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Freemasonry In Upper Canada

Freemasonry In Upper Canada

Thursday October 12, 2023

For the average person, the term Freemasonry sparks a sense of curiosity and uncertainty. Little is known about the organization for those not ordained into the fraternity, yet their presence across the globe has continued for centuries. To comprehend the tribulations members of the organization faced during this period, a brief overview of their history is necessary.

Determining a conclusive date for the establishment of the society is complex. Scholars have generally agreed that on June 24, 1717 (St. John’s Day), with the amalgamation of four of London England’s lodges, the foundation of Freemasonry emerged. However, members of the Craft assert that medieval stonemasons had been organizing themselves “into guilds, and for work, into assemblies or lodges” well into the late fourteenth century. A Lodge of Friendship by the Niagara Lodge, No. 2 clarifies the muddled timeline by categorizing the types of practice: Operative and Speculative Masons. The former is represented by the medieval stonemasons who wielded their knowledge and tools to build physical structures, i.e., cathedrals and castles. Whereas the Speculative Mason applies the tools and rules of the Craft to build/shape their character. With the phasing out of cathedral building in England, more lodges began accepting non-guild members into their associations. Broadening acceptance to non-guild members created a surge in Speculative Masonry, thus outnumbering Operative Masons by the sixteenth century.

The unification of the Premier Grand Lodge of England (as it is known today) under the direction of Grand Master Anthony Sayer chartered the formation of the world’s first Grand Lodge. Shortly thereafter, a Grand Lodge of Ireland (1721) and of Scotland (1736) emerged as distinct appendages of Freemasonry. Brethren, though unified by their Lodges and ideologies were not without differences. A number of members accused the ruling body of the Grand Lodge of England (the “Moderns”), “of making innovation in the body of Freemasonry.” Thereupon separating from the rival Lodge to form their own Grand Lodge of England (the “Ancients”). This was due in part by opposing emphases on rituals used to conduct masonic ceremonies. The “Ancients” felt that original masonic structures and rituals should be strictly adhered to, rather than straying from the ancient authorities of Freemasonry, as the “Moderns” seemed to promote. In 1757 King George II donated over twelve thousand volumes of his archives to the British Museum, among which was the Regius Poem. J.O. Halliwell (a non-Mason) discovered the Regius Poem (or Halliwell Manuscript) nearly a century later when going through the stacks. The Regius Poem is the oldest authenticated record of Masons and was written between c. 1390-1450. The unearthing of the Masonic document helped to define the intentions and origins of Freemasonry in England.

By the time the war broke out in 1812, the Fraternity had been well-established in Europe and in the American Colonies.   The craft had taken in notable members including, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Amadeus Mozart to name a few. Freemasonry had made its way to Nova Scotia shortly after the fortification of Halifax on Citadel Hill in 1749. Notwithstanding, the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia notes that the Brotherhood had been established in 1738, about eleven years prior, at Annapolis Royal. It was at Annapolis Royal where the first duly constituted lodge in Canada was founded.

In the British Army, it was commonplace to grant warrants to a leading officer of the regiment authorizing them to hold a Masonic Lodge at their temporary station; respectfully referred to as “military” or “travelling” warrants. A predominant number of English Regiments had obtained their travelling warrants via the Grand Lodge of Ireland. At the time it had been customary to have one line regiment stay a minimum of two-years service in Ireland. This may explain why the bulk of issued warrants were from the Irish Lodge. Regiments that moved into the Citadel of Quebec to organize a new fortification came in with several “military warrants.” Before too long, officers of the army lodges came together and formed a Provincial Grand Lodge (without formal approval from London). When John Butler arrived at Fort Niagara, Lodge No. 156 or the 8th King’s Regiment (affiliated with the “Moderns”) was in practice and had received one of the first-issued “travelling warrants.” A detachment of the Regiment arrived at the garrison in 1773. From 1773 to 1785, Lodge No. 156 held its meetings in “a stone building called ‘The Castle’, a part of the fort.” In the fall of 1780 as the Revolutionary War waged on, Butler’s Rangers returned to Fort Niagara after many arduous months to discover the newly surfaced civilian lodge, St. John’s Lodge of Friendship.

Freemasonry had important political and social implications for settlers in Upper Canada. By 1795, there were over a dozen Masonic Lodges throughout the Province reported on the Provincial Register to the Grand Lodge (not including Lodges meeting under warrants or informally). Immigrants and Loyalists that sought refuge in Niagara roused the need for an organization distinct from the Military Lodges.  The refugees were diversified in cultures, languages, and ethnic backgrounds making it difficult to form a shared sense of community. However, through the unifying membership of the Masonry, these individuals were able to come together through a collective experience. As there were countless quarrels across the continent and globe, the local Militia was similarly important for shaping the community. It was expected of every military-aged man to serve in his local colonial Militia Regiment. Scholar Daniel J. Glenney relates this fact with the rationale that every military-aged Mason would likewise serve in these Militias.

There was a significant amount of infantry involved in the Masonic Order including First Nations Chiefs and Warriors. Additionally, leading British officials of the Department of Indian Affairs embraced the trend toward Freemasonry in favour of the four guiding principles, integrity, friendship, respect, and charity. The No. 156 Military Lodge at Fort Niagara held the initiations of Joseph Clement and Captain Henry Nelles in 1780, along with the initiation of Lieutenant Daniel Servos and Henry W. Nelles in 1784 (Henry W. Nelles would become Grand Master in 1785). At the age of seventeen James Fitz Gibbon enlisted in the 49th Regiment of Foot, serving as a Sergeant in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. 

Other well-known figureheads in Niagara’s history are connected to the Fraternity, such as notable Mohawk Chief, Thayendanegea or Joseph Brant. Brant’s initiation to the Craft occurred during his voyage to England with Guy Johnson and other Indian Affairs associates. While in England, Brant was introduced to several leading artisans and government officials, including the Falcon Lodge where he had allegedly been ordained in the Fellowship. Scholars have noted that in the portrait painted of Brant on the same trip (fig.1), he was wearing an opened Masonic ball fob in the form of the Christian cross. While his portrait does show a cross-shaped pendant around his neck, there is no conclusive evidence that the medallion is Masonic. Brant was said to have been an active member of Lodge No.11 at Mohawk Castle and Barton Lodge No.4, near present-day Brantford and Hamilton. Moreover, notable Shawnee Warrior Chief, Tecumseh has been subject to Masonic-speculation—therein surmising that Tecumseh had been ordained in the Fellowship. While there are some that claim Tecumseh took the oath of Brotherhood in Pennsylvania, there are no records to confirm his initiation or involvement with Freemasonry. Nonetheless, Tecumseh Lodge No. 69 in Michigan has adopted his namesake and image.

John Butler, famed for his band of Rangers, is known to be affiliated with Fellowship at Union Lodge No.1 in Albany where he was initiated. Butler later served as Secretary to St. Patrick’s Lodge where Sir William Johnson was Grand Master. When Butler returned to Quebec, he was permitted to raise eight companies to make-up his Rangers. When Butler and his Rangers arrived at Fort Niagara, the civilian lodge, St. John’s Lodge of Friendship, had been established. Butler and his men, along with the continued migration of Loyalist, helped to authorize and expand the settlement. Local Masons continued to meet at St. John’s Lodge of Friendship at Fort Niagara and the Lodge became officially incorporated into the Roll of the Grand Lodge of Quebec and assigned “No.2.” Following Butler’s Rangers disbandment, Butler hoped to establish a lodge for the small agricultural community of Niagara (today’s Niagara-on-the-Lake). However, his membership with St. Patrick’s Lodge, No. 8 having been nulled as result of the war, Butler had to claim a fraternal base before persisting further with his appeal. Therefore, Butler affiliated himself with Lodge No.2. Supported by John P. Clement, Joseph Clement, and Ralfe Clench, Butler petitioned to the Grand Lodge of Quebec (the “Moderns”) for a lodge on the Westbank of Niagara. In 1787, the petition for St. John’s Lodge, No. 19 had been granted. John Butler aptly became Master with ex-Ranger Ralfe Clench as his Secretary. In 1795, St. John’s Lodge of Friendship No. 2 was relocated to Queenston where Brothers would meet at temporary locations, and occasionally Robert Hamilton’s estate.

In Niagara, there had been two Lodges operating at once, one in the town (No. 19) and the other at temporary locations in Queenston (No.2). As for St. John’s Lodge No. 19, it was located on lot 33, a piece of land granted by the Crown to Freemason William Dickson, at the corner of King and Prideaux Street. The wooden structure was one of the first substantial buildings in old town (apart from a necessary tavern) and is said to have been the site of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe’s first Parliamentary assembly of Upper Canada. The remainder of the legislative assemblies were held near Navy Hall at the initial site of Butler’s Rangers barracks. The Lodge was used for many forms of social gatherings such as the Newark Agricultural Society, and remarkably the building functioned as a place of worship for Dr. Robert Addison for many years before St. Mark’s Anglican Church held its first service in 1809. While the delivery of a Christian service in a Masonic Lodge may seem paradoxical, Dr. Addison and many other members of the town did not fret over possible contradictions. Respected residents of the town were Masons like Col. John Butler, Dr. Robert Kerr, Ralfe Clench, William Jarvis, James Secord (husband to Laura Secord), as well as Simcoe himself.

In 1822, the lodges merged to form the Dalhousie Lodge, No. 2. Prior to amalgamation, both Lodges were in operation at the beginning of 1812, however, they had difficulties meeting under the circumstances. A meeting of the St. John’s Lodge of Friendship in December of 1815 produced a grim report: “No election of officers, no St. John’s Day, owing to the War, dull times for the Craft.” Prior to the December 1815 minutes, the Lodge had not been able to assemble since February 1813. During the war, the original building was burnt down in the destruction of Niagara, December 1813. A new building was erected on the same lot sometime around 1816 and was made from stone. The new building, much like the old, served plenty of distinct functions. At various points, the building functioned as a store, a private school, a hotel, and as military barracks used during the 1837 Rebellion and the Fenian Raids (hence it is often referred to as the ‘stone barracks’). In 1846, the Lodge was renamed the Niagara Lodge No. 2 A.F. & A.M. and held their meetings at temporary locations while the stone barracks served its assorted functions. Nevertheless, their temporary site along with historical documents, regalia, and jewels was destroyed in a fire in 1860. After the fire, the local Masons began renting the stone barracks before purchasing the building in 1877, the lot once again returning to its original intentions.

The presence of Freemasonry in Niagara Region dates back at the very least, to the settlement of Butlersburg in 1781 which through time has become known as Niagara-on-the-Lake. The existence of military/travelling lodges has allowed the fraternity to expand along with fostering a sense of community and belonging. An example of community and belonging comes from a notice about the Lodge of Philanthropy in the Upper Canada Gazette published June 28, 1797: “…At a meeting of the Lodge in their room, Newark, it was resolved that a fund should be established for the benefit of Free Masons’ widows, the education of orphans, and indigent brethren’s children.” Furthermore, Captain John P. Clement, brother to Bro. Joseph Clement of the Lodge of Friendship No. 2, served in the Eighth Foot Regiment from 1812-1814. During an altercation on July 5, 1814, Capt. Clement observed a First Nations warrior preparing to kill an American prisoner who signed a Masonic symbol for distress. Capt. Clement intervened to save his fellow Brethren upon observing the signal and relocated the prisoner to a farmhouse where the prisoner was cared for until he could safely return to New York State. Not long after, Capt. Clement found himself incarcerated in New York, where as fate would have it, the prisoner he had saved months prior was the turnkey at the jail. The following morning a conveyance was ordered, and Capt. Clement returned to Canada.

The Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum is fortunate enough to have a sizeable assortment of Masonic documents and artefacts in our collection. With the history of both the town and local lodge extending back to the same decade, it is important that we recognize and consider the influence of the Brotherhood for bringing the community together. Although the Niagara Lodge No. 2 A.F. & A.M has changed faces and locations throughout the years, it remains the oldest, continuous Masonic Lodge in the country. The local area is rich with a vastness of unique histories, but I bet you did not consider an antiquated affiliation with an ancient fraternity. Masonic historian, John Ross Robertson, thinks of the region’s deep connection to Freemasonry stating, “one might almost call the Niagara District the cradle of Masonry in Upper Canada, for its soil is indeed sacred to the cause of the Craft.”