"Worshipful Master" - John Sevier and Freemasonry on the Frontier

One of the great things about blogging your book is that you get helpful feedback from readers. I never pass up an opportunity to learn from others who have studied the same subject of interest, and I enjoy the feedback and conversation.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a book review inspired by a comment on The Posterity Project, and today I'm following up with a response to a question I recently received from a descendant of John Sevier:

"I notice that Andrew Jackson is listed on the Grand Lodge of Tennessee's website as a "Famous Freemason", but that Sevier is not. Does that mean Sevier was not ever a Freemason, or does it mean that he was but later somehow fell out of favor with that fraternity?"

In addition to being the first Governor of the State of Tennessee, John Sevier held the title of "Worshipful Master" of Tennessee Lodge No. 2, and was among its first charter members.

To be honest, I had not considered this aspect of John Sevier's life in my research, and immediately thought that the answer to this question would make an interesting essay.

On November 30, 1800, Tennessee Lodge No. 2 (No. 41 of North Carolina) was chartered by Grand Master William Polk. Known also as Polk Lodge, Governor John Sevier was among the first charter officers and named "Worshipful Master" by the Lodge.

In his book, The History of Freemasonry in Tennessee, 1789-1943, Charles Albert Snodgrass writes:

"The city of Knoxville played a prominent part in the development of Masonry in Tennessee. It was the seat of government when Tennessee was merely the 'Territory South of the Ohio.' It was the birth place of the State; the Capitol and the home of John Sevier, the first Governor, for several years. It had the second Masonic Lodge in the State, was the birth place of the Grand Lodge and had the oldest Lodge when the Grand Lodge was organized there in 1813. It has always been a Masonic center though its pioneer Lodges failed to survive... Many members of Tennessee Lodge No. 2 were prominent in the service of the State, the Nation and the Fraternity -- among them Governors John Sevier and Archibald Roane..." [256-257]

Snodgrass includes a brief biography of John Sevier within the pages of his book, noting Sevier's accomplishments as the first and only Governor of the State of Franklin, as the first Governor of Tennessee, and highlights his distinguished military and political career.

In another volume published in 1906 entitled, The Beginnings of Freemasonry in North Carolina and Tennessee, Marshall DeLancey Haywood writes of the migration of Freemasonry in the same reverential tones as seen in many of the hagiographic works written during the turn of the twentieth century. Haywood writes:

"Little knows the average Mason of his Craft's transmission from England to America, of its growth in Colonial days, how great soldiers and statesmen of Revolutionary times united with worthy brethren in humbler spheres of life and 'transmitted unimpaired the most excellent tenets of our institution,' how a sturdy race of pioneers carried the Great Lights of Masonry across mountain ranges into Tennessee and there formed another Grand Lodge which in time was to send its chartered off-shoots throughout newer States where the organization still flourishes, and what were the earlier causes in general of the high esteem in which Masonry has ever been held in all enlightened communities..." [1]

Haywood goes on to say that "there are few accessible sources from which information may be obtained as to our State's earlier Masonic history. The Order has printed little." Thus, it was left to future writers, like Haywood and Snodgrass, to fill the scholarly void.

Unfortunately, little more was written about John Sevier's life as the "Worshipful Master" of Tennessee Lodge No. 2, perhaps because of the lack of documented evidence, and perhaps also because Masons have traditionally held private their customs and rituals.

As a public historian, it is helpful to be reminded from time to time that public history necessarily involves the public. You can learn so much from the material culture of our past, but inquiry, inspiration, and analysis can also come from those who share your interests. Thanks to interested readers of my blog, I've learned another fascinating detail about John Sevier's life and have added another chapter to my ongoing research into "Tennessee's First Hero."

Selected Sources:

  • Marshall DeLancey Haywood. The Beginnings of Freemasonry in North Carolina and Tennessee. Raleigh, North Carolina: Weaver & Lynch, 1906 (page 25).
  • Charles Albert Snodgrass. The History of Freemasonry in Tennessee, 1789-1943. Nashville, Tenn.: Ambrose Printing Co., 1944.

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.