New Jersey holds the special honor of being home to the first known Freemason in America - Brother John Skene. He was a member of Aberdeen Lodge No. 1, of Aberdeen, Scotland. As a Quaker, he was imprisoned and fined in England in the 1670s due to his religious activities. In 1682, Skene sailed to the New World and settled in Burlington, NJ, the capital of the West Jersey Province. John Skene purchased a 300-acre property in the late 1600s and named it Peachfield. This was an ideal area for a merchant to get established. There were fertile farmlands and it was in close proximity to Philadelphia. The area also had the benefit of having a large Quaker population. In addition to being a merchant, Skene also had a successful political career. He was elected to the West Jersey assembly and later appointed to the council. In 1685, he was appointed Deputy Governor of the Province of West Jersey. He served in that role until 1687.
A conference was recently held to help shed light on Brother Skene’s unique role in American Masonic history. The first annual John Skene Masonic Conference was held on August 19, 2023, in Westhampton, NJ. This novel conference celebrated the life of Skene and the Scottish origins and influences of Freemasonry in America. The day began with a memorial service at Peachfield, where The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in The State of New Jersey maintains a museum. There is a gravestone for Brother John Skene located on the property. The conference continued in the afternoon at the nearby Crescent Shrine building. Speakers included well-respected scholars - Robert W. Howard, Jr., Erich Morgan Huhn, Steven C. Bullock, and Robert Cooper. Topics covered during the presentations included Freemasonry Before 1717, Freemasonry from Skene to Anderson, The Revolutionary Transformation of Early American Freemasonry, and Tracking Scottish Freemasonry in America. The event concluded in the evening with a festive board that featured a presentation on Freemasonry in America and Its Colonial Tavern Beginnings by Robert H. Johnson of Whence Came You?, The Masonic Roundtable, and The Midnight Freemasons fame.
Kudos are in order for the conference committee that developed the outstanding program - Christian Stebbins, Robert W. Howard, Jr, and Erich Morgan Huhn. A great deal of knowledge was shared at the conference, but it is clear that there is so much more to uncover about early Freemasonry in New Jersey. Hopefully, this will spark more research on the topic and this conference will become an annual event for years to come!
Lurie, Maxine N., and Marc Mappen. 2004. Encyclopedia of New Jersey. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e900xww&AN=124913&site=ehost-live. p 747.
History of Freemasonry in New Jersey / Commemorating the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Organization of the Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons for the State of New Jersey, 1787-1987. First ed. New Jersey: Grand Lodge, 1987. p 9.
“About.” Peachfield, June 23, 2022. https://peachfield.org/about/. Accessed September, 23, 2023.