Founding Father of the York Rite
By Norris G. Abbott, Jr., 33°
Thomas Smith Webb, the "Founding Father of ihe York or American Rite" as he is appropriately describe by Herbert T. Leyland, his biographer, was born October 30, 1771, in Boston. He holds the rare distinction of being actively connected with the formation of two large national masonic bodiestestimony to the respect in which he was held by his masonic brethren.
He received his education in Boston public schools and also began the study of music there which was to be an enjoyable diversion throughout his life. His business career was extensive and varied. After serving an apprenticeship with his father as a bookbinder, he started in for himself in Keene, N.H., and then moved to Albany, N.Y., where he changed to the monufacture of wallpaper with considerable success.
Providence, R.I., was the next stop and for 16 yeurs he continued the wallpaper business and operated a bookstore. While there, he became agent for the Hope Cotton Co. Later he built a cotton mill in Walpole, Mass., and a few years later moved the machinery to Ohio to merge with the Worthington ManufacturIng Co.
All moves were based on changing economic conditions and were justified by future events.
His masonic career was fully as extensive and varied. While he received his initial masonic education in Rising Sun Lodge, Keene, N.H., at age 19, it was in Albany and Providence that most of his activities and contributions occurred. Leyland describes him as "Freemason, Musician and Entrepreneur" and, without question, he earned each of those titles.
At Albany, at age 26, he authored hls Freemasons Monitor or Illustrations of Masonry, a literary work that ultimately went to seven editions. It brought international fame to the author and became the standard of ritual exemplification for many jurisdictions. It was a compendium of many of the writings of William Preston of England, a man who devoted a lifetime of service to the Craft in the study and perfection of masonic lectures.
Webb joined Union Lodge in Albany and became its Worshipful Master. He helped form Temple Royal Arch Chapter and became its High Priest.
His reputation was well known when he moved to Providence in 1799, and he was soon taken into the life of the community. During his stay in Rhode Island he was elected to the school committee, became a director of the Providence Library Company, and served as a director, trustee, and finally treasurer of the Providence Mutual Fire Insurance Company. From a private in the State Militia, he rose to be Colonel of his regiment.
Soon after his arrival in Providence, he acceptud an invitation to join St. Johns Lodge No. 1 and at once started a school of instruction. As a member of a Rhode lsland Lodge he was eligible to attend Grand Lodge, and on his first visit he was appointed a member of a committee to revise the Constitutions.
It is interesting to note that within the next two years two amendments to the Constitution were adopted which permitted the utilization of the services of Brother Webb.
One amendment repealed a two-year limit on the term of the Grand Wardens which allowed Webb to serve for three years as Grand Senior Warden.
The other made it possible to elect a Grand Master who was not a Past Master of a Lodge in Rhode Island.
Thus it was in order to elect Webb as Grand Master in 1813 and 1814. A further election in 1815 he declined.
It was in 1814 that a British man-of-war appeared off Newport. Providence, like other coastal cities, was fearful of bombing and possible invasion. At a mass meeting before the State House in Providence, a Committee on Defense was appointed to insure the protection of the town. Volunteers were called for to erect breastworks.
Webb, as Grand Master, called a special meeting of Grand Lodge and instructed the brethren to "bring shovel, spade or axe and one days provisions." After opening Grand Lodge the brethren marched to Fox Hill and by sunset had erected breastworks 430 feet long, 10 wide, and 5 high, naming it Fort Hiram, an act confirmed by the Governor that evening. This was one of only two masonic forts in the country.
Webb also accepted an invitation to join Providence Royal Arch Chapter and was elected its High Priest two years later.
He assisted in the formation of the Grand Chapter of Rhode Island and served as Grand High Priest from 1804-14.
With others, he eventually organized the General Grand Royal Arch Chapter of the United States and was guiding the operation, as Deputy Grand High Priest, at his death.
The General Grand Chapter is now the oldest national masonic body in America.
As Leyland says; "It was Webbs genius that saw the need in the masonic field of strong national and state organizations to preserve, invigorate, and propagate the then detached, uncontrolled, and sometimes nebulous ceremonies that now are known as the Capitular Rite and the Templar Orders."
On one of his travels to the Midwest, Webb found that in Kentucky and Ohio the Grand Lodges had sole power to charter Royal Arch Chapters but he was able to influence them to permit the formation of Grand Chapters which would be subservient only to the General Grand Chapter.
During this same period. Webbs untiring masonic zeal accomplished the formation on August 11, 1802, of St. Johns Encampment of Knights Templar, now St. Johns Commandery No. 1 of Providence, the ranking body of all Templar organizations in America.
Webb provided the ritual and ceremonial procedure of the Templar Orders and was elected its first Eminent Commander. He was elected annually until 1814 when he declined re-election. In 1805, with others, he organized the now Grand Commandery of Massachusetts and Rhode Island and presided therein until he retired in 1817.
The achievement which has been declared the crowning glory of Webbs masonic carcer was the formation of the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar of the United States which he accomplished in 1816 in New York City. Governor De Witt Clinton was elected Grand Master and Webb became Deputy Grand Master, a position he held at his death.
As he approached 40, Webb prepared to divest himself of many of his business connections, and by 1815 he had withdrawn from several of his masonic responsibilities in Providence.
He devoted mare of his time to music and, with others, formed the Handel and Haydn Philharmonic Society in Boston, he was its first president and conducted the Societys first public concert in Kings Chapel on Christmas Day, 1815, with more than 100 participants. He also served as one of the soloists and even attained some fame later as a composer.
It was on one of his several western trips that Thomas Smith Webb died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 6, 1819. A masonic burial service was held in Cleveland, Ohio, and memorial services were conducted in many cities.
Later it was felt more appropriate that Webb be buried in Providence. With the consent of his widow and with funds supplied by the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island and other local masonic bodies, his body was brought to Providence and placed in the West Burying Ground.
When that cemetery later was converted to a park, the body was moved to the North Burial Ground to a plot of land on a knoll donated by the city, on which a marble monument or abelisk was erected by Grand Lodge. Each side of the shaft was used to record one or more of his many accomplishments. Like another famous freemason, his body was buried three times.
One of Freemasonrys most dedicated workers passed with a record of accomplishment second to none and his memory is perpetuated in Rhode Island by a lodge, a council, and a commandery bearing his nome.
The Grand Lodge of Rhode Island erected a monument to the memory of Webb at the North Burial Ground in Providence. R.I.
Reprinted from the Northern Light, January 1971, Vol. 2 No. 1. Editor: George E. Burow, 33°. 39 Marrett Raad. P.O. BOX 519, Lexingtan, Mass. 02173.