What's the Deal with the "CBCS" Anyway?
Updated: Sep 16
The Chevalier Bienfaisant de la Cite Sainte (“CBCS”) is a system of “high-grade” masonry originating in continental Europe in the latter 18th Century.
It emerged from the Rite of Strict Observance, founded by Baron von Hund (Karl Gotthelf) around 1751. Originally, the Rite of Strict Observance plied a chivalric system of degrees with alleged connections to Charles Edward Stuart (the Bonnie Prince Charlie), the so-called “Knight of the Red Feather,” and Scots claimant to the throne of England. Significantly, Charles Stuart was tutee of Chevalier Ramsay. (In fact, some suggest that the Bonnie Prince Charlie may be “the widow’s son” alluded to in Craft masonry, should the third degree to have arisen from Scots Master masonry.)
Certainly, the Rite of Strict Observance employed Templar themes. It purported a secret lineage of Templar transmission in Scotland after the execution of Jacques de Molay. The Rite supposed that every true Freemason must therefore also be a Knight Templar.
After the death of von Hund, the system of degrees under the Strict Observance was innovated by Jean Baptiste Willermoz, who admixed theurgical material from Martinez de Pasqually’s L’Ordre des Chavaliers Macons Elus Coens de l’Universe with more contemplative themes inspired by Louis Claude de Saint Martin.
Willermoz had been initiated into the Rite of Strict Observance in 1772 and constituted the obedience at Lyons. What would emerge was the “CBCS,” forwarded at the Convent des Gaules, at Lyons in 1778 and then formerly recognized as “regular” masonry at the Council of Wilhelmsbad in 1782, which had been convened specifically to deal with the number of haute grades that were littering the continent with competing masonic systems. The CBCS became the “Rectified Scottish Rite”; “Rectified” because of the rectification of souls taught in Pasqually’s system of Martinism (reintegration) and “Scottish Rite” because of the themes explored in the Rite of Strict Observance that have frequently been claimed as the source of high degree masonry everywhere. Certainly, Templar and chivalric themes persisted in the CBCS. The same antecedent legendry would inform the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite and the York Rite system of degrees in the continental United States as well.
It’s important to note, however, that the Rectified Scottish Rite abandoned the Templar origination theory of Freemasonry (a departure from the Rite of Strict Observance) and emphasized the restoration of the Temple (as well as the rectification of the human soul) instead. Properly speaking, Willermoz “de-Templarized” the degrees of the Rectified Scottish Rite and “Martinized” them.
The CBCS, then, is essentially a form of high grade, esoteric Freemasonry with strong Martinist influences. It employs chivalric themes not dissimilar to themes explored in just about every other system of high degree Freemasonry. The difference, perhaps, is a pedigree that the CBCS offers – for some the transmission includes a type of priestly transmission back to some of the more colorful characters in masonic history. It’s a Rite that some feel they must possess, whether invited or not.
Owing in no small part to the chaos nationwide engendered by the French Revolution (1789-1799), the CBCS decamped in Geneva, Switzerland, where the Grand Prieure Independent d’Helvetie emerged as the progenitor of the Rite.
The CBCS, then, has been a recognized body of esoteric Freemasonry for over three-hundred years, recognized by all “regular” jurisdictions worldwide.
In the United States, the Great Priory of America was founded in 1934 with William Mosely Brown, Deputy Supreme Magus of the Societas Rosicruciana in Civitatibus Foederatis, as Great Prior. For the better part of a century, the CBCS maintained a small, elite membership (a maximum of 81 members nationwide, with no more than two members per state), the majority of whom were all members of the Grand Encampment. At least five Grand Masters of the Grand Encampment were members of the Great Priory of America CBCS, some serving concurrently as Great Prior of the Great Priory of America.
So fast-forward to 2021. The present-day issue with the Grand Encampment arose in 2010 through 2011.
On May 24, 2010, the then-Grand Master of the Grand Encampment, William H. Koon II, who was not a member of the Great Priory of America, issued Decision No. 2 pronouncing the Great Priory of America an unrecognized Templar organization operating within the jurisdiction of the Grand Encampment. He claimed that no Knight Templar could be a member of the Great Priory of America. But then, in January of 2011, he traveled to France with six other Knights Templar and was initiated into a clandestine version of the CBCS at Marseilles: the Great Priory of Occitania of the Reformed and Rectified Scottish Rite. This Great Priory of Occitania was formed in 1995 by a splinter group of former members of the Great Priory de Gaul of the actual CBCS.
Upon their return to the U.S., then-Grand Master Koon initiated thirty-two Knights Templar into the Great Priory of Occitania in February, 2011, at Masonic Week, and thus attempted to institute the Great Priory of Occitania in the United States. This was seen as a direct invasion of the territory of the Great Priory of America.
As a result, six Grand Lodges pulled recognition of the Grand Encampment and/or the Great Priory of Occitania: Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Alabama, Kentucky, and Louisiana. In response, in September, 2011, S.K. Koon filed suit in New Hampshire, suing the Conference of Grand Masters of North America and seven masons personally for defamation and tortious interference with contractual relations, on grounds of misrepresentation and civil conspiracy.
The case was dismissed in January of 2012 for lack of jurisdiction. You can download the court’s decision dismissing this complaint below.
Then, at the 65th Triennial Session, S.K. Tsirimokos, Chair of Jurisprudence and loyal Koon supporter, forwarded Resolution No. 1 at the outset of the business session. The resolution pronounced the Great Priory of America an unrecognized Templar body operating in the exclusive jurisdiction of the Grand Encampment; stated that membership in the Great Priory of America was a violation of a Knight Templar’s vows of knighthood; and called for the summary expulsion of any member of the Great Priory of America from any Commandery under the jurisdiction of the Grand Encampment, without trial.
Recommended for adoption by the Chair of Jurisprudence, this Resolution passed without discussion from the membership, the majority of whom had probably never even heard of the Great Priory of America, let alone the Rectified Scottish Rite.
As the international community began to weigh in, the charter to the Great Priory of Occitania in the United States was ultimately surrendered by S.K. David Dixon Goodwin when he replaced S.K. Billy Koon as Grand Master of the Grand Encampment. See S.K. Goodwin's General Order dated Jan. 21, 2013, returning the Letters of Authority for the Great Priory of Occitania, below.
But the faction was determined: Having passed the resolution that the Great Priory of America was an irregular Templar order, they then brought another version of the CBCS into the United States and began quietly initiating confidents, this time through a charter originally given by the Grand Prieure d’Helvetie to Arthur E. Waite in 1903.
The wheels of regularity are slow, but ponderous still. On learning of the organization of this second unrecognized body in the United States, the Waite charter (which many claimed had lapsed for non-use) was formerly annulled by all regular bodies of the CBCS on March 15, 2019, at a convention of National Grand Masters of the Regular Great Priories of the Order, in Geneva, Switzerland. Any organization claiming descendance from the Waite charter then, as far as the regular CBCS masonic world was concerned, was practicing clandestinely.
See a letter from the Grand Prieure Independant D'Helvetie to this effect below.
And from the Great Priory of Belgium, here:
And from the Grand Priory of the Knights Beneficent of the Holy City of England and Wales, here:
The situation simmered out of view of the rank-and-file mason. Duane Vaught softened the 2012 Resolution when he became Grand Master by requiring a Templar trial for any Knight Templar before any sentence of expulsion could be wrought. No enforcement of the Resolution was forthcoming.
Finally, in 2021, at the 68th Triennial, the Resolution from 2012 was overturned with a 77% vote of the delegates present and voting. Amity was restored between the York Rite and the Rectified Scottish Rite in the United States once more.
That is until the current Grand Master, S.K. Michael B. Johnson, clearly in thrall of S.K. Billy Koon and S.K. Tsirimokos, at the stroke of their pens issued four decisions to essentially overturn the vote by pronouncing Koon Decision No. 2, dated May 24, 2010, surviving Templar law, despite the said decision being clearly mooted when the resolution implementing it was overturned by the super-majority of members voting at the Triennial Conclave.
S.K. Michael Johnson, the sitting Grand Master, is a member of Koon’s clandestine CBCS, organized under the Waite charter (now annulled) and operating in Canada and - most probably - in the U.S., too.