One of the many systems on the fringes of regular Masonry that emerged in the nineteenth century, the Rite of Memphis was one of the most extensive, with no fewer than 95 degrees of initiation (plus an honorary 96th for its governing Grand Hierophant). According to the most widely accepted theory, it was originally founded by Samuel Honis, an expatriate Frenchman living in Egypt, in 1814. After the fall of Napoleon, Honis returned to France and brought his new rite with him, establishing one lodge, “Le Disciples de Memphis,” in Montauban in 1815. It went out of existence after a year, but in the interim one Gabriel-Mathieu Marconis de Negre had received the full set of degrees.
In 1838 the Rite surfaced again in Paris with Marconis’s son, Jacques-Etienne Marconis de Negre, as Grand Hierophant 96°. The younger Marconis had previously been a member of the Rite of Misraim, which boasted 90 degrees, but was expelled in 1833 and again (having joined in a different city under another name) in 1834. It has been suggested that the entire previous history of the Rite of Memphis, along with the Rite itself, was concocted by Marconis in the mid-1830s as an attempt to build a rival organization to the Rite of Misraim; conclusive evidence one way or the other is lacking, but such things happen frequently enough in the history of secret societies.
After the 1838 refounding (or founding) of the Rite, Marconis founded several lodges, but in 1841 the Rite was suppressed by the French police as a subversive secret society. To be fair, they had some justification; while Marconis seems to have been completely apolitical, the Rite of Memphis attracted attention from the radical left almost immediately it appeared, and many of its members belonged to the Philadelphes, one of the major revolutionary secret societies of the time. The suppression drove lodges underground rather than out of existence, and connections between the Rite and the Philadelphes spread during this time.
The revolution of 1848 brought a short-lived liberal regime into being in France, and Marconis was able to launch the Rite again under more favorable conditions. The next few years were the period of the Rite’s greatest expansion, as charters for Grand Lodges went to Egypt, Romania, and the United States. French expatriates in England founded a Philadelphe lodge under the Rite’s aegis in 1850. Napoleon Ill’s seizure of power in 1852 turned this latter lodge into a major center of political opposition and conspiracy against his regime. Despite the efforts of the Grand Lodge of England to suppress the Rite of Memphis, the Philadelphe Lodge remained active at least until the end of the 1870s, and played an important role in the foundation of the First International.
In France, however, the Rite fell on hard times during the Second Empire; old-fashioned political secret societies such as the Philadelphes seemed out of date in an age of mass political movements. In 1862 Marconis turned what was left of the organization in France over to the Grand Orient of France, which turned its few French members into regular Freemasons and took the Memphis degrees out of circulation. Several subsequent attempts to relaunch the Rite of Memphis in Europe attracted few takers, though a handful of lodges in France, Switzerland, and Germany still work the Rite. In the United States the Rite of Memphis is in the possession of the Grand College of Rites, an organization founded for the specific purpose of taking irregular degree systems out of circulation and keeping them there. Its major descendant is the Rite of Memphis and Misraim, created by John Yarker from the remnants of Marconis’s system and its most important rival.
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