The Higher Degrees’ Handbook

In attempting to give an outline sketch of the various degrees in Freemasonry in a book of this description, I am faced by many difficulties, not the least of which is how to write in an interesting way about degrees, which many of my readers have not taken, without giving away more than is permissible.

Extracted from The Higher Degrees’ Handbook by JSM Ward

One of my reasons for writing this book is to encourage Brethren to take these ‘Advanced Degrees.’

We still meet Brethren who say that there is nothing beyond the Craft worth taking.

As one who has taken all the degrees for which he is qualified, I can state from personal experience that, with one or two small exceptions, practically all the degrees are of the greatest value.

Of course, my readers must bear in mind that a Brother gets out of Masonry in proportion to what he brings into it.

If he approaches it with a keen intellectual mind, based on a reasonable amount of study of the meaning of symbolism, he naturally will learn far more than if he approaches it merely from the point of view of a man who knows a good dinner when he eats one, and cares nothing about the meaning of the ceremonies which take place in the Lodge Room.


The early history of the so-called ‘Higher Degrees’ is even more obscure than that of the Craft, and in consequence a tendency has grown up to regard them as ‘Manufactured’ during the 18th century.

In my opinion this is too hasty a conclusion, for some of these degrees at any rate bear every evidence of antiquity, and contain that wisdom which has been handed down from generation to generation.

The third degree clearly foreshadows a subsequent degree, wherein the lost secrects will be finally recovered, in fact without such a degree the whole of the Craft ceremonies would be meaningless.

Moreover, as we shall show later, the most important Higher Degrees use signs of great antiquity, which have been clearly handed down from ancient days in precisely the same way as have our Craft signs, of which full evidence has been given in the History Handbook.

There is also documentary evidence to show that the legends of some of these degrees were well known by our medieval ancestors, and actually incorporated in the Ancient Charges.

As, for example, the two pillars which were set up before the flood, survived that deluge, and were subsequently re-discovered by masons.

This legend forms the theme of the 13th degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite which is called the Royal Arch of Enoch.

The earliest printed references to any of the Higher Degrees are to the Royal Arch in 1741, and to the Royal Order of Scotland in 1743, when it was in such a vigorous state of health that it had a Provincial Grand Lodge in London, with at least two Chapters under its control.

The Higher Degrees appear to fall into three main groups:

(l) Those that extend the story of the Craft

(2) Those which purport to restore the lost secrects

(3) The Chivalric Degrees.

With regard to the first group two tendencies seem to have been at work during the 18th century.

The one being to cut out of the Craft various parts of the legend, and the other being to enlarge certain incidents referred to in the Craft stories, add picturesque detail, and evolve out of them a new degree.

My own conviction is that the root matter of nearly all the Higher Degrees comes from traditions and legends cherished by our medieval predecessors.

There is no doubt that all our rituals, the Craft included, underwent considerable revision during the 18th century.

In the case of the Craft Degrees a considerable amount of excision was necessitated by the alteration of the clause in the constitution which changed Masonry from a Christian to a non-Christian basis.

This process of excision of all Christian references was not completed until the time of the Treaty of Union, in 1813, and one example for England will suffice.

Dunckerley, in the second half of the 18th century, declared that the ‘Blazing Star’ meant the star at Bethlehem which guided the wise men to the infant Christ.

In Scotland to this day there still survives a distinct reference to the Christ in the Craft Degrees, for the V.S.L. is opened by the D.C. with a quotation from the opening verse of the gospel of St. John, – ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ – whilst the Lodge is closed with the following quotation from the same source, ‘And the Word was with God.’

Now this clearly indicates the existence of a Christian explanation of the lost secrects which, though no longer countenanced in the Craft Degrees in England, survives in such degrees as the Rose Croix.

We thus see that anything Christian was eliminated from the lower degrees, and this explains the probable origin of some of the Higher Degrees.

At the same time, the general style of our Craft Rituals has been altered.

Apparently in early days the actual part taken by the candidate during the ceremony was comparatively small, and the bulk of the work consisted of lectures, some parts being by question and answer, while other parts contained various legends connected with the Order.

Gradually the tendency arose to make the candidate take a more active and dramatic part in the ceremony, and in order to do this legends and incidents which did not immediately connect with the main theme began to be dropped.

These parts were prized by the older members, and rather than see them perish they made them into side Degrees, nor are we justified in assuming that they invented the signs to go with these degrees.

In the Royal Order of Scotland to-day the bulk of the ceremony consists of questions and answers put by the Master. to the Wardens, and include the giving of signs at certain points in the catechism, which signs however, are not specifically taught to the candidate.

No doubt when similar portions were cut out and became Christian degrees the signs went with them, and naturally became tests to prove that a Brother had taken this new Side Degree, which was nevertheless in reality very ancient.

A characteristic example of a degree which has been cut out of an existing craft degree is the Mark, which was almost certainly part of the ceremony of a Fellow Craft, although no doubt it has been amplified since it started on its independent career.

On the other hand some of the intermediate degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, such as the Knights Elect of Nine, are merely amplifications of incidents dismissed in a few words in the Craft ceremony.

The Knights Elect of Nine relates in dramatic form the apprehension of one of the criminals [Ruffians].

To an entirely different order belong degrees like the Royal Arch, the Royal Order of Scotland, and the Rose Croix.

Each of these in its own way claims to be the completing degree, in which the lost secrect are discovered.

The explanation in the case of the last two is Christian, in the case of the Royal Arch non-Christian, whilst their survival indicates the existence of two diametrically opposed traditions.

The Christian Degrees represent the solution put forward in Medieval times, whereas the Royal Arch, though now overlaid with Jewish matter taken from the Old Testiment in the 18th century, has still within it traces of a tradition which goes right back to pre-Christian times, and clearly comes in part from Egypt, and in part from India.

The third group claim to carry on the teaching of the Chivalric Orders of the Middle Ages, and contain evidence of a mystical tradition which was not entirely orthodox.

A characteristic example of these degrees is the Knights Templar.

With regard to these Chivalric Degrees, it may at first sight appear difficult to justify the claim of a building guild to be linked in any way with the proudest Order of Chivalry known to exist in the Middle Ages, but those who hastily brush away this tradition ignore certain salient features of the Templar organisation.

The Templars contained at least three sections, or sub-orders, within their ranks, i.e., the Knights themselves, the Templar Priests, and the so-called Serving Brethren, among whom were many Masons.

When the Order was suppressed thousands of Knights escaped the general persecution, and simply disappeared from history.

How did they do it, and what became of them? The most reasonable explanation is that they disguised themselves as Serving Brothers and Lay Brothers of the Temple, and were shielded by these humbler members of their own Order, who entirely escaped persecution.

I have gone into this question at great length in ‘Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods,’ and will therefore content myself by saying here that there was undoubtedly a link between Masonry and the Templars, which is quite sufficient to explain a partial survival of Templar Rites among the Masonic Brotherhood.

The Templars certainly had a mystical teaching very similar to that enshrined in Freemasonry, and traces of it can still be detected in the present rituals of the Masonic Knights Templar, despite the fact that they have been considerably revised in the last half century .

Article by: J. S. M. Ward

John Sebastian Marlow Ward (22 December 1885 – 1949) was an English author who published widely on the subject of Freemasonry and esotericism.

He was born in what is now Belize. In 1908 he graduated from the University of Cambridge with honours in history, following in the footsteps of his father, Herbert Ward. who had also studied in history before entering the priesthood in the Anglican Church, as his father had done before him.

John Ward became a prolific and sometimes controversial writer on a wide variety of topics.

He made contributions to the history of Freemasonry and other secret societies. He was also a psychic medium or spiritualist, a prominent churchman and is still seen by some as a mystic and modern-day prophet.

Recent Articles:

July 2020

The Importance of Masonic Research

An introduction to Masonic research – how to know what is authentic…and what is not!  …read more

May 2020

The Curious Case of the Chevalier d’Éon

Le Chevalier D’Éon, a man who passed as a woman  …read more

December 2020

Understanding of Freemasonry

Two approaches regarding the understanding of Freemasonry  …read more

masonic knowledge

making good men better

share the square with two brothers

click image to open email app on mobile device

Masonic Apparel

made to order

Share this article ....