The Prestonian Lecture, the only official lecture held under the authority of the United Grand Lodge of England, is named after William Preston (1742 – 1818), the foremost Masonic educator of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Having been born and raised in Edinburgh, Preston moved to London in 1760 where he was initiated in 1763. On becoming Master of his Lodge he 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.”
In fact, Preston undertook an in depth study of the Craft and travelled extensively to further his research. In 1772 he published his findings as “Illustrations of Freemasonry”. Then, in 1774, he proposed a course of lectures on all the degrees of Freemasonry.
In 1774 Preston was invited to visit Lodge of Antiquity № 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 became active in the work of Grand Lodge, eventually becoming Deputy Grand Secretary.
He died in 1818 and was buried in St Paul’s Churchyard. In his will he bequeathed a sum to Grand Lodge, to provide for the annual delivery of a lecture based on his system of instruction, the lecturer to be appointed by the Grand Master. The lectures started in 1820 but later fell into abeyance before being revived in 1924. Since then, apart from a break from 1940 until 1946, a lecturer has been appointed each year, charged with delivering a lecture on a Masonic subject of his choosing, to “instruct and entertain a general Lodge audience”.
William Preston was at times a controversial member of the Craft but his contribution to Masonic education is his lasting legacy and one that sets those of us who follow in his footsteps an example to look up to.