The founding of Ordo Templi Orientis began with a wealthy paper chemist, Carl Kellner (1851-1905). A student of the occult and familiar with several modern secret organisations, he had come to believe that he had discovered a “Key” to the symbolism of Freemasonry and to the Mysteries of Nature itself. He then aspired to create an Academia Masonica that would unifiy the various systems of Masonry. Kellner, along with an associate, Theodor Reuss (1855-1923), decided to call it the Oriental Templar Order. In 1902, Reuss, along with Franz Hartmann and Henry Klein, purchased the right to perform the Scottish, Memphis and Mizraim rites of Freemasonry, the authority of which was confirmed in 1904 and again in 1905. These rites, along with the Swedenborgian Rite, formed the core of the newly established Order. When Kellner died in 1905, Reuss assumed full control, becoming the first Outer Head of the Order.
Reuss met Aleister Crowley and in 1910 admitted him to the three degrees of O.T.O. Only two years later Crowley was placed in charge of Great Britain and Ireland, and advanced to the X°. The appointment included the operation of the Masonic degrees of O.T.O., which were called Mysteria Mystica Maxima. Within the year Crowley had written the Manifesto of the M.’.M.’.M.’. which described the basic ten-degree system—which was still principally Masonic—with Kellner’s three degree Academia Masonica forming the VII°, VIII° and IX°.
Crowley composed the Gnostic Mass
In 1913, Crowley composed the Gnostic Mass while in Moscow, which he described as being the Order’s “central ceremony of its public and private celebration.” In 1914, soon after World War I broke out, he moved to America. It was around this time that he decided to integrate Thelema into the O.T.O. system, and in 1915 had revised rituals prepared for use in his M.’.M.’.M.’.. He revised them again in 1918, and in so doing removed the ritual’s ties to Masonry.
In 1921, Reuss issued a charter to Charles Stansfeld Jones as X° for the U.S. The very next year, Crowley proclaimed himself as Outer Head of the Order of O.T.O. based on the claim that Reuss (who might have suffered a stroke) had become incapable of running the Order. Reuss died in 1923.
In 1933, Agape Lodge #2 was formed in Los Angeles, California under the leadership of Wilfred Talbot Smith (1885-1957). He and Regina Kahl celebrated the first public performance of the Gnostic Mass. Smith was advanced to the X° for the U.S. in 1935. Soon after, the Lodge moved to Pasadena where it was run by Jack Parsons (1914-1952), a founder of the JPL.
Crowley personally conferred the IX° to Grady McMurtry (1918-1985), a member of Agapé Lodge. It was then that he assumed his new Magical Name, Hymenaeus Alpha. McMurtry received several letters from Crowley in 1944 stating his desire to have McMurtry assume the role of Caliph and to be in line for succession to OHO. In 1946, McMurtry was entrusted with documents of emergency authorization to operate O.T.O. within California (the location of the only operational Lodge), along with the appointment of being Crowley’s personal representitive within the U.S., second only to Germer.
Aleister Crowley died on December 1, 1947 and Karl Germer became OHO. He served from 1947 until his death in 1962. During his time as OHO, O.T.O. activity came to a standstill, with no new initiations being performed. An O.T.O. camp was chartered in England to Kenneth Grant, but he was expelled in 1955 for modifying the initiation rituals and claiming that the body was under joint leadership with another organization, Fraternitas Saturni.
Germer died in 1962 without himself naming a successor. In 1969, Grady McMurtry invoked his emergency authorization from Crowley and assumed the title of Caliph, which Crowley had granted him. He began performing intiations in 1970. Growth was very slow for the first few years, although McMurtry did pick up on the publishing front, such as issuing Crowely’s Thoth Tarot deck. Grady McMurtry died in 1985.
McMurtry requested that members of the Sovereign Sanctuary elect the next OHO, which they did in 1985. Frater Hymenaeus Beta was elected to become the next OHO and he continues in that office today.