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by Wor.Bro. MARK A. TABBERT 33
FROM A POINT TO A LINE:
First published Sept.2003 on “The Northern Light”, Scottish Rite Freemasonry, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction, USA
The inauguration of a new Sovereign Grand Commander is a good chance to look back though the history of the Supreme Council and at the men who lead the Rite. The Northern Masonic Jurisdiction was founded in 1813 when a group of New York Masons under the leadership of Antoine Bideaud received a charter from the Supreme Council in Charleston, SC. From that date to Walter E. Weber, twenty men have become Sovereign Grand Commander (including one honorary). Some of these men served briefly, some perhaps too long, but all have left their mark in society and on the Rite.
Dividing up our history we can see five distinct periods: the founding generation, the era of schism and stability, the golden age of prosperity, the decades of great builders and the present era of renewal and education.
The founding generation includes the first five Grand Commander between 1813 and 1860. Before becoming the first SGC Daniel Decius Tomkins was governor of New York State. During his tenure he also served as Grand Master of New York but more importantly Vice President of the United States between 1817 and 1825. Following his death Samson Simson became commander. Simson was a wealthy lawyer and philanthropist and the founder of New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
In 1827 the Anti-Masonic party swept across the country and nearly extinguished the fraternity. It was left to Simpson’s successor John James Joseph Gourgas to keep the Rite going through this dark period. Gourgas served as the first Grand Secretary and maintained the jurisdiction’s records and archives for over 40 years. Through his dedication and loyalty he earned the title “Preserver of the Rite.” The Supreme Council’s highest distinguished service award is named in his honor.
Beginning in the 1840s two future commanders encouraged Gourgas to regenerate the Northern Jurisdiction Supreme Council. Giles Fonda Yates, a lawyer in Schenectady New York, set about building up membership in the eastern states. He later served briefly serve as SGC in 1851. As Yates brought men into the fraternity, another New Yorker, Killian Henry Van Rensselaer traveled throughout the jurisdiction and established new valleys in New Haven, Pittsburgh, Chicago and other cities. Van Rensselaer became “acting” SGC in 1861 and “actual” SGC between 1861-1867.
One of the men brought into the rite by Yates was Edward Asa Raymond. Born in 1791 Raymond was a successful businessman and a Past Grand Master of Massachusetts. He succeeded Yates to become Grand Commander in 1851. Unfortunately Raymond was a cantankerous leader and in 1860 the Supreme Council broke in two. The active members deposed Raymond and elected Van Rensselaer as Commander. Raymond in turn took his authority to a rival Supreme Council. For six years two supreme councils operated in the northern jurisdiction. Not until after Raymond died did brotherly love prevail and harmony was achieved in 1867.
After these few years of schism many years of stability followed. The unification of the two Supreme Councils expanded active members to 66 and brought the election of Josiah Hayden Drummond as the SGC. A lawyer from Maine he was a member of Raymond’s council. He served for 12 years and was succeeded by Henry Lynde Palmer. Made a Mason in Albany, New York, Palmer later moved to Wisconsin and was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1853 to 1863. He also became president of Northwestern Life Insurance Company in 1874. He served as Grand Master of Wisconsin, Grand Master of the Knights Templar Grand Encampment and Sovereign Grand Commander—the only known Mason to do so. His nearly thirty years tenure as SGC is also the longest in the jurisdiction’s history. Palmer’s long service (1879-1909) was followed by Samuel Crocker Lawrence’s short service (1910-1911). A Civil War General and Past Grand Master of Massachusetts Lawrence’s term is the coda to era.
The Scottish Rite’s golden age of prosperity began even before the turn of the twentieth century. In the 1890s midwestern valleys had begun conferring the degrees to large numbers of Masons and the rite was earning the title “the theater of the fraternity.” Mass initiations caused membership to grow rapidly. In 1900 there were only 26,858 Scottish Rite Masons in the jurisdiction. In 1910 however, there were 65,947 brothers and by 1920 membership rose to over 179,400—nearly a seven fold increase in just 20 years.
Overseeing and guiding these years of prosperity were three Sovereign Grand Commanders: Barton Smith, Leon Abbot and Frederic Stevens. Barton Smith was president of The Toledo Blade newspaper and Grand Master of Freemasons of Ohio in 1897. As a member of the Supreme Council, he wrote the rules governing Scottish Rite international conferences and grew the Supreme Council endowment fund from $500,000 to $1.3 million. His successor, Leon Abbott served from 1921 to 1932. He moved the Supreme Council headquarters from New York City to Boston. In his will, he established the Abbott Scholarship Fund for children and grandchildren of Scottish Rite Masons. Leon Abbot would die in office as the Great Depression gripped America. His Lieutenant Frederic Beckwith Stevens served for just one year ending the era of prosperity but opening the way for the age of great builders.
The first great builder, Melvin Maynard Johnson, is arguably the most important Freemason of the 20th century. He was Grand Master of Massachusetts Freemasons from 1913 to 1916 and became Dean of the Boston University Law School in 1935. As the first full-time paid Commander, Johnson led the Rite through the Great Depression and World War II overseeing its membership drop to 208,000 in 1935 and its boom to 422,051 in 1953. He established the benevolent foundation to support research in schizophrenia and wrote many papers and histories on early American Freemasonry. Such was Johnson’s energy that only when he was out of the country could the Supreme Council surreptitiously remove him from office in 1953.
Replacing Melvin Johnson was Grand Lieutenant Commander George Bushnell. Born and raised in Virginia, George Bushnell moved to Detroit as a young man and eventually served on the Michigan Supreme Court from 1933 to 1955. In 1934 he was elected an Active Member of the Supreme Council becoming Johnson’s Grand Lieutenant Commander in 1945. During his tenure he consolidated and built many of Melvin Johnson’s programs. Sadly Judge Bushnell unexpectedly died at the 1965 annual meeting. Fortunately his successor, George Adelbert Newbury was more than equal to office.
The fifteenth SGC, Newbury was a Buffalo, NY lawyer and businessman. Bushnell’s appointed him as Grand Lieutenant Commander in 1960. Universally admired and supported in the fraternity Newbury achieved many things in his ten years as SGC. In 1968 he move the Supreme Council offices from downtown Boston out to Lexington and in 1974 began building the National Heritage Museum. Newbury’s other accomplishments are numerous but certainly beginning “The Northern Light” magazine in 1970 is among the most important.
Assisting each of the three great builders was Honorary Sovereign Grand Commander Richard Arminus Kern. A physician, Navy admiral and professor, Dr. Kern worked tirelessly from 1948 to 1982 to promote the Scottish Rite’s Research in Schizophrenia Project. He was unanimously elected as Honorary Sovereign Grand Commander in 1972, an honor never before or since accorded an Active Member of the Supreme Council.
When Commander Newbury retired in 1975 the Supreme Council moved into a new era of renewal and education. The first commander of our current period was Stanley Fielding Maxwell. He had served as Newbury’s executive secretary prior to become SGC and in his first three years in office he also presided as Grand Master of Massachusetts. Commander Maxwell continued most of Newbury’s projects while setting the fraternity and the museum on a sound financial foundation. Like Newbury Maxwell choose to serve only ten years and Francis George Paul followed him in 1985. A former IBM executive from Upstate New York, Commander Paul was influential in establishing the National Masonic Renewal Program to strengthen the fraternity. Unfortunately illness caused Commander Paul to cut short his term in office.
In 1991 the Supreme Council undertook a jurisdiction-wide search for a younger Sovereign Grand commander. It found just the brother in Cincinnati. Robert Odell Ralston was elected to the Supreme Council in 1992 and elected Sovereign Grand Commander in 1993. Improving education marks Commander Ralston’s tenure. Since 1994 he has dedicated the fraternity to helping children with learning disabilities. Ten years later there are forty-three 32° Learning Centers for Children with many more being planned. Commander Ralston also encouraged the National Heritage Museum’s educational programs by overseeing the building of the “Ill. James Farr, 33° Conference Hall” in 1996 and the hiring of John Ott as museum director in 1999.
Now we have a new commander in Walter Ernest Weber. He is certainly not
the first lawyer to become SGC and he is not even first lawyer from Maine to
serve as Commander! But, with confidence, he will achieve many firsts as he
leads our great fraternity to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
George Adelbert Newbury and Louis Lenway Williams, A History of the Supreme Council, 33° AASR, NMJ, USA, Lexington, MA: Supreme Council, AASR, NMJ. 1987.
LIST OF SGC
Daniel Decius Tompkins (1774-1825)
Sampson Simson (1780- 1857)
SGC 1825 -1832
John James Joseph Gourgas (1777-1865)
Edward Asa Raymond (1791-1864)
Killian Van Rensselaer (1800 –1881)
Acting SGC 1860, Actual SGC 1861-1867
Hayden Drummond (1827–1902)
Lynde Palmer (1819–1909)
Samuel Crocker Lawrence (1832–1911)
Barton Smith (1852–1935)
Martin Abbott, 33°
Frederic Beckwith Stevens, 33° (1855–1934)
Melvin Maynard Johnson, 33° (1871–1957)
George Edward Bushnell, 33° (1887–1965)
George Adelbert Newbury (1895-1984)
Stanley Fielding Maxwell (1910–1997)
Francis George Paul, 33° (1921–1996)
Odel Ralston (b.1938 )
Ernest Weber (b.1940)
Arminus Kern (1891-1982)
Honorary SGC 1972-1982