While eminent Masonic scholars have frequently disagreed with the exact history of the formation of the Cryptic degrees, there is at least some general information on the degrees with which most Masonic historians will agree. It is on this information that we will concentrate here.
The degrees of Royal and Select Master were not originally combined into one system, each having been conferred by separate parties and initially controlled by separate Councils. As near as may be determined from conflicting claims, the Select degree is the oldest of the Rite. It was customary to confer the Royal degree on Master Masons prior to the Royal Arch, and the Select degree after exaltation to the sublime degree. This accounts for the fact that control of the Cryptic degrees vacillated back and forth in many jurisdictions, even after the formation of Grand Councils. To this date, the Royal and Select degrees are controlled by Grand Chapter in Virginia and West Virginia, and conferred by subordinate Chapters in those jurisdictions.
The Royal degree appears to have been developed primarily in New York under direction of Thomas Lownds, whereas the Select was vigorously promulgated by Philip Eckel in Baltimore. It is claimed by Eckel that a Grand Council of Select Masters was formed in Baltimore in 1792, while it is definitely known that a Grand Council of Royal Masters (Columbian No. 1) was organized in 1810 in New York. It remained for Jeremy Cross to combine the two degrees under one system, which occurred about 1818, and this pattern was adopted in most jurisdictions as the degrees became dispersed beyond the eastern seaboard.
The degree of Super Excellent Master is not allied to the other two degrees of the Cryptic Rite, so far as its teachings and traditions are concerned. The records of St. Andrews Chapter in Boston indicate that a degree of this name was conferred during the latter part of the eighteenth century. The earliest positive reference to the Super Excellent in connection to the Cryptic Rite is December 22, 1817, when a “Lodge” of Super Excellent Masters was organized by Columbian Council of Royal Masters in New York. The incidents, teachings, and ritualistic format of the Super Excellent degree bear no resemblance in any former degrees so named, which appears to justify the claim that it is American in origin. This degree has been, and to some extent still is, a rather controversial subject. 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 Super Excellent Masters have been formed. The Grand Council of Michigan adopted the degree in 1872, but it was not generally accepted until after 1917, when the dramatized version replaced the “horse play” commonly in vogue prior to that time. Since then, the conferring of this degree in full form has become mandatory in our Grand Council regulations before a Companion is entitled to full membership.
Monroe Council No. 1 was first organized in 1847, fostered “within the bosom” of Monroe Chapter No. 1 of Detroit. The proceedings of the Grand Chapter of Michigan for 1853 substantiate this fact, as evidenced by the reports of the Grand High Priest and Grand Recorder. In his address, G.H.P. Jeremiah Moors made the following comment:
“There was a Council of Royal and Select Masters in Detroit prior to the organization of the Grand Chapter (1848) and still continues to be, but they do not derive authority from us, neither have we any evidence that they ever acknowledged our right to control them.”
Companion Nathaniel Jacobs, Grand Recorder, in making his report, added the following: “For years, Monroe Council No. 1 of Detroit was the only organized body of Royal and Select Masters, her jurisdiction being co-extensive with the boundaries of the State itself.”
When the Grand Chapter of Michigan was organized in 1848, its By-Laws provided for the conferring of the Council degrees by any Chapter within its jurisdiction. Specific regulations governed the granting of such authority. This article of the By-Laws was completely annulled at the Annual Convocation in 1854, in conformity with legislation passed by the General Grand Chapter in 1853, which prohibited such action.
Monroe Council No. 1 was apparently aggressive and progressive in disseminating the Cryptic Rite, and numerous Royal Arch Masons from the more populated areas of the State received the Royal and Select degrees from this Council during the decade from 1847 and 1857. These Companions were among the leaders who were instrumental in organizing Grand Chapter in 1848 and Grand Commandery in 1857. After steps were taken by Monroe Council to ensure legal organization and to sponsor two other Councils, these Companions were ready to unite in forming a Grand Council.
Fearful that its members would not be recognized as bona fide Royal and Select Masters, and that the future of the Cryptic Rite in this State would be jeopardized, Monroe Council No. 1 set about early in 1856, to establish legal organization. Edward A. Elliott, a member having roots in Connecticut, visited that jurisdiction and applied for a dispensation to Charter a Council in Detroit. The proceedings of the Grand Council of Connecticut, covering its annual assembly of May 13, 1856, disclose granting of a dispensation for Monroe Council No. 23, with authority to heal those Companions who had received the Cryptic degrees in Royal Arch Chapters. At the annual assembly of Connecticut held May 12, 1857, the proceedings report approval of a charter to be issued to Monroe Council No. 23 of Detroit, as well as St. Clair No. 24 also of Michigan.
On May 19, 1856, Monroe Council No. 1 held a special meeting to hear the report of Companion Elliott, approved the dispensation he received from Connecticut and changed its number in conformity therewith. A month later, on June 16, it met again to discuss and adopt a code of by-laws. The original officers and members who signed this document were to become conspicuous in the annals of Masonry in Michigan.
On January 2, 1857, petitions were received from John Clark, George B. Engle, and eight other Royal Arch Masons from St. Clair County, requesting Monroe Council to confer the degrees upon them and to recommend a dispensation from Connecticut for a Council in St. Clair. A charter was granted, coincident to the granting of one to Detroit, and designated as St. Clair Council No. 24.
On April 20, 1857, a petition was presented by Theron A. Flower, A. B. Cudworth, D. C. Jacobs, Francis Darrow, and five others from Pontiac, requesting Monroe Council recommend to the Grand Council of Connecticut that these Companions, be issued a Dispensation. Such a dispensation was granted on May 12, 1857, in the name Pontiac Council No. 25. Thus within a short span of time, Companion Elliott’s visit to Connecticut had spawned three Council for Michigan. The Companions from St. Clair and Pontiac, like those of Detroit, were to add laurels to the annuals of Masonry in Michigan; soon thereafter all were to join forces in forming the Grand Council of Michigan.
By previous agreement, a delegation of representatives from Monroe, St. Clair, and Pontiac Councils assembled at the Masonic Hall in Detroit on January 13, 1858, for the purpose of organizing a Grand Council. George B. Engle of St. Clair was appointed Chairman of the Convention, and Francis Darrow of Pontiac was named Secretary. The following resolution was presented and unanimously adopted:
“Resolved, that this convention deems it for the best interest of Royal and Select Masters in this state that Grand Council be formed.”
A form of constitution and by-laws, previously prepared, were read and adopted. These regulations we so well framed that they were to serve for fifty years, with only minor amendments. The convention then proceeded to the election of officers, the following be unanimously chosen:
Nathan B. Carpenter, Detroit, Thrice Ill. Grand Puissant
Simeon B. Brown, St. Clair, Ill. Deputy Grand Puissant
Francis Darrow, Pontiac, Grand Thrice Ill. Puissant
Ezra Rood, Detroit, Ill. Grand Treasurer
Nathaniel P. Jacobs, Detroit, Ill. Grand Recorder
Theron Flower, Pontiac, Ill. Grand Captain of the Guard
George B. Engle, St. Clair, Ill. Grand Chaplain
R. W. Davis, Pontiac, Ill. Grand Cond. of Work
A. J. Cummings, St. Clair, Ill. Grand Marshal
A. B. Cudworth, Pontiac, Ill. Grand Steward
Charles D. Howard, Detroit, Ill. Grand Sentinel
A commission had been received from the Grand Council of Connecticut which authorized Companion George B. Engle to install the officers-elect. After the officers were installed, charters were granted, without fee, to the Councils, now made subordinate to the newly-born Grand Council of Michigan, their names remained the same, but the Councils were renumbered 1, 2, and 3.
Read the proceedings from the Royal & Select Masters of Michigan at the convention to form the Grand Council January 13th, 1858