The Lasting Legacy of Expelled Brothers
Freemasonry in New York State and most of North America is heavily influenced by the work of members who were expelled from the Craft. From the structure of our ritual work to the creation of the Northern Jurisdiction of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, members who were expelled from our Fraternity have left a lasting mark on how Freemasonry is conducted in the Empire State and beyond.
Many Lodges will give newly raised Master Masons the “little blue book”, officially known as The Standard Work and Lectures of Ancient Craft Masonry. In most North American jurisdictions, this book and the associated Masonic work, is some variation on Thomas Smith Webb’s Illustrations of Freemasonry or Freemason’s Monitor – first published at his Albany, NY print shop. However, Smith’s work was not solely his own. The publication was heavily influenced by Smith’s contemporary in the United Kingdom – William Preston. As a result, the work used by most American Jurisdictions is known as the Preston-Webb Ritual or some variation thereof. But who was William Preston?
William Preston (7 August 1742 – 1 April 1818)
William Preston was born in Scotland and settled in England as an adult. Preston joined a Masonic Lodge that was a part of “The Antients Grand Lodge”. This Lodge was created by Scotsmen living in the Greater London area. Preston later became a member of the “Moderns” but was barred from membership after he and other members from Antiquity Lodge returned from a Church service across the street in Masonic regalia on December 27, 1777. This walk across the street while wearing regalia was deemed an unsanctioned Masonic Procession. Not long after their expulsion, the members of Antiquity Lodge formed their own Grand Lodge – The Grand Lodge of All of England South of the River Trent. Eventually, the Lodge and all its members were returned to good standing in May of 1789.
William Preston and the Grand Lodge of All England South of the River Trent were instrumental in normalizing the Royal Arch and Knights Templar degrees. While these degrees were in wide circulation by 1813, when the schism between the Antients and Moderns was healed, the popularity of these degrees was widely attributed to Preston and the Grand Lodge of All England South of the River Trent. Nonetheless, it is Preston’s publication Illustrations of Freemasonry that has had the most lasting impact on Freemasonry today. Preston’s work, with Webb’s additions by the same name, is commonly seen in almost every American Lodge today.
David Vinton (January 6, 1774 – July 1833)
A part of the Rites used in many American Blue Lodges, be it in the third degree or in memorial services, was written by yet another Brother who was expelled from the Craft. David Vinton’s work “The Masonic Minstrel” was published in 1816. It included many songs that Masons today would find familiar, especially the Funeral Dirge known as “Pleyel’s Hymn”.
David Vinton was a well-known silversmith in Boston between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He also became a prominent member of the Craft. As a member of Mount Vernon Lodge No. 4 in Providence, Rhode Island, Vinton published his work “The Masonic Minstrel, a Selection of Masonic, Sentimental, and Amorous Songs, Duets, Glees, Canons, Rounds and Canzonets, Respectfully Dedicated to the Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons,” better known as “The Masonic Minstrel”. This long-titled book includes the familiar Pleyel’s Hymn. New York Masons and others would recognize this song from the third degree, while some jurisdictions use it during Masonic memorial services. The title may seem strange as it implies the song belongs to someone named Pleyel rather than to David Vinton. However, it was a collaborative effort, in which Brother Ignaz Pleyel composed the music while Brother Vinton penned the lyrics.
Brother Vinton’s Masonic Minstrel work sold over 12,000 copies, making the silversmith quite renowned in Masonic circles at the time. Eventually, Vinton began traveling around the United States to lecture on Freemasonry and sell Masonic manuscripts. That is, until 1821 when he was expelled for un-Masonic conduct by the Grand Lodge of North Carolina. What exactly was the “un-Masonic conduct”? The claims were quite serious. Firstly, he was accused of selling manuscripts related to, as well as conferring, the degrees of Mark Master Mason and Past Master for profit, without the permission of the proper Grand Lodge or Chapter. As Vinton was well versed in the York Rite and seemed to focus his work on these degrees, this claim seems quite plausible. Additionally, he was accused of leaving his wife and children behind in New England where his Lodge was charged with supporting the family.
In 1822, Mount Vernon Lodge No. 4, Brother Vinton’s home Lodge, disputed the latter charge. The Lodge stated that Vinton supported his family “well enough” that they did not need the support of the Lodge. The Brothers of Mount Vernon exonerated Vinton of the charges. As Vinton was not a North Carolina Mason and his home Lodge had discredited the charges, Brother Vinton was reinstated, but not before his reputation was sullied.
Joseph Cerneau (14 November 1765 – 3 February 1848)
The illegal conferring of degrees by another Brother who would soon be expelled was a precipitating factor in the creation of an entirely new body. Any Mason who visits a Lodge in Pennsylvania should not only be properly examined on his Masonic knowledge, but he would also have to swear that he is not, nor has ever been, a part of the Cerneau Rite. Outside of Pennsylvania, not many may have heard of the Cerneau Rite, but there is no doubt that it played an integral part in the founding of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction.
Joseph Cerneau was a French Freemason who in 1806 was given the title of Inspector of the 25th Degree. The role granted him the authority to confer the 25th Degree in Cuba. However, this condition did not prevent Cerneau from conferring the degree the following year upon his arrival to New York. While the motive for Cerneau to illegally confer degrees is unknown, there is no doubt he was paid for performing them. Word of Cerneau’s actions got back to Charleston, South Carolina – in what is today known as the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction – and in 1813, it sent a member to investigate him. Upon arrival, the investigator was denied access to any of Cerneau’s Masonic records. The Southern Jurisdiction subsequently labeled him “an imposter of the first magnitude, and whom we have expelled from Masonic Asylum within our Jurisdiction.”
The Scottish Rite jurisdiction Cerneau then created filled a void in what is today the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. The first Scottish Rite Lodge of Perfection in the Thirteen Colonies was founded in Albany, NY in 1763. This Lodge of Perfection was dissolved in December of 1774. Nevertheless, this short-lived Lodge of Perfection initiated Scottish Rite Masons who would establish the Mother Supreme Council in Charleston, South Carolina. While the Albany Lodge of Perfection had set the groundwork for a successful Southern Jurisdiction, there was no successful northern counterpart at the time until Joseph Cerneau filled the void.
The Cerneau Rite, or Cerneauism, was quite popular, especially in Pennsylvania and New York – even counting among its members New York’s Most Worshipful Grand Master DeWitt Clinton. However, as the Scottish Rite Supreme Council in South Carolina considered this rite to be “clandestine”, other competing rites were eventually established that could trace their lineage back to the Albany Lodge of Perfection. While the finer points of the politics and authoritative provenance of these competing jurisdictions could easily fill another article, the abridged version is that two of these competing rites combined to create the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. There is no doubt that these rites would not have merged as quickly as they did had it not been for Joseph Cerneau and his Scottish Rite jurisdiction. In fact, the newly formed Northern Masonic Jurisdiction rapidly expanded to replace many of the Cerneau valleys that had been established.
While some members of our Craft who are justifiably expelled deserve to be removed from our rolls, there is no doubt that others have been expelled for political purposes. However, while these members may have been removed from the Craft, the lasting impact of a former Mason can be felt long after he is expelled.
Written by Bro. Nathan Tweedie
Co-Editor, Craftsmen Online NY Masonic History column
Senior Deacon and Historian, Ostego Lodge #138
Junior Warden, Delaware River Lodge #439
Central Leatherstocking District