History of St. John's Lodge No. 1

By R:.W:. Werner Hartmann, written for the 200th Anniversary of St. John’s Lodge

Before embarking on this brief story of the beginnings of St. John's Lodge, it might be well briefly to review the contemporaneous Masonic situation in England and in the American colonies.

In 1717, four (or more) old Lodges in London acted to form a Grand Lodge – the mother Grand Lodge of Speculative Freemasonry. As time went on dissension arose with the result that, about 1755, a rival Grand Lodge, also in London, was organized by the dissenters. They maintained that the original body had departed from the ancient principles of the Craft, and referred to its members as the Moderns; their own body, which they claimed embodied the original principles of Freemasonry, they named The Antient Grand Lodge (later also known as The Atholl Grand Lodge) from the name of one of its Grand Masters. They were imbued with the missionary spirit, and, through constituting a multiplicity of Lodges in the American colonies, they soon outstripped the original Grand Lodge in numbers - both as to Lodges and members. Meanwhile, the Grand Lodge of Ireland (formed in 1725), and that of Scotland (1736), were also issuing warrants to Lodges in the American colonies.

St. John's Lodge No. 1, oldest of the Lodges under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of the State of New York, ranks fifteenth in seniority among the Lodges in the United States. It was constituted (as St. John's Lodge No. 2) on December 1757, by the original (Modern) Grand Lodge of England through the Rt. Wor. George Harison, fourth Provincial Grand Master in New York.

Beyond the bare fact that the Lodge was lawfully constituted, nothing is known of this important event in its history, with the exception of the record entered into the rolls of the then Modern Grand Lodge of England:

“By the books of the old Grand Lodge, from which the Atholl Grand Lodge was an offset, it appears that the Warrant of St. John's Lodge, Ann street, New York, to meet on the second and fourth Wednesdays, was dated December 27, 1757, and the number was 272... By the closing up of numbers in 1770, it became #187; again in 1781, it became #152; and in 1792, #135. At the union of the two (English) Grand Lodges in 1813, the Lodge, never having made any returns, was supposed to be extinct, and the number erased from our books.”

The darkness which obscures the early years of the Lodge is due to a fire which destroyed its Lodge room and records in 1770, as reported in The New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, March 12, 1770:

“Between 11 and 12 o'clock last Thursday Night, a terrible Fire broke out in Scotch Street, in this City. 'Tis said to have begun in a large Wooden Building belonging to Mr. Jonathan Hampton, where some Carpenters had been at Work, and the Place of Meeting of the St. John's Lodge, who have lost all their jewels and other Furniture ...”

In any event, only three items of information{ about the first fifteen years of the Lodge's existence are extant. They are:

  • The names of the Master, Wardens, and Secretary for the year 1766 (Michael Thodey, William Bancker, William Tongue, and Fred William Hecht, respectively), which appear on a traveling certificate issued to one Amos Dodge, and dated January 22, 1766.
     
  • A newspaper advertisement in the New York Mercury, December 28, 1767:

“The brethren composing the St. John's, Trinity, Union, and King Solomon's Lodges of Free and Accepted Masons of this city propose to celebrate the Festival of St. John the Evangelist at the house of Mr. John Jones, Vintner, at the Sign of the Mason's Arms in the Fields. Sojourners in the city, members of the Fraternity, are invited to join upon the occasion.”

  • The names of the Master and Wardens for the year 1770. These appear on the covers of the new (?) Lodge Bible, which probably replaced the one destroyed in the fire. The inscriptions read:

“God shall Establish. St. John's Lodge. Constituted 5757. Burnt down 8th March 5770. Rebuilt and Opened November 28th, 5770. Officers then presiding: Jonathan Hampton, Master. William Butler, S.W. Isaac Heron, J.W.”

The first comprehensive glimpse of the Lodge emerges in 1772, when a new set of By-laws was adopted. These were engrossed on a sheet of parchment, and were signed by 70 members of the Lodge. This parchment has survived, and, with the exception of a few of the names, is still quite legible.

With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, a majority of the members of the Lodge, who favored the Colonies' cause, were forced to flee the city, and took with them the Warrant. Although there is no record, it is believed that these brethren held meetings in the vicinity of Fishkill, for a letter in the Lodge archives, addressed to Brother John Austin (one of the signers of the 1772 By-laws), Commander of Military Stores, 1st Massachusetts Brigade, Fishkill, reads as follows:

“Bro: - Our friend, Joseph Burnham, has for a considerable time manifested a desire of being initiated in the (friendly or charitable) Society of Free and Accepted Masons, at Fishkill. We do therefore recommend him, from personal acquaintance, to be such a person, as when admitted, will do honour to the craft, and for that purpose beg your assistance and influence

(Signed) Daniel Shays, Captain

Oliver Owen, Lieutenant
Ivory Holland, Lieutenant
Soldier's Fortune, April 26, 1778.”

This same Daniel Shays later headed "Shays" Rebellion.

With the end of the war in 1783, the darkness which had shrouded the Lodge since its beginning begins to lift. Although the records for the ensuing ten years (1783 - 1793) are fragmentary, enough are available, when coupled with Grand Lodge records, to present a picture of the Lodge during that period.

The year 1781 marked the end of the reign of the Provincial Grand Masters deputized by the original Grand Lodge of England. Earlier in this story, reference was made to the "missionary spirit" of the Atholl Grand Lodge. This now bore fruit, in that nine Antient Lodges in the city met in January of that year and organized an inchoate Grand Lodge under the auspices of their parent body. The membership of these Lodges consisted mainly of British troops and Tory sympathizers, stationed in, or residents of, the city. In December of 1782, this inchoate body became the Pro­vincial Grand Lodge, by virtue of a warrant from the Atholl Grand Lodge, and this, in turn, became the Grand Lodge of the State of New York.

The end of the war brought changes in the Masonic, as well as in the political life of New York. In the new Grand Lodge, moat of the officers, having fought for, or adhered to, the British side, were forced to flee the country - for the most part to Canada. At the same time, the patriots, who had lived "in exile" from the city during the war, returned. Among these were the brethren of St. John's Lodge, with their Warrant in their possession. They thus had had no part in the formation of the Grand Lodge; indeed, since they were of Modern origin, there was little fraternal inter­course between them and the Atholl brethren.

But with the election of Robert R. Livingston, Chancellor of the State, as Grand Master in 1784, the two groups of brethren began to compose their differences. Livingston had been Master of an upstate Modern Lodge, and had been "healed" by the Antient brethren. With this example, and immediately following his installation as Grand Master, the members of St. John's voted to unite with the Grand Lodge. On March 3, 1784, the Master and Wardens of St. John's surrendered their old Warrant to the Grand Lodge, and were accepted into membership. At that same communication of Grand Lodge, John Lawrence, Master of St. John's, and James Giles, Senior Warden, were appointed joint Grand Secretaries, thus demonstrating the full acceptance of the Lodge by the Grand Lodge.

To make the recognition even more complete, the following resolution was unanimously adopted by Grand Lodge on March 27th:

“That St. John's Lodge No. 2, having surrendered their Warrant to this Grand Lodge on March 3rd, inst., and agreed to conform to its regulations, be entitled to all the rights and privil­eges of members of the said Grand Lodge, and take rank of all Lodges that may be constituted by the Grand Lodge after the surrender.”

The Lodge was also given permission to use the title Ancient York Masons, a privilege not accorded to any other Lodge. Five years later, a Committee of the Grand Lodge was set up to determine the rank and precedence of each Lodge; and in April, 1789, St. John's was recognized as the oldest Lodge in the State, and was given the designation of No. 1. This action was approved by the Grand Lodge on June 3, 1789, and a new Warrant was issued to St. John's Lodge No. 1 on June 9, 1789 – under which Warrant (Charter) it is still working.

Such is the record of St. John's Lodge, from the shrouded early years of its life, through the semi-obscured intervening years, to 1793, when the darkness turns to light. For, beginning with January of that year, the full records of the Lodge are in its archives. And since then, the history of St. John's is like that of many of its sister Lodges. It has had its times of prosperity and of adversity, has had periods of internal strife - even of temporary secession from the Grand Lodge. But in the words of the former Grand Historian, on the occasion of its Sesquicentennial in 1907:

“It has the distinction of having been born in the early years of Freemasonry, as we know it - a distinction its members can well be proud of; and more than this, it can boast of an uninterrupted existence of one hundred fifty years. . . . This long and unbroken record crowns the Lodge with honors second to none. The Lodge has always been conservative, pursuing the even tenor of its way without ostentation or show, content with the reward of a consciousness of faithfully performing its duty, and holding aloft the banner of Freemasonry; striving at all times to be controlled by the pure principles of the Fraternity; tenaciously defending its idea of right, and dwelling at peace with all mankind."