Symbolical Design and Charge of the Past Master Degree

The following monitorial instructions on the Symbolical Design and Charge of the Past Master Degree appear on pp. 47-48 and pp. 59-61 of “The Book of the Chapter” by Albert G. Mackey.

Symbolical Design.

The Past Master’s degree presents us with a peculiar feature in the symbolism of the masonic system. While, as masons, we admit the general equality of men in their relation to their common Creator, and acknowledge with proper humility that we are all traveling on the level of time to “that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,” we do not deny the advantage and propriety of distinctions in society, based on a difference of talent, virtue and position; and we know that while some must rule and govern, others must of necessity be called upon to obey. It is to this view of the gradations of society that the fifth degree alludes in its ceremonies and instructions. While the other degrees involve the duties and obligations of the various stages of human life, this degree confines itself to the consideration of only one aspect of these many duties. It is symbolic of the good, the wise, and the just ruler—whether it be of the sovereign over his people, the master over his household, or the father over his children. It inculcates, by appropriate, yet singular, and sometimes unfortunately perverted ceremonies, the necessity of judgment, discretion, wisdom, firmness and determination in him who undertakes to govern his fellow-men, and of obedience, submission, order and discipline in those who would live happily and quietly under constituted authority.

Mackey’s Charge to the New Past Master.

The conferring at this time of a degree which has no historical connection with the other capitular degrees, is an apparent anomaly, which, however, is indebted for its existence to the following circumstances:

Originally, when Royal Arch Masonry was under the government of symbolic lodges, in which the Royal Arch degree was then always conferred, it was a regulation that no one could receive it unless he had previously presided as the Master of that or some other lodge; and this restriction was made because the Royal Arch was deemed too important a degree to be conferred only on Master Masons.

But, as by confining the Royal Arch to those only who had been actually elected as the presiding officers of their lodges, the extension of the degree would have been materially circumscribed, and its usefulness greatly impaired, the Grand Master often granted, upon due petition, his dispensation to permit certain Master Masons (although not elected to preside over their lodges) “to pass the chair,” which was a technical term, intended to designate a brief ceremony, by which the candidate was invested with the mysteries of a Past Master, and, like him, entitled to advance in Masonry as far as the Royal Arch, or the perfection and consummation of the third degree.

When, however, the control of the Royal Arch was taken from the symbolic lodges and entrusted to a distinct organization—that, namely, of Chapters—the regulation continued to be observed, for it was doubtful to many whether it could legally be abolished; and, as the law still requires that the august degree of Royal Arch shall be restricted to Past Masters, our candidates are made to pass the chair simply as a preparation and qualification toward being invested with the solemn instructions of the Royal Arch.

The ceremony of passing the chair, or making you in this manner a Past Master, does not, however, confer upon you any official rank outside of the Chapter, nor can you in a symbolic lodge claim any peculiar privileges in consequence of your having received in the Chapter the investiture of the Past Master’s degree. Those who receive the degree in symbolic lodges as a part of the installation service, when elected to preside, have been properly called “Actual Past Masters,” while those who pass through, the ceremony in a Chapter, as simply preparatory to taking the Royal Arch, are distinguished as “Virtual Past Masters,” to show that, with the investiture of the secrets, they have not received the rights and prerogatives of the degree.

With this brief explanation of the reason why this degree is now conferred upon you, and why you have been permitted to occupy the chair, you will retire, and suffer yourself to be prepared for those further and profounder researches into Masonry, which can only be consummated in the Royal Arch degree.

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

Past Master from Mackey’s “The Book of the Chapter”