The Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons for the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
FREEMASONRY IN RHODE ISLAND AND THE FOUNDING OF THE GRAND LODGE
Thomas Oxnard, Provincial Grand Master of New England and Grand Master of Massachusetts,granted the petition for the constitution of St. John’s Lodge of Newport on December 27, 1749, the first in the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Brother Caleb Phillips was appointed the first Master of the Lodge. During this time According to tradition, the meetings were held during the early period of its history, in the “Council Chamber” of the “Old State House” which is now and now used as a Court House on this account hold special claim to the regard of the Fraternity in Rhode Island.
Newport was one of Rhode Island’s five original capital cities, each serving in rotation as the seat of the General Assembly this number was reduced to two by 1854 leaving just Newport and Providence. As the focus of the economy in Rhode Island switched from maritime interest to manufacturing, Providence’s growth rapidly outpaced Newport greatly impacting the stature of St John’s of Newport whose charter was lost until 1790 when it was revived became more important and became the sole capital in 1900.
The successful petition of St John’s Lodge of Newport inspired the petition of an additional Lodge, St. John’s of Providence. The Charter was granted on January 17, 1757 and signed and granted January 18, 1757 by Jeremy Gridley, the Provincial Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
The formation of the Lodge in Providence added enlivened strength to the feeble progress of the Newport body and the two worked together to build the Craft in Rhode Island. The late 1700’s was a troubled time for Masonry in Rhode Island in 1765 St. John’s Newport its Charter, which was not revived until 1790, and Providence body went from 1769 to 1778. During this time, a number of noteworthy events occurred:
- The institution of the Lodge in Newport very naturally created an ambition for one in Providence and this hope firmly and steadily grew to its fulfillment on February 17, 1757, when St. John's Lodge of Providence was organized, the Charter for such organization bears the date of January 18, 1757 and was issued by Jeremy Gridley, the Provincial Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
- The formation of the Lodge in Providence added enlivened strength to the feeble progress of the Newport body and the two mutually labored for the upbuilding of the Craft until 1765 when the Newport Lodge lost its Charter, which was not revived until 1790, while the Providence body became dormant from 1769 to 1778.
During the dormancy of these old Lodges, our Craftsmen were still active on a limited basis. Many interesting and exciting events occurred in which our patriotic Craftsmen engaged the British in their quest to become an independent nation.
- On July 19, 1769 Craftsmen were responsible for the destruction of the British revenue sloop “Liberty” at Newport, this being the first overt act of violence offered to the British authorities in America.
- On June 10, 1772 the British revenue schooner Gaspee was burned in Narragansett bay, by a band of citizens, nearly all members of St. Johns Lodge of Providence, disguised as Indians, under the leadership of Capt. Abraham Whipple, causing the first blood-shed of the Revolution.
- On March 2, 1775 practically the same active colonists burned tea in Market Square, Providence; the town crier urged every citizen to bring and cast into the fire the “useless herb.”
- On June 15, 1775 the first naval engagement of the Revolution occurred, between the Colonial sloop commanded by Capt. Abraham Whipple and a tender of the British frigate “Rose”; in which the tender was chased onto the Conanicut shore and captured. In recognition of this patriotic act Capt. Whipple was made Commodore of the Rhode Island Navy, which at that time was of considerable account, and later made Admiral by Congress.
- On June 22, 1775 Brother Nathaniel Greene was chosen Brigadier-General and on August 9, 1776 made a Major general by Congress, second in command to Washington.
- On April 5, 1776 general George Washington visited Providence for the first time and was loyally received.
- On July 9, 1777 the capture of the British General Prescott by Col. William Barton (member of St. Johns Lodge, Providence) on the Island of Rhode Island was considered a most daring act.
Return to Labor
Because of local conditions, the Providence Lodge was able to recover much more quickly than the one in Newport, but it is a matter of record that many members of the Craft in Newport joined King David’s, established June 7, 1780, by the Right Worshipful Moses M. Hays by authority which he obtained from the “Right Worshipful George Harrison, Esq., Provincial Grand Master of New York.” Ten years later the two Lodges, King David’s and St. John’s No. 1, was preserved and made applicable for the revived and united body. Thence followed the formation of the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island.
With the end of the revolution came a revival of Freemasonry and by the urgency of the brethren in Providence, St. John’s, Newport was renewed by the election of the patriot Peleg Clarke as Worshipful Master on October 19, 1790.
The movement for a Grand Lodge now went on with vigor and an agreement as to the methods and measures were soon concluded by mutual cooperation.
The Grand Lodge Becomes a Reality
The plan formulated by the Committees for the proposed organization received the formal approval of St John’s Lodge, Newport on March 14, 1791 and of St. Johns in Providence on April 6, 1791. By the plan thus adopted the first Grand Master was to be chosen from the Lodge at Newport, the Deputy Grand master from the Lodge at Providence. The other officers were to be equally divided between the two districts. The first District consisted of the counties of Newport, Washington and Bristol, and the second of the counties of providence and Kent. The two Lodges were to have the appointment of Grand master Alternately. The first officers were to continue in office until 1793. Under the terms of this agreement the Lodge at Newport elected Most Worshipful Christopher Champlin, Grand Master and the Lodge at providence elected Right Worshipful Jabez Bowen, Deputy Grand Master.
On Monday the 27th of June 1791, “being the day affixed on for the celebration of the Feast of St. John the Baptist” a number of brethren representing the two Lodges met in the State House at Newport and proceeded to organize a Grand Lodge in accordance with the plan that had been approved.
The Right Worshipful Moses Seixas presided and installed the officers who had previously been designated for the several stations. When the organization had been completed, the newly installed officers, with members of Grand Lodge and visiting brethren, marched in procession to trinity Church, where a discourse having appropriateness to the occasion, was delivered by the Rector, Rev. William Smith, and a collection was taken which sum it was ordered “should be invested in wood and distributed to the poor of this town during the ensuing winter.” The brethren who formed the Grand Lodge of this State and those Masonically associated with them at that time, plainly signified their respect for religion and for the practical charity so much emphasized by the teaching of Freemasonry. Thus, in brief, we relate the story of the formation of the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island. Two Lodges only united in the movement.
The formation of the Grand Lodge immediately stimulated enthusiasm in the Fraternity in Rhode Island and the closing years of the eighteenth century brought a large measure of prosperity and the Craft began to develop and thrive upon a firmer more substantial foundation.