(Member: Potomac Lodge No. 5)
The term lodge, according to former Grand Lodge Historian Kenton N. Harper, was not only defined as an organized and continuing body common to us today, but also “a hap-hazard congregation of Masons [gathered] for a single meeting.” Masonic scholar Robert Davis calls these congregations “occasional lodges,” and explains that they operated wherever “two or three [Masons] were gathered.”
A good example of this type of “occasional lodge” were any of the traveling military lodges found during the Revolutionary War. They were chartered by the Grand Lodge in England, and brought British troops and their Colonial rivals together with their common interest in forging fraternal bonds in the lodge room which eclipsed their differences on the battlefield. These original groups of Masons have gone by various names including occasional, military, army, regimental, foot, traveling, and ambulatory lodges, but for the sake of this article, I have chosen a simpler term to encapsulate all the hap-hazard and informal congregations of masons: proto-lodges.
So how did proto-lodges operate? They met in very small groups at any given time as membership fluctuated based on travel, weather, social and/or political happenings. They met in taverns and operated under inherent right, or outside the authority of a Grand Lodge’s rules and regulations – imagine an informal network of men gathered across Maryland to make Masons using the simple ceremonies they knew at the time. From this, some lodges grew, expanded their scope, requested charters from Grand Lodges, and in one instance even reinitiated clandestine Masons!
It’s unclear how many proto-lodges existed, but surviving evidence suggests that they operated for decades before the Grand Lodge of Maryland organized in the late 18th century. In fact, Bro. Edward Shultz dedicates over fifty pages (almost the entire first section) in the first volume of Maryland history on the various records of proto and traditional lodges chartered by the Grand Lodges of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, England, and inherent groups from Germany and Scotland. Most of these early traditional and proto-lodges ceased to operate after several years, but their members undoubtedly traveled, participated in masonic activities, and contributed to the continuing development of the Craft across Maryland.
There are two unique proto-lodges worth noting. The first is a lodge organized under the auspices of German immigrant and glassmaker John Amelung. Amelung was considered one of the original and most successful glassmakers in the colonies. Astonishingly, Amelung brought 300 to 400 settlers with him during his voyage to the New World, which included doctors, bakers, shoemakers, tailors, and blacksmiths. His lodge was most likely made of up Masons from this contingent and was known to have operated around 1789 to 1799.
Though little is known about this lodge, including its name (if it had one), we do know that Amelung’s glassworks were so popular that it is believed he received a personal audience with George Washington at Mount Vernon in 1789. Washington wrote an enthusiastic letter to Thomas Jefferson claiming that ten thousand pounds of glass per year was manufactured by Amelung (worth about $1.5 million in 2017), and advertisements for his products were printed in the earliest newspapers in the District of Columbia.
The other notable proto-lodge was St. Andrews Lodge of Georgetown, which also can be considered the last of these proto-lodges. By tradition, St. Andrews was organized by Scottish masons who were the predominate emigres to Georgetown in the early 18th century. It is believed that some of these settlers moved throughout Maryland and opened branches in Bladensburg, Leonardtown, Port Tobacco, and Joppa. Shultz notes that family names of the original founders of Joppa matched the names from the earliest settlers in Georgetown.
The only remaining evidence of this lodge is a Bible currently held in the Potomac Lodge No.5 archives. The Bible was printed in 1754 in Edinburgh, Scotland by Adrian Watkins. These editions were favored by early Scottish settlers for their low cost, abundance, and availability in shops at Port Tobacco.
We may never know the true number or impact of proto-lodges. Harper notes, “It was the custom of the early days, especially during the Revolutionary War, to keep the records of lodges on slips of paper which were, after so long a time, destroyed, to prevent the possibility of their falling into the hands of profanes, a custom peculiarly aggravating to the modern historian.” There was also a global shortage of paper that required early printers to reuse their supplies. In fact, the Lodge No. 9 (the precursor to Potomac Lodge No. 5) charter was written on the back of its original petition(!), and it is possible that other old documents today may have once been used to record charters, minutes, or other lodge business.
The first traditional, non-proto lodge chartered in the area was Lodge No. 9 of Maryland, who were chartered April 21st, 1789 in Georgetown (just 9 days before George Washington’s first inauguration in New York). Then in 1793, a group of ten Masons engaged in the construction of the U.S. Capitol and the White House, not wishing to travel the long distance to Georgetown, applied to No. 9 for a dispensation to organize their own lodge. Several months later, those Masons received an official dispensation from the Grand Lodge of Maryland to be organized as Federal Lodge No. 15 and thus became the first lodge chartered in the new capital city of the District of Columbia, but still well before the foundation of that city’s Grand Lodge.
On September 18, 1793, Lodge No. 9 and Federal No. 15 were two of three D.C. lodges that assisted President Washington in laying the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building in a full, public Masonic ceremony. No. 9 went inactive several years later, and Federal Lodge operated as the sole Masonic entity north of the Potomac River until 1805, when several other dispensations for lodges were granted, including one from the original members of No. 9 petitioning to reconstitute their lodge under the new name “Potomac Lodge.”
In 1811, five out of the six Masonic lodges in the area came together to form the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia, and charters were reissued based on the date of their original Maryland charters. In the beginning, the founding five lodges operated similarly to their proto-lodge pasts. The Past Master’s degree was conferred onto any interested Master Mason, and financial accounts were kept in pounds, shillings, pence (Maryland currency), and later in dollars. This undoubtedly made financial business a complicated process, but was common practice before the circulation of standard dollar currency.
Members also organized around professional or social groups. Charter members of Federal No.1 were predominately Irish and Scottish laborers, craftsmen, and stone masons working on the Capitol and White House. The Masons of Columbia No. 3 (today, Justice-Columbia Lodge No. 3) were employed in various levels of the U.S. Treasury Department, and members of Potomac No. 5 were prominent landowners and businessmen in Georgetown. Naval Lodge members were, unsurprisingly from the name, mostly Naval servicemen and shipyard employees; and they amassed the largest roster of early members in part due to the number of veterans returning from the war in Tripoli and the lodge’s location near the Navy Yard, itself.
Like many of their proto-lodge and later lodge counterparts, members of Potomac first hosted meetings in a popular Georgetown tavern, and granted two dispensations while under their No. 9 Maryland charter. (Federal Lodge No.15 and St. Columba No. 10 in Port Tobacco, Maryland). The Grand Lodge of Maryland was initially critical of the dispensations, but eventually accepted their legitimacy. Few details are known about when and where charter members received their degrees. It is most likely the case that these masons were initiated at lodges in their respective countries or in various proto-lodges throughout Maryland and Virginia. Founding members undoubtedly brought with them the customs and rules once set up by their proto-lodge counterparts.
With the exception of Naval No. 4, the lodges experienced stagnated growth in the early years of their existence. None of the founding members of Federal Lodge appear on the Grand Lodge of Maryland register six years after their formation, and almost half resigned in 1811 to form Lebanon No. 7. Brooke Lodge No. 2 had its charter seized by the Grand Lodge two decades after their formation due to indebtedness, deteriorating activity, and the events of the Morgan Affair. Columbia surrendered their charter several years later, but members eventually regained their charter in 1857. As previously mentioned, after a short hiatus, the original members of Lodge No. 9 reconstituted their old lodge under the new name Potomac. Several decades later, the Grand Lodge of Maryland declared that No. 9 and Potomac Lodge No. 5 were, “…considered to have been the same lodge with periods of inaction.” And in 1939, the Grand Lodge of Maryland returned the original No. 9 charter that they had discovered several years earlier.
 Bro. Robert Davis’ book, A Mason’s Words, details the origins of freemasonry ritual and is recommended reading for anyone interested in learning more about its evolution and spread from England to the U.S.
 Occurred in Joppa Lodge No. 1. This event is documented in Bro. Edward Shultz’s first volume of Grand Lodge of Maryland’s history.
 The author has omitted the documented quarrels between the Modern and Ancient influences for the sake of brevity. It is believed that proto-lodges fell into the Ancient ritual category, but there is a lack of supporting evidence on this.
 The global shortage of paper, or linen-paper combinations called rags, was well-documented across the 18th century.
 They were mostly Irish and Scottish stone masons and carpenters led by the architect of the White House, James Hoban, who would serve as the new lodge’s first Master.
 Alexandria-Washington No.22 was the third lodge, and at that time, Alexandria was a physical part of the District.
 Alexandria-Washington No.22 declined the invitation to join the Grand Lodge of D.C.
 St. Columba operated out of the Chimney House tavern in Port Tobacco for several years before becoming inactive. The Chimney House still stands, and there is a commemorative St. Columba plaque on display.
 This was most likely done by Lodge No. 9 for the sake of convenience, as travel up to Baltimore or northern Maryland for a petition was arduous.