The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross: Its Founder and its History

Author: Frater In Deo Vita Aeterna, 7=4

The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross came into being in the material world on 9 July 1915, when ‘the Salvator Mundi Temple was Consecrated at De Keyser’s Hotel’, in London, but its true origins lie not in events or institutions, but in the inner life of its founder, Arthur Edward Waite.

Waite was born in New York on 2 October 1857, but when he was barely two years old his widowed mother brought Arthur and his infant sister to England. They lived, in genteel poverty, in the northern suburbs of London, and the unhappy Emma Waite found solace in the Roman Catholic Church, to which she was a convert. The symbols and richness of the Catholic liturgy enchanted Waite and as he passed into adolescence he felt the dawning of a priestly vocation, but it came to nothing when his religious cocoon was shattered. The first blow was the untimely death of his sister, at the age of fifteen years, which severely tested his faith, and the second came with his growing realisation that he had no call to a celibate life.

He turned from the Church to the alternative spirituality of his day: Spiritualism, Theosophy and the various branches of the Western Esoteric Tradition. Here Waite found his métier, and from being an omnivorous reader in this field he became a prolific writer, editor and translator. His early studies of Rosicrucianism and spiritual alchemy, and his pioneering translations of Eliphas Levi, led him eventually to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, into which he was initiated in January 1891, taking the motto of Sacramentum Regis (‘The Sacrament of the King’).

Waite’s initial progress through the Grades of the Order was rapid, but he left the Golden Dawn early in 1893, just when he ‘stood on the threshold of the Second Order’. His reasons for leaving were never made clear but they may have been a result of the first round of internal feuding that distressed so many members. It is equally unclear why he chose to return, but in February 1896 Waite was re-admitted to the Isis-Urania Temple, although another three years passed before he entered the Second Order. He was not at this time a notably active member and he played no part in the great schism of 1900 when Mathers was cast out and Westcott, the true founder of the Golden Dawn, barely survived the charge of fraud that had been levelled against him.

What is clear is that from this time onwards Waite determined to gain control over the Golden Dawn and to turn its increasingly magical bias towards a mystical and more overtly Christian path. He did not expect to carry all of his fellow members with him and the second schism saw the Order divided into three, with roughly equal mystical and magical factions and a rump that allied itself to Mathers. The two major divisions renamed themselves – the ‘mystical’ Independent and Rectified Rite under Waite, and the ‘magical’ Stella Matutina under Dr. Felkin – and established an uneasy concordat.

For ten years the two Orders went on their separate, but increasingly divergent, ways and Waite found that the members of his Independent and Rectified Rite, who were notable for their independence of mind, were becoming increasingly restless. They had worked well with Waite – thus, Evelyn Underhill used his books for her great study Mysticism, Waite supplied the Introduction for Daniel Nicholson’s translation of Lopukhin’s Characteristics of the Interior Church and W.L. Wilmshurst wrote glowing reviews of Waite’s works – but in 1914 some of the members turned away from Waite’s Christian approach to the Golden Dawn and sought instead its supposed Egyptian origins. Waite had always been sceptical about the ‘Egyptian’ content of the Cipher manuscripts that were the ultimate source of the grade rituals of the Golden Dawn, and when his notional co-Chief, Marcus Blackden, opposed him and claimed that they did descend from ancient Egypt, Waite was placed in an impossible position. Unable to reach agreement with his opponents, Waite promptly ‘withdrew his copyright rituals and dissolved the Rite as at that time constituted.’ The Golden Dawn, for Waite and for those members who, like him, desired an Order that was truly Christian, had come to an end. But it proved also to be a new beginning.

But what exactly did Waite want ? He wished to establish an esoteric Order that would enable its members to grow in spiritual experience and spiritual understanding. He had no wish to model it upon the forms of Freemasonry, almost every variety of which he had experienced since his initiation into Craft Masonry in 1901, for he sought something far greater than the various morality plays of Masonry. What he wished to create was an avowedly Christian esoteric Order, open to men and women alike; an Order that would be based upon the structure and forms of the Golden Dawn, but without its false history and its ego-centric magic. It was to be a true Rosicrucian Order, utilising the stages of the kabbalistic Tree of Life for the ceremonial progression of its members and employing the symbolism, but not the sectarianism, of the Rosicrucian manifestos.

The new Order would develop its own pictorial imagery and present its own understanding of the traditional symbols of the Western Esoteric Tradition, kabbalistic, alchemical and Rosicrucian – but always emphasising the centrality of Christ, Who is the essence of the true Rosy Cross. The progressive grades of the Order would dovetail neatly into the traditional stages of advancement of the Christian mystic, and thus supply an ideal framework for those who entered the Order to progress on a ceremonial and reflective path towards the goals of the Divine Vision and Union with Christ. To achieve all of this, to create his Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, Waite needed, and received, the support and the energy of the loyal members who had remained true to his vision.

We do not know the precise order of events in the gestation of the Fellowship, for Waite’s diary for 1914 has not survived and there are virtually no other relevant documents. By the Spring of 1915, however, the Constitution of the Order had taken shape, the ritual texts of the Outer Grades were nearing completion and the choice of officers had been made. Waite, of course, was to be Imperator, thus realising his call to the priesthood as High Priest of a temple not made with hands.

His work on the Grades up to that of Philosophus, and on the Ceremony of Consecration, was finally completed in June, the furnishings of the Temple had been obtained and, after a long search, suitable premises for meetings of the Order had been found. These were at the De Keyser Hotel, on the Victoria Embankment of the Thames, and it was here, on the evening of Friday, July 9th, that the Salvator Mundi Temple was consecrated, ‘with Power to work the Grades of the Fellowship up to and including the Portal of the Third Order.’ The Grade of Neophyte was also worked and four postulants were received into the Fellowship. Attendance, however, was thin.

Of thirteen founders of the Order and seven notional members, only seven were present at the meeting, a reflection of the exigencies of war and, perhaps, of the alienation of so many members of the old Independent and Rectified Rite. It seems probable that they were uneasy with the overt Christian emphasis of the Fellowship – the constitution makes it clear that ‘The mode of interpretation in respect of Kabalistic Tradition is a Christian Mode’ – and its clear departure from any residual masonic ethos. This is made explicit to masons (it would not have been apparent to non-masons) in the Questioning of the Grade of Neophyte, where the answer to the question ‘Does it follow that the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross communicates moral instruction ?’, is that ‘The counsels of morality, being of general knowledge and consent, are not essential subjects of admonition in a Secret Order.’

None of those present at the Consecration was well-known outside esoteric circles and the only prominent absent member (who left the Order shortly afterwards) was the novelist Algernon Blackwood. Waite’s most loyal supporters were his masonic colleagues, G. Barrett Dobb, B.H. Springett and Harold Lloyd; his doctor, Helen Worthington, and his friend and publisher, Philip Wellby. These and others ensured that the Salvator Mundi Temple was firmly established and its regular meetings – monthly, from November 1915 – maintained. But, inevitably, there were difficulties.

In May 1916 the De Keyser hotel was commandeered by the Government and the Fellowship was ordered to remove its properties. As an interim measure meetings were then held at the Hotel Cecil, in the Strand, until the beginning of 1917, when the Fellowship moved to its third and last hotel, the Imperial in Russell Square, where it met for the next two years. Public hotels are not ideal settings for the work of an esoteric Order, but they served their purpose for the Fellowship and it was at the Imperial Hotel that its most famous member was received as a Neophyte on 21 September 1917.

This was Charles Williams, poet, novelist, critic and theologian, who took the motto of Qui Sitit Veniat (Let he who is thirsty come). He passed rapidly through the Grades of the Outer Order and in August 1919 he received the Grade of Adeptus Minor and entered the Third Order. He was to prove one of the most effective members of the Fellowship: he was a fine practical ritualist and his remarkable memory enabled him to work the Grades without recourse to the ritual texts. Most of the members, however did need them and Waite ensured that they were readily available.

By the end of 1916 he had completed the rituals of all the Grades, including the Adept Grades, and, through the generosity of Springett, Miss Worthington and other Order members, all of them had been put into print by the Autumn of 1917. Waite also took care that they remained private. At a meeting of the Order in May 1916 he assured the members that, ‘The work of Printing had been entrusted to a Master Mason [George White], who is doing it with his own hands, and there is therefore every guarantee of secrecy.’ Regrettably, that secrecy would not be maintained.

One significant recruit to the Order was the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, who was an admirer of Waite’s work and looked upon him as a personal friend. Frater Deus Portarum Lucis, as he would be known, entered the Fellowship, with his wife, on 1 February 1921, when he was at the height of his fame. Both of the Coburns progressed rapidly. Within a year they had attained the first Adept Grade and by February 1923 they were advanced as Adepti Maiores. But the Fellowship was no longer their only, nor their principal concern.

Coburn had taken up the Universal Order, an esoteric body grounded in Neoplatonism, and began to develop rituals for its members. These were not original; they were adapted and substantially ‘borrowed’ from those of the FRC. When Waite discovered what was happening and had identified the culprit, in February 1925, there was an abrupt parting of the ways. It was an unhappy period personally for Waite, whose wife died in September 1924, and for the welfare of the Order. In July 1924 part of the building in which the Order was then meeting collapsed, and in October one of the senior members, H.M. Duncan (Frater E tenebris in lucem vocatus), committed suicide. But there was one positive outcome of the Coburn affair: it stimulated Waite to further and complete revision of the rituals of his Fellowship, a process that was carried on continually until his death.

There were other, occasional personal disputes within the Fellowship, but the members worked hard to ensure the continuing health of their Order. It was never large in terms of numbers, but it did grow steadily. At the outset there had been less than thirty members and by 1929 there were 171 (ninety-nine women and seventy-two men), and another forty-five entered the Order over the next ten years. But only a minority, varying between fifty and sixty, could be considered active. These included, besides Waite’s close lieutenants, the eccentric masonic writer J.S.M. Ward, who would eventually found his own Confraternity of the Kingdom of Christ, and a young Australian artist, J.B. Trinick, who designed and painted for Waite a new set of Tarot Trumps (‘The Great Symbols of the Paths’), and drew the portrait of Waite, dressed as the Imperator of the Fellowship, as the frontispiece to A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry.

The members were also successful in finding a series of suitable homes for the Salvator Mundi Temple. The first ‘House of the Holy Spirit’ was a flat at No. 14 Earl’s Court Square, part of which was consecrated as a Temple on 24 March 1919, the remainder being the home of G.B. Dobb (Frater Paratum cor meum). It was here that the porch beneath the framework of the Order vault collapsed in 1924, and the vault was hastily moved so that no blame could be attributed to the Order ! Two years later the Temple removed to 10 Scarsdale Villas, South Kensington, which it shared with Antonia Collett (Soror Sub Sole Amoris Serviens), who was the Cancellarius (Secretary) of the Order. There was ‘a large attendance’ of members on 10 November 1926 for what Waite described as the ‘wonderful and beautiful’ Ceremony of Consecration of the Temple, and it was here that Waite began the serious work of the Inner Order of the Fellowship, the Ordo Sanctissimus Roseae et Aureae Crucis.

He had long wished to work the Grades of the Fourth Order, that is, those beyond the Grade of Adeptus Exemptus. The rituals for these Grades were produced by Waite between 1926 and 1928, and collected together as The Book of Life in the Rose. They are utterly unlike the preceding Grades and exert a profound spiritual effect upon those who work them. For some they are too much to bear, and this was the case with Charles Williams.

The ritual of the Portal of the Fourth Order had been completed by Waite in 1917, but he steadily revised it and it was the altered version into which Williams was received in July 1925. The truly dramatic change in the sequence of Grades came with ‘The Ceremony of Consecration on the Threshold of Sacred Mystery’, the preliminary to the ‘Grades of the Great Mystery’. Waite had the ritual printed in 1926, but it was not worked until June 1927, when Williams was one of the small group of Adepts who took part in the ceremony. It was the last ceremony of the Order that he would ever attend. He continued to meet and correspond occasionally with Waite, but he never returned to an active role in the Fellowship.

His fellow Adepts managed to master the Grades of the Fourth Order and Waite continued to revise his entire ritual sequence, but the workings of these exalted Grades were sporadic. What might be called the ‘final version’ – the series of ‘Mysterium Briah’ and ‘Mysterium Atziluth’ – were completed and printed between 1937 and 1943, but it would require a peculiar dedication, and a great depth of spiritual understanding, to work them all. They were never worked consecutively during Waite’s lifetime and it is doubtful that they ever could be worked in full on this earthly plane of existence.

But the work of the more mundane levels of the Fellowship continued. New members were admitted and progressed through the Grades – at Scarsdale Villas until 1930 and then for three years at 30 Lansdowne Crescent, Notting Hill. The rent for the three-year lease was not excessive – £125 per annum – but lack of income was a perennial problem for the Fellowship. Individual members had given generously, but as they retired from the Order there were no new benefactors to replace them. Waite was also faced with the need to act as Cancellarius, for Miss Collett gave up this office when the Temple left Scarsdale Villas.

A new home for the Temple was eventually found at 104 Maida Vale, the headquarters of a small Co-Masonic body, the Order of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masonry for Men and Women, some of whose more prominent members – among them its Grand Master, Aimée Bothwell Gosse and her successor, Marjorie Debenham – were also active in the Fellowship. It was here, in 1934, that Waite received two American freemasons, J. Ray Shute and William Moseley Brown, into the Fellowship and gave them a charter for a Temple of the Order to be consecrated in the United States of America. Unfortunately, they were never able to establish it. The final move, for the first phase of the Order’s activities, came in August 1939 when the Temple removed to Waite’s home at Crow Hill in Broadstairs. But very little ceremonial activity took place, for Waite was becoming increasingly frail and the perils of bombing during the war precluded regular travel for the members.

By 1941 the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross was effectively dormant. The short-lived daughter Temple that had been established in Cornwall also ceased to work, and after Waite’s death, on 19 May 1942, his successor as Imperator, Andrew Rugg-Gunn, found it impossible to organise and to hold regular or even occasional meetings. In September 1943 he officially declared the Order to be in abeyance, although he urged the members ‘to keep alive the spirit of the Order by meeting each other when and wherever they can; by meditating on the wisdom and spiritual guidance enshrined in the Rituals; and by the power of consecrated desire of mind and will prayerfully to make straight the way for our future labours.’ Nine years later those labours recommenced, albeit in a very small and muted way.

In a letter to W.R. Semken, Waite’s most loyal lieutenant within the Fellowship, W.G. Street (Frater Ardens ascendit ad Aethera Virtus) described a meeting of the Order that he attended in September 1952. At an unidentified location in London five members, two of them very new and inexperienced, worked the Neophyte Grade, with the bare minimum of regalia and furnishings but with an excess of enthusiasm. There was a clear desire on the part of both Fratres and Sorores to revive the Order, but it came to nothing. The next attempt at a revival took place in 1965 and laid the foundations for the Fellowship as it survives to the present day.

Many of the men who had entered the Fellowship since its creation were freemasons and members of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, the masonic Rosicrucian society of which Waite had been a member until 1914. Most of them were also much younger than Waite and even twenty years after his death their enthusiasm for the Order remained, and they were still active enough to bring about its restoration. Eight of them, including Semken and Street, determined to revive the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, but with certain restrictions on membership. All of the remaining fratres were masonic Rosicrucians and the few surviving sorores were either too elderly or too infirm to take any active role in the work of the Order. Thus it seemed to them best to accept as candidates for membership only men who were both freemasons and members of the S.R.I.A.

With the benefit of hindsight this may appear as a distortion of Waite’s original vision of the Fellowship, but they acted in good faith and they did succeed in drawing together a body of dedicated men who kept the Order alive – and who would, in time, recognise the need to restore the polarity of the ceremonial working and once again to admit women, so that the spiritual potential of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross could be fully realised.

This eventually came about in 1992, in the Temple that had been established in New Zealand, where there was a thriving S.R.I.A. presence. Five years later lady members began to be admitted into the revived Order in England, enabling Waite’s vision to be realised once again. Now, in the twenty-first century, with new Temples in Europe and in North and South America, Waite’s Fellowship thrives to a degree that he could never have imagined in the dark days of a world war.