George Washington, destined to become leader of a new nation emerging from the shot and shell of the American Revolution, was just 20 years old when he took his first oath as a Mason on Nov. 4, 1752.
More than 266 years and 1,650 miles removed from the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Lodge where Washington took that first step as a Mason, a symbolic reunion took place Thursday in Rapid City.
The very Bible touched three times by Washington as he progressed to the level of Master Mason was held close to a bronze statue of the first president for a photographic moment.
“We had quite a sense of pride bringing the Bible here and standing next to the Washington statue,” said Jamie Snyder, worshipful master of Fredericksburg Lodge No. 4. “It’s something rare that you don’t often get to do.”
Snyder and other Fredericksburg Lodge Masons brought the Bible, its yellowed pages encased under protective glass, to Rapid City to join fellow Masons for the Conference of Grand Masters of Masons in North America.
Four years of preparation culminated in a first-ever event for Rapid City, the Black Hills and South Dakota when more than 800 Masons converged for four days of meetings and activities. The Best Western Ramkota Conference Center in Rapid City is the headquarters for the event.
“We are so honored to be hosting this prestigious gathering here in South Dakota for the first time.” DaNiel Wood, grand master of Masons in South Dakota, said in a release. “We look forward to showcasing South Dakota hospitality to these important guests."
Mike Rodman, Grand Lodge of South Dakota planning chairman, said the South Dakota Lodge unsuccessfully applied to host the annual conference six years ago but renewed the effort four years ago when the designated host city for the 2019 conference chose to step aside.
Rodman said he and Julie Schmitz Jensen of Visit Rapid City had two weeks to prepare a last-minute presentation during the 2015 conference in Madison, Wisconsin.
“We pitched it, and we’ve been planning for this for the four years since,” he said.
Masons are the world’s oldest and largest fraternity, roughly based on the construction craft of stonemasonry of the middle centuries.
Modern Masonry just celebrated its 300th anniversary with the founding of the Grand Lodge of England, Rodman said.
“Masonry is about taking good men and making them better and trying to better humanity through philanthropic works,” he said.
Among highlights of the conference will be Saturday tours of Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial, with an appearance by the Native American musical group Brulé that night.
On Sunday, John McKnight of Rapid City, a retired United Methodist Church minister, will lead a church service and deliver the opening invocation for that day’s meetings and activities.
On Sunday will be a tour of the South Dakota Air and Space Museum and Ellsworth Air Force Base. On Sunday night, attendees will be served a meal at the Mount Rushmore dining room.
On Monday, newly sworn-in South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg will be a keynote speaker following a welcoming video from South Dakota Sen. John Thune.
Entertainment that night will include a re-enactment of a historic Deadwood gunfight.
Tuesday, the final day of the conference, will conclude with dinner and a concert by the Rapid City Central High School orchestra.
Along with Masons from Lodges in North America and Mexico, Rodman said he has also heard from an American-Canadian Lodge in Germany and Lodges in Serbia and Romania with plans to come to Rapid City.
Rodman said there are two million Masons in the United States. Each state has its own independent jurisdiction headed by a grand master mason.
“There is no hierarchy other than the grand master of each state,” he said.
The conference brings together grand masters and other lodge officials of each state to talk about common problems and goals.
“This is our annual event when we come together as Masons to share fellowship and have some fun as well,” Rodman said.