SHORT TALK BULLETIN - Vol.I    February, 1923   No.2

 

WILLIAM PRESTON

 

                              by: Unknown

 

When we hear the name of William Preston we are at once reminded of the

Preston lectures in Freemasonry,  It is to Preston that we are indebted for

what was the basis of our Monitors of the present day.  The story of his

literary labors in the interest of the Craft, and how they aided in making

Freemasonry one of the leading educational influences during the closing

decades of the eighteenth century, is one of absorbing interest to every

member of the Fraternity.

 

William Preston was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, August 7th (old style

calendar, July 28th), 1742.  His father was a "Writer to the Signet," a law

agent peculiar to Scotland and formerly eligible to the bench, therefore a

man of much educational standing.  He naturally desired to give his son all

the advantages which the schools of that day afforded, and young Preston's

education was begun at an early age.  He entered high school before he was

six years old.

 

After the death of his father Preston withdrew from college and took

employment as secretary to Thomas Ruddiman, the celebrated linguist, whose

failing eyesight made it necessary for Preston to do much research work

required by Ruddiman in his classical and linguistic studies.  At the

demise of Thomas Ruddiman, Preston became a printer in the establishment of

Walter Ruddiman, a brother of Thomas, to whom he had been formerly

apprenticed.

 

Evidence of Preston's literary ability was first shown when he compiled a

catalog of Thomas Ruddiman's books.  After working in the printing office

for about a year, a desire to follow his literary inclinations prevailed

and, well supplied with letters of introduction, he set out for London in

1760.  One of these letters was addressed to William Stranhan, the King's

Printer, with whom Preston secured a position, remaining with Stranhan and

his son for many years.

 

Preston possessed an unquenchable desire for knowledge.  As was common to

the times in which he lived, "man worketh from sun to sun."  The eight-hour

day, if known at all, was a rarity, and Preston supplanted his earlier

education by study after his twelve-hour working day was over.  The

critical skill exercised in his daily vocation caused literary men of the

period to call upon him for assistance and advice.  His close association

with the intellectual men of his time was attested by the discovery after

his death of autographed presentation copies of the works of Gibbon, Hume,

Robertson, Blair, 

and others.

 

The exact date of Preston's initiation is not known, but it occurred in

London in 1762 or 1763.  It has been satisfactorily ascertained that his

Mother Lodge was the one meeting at the White Hart Tavern in the Strand. 

This Lodge was formed by a number of Edinburgh Masons Sojourning in London,

who, after being refused an application for a Charter by the Grand Lodge of

Scotland, accepted a suggestion of the Scottish Grand Body that they apply

to the ancient Grand Lodge of London.  The Ancients granted a dispensation

to these brethren on March 2nd, 1763, and it is claimed by one eighteenth

century biographer that Preston was the second person initiated under that

dispensation.  The minutes of the Athol (Ancient) Grand Lodge show that

Lodge No. 111 was Constituted on or about April 20th, 1763, William Leslie,

Charles Halden and John Irwin being the Master and Wardens, and Preston's

name was listed as the twelfth among the twenty-two on the roll of

membership.

 

It was not uncommon in those times (and the custom still prevails in

England, Canada, and other countries, and among several Grand Jurisdictions

in the United States) for Masons to belong to more than one Lodge, and

Preston and some other members of his Mother Lodge also became members of a

Lodge Chartered by the Moderns, which met at the Talbot Tavern in the

Strand.  These brethren prevailed upon the membership of Lodge No. 111,

which in the meantime had moved its meeting place to the Half Moon Tavern,

to apply to the Modern Grand Lodge for a Charter.  Lord Blayney, then Grand

Master, granted a Charter to the members of Lodge No. 111, which was

Constituted a second time, on November 15th, 1764, taking the name

Caledonian Lodge No. 325.  This Lodge is still in existence, being No. 134

on the present registry of the United Grand Lodge of England.

 

The constitution of the new Caledonian Lodge was a noteworthy event because

of the presence of many prominent Masons of the day.  The ceremonies and

addresses on this occasion made a deep impression upon Preston, being among

the factors which induced him to make  a serious study of Freemasonry.  The

desire to know more of the Fraternity, its origin and its teachings, was

intensified when he was elected Worshipful Master, for, as he said: "When I

first had the honor to be elected Master of a Lodge, I thought it proper to

inform myself fully of the general rules of the Society, that I might be

able to fulfill my own duty and officially enforce obedience in others. 

The methods which I adopted, with this view, excited in some of superficial

knowledge an absolute dislike of what they considered innovations; and in

others who were better informed, a jealously of preeminence, which the

principles of Masonry ought to have checked."

 

Preston entered into an extensive correspondence with Masons at home and

abroad, extending his knowledge of Craft affairs and gathering the material

which later found expression in his best known book, "Illustrations of

Masonry."  He delved into the most out of the way places in search of

Masonic lore and wisdom, by which the Craft was greatly benefitted.

 

Preston was a frequent visitor to other Lodges.  He was asked to visit the

Lodge of Antiquity No. 1, one of the four Old Lodges which formed the Grand

Lodge of England in 1717. On that occasion, June 15, 1774, he as elected a

member of the Lodge and also Worshipful Master at the same meeting.  This

unusual action is additional evidence of the regard in which he was held by

the Brethren of his day.  While he had been Master of several other Lodges,

he gave of his best in time and energy to the Lodge of Antiquity, which

thrived greatly under his leadership.

 

He became an active member of the Grand Lodge, serving on its Hall

Committee, a committee appointed in 1773 for the purpose of superintending

the erection of the Masonic Hall which had been projected, and he was later

appointed Deputy Grand Secretary under James Heseline.  In this capacity he

revived the foreign and country correspondence of the Grand Lodge, an easy

matter for him because of his extensive personal correspondence with

Brethren outside of London. 

 

In 1777 occurred an event which was momentous in the Masonic affairs of the

period.  On account of the mock and satirical processions formed by rival

societies the Modern Grand Lodge of England had forbidden its Lodges and

Members to appear in public processions in regalia.  The Lodge of

Antiquity, on December 17th, 1777, resolved to attend church services in a

body on St. John's Day, the following 27th, selecting St. Dinstan's Church,

only a short distance across the street from where the Lodge met.  Some of

the members protested, saying it was contrary to Grand Lodge regulations,

with the result that only ten attended, these donning gloves and aprons in

the church vestry, and then entering to hear the sermon.  At the conclusion

of the services they returned to the Lodge without first removing their

Masonic clothing.  This action was cause for debate at the next meeting of

the Lodge in which Preston expressed the opinion that the Lodge of

Antiquity had never surrendered its rivileges and prerogatives when it

participated in the formation of the Grand Lodge in 1717, and held that it

could parade as it did in 1694.  The Grand Lodge, however, could not afford

to overlook such an opinion, especially when expressed by the leading

Masonic Scholar of the day, and consequently Preston was expelled.

 

Because of this action of the Grand Lodge of Moderns, the Lodge of

Antiquity severed its connection 

with body, after dismissing from its membership three brethren who had made

the original complaint against Preston, entered in relations with the

revived Grand Lodge of All England at York, and formed what was known as

the "Grand Lodge of England South of the River Trent."  The controversy

with the Grand Lodge of Moderns was settled in 1787, and Preston was

reinstated, all his honors and dignities restored, whereupon he resumed his

Masonic activities.  He organized the Order of Harodim, a Society of

Masonic Scholars, in which he taught his lectures and through this medium

the lectures came to America and became the foundation for our Monitors.

 

To fully grasp the significance of preston's labors we must understand the

conditions in England at the time he lived.  The seventeenth century had

been one of marked differences of opinion on the subjects of government,

religion and economic conditions.  The eighteenth century, following the

accession of Prince George of Hanover to the throne of England as King

George I, witnessed an era of peace and prosperity in that country.  With

the exception of the wars against the French and later the Revolution in

America, England met no obstacles in her conquests of trade.  The strife of

the opening 

years of the century calmed down, and the people became adjusted to their

new conditions.  It became a period of formalism.  Literature, which

thrived under the patronage of the wealthy, partook of an ancient classical

nature, spirit being subordinated to form and style.  Detailed perfection

of form was insisted upon in every activity, and undoubtedly the insistence

for a letter-perfect ritualism, still so apparent in Freemasonry, had its

origin in the closing years of the eighteenth century.

 

While the well-to-do classes lived in comfort and ease, the laboring and

farming classes had not yet 

entirely emerged from the adverse conditions confronting them for so many

decades.  True, the cessation of wars, and the development of domestic and

foreign trade also had an influence in the circles not actively

participating in the new development.  A spirit of freedom and independence

continued to express itself.  Public education as we know it today,

however, did not then exist.  The schools were for the children of the

wealthy only, being conducted by private interests and requiring the

payment of tuition beyond the purse of the common people.  Yet, education

was eagerly sought.  Knowledge was looked upon as the key which would

unlock the door to intellectual and spiritual independence.

 

While Preston began his schooling at an early age, even with his excellent

start he extended his education only by diligent work and the burning of

much midnight oil.   Imbued with the spirit of the day, he was anxious to

place the available knowledge of the times before his fellow men. 

Therefore, when he discovered a vast body of traditional and historical

lore in the old documents of the Craft, he naturally seized upon the

opportunity of modernizing the ritual in such a way as to make accessible a

rudimentary knowledge of the arts and sciences to the members of the

Fraternity.

 

From 1765 to 1772 Preston engaged in personal research and correspondence

with Freemasons at home and abroad, endeavoring to learn all he could about

Freemasonry and the arts it encouraged.  These efforts bore fruit in the

form of his first book, entitled: "Illustrations of Masonry," published in

1772.  He had taken the old lectures and work of Freemasonry, revised them

and placed them in such form as to receive the approval of the leading

members of the Craft.  Encouraged by their favorable reception and

sanctioned by the Grand Lodge, Preston employed, at his own expense,

lecturers to travel throughout the kingdom and place the lectures before

the lodges.  New editions of his book were demanded, and up to the present

time it has gone through twenty editions in England, six in America, and

several more in various European languages.

 

After his death, on April 1st, 1818, it was found that Preston had provided

a fund of three hundred pounds sterling in British Consuls (British

Government Securities, the word being abbreviated from "Consolidated

Annuities"), the interest from this fund to be set aside for the delivery

of the Preston lectures once each year.  The appointment of a Lecturer was

left to the Grand Master.  These lectures were abandoned about 1860,

chiefly for the reason that they had been superseded by the lectures of

Hemming in the approved work of the United Grand Lodge of England, when

that body was formed by the reunion of the Ancient and Moderns in 1813. 

The Preston work still survives, however, in the United States, although

greatly modified by such American Ritualists as Webb, Cross, Barney and

others.

 

Had Preston not attained Masonic eminence through his efforts in other

fields, his work in revising the lectures alone would entitle him to the

plaudits and gratitude of the Craft.  Considering these old lectures in the

light of our present day knowledge, and granting that they might be

corrected and revised, it must be remembered that Preston's work was a

tremendous step forward when we consider the spirit and conditions of his

day.  He was one of the first men to influence a change from the social and

convivial standards which prevailed in the old lodges, and to make them

centers for more practical and enduring efforts.  His own progress in the

Craft is an illustration of its democracy, and an illustration of the

equality of opportunity existing for those who will apply themselves to the

problems confronting the Fraternity in our own times.  From a position as

the youngest Entered Apprentice standing in the North East corner of his

lodge, he progressed step by step until he reached a place where he was

recognized as the foremost Masonic Scholar of his generation.  While he did

not wear the purple of the Modern Grand Lodge in its highest stations, his

contemporaries who had that honor have been forgotten, while the name of

William Preston is still preeminent in the annals of Freemasonry.

 

Equality of opportunity, as Freemasonry stands for it, means equality of

opportunity for service.  The 

honors of office are not the Masonic test of service.  He who contributes

to the Mason's search for light, light that will enable the Craftsman to

more intelligently and efficiently serve his God, his Country, his

Neighbor, his Family and Himself is rendering the most enduring quality of

service.  This was true in Preston's time.  It is equally true in ours. 

Fortunate is the lodge that has a modern Preston in its membership, who

seeks to lead the Craft in its clearer  understanding of the symbolism and

teachings of Freemasonry to the end that Freemasons of today may sustain in

the high standard of effective and unselfish service to mankind which has

characterized and distinguished the Fraternity in the generations and ages

gone.