The growth of Freemasonry in Virginia instigated letters to the Grand Lodge of England asking that a local figure be appointed with delegated authority who could regularize the status of the lodges and rule on constitutional matters. The result was the appointment of Presley Thornton (1721-1769) in March 1766 as Virginia’s first Provincial Grand Master. Thornton would have been perceived as meeting the relevant criteria: well-known, with excellent political status and social connections, and extremely wealthy. Indeed, George Washington, writing of Thornton in 1799, commented that ‘none was ever more honourable’, and that Thornton had been ‘one of the most respectable Gentlemen’ in Virginia.
Thornton’s death after less than three years as Provincial Grand Master left a vacuum which London filled with the appointment of Peyton Randolph (1721-1775) (pictured). Originally a loyalist, Randolph morphed from a conservative to a moderate, and then to a leading patriot. As the colonies began to prepare the ground for a political break with Britain, Randolph was chosen as one of Virginia’s delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia and to the Second the following year. Virginia’s delegates also included two of Randolph’s friends: Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
Randolph was elected President of the First Continental Congress but took ill and was replaced by Henry Middleton from South Carolina. Randolph was subsequently elected President of the Second Continental Congress but again fell ill and returned to Virginia. A few days after returning to Philadelphia he suffered a fatal stroke.
At [his death] while attending the Continental Congress held in Philadelphia, the office of Grand Master became vacant. Due to strong feelings of resentment against the crown no Provincial Grand Master was requested.
The Grand Lodge of Virginia was established formally on 30 October 1778 with nine Lodges participating in its organization chartered variously by the Grand Lodges of England, Ireland and Scotland, as well as Pennsylvania.