The exact origins of the four Chapter degrees in its current form as part of the York Rite are unknown.
Royal Arch Mason
Origins and early development
As for the degree of Royal Arch Mason, Turnbull and Denslow contend that “It is the most widely known and talked about degree in the Masonic system” because it had been part of the third degree until the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England. Although glimpses of Royal Arch Masonry vocabulary appear in Masonic literature from the 1720s, the first verifiable appearance of Royal Arch Masonry is in Ireland in the 1740s during a Dublin procession. According to Lodge No. 21’s records, the “Royal Arch” was carried in a procession by “two excellent Masons” through Youghal, Ireland, on December 27, 1743. However, the oldest known Chapter in the world is Stirling Rock Royal Arch Chapter No 2 in Scotland, which has worked since 1743.
The degree is also mentioned disapprovingly in Dassigny’s “A serious and impartial enquiry into the cause of the present decay of Free-masonry in the Kingdom of Ireland” published in Dublin in 1744. Separate notes in this work indicate that the rite was practiced in Dublin, London and York, and described it as an “organis’d body of men who have passed the chair” (i.e. served as the Master of a Craft lodge).
In 1749, the Grand Lodge of Ireland issued warrants to Lodges 190 and 198 to establish “Royal Arch Lodges”.
From Ireland, the Royal Arch spread to England, where it fueled the rivalry between the two Craft grand lodges in existence at that time. In 1717 the original Premier Grand Lodge of England had been formed in London to govern Craft Freemasonry in England. From 1751, its claim to represent the whole of English Craft Freemasonry was contested by the Antient Grand Lodge of England. In the ensuing debate, the newer grand lodge became known as the “Antients”, while the older was referred to as the “Moderns”. In 1746, Laurence Dermott, later the Grand Secretary of the “Antients”, had been accepted into a Royal Arch Chapter in Dublin, which at that time was open only to those who had previously served as master of a Craft lodge. He regarded the Royal Arch as the fourth degree of Craft Masonry. Under his influence, the “Antients” championed the Royal Arch degree in England, while it was met with hostility in the “Moderns”. At the beginning of the 19th century, when the “Antients” and the “Moderns” moved from rivalry towards union, the role and purpose of the Royal Arch became a sticking point. The “Antients” viewed the Royal Arch as a fourth degree of Craft Freemasonry and worked it as part of the Craft ceremonies, while the “Moderns” held that Craft Freemasonry consisted of three degrees only and that the Royal Arch was at the most an extension of the third (Master Mason’s) degree which was to be administered separately. When the “Antients” and “Moderns” merged in 1813 to form the United Grand Lodge of England, this was possible only after reaching a compromise on the role and purpose of Royal Arch Masonry. After the union, the “Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch” would be fully recognized by the United Grand Lodge, but become a separate order with all Craft Lodges permitted to work the ceremony. In its Book of Constitutions, the United Grand Lodge of England declared that “…pure Antient Masonry consists of three degrees and no more, viz. those of the Entered Apprentice, the Fellow Craft, and the Master Mason including the Supreme Order of the Holy Royal Arch.“ In 1823, the United Grand Lodge of England allowed Master Masons to join Holy Royal Arch Chapters without having previously passed through the chair of a Craft lodge. In Freemasonry in Scotland, a candidate for the Royal Arch must also be a Mark Master Mason, a degree which can be conferred within a Royal Arch Chapter if required.
History in the United States
In Northern America, freemasons until the end of the 18th century performed Royal Arch ceremonies as well as some others that are now more familiarly part of Knights Templar and the Red Cross of Constantine.
In Virginia and West Virginia, there is no separate Cryptic Council. The Cryptic Degrees are given under the Royal Arch Chapter.
Fredericksburg Lodge in Virginia lists a conferral of the Royal Arch degree on December 22, 1753. There is also a Royal Arch Chapter noted in 1769 in Massachusetts (St. Andrew’s Royal Arch Chapter in Boston, then known as Royall Arch Lodge), where the first Knights Templar degree was also conferred. Through a report compiled by the Committee on History and Research appointed by the Grand Chapter of Massachusetts in 1953 and 1954, it was found that St. Andrew’s Royal Arch Chapter was the oldest Chapter in the Western Hemisphere by date of constitution, having been officially constituted April 9, 1769, though the records implied that the Chapter had been working prior to that date, and perhaps as early as 1762. The report also states that it is unknown whether the Fredericksburg Lodge in Virginia conferred only the Royal Arch degree or the entire series of degrees. Pennsylvania, however, claims to have the oldest extant Royal Arch Chapter in the world. Royal Arch Chapter No. 3 (formerly Jerusalem Royal Arch Chapter No. 3, and before that Royal Arch Lodge No. 3) has complete minutes going back as far as December 3, 1767. (The minutes from this date mention approving the minutes from the previous meeting.) This Chapter began meeting under the authority of the Grand Lodge of England (Ancients) and it is believed that the Chapter was constituted around 1758, but this date has yet to be proven. It currently works under a renewed warrant from 1780. The Grand Chapter of Pennsylvania claims to be the first Royal Arch Grand Chapter in North America and was formed on November 23, 1795 by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
After the independence of the American Colonies in 1776, Freemasonry in the United States remained relatively little influenced by the rivalry between the “Antients” and “Moderns” in England. In 1797, a group of Royal Arch masons met in Hartford to try to establish some sort of governing body for degrees that were largely conferred in the New England states, which became the Grand Chapter of the Northern States, and later was broken down into the state-by-state Grand Chapter system. This body later became the General Grand Chapter, Royal Arch Masons International.
On 10 November 2004, the Grand Chapter of the Holy Royal Arch in England declared the Royal Arch to be a separate degree in its own right, albeit the natural progression from the third degree, and the completion of “pure, antient Masonry“, which consists of the three Craft degrees and the Royal Arch. Following this decision by the Grand Chapter in 2004, there are currently significant ritual differences between Royal Arch Masonry as worked in England and Royal Arch Masonry worked as part of the York Rite in the USA. Fraternal inter-relations remain as before.
History in Canada
Royal Arch Masonry in Canada differs slightly from that explained above from an American perspective. In Canada it tends to have stronger ties to the UK than to the USA, and in Canada unlike in the USA, the link to the monarchy remains. However it should be noted that recent changes to the Holy Royal Arch in the UK, did not necessarily occur in Canada. In most Chapters in Canada the Past Master degree is not worked, there are only a few exceptions. The degree of the Holy Royal Arch is considered the “completion of the Master Mason’s degree” in Lodge – a phrase inherited from England, but which was officially abandoned by the United Grand Lodge of England in 2004. The Officer’s titles listed above may differ slightly, and of course the history is different, and more intertwined with that of the British Empire from which it largely grew, there are Chapters that received their charters from the Scottish Grand Chapter and therefore differ in respects.
Past Master (Virtual)
The April 30, 1793 minutes of St. Andrew’s Royal Arch Chapter (as mentioned above) state that the so-called Excellent degree may have become the Past Master Degree, and that a similar degree by that name was conferred in 1790 by King Cyrus Chapter in Newburyport, Massachusetts. There was also a “Super Excellent” degree that simply disappeared from the St. Andrew’s minutes after December 21, 1797, and it was postulated that it may have become the Most Excellent Master degree, first noted in the same minutes on February 21, 1798.
The Past Master Degree was already in existence by 1797, and appears in a few monitors of the era: it is one of the four degrees in the Webb Monitor (1797) and appears in Jeremy Cross’ monitor in 1826.
Most Excellent Master
The Most Excellent Master Degree is considered American in origin, although it has been postulated by Denslow and Turnbull that it was merely a rearrangement of preexisting material. They state that the first mention of it by name is when it was conferred on William S. Davis on August 28, 1769 in St. Andrew’s Royal Arch Lodge, and that the degrees came from lodges originating from the Irish Constitution. Similarities between this degree and material in the 19° in the Early Grand Rite of Scotland are also enumerated upon, and they conclude that the degree is from that Rite.
Mark Master Mason
The degree of a Mark Master Mason is seen as an extension of the Fellowcraft Degree. It originated in England, and is believed to have entered the York Rite via immigrants to America from Scotland and Palestine.
The first record of the Mark degree is in 1769, when Thomas Dunckerley, as Provincial Grand Superintendent, conferred the degrees of Mark Man and Mark Master Mason at a Royal Arch Chapter in Portsmouth, England.
In Ireland, the degree of Mark Master Mason is still required to join a Royal Arch Chapter. A Royal Arch Chapter meets as a Mark Lodge, confers the Mark Degree on a candidate making him eligible become a Royal Arch Mason as a subsequent meeting. A Mark Lodge and a Royal Arch Chapter share the same Warrant within the Irish system.
In Scotland, the Mark Degree is still conferred in a Craft lodge. The degree may also be conferred in a Holy Royal Arch Chapter as a prerequisite for exaltation to the Holy Royal Arch. Should a candidate for a Scottish Royal Arch Chapter already have taken his Mark Degree in his Craft Lodge then he will affiliate to the Mark Lodge belonging to the Chapter before proceeding to the Excellent Master and then Royal Arch Degrees.
(the source/read more: Wikipedia)