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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 in the United States also conferred in Royal Arch Chapters, where it succeeds the Marl; 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 malting ever) candidate for the Degree of Royal Arch a Virtual Past 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. "The dis-use of the Virtual Past Master's Degree or Chair Degree in the British Isles has in no way interfered with its continued use in the United States, especially in the older Jurisdictions whose Freemasonry attests its Ancient origin (see the footnote on page 145, volume BViii, 1915, Transactions, Quatuor Coronati Lodge, by Brother W. J. Chetwode Crawley).

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 or seeming Past Master; the true and legitimate Past Master is the one who has presided over a Symbolic Lodge.

Brother R. F. Gould (Masonic Monthly, July, 1882) says in regard to the Degrees of Past Master and the Royal Arch, "The supposition has much to recommend it, that the connection of the secrets of the Royal Arch, is the earliest form in which any esoteric teaching was specially linked with the incidents of Lodge Mastership, or in other words, that the Degree of Royal Arch was the complement of the Masters Grade. Out of this was ultimately evolved the Degree of Installed Master, a ceremony unknown in the Modern System until the first decade of the nineteenth century, and of which I can trace no sign amongst the Ancient until the growing practice of conferring the Arch upon Brethren not legally qualified to receive it, brought about the constructive passing through the Chair, which by qualifying candidates not otherwise eligible, naturally entailed the introduction of a ceremony, additional to the simple forms known to Payne, Anderson, and Desaguliers."

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.

A subtle distinction may be noted between the expressions Past and Pass'd Master. "The distinction in sense that had originally lain between Past Master and virtual Pass'd Master could make no headway against the similarity in sound. The Past Master was the Brother who 'had served his just and lawful time' as W. M. of a Lodge, and had thereby qualified for the completion of Master Degree. The Passed Master was a Brother who had been passed through a so-called Chair Degree, and had thereby been entrusted with certain equivalent secrets. The epithet Past is an adjective, conveying the idea of time expired: the epithet Pass'd is a participle conveying the idea of motion completed. Such verbal niceties did not trouble the Brethren of the eighteenth, or any other century" (footnote, page 144, volume xxviu, 1915, Transactions, Quatuor Coronati Lodge, by Brother W. J. Chetwode Crawley).

The usual 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. This latter design is also adopted m Pennsylvania. The French have two titles to express this Degree. They apply Maztre Passe 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 Maitre. The indiscriminate use of these titles sometimes leads to confusion in the translation of their lectures and treatises.

- Source: Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry


Fortunate the lodge which has many; poor that body of Masonry in which Past Masters have lost the interest with which they once presided in the East!

The honorable station of Past Master is usually honored by the brethren; generally it is considered as second in importance only to that of the presiding Master. And he is a wise and good Master who sees to it that the brethren of his lodge understand that “Past Master” is no empty title, but carries with it certain rights and privileges, certain duties and responsibilities, all set forth in the general body of Masonic Law, although differing in some respects in different Jurisdictions; certain unwritten attributes which become more or less important according to the character and abilities of the individual Past Master.

It has been well settled in this country, as it is in England, that a Past Master has no inherent, inviolable right of membership in the Grand Lodge, such as is possessed by the Master of a lodge. But in many American Jurisdictions, by action of the Grand Lodge, Past Masters are members of the Grand Lodge (in Nevada, all Master Masons are members of the Grand Lodge, but only the three principal officers and one among all the Past Masters of a particular lodge are considered voting members of Grand Lodge). In some Jurisdictions they are full voting members; in others they have but a fraction of a vote, all the Past Masters of a lodge having one vote between them on any Grand Lodge question to be decided by a vote by lodges. Whether full voting members of Grand Lodge, or members with but a fraction of a votes, they are such by action of their own Grand Lodge, and not by inherent right.

Before the formation of the Mother Grand Lodge in England in 1717, when General Assemblies of Masons were held, Past Masters were as much a part of that body as the members of the Craft. But the Old Constitutions of the Mother Grand Lodge did not recognize Past Masters as members of the Grand Lodge. Dermott’s “Ahiman Rezon” of 1778, quoting Anderson’s edition of the “Old and New Regulations” says: “Past Masters of Warranted Lodges on record are allowed this privilege (membership in Grand Lodge) while they continue to be members of any regular lodge.” But his previous edition of this same work does not contain this statement, and Preston refers to the Grand Lodge, at the laying of the corner stone of Covent Garden Theater, in London, by the Prince of Wales as Grand Master, in these words: “The Grand Lodge was opened by Charles March, Esq., attended by the Masters and Wardens of all the regular lodges;” he does not mention Past Masters as a part of the Grand Lodge.

These Past Masters, or course, have long since gone the way of all flesh; Past Masters who are now members of Grand Lodges are made so by the action of those Grand Lodges, and not by any inherent right. But the very fact that a Past Master “May” receive such recognition at the hands of his Grand Lodge, which ordinarily would not be given to brethren not Past Masters (except Wardens), must be considered as one of the rights and privileges of a Past Master.

Past Masters are said by Mackey to possess the right to preside over their lodges, in the absence of the Master, and on the invitation of the Senior Warden, or in his absence, the Junior Warden.

According to the ancient laws of Masonry, which gives a Master very large powers, any Master Mason may be called to the Chair by a Master. Here the question is as to who may be called to the Chair by a warden, who has congregated the lodge in the absence of the Master. The great Masonic jurist gives unqualified endorsement to the idea that then only a Warden, or Past Master with the consent of the presiding Warden can preside over a lodge, and counts this as among the rights of a Past Master. However true this may be in this specific case, the practice and the law in many Jurisdictions gives to the Master the right to put any brother in the Chair for the time being, remaining, of course, responsible for the acts of his temporary appointee, and for the acts of his lodge during such incumbency.

It may be considered a moot question as to just when a Master becomes a Past Master. He is installed as Master “until your successor be regularly elected and installed.” From this point of view the Master is Master until his successor has been made Master by installation; in other words, the right to install his successor is inherent in the office of Master, and not Past Master. Under the law of Masonry, however, for this purpose Masters and Past Masters are identical; the Master really becomes a Past Master when, after election he “passes the Chair” in an emergent Lodge of Past Masters, or when, as a virtual Past Master, made so in a Chapter, he is elected Master of his lodge. In those few American Jurisdictions in which the elected Master is not required to receive the Past Master’s Degree, prior to installation, a Master does not become a Past Master until his successor is installed.

The right to install his successor is inherent; the privilege of delegating that duty to another is within the power of any Worshipful Master (Courtesy would indicate that the desires of the Senior Warden be considered for installing officer, as well as the date for the installation). He should not delegate the installing power to any brother who has not himself been installed, in order that the succession of the Oriental Chair be unbroken, from regularly installed Master to Master-Elect, regularly to be installed. Therefore, in most Jurisdictions, the installation power which is the right of the Master, may be considered also a privilege of Past Masters.

A very important right of all Past Masters is that of being elected to the office of Master, without again serving as Warden. Perhaps no regulation is more jealously guarded by Grand Lodges than this, which dates in print from 1722 (Old Charges), that no Mason may be elected, or installed as Master who has not been regularly elected, installed and served as Warden. There are exceptions; when a new lodge is constituted, a brother who has not been regularly elected, installed and served as a Warden may be elected and installed as Master (In Nevada it is permissible for any Master Mason to be elected and installed as Worshipful Master); when no Wardens in a lodge will accept election to the East, a brother may be elected from the floor, provided a dispensation is secured from the Grand Master. A Past Master may be elected Master of a lodge (whether the lodge over which he once presided or another is immaterial) without dispensation.

- Source: Short Talk Bulletin - Jan. 1931
Masonic Service Association of North America

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