The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library's Van Gorden-Williams Digital Collections website features nearly a thousand documents in twelve different collections. This week we’re highlighting a 177-year-old document from the Scottish Rite Documents collection.
"I most humbly beg leave to offer myself as a candidate for admission into your Illustrious and Puissant Council..." reads this petition addressed to the Supreme Council, 33°, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, and signed by Killian Henry Van Rensselaer (1800-1881), a 44-year-old Mason from New York, in 1845. This petition was the first step toward Van Rensselaer becoming an Active Member of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction’s Supreme Council. In less than twenty years, Van Rensselaer would become its sixth Sovereign Grand Commander, serving from 1861-67. The process by which Van Rensselaer received the 33rd degree is very different from how it works today.
Van Rensselaer’s petition documents the activities of the Supreme Council at the time. Viewed in a broader context, this slip of paper shows the work of John James Joseph Gourgas (1777-1865), the NMJ’s Sovereign Grand Commander from 1832 through 1851, and helps tell the story of the rebirth of the NMJ in the 1840s.
Gourgas, living in New York City, along with Schenectady-based Giles Fonda Yates (1798-1859), had essentially kept the Scottish Rite’s NMJ alive from 1826 through the early 1840s. During this time, a social and political movement, now known as the Anti-Masonic Movement, curtailed much Masonic activity in the Northeast of the United States and brought the Supreme Council’s official activities to a standstill. During these years, Gourgas and Yates were effectively a Supreme Council of two people, preserving the organization’s records and corresponding with one another about the plight of American Freemasonry from the late 1820s through the early 1840s. When the social climate changed and members began to rebuild Scottish Rite Freemasonry in the early 1840s, Gourgas and Yates sought to find brothers, like Van Rensselaer, who could help revive the Council, starting in 1844. Van Rensselaer’s petition is part of that story. With the exception of Van Rensselaer’s signature, the petition is entirely in the handwriting of John James Joseph Gourgas (1777-1865). Gourgas wrote out this petition—Van Rensselaer needed only to sign it.
Becoming a 33° Member
Today, no one petitions to become a 33° Member or to join the Supreme Council. Sublime Princes of the Royal Secret (i.e., 32° Members) are nominated, elected, and then created Sovereign Grand Inspectors General of the 33rd degree. Most 33° Scottish Rite Members are non-voting Honorary Members, a rank of 33° that the Supreme Council created in 1865. The Supreme Council itself is comprised of Active Members who serve on various committees and have voting privileges within the Council. When a seat opens on the Supreme Council, an Honorary Member is elevated to the rank of Active Member to fill it.
In 1845, the category of 33° Honorary Member did not exist, so any Sublime Prince who was crowned a 33° was automatically an Active Member of the Supreme Council. Van Rensselaer was among the seven new members who Gourgas and Yates selected to expand the Supreme Council in 1844 and 1845. These additions turned the Supreme Council into a nine-member group, as prescribed by the Constitutions. If not for Gourgas and Yates, it is unlikely that the NMJ’s Supreme Council would have survived. Not only did they keep safe the documents of the Supreme Council, NMJ, during the Council’s inactivity, but, when Freemasonry came back to life in the 1840s, they recruited enthusiastic Masons like Van Rensselaer to help rebuild the Scottish Rite fraternity in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction.
If you’d like to take a closer look at Van Rensselaer’s petition, visit the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives Digital Collections site.
Handwritten petition for Killian H. Van Rensselaer, 1845. Gift of the Supreme Council of the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite, SC 300.002.
Killian H. Van Rensselaer in Proceedings of the Supreme Council, 1883. Collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, 17.9735 Un58 1882. Photograph by David Bohl.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of The Northern Light.