History of Freemasonry in Nova Scotia – Chapter 1: Beginnings

Chapter 1: Beginnings [1]

CHAPTER I Beginnings

By the Treaty of Utrecht which ended the Anglo-French conflict in America known as Queen Anne’s War, France ceded to Great Britain, along with other territories in America, that part of old acadie which is now mainland Nova Scotia. For the next thirty-six years, or until the founding of Halifax in 1749, Port Royal under its new name, Annapolis Royal, was the capital of the colony and a garrison community.

Four years after the Treaty of Utrecht, four independent Masonic lodges of old London founded the Grand Lodge of England, the first of its kind in the world, June 24, l7l7. Another few years passed. Then by General Regulations which were approved by the Grand Master, John Duke of Montagu, in 1723, no set or number of Masons could take upon themselves to form a lodge without the authority of the Grand Master.(1)
During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, before the Grand Lodge of England had been formed, or General Regulations published, Freemasons had left the British Isles to settle in the New World, and it is quite probable that as numbers and circumstances permitted, they met in lodges although no records of any such meetings are extant(2) Such lodges, if they did exist, would be regular in that age, even if they were not duly constituted as we understand the term today. Coming closer home, it is now generally agreed that there were Freemasons in Annapolis Royal soon after its capture, and that they came there from New England.(3) These may have met as a lodge, but again evidence is lacking. Of one fact, however, there can be no doubt; it was at Annapolis Royal that the first Masonic lodge in Canada was duly constituted. The year was 1738, and the founder a soldier administrator, Erasmus James Philipps, in whose memory the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia issued its well known medallion, and the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, in our bicentennial year, 1938, erected a monument in St. Paul’s Cemetery, Halifax.
Erasmus James Philipps was born in London, England, on St. George’s Day, April 23, 1705. When he was a lad of twelve his soldier uncle, Colonel Richard Philipps, was appointed Governor of Nova Scotia, a position he held, chiefly in absentia, until the founding of Halifax in 1749. He made only two visits to the colony, 1720-22, and 1728-31; otherwise, his duties were carried out by Lieutenant-Governors. On his first visit in 1720, when he established a governing Council, he was accompanied by his nephew, who became an Ensign in the Philipps Regiment, the 40th Foot, part of which formed a garrison at the fort.(4) Because of his political connections and natural ability, Erasmus James Philipps, was soon one of the prominent citizens of the community. He became a member of the Council, Advocate in the court of Vice-Admiralty, and a Major in the army. In 1727 he was appointed, along with a fellow officer, Captain Joseph Bennett, to visit the Acadian settlements at Minas and Chignecto, in an effort to persuade the inhabitants to take an oath of allegiance to the new British Monarch, George II.(5) In 1737, the British Board of Trade, as advisors to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, on things colonial, requested the acting Governor of Nova Scotia, Col. Lawrence Armstrong, to nominate some members of his Council to act with other representatives chosen from New England to determine the boundary between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which had long been in dispute. Those named from the Council at Annapolis Royal were Erasmus James Philipps, William Shirreff, Otho Hamilton, and Dr. William Skene. As the nephew of the Governor, Philipps was a logical choice. Shirreff was the Secretary of the Council, and Colonel Otho Hamilton, a former Secretary. Dr. Skene was a native of Scotland and surgeon of the 40th. Foot. He was appointed to the first Council and to the First Court of Justice, 1727. He was described as “a gentleman of learning and read in the civil law.” As nearly as can be determined, Shirreff, Hamilton, and Skene were Freemasons.
The Nova Scotia commissioners arrived at Boston in August, 1737, and were in New England until the following Spring. In the interval Erasmus James Philipps was made a Master Mason. Records of the First Lodge in Boston give the date as November 14, 1737. At the same communication Shirreff joined the Lodge by affiliation.
It may be assumed that Philipps was led to join the Craft because of his close associations with Shirreff, Hamilton, and Skene, but it is probable also that he had met, either officially or socially, the Provincial Grand Master of Masons in North America, Henry Price.(6) Price, then forty-one years of age, was a native of England and had joined a lodge there. His efforts to extend Freemasonry in the New World led to his appointment in 1733 as Provincial Grand Master of Masons in New England. The following year, his authority was extended to include all North America. Through his leadership, a Provincial Grand Lodge, St. John’s was established, and a subordinate lodge duly constituted. These were the first of their kind in North America. Other lodges were organized in quick succession: Philadelphia in 1734, and South Carolina, Georgia, and New Hampshire in 1735.(7) With an eye to further expansion, Price saw in Erasmus James Philipps, nephew of the Governor and a member of the Council, a proper agent to carry Freemasonry to Nova Scotia. How it was to be done was indicated in a news item which appeared in the Boston Gazette on March 13, 1738:
“We are informed that Major Phillipps is appointed Provincial Grand Master over the Free and Accepted Masons in the Province of Nova Scotia, and that a Deputation is getting ready for that purpose.”
Thereafter events moved rapidly. At “Ye petition of Sundry Brethren at Annapolis in Nova Scotia” Mr. Price granted a deputation to hold a lodge there. The petition was signed by Philipps, and no doubt by Shirreff, Hamilton, and Dr. Skene as well. On his return to Annapolis Royal in June 1738, the new Provincial Grand Master proceeded to establish a lodge which was as has been stated, the first to be constituted in the present Canada.(8) It was the sixth Lodge to be established in the far-flung jurisdiction of Henry Price. Since most of the male population at Annapolis belonged to the garrison, the new organization was in its membership virtually a military lodge.
Tradition has it that the first meetings of the lodge were held in an Inn owned by Frederick Sinclair, later the Farmers Hotel, but modern research does not seem to support this claim.(9) Philipps was Provincial Grand Master for Nova Scotia and Worshipful Master of the local lodge. How long he held the latter office is not known, but it was probably for several years, and he remained leader of the Craft until his death in 1760.(10) With the transfer of the Provincial capital from Annapolis Royal to Halifax, the Lodge must have been considerably weakened. Then in 1752 the 40th Foot was also moved to Halifax, and seems to have taken the old lodge with it. Other military units arrived, however, to replace the former garrison. Whether these, or any one of them, brought organized Masonry again to Annapolis Royal, or whether some lodge remained continuously at work is not very clear, but the presence of a lodge in 1758 is indicated from an entry made in his Journal by one of the officers, Captain John Know, on July 12:
“The detachment here is daily at exercise, nevertheless our time passes away very heavily, and when the calendar does not furnish us with a loyal excuse for assembling in the evening, we have recourse to a Freemasons’ Lodge, where we work so hard that it is inconceivable to think what a quantity of business of great importance is transacted in a very short space of time”(11)
Another interesting source of information concerning Masonry at Annapolis Royal in these years is to be found in the Grand Lodge Archives at Halifax. It concerns the artificer at the fort. Pardon Sanders, a native of Cornwall, England, who came to Nova Scotia about 1741-42, and became a member of Lodge 136 in the 43rd Regiment then stationed at Annapolis. On April 30, 1758, just a few months before Knox made the entry cited above, the officers of the lodge issued a certificate to Sanders which was, to all intents and purposes, a travelling card. It stated that Bro. Pardon Sanders had conducted himself properly as an Entered Apprentice and Fellow craft, and had therefore been raised to the degree of a Master Mason. As he had also served the lodge as Senior Deacon, he was recommended to all regular lodges of the Ancient and Honourable Fraternity.(12) From this document it would appear that Freemasonry has changed little since 1758.
For twelve years after he was made Provincial Grand Master of Masons in Nova Scotia, Erasmus James Philipps had no duties to perform outside of Annapolis Royal, and there was some doubt as to the extent of his jurisdiction. Almost coincident with his appointment, a Captain Robert Comyns, was named by the Grand Lodge of England to be Provincial Grand Master for Cape Breton and Louisbourg. The following year, 1738, his authority was limited to where there was no other Provincial Grand Master, which could well have been to avoid any overlapping of jurisdiction with Philipps. In any case, as the Island with its well known fortress was then in French hands, the ap- appointment of Comyns would seem little more than an assertion that Cape Breton was considered by Britain a part of the cession of 1713. During two sieges and occupations of Louisbourg, 1745-48 Aeneid-1760, when there were military lodges with the units to which they were attached, jurisdiction over the territory had more meaning.
Erasmus James Philipps lived to see lodges established in the new capital, Halifax, but he continued to reside at Annapolis Royal, where he was First Major and an influential citizen. In 1759 he was chosen, along with a soldier settler, Colonel Jonathan Hoar, to represent Annapolis County in the House of Assembly. A few years before his death, he transferred his Masonic allegiance from the Provincial Grand Lodge in Boston to the Grand Lodge of England, Ancients. As this was a comparatively new organization, and as the change was certain to affect the lodges in Nova Scotia under his care, his action required more than passing attention. To it and events associated with it, we must now turn.

  1. The Constitutions of Free-Masons, New York Edition, 1866 p. 60.
  2. How old is Freemasonry in North America? A well known authority, the late Albert Gallatin Mackey, believed that there were lodges on this continent before Henry Price was made Provincial Grand Master in 1733. Modern research seems to support this idea. When the Grand Lodge of England, June 5, 1730, made Daniel Coxe (born in England, 1682), Provincial Grand Master for the Provinces of New York and New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, it is claimed that it was with the knowledge that there were Masons living in this part of the New World, and that they were meeting without a charter or warrant. It is also fair to assume that the movement was sufficient to justify the appointment of a Provincial Grand Master. Coxe held the office two years. In Nova Scotia, articles have been written about the Masonic Stone discovered on the shores of Annapolis Basin in 1827, marked with a Square and Compasses and the date 1606. The Stone may have marked the grave of an operative mason who came to the Habitation with DeMonte and Champlain, but it cannot be accepted as proof that there was organized Freemasonry in Nova Scotia before 1738. R. V. Harris, Freemasonry in Canada before 1750; Hon. William Ross, Freemasonry in Nova Scotia, Halifax 1910, The Stone no longer exists. For its final disappearance, see the magazine, Freemason, Toronto. March-April 1963.
  3. Most of the New Englanders who came to Nova Scotia after 1713, maintained their traditional interest in what the late J. B. Brebner called “New England’s Outpost.” These early immigrants belonged to the King’s Chapel in Boston. They at once became active in the community and served on the Council. They include such well known names as Edward How, John Adams, Hibbert Newton, Arthur Savage, and Captain Cyprian Southback. Another early resident was Paul Mascarene who served for many years as Lieutenant Governor. While born in France, Mascarene spent most of his life in the service of Great Britain. For the biographies of these men see Nova Scotia Archives, T. B. Akins, Editor, Halifax, 1869. For their association with Freemasonry, see M.M. Johnson, Beginnings of Freemasonry in America, pp 195-201.
  4. Philipps Regiment, was one of the early regiments to be raised by the British in North America. At the time, Erasmus James Philipps established his lodge, part of the unit was at Annapolis, and part at Placentia in Newfoundland. Later it was in Halifax, and served in other parts of North America.
  5. Nova Scotia Archives, Akins ed., pp. 68 and 107.
  6. Daniel Coxe returned to England in 1731. His term as Provincial Grand Master expired the following year. It was understood that the Brethren would choose his successor. One William Allen was selected and he called himself Grand Master of whatever number of lodges there may have been in and near Philadelphia and farther south. Benjamin Franklin aspired to succeed Allen, but on the appointment of Henry Price, he accepted his authority.
  7. The First Lodge, Boston, dates from July 30, 1733; the First Lodge, Philadelphia, June 24, 1784; St. John’s Lodge, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, June 24, 1785; and the first lodge Charleston, South Carolina, December 27, 1885. According to Historical Highlights of Freemasonry in New Hampshire by Rt. Wor. Bro. Stanley A. Johnson, Keene, 1964, Lodges in Boston, Philadelphia, Georgia and South Carolina preceded that of New Hampshire. This would make the Lodge at Annapolis the sixth chartered under Henry Price.
  8. Philipps returned to Annapolis and established the lodge there in 1738. He was at work again in New England, 1740-1741. Sometime in this period he acquired a copy of the Book of Constitutions, edition published by the printer, Benjamin Franklin. He presented the book to the lodge at Annapolis. This treasure with Philipps’ name “Presented to the old Lodge by Grand Master E. J. Philipps,” was a prize relic of the Annapolis Royal Lodge until destroyed by fire in 1866.
  9. For support of this claim, see E. O. Simon, History of Annapolis Royal Lodge, p 2. and Charlotte Perkins, The Romance of Old Annapolis Royal.
  10. Members of this first lodge included not only Philipps, Shirreff, Hamilton, and Skene, but the Master Carpenter, John Easson; the well known soldier who served long and faithfully in America, Captain John Bradstreet; a Mason well-known in both Halifax and Boston, Isaac De Coster; and the one time Barrack Master at Annapolis, Thomas Walker. Of these, the Scot, John Easson, settled in Nova Scotia, had land near Annapolis, and left descendants in the Province.
  11. The Journal of Captain John Knox, Champlain Society Publication, VIII, Toronto 1914, Volume I, pp. 182-83.
  12. The document was signed by Joseph Westaver, Worshipful Master; William Whitcome and Miles Prentis, Wardens; and James Richardson, Secretary. Of these Prentis represents the soldier on the move, for the next year, 1759, he was Wolfe’s Provost Marshal at the siege of Quebec. He later became a resident of Quebec where he kept the Freemasons’ Tavern, A. J. B. Milborne, Freemasonry In Quebec, pp. 2-5 and P. 19.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This