Commentaries on the

History, Philosophy, and Symbolism

of the Degree of


Excerpted from pages 45 – 61 of

The Book of the Chapter

by Albert G. Mackey

“Every association of men, as well as this of Freemasons, must, for the sake of order and harmony, be regulated by certain laws, and for that purpose, proper officers must be appointed and empowered to carry those laws into execution, to preserve a degree of uniformity, at least to restrain any irregularity that might render such associations inconsistent.”

Hutchinson, Spirit of Masonry.


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.


This degree was originally, and still is, in connection with Symbolic Masonry—an honorary degree conferred on the Master of a lodge. 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 having retired, the degree is conferred upon the newly-elected officer; and this conferring of the degree constitutes a part of the installation ceremony.

How long this custom has prevailed, we are unable to determine; but it is probable that ever since the organization of the institution, some peculiar mark of distinction has been always bestowed upon those who were selected to rule over the craft. The earliest written reference on this subject is found in the first edition of Anderson's Book of Constitutions. A description is there given of the “manner of constituting a new lodge.” The Grand Master, after proclaiming the Master, is said to use “some other expressions that are proper and usual on that occasion, but not proper to be written.” From rituals of a not much later period that are in existence, it is evident that the author here refers to the very brief mode of conferring the Past Master's degree which was then in use, and which consisted of no more than a communication of the methods of recognition.

In Preston's time, the ceremonies had been enlarged, for he says in describing the form of installation, that “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.”

It is evident, then, that this degree was originally simply a degree of office, and conferred only on the elected Master of a lodge. As these rulers of Masonry were supposed to be selected for their superior skill and intelligence, they alone were permitted to receive that consummation of masonic light which is contained in the Royal Arch degree. Hence, therefore, the possession of the degree of Past Master became a necessary qualification for exaltation to the Royal Arch, and as, at first, that degree was conferred in connection with, and under the jurisdiction of, symbolic lodges, none but those who had presided in the chair were permitted to receive it.

So, in time, when the Chapters were separated from the lodges, and placed under a distinct jurisdiction, the usage still prevailed, and candidates for exaltation were invested, as a preparatory step, with the Past Master's degree, and for this purpose a lodge of Past Masters was opened, and a fictitious installation (for it was nothing else) was performed.

This was the origin of the insertion of this degree into the series of capitular degrees, which has in recent years occasioned so many almost bitter controversies respecting the contending rights of “actual” Past Masters, or those installed in a regularly constituted symbolic lodge, and “virtual” Past Masters made in a Chapter, simply as a qualification for receiving the Royal Arch degree.

One of the evils resulting from the disseverance of the Past Master's degree from its legitimate position as a part of the installation service in a symbolic lodge, was the introduction of a number of ceremonies into the Chapter degree, which were unknown to it in its original conception, and which are still unused in the installation of a Worshipful Master.

These ceremonies became at length, by an unfortunate misdirection of the fertile genius of some inventor, so perverted from the original design of every masonic degree, which is to inculcate some particular moral or religious truth, as to meet with the very general condemnation of all intelligent and reflecting minds.

At length a powerful effort was made to divest the degree of those offensive ornaments which had been gradually fastened upon it, and to restore it, as nearly as possible, to its original simplicity. This effort was successful, and in September, 1856, the General Grand Chapter of the United States adopted a resolution, which recommended the subordinate Chapters under its jurisdiction “to abridge the ceremonies now conferred in the Past Master's degree within the narrowest constitutional limits, only retaining the inducting of the candidate into the Oriental Chair, and communicating the means of recognition.”

It is to be hoped that this reform, dictated by good taste and judgment, will be approved and enforced by the presiding officers of all the Chapters.


The symbolic color of the Past Master's degree is purple. The apron is of white lamb-skin, edged with purple, and should have the jewel of the degree inscribed upon it. The collar is of purple, edged with gold. But, as Past Master's lodges are held under the warrants of Royal Arch Chapters, the collars, aprons and jewels of the Chapter are generally made use of in conferring the Past Master's degree.

The jewel of a Past Master is a pair of golden compasses, extended to sixty degrees, and resting on the fourth of a circle. Between the extended legs of the compasses is a flaming sun.

[The jewel, in England, was formerly a square, resting on an arc of ninety degrees; at the present time it is the square, with a silver plate suspended within it, on which is engraved a diagram of the forty-seventh problem of Euclid.]

Lodges of Past Masters are “dedicated to the Holy Saints John.”

A candidate receiving this degree is said to be “seated in the Oriental chair of King Solomon.”


Most holy and glorious Lord God, the Great Architect of the universe, the Giver of all good gifts and graces: Thou hast promised, that where two or three are gathered together in thy name, thou wilt be in the midst of them, and bless them. In thy name we assemble, most humbly beseeching thee to bless us in all our undertakings, that we may know and serve thee aright, and that all our actions may tend to thy glory, and to our advancement in knowledge and virtue. And we beseech thee, O Lord God, to bless our present assembling, and to illuminate our minds, that we may walk in the light of thy countenance; and when the trials of our probationary state are over, be admitted into THE TEMPLE “not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” So mote it be. Amen.


The Giblemites, or, as fhey are called in Scripture, the Giblim, were inhabitants of the city and district of Gebal, in Phoenicia, near Mount Lebanon, and were, therefore, under the dominion of the King of Tyre. The Phoenician word “gihal” which makes “giblim” in the plural, signifies a mason or stone-squarer. In the First Book of Kings, chapter 5, verses 17 and 18, we read that “the King commanded, and they brought great stones, costly stones, and hewed stones, to lay the foundation of the house. And Solomon's builders and Hiram's builders did hew them, and the stone-squarers,” which last word is, in the original, giblim. Gesenius [Hebrew Lexicon in voce.] says that the inhabitants of Gebal were seamen and builders, and Sir William Drummond [Origines, vol. III, b. V, ch. IV, p. 192.] asserts that “the Gibalim were Master Masons, who put the finishing hand to Solomon's temple.” In this sense the word is also used in the Book of Constitutions [Anderson, James. Constitutions of the Free and Accepted Masons, edit. 1738. p. 70.], which records that John do Spoulee, who, as one of the deputies of Edward III., assisted in rebuilding Windsor Castle, was called the “Master of the Ghiblim.” The Giblim, or the Giblimites, were, therefore, stone-squarers or Master Masons.


The implements necessary to a Present or Past Master are sometime presented to the candidate, and their uses explained.

The Book of the Law, that great light in Masonry, will guide you to all truth; it will direct your path to the temple of happiness, and point out to you the whole duty of man.

The Square teaches us to regulate our actions by rule and line, and to harmonize our conduct by the principles of morality and virtue.

The Compasses teach us to limit our desires in every station—that, rising to eminence by merit, we may live respected and die regretted.

The Rule directs that we should punctually observe our duty, press forward in the path of virtue, and, neither inclining to the right nor to the left, in all our actions have eternity in view.

The Line teaches the criterion of moral rectitude, to avoid dissimulation in conversation and action, and to direct our steps to the path which leads to a glorious immortality

The Book of Constitutions you are to search at all times. Cause it to be read in your lodge, that none may pretend ignorance of the excellent precepts it enjoins.

You now receive in charge the Charter, by the authority of which this lodge is held. You are carefully to preserve and duly transmit it to your successors in office.

You will also receive in charge the By-Laws of your lodge, which you are to see carefully and punctually executed.


Brother: 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.


Supreme Architect of the Universe, accept our humble praises for the many mercies and blessings which thy bounty has conferred on us, and especially for this friendly and social intercourse. Pardon, we beseech thee, whatever thou hast seen amiss in us, since we have been together; and continue to us thy presence, protection and blessing. Make us sensible of the renewed obligations we are under to love thee supremely, and to be friendly to each other. May all our irregular passions be subdued, and may we daily increase in Faith, Hope and Charity, but more especially in that Charity which is the bond of peace, and the perfection of every virtue. May we so practise thy precepts, that we may finally obtain thy promises, and find an entrance through the gates into the temple and city of our God. So mote it be. Amen.

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