Washington Attends a St. John the Evangelist’s Day Celebration, 1779

December 27, 2023

Washington Attends a St. John the Evangelist’s Day Celebration, 1779

The Petition, John Ward Dunsmore (1856–1945), 1926 oil on canvas 44 x 66 inches. This scene shows George Washington(left) attending a meeting of American Union Lodge at Morristown, New Jersey, December 27, 1779. (New York Museum and Historical Society, New York, New York, 1945.1)

In the summer and fall of 1779 General Washington experienced several nagging problems. When he found opportunities to attack, the British confounded his plans. When he hoped to coordinate operations with the French fleet, Admiral Jean Baptist Charles Henri Hector, Comte D’Estaing, failed to appear or was inconveniently unavailable. But most worrisome was the summer’s heat and extended drought. As winter approached, the cost of grain, cattle, and other foodstuffs dramatically rose. Scarcity only forced army quartermasters to spend more time searching, securing, and transporting supplies.

As the drought persisted, Washington was caught between the grasshopper and the ant. Should he use all his available resources to take vigorous, and perhaps wasteful, offensive actions? Or should he work with ant-like diligence to gather and husband his resources for the coming winter?

With the British Army secure on Manhattan, Washington chose the ant. In late November, he was once again encamped at Morristown, New Jersey. Washington’s hope for a mild winter was short-lived, for the first of a record number of snowstorms hit his army in early December. The cold, wind, and snow did not relent until the spring. Men, horses, and livestock died from exposure, starvation, and disease. What war could not do to Washington’s army in 1779, famine and pestilence took in greater numbers.

One of the few cheerful events of December 1779 was American Union Lodge’s celebration of the Feast of St. John the Evangelist at Morristown. Similar in form and ceremony to the summer St. John the Baptist celebration, the winter celebration began with the formal opening of the lodge. At the sound of the master’s gavel, the brethren took their seats and assumed their several stations. Once in order, or “properly tyled,” the master exchanged a series of questions with his subordinate officers. Through this, each affirmed their place and duties. Once satisfied, the lodge was “in due form.” The Worshipful Master commenced to open the lodge. His first order was to arrange the “Great Lights of Masonry”: the Holy Bible was opened, and a Square and Compasses were properly arranged on top. The lodge chaplain would give a blessing, followed by the Master rapping his gavel and the two Wardens rapping their truncheons. Only after this opening ceremony would late arriving brothers be admitted.

Unlike six months before, it appears Washington was present when the lodge duly opened. It is therefore the first documented Masonic lodge meeting Washington had sat in since 1755. Washington was still a brother of Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4, which had recently helped form the independent Ancient Grand Lodge of Virginia, (although it would not be formally numbered until 1786).

American Union Lodge, holding its charter from the “Modern” St. John’s Provincial Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, legally should have denied Washington, as an “Ancient” Freemason, entrance. That no mention is made of this fact not only reveals the fluidity of Masonic recognition and authority at that time but also the higher value placed upon a man’s character, rather than on his Masonic credentials.

After Worshipful Master Jonathan Heart opened the lodge on the First Degree of Entered Apprentice, he probably immediately called the lodge to “refreshment,” or recess. The brethren then marched to divine services at a nearby meeting house. There, and perhaps with the company of women and many other non-Masons, they held a Christian service (perhaps Morning Prayer) with an oration by the Rev. Abraham Baldwin (1754–1807). It is unlikely Baldwin was a Freemason, for the minutes do not identify him as such.

After the service, the brethren returned to their hall and enjoyed a meal. With Colonel Heart again presiding and Washington, presumably, seated among the visiting brethren, the lodge got down to business. The first order was to thank Rev. Dr. Baldwin and to commission a printing of his sermon.

Then came the main event: a petition to create the office of Grand Master of the United States. Although the minutes do not state who presented it, it is believed Gen. Mordecai Gist or Col. Otho Holland Williams did so. Both are listed as being present, but neither was a member of American Union Lodge.

The petition was not addressed to the Master Jonathan Heart, to the assembled brethren, or even to the Freemasons of America. Rather, it is addressed to the several presiding American Provincial Grand Masters as appointed by the British grand lodges. To them, the petition recites the pressing issues of Masonic irregularities and disorder that disrupt the peace and harmony of the Craft, thereby preventing “the enjoyment of the fruits of benevolence, charity and brotherly love.” To restore Masonic peace and order, the petition calls upon the appointment of a worthy brother to serve as supreme “Grand Master of the United States.”

Surprisingly, the petition does not call for a congress of American Masonic delegates to find that worthy brother. Rather, it recommends that the several Provincial Grand Masters make the selection. But more surprising, when they did agree upon a candidate, they would submit that nomination to “our Mother Lodge in Britain, that the appointment may be made, or in such other manner as shall to them appear most eligible.”

In other words, the Freemasons currently at war with the British Crown, meeting within a military lodge, and with the commander in chief present, sought to defer to the British Freemasons on the appointment of an American Grand Master. But the audacious petition did not stop there. It called for the Provincial Grand Masters to take “vigorous measures” in “erasing the distinction be ancient and modern” forms and rituals of Freemasonry.

In closing, such actions and such a Grand Master would lead to the happy growth and health of Freemasonry. Which, in turn, it may “receive the final applause of the Grand Architect of the universe.”

The minutes of American Union Lodge do not record any discussion of the petition, nor of all the motions or amendments made. They record only affirmed actions to be taken. Who among the Freemasons present voted is not recorded. According to Masonic Constitutions, only members of the Lodge could vote on business brought before them. On the other hand, as it was a special communication with a special petition presented by visiting brothers, with many special visitors attending, it is possible the Worshipful Master, with the consent of his brethren, may have waived the laws and allowed all present Masons (including Apprentices and Fellow Crafts) to vote.

In any case, it was agreed to circulate the petition among all regular Freemasons and to submit it to a committee consisting of representatives from several military lodges within the army. The meeting ended with three other votes to pay what remaining money was available first to Masonic widows and orphans, then to the dependents of soldiers, and lastly to the worthy poor of Morristown.

Other than being listed first among the visiting brethren, Washington’s name does not appear in the minutes or in the petition. Nor does he mention attending the meeting in his correspondence or in any of his papers of the last weeks of December 1779. What is known is, another major snowstorm hit northern New York the following day. What was a dry, hot summer had changed with the solstice into a wet, frigid winter.

Washington may have well compared his country’s situation in 1779 to where it was when he joined the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania’s celebration just twelve months before.


E. G. Storer, The Records of Freemasonry in the State of Connecticut with a Brief Account of its Origins in New England, and the entire Proceedings of the Grand Lodge from its First Organization A.L. 5789 Compiled from Authentic Sources. (New Haven: E. G. Storer, 1859), 36–39.

Learn more about George Washington by reading Mark Tabbert’s book, A Deserving Brother: George Washington and Freemasonry.

Mark A. Tabbert is the Director of Archives & Exhibits of The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association.