The Prestonian Lecture is the only lecture given under the authority of the United Grand Lodge of England and is named after William Preston (1742-1818), the foremost Masonic educator of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Born and raised in Edinburgh, Preston moved to London in 1760 and is believed to have been initiated into Lodge No. 111 (no name) at the White Hart Hotel in the Strand in 1763 under the ‘Ancients’ Grand Lodge. The Lodge changed allegiance in 1764 and became Caledonian Lodge No. 325 under the ‘Moderns’ Grand Lodge (now numbered 134). On becoming Master of his Lodge Preston vowed, ‘To inform myself fully of the general rules of the society, that I might be able to fulfil my own duty and officially enforce obedience in others’.
Preston undertook an extensive study of the Craft and travelled widely to further his research. In 1772 he published his findings in his most famous work, Illustrations of Freemasonry. Then, in 1774 he proposed a course of question and answer lectures on all the degrees in Freemasonry.
During that same year, Preston was invited to visit the Lodge of Antiquity No. 1 and was admitted into membership and elected as Master at that very first visit. During his three and a half years as Master, the membership of the Lodge grew considerably.
He also became more active in the work of Grand Lodge, eventually becoming Deputy Grand Secretary. However, a dispute with Grand Lodge led to his expulsion for ten years before being readmitted
William Preston was at times a controversial member of the Craft but his contribution to Masonic education is his lasting legacy. He died in 1818 and was buried in St. Paul’s Churchyard. In his will, he bequeathed a sum of money to Grand Lodge for the perpetuation of his system of instruction, the lecturer to be appointed by the Grand Master.
With occasional intermissions, lectures in accordance with the system were delivered from 1820 until 1862 when it fell into abeyance. In 1924 the lectureship was revived with a modification to the original scheme, the lecturer now submitting a Masonic subject of his own selection, and with the exception of the war years, 1940-1946, regular appointments have been made annually since 1924 to the present day. The lecturer is appointed to deliver a lecture, on a Masonic subject of his choosing, to ‘instruct and entertain a general lodge audience’.
The list of Prestonian Lecturers, with the titles of their lectures, appears in the UGLE Masonic Year Book. Details also are to found on the website of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076 (www.quatuorcoronati.com).
Masonry is an art, useful and extensive,
which comprehends within its circle
every branch of useful knowledge and learning,
and stamps an indelible mark of
pre-eminence on its genuine professors,
which neither chance, power, nor fortune can bestow.