Any Mason with a reasonable knowledge of the Craft will be familiar with the fact that George Washington, the First President of the United States, was a Freemason. The same studious Mason will also be fully aware of the schism that existed between the Ancient, or Antient, and the Modern Masons for many decades in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Some events that surrounded President Washington, occurring decades after he became a Freemason, give a clear indication as to the deepness of that divide between the Ancients and the Moderns.
A brief description of the how the schism between the Ancients and the Moderns developed may be in order. The Athol Grand Lodge, or Grand Lodge of Ancient Masons, had formed in England several decades after the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, which dates to 1717. The Grand Lodge of England and the Athol Grand Lodge were often bitter rivals and the Athols described the Grand Lodge of England as “Modern Masons.” This was meant to be a derogatory term, in that the Athols felt themselves to be “Ancient” and, therefore, more in line with the old traditions, rituals, and teachings of Freemasonry. In 1813, these two Grand Lodges eventually united to form the current United Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of England, but not before the rivalry had spread to the American Colonies and, thus, to the new United States of America. Having their roots in York, England, the Ancients are often referred to as York Masons or Ancient York Masons. It is important to note that the York Masons and the Modern Masons did not recognize each other and both parties looked to the other as innovators and invaders.
It is known that Washington was initiated into Freemasonry on November 4th, 1752, in the Lodge at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and he became a Master Mason in that same Lodge on August 4th of the next year. The early history of Freemasonry in Virginia is murky, at best, and it appears that there were no less than five Grand Jurisdictions that had chartered Lodges in that territory by 1777. It was in that year that a movement began to form a Grand Lodge of Virginia and this effort culminated in the creation of the Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free & Accepted Masons of Virginia on October 30th, 1778. Washington’s home Lodge was part of the convention that gave birth to this new Grand Lodge. But what type of Grand Lodge was it? Was it Ancient or Modern?
It is inferred in Albert G. Mackey’s History of Freemasonry, that the first Grand Master of the new Grand Lodge of Virginia, John Blair, was an Ancient York Mason and one can extrapolate that his new Grand Lodge was of the same character. As will be seen further in this article, Mackey asserts that George Washington himself was an Ancient York Mason. Let us now turn to some events in South Carolina that surrounded President Washington in order to truly visualize the width of the division that existed between the Ancients and the Moderns.
Two years after being sworn in as the first President of the United States of America, Washington began a tour of the Southern States of the new Union. This created much excitement in the South, especially since Washington had never travelled to that part of the country, and this excitement spilled over into the Masonic Fraternity. At this time in South Carolina, the division between the Ancients and the Moderns was alive and well and there existed two Grand Lodges, namely the Grand Lodge of Ancient York Masons of South Carolina and the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of South Carolina. Neither body recognized the other as true Masons nor would they undertake the process of mending the schism in South Carolina for another sixteen years.
On May 2nd, 1791 and on the occasion of Washington’s arrival in South Carolina, General Mordecai Gist, Grand Master of the Ancient York Masons of South Carolina, addressed the President in a most respectful, congratulatory, Masonic, and heartfelt manner on behalf of his Grand Lodge. Washington responded to the Grand Lodge of Ancient York Masons in similar fashion. The Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of South Carolina offered no such address, though it was certainly in proximity to have been able to do so.
Mackey, in the History of Freemasonry in South Carolina, notes another and more glaring “omission of a duty of respect” on the part of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of South Carolina. This omission occurs after Washington dies on December 14th, 1799. Mackey writes,
"...I can find no record of any public action taken by the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons on this occasion. Indeed there is no mention in the journals of the day of that body having taken any part in the civic procession of the community of Charleston, which took place on the 15th of February, in which the York Masons, to the number of 250, took a prominent part, and appeared in ‘funeral order.’ I am almost afraid to record the explanation which alone suggests itself to me, of the surprising silence and absence of the Free and Accepted Masons on this occasion."
The official actions of the York Masons following the death of Washington are extensive and well recorded. In addition to participating in the procession on February 15th, 1800; the Ancient York Mason Grand Lodge recommended that its members adorn themselves with symbols of mourning for a month, resolutions concerning his death were adopted, and the equivalent of a Lodge of Sorrow was conducted on February 22nd, 1800.
Mackey goes on to reluctantly conclude that the “failure or refusal” of the Modern Masons to participate in any Masonic fashion in the ceremonies meant to honor the recently deceased first President had everything to do with the schism between the Ancients and the Moderns. Mackey writes,
“…it to be attributed solely to the fact, that having been made in Virginia, he was an Ancient York Mason, and that his Masonic claim was not therefore recognized by them. They mourned him as citizens, but could not admit his right to Masonic funeral honors.”
That the dark shadow of the schism between the Ancient Masons and the Modern Masons extended even to such revered general, statesman, and Freemason as George Washington is truly indicative of how troubling those times were for Freemasonry. The Masons of today will forever be indebted to those of many years ago who found the desire and courage to heal that old wound and erase that shadow from the landscape of the Fraternity.