Originally, when Chapters of Royal Arch Masonry were under the government of Lodges in which the degree was then always conferred, it was a part of the regulations that no one could receive the Royal Arch degree unless he had previously presided in the Lodge as Master. When the Chapters became independent, the regulation could not be abolished, for that would have been an innovation; the difficulty has, therefore been obviated, by making every candidate for the degree of Royal Arch a Past Virtual Master before his exaltation.
[Under the English Constitution this practice was forbidden in 1826, but seems to have lingered on in some parts until 1850.]
Some extraneous ceremonies, but no means creditable to their inventor, were at an early period introduced into America. In 1856, the General Grand Chapter, by a unanimous vote, ordered these ceremonies to be discontinued, and the simpler mode of investiture to be used; but the order has only been partially obeyed, and many Chapters continue what one can scarcely help calling the indecorous form of initiation into the degree.
For several years past the question has been agitated in some of the Grand Lodges of the United States, whether this degree is within the Jurisdiction of Symbolic or of Royal Arch Masonry. The explanation of its introduction into Chapters, just given, manifestly demonstrates that the jurisdiction over it by Chapters is altogether an assumed one. The Past Master of a Chapter is only a quasi Past Master; the true and legitimate Past Master is the one who has presided over a Symbolic Lodge.
Past Masters are admitted to membership in many Grand Lodges, and by some the inherent right has been claimed to sit in those bodies. But the most eminent Masonic authorities have made a contrary decision, and the general, and, indeed, almost universal opinion now is that Past Masters obtain their seats in Grand Lodges by courtesy, and in consequence of local regulations, and not by inherent right.
The jewel of a Past Master in the United States is a pair of compasses extended to sixty degrees on the fourth part of a circle, with a sun in the center. In England it was formerly the square on a quadrant, but is at present the square with the forty-seventh problem of Euclid engraved on a silver plate suspended within it.
The French have two titles to express this degree. They apply Maître passé to the Past Master of the English and American system, and they call in their own system one who has formerly presided over a Lodge an Ancien Maître. The indiscriminate use of these titles sometimes leads to confusion in the translation of their lectures and treatises.
The full text of the 1912 edition of Mackey’s “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” may be found at:Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry: Volume I
Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry: Volume II