Freemasons demonstrate a thirst for knowledge; a natural curiosity about the world in which we reside and our place within it. This yearning for truth has inspired countless men to join the craft over centuries, each seeking to become part of something bigger than us. It has also pushed us to constantly dig deeper into the teachings and symbolism found in Masonic ritual, giving rise to appendant bodies that work to wring new truths from the degrees.
One such body is the York Rite, a prominent wing of Freemasonry that started in the United States in the late 1700s and now includes chapters across the globe. Central to the creation of the York Rite was Most Worshipful Brother Thomas Smith Webb, an author and passionate Freemason.
Webb was born in Boston, Massachusetts on October 30, 1771. His parents, Samuel and Margaret Webb, had emigrated from England just before Thomas was born. Although little is known about his childhood, we do know that he received his education in Boston public schools, studied music at a young age, and that he started as an apprentice to a printer in Boston when he was 16.
The Young Mason
Still a young man, Webb moved from Boston to Keene, New Hampshire, where he worked for some time at his trade. It was in Keene that he was first exposed to Freemasonry, receiving all three degrees at Rising Sun Lodge. It sparked a fire in him, and he spent the remainder of his life actively involved in the craft.
In 1793 he moved to Albany, New York where he started a business manufacturing wallpaper. Four years after moving to New York, he became the founding Master of Temple Lodge #14. That lodge remains active today, although now it is called Ancient Temple Lodge #14, holding both blue lodge and Royal Arch meetings. In the fall of 1797 Brother Webb created a paper staining factory where he published, The Freemason’s Monitor, or Illustrations of Masonry on September 14, 1797.
The Royal Arch
The publication of The Freemason’s Monitor was a pivotal moment, not just for the young master, but for Freemasonry in the United States. In this work, Webb wrote two parts, including an account of the “Ineffable Degrees of Masonry.” Having studied music in his youth, he was an integral member of the Handel and Haydn Society and his book included several original Masonic songs he had written.
Over the years the original work was improved upon at least five times, including editions that were published after Webb passed away. The original volumes are extremely rare but later editions can still be purchased today.
A month after he published his seminal work, Webb returned to Boston where he oversaw a convention of committees for the formation of a general Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons. This convention was the very beginning of what has blossomed into the York Rite. In early 1799, he attended a meeting in Providence where he presented a constitution which was adopted to form the Grand Encampment of the United States, the governing body of The Knights Templar.
The York Rite
The York Rite is a series of degrees that are conferred by several Masonic bodies that operate under the control of its own governing authority. The York Rite is comprised of three primary bodies and their subsequent degrees, including:
- Chapter of Royal Arch Masons: Royal Arch Masonry is the first order a Master Mason joins in the York Rite. The Chapter consists of the following degrees:
- The Mark Master Mason: This degree is often considered to be an extension of the Fellow Craft degree in the blue lodge.
- The (Virtual) Past Master: Originally, only Past Masters of a Blue Lodge may be admitted to Holy Royal Arch (the final Royal Arch degree. This degree is conferred out of tradition.
- The Most Excellent Master: This ritual sees the completion of the building of King Solomon’s Temple.
- The Royal Arch Mason (or Holy Royal Arch): Often considered to be the most beautiful degree in all of Freemasonry, those who reach this stage earn the right to continue to Cryptic Masonry or go straight to Knights Templar where permitted.
- Council of Royal & Select Masters (or Council of Cryptic Masons: This body is called Cryptic Masonry or the Cryptic Rite because a crypt or underground room figures prominently in the degrees. Depending on the jurisdiction, membership in this body is not required to qualify for the Knights Templar. The three cryptic degrees include:
- Royal Master
- Select Master
- Super Excellent Master
- Commandery of Knights Templar: The Knights Templar is the third and final order joined in the York Rite. This body is unique in Freemasonry because it is only open only to Christian Masons who have completed their Royal Arch, and, in some jurisdictions, their Cryptic Degrees. Local divisions are called a Commandery and operate under a state level Grand Commandery as well as The Grand Encampment of the United States. The orders conferred by The Knights Templar are:
- The Illustrious Order of the Red Cross
- The Passing Order of St. Paul (or the Mediterranean Pass)
- The Order of the Knights of Malta (or simply Order of Malta)
- The Order of the Temple
Each of the above groups governs themselves independently but are all considered to be a part of the York Rite. To join a body of the York Rite, a man must first complete the three blue lodge degrees and become a Master Mason. The Rite’s name is derived from the city of York, where, according to one Masonic legend, the first meetings of Masons in England took place.
Not even 30 years old, and Webb’s accomplishments had already influenced the course of Freemasonry as we know it. He would go on to be a highly accomplished Freemason, but the formation of the Grand Encampment of the United States was considered his greatest achievement. The original draft of the constitution was in Webb’s handwriting and is today featured in the archives of St. John’s Commandery, Providence, Rhode Island.
Now a resident of Providence, Rhode Island, Brother Webb’s reputation was well known by local Masons. He joined the Providence Royal Arch Chapter as well as St. John’s Lodge No. 1. Shortly after attending his first Grand Lodge session, he was appointed to the constitutions committee. In 1802, Webb helped establish St. John’s Encampment of Knights Templar, which is now called St. John’s Commandery No. 1 of Providence. He provided the ritual and ceremonial procedure of the Templar Orders and was elected Eminent Commander, the highest officer in a Commandery of Knights Templar.
Around 1804, Webb helped form the Grand Chapter of Rhode Island where he served as Grand High Priest from 1804 until 1814. At the end of his tenure as Grand High Priest, Webb became the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island and was elected to serve a second term in 1814. During this term, a British Man-o-war appeared off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island. Fearing an invasion, the Governor of Rhode Island directed citizens to build fortifications. To help, Webb called a special communication of the Grand Lodge and instructed all brothers to action. Together, the Rhode Island brethren built breastworks around near Fox Hill and created Fort Hiram.
In 1816, Webb formed the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar of the United States in New York City, New York. Dewitt Clinton was elected the Grand Master and Webb became the Deputy Grand Master, a position he held until his passing.
His Ohio Connection
Webb had a strong connection in Ohio, both professional and masonic. Webb himself promoted Royal Arch Masonry in the state, including meeting with the Grand Master to assure good fraternal relations between the organizations. He is recorded as presiding over Chapters and Commanderies during his visits and conferring degrees and orders. He resided in the Columbus area in 1818 for business and became a member of New England Lodge, No. 4. On July 6, 1819, while traveling from Rhode Island to Worthington, Ohio, MWB Thomas Smith Webb died suddenly in Cleveland, Ohio. He was buried the next day with full masonic honors by Concord Lodge, No. 15.
Webb’s influence lives on in Ohio and is still felt today. His masonic lectures based on the earlier work of William Preston formed the basis of Ohio Masonic Ritual. In 1817, he helped teach his system of work to Bro. John Barney, a Vermont Mason, who later moved to Ohio and served as Grand Lecturer from 1836 to 1843. Barney was instrumental in seeing that “Webb work” remained the standard for Ohio’s lodges.
Thomas Smith Webb passed away on July 6, 1819, and is remembered today by the moniker: the “Founding Father of the York or American Rite.” Truly, throughout the generations of Freemasons that have resided and worked in the United States, Webb’s efforts to promote Freemasonry and the York Rite bodies remains second to none.