THE FOUNDING DOCUMENT
I use a capital ‘F’ for ‘Freemasonry’ to indicate that I’m referring to an organisation, originally named the ‘Society of Free-Masons’, for which grammatical rules insist on capitalisation. The founder members chose the capitalised form in 1723 when they endorsed the text of its author, the Reverend James Anderson. Benjamin Franklin’s 1734 reprint of this single work has recently been introduced on-line in the following way: ‘This is the seminal work of American Masonry, edited and published by one of the founding fathers, and of great importance to the development of colonial society and the formation of the Republic.’ [i] This sentence encapsulates all that has gone wrong with the historiography of this remarkable phenomenon. What was ‘a Society’ has become an infinitely elastic concept, ‘American Masonry’, and Franklin’s personal motivations have been buried under three centuries of subsequent hubris.
The 1723 document did not assert a new system of governance, nor did it have anything useful to say about secrecy, nor did it advocate a more open approach to knowledge. Its only references to secrets are to the geometry used by operative stone-masons from mediaeval times. The book’s title page describes the ‘Society of the Free-Masons’ as ‘that most Ancient and Right Worshipful FRATERNITY’, which is to say that it refers to a specific kind of organised society – a fraternity – not to a faith, or an ideal but specifically to a FRATERNITY.[ii] (His emphasis) The text, however, provided the basis for a completely different entity, one which was not a fraternity, nor even an organised society, but an ‘it’ which had been in existence for 5723 years, that is, for the assumed life of ‘the world’. It is not enough now for commentators like Stevenson to say that claiming Adam as the Society’s ancestor was just the way they thought (or spoke or wrote) back then.[iii] There is a lot built on this first, silly assertion:
p.1 ‘Adam, our first parent…must have had the Liberal Sciences written on his
One ‘Liberal Science’ in particular:
p.2 ‘…we find the principles of it … have been drawn … into a convenient Method of Propositions, by observing the LAWS of PROPORTION taken from MECHANISM. …No doubt, Adam taught his sons GEOMETRY…’
‘It’ is then entitled ‘the Royal Art’ for no apparent reason. As buildings became larger and more solid ‘it’ became ‘masonry’, then ‘Masonry’ in which notion is included all branches of building:
p.8 ‘So that the Israelites, at their leaving Egypt, were a whole kingdom of Masons, well instructed, under the conduct of their GRAND MASTER MOSES, who often marshalled them into a regular and general Lodge…’
pp.25-26 ‘The old records of Masons afford large hints of their lodges, from the beginning of the World, in the polite nations, especially in times of peace, and when the Civil Powers, abhorring Tyranny and Slavery, gave due scope to the bright and free genius of their happy subjects; for then always Masons, above all other Artists, were the favourites of the Eminent, and became necessary for their grand undertakings in any sort of Materials, not only in Stone, Brick, Timber, Plaster; but even in Cloth or Skins, or whatever was us’d for Tents, and for the various sorts of Architecture. Nor should it be forgot, that PAINTERS also, and STATUARIES, were always reckoned good Masons, as much as BUILDERS, STONE-CUTTERS, BRICKLAYERS, CARPENTERS, JOINERS, UPHOLDERS or TENT-MAKERS, and a vast many other Craftsmen that could be nam’d, who perform according to GEOMETRY, and the Rules of BUILDING…’
His assertions about more recent, and historically-known personages are no more reliable:
eg p.41 ‘…we have much reason to believe that King CHARLES II was an ACCEPTED FREE-MASON, as every one allows he was a great Encourager of the CRAFTSMEN.’ (All emphases in original)
This 1723 document was a political manifesto intended to establish parameters and to attract gentry support. The men involved were all seeking to enhance their connections with members of the very corrupt Hanoverian regime, and thus their status in London’s influential communities. For ‘the Society’ to be received favourably and not suppressed – an important consideration – the text had to meet specific political requirements in an environment where scrutiny of public documents was intense. Its hyperbolic language was deliberate and driven by the same political motivations:
To proclaim and encourage VIRTUE…has been the endeavour of FREEMASONRY from the earliest periods to the present day.
When the wild savage leaped from his den, in all the horror of barbarian ferocity; and men knew no rights but those of the strongest: FREEMASONRY, shackled but not destroyed, exerted itself in filial tenderness, parental regard, an adoration of some deity, and gratitude for benevolent actions…and we plainly perceive that MASONRY has in all ages been the great criterion of civilisation…
FREEMASONRY (or VIRTUE, its Christian name) ventured to correct the ferocious manners of men, to tame their savage cruelty, convoke their synod, frame their laws, and with a sort of magic power convert the lawless robber into the peaceful citizen…[iv]
Its ode to the English/British Empire, describing its people as the happiest, best governed and nicest anywhere, is an assertion of what was required of anyone wishing to join those self-describing as already the best and brightest of those people, ie, ‘Freemasons’:
p.47 ‘And now the FREEBORN BRITISH NATIONS, disentangled from foreign and civil Wars, and enjoying the good fruits of Peace and Liberty, having of late much indulg’d their happy Genius for Masonry of every sort, and reviv’d the DROOPING LODGES OF LONDON, this fair METROPOLIS flourisheth, as well as other parts, with several worthy PARTICULAR Lodges, that have a quarterly COMMUNICATION and an annual GRAND ASSEMBLY, wherein the FORMS and USAGES of the most ancient and worshipful Fraternity are widely propagated, and the ROYAL ART duly cultivated, and the CEMENT of the Brotherhood preserv’d…(etc)…’
This text was for Anderson and his group the definition of what ‘Freemasonry’ was and a wish projection of what ‘it’ was to be. The group hoped that though ‘Masonry of every sort’ might flourish, their ‘view’ would obscure and de-legitimise any other possible definition. It was perhaps a statement of their current practice, but it was also a weapon in a propaganda campaign. The stipulations of a ‘quarterly communication’ and an ‘annual Grand Assembly’ stand out as solid elements within a mass of vagueness. These were to be immediately enforceable. They were subsequently used to differentiate ‘true’ from ‘false’ Freemasonry. If they had applied pre-1717, these requirements alone would have disqualified the biblical groupings used to reach that conclusion. The 1723 ‘Charges’ and ‘Rules’ contained other defining characteristics intended to rule out women, atheists and ‘stupid libertines’ from membership and were intended to provide authority for the expulsion of non-complying members. These criteria would also have disqualified historical ‘Masons’ if retrospectively applied.
The strictures on intending members have been taken as self-fulfilling prophecies, as proof that lodges set up by this ‘London Grand Lodge’, contained only men who exemplified the intended characteristics and abhorred those condemned. By extension, ‘Freemasonry’ has been projected as an enlightened, rational materialist operation, always progressive and forward-looking, in all situations and times. Such conclusions are, of course, logically untenable, which subsequent real-time history has shown. The on-line editor of the Franklin reprint correctly noted the two faces of the founding document: ‘The document suggests that Masonry, in its modern Anglo-American form, was rooted in Old Testament exegesis…and contemporary Protestant ideals of morality, merit and political equality.’ A great deal of rhetorical weight has been placed on the connection between ‘the ancient’ and ‘the modern’ but it is a weight which confuses faith with logic and myth with science. A belief in the value of pre-Christian stories as sources of wisdom and moral lessons does not release ‘modern’ believers from superstition, or support claims that ‘Freemasons’ are engaged in reason-based learning. ‘Freemasonry’ cannot be both a product of an 18th century, allegedly rational thought and of persons and events from ‘the beginning of the world’. The idea that it can be remains unusually persistent. In 2018, Lodge Middle Harbour, Sydney, hosted a talk advertised, against a backdrop of a photo of Stonehenge, thus:
The Genuine Secrets of Freemasonry Rediscovered
Discover Lost Secrets of Freemasonry and the Universal Symbols concealed in Craft ritual. Learn Genuine Secrets of the Ancient Master Masons (that pre-date the establishment of the Grand Lodge by Millenia) and gain a true understanding of the ancient origins of Freemasonry.
Whatever its claims for universality the 1723 text has been taken up and used in politico-religious wars. Its contradictory format burnt itself into the works of later authors. Whenever this ‘history’ has come under sceptical attention – Stevenson called it ‘absurd’ – it was already too late. Repetition had turned the 1723 assertions from promotional propaganda into received wisdom, albeit a wisdom which could be manipulated. For three centuries ‘Freemasonry’s’ assertion of a ‘tradition more ancient than Christianity’ as ‘its’ source has been regarded by partisans as un-challengeable proof that ‘it’ was an early expression of ‘deism’ or ‘natural religion’ and therefore an enlightened break with a superstitious Christianity, mainly Catholic past. Any ‘ancient Jewish’ references are ignored or carefully managed.
Peter pointed to a crucial but so far ignored part of the 1723 document’s context and its subsequent dynamic: ‘(Masonic research) still has a lot to offer to research into the culture and practices of the ‘underground’ world…forms of communication and networks of …eighteenth century secret societies and spying circles.’ (Peter, p.xix).’ The Society of Free-masons’ was and is a secret society but ‘the culture and practices of the ‘underground world’ have had almost no attention from English-language scholars. It can be assumed that from the very first, London-based lodges attracted agents from other networks of influence, such as diplomats from other nations and the Society of Jesus, to gather intelligence, to attempt take-overs, or to gain traction for their own schemes. What is known of London politics makes it also safe to assume that certain lodges were better-placed than others to operate as ‘safe houses’ for the exchange of sensitive information between government emissaries, or for the planning of covert operations.
Interestingly, Frattini’s 2009 book on the secret activities of the Roman Church suggests that its operatives were mobilised in 1733 and again in 1738 to counter Masonic infiltration of the Holy See. An internal Masonic threat, he claims, led to Pope Clement XII in 1734 prohibiting ‘all citizens [of the Papal States] from taking part in Masonic rites under pain of death and confiscation of all worldly goods. The new law ordered all Catholics to report these rites to Church magistrates, along with the names of those participating.’ (Frattini, 2009, p.117) The Roman Catholic Church has had an espionage department and a counter-intelligence operation since at least 1566 when the then Pope, Pius V, set in train a secret mission to neutralise the Protestant threat represented by Elizabeth I of England,[v] and to avenge the murder of David Rizzio, a Vatican spy and agent of Philip II, King of Spain. No doubt, it was covert agents who provided the information used in the other prohibitions issued against ‘Freemasons’ in the 1730’s and ‘40’s.
Rumours about a politicised ‘Freemasonry’ were long-standing, it seems. Some Frenchmen apparently believed ‘Free-Masonry’ had been responsible for Oliver Cromwell’s regime of the 1640’s, a belief which perhaps helped them to see ‘it’ later as an anti-Hanoverian entity.[vi] German historian, JC Bode wrote at the time of the French Revolution that ‘Freemasonry’ had been invented by Jesuits while another German historian, Findel, later wrote that the Jesuits had first attempted infiltration of London’s ‘Free-Masonry’ in the guise of ‘the Gormogons’ shortly after the first meetings of the London Grand Lodge.[vii] One Spanish scholar, Ferrer-Benimeli has written recently: ‘(T)here are (many) books devoted to jointly (studying) Jesuits and Freemasons, in which the central vector is usually secret and plot…Freemasons and Jesuits (have been) involved in a kind of symbiosis in which they intertwine and confront each other at the same time…’ [viii] He might have made the same point regarding ‘the Jews’ and ‘the Jesuits’, or ‘the Jews’ and ‘the Freemasons’. Whether the rumours are true or not they achieve their full significance only when it is noted that none were originally made in English and that readers of English-language histories of ‘Freemasonry’ will search in vain for any discussion of secrecy or infiltration of London’s Grand Lodge by Jesuits or anyone else.
The Bible was not written with assemblies of stone masons in mind. If getting at their history was what Anderson had in mind, there were better ways. For example, the ‘Worshipful Society of Free Masons, Rough Masons, Wallers, Slaters, Paviors, Plaisterers, and Bricklayers’ had a seven-degree ritual and an annual ceremony, the Sanhedrim. [ix] If getting at the past history of fraternalism in general was his concern there was the fraternalism practised by numerous other trades and societies, including many in the Middle East which might have been appropriate.[x] If interested in contemporary secret societies with free-thinking inclinations there were a number such as the Knights of Jubilation made much of by Margaret Jacob in her thesis of a radical, early enlightenment based in the Hague. Incidentally, showing how doubts can become fact and how unhappy consequences can accumulate, in 2001 a blanket assertion swept aside numerous doubts raised about her approach in the previous two decades: ‘Crucial to her [Jacob] reconstruction of this particular phenomenon [the radical enlightenment] are the activities of the Knights of Jubilation, a masonic secret society first established by John Toland in 1710 in the Hague…’. [xi] As one doubting example only, a biographer of Toland had earlier observed with regard to the pantheistic Knights of Jubilation: ‘The abundance of non-Masonic clubs with characteristics very similar to the sodalities of the pantheists, including semi-secret groups that supported the work of the Royal Society [in London] presents a problem for any claim that the pantheists were Freemasons.’ [xii] She herself, it must be noted, had only claimed that: ‘The contents of the manuscript [found in Toland’s papers] reveal the existence of a secret group which was most probably some sort of masonic lodge.’ [xiii]
Also available, according to MK Schuchard, was a Jewish-derived, esoteric fraternal form which she has labelled ‘Jacobite Freemasonry’ because, she contends, the House of Stuart had adopted it before being exiled to France by the House of Orange in 1688. Her research has led her to conclude that London’s GL of the 1717-21 period and the Andersoniam claim of an eternal ‘Masonry’ were parts of a single ploy – to counteract the Stuarts by overwhelming that ancient Jewish tradition.[xiv] The evidence strongly supports the need for a definition, something which has not been an issue with any other fraternal society, before or after 1717-21, even for those also claiming an ancient ‘history’. If it were only paid-up ‘insiders’ who believed that Old Testament prophets could be included in a fact-based history of an actual society, the silliness would not have sustained itself for very long. But, sadly, non-Masons, including academically-trained professional historians have absorbed and repeated the idea. The most conclusive proof that the infection is still pervasive outside the lodge system is to quote academically-tested, female, ie non-initiated scholars of recent times. Sara Frahm, whose thesis on ‘Freemasonry and Religious Tolerance in Mexico’ had its second edition published in 2014, introduced her account by locating ‘it’ in England after 1688 when the population was ‘weary of religious quarrels and tedious debate about confessional differences’. Mathew Tindal’s publication, Christianity Older than Creation’ was not published until 1730 but it is his definition she uses to claim ‘deism and natural religion (as the) likely… basis for Freemasonry.’ [xv]
Anderson’s text is a package. It is evidence of a deliberate, political choice he and his faction made to boost the prospects of their new venture. It was a manifesto for a Society which intended to succeed by capturing an agenda, not one seeking to exemplify tolerance, rationality and/or progressive social values, the public advocacy of which would have had it closed down. Later infusions of more progressive social ideals into the ‘Masonic spectrum’ are signs of discontent with the original in spite of the label being retained. It can be reasonably asked whether later manifestations were true-to-label – whether they were actually ‘Masonic’?
[i] On-Line Electronic Version of ‘The Constitutions of Free-Masons’, orig 1734 in Philadelphia, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, date ?.
[ii] J Anderson, Constitutions of the Free-Masons, orig 1723, re-published many times, incl 1855, New York.
[iii] D Stevenson, James Anderson: Man and Mason, Heredom, Vol 10 (2002), pp.110-111.
[iv] Editorial, ‘The origin and Design of Masonry’, Freemasons Magazine, 1 June, 1793, p.9.
[v] E Frattini, The Entity: Five Centuries of Secret Vatican Espionage, JR Books, 2009, p.7.
[vi] M Jacob, Living the Enlightenment – Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe, OUP, 1991, p.23.
[vii] T Frost, Secret Societies in the European Revolution, 1776-1876, Vol 1, Lond, 1876, p.26.
[viii] J Ferrer-Benimeli, ‘Freemasons and Jesuits: Making up Myths, Revealing Secrets’, in Freemasonry: Invention and Tradition Studies, July, 2015, p.20
[ix] T Carr, The Ritual of the Operative Free Masons, Tyler, Michigan, 1911.
[x] M Wischnitzer, A History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds, Jonathon David, 1965.
[xi] W Van Bunge, From Stevin to Spinoza, Brill, 2001, p.150.
[xii] S Daniel, John Toland, His Methods, Manners and Mind, McGill UP, 1984, p.214.
[xiii] M Jacob, An Unpublished Record of a Masonic Lodge in England, 1710, in Zeitschrift fur Religions-und Geistesgeschichte, Vol 22, Issue 2, 1970, pp.168-171; Other relevant responses include: C Bervens-Stevelinck, Le Chevaliers de la Jubilation, Quarendo, Vol 13, 1983; a response by Jacob the following year in the same journal; and R Faggionato, A Rosicrucian Utopia in 18th Century Russia, Springer, 2006.
[xiv] M Schuchard, Restoring the Temple of Vision, Brill, 2002; M Schuchard, Masonic Esotericism and Politics, La Regle d’Abraham, June, 2017.
[xv] S Frahm, The Cross and the Compass, Palibrio, 2014, p.7.