In Search Of… Charles Pelham

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB. Adam Thayer

A painting of Charles Pelham by John Singleton Copley.
If you’ve read my papers, listened to my lectures, or spent any time talking to me, you will know that I don’t generally enjoy discussing historical or famous Freemasons. Occasionally, however, even my curiosity is peaked enough that I fall victim to researching and discussing a brother who once served within our lodges. With that caveat in mind, I’d like to present to you the story of Right Worshipful Brother Charles Pelham.

Every good story has a solid beginning, and ours begins like a mystery novel; I received an unsolicited email from a fine art dealer in London requesting information on a painting he had acquired. Two photos detailing the portrait were also attached. If this were the next Dan Brown novel, what follows would be full of exciting, intricate conspiracies, exotic locations scattered across the globe, and, of course, beautiful, intelligent women. Before you get too excited, recall that we are not in a novel, so the conspiracy was small and not far-reaching; I never left my couch while researching the background, and the only woman involved was my wife who, though both highly beautiful and very intelligent, was 9 months pregnant at the time.

The painting, according to the art dealer, was allegedly by the artist John Singleton Copley, and the subject was believed to be one Charles Pelham. The only clue that there was any Masonic connection was a small medallion worn near the breast. My intrigue was increased by the fact that the symbols on the medallion did not include the normal square and compass, the main symbol that the public recognizes us by. Only a brother who had spent some time in lodge learning our symbols would have recognized that this medallion marked him as a Mason. Truly, there must have been a great treasure hunt ahead of me, because we all know that the best treasure hunts start with small, seemingly innocuous clues!

Let’s step back a bit for an art history lesson. John Singleton Copley was a painter in colonial America, who produced around 350 paintings and drawings before his death in 1815. Included in his works were some prominent Freemasons of the time, such as Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere, as well as men who had strong Masonic connections such as Samuel Adams and James Warren. While Copley himself was not a Freemason, he had significant familial connections to the early American Freemasonry through his mother Mary, which may have contributed to him painting the Freemasons that he did.

John’s father dies when he was around the age of 10, and Mary remarried a portrait artist by the name of Peter Pelham. Peter taught many of his techniques to John, including the newly rediscovered mezzotint printing method which Copley later incorporated into his artwork with great effect.
Peter is known to have been a Freemason: he was raised in First Lodge in Massachusetts in 1738, which had been granted its charter from the Premier Grand Lodge of England in 1733. First Lodge holds the honor of being the first duly constituted lodge in America, and many of its early members were influential in the American Revolution. They still meet regularly to this day, having changed their name to St Johns Lodge of Boston.

A close-up of the medallion in the painting.
Peter also took to heart the Biblical adage “Be fruitful and multiply”; he had seven known children from three different women. While at least one of them followed his footsteps and became successful as an engraving artist, our focus instead lies with his second oldest child: Charles Pelham.

If you’ve managed to follow the twisted family tree here, you’ll see that Charles Pelham was the step-brother of John Singleton Copley, the artist. This made it significantly more likely that the portrait in question was, in fact, a true work by Copley of Pelham. Looking into it closer, there is another known painting by Copley of Pelham. This one was painted when he was a younger man, while the subject I received appeared to be of a man later in his life. Even with this age difference, the resemblance is strikingly close enough to feel certain that both subjects are, at the least, very closely related, if not of the same person.

While we could spend hours discussing the artist, he was not a Mason, nor of much interest to me. Instead, my interest lay in the subject himself. Not much is known of Charles Pelham’s early life. He never achieved the level of success as his father or his brothers in artistic endeavors, and remained mainly neutral during the American Revolution. We don’t even know for certain when or where he was born; all we do know is that he was baptized in December of 1722. While Charles did not lead a fascinating public life, his Masonic life is much more interesting for our considerations. He was raised in 1744 at First Lodge, and was placed as their Secretary at the following business meeting. I cannot even imagine asking a newly raised Mason to take over as Secretary today, and it was very unusual, and somewhat controversial, at the time.

A self portrait of Copley.
Why was there such a rush to place him as Secretary? While none of the records themselves spell it out, we can put together a pretty clear picture of what happened by examining the minutes of the lodge themselves, and more specifically the handwriting.

In 1740, Charles’ father Peter was installed as Secretary for First Lodge. Strangely, the handwriting on his original petition and in his private correspondence does not closely match up with the handwriting in the lodge minutes. In fact, it’s almost as if it was written by a completely different hand! Even more curious is the fact that the handwriting is an identical match with that from Charles during the following years when he was secretary.

Examining the handwriting, it appears that Charles was transcribing the lodge minutes for his father for four years before he had been accepted into the lodge! This discovery would explain the rush to move him in – he would have already known many Masonic secrets due to his work transcribing the minutes, and until he took his obligation he had no requirement to keep them.

He was obviously exceedingly good as a Secretary, as he continued to serve his lodge until 1754, and during the years of 1750-1752 he also served as Grand Secretary for the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
This is where, to me, he moves from being “just another brother” to being worthy of examination as a “famous” Freemason. His work for the Grand Lodge was revolutionary for the time, as he served as the first Grand Secretary for the state, and the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts traces its charter back to the first permanent Provincial Grand Lodge in North America. (As an aside, there was one provincial charter prior, but it was only granted for a two year period) For all intents and purposes, he should be considered the first Grand Secretary in the country!
A known painting of Pelham by Copley.

A large part of Charles’ service to the Grand Lodge was to copy the proceedings of the Provincial Grand Lodge of New England into the permanent records of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, forming their first few volumes of proceedings. The written history of American Freemasonry can all trace back to Charles’ work!

Having established what I believed to be, at best, a reasonably convincing amount of proof, I re-contacted the art dealer with the information I had uncovered, and while I didn’t feel completely certain that we had the correct brother, I felt safe in saying that we were definitely in the correct family. At this point, I proceeded to close out all of my research websites, feeling that there was no further information to be teased out of the picture, and ready to start thinking about my next research piece.

Our story would have ended there, should have ended there, but I received one more e-mail from the London art dealer with a subject that got me excited all over again: “I’ve x-rayed the painting, and found something important!” Included was another photo, showing the x-ray, and my hands nearly shook while opening the attachment.

The fact that I’m explaining all of this here, instead of in my exclusive tell-all interview with The History Channel, is due to the fact that The History Channel no longer returns my calls, and the author of my life doesn’t write grand adventures of discovery for me to go on.
An x-ray taken of the area where the medallion is located.
The x-ray showed, quite clearly, the jewel of a Past Master, and some symbols of the Holy Royal Arch degree. While it was disappointing that it wasn’t a map to a hidden Templar treasure, or scandalous proof that George Washington was a secret cross dresser, what it symbolized was oddly comforting: here was a brother, who had been through the same experiences that I myself had been through, hundreds of years before I was born. The great wheel of Freemasonry continues to turn, unbroken, through the ages.

In the end, who knows the truth about this brother’s life? Until this paper, I doubt you had ever even heard his name, and I doubt you’ll long remember it after we’re done. That is why, to me, it is very important to recognize him as a Freemason: he does not represent the celebrated artist who gained international prestige, or the great orator who brought peace in times of war. He represents the everyday majority of us, silently toiling away in the darkness, trying to bring a little bit of light to the world. To quote Jung, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” If that is true, I can think of no greater example to emulate than Right Worshipful Brother Charles Pelham.


Bro. Adam Thayer is the Junior Warden of Lancaster Lodge No 54 in Lincoln (NE) and the Worshipful Master of Oliver Lodge No. 38 in Seward (NE). He’s an active member of the Scottish Rite, and Knight Master of the Lincoln Valley Knights of Saint Andrew. Adam serves on the Education Committee of the Grand Lodge of Nebraska. You can contact him at

1 comment:

  1. I wish I had commented years ago when I first read this paper and the amazing discovery within! Congratulations on a wonderful piece of Art Sleuthing!


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