On the Super Excellent Master Degree
Submitted by Illustrious Companion Kevin A. Wheeler, District Inspector 4th District, Grand Council of Illinois
IC Kevin A. Wheeler
Although not a fact for everyone, many Brethren regardless of Masonic jurisdictions are familiar with the Craft Lodge term known as “blue Lightning” or “Making a Mason on Sight” in which the Grand Master can make someone a Master Mason in one day. A similar occasion where a Royal Arch Mason can obtain all four of the Capitular Degrees in one or two days in some jurisdictions is termed a Grand Chapter Day. In March of 2022 the Grand Council of Cryptic Masons of the State of Illinois had its Grand Council Day of Degrees in which its members and new candidates were given the opportunity to join and obtain all three of the degrees conferred by the Council, that is the Royal Master, the Select Master, and the Super Excellent Master (SEM) Degrees respectively. A unique opportunity for York Rite Masons in Illinois, mainly due to the fact that the Super Excellent Master Degree is considered to be an Honorary Degree and isn’t regularly conferred. And that very fact is what lead to the questions that caused me to write this paper. The main questions to be answered were where did the SEM Degree come from, and why is it conferred by the Cryptic Council?
From simply coming up through Masonry we start to hear things about certain degrees. These things are said or thrown around in conversation sometimes while learning from one another and or to try enticing us to continue to seek further in Masonry. Some of the things I heard and in turn say myself today when introducing someone to various degrees and or Rites of Masonry. When discussing why one should join the Royal Arch we often hear that this is the Masonic house in which Masons learn what their true wages are and finally the true or Grand Omnific Word. When we hear about the Council we often times are told that it is these two degrees in which depict the story of how and where the Masters word was preserved and rediscovered. Of the Commandery, we often hear of how beautiful the Order of the Temple is or will be, and how becoming a Knights Templar is the pinnacle and should be the ultimate goal of every Christian York Rite Mason.
When considering the birthplace or origin of many rites and degrees throughout Masonry, we tend to return to an integral location in found in Southeastern France, the city or town of Bordeaux. According to some authors the Cryptic Degrees were among the many degrees created at Bordeaux, however initially being of the Scottish or Ecossais tradition quickly moved to Berlin. In Berlin at around 1751, King Fredrick the Great ensured the establishment of the Scottish Rite Constitution in addition the Cryptic Rite was established. “The former went back to Bordeaux and thence to Morin et al. to Jamaica and thence to South Carolina, Albany, New York, etc. The Cryptic Rite degrees went to the United States of America directly via Williams and Cohen. Certainly, this is the theoretic tradition of the Royal Master Degree.
The Select Master is known to have been actively performed in France prior to 1751. It is considered to be older than the degrees of the Rite of Perfection of the Scottish Rite and was also apparently worked by the Chapter of Clermont. The title of “Select Master of Clermont” (later shortened to Select Master) is thought not to relate to the Abbey of Clermont. The reason for that thinking is that the Abbey is operated and administered in the Jesuit tradition. The Jesuits are and were not fond of the Knights Templar, and all the degrees in the “Scots” system lead back, eventually to Ramsey’s Oration and the Knights Templar. Instead, it is thought that the title of the degree is most likely a compliment to the Duke of Clermont, the French Grand Master of Masons (1743-1770).
Of the Super Excellent Master Degree, we often hear of how long and beautiful, and different this degree is from every other Masonic Degree. How it requires a cast of approximately 40 Royal and Select Masons to perform the degree, and how it was once a degree conferred by the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. So, what of the Super Excellent Master Degree? The degree of SEM is not allied to the other two degrees of the Cryptic Rite, so far as its teachings and traditions are concerned. Its legend and ceremonies are intended to inculcate that important Masonic virtue – Fidelity to Vows. It is conferred as one of the regular Cryptic Rite degrees in some jurisdictions, whereas the others confer it as an honorary degree only; in some instances, separate Grand Councils of SEM’s have been formed. In Ill. Bro. Mackey’s book, entitled “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and its Kindred Sciences” the Super Excellent Master Degree is
A degree which was originally an honorary or side Degree conferred by the Inspectors General of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite at Charleston. It has since been introduced in some of the Royal and Select Councils in the United States, and there conferred as an additional degree. This innovation of the regular series of Cryptic Degrees, with which it actually has no historical connection, met with great opposition; so that the Convention of Royal and Select Masters which met at New York in June, 1873, resolved to place it in the category of an honorary degree, which might or might not be conferred at the option of a Council, but not as an integral part of the Rite. The Degree is simply an enlargement of that part of the ceremonies of the Royal Arch which refer to the Temple destruction. To that place it belongs, if it belongs anywhere, but has no more to do with the ideas inculcated in Cryptic Masonry, than have any of the Degrees lately invented for modern Secret Societies.
According to Hinmen, et. Al, shortly after the organization of the Supreme Council AASR in Charleston, in 1802, they issued a manifesto outlining the degrees to which they claimed jurisdiction. It stated: “Most of the Inspectors are in possession of a number of detached degrees given in different parts of the world and which they generally communicate free of expense to those brethren who are high enough to understand them such as Select Mason of “27”. Such in brief is the Scottish Rite claim to origin and control over the Cryptic Degrees. It is supported by the fact that their members, some of whom were inspectors (e.g. Cohen, Jacobs, and Lownds), actually did confer the degrees and in every instance the first record of conferring either the Royal Master or the Select Master Degrees indicate that it was conferred by a member of the Rite of Perfection.
So why or when did the Cryptic Degrees leave the Scottish Rite, and become an integral part of that of the York Rite? This according to Hinman, was a direct result of the fallout within the ranks of the AASR between J.J.J. Gourgas and Joseph Cerneau where Lownds siding with Cerneau caused the degrees to be permanently exported to the York Rite in 1818.
In 1873 the order of the degrees was agreed to and finalized. The order would be the Royal Master, the Select Master, and the Super Excellent Master. The latter, according to such experts as Henry Coil, does not actually constitute a “degree” but rather is considered to be a “ceremony.” The ironic part of that is that the Super Excellent Master contains a vibrant drama which originated with the Principal Sojourner’s part in the Royal Arch Degree and which concluded the period of the First and Second Temples. In 1881 the General Grand Council of the Cryptic Rite of the United States of America was established.
In conclusion, I sought to explain certain things about the SEM degree in an attempt to become more informed with the craft, and in fact that is just what we did. We discovered several things during our fact-finding journey. Mainly that not only the SEM degree but also those of both the Royal and Select Master Degrees were originally a part of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. That for all essential purposes, the SES Degree, more appropriately fits within the Royal Arch Degree as opposed to the Cryptic Degrees when considering its degree content.
Mackey, A. G. (2013). Commentaries on the History, Philosophy, and Symbolism of the Degree of Super Excellent Master. Retrieved March 19, 2022 from http://www.okcyorkrite.org/home/mackey/super-excellent-master
Van Doran, R. (2013). An Encapsulated History of Cryptic Masonry in Europe and the United States. Retrieved March 19, 2022 from http://www.knightstemplar.org/KnightTemplar/articles/CM.htm