In 1797 the officers of “the Royal Arch Chapter holden at Boston under the sanction of St. Andrew’s Lodge No. 82” certified that on September 11, 1797 “our faithful, true and well beloved Brother Seth Sweetzer had been exalted to the sublime degrees of Super Excellent and Royal Arch Mason.” The men who signed the document (at left) the proclaimed Sweetzer a member of their group and recommended him to “all Royal Arch Chapters on the face of the Globe.” Sweetzer’s fascinating certificate is part of the collection of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library.
Seth Sweetzer (1772-1851), whom this certificate was issued, who took the first three Masonic degrees at St. Andrew’s Lodge in Boston in 1795. He was later one of the founding members of St. Andrew’s Chapter No. 1–his name noted on the charter that the chapter received from the General Grand Chapter in 1800. Sweetzer served as Grand Secretary for the Grand Chapter of Massachusetts from 1801 through 1803. Sweetzer (also spelled Sweetser), who sold glass, crockery, and other goods for a living, moved from the Boston area to Newburyport, Massachusetts, in the early 1800s. In Newburyport he expanded his business undertakings to include auctioneering and running a bakery. Though he joined St. John’s Lodge in Newburyport in 1800, he eventually cut his connection to Freemasonry and was, decades later, remembered as “not approving of Masonic teachings.”
Until the end of the 1700s, Masonic certificates were generally issued not as a matter of course, but only if requested. Known to their fellow lodge brethren, members did not need a certificate to attend meetings at their home lodge. A Masonic brother who relocated, as Sweetzer did, might desire a certificate to help him prove his status as a Mason or as a Royal Arch Mason in a new town. Certificates from the handful of lodges that met in North America in the mid-1700s, if issued at all, were handwritten, rather than printed, documents. In the late 1700s lodges began to commission artists to design and engrave printed certificates bearing standard text. These were often illustrated with Masonic symbols. Printed by the hundreds, these attractive certificates were easy to issue–the lodge or chapter secretary needed only to fill out the recipient’s name, location, and other details, and to make the document official by affixing the lodge’s seal to it and by obtaining lodge officers’ signatures.
Sweetzer’s intriguing 1797 certificate is a hybrid of a printed certificate and a manuscript (or handwritten) certificate. The Masonic symbols on Sweetzer’s certificate—a large arch containing an assortment of Masonic emblems set on a checkered pavement—also appear on a printed certificate issued by St. Andrew’s Lodge to Phillip Wentworth the year before, in 1796 (see below). On Wentworth’s certificate for the third, or Master Mason, degree of Freemasonry, the text in the center was printed with blank spaces left for the recipient’s name, his lodge, and for other information added by the lodge secretary. Sweetzer’s certificate features the same Masonic ornaments, but no printed text. Instead, at the center, the text on his certificate was handwritten in ink. As well, several mottos, shapes, and symbols related to the Royal Arch degrees were inked onto Sweetzer’s certificate.
Historians have stated that these certificates are the work of Boston silversmith Benjamin Hurd (1739-1781) based on the script “Brother B. Hurd del.” engraved on the lower left-hand corner. This attribution may be correct, but it is also possible that the design of the certificate was undertaken by St. Andrew’s Chapter member Benjamin Hurd Jr. (1750-1821) and was engraved by a craftsman that did not sign the work. The abbreviation “del.” after “Brother B. Hurd” represents the Latin for “drawn by.” In the time this certificate was created, some engravers would sign their name to their work along with with the abbreviation “sculpt.” which represented the phrase “engraved by.” Benjamin Hurd Jr. (1750-1821), a Charlestown merchant, was a former secretary of St. Andrew’s Chapter and the presiding officer of the chapter when Sweetzer received this document. His signature is the topmost of the officers’ signatures on the document. There are several reasons to question the certificate’s attribution to the silversmith Benjamin Hurd. Hurd was not known to have been a Freemason and this certificate is signed “Brother.” Hurd died in 1781, several years before Sweetzer’s and Wentworth’s certificate were issued. And, finally, Hurd is not known to have signed other engraved prints. The question of which Benjamin Hurd designed this certificate is bedeviled by the fact that several men that lived in Boston and Charlestown in the 1790s were named Benjamin Hurd and Benjamin Hurd Jr.–their separate life histories and activities are difficult to distinguish. Regardless of who designed these certificates, these preserved documents speak to the involvement of members with Freemasonry at the close of the eighteenth century.
William Richard Cutter, Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Boston and Eastern Massachusetts (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1908), 1595.
Hollis French, Jacob Hurd and His Sons Nathaniel & Benjamin Silversmiths, 1702-1781 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), 143-146.
Aimee E. Newell, Hilary Anderson Stelling, and Catherine Compton Swanson, Curiosities of the Craft: Treasures from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts Collection (Boston: Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts and Lexington, Massachusetts: Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, 2013), 38-41.
Source: National Heritage Museum