A BIOGRAPHY OF THE FIRST GRAND MASTER OF THE GRAND LODGE OF CANADA, AFTER WHOM WILSON LODGE WAS NAMED.
By: V.W. Bro. G. Dean Maxwell, B.A.Sc., P.Eng.
WILLIAM MERCER WILSON, first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Canada and the illustrious Mason after whom Wilson Lodge No. 86, Toronto, was named, was born on August 12, 1813, at Mavisbank, the family estate, in Perthshire, Scotland.
As a youth of 19, he came to Canada in 1832 with relatives to settle in the vicinity of Nanticoke village in the County of Haldimand. Two years later he moved to Simcoe, where he received the appointment of Commissioner to hold Courts of Justice in the Talbot District, which comprised about the same territory as the
present County of Norfolk.
The extraordinary versatility of William Mercer Wilson, one of the most conspicuous aspects of his personality, was early revealed. Though a scholarly and studious young man, he nevertheless took a keen interest in military affairs. During the Rebellion of 1837-38, he commanded a cavalry troop at Simcoe, patrolling in the Niagara District. He was one of that band of intrepid youths who captured and set fire to the rebel steamer Caroline at Navy Island and sent her in flames over the Niagara Falls.
After the Rebellion, we find him practically penniless and without employment, with a wife and four children, and no prospects for the future. He set out to find a job. Finally, he secured the appointment as Clerk of the Peace and Clerk of the District Court,and shortly afterwards he was made a Notary Public and Registrar
of the Surrogate Court in the Talbot District. Then he imported the first printing press in this district and founded the Norfolk Observer, first newspaper west of Niagara, which he conducted for about two years.
On June 11, 1840, he was initiated into Lodge No. 14. A.F. & A.M, at Simcoe. Before the year ended he was Junior Warden of the Lodge and within two years Worshipful Master. This was the beginning of a Masonic career without parallel in the annals of Canadian Masonry.
The ten years from 1845 to 1855 William Mercer Wilson utilized to educate himself in law and Masonry. Without this education he could never have risen to high position in juridical and fraternal circles. Yet he never sacrificed those human contacts which were so dear to him. Genial and good-natured, he delighted in every kind of social intercourse and his presence graced nearly every community gathering. Of medium height, heavy-set, and broad shouldered, with a full, frank, bewhiskered countenance that radiated goodwill and joviality, he was a striking figure and a popular personality. Though discord was rife, both in politics and fraternalism, he had few enemies and maintained the friendship and respect of people of all classes.
He was called to the Bar at 40 years of age, thus achieving a long-cherished ambition. He built up a large law practice, which was seriously interfered with by his zeal for Masonry. Fortunately for the latter, he was not mercenary and he gave to the Craft the best years of his life without thought of pecuniary reward.
Tn 1845, William Mercer Wilson was a delegate to Grand Lodge and three years later he was named Grand Senior Warden of the Provincial Grand Lodge, which was then headed by Sir Allan MacNab. A movement to establish an Independent Grand Lodge in Canada was started in 1852 and three years later, on October
10, 1855, to be exact, a meeting of representatives of 41 lodges was held in Hamilton, which resulted in this step being taken. William Mercer Wilson, a leading spirit in the movement, was named First Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Canada, being installed on November 2 of the same year.
Naturally, much friction ensued between the new and old Grand Lodges and it required all the tact and diplomacy of William Mercer Wilson to smooth the troubled waters. By July, 1856, a total of 36 lodges had joined the new Grand Lodge. The next year the Provincial Grand Lodge also broke away from the Mother Grand Lodge of England and formed the Antient Grand Lodge of Canada. Through the instrumentality of M.W.Bro. Wilson, the two Grand Lodges were finally brought together in one happy union. It was the crowning moment in the life of the first Grand Master when the union was finally consummated in King Solomon’s Lodge, Toronto, on July 14, 1858. He was elected Grand Master for
the fourth time and again the next year to complete a five-year period.
William Mercer Wilson was only 42 years of age when first elected Grand Master. The next five years he spent largely in constituting new lodges, dedicating Masonic halls, laying cornerstones and making Masonic addresses. He was elected First Grand Principal Z of the Grand Chapter, R.A.M., of Canada on July 18, 1857. The following year he was appointed Crown Attorney for Norfolk County. He also was holding the positions of Lieutenant-Colonel of the Norfolk Militia, Chairman of the Board of Education, Reeve of Simcoe, President of the Norfolk Agricultural Society, Chairman of the Mechanics’ Institute, and Manager of the Opera House. He served five years as Reeve of Simcoe and two years as Warden of Norfolk County.
He was again chosen as Grand Master for 1866 and 1867, the year of Confederation. There were now 205 lodges affiliated with Grand Lodge. He made many lodge visitations, including one to Wilson Lodge No. 86, where he was presented with a handsome illuminated address which is now among the Grand Master’s treasured relics.
He was appointed Judge of Norfolk County on May 5, 1868, an office for which his fairness and firmness eminently qualified him. He was now 55 years old and naturally desired a respite from his arduous endeavours. His home, which still stands in Simcoe, was the social centre of community life at this time. William Mercer Wilson was again called to the helm of Canadian Masonry in July, 1872, to settle difficulties which had arisen when several lodges in Montreal broke away and formed their own Grand Lodge of Quebec. He advised recognition two years earlier, but his advice was not accepted, though fully vindicated by later developments. He finally called a conference of the disputants in 1874, as a result of which the Grand Lodge of Quebec was given full jurisdiction in that province.
He was now 60 years old, but continued with unabated enthusiasm and energy to serve Grand Lodge. In the year 1873 alone he constituted 15 new lodges. His unremitting devotion to the task probably hastened his death. He passed away on January 16, 1875, at the age of 62 and in his tenth year as Grand Master. He was
the first Grand Master to die in office. His funeral was a memorable occasion, attended by Masons from all parts of the province and from Quebec.
His name is commemorated in Wilson Lodge No. 86, Toronto, Wilson Lodge No. 113, Waterford, and Wilson District, A.F. & A.M. Norfolk Lodge No. 10, Simcoe, his mother lodge, has preserved many of his most valuable Masonic papers, trowels, and gavels, housing some of them in a museum in the lodgeroom. The first Grand Master was buried in St. John’s Cemetery, Woodhouse, a few miles south of Simcoe, and in 1922 a handsome monument was erected above his last resting-place with the following inscription:
In grateful and loving memory of M.W. Bro.
William Mercer Wilson, LL.D., first Grand
Master of the Grand Lodge of A.F. & A.M. of
Canada, who during his 10th year as Grand
Master, died, 16th January, A.D. 1875, aged 62
years, a just and upright man.