People everywhere are familiar with Constantino Brumidi’s majestic Apotheosis of Washington that adorns highest reaches of the rotunda of the United States Capitol. But what are the earliest traces of this kind of praise of George Washington? Within Freemasonry, one song—written by one of Washington’s own men during the War—offers some light on the subject.
On Monday, December 28, 1778, a most distinguished Masonic procession marched from the College of Philadelphia to the nearby Christ Church. With three hundred brethren participating, it was the largest Masonic gathering that had ever been held in North America. General George Washington himself was among them, walking near the Grand Master as guest of honor. Rev. Dr. William Smith, the foremost intellectual and religious figure of Philadelphia in those days, gave a rousing sermon that clearly reflected the revolutionary spirit of the Antient Masons of Philadelphia. He called overt attention to Washington’s presence in the church and praised him as America’s own Cincinnatus.
It was a defining moment for the American Fraternity, and has been immortalized in a famous mural by Bro. Allyn Cox in the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.
The event struck one man in particular with an inspiration. Bro. John Parke (1754–1789) was educated under Rev. Smith at the College of Philadelphia, and likely was made a Mason in 1774 in Lodge № 5, Ancient York Masons, at the approximate age of twenty. This lodge was based in Delaware, but operated under the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania’s first warrant extended outside of the Philadelphia area. Later in Philadelphia, Parke affiliated with Lodge № 2, applying on December 8, 1778, and being elected on February 9, 1779. Parke was, then, becoming involved in the Craft in Philadelphia precisely during the planning and celebration of the 1778 St. John’s Day that featured George Washington.
Parke was, in fact, one of General Washington’s men, and had personally corresponded with the General. As one of the soldiers serving under Washington, he was all the more inspired by his Commander’s significant presence at Smith’s sermon in Christ Church.
On being elected to membership in Lodge № 2, Bro. Parke presented the lodge with “An Ode on Masonry,” composed as a result of the St.John’s Day sermon. The Ode is dedicated to Col. Thomas Proctor (1739–1806), another of Washington’s men. Proctor was an eminent member of Lodge № 2, and was Master of the lodge at the February 17, 1779, meeting, at which the Ode was first “composed [set to music] and sung by the Brethren.” As published, the Ode is prefaced by lines from Horace: ab ipso ducit opes animumque ferro, “he draws might and courage from the very steel”—a revolutionary sentiment if ever there was one. The chorus of this hymn introduces a theme that would soon become a staple of Masonic rhetoric in the early Republic—the image of George Washington as a semi-divine figure embodying Masonry’s teachings:
HAIL! cœlestial Masonry,
Craft that makes us wise and free!
Heav’n-born cherub! bring along
The tuneful band, the patriot song;
See Washington, he leads the train,
’Tis he commands the grateful strain;
See ev’ry crafted son obeys,
And to the god-like brother homage pays.
Within the poetic world of Parke’s Ode, the American Revolution (though still at that point far from victory) was ordained by Providence and was perceived as ample grounds to:
Wake from the tomb the souls of martyrs Free,
To view this hemisphere of liberty.
Let them with ravish’d eyes look down upon
The glorious work perform’d by Washington.
Then brethren to my lays attend,
And hail our father and our friend;
Let fame resound him thro’ the land.
And echo “’Tis our Master Grand.”
Begin, ye sons of Solomon,
Prepare the wreath for Washington:
’Tis he our ancient craft shall sway,
Whilst we with three times three obey.
When evening’s solemn hours pervade,
We choose the still masonic shade;
With hearts sincere, our hands upon,
We bless the widow’s mystic son.
The work merited inclusion in the first edition of the Pennsylvania Grand Lodge’s Ahiman Rezon, edited by William Smith—the first American book of Masonic constitutions since Benjamin Franklin’s reprint of Anderson’s Constitutions in 1734.
In 1786, Parke published a book which also included the ode: The Lyric Works of Horace, Translated into English Verse: To Which Are Added a Number of Original Poems. It was dedicated to George Washington, who was pleased with the honor from his former soldier. The General kindly responded: “I always wish to give every possible encouragement to those works of Genius which are the production of an American.”