St. John’s Masonic Lodge Archive Available For the First Time

Above Photo: David Creech (right), Past Master, St. John’s Masonic Lodge of New Bern; John Green (left), Jr. Stewart, St. John’s Masonic Lodge of New Bern

New Bern, NC – Collection of historic documents dating back to 1772 on loan to Tryon Palace.

Nancy Packer, Tryon Palace Chief Curator, is pleased to announce that a collection of historical documents highly significant to New Bern and North Carolina history and the early history of the Freemasons in America is now generally available for the first time.

This collection, on loan from the archives of St. John’s Masonic Lodge of New Bern, marks the beginning of a new era of accessibility to an important historic collection of Masonic documents dating back to 1772. This collection sheds light on the purpose, organization, and membership of this ancient fraternal organization. During its long history, members of St John’s Lodge in New Bern have included three Governors of the State of North Carolina, four Chief Justices of the State Supreme Court, and six members of the U.S. Congress, as well as more than twenty members of the colonial government, seventy members of the North Carolina legislature, and many civic and business leaders.

Previously, the history of St. John’s was only available in Gertrude S. Carraway’s two-volume compilation, Years of Light, first published in 1944 and appended in 1974. Now Tryon Palace and St. John’s Lodge have collaborated to make the original documents available, by appointment, to researchers who want to further explore this fascinating facet of New Bern and North Carolina history.

The documents include original minute books dating to 1772, as well as Lodge business records, old Bibles, letters, petitions for membership, and other records dating back to the Lodge’s earliest years. The collection also includes several artifacts, including a silver plate and three coins that were placed in the 1801 cornerstone of the St. John’s Temple building. The plate and coins were stolen by Unions soldiers during occupation, but were returned to St. John’s in 1876 by a lodge of the same name — St. John’s, in Providence, RI. Another important artifact is a copper template used to print elaborate membership certificates for lodge members, which members carried with them on their travels to prove their Masonic affiliation. A number of the letters in the lodge records bear testament to the social value of lodge membership in the 19th century, as brothers in far-off places, having lost their certificates, would write to the lodge for a replacement in order to help them gain assistance or employment. The copper template also was stolen during the Union occupation of New Bern, but was returned in the 1990s by a lodge in New York.

In addition to regular lodge business, these records also help tell the story of one of the most important buildings in New Bern — the St. John’s Lodge/Scottish Rite Temple on Hancock Street. For some time prior to the destruction of Tryon Palace by fire in 1798, St. John’s Lodge meetings were held at the Palace, as well as special meetings of the Grand Lodge like the 1792 grand master initiation of William R. Davie (later Governor of North Carolina). After the Palace burned, New Bern was left without a large gathering place, and St. John’s without a permanent home. Almost immediately, plans were begun for the construction of a grand new building. In 1801, the cornerstone for the new St. John’s Masonic Temple building was placed, and by 1805, the bottom half theater portion was complete and leased out for theatrical productions. When the Masonic Theater finally closed in the 1970s, it was among the oldest continuously-operated theaters in the United States. It has more recently been restored and is currently in use.

For more information on the St. John’s Lodge archive, please contact Kyna Herzinger at 252-639-3537.

Submitted by: Trish Ashburn, Marketing and Communications Manager, Tryon Palace
New Bern, NC