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Masons, who counted among their membership many of the Revolutionary leaders of North Carolina, sought to provide benefits to their members and families in times of crisis, particularly assistance to widows and orphans. The earliest lodges in North Carolina were in Wilmington (1754), New Bern (1772), and Halifax (1764). In 1754 the first charter for a lodge was warranted for the colony by the English Grand Lodge. The charter formally established a lodge for those men in Wilmington who were already meeting. Tax records from 1758 reflect that a building in the town was dedicated to the service of the Masons. The Wilmington Lodge operated until the Revolutionary War when occupation of the city by British forces interrupted regular activities.
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Post-Revolution, all ties with lodges in England were severed and the Masons in North Carolina re-formed the organization. The Masons held a convention in 1787 and elected future governor Samuel Johnston as Grand Master of the newly created Grand Lodge. The next task was to assign precedence in numbering the lodges as they were formed. Debate raged between the Wilmington and Halifax lodges until the Halifax charter was found to have been granted in 1754 by Cornelius Harnett of the Wilmington lodge. Thus, St. John’s was recognized by the Masons as the earliest.
Before the Revolution, the Masons in Wilmington met in William Hooper’s home on Masonboro Sound and other private residences and properties. Their meetings on the sound contributed to the naming of that area. They also met at Dorsey’s tavern in town but later moved to their own quarters which were damaged by a fire in 1798. The members resolved to construct a new structure and in 1804 constructed a building on Orange Street between Front and Second.
A subsequent lodge building was completed at the intersection of Front and Red Cross Streets around 1825 and another temple was built on Market Street around 1841. It was used by the Masons until 1981 when a new building began to service the Lodge on Oriole Drive. The 1804 St. John’s Masonic Lodge building on Orange Street has been preserved as an art museum. The 1841 Lodge building on Market was used by the lodge for over 100 years. It was there that the Masons hosted prominent politicians such as President James K. Polk and Henry Clay in the upstairs hall.
Marshall D. Haywood, The Beginnings of Freemasonry in North Carolina and Tennessee (1906)
Thomas C. Parramore, Launching the Craft: The First Half-Century of Freemasonry in North Carolina (1975)
Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984)