Robert G. Davis, 33
Though tarnished by the disputes of his day, Bro. David
Vinton, as poet and ritualist, has a place of note in 19th-century American
“Solemn strikes the funeral chime....” There’s a sad irony in the fact that the man who wrote these words, sung in Lodge rooms and at graves by thousands of Freemasons in America, was himself buried without Masonic honors.
Brother David Vinton died in Shakertown, Kentucky, in July, 1833. While on his deathbed at that place, the Freemasons of Lodge No. 73 at Bowling Green, wrote to the Grand Lodge inquiring whether David Vinton was a Mason in good standing. The reply was in the negative. Brother Robert Morris, in writing about the circumstances of Vinton’s life in the Masonic Journal, Volume 53, 1880, eloquently said, “And so the sweet poet and Masonic songster of the period died under a cloud, and his tombstone no emblem of the Craft could have.”
Very little is written about Vinton’s life. He was a teacher of the Masonic Ritual (primarily the York Rite) in the Southern States, having the most success in North and South Carolina. He is best known for publishing at Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1816, a volume dedicated to the “Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons” containing a selection of “Masonic, Sentimental and Humorous Songs, Duets, Glees, Canons, Rounds and Canjonets” under the title of The Masonic Minstrel. Bro. Vinton sold 12,000 copies by subscription. It was in this volume that the words of the beautiful dirge used in the Third Degree is found. Known as the “Pleyel’s Hymn,” the music was composed by Ignaz Joseph Pleyel, a composer who was a student of Bro. Franz Joseph Haydn’s, and also a Freemason himself. It is the hymn from Pleyel’s “4th Quartet, op. 7,” published in 1791. The details that led to Vinton’s expulsion from the Grand Lodges of South Carolina, North Carolina, Connecticut, and Virginia have always been a bit sketchy, but the incidents apparently relate to his taking liberties as a teacher and writer of Ritual.
The last three-quarters of the 19th Century could well be called the era of the Masonic Degree peddlers. It was a time when the thought of a uniform Ritual was offensive to many Freemasons. So many diverse systems found their way into the American workings that it was an extraordinary undertaking indeed to standardize the work. Men who had been taught one way were very stubborn toward the idea of relearning the Ritual they already knew. In every Grand Jurisdiction where the travelling ritualists worked, there was a quiet resistance to change in many of the Lodges.
To some extent, Ritual diversity between Grand Jurisdictions was actually promoted by the Grand Lodges themselves. After all, if the Grand Lodge was not able to impose a uniform standard, then the next best thing was to approve Brothers who were well-versed in some form of ritualistic work. A half-century earlier, Thomas Webb and his students created a new method for how men learned the work in Lodges. Masonic lectures were no longer a system whereby men would learn Masonry by discussing the lessons in Lodge and contemplating Masonic emblems around their own individual symbol systems. They learned Masonry as something which was to be memorized.
And these early promoters of a uniform working were known and respected throughout America as legitimate teachers of the work. They were the first of several generations of travelling ritualists. These men were hired to instruct Lodges within a jurisdiction in a certain mode of working for the purpose of standardizing the work within a Grand Lodge.
The problem, of course, was that, after the death of this first generation of “ritualists by rote,” men who claimed to know Webb’s work would market themselves as travelling lecturers for the purpose of profiting off the Brethren they taught. And, too, individual Lodges would avail themselves of the services of travelling ritualists without the sanction of Grand Lodge. For example, in Indiana, the minutes of Webb Lodge No. 24, Richmond, state that the Lodge engaged one Brother Michael McLaughlin of Ohio to deliver a course of lectures covering a period of ten days, at $5 per day.
By the 1840s, when Grand Lodges were unable to agree on a system of instruction and did not have the finances to pay the salary of a Grand Lecturer, there were numerous instances in which Lodges arranged for their own schools of instruction. Minutes of Lodge after Lodge indicate repeated “contracts” with men who had been hired to deliver a course of lectures for a fee, plus expenses. The going rate was generally $20-25 a week, along with a vote of thanks from the Lodge.
But on rare occasion, the Lodges would turn against their own travelling degree peddlers. One such unfortunate fellow was David Vinton. In 1821, Vinton was summoned by the Grand Chapter of Virginia to be examined on charges preferred against him by Franklin Lodge No. 4 of Royal Arch Masons, to which Vinton belonged. The charges were for “highly improper and unmasonic conduct.” Vinton did not respond to the summons, so he lost his privileges as a Mason in that Grand Chapter and “throughout the world.” It was publicly claimed within the Craft that Vinton had made Mark Masters and Past Masters without a dispensation or a warrant.
But the real reason for the charge was that Vinton was caught furnishing cipher notes of the lectures. Vinton felt that competing lecturers, among them such noted names as Jeremy Cross, were simply trying to discredit his work. The incident caused some heated debate in the South.
The Grand Lodge of North Carolina followed with a public condemnation of Vinton in the Raleigh newspapers. This action upset the Grand Lodge of Georgia which declared that every Masonic Brother ought to have his good name protected until such time as he is formally accused by a regular Lodge, notified of the charges against him, and then given an opportunity to answer and stand before his accusers. In Vinton’s defense, the Freemasons of Georgia issued a mani- festo dated May 16, 1821, in which they claimed Vinton had “shown them documents which proved his moral character as a private citizen and a Mason.” Apparently, his fame as a learned Mason made the matter of his offense debatable among the Grand Lodges where he had worked. He was certainly popular in Georgia where the Grand Lodge stated, “We hailed with pleasure his arrival among us, and because, by his means, we could improve ourselves in the noble and ancient art of Masonry. We have not been disappointed. His instructions have been sensibly felt. His deportment has been that of the gentleman and the Mason; and, if we are allowed to form an opinion, we will say, that the man who has thus behaved while here cannot be charged with unmasonic conduct.”
The Brethren of Georgia strongly disagreed with Virginia and North Carolina that Vinton had committed a Masonic offense. According to their assessment, Vinton was simply more liberal than most as to the method of his communicating the lectures to the officers of Lodges and Chapters. According to Georgia, he did not “infringe on the principles of Masonry in the least.” In fact, they revealed that Vinton’s lecture ciphers had been approved by “upwards of 200 lodges and chapters in the United States, and by some of the brightest luminaries in the galaxy of Masonry.”
It turns out that Vinton’s notes were far less extensive than is normally found in monitors of the present day. In fact, according to Thomas Hayward, Grand Master of Florida in 1858, who personally reviewed Vinton’s lectures, his printed work would not even raise an eyebrow compared with what Pike or Mackey had published by the 1860s.
Thus, the real reason for Vinton’s demise was that of conferring the Chapter Degrees without authority. For this, he should have been disciplined by the Grand Chapters under which he worked. But it is hard to conclude that he actually committed any offense against the laws of Masonry. Since Webb, Cross, Dove, Barker, and others made a living by peddling degrees of the York Rite before Vinton’s time, it can be argued that he was simply following the precedent set by others before him, men who may have been trying to control their own market as lecturers. Although wrong in his own actions, there were no grounds for Grand Lodges to denounce him as they did. Still less, to expel him from Masonry.
Nevertheless, he was hunted down, and his last hours spent without the honor or privilege of Masonic charity. He died a broken man, a “stranger in a strange land.”
The kind Brethren of Kentucky, who declared themselves “willing to give him funeral honors if his character were cleared up,” could find no official declaration of forgiveness in his name. They could do nothing for him or his memory.
David Vinton lives on today only because his lyric contribution to the Masonic Ritual is almost universally employed in the workings of the Third Degree in this country. To tens of thousands of Masons, David Vinton will forever be a star in the annals of Freemasonry. His simple, poetic dirge has earned him the respect of every Brother who has marched the march of Solomon or prayed the soliloquy over a fallen Brother. Perhaps it can truthfully be said that David Vinton, of all men, indeed journeyed “here below, through a pilgrimage of woe.”
The above article is reprinted from The Spring 1997 Indiana Freemason.
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