Thomas Smith Webb
No name in Freemasonry is more familiar to the American Freemason than that of Webb, who is generally credited with being really the inventor and founder of the system of work which, under the appropriate name of the American Rite, although often improperly called the York Rite, is universally practiced in the United States. The most exhaustive biography of him that has been written is that of Brother Cornelius Moore, in his Leaflets of Masonic Biography, and from that, with a few additions from other sources, the present sketch is derived.
Thomas Smith Webb, the son of parents who a few years previous to his birth had emigrated from England and settled in Boston, Massachusetts, was born in that city, October 13, 1771. He was educated in one of the public schools, where he acquired such knowledge as was at that time imparted in them, and became proficient in the French and Latin languages.
He selected as a profession either that of a printer or a bookbinder, his biographer is uncertain which, but inclines to think that it was the former. After completing his apprenticeship he removed to Keene, in New Hampshire, where he worked at his trade, and about the year 1792, the precise date is unknown, was initiated in Freemasonry in Rising Sun Lodge in that town.
While residing at Keene he married Miss Martha Hopkins, and shortly afterward removed to Albany, New York, where he opened a bookstore. When and where he received the advanced Degrees has not been stated, but we find him, while living at Albany, engaged in the establishment of a Chapter and an Encampment.
It was at this early period of his life that Webb appears to have commenced his labors as a Masonic teacher, an office which he continued to fill with great influence until the close of his life. In 1797 he published at Albany the first edition of his Freemasons Monitor; or Illustrations of Masonry It purports to be "by a Royal Arch Mason, K. T., K. M., etc." He did not claim the authorship until the subsequent edition; but his name and that of his partner, Spencer, appear in the imprint as publishers.
He acknowledges in the preface his indebtedness to Preston for the observations on the first three Degrees. But he states that he has differently arranged Preston's distributions of the sections, because they were "not agreeable to the mode of working in America." This proves that the Prestonian system was not then followed in the United States, and ought to be a sufficient answer to those who at a later period attempted to claim an identity between the lectures of Preston and Webb. About the year 1801 he removed to Providence, Rhode Island, where he engaged in the manufacture of wall-paper on a rather extensive scale. By this time his reputation as a Masonic teacher had been well established, for a committee was appointed by Saint John's Lodge of Providence to wait upon and inform him that this Lodge, for his great exertions in the cause of Freemasonry, "wish him to become a member of the Same." He accepted the invitation, and passing through the various gradations of office was elected, in 1813, Grand Master of the Frees masons of Rhode Island.
But it is necessary now to recur to preceding events. In 1797, on October 24th, a Convention of Committees from several Chapters in the Northern States was held in Boston for the purpose of deliberating on the propriety and expediency of establishing a Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons for the Northern States. Of this convention Webb was chosen as the chairman. Previous to this time the Royal Arch Degrees had been conferred on Masters Lodges and under a Lodge Warrant. It is undoubtedly to the influence of Webb that we are to attribute the disseverance of the Degree from that Jurisdiction and the establishment of independent Chapters. It was one of the first steps that he took in the organization of the American Rite. The circular addressed by the Convention to the Chapters of the country was most probably from the pen of Webb.
The Grand Chapter having been organized in January, 1798, Webb was elected Grand Scribe, and reelected in 1799, at which time the Body assumed the title of General Grand Chapter. In 1806 he was promoted to the office of General Grand King, and in 1816 to that of Deputy General Grand High Priest, which he held until his death.
During all this time, Webb, although actively engaged in the labors of Masonic instruction, continued his interest in the manufacture of wall-paper, and in 1817 removed his machinery to the West, Moore thinks, with the intention of making his residence there. In 1816 he visited the Western States, and remained there two years, during which time he appears to have been actively engaged in the organization of Chapters, Grand Chapters, and Encampments. It was during this visit that he established the Grand Chapters of Ohio and Kentucky, by virtue of his powers as a General Grand Officer.
August, 1818, he left Ohio and returned to Boston. In the spring of 1819, he again began a visit to the West, but he reached no farther than Cleveland, Ohio, where he died very suddenly, it is supposed in a fit of apoplexy, on July 6, 1819, and was buried the next day with Masonic honors. The body was subsequently disinterred and conveyed to Providence, where, on the 8th of November, it was reentered by the Grand Lodge of Rhode Island. Webb's influence over the Freemasons of the United States, as the founder of a Rite, was altogether personal. In Masonic literature he has made no mark, for his labors as an author are confined to a single work, his Monitor, and this is little more than a syllabus of his lectures. Although, if we may judge by the introductory remarks to the various sections of the Degrees, sand especially to the second one of the Third Degree.
Webb was but little acquainted with the true philosophical symbolism of Freemasonry, such as was taught by Hutchinson in England and by his contemporaries in this great country, Harris and Town; he was what Carson properly calls him, "the ablest Masonic ritualist of his day-the very prince of Masonic workmen," and this was the instrument with which he worked for the extension of the new Rite which he established in American Rite would have been more preferred as a system had its founder entertained profounder views of the philosophy and symbolism of Freemasonry as a science; but as it is, with imperfections which time, it is hoped, will remove, and deficiencies which future researches of the Masonic scholar will supply, it still must ever be a monument of the ritualistic skill, the devotion, and the persevering labor of Thomas Smith Webb.
The few odes and anthems composed by Webb for his rituals possess a high degree of poetic merit, and evince the possession of much genius in their author.
- Source: Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry