Thursday, November 5, 2009

257th Anniversary of George Washington's Initiation as a Freemason

On November 4th, 1752, a twenty-year-old young man named George Washington became an Entered Apprentice at the Lodge of Fredericksburg, in the British colony of Virginia. (This lodge still exists today as Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4 in the Grand Lodge of Virginia AF&AM.) My friend and our Brother Christopher Hodapp has a fascinating description of George Washington's initiation in Chapter 1 of his 2007 book, Solomon's Builders (Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press), which I highly recommend.

Let's think for a few moments about the Freemasonry that George Washington entered, back in 1752.

At this time, Virginia was an intensely agricultural area with its population scattered throughout the colony. We have almost no Masonic records from this era in Virginia. As Coil puts it, summarizing the little that we know:

The first lodge in Virginia of which there is a reliable account is the lodge at Fredericksburg, in which George Washington was made a Mason, Nov. 4, 1752, and was passed and raised the following year. This lodge is also famous by reason of the fact that its minutes for Dec. 22, 1753 contain the earliest extant entry [that is, anywhere in the world] recording the working of the Royal Arch Degree. The lodge evidently worked under immemorial right prior to the time it received its warrant from Scotland, July, 21, 1758. (Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia, rev. ed., 1995, pp. 666-667)
Lodge records indicate that George Washington was Entered on November 4, 1752, Passed on March 3, 1753, and Raised on August 4, 1753 (Coil's, p. 677). From these few facts, we can observe the following about the Freemasonry that George Washington entered:
  • Washington's initiation occurred a mere 35 years after the formation of the first Grand Lodge, in London in 1717. (There would have been men still alive who had been involved at that event in London, although it is doubtful that Washington would have met any of them; other than a single trip to Barbados, Washington never left North America.) The Hiramic legend and the legends of the Craft degrees gave a mythic antiquity to Masonry, but there was little or nothing in the way of real-life protocol, precedent, or direction from Grand Lodge for the Brethren to fall back on. They had to figure things out as they came up. Given that the Fredericksburg Lodge has lasted for over two and a half centuries, I'd say that they've done pretty well for themselves. 
  • A fair amount of time passed between Washington's degrees, 4 months between the EA and the FC, and 5 months between the FC and the MM degrees. The amount of time required didn't seem to hurt him any.
  • There was an interest, even at this very early date, in the 'high degrees' that go beyond the Craft degrees.
  • There was little or nothing in the way of "famous Masons" at the time. Somehow, men were attracted to the Fraternity itself, rather than to its glorious history--a history that was just beginning at this time.

Washington himself was really something of a nobody at the time of his initiation: the oldest surviving son of a landowning family, yes, but poorly educated. He was just beginning his military career. He would gain notice the very year he was Raised during a dangerous mission as a messenger to an important Native American chief in the run-up to the French and Indian War; during that conflict, he distinguished himself on several occasions. (The photo shows a 1772 painting of Washington as a British officer--a bit of a jarring image, I know.)

Biographers have lined the shelves with works on Washington (for example, Joseph J. Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington, New York: Knopf, 2008). They are in agreement that Washington was an excellent leader in difficult circumstances, beginning with that early dangerous mission, continuing through the brutal French & Indian War, then the hard slog of the Revolutionary War, then the establishment of a stable American government and useful Constitution.

Can Masonry take any credit for that? Certainly nothing can be established at this late date. Ellis' biography, for all its merits, shares the typical fault of historians who silently pass over Washington's Masonic association and activities. However, I find it highly suggestive that when Washington did comment upon Freemasonry, he was unfailingly positive about the Fraternity. In addition, when it came time to lay the foundation of the United States Capitol--the symbol and landmark of American democracy, for which he had risked his life and limb and fortune for many years--Washington did so in Masonic regalia, and with Masonic ceremony. Surely this was not a casual choice.

So, this great American leader was a Mason. His Masonry involved months between receiving his degrees. The Masonry of his era required lodges to be resourceful in solving their own problems and challenges. Even then, there was an interest in the high degrees of Masonry. The attraction to the Fraternity was its principles, precepts, and ritual--in a word, its secrets--not its famous members or actual history; there was precious little of either of those latter items.

Food for thought, brethren--food for thought.

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