Vol. XXXV No. 5 — May 1957

Masonic Backgrounds

To many if not most men civilization is "The American way of life.” We think of it in terms of bath tubs, hot and cold running water, flush toilets, electric light, the automobile, airplanes, railroads, X-rays, household appliances, conveniences, radio, the movies, TV.

Yet few will deny that George Washington was a highly civilized man. He read by candlelight; he never ate a meal cooked on a range; his travels were all by horse; his house was heated by open fires; he never opened a can of food or heard of one; the telegraph, telephone, wireless, motion pictures, television were from one or two hundred years beyond his birth.

To see George Washington as he really was requires a knowledge of his background. To see Freemasonry in its formative years equally requires a background.

History is far too voluminous for any one man to know it all; not even our great historians profess to be able to tell the whole story of mankind. Historians of this nation, young as it is, have contributed literally thousands of books telling the story of the Colonies and the United States; stories commercial, economic, battle-scarred, exploratory, and political. Meanwhile, the stories of the other continents are told in even more books covering much greater periods of time.

Freemasonry’s story begins — when? No man knows. The Regius Poem, our oldest document, was written about A.D. 1390, but it speaks of a Craft in existence in the time of Athelstan, A.D. 926.

Our Freemasonry — and by that is meant the organized Craft with a grand lodge to control it — begins in 1717 in London.

What sort of a world was it, this London of ancient days? What sort of men were living there? Without some knowledge of this kind, any conception of Freemasonry as it then was must be more or less inchoate and mythical.

Past Master Alphonse Cerza of Chicago has made a great contribution to the Masonic world in his Masonic Service Association Digest called Historical Parallels in which, in adjacent columns, he lists important dates in fraternalism and in world history side by side. His work, of sixty-five large pages, covers the period from 4241 B.C. to and through 1954. From it, a few of the more striking parallels have been abstracted here to show a faint vision of the first hundred years of the Craft, from 1717 to 1817, side by side with important world events.

In 1717 the Mother Grand Lodge was formed in London by four old lodges. Six years later Anderson’s Constitutions — first Masonic book — was published. During these years, the first newspaper in the American Colonies was published, the “Mississippi Bubble” made its appearance with John Law, comptroller of finance in France, the “South Sea” scheme began and ended, and DeFoe wrote Robinson Crusoe.

Washington was born in 1732; Oglethorpe founded Georgia in the same year. A lodge in Paris came into being in 1732 under the English Constitution and in 1733 Henry Price received authority as “Provincial Grand Master of New England”; one of the vastly important Masonic dates and events, the latter including the formation of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Shortly before — no one knows just the date — there was a lodge in Philadelphia; its ledger Liber B is still in existence.

In 1738 Anderson's second edition of his Constitutions was published and Catholic objections to Freemasonry began with the Papal Bull In Eminenti, the Church’s first edict against the Craft.

Masonry was well established in Massachusetts when Joseph Warren was born in 1741; in the same year Germany had its first grand lodge. Canada had its first lodge in 1749; the same year the poet Goethe, who was to be a famous Freemason, Masonic poet and author, was born; in the same year Thomas Oxnard chartered the first lodge in Rhode Island.

The seventeen-fifties were Masonically important. The Antient Grand Lodge, rival of the “Moderns,” or first, Mother Grand Lodge, was formed in 1751 and Laurence Dermott became its grand secretary in 1752. At the same time Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod and brought electricity from the clouds down a kite string; Washington received his first degree and the Liberty Bell was cast in England (1752). The first known use of the phrase "Sublime Degree of Master Mason” appeared in an Irish Grand Lodge certificate in 1754, the year the French and Indian War began, which ended with the French losing Canada. This year, also, Amos Doolittle, famous Connecticut artist, who made the pictures for Jeremy Cross’s True Masonic Chart, was born.

The year 1756 saw Laurence Dermott’s publication of his Ahiman Rezon, while Mozart, who was to compose the Masonic opera The Magic Flute was being born, as was Light-Horse Harry Lee (later a Mason).

Robert Burns, the beloved “Bobby,” Masonic poet, to whom the world owes the popularity, if not the origin, of the phrase “The Mystic Tie," was born in 1759 and a year later the incredible Franklin invented bifocal lenses!

Parliament passed the hated Stamp Act in 1765 and Benedict Arnold was made a Mason the same year in Connecticut.

John Paul Jones was made a Mason in 1770, in St. Bernard’s lodge, Scotland; in the same year occurred the frightful Boston Massacre by British troops. The Townsend Act, putting duty on paper, glass, lead and tea, soon amended to tax tea only, was passed; this was the genesis of the Boston Tea Party.

The first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was published in 1771 and Thomas Smith Webb, famous “father of American Masonic ritual” was born the same year; Joseph Montfort of Halifax, North Carolina, was at that time appointed “provincial grand master of and for America” by the grand master of England.

The year following, 1772, saw published, William Preston’s famous Illustrations of Masonry (it had seventeen editions); a grand lodge was formed in France the year following, and the Boston Tea Party took place. The minutes of St. Andrew’s lodge of Boston of the time of the “tea party” are suggestive; they record so few members present it was necessary to adjourn and the letter T appears at random in several places!

The year 1775 saw Paul Revere’s ride, the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, the death of Joseph Warren; while Gibbon, author of the enormous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was made a Mason in England; Hutchinson published his Spirit of Masonry, (a book attempting to make of Masonry a Christian organization); Prince Hall and seventeen other African-Americans were made Masons in Boston and James Monroe, to be the fifth President of the United States, was initiated in Williamsburg lodge, Virginia.

Voltaire was made a Mason in 1778, with Benjamin Franklin present; Stephen Girard was made a Mason in this year and the Grand Lodge of Virginia was then formed; Baron Von Steuben began disciplining Washington’s men at Valley Forge; John Paul Jones sailed from Brest to raid British coasts and ships, and Philadelphia was evacuated by the British.

Washington was, in 1779, proposed for the first time as general grand master of a general grand lodge. The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, meeting in New Jersey, organized a lodge in Burlington. And this was the year when John Paul Jones, in the Bon Homme Richard, captured the Serapis, and, less sung in song and story, the Pallas captured the Countess of Scarborough-, both prizes were sailed to the Dutch port of Texel. This year, too, Casamir Pulaski died from wounds received in the attack on Savannah, and Washington went into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey.

The poet Goethe became a Mason in Amalia Lodge in 1780; not long afterwards he wrote his famous poem “Mason Lodge.” Lafayette landed in Boston and joined Washington at Morristown; Andre was found guilty as a spy and hanged at Tappan, New York, October and of that year.

In 1781 the Grand Lodge of New York was formed and “Bobby” Burns was initiated a Mason in St. David’s lodge, Tarbolton, Scotland. It was to this lodge that he wrote his famous farewell that first popularized the words “Mystic Tie.”

George Oliver was born in 1782. The most prolific writer Freemasonry has had, his works are now little read or valued. His greatest contribution was much less what he wrote, than that he did write, so voluminously that he taught the Masonic world that there was much to be said, much to read, of the Ancient Craft. Hogarth’s “Night” was put on sale in this year; it depicts a London we can scarcely believe and places a Freemason in the midst of a ribald street scene. And in this year “Bobby” Burns was made poet laureate of Freemasonry in Canongate-Kilwinning lodge.

All this was one year before the independence of the American Colonies was recognized at the peace of Versailles; Simon Bolivar the great “liberator” of South America (and to be a Mason) was born in 1783.

The year 1778 saw George Washington chosen as first master of Alexandria lodge; Warren Hastings, Governor General of India, was tried for treason and acquitted in this year. The following year watched the beginning of the French Revolution with the storming of the Bastille, and the same year the Grand Lodge of Connecticut came into being. This year also saw Washington taking the oath of office as first President; it was administered on the Bible of St. John’s lodge of New York by the grand master of New York, Robert R. Livingston. This year Boswell published his famous Life of Samuel Johnson and coal was discovered in Carbon County, Pennsylvania. Prince Hall, African-American, became a grand master of Black Masons in Boston in 1791; George Washington’s lodge, Alexandria No. 22, laid the first of the forty cornerstones of the District of Columbia during this year, while the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution were adopted and Vermont became a state of the Union.

Acting as grand master pro tem. of the Grand Lodge of Maryland, Washington laid the first of three cornerstones of the United States Capitol in 1793; Louis XVI was beheaded; and the cotton gin was invented in this year, a happening of enormous importance to the South.

The following year (1794) Revere was elected grand master in Massachusetts; Williams painted his famous portrait of Washington; Robespierre was executed; and a London fire destroyed nearly seven hundred homes.

Thomas Webb published his Freemason's Monitor in 1797 and “Old Ironsides” was built.

The birth of the Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite took place in Charleston in 1801; the asteroid Ceres was discovered the same year by Piazzi. Next year West Point Military Academy came into being. In 1803 Louisiana was purchased from France; in the next two years Lewis and Clark made their historic expedition west. In 1806 the Grand Lodge of Delaware was born; Western Star lodge was chartered by Pennsylvania and the General Grand Chapter, Royal Arch Masons, came into being.

In 1807 Albert Gallatin Mackey was born in Charleston, South Carolina; the man who, as a Mason, was to have the most profound effect upon Masonic knowledge, study, history and the importance of the Craft. His birth year saw the slave trade abolished in the British Empire, and Fulton’s steamboat make its first successful trip; all this was two years before Lincoln was born (1809), the birth year also of Albert Pike.

One of the great dates of Freemasonry is 1813; the year in which the Antients and the Moderns settled their differences and formed the United Grand Lodge of England. The same year saw the Northern Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite come into existence; the United States celebrated for Perry’s Naval victory on Lake Erie.

The end of the first hundred years, 1817, saw Theodore Sutton Parvin’s birth in Cedarville, New Jersey; he was the father of the great Iowa Masonic Library. Another new idea began with the appointment of district deputy grand masters in Pennsylvania and James Monroe became President of the United States.

In his preface to his fine Digest from which the above dates have been abstracted, Cerza says:

The general historian has paid little attention to fraternal associations. With rare exceptions, no references to Freemasonry are found in general histories. Masonic historians seldom describe general historical material, and restrict their words directly to the Craft. This treatment of history is most unsatisfactory from the standpoint of the serious Masonic student because the Masonic items cannot be viewed in their true perspective with world history. Masonic history is not an isolated chronicle, but is interwoven with the history of the time.

It is the hope of the editor of these few pages that they may lead some Masonic readers the more easily to contrast what happened in the Masonic and the secular worlds, for only by some such understanding can the miracle of the growth and vitality of the Ancient Craft be grasped.

The Masonic Service Association of North America