As best as can be determined there were six masonic lodges extant in Boston before the Revolution and an estimated 1,000 masons residing in or near the city.
There were four so-called "Grand Lodges" of Masons in Great Britain all of whom claimed they could authorize the establishment of Lodges in the colonies -the "Modern" and "Ancient" Lodges of England, the Lodge of Ireland and the Lodge of Scotland. This fact will influence the history of Freemasonry in Boston, and to this day, causes enormous confusion. That there were Freemasons in Boston in the early decades of the eighteenth century, there is little doubt. What is in doubt is whether whatever lodges they had were legally constituted. In any event, we can establish that Henry Price, the first Provincial Grand Master, received a charter from the "Modern" Lodge to establish a Masonic Provincial Grand Lodge in Boston. He issued a warrant to the first Lodge of Boston, later known as St John's Lodge. Three other lodges followed in a short time. Jeremy Gridley was appointed provincial Grand Master of America in 1755; he was succeeded by John Rowe in 1768, who still held that position at the outbreak of the Revolution. Rowe first became a member of this lodge on October 28th, 1747. In his diary, Rowe recounts the elaborate funeral procession that the Masons held at Gridley's funeral in 1767 and stated that 161 masons participated.
St John's Lodge was, on the whole, more Tory than Whig, although some of its members were staunch Patriots. James Otis was a regular attendant at St John's meetings and, of course, he was one of the first to raise his voice against the writs of assistance. Jeremy Gridley, another member of St John's and later Grand Master of "Modern" Masons, was Otis' opponent in the celebrated writs of assistance case. The Lodge met at a number of locations in Boston and the environs to include the Bunch of Grapes Tavern, the Royal Exchange, and the British Coffee House. Jonathan Belcher, Provincial Governor of Massachusetts from 1730-1741, was a member of St John's Lodge; his successor, William Shirley (1741-1756) was not a mason.
The first "Ancient" Lodge, known as the Lodge of St Andrew's, made its appearance in 1752 and met at The Green Dragon Tavern. The lodge purchased the tavern on March 31, 1764 and held its meetings on the first floor. The tavern then also became known as The Freemason's Arms. St Andrew's was the lodge to which Joseph Warren and Paul Revere belonged. John Hancock, who had been made a mason in Quebec, joined St Andrew's in 1762. Most of Hancock's business associates were members of St John's; the members of St Andrew's were, for the most part, small merchants, artisans, mechanics and seafarers; but their ranks later contained many men of prominence.
The establishment of St Andrew's led to a forty year feud between the two lodges, and they became engaged in a bitter struggle, over what appears, to someone trying to understand the origins of the feud, as one of a struggle over "legitimacy" that are taken so seriously by fraternal organizations of this type. It appears that the "Moderns" professed to look down on the "Ancients", thought them somewhat illegitimate, dubbed them "irregulars" and "clandestine" and refused them the privilege of visitation. The bitterness continued even after the "Ancients" had been "healed' by the Grand Lodge of Scotland. In April 1761, St John's Lodge held a vote, the results of which were to pronounce " a lodge of Scotch Masons in Boston" (i.e. St Andrew's Lodge) outlaws. St Andrews retaliated in kind.
Strangely, the rivalry of the two resulted in the prosperity of both. St Andrews managed it by admitting visitors from other lodges to its lodge and even admitting members of other lodges to its membership. St John's did not allow visits from members of other lodges or allow dual membership. St John's had an advantage in that it was seen as the lodge of the "better' members of society. Let us not forget that vestiges of the English attitude towards class had not been totally eradicated from colonial society. In any event, there were those who thought that they could advance themselves by attending a lodge of the more influential members of Boston and Massachusetts society.
By what accounts remain, however, masonry was well established and the Boston lodges prospered in the years before the revolution. If the figure of 1,000 members in and around Boston is credible, and I believe it is, then that represents a very significant percentage of the adult male population,.
One of the many problems encountered in researching the Boston Masons is a directive published by the English Grand Master prohibiting the publication of the minutes of any proceeding or activities of the lodges without his or his deputy's approval. This meant that there are virtually no newspaper accounts of Masonic activities in Boston from about 1741-1750.
In November 1768 there were three British Regiments stationed in the town, each with a lodge attached to it but working under separate constitutions - English, Irish and Scotch. Dr Joseph Warren chaired a committee which petitioned the Grand Lodge of Scotland to appoint a Grand Master of Ancient Masons in North America. It appears that this was a power play on the part of St Andrew's and the request to incorporate the military lodges into St Andrew's a ploy to obtain the title of Grand Master to rival that of John Rowe's. It worked. The petition was granted in May 1769 and Warren was appointed "Grand Master of Masons in Boston, New England and within one hundred miles of the same." St John's was not to be surpassed, however, as of the end of 1772, St John's had authorized charters for forty masonic lodges (8 in Massachusetts) in eleven colonies, Canada and the West Indies. Thus we have two "Grand Masters" of Masons in Boston in competition with each other for influence, each granting charters to other lodges.
The outbreak of war, saw the suspension of masonic activity in Boston but the lodges were reactivated after the Siege of Boston. Records for the Revolutionary Period are virtually non-existent. Animosity continued to exist between the two Grand Lodges until they merged in 1792.