Thursday, May 7, 2020

‘The Last and Only Grand Master of America’

Joseph Montfort
This look at Freemasonry concerns its embryonic period in the New World, that four-decade span straddling the mid eighteenth century when lodges were linked directly to the British Isles. In some cases, lodges here were chartered by grand lodges abroad, like George Washington’s lodge receiving its warrant belatedly from the Grand Lodge of Scotland. In other instances, the Grand Lodge of England would issue a deputation to an individual, naming him the authority for some impossibly vast tract of geography. The problems with this, I’m guessing, were two: a shortage of politically connected Freemasons who intended to relocate to the American colonies, and a general unfamiliarity with North America suffered by mother country people of this era. The latter obstacle surely changed when the shooting started in 1775, but before then I doubt many in, say, London could distinguish Boston from Philadelphia from Charles Town—much less the inestimable hinterlands beyond city limits.

Magpie file photo
Daniel Coxe
Daniel Coxe was the first of the appointees, being named Provincial Grand Master of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in 1730, but leaving no trace of any activity connected with that authority. That was a two-year appointment for a not-so-young man of 57, involving a territory spanning, by today’s borders, more than 109,000 square miles. But getting something going (at least one lodge is known to have existed in Philadelphia, not far from Coxe’s home in southwest New Jersey) and maybe delegating a little authority would not have been impossible. If he did anything, we do not know of it today.

The Grand Lodge of England would name other provincial grand masters, including John Hammerton for South Carolina in 1736; Francis Goelet in New York in 1751; John Rowe at Boston in 1768; and, in 1771, Joseph Montfort “of and for America.”

Montfort (pronounced Mumford) was born in England in 1724 and became a highly significant figure in the early history of North Carolina by the time he died in 1776. He held a variety of public offices, appointed and elected; was a noteworthy land-owner; and led Colonial troops. On the negative side, there were unflattering and unsolved mysteries about his professional life.

He was a Mason at labor in Royal White Hart Lodge in Halifax, North Carolina. On January 14, 1771, the Grand Lodge of England named him provincial grand master “of and for America.” Montfort even had a deputy, Cornelius Harnett, and together they did exercise authority, albeit limiting themselves to the province of North Carolina. The “of and for America” part of Montfort’s title was noted on the warrants he issued to local lodges. (He chartered ten lodges and helped six others get reorganized, making huge strides toward establishing the current grand lodge, which happened more than a decade after his death.) His headstone reads, in part: “Highest Masonic official ever reigning on this continent... the Last and Only Grand Master of America.”

How the heck did that happen? I attribute it to that lack of understanding among Britons about the territories in the New World. I don’t doubt the average man in the street understood Jamaica was different from Nova Scotia, but there was some common confusion about the Americas. What was “North America?” Did that name apply to the thirteen future United States, or did it also include the captured New France? Did it encompass anyplace else? Were the “Plantations” down south the same legally as “Colonies” up north? Did “New England,” of which Henry Price was made provincial grand master in 1733, refer to the whole of the continent (as Grand Master John Lindsay, Earl of Crawford, purportedly told Price), or only to the northern region, as we employ the name today? In terms of Masonic hierarchy, with the advent of a provincial grand master “of and for America,” what would be the dispositions of other PGMs, such as Sir John Johnson in New York?

Fortunately, there is a document clarifying it all. On February 6, 1771, Montfort received from the Grand Lodge his commission (he had to pay for it!) certifying his rank as “P.G.M. for No. Ca.” This hangs in the offices of the Grand Lodge of North Carolina today.

Montfort is memorialized in North Carolina Freemasonry in the form of that grand lodge’s top honor being named for him. The Joseph Montfort Medal is awarded by the grand master “to any Master Mason in good standing and recognized by the grand lodge who, in the opinion of the grand master, is deserving thereof because of distinguished service or achievement.” A grand master may award no more than three medals, and they all make use of the three availabilities.

Courtesy Find a Grave
Montfort is interred on property outside his lodge building. Royal White Hart Lodge 2 originally was known as Marsh Store Lodge; under circumstances unknown today, it became White Hart Lodge. In 1764, it received a provincial warrant that named it Royal White Hart Lodge, but four years later the Duke of Beaufort issued a supernally prestigious warrant, as he was the grand master of the Grand Lodge of England.

Courtesy Find a Grave


Tom Van Dyke said...

No historian I've read has had anything intelligible to say about Founding-era Masonry.

At best, they make it something between the Skull & Bones and cosplay.

Magpie Mason said...

Historical Masonic records of the period are scarce and rudimentary, and a lot of the written general history is wishful mythologizing, but it is possible to tell accurate stories. It was only a decade ago when an acquaintance of mine was able to show how Pierre l'Enfant was a Freemason, something previously unknown to history.


Jonathan Rowe said...

"John Rowe at Boston in 1768; ..."

No relation. LOL. Glad to see you back. The group blog finally looks like it ought to look again. Four different posters in a row.

Magpie Mason said...

LOL. I wanted to put a (!) after that name. It's good to be back.


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