Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942), the famous author on things esoteric and occult and a Freemason of a lodge under the United Grand Lodge of England. What could he have to do with co-Masonry? Actually, this proves to be a somewhat interesting story.
I got myself a Collectanea Chemica with Waite’s name on the cover. “This is a short collection of some curious Alchemical treatises which was republished by A.E. Waite in 1893.” After the chapters that Waite wrote/edited follows the anonymous: “The Masonic Career of A. E. Waite”. It wasn’t hard to find out that this is a text of R.A. Gilbert that was first published in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 99 (1986) and can be found online. The text has a few references to co-Masonry.
Even though Waite is quite well known as a Masonic author, it was fairly late that he actually became a Freemason. Gilbert describes how Waite was “born in Brooklyn, New York, on 2 October 1857”. His parents were not married. His Marine father died at sea and his mother took her three children to the suburbs of London where they lived in poverty. Waite was “unable to receive a formal education of any kind” so he taught himself. He was so content with his self education that later in his life he would scorn scholars and stating that only himself presented facts.
From 1886 (age 29) he started to publish poetry and essays, but he soon found out that he better focused on essays. He wrote about Eliphas Levi, the Rosicrucians and Alchemy. In his book about the Rosicrucians “Waite clearly exhibited his disdainful attitude to the Craft, a disdain that he extended to the higher degrees”. He even managed to offend Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (S.R.I.A.) which he would lead years later. Waite was mostly interested in ‘true esotericism’, his “secret tradition”, which he suspected was not part of Freemasonry.
The first esoteric order that Waite joined was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in June 1891 which had been founded four years earlier and which -ironically- largely based on S.R.I.A. Waite soon left because he was “unhappy with the activities of some of his superiors”, but would join again in 1896.
He final route to Freemasonry went through the newly founded Martinist Order started by Papus (Gerard Encausse, 1865–1916). “He wrote to Yarker for advice about joining the Martinist Order; Yarker was enthusiastic”. Because Waite was no Mason yet, and he had to be to join, Yarker sent ritual books to Waite, so that Waite would be ‘Masonic enough’. He even immediately got permission to start a branch on London.
Waite kept hunting for rituals, conclude that they were not what he hoped, but in his own order, he would correct all mistakes. Ideally he didn’t just try to lay his hand on the ritual texts, but undergo the initiations himself. So when he wanted to look more seriously to Masonic rituals after all, he sought himself a lodge. He was “19 September 1901, at the age of 43, […] initiated in Runymede Lodge No. 2430 at Wraysbury in Buckinghamshire”. “Initiation into Craft Masonry brought no spiritual enlightenment to Waite”. In fact it was but a stepping stone to higher degrees where Waite expected to find “the secret tradition”. Even though Craft Masonry was not his thing, he remained active or some years to come. As Worshipful Master he performed a Golden Dawn ritual in his craft lodge.
Waite kept on joining different orders. S.R.I.A. in 1902 (!). Holy Royal Arch in 1902. Knights Templar in 1902. Mark Masters in 1905. Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in 1909. The “Independent & Rectified Rite of the Golden Dawn in 1910”. Also different organisations within the Order of the Temple (from 1902), Régime Ecossais et Rectifié (1903), Swedenborgian Rite (1902), Early Grand Scottish Rite (1903), Order of Malta (1902), Secret Monitor (1906), Red Cross of Constantine (1907), Worshipful Society Of Freemasons, Rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviors, Plasterers, & Bricklayers (1936), Philalethes (1936), Blue Friars (1938). For some initiations he even traveled to Switzerland! How can you be active in so many organisations?
Many of these ‘high degrees’ and related degrees and symbols didn’t really impress Waite. He was positive about Chevaliers Bienfaisant de La Cite Sainte though. This group is still seen as an esoteric elite form of Freemasonry with strong Martinist influences, so perhaps that isn’t too unexpectedly. Switzerland was worth the effort as well.
Between all that Masonic activity, Waite also managed to write prolifically. He became more and more extolled about his own abilities and he was ever critical of other people’s works. And now -finally- comes the co-Masonic connection.
In 1911 the first edition of The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry saw the light of day. Waite found his book the most beautiful Masonic book ever and also the best that was ever published. Even though a tough read, the book was reviewed favorably in both Masonic and non-Masonic press. There was a critical review -though- by none else than John Yarker. Like Waite, Yarker was a “regular” Freemason and a collector of degrees and rituals. Yarker also ventured in “irregular” directions such as the Rite of Memphis & Misraim. Yarker was not critical towards the upcoming mixed gender version of Freemasonry which is proven by the fact that he reviewed Waite’s book in The co-Mason. Yarker “was upset because Waite ‘does not seek to hide his contempt, often expressed in uncourteous language, against all who differ from him, or otherwise against those degrees from which he could extract nothing to confirm his theories, and the writer of this review comes in, with many better men, for a “slating”‘, and he rightly criticized the factual errors and condemned Waite for his sneers at ‘the thing called Co-Masonry’: ‘We may not like Co-Masonry; for one thing, it affords less opportunity for the gourmandizing proclivities of the ordinary Freemason, but the system has come to stay and we might treat it with civility’.”
Gilbert continues: “Most Co-Masons were, however, quite happy with Waite.” When Waite finally got to found his own Rosicrucian order “Fellowship of the Rosy Cross” in 1915 he was backed up by quite a few co-Masons, many more than “regular” Masons. Agreed, quite a few of those were also Golden Dawn members, but still. Pretty soon, the Fellowship had many more co-Masons than “Freemasons proper”. Waite didn’t demand ‘Masonic credentials’ which proved to be wise.
Later Waite published his New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry (in which the photo above appeared, Waite “in the robes of Imperator of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross”. The massive work was created in a phenomenal short period of time. Waite once more pounded his chest. He work is full of scorn and disdain for author authors, but this time also countless factual errors. Reviews were justifiably critical, except in ‘co-Masonic press’.
So, what was Waite’s relationship to co-Masonry? Mostly a practical one. He didn’t approve of it, but didn’t mind members joining his own organisation. He actually knew a couple of co-Masons quite well. Like I wrote in my article about his New Encyclopaedia:
In summery we can say that Waite was well-informed about the new Masonic organisation. Especially for people who can’t read French. His information is still a good source. Here and there he missed things. I hope with the extra information that I provided the picture is a wee bit clearer. You can also see that Waite did not seem to have been overtly negative about Le Droit Humain.
Well, at least not by 1915.