One of the most important secret societies in Germany in the second half of the eighteenth century, the Rite of Strict Observance had its roots in the Templar Masonry invented by Jacobite exiles in France in the years just before the Stuart rebellion of 1745. Baron Karl Gotthelf von Hund, the founder and original head of the Rite, was initiated into Freemasonry in 1741 or 1742, and traveled to Paris in 1743, where he received the Templar degrees from the Earl of Kilmarnock, a Jacobite peer attached to the Stuart court in exile.
During his visit von Hund also received appointment as a Provincial Grand Master of the Templar degrees for Germany. He returned home to Saxony, and to all appearances spent the next 11 years doing nothing with the degrees and authority he had received. What exactly was going on during this period is anyone’s guess, for the Templar degrees remained secret until the 1750s. Their connection to Jacobite ambitions made that secrecy something more than a ritual requirement in Germany at the time, since the House of Hanover, England’s rulers since 1714 and the object of Jacobite hatreds, had close ties to many German principalities.
In 1754 von Hund went to Paris a second time. There he renewed his connections to the higher degrees by way of the Rite of Perfection, founded at the College of Clermont by the Chevalier de Bonneville that year as a public presence for the new Templar Masonry, and received new authority to promulgate the Rite in Germany. On his return to Germany, von Hund immediately launched his own organization, the Rite of Strict Observance, which took over the Templar claims of the Rite of Perfection but worked a simpler system of degrees. Masonic historians have argued that von Hund’s system of 7 degrees was based on 6 degrees worked by Jacobite Masons before the creation of the 22 degrees of the Rite of Perfection. Hund himself claimed that the Rite and its secrets had been entrusted to him by a circle of Unknown Superiors, and that Charles Edward Stuart, the “Young Pretender,” was its Grand Master.
The Rite of Strict Observance was an immense success in Germany and other central European countries, supplanting most other Masonic systems in central Europe and expanding into Italy as well. Part of the Rite’s appeal lay in the lure of new and higher degrees, and part in the Templar mythology with its attraction to German aristocrats, but von Hund also claimed to offer more tangible benefits. He claimed to have access to the secret of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life, and many members of the Rite experimented with alchemy in the hope of preparing themselves for the final revelation that would enable them to turn lead into gold. Members of the Rite also searched for hidden Templar treasures and discussed the possibility of regaining Templar estates still held by the Knights of Malta.
The Rite of Strict Observance faced competition from other would-be Templar Grand Masters. One of the most colourful was a man who went by the name of George Frederick Johnson, and proclaimed himself “Knight of the Great Lion of the High Order of the Lords of the Temple of Jerusalem.” His real name was Leucht, and he had a shady career behind him involving other pseudonyms and claims of magical power. Johnson claimed to have received Templar degrees higher than von Hund’s at a special conclave in Aberdeen, Scotland, the supposed headquarters of the Knights Templar since the fourteenth century. He surfaced in 1763 and managed to win enough of a following that von Hund at first treated him as an equal and arranged for an official meeting in 1764. When Johnson proved unable to produce any of the great secrets he claimed, von Hund denounced him as a trickster. Johnson was arrested in Magdeburg a year later for fraud, and von Hund’s friends there saw to it that the “Knight of the Great Lion” languished in prison until his death in 1775.
Less easily dismissed was Johann August Starck (1741–1816), an enthusiastic Mason who went to Paris in 1766 and returned with the degrees of a new, higher Templar system, the Clerks Templar, which claimed to be an inner order of Templar clergy in possession of secrets not revealed to ordinary Templar knights. Membership in this new order was limited to Roman Catholics who had received all the degrees of the Rite of Strict Observance. In 1768 von Hund and Starck agreed to a union of the two organizations, but this never became effective and in 1775 Starck withdrew his followers from the combined rite.
By that time the Rite of Strict Observance was in steep decline. Its Achilles’ heel was von Hund’s claim that his Unknown Superiors were prepared to pass on important secrets. The secrets never appeared, and hard questions began to be asked about whether the Unknown Superiors existed at all. At a congress of the Rite held at Brunswick in 1775, von Hund was challenged directly on the subject, and eventually was demoted to the position of Provincial Superior, with Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick taking his place at the head of the Rite. Throughout this process, von Hund refused to reveal any information about the Rite’s hidden chiefs, citing his own oath of secrecy, but his comments suggest that he was as disappointed as anyone at the failure of the Superiors to make good on their promises.
That disappointment may well not have been feigned. Contemporary writers describe von Hund as honest, enthusiastic, and credulous, and his career shows no other signs of duplicity or, for that matter, involvement in the Jacobite cause. His passion for Masonic rites seems to have landed him in the middle of intrigues whose political dimensions escaped him completely. The failure of the Jacobite cause to recover from the disaster at the battle of Culloden in 1746 explains the silence of the Unknown Superiors, since von Hund and his Rite alike had no further value to the exiled Stuart court once the hope of a restoration was past.
Hund died in 1776, still waiting for the Superiors to reveal the secrets they had promised him. The Rite continued to function for some years thereafter, though constant debates about the reality of the Unknown Superiors wracked the organization. In 1782 von Hund’s successor, Duke Ferdinand, called another congress of the Rite, the Convention of Wilhelmsbad, to settle the matter once and for all. After much debate, the Convention decided that von Hund’s claims of Templar connections were baseless, and replaced his higher degrees withthose of the Beneficent Chevaliers of the Holy City, a system created by the French Mason Jean-Baptiste Willermoz.
After the Convention a few initiates and lodges remained faithful to von Hund’s system, and charlatans found a market for claims of access to the Unknown Superiors for years thereafter. Those members of the Rite not yet disillusioned with secret societies returned to less exotic forms of Masonry or joined the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross, the premier German Rosicrucian order of the time, which was just then entering its period of greatest popularity.
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