THOMAS SMITH WEBB
To evaluate the position any Masonic
leader has held in the affairs of the Fraternity
in the United States, or to place the importance
-of his labors as compared with any other, is
at best a thankless task which results in little
if any good. Yet no such evaluation of Thomas
Smith Webb, no consideration of the effect of
his labors, could be made which did not put
both the man and his works near the head of
For to Thomas Smith Webb and his
system of Masonic work, American Freemasons
owe a large part of the ritual of the "American
Rite" (often miscalled the "York Rite").
In practically all jurisdictions some of his
words are used: in a majority, all the "work"
is Smith, or, more properly, Preston heard from
the lips of Smith.
Born of English parents, emigrants
to Massachusetts, Thomas Smith Webb first saw
the light of day in October 13, 1771. Educated
in the schools of his birthplace, Boston, Webb
became proficient in French and Latin as well
as his mother tongue. He was a rare combination
of poet, dreamer, visionary, and practical man
of action, having much of the mental equipment
and character development which has been the
foundation of inspired leadership throughout
the world's history. In another land, another
age, he might have been prominent in any one
of a dozen lines of labor; in the environment
in which he was born, and in those places and
times in which he lived, his genius found in
Freemasonry both an untitled field and an opportunity
for expression of his poetry, his idealism,
his passion for improvement and for teaching.
He was either printer or bookbinder,
or both-historians are a bit vague as to which.
His trade took him to Keene, New Hampshire,
where, in Rising Sun Lodge, on December 17th,
1790, he was made a Mason.
Not long after he married Miss
Martha Hopkins, and went to live in Albany,
New York, where he owned and conducted a book
store. Here he attended and worked Masonically
to such good advantage that he established both
a Chapter of Royal Arch Masonry and an Encampment
of Knights Templary.
Just what other Masonic activities
he had in Albany must be imagined, since the
records are scanty. But that he devoted much
time and thought to Symbolic Masonry is evident,
since in 1797 he published the first edition
of his "Freemason's Monitor, or Illustrations
of Masonry." The book, now comparatively
rare, although many copies are to be found in
Libraries, bears no name as author (it is "By
a ROYAL ARCH MASON, K. T., K. of M., etc., etc.")
But it is marked "Printed at Albany for
Spencer and Webb, Market-street," 1797,"
and subsequent editions of the same work do
bear his name. Thus, the edition of 1802, printed
in New York City, is "By Thomas S. Webb,
Past Master of Temple Lodge, Albany, and H.
P. of the Providence Royal Arch Chapter."
The book has been of vast importance
to American Grand Lodges, most of which adhere
rather strictly to his text, which is, of course,
of the written or exoteric work. Here the curious
may find the 133rd Psalm in the charge at opening"
- here also is the familiar prayer at closing
"May the blessing of heaven rest upon us
and all regular Masons, may brotherly love prevail,
and every moral and social virtue cement us."
Here are those paragraphs which have come down
unchanged in many petitions for the degrees,
in which the petitioner "seriously declares
upon his honor" that the petition is made
"unbiased by friends, uninfluenced by mercenary
motives---a desire for knowledge and a sincere
wish of being serviceable to your fellow creatures,
etc." Here, too, are familiar prayers-"Vouchsafe
thine aid, Almighty Father of the Universe ...Thou,
Oh God, knowest our down sittings and our uprisings
. . ."
It is to Thomas Smith Webb that
ritualists owe the necessity to memorize those
fine mouthfuls of paragraphs of the four cardinal
virtues. It is Webb that the Senior Deacon or
other officer in the Second degree must memorize
to utter his description of Grammar, Rhetoric,
Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy,
not to mention the five orders of architecture
and the five senses. To Webb we owe the charges
of the degrees and the words regarding many
an Emblem, including Bee Hive, Pot of Incense,
Book of Constitutions, Sword and Naked Heart,
All Seeing Eve, Anchor and Ark, Forty Seventh
Problem, Hour Glass and Scytlie.
. And finally, in many a Grand
jurisdiction, the installation of a newly elected
Master is conducted in the very words which
Webb printed, with hardly a deviation, from
"You agree to be a good man and true"
to "Do vou agree to these charges---as
masters have done in all ages before you?"
Much of Webb is really Preston.
The point is not that Webb originated, when
as a matter of fact so much of his labor was
but rearrangement, abbreviation, and changing
to fit American conditions, but that Webb published
an American book, for American Masons, and then
put the driving force of his personality, his
zeal, his enthusiasms and his marked ability
as a teacher behind that which he had published.
It is to Webb the teacher, the Masonic zealot,
to whom American Masons are indebted so heavily,
not Webb the originator or the inspired writer.
The important angle is that Webb so believed
in what he did that he went out of his way to
teach it, preach it, fight for it, memorize
it, make others memorize it, spread it. Freemasonry
in early days had little if any unity in work.
While the essentials were the same, the variations
were enormous, and Ancient and Modern, Scottish
and Irish, English and local "work"
was a veritable hodge podge throughout the colonies.
Webb and his labors brought, to
some extent, order. The esoteric work of all
American jurisdictions differs-between some
but little, between others, much. But the printed
work is markedly similar in a majority of our
jurisdictions. This is Webb's monument. He was
clever enough to see the need of simplicity
(as men in those, days conceived simplicity,
poet enough not to alter old phraseology when
it would serve his purpose, scholar enough to
weave a thread of continuity (where our printed
and esoteric work is noncontinuous in thought
the fault may usually be traced to some early
"committee on work" or "Grand
Lecturer" who cut, slashed and altered
with no knowledge of what they or he did, or
to faulty memorize in the "colonization"
days of the westward spread of Masonry).
In 1801 Webb went to Providence,
R. I., there to engage rather extensively in
the manufacture of wall paper. His reputation
as a Masonic teacher and authority had preceded
him, so that a Committee from St. john's Lodge
waited upon him, to ask him to become a member.
This he did; having been Master of Temple Lodge
in Albany, N. Y., he acquired membership in
the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island, was elected
Junior Grand Warden in 1802, Senior Grand Warden
in 1803 and for several years immediately following,
Deputy Grand Master in 1811, Grand Master in
1813 and 1814, declining a reelection in 1815.
His memory is revered in the Grand
Lodge of his adoption, not only for his character
and attainments, his insight and his ceaseless
activities in spreading Masonic light, but also
because he was intimately concerned in one of
the patriotic endeavors of that Grand Lodge.
From the History of Freemasonry
in Rhode Island appears the following account
of this incident:
"At a Special Communication
held in Providence, Sept. 27, 1814, the following
resolution was adopted:
'Voted and Resolved, That this
Grand Lodge, sensible of the importance at all
times of aiding and assisting in the defense
of our Beloved Country, and deeming it important
at this critical moment that the services of
this society should be tendered for the erection
of fortifications, etc., do appoint the R. W.
Dept. Grand Master, Grand Senior Warden and
W. Br. John Carlie a Committee to tender the
services of the members of the Grand Lodge,
and of such of the members of the subordinate
Lodges under its jurisdiction as can conveniently,
attend, to the Committee of Defence, appointed
by the Citizens of the Town.
'Voted and Resolved, that Tuesday
the 3d of October next be the day upon which
the Grand Lodge will assemble for the purpose
above named, provided it should meet the sanction
of said Committee of Defense, and that the aforesaid
Committee be requested to take the necessary
measures to carry the same into effect.'
"The Grand Lodge met pursuant
to its purpose thus declared., and the following
is the official record of the day's doings---October
'The Grand Lodge was opened in
ample form. Present: M. W. Thomas Smith Webb,
Grand Master; R. W. Amos Maine Atwell, Dept.
Grand Master; W. William Wilkinson, Senr Grand
Warden; W. John Davis, Junr Grand Warden; W.
Benjamin Clifford, Grand Treasurer; W. John
Holroyd Grand Secry; W. John Snow, Senr Grand
Deacon; W. Sam] Jackson, Junr Grand Deacon;
W. Ebenezer Johnson, Grand Marshal; Br. William
P. R. Benson, Grand Tyler,
'A great number of Brethren, Mt.
Moriah, Friendship, Union, Manchester &
Morning Star Lodges and also many Brethren from
Eastern Star Lodge, Rehoboth (Mass) together
with the members of St. Johns & Mount Vernon
Lodges, at 8 o'clock A. M. the Grand Lodge with
the members of the Subordinate Lodges about
two hundred & thirty in number formed a
grand procession and accompanied by, musick,
moved to Foxpoint at the south part of the Town
and commenced the erection of a Fort as laid
out by the Committee of Defence. At sunset they
completed their labours, having finished a Breastwork
of about 430 feet in length and about ten feet
wide and five feet high, after which a Grand
Procession was formed and having marched several
times upon the parapet from one extremity to
the other the M. W. Grand Master in the name
of the Grand Lodge of the State of Rhode Island,
etc., gave it the dignified appellation of Fort
Hiram. In the evening the Grand Lodge waited
upon his Excellency the Governor and obtained
his approbation of the proceeding and his sanction
to the name which had been given to the Fort.
Perhaps in no instance has there been a greater
work accomplished in one day, by an equal number
of persons than was done on this ever memorable
occasion---the day was remarkable fine and the
Brethren evinced that refreshment was designed
only as an incentive to active exertions when
called to labour. At an early hour the Brethren
separated enjoying the consoling reflection
of having done their duty.
'From the minutes of Mr. Holroyd.
Dept. Grand Secretary.' "
If this Bulletin had more space,
much might be utilized for retelling the activities
of this pioneer in American ritual, in the spread
of Capitular and Commandery Masonry. Such facts
belong in any complete account of his life and
works. But here he is considered merely for
his interest in and labors for Symbolic Freemasonry.
Suffice it to be said that his influence was
largely felt in the establishment of Chapters
of the Royal Arch (instead of conferring the
Capitular degrees in Symbolic Lodges) and the
General Grand Chapter of the United States.
He was successively Grand Scribe, General Grand
King and finally Deputy General Grand High Priest.
He traveled much in the Middle West, establishing
Chapters and Encampments but never forgetting
his love for Symbolic Freemasonry, and spreading
the light of his arrangement of Preston wherever
In general it may be said that
few if any brethren have had a greater influence
upon the Craft in this country. His labors have
stood the acid test of time, a fact attested
to by the well nigh universal use of exoteric
work first to be brought to American Freemasonic
eyes through the justly famous Webb Monitor.
On his retiring from the office,
his Grand Lodge, by a unanimous vote, expressed
its grateful acknowledgment "for the great
and signal services he has rendered to Freemasonry
in general, and particularly in this State."
Webb died suddenly, at Cleveland,
Ohio, in July, 1819. Acting with other Masonic
organizations in Rhode Island, the Grand Lodge
brought his body back to Providence, and gave
to it an honored Masonic burial at an Emergent
Communication held Nov. 8, 1819. The remains
of this brilliant Freemason are interred in
the North Burial Ground, Providence, where an
unpretentious memorial erected by the Grand
Lodge bears witness to the fame and usefulness
of this indefatigable laborer in the quarries.