Wednesday, September 7, 2022

'Remembering John Skene from Aberdeen'

Bob Howard photo
The Masonic Kitties of New Jersey were well represented at this memorial. The Kilties is a degree team that confers the Second Section of Master Mason Degree, upon request, and does so in Scottish regalia and with bagpipes. A memorable experience, I can tell you.

I have to catch up on my reporting of a few terrific events here and there recently. The following is a recap of a celebration of Masonic history that took place in New Jersey on August 27.

Brethren from around New Jersey and beyond converged on the Peachfield historic site in Westampton on the afternoon of August 27 to honor the memory of the first Speculative Mason to arrive in North America.

Bro. Robert Howard
The elaborate ceremonies were arranged by RW Bro. Bob Howard, Past Grand Historian and Past Master of the research lodge, acting on behalf of Eclipse Lodge 67 in Rutherford; Beverly-Riverside Lodge 107 in Riverside; and the Masonic Kilties of New Jersey. John Skene was made a Mason in his native Aberdeen, Scotland, a fact recorded in the lodge’s archives one of the very few things known of his life—and he emigrated to West Jersey in 1682. What we know today as New Jersey was at that time two English colonies, West Jersey and East Jersey. Burlington was the capital of West Jersey, and it was there where Skene settled. The reasons for his leaving Scotland are not recorded, although he was a Quaker who left religiously inhospitable Scotland and made a home in an area inhabited by many Quaker families, very near the sect’s stronghold in Pennsylvania.

“Coming of age when religious turmoil was the norm, John Skene’s membership in the Society of Friends provided him anything but the peaceful and pacifist existence that we associate with Quakerism today,” said Bro. Erich Huhn, of New Jersey Lodge of Masonic Research and Education 1786 and a candidate for a doctorate in history at Drew University. “The Friends were persecuted throughout his childhood, and, as Skene reached adulthood, he held true to his convictions. As a Quaker, he was persecuted and imprisoned throughout his life in Scotland. In the typical ebbs and flows of seventeenth century religious turmoil, he faced various periods of imprisonment, freedom, house arrest, and discrimination.”

A wreath was sent by Skene’s lodge, still at labor in Aberdeen.

Yet, the seventeenth century also was the age of the Accepted Mason, when lodges of operative builders began welcoming men who had no connection either to the art of architecture or to the trade of stone construction. Robert Moray in 1641 and Elias Ashmole in 1646 probably are the best known, but lodge minutes from 1590s Scotland also record the making of Speculative Masons. Skene was initiated into the lodge at Aberdeen approximately in 1670 possibly on account of his being a merchant and a citizen prominent enough to be made a burgess there. His being a Quaker raises the question of his taking a Masonic oath, but again history is silent on details.

Bro. Bob Cooper
Among the distinguished visitors to New Jersey that day was Bro. Robert L.D. Cooper, recently retired as curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland’s museum and one who has been frequenting New Jersey lodges this year delivering talks on early Scottish Freemasonry. Cooper said he is aware of correspondence being exchanged between West Jerseyan Skene and his family in Aberdeenshire, likely urging emigration to the colony, but availability of any letters cannot be ascertained. Skene’s lodge isn’t as mysterious, however. Cooper described it as a “mixed lodge” consisting of “stone masons and dukes and porridge-makers.” As for life in West Jersey, Cooper said that Skene, as a businessman, partnered with the second Mason to reach North America, Bro. John Coburn, a stonemason, in a construction enterprise that might even be credited with some of the oldest buildings on Staten Island.

Arriving in West Jersey, Skene purchased 500 acres from Governor Edward Byllynge and founded his plantation, which he named Peachfield. Not long thereafter, Byllynge appointed Skene the Deputy Governor. Seventeenth century colonial records being what they are, it is not known how Skene earned the appointment, but the land acquisition preceding it could not have been meaningless. Another quirk of history emerges when Byllynge was succeeded as Governor by Dr. Daniel Coxe, the father of Provincial Grand Master Daniel Coxe, who was appointed by the Grand Lodge of England in 1730 to govern Masonic affairs in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Dedicated in 1984 by the grand lodge, this stone stands on the land John Skene owned, Peachfield. A different calendar was in use during the seventeenth century, so to commemorate Skene's death, you have to play along.

After Skene’s death circa 1690 (accounts of the year vary), his widow gradually sold off tracts of the Peachfield plantation. All that remains today is a stone house built 1725-32, which was damaged by fire in 1929 and restored in the early 1930s, situated on 120 acres. The property is only three miles from the Masonic Village at Burlington. In 1984, the local grand lodge dedicated a headstone memorializing this historic Brother Mason. The exact location of his burial place is unknown, but August 27, 1690 is the date of death engraved in the stone.

Bro. Mark and Bro. Glenn.
Look for them on YouTube.

The event on August 27 featured many participants. Assisting emcee Bob Howard was W. Bro. Christian Stebbins. Leading prayers were RW Glenn Visscher and RW Eugene Margroff, with RW Mark Megee reading from Scripture. Bro. David Palladino-Sinclair of the Kilties serenaded the group with his bagpipes, performing “Flower of Scotland,” “Scotland the Brave,” and “Amazing Grace.” A wreath was placed at the gravestone by Cooper and the Worshipful Masters of both Eclipse and Beverly-Riverside, Patrick Glover and Frederick T. Ocansey, respectively. In his closing remarks, RW Bro. David Tucker, Deputy Grand Master, told the assemblage that looking to the past for role models helps take our focus off ourselves, and that it is fitting to salute John Skene for being the earliest Freemason who deserves credit for helping establish the fraternity in New Jersey.

Bro. David Palladino-Sinclair

Also traveling some distance was Mark Tabbert of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Virginia, who told us of the Scottish Freemasons in America conference there in November.

The celebration of Skene was not over yet. The group caravanned to Mt. Holly Lodge 14 for a catered dinner replete with Masonic toasts following a tour of the historic building.

Peachfield is owned and operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of New Jersey, which makes the site its headquarters. Tours, including for groups, can be arranged by phoning 609.267.6996.

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