In Freemasonry, all those degrees that come after the Master Mason degree, with the exception of the Royal Arch and its associated degrees, are referred to as high degrees. This usage is controversial in some circles, as Masonic tradition insists that the degree of Master Mason is the highest of all Masonic degrees. In recent years, with declining membership in all branches of Freemasonry, some Masons have insisted that the high degrees are unnecessary, and divert time and resources that should be devoted to Craft Masonry. Members of the high degrees, for their part, argue that these latter are important elements of Freemasonry and should not be discarded. See Freemasonry; Royal Arch.
The genesis of the high degrees of Masonry was a complex process, beginning in the late 1730s and continuing through the end of the nineteenth century. The catalyst for the first important series of high degrees was the famous 1736 oration of the Chevalier Ramsay, in which he argued that Masonry could trace its roots back to the knightly religious orders of the Crusades. Ramsay himself was a Jacobite – a supporter of the claims of the exiled House of Stuart to the British throne – and most of the high degrees that surfaced in Masonic circles in the two decades after his oration had close connections to the Jacobite movement. Ramsay himself is credited by some sources with the invention of the first set of high degrees, a system of three levels above Master Mason. See Jacobites; Ramsay, Andrew Michael.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the manufacture of high degrees formed an important part of Masonic activity throughout Europe, and especially in France, where more than half the high degrees still worked originated. More than 2000 high degrees surfaced within Freemasonry during these years, most of them as part of degree sequences within many competing rites of Masonry. For details of the most important of these rites, see Rite of Memphis; Rite of Misraim; Rite of Perfection; Rite of Strict Observance.
Most of these rites went out of existence before 1900, or survive only as small organizations on the fringes of Freemasonry. In the English-speaking world, the two main survivors are the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite and the York Rite. In America, both these rites are independent of ordinary Craft Masonry; the Scottish Rite is governed by its own Supreme Councils, the York Rite by a patchwork of state and national jurisdictions bewildering to the uninitiated. In England, while the Ancient and Accepted Rite is independent, the degrees of the York Rite are under the jurisdiction of United Grand Lodge. See Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite; York Rite.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006