Freemasonry in the 18th century (I am the son and the heir…)

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©The Two Crafts

            Freemasonry, like any human invention, or social fact if you like, has a date of creation. This idea is battled by some Freemasons, and non-Freemasons, who believe in some sort of divine revelation. Ideas like the one that the Craft was handed down to Adam by God, and that the grape leaf was the first masonic apron. Allegedly, this was the very understanding of James Anderson when of the first Constitutions, in 1723. However, it is necessary to remember that what the narrative of the Doctor of Divinities tells us is in accordance with the historical mentality of the time. It does not mean that things, or Freemasonry for that matter, could not be handed down by God, but, usually, even those can be dated.

            Dr Anderson had good reasons to locate the beginning of Masonry in the Garden of Eden and to date it at 4003 BC. He describes, even with some moderation, how God “must have had” inserted the Liberal Arts, among them Geometry, into Adam’s heart.  The theoretical keys for that piece of historical information were two, which not only Anderson but any other scholar at the time would probably make use of: scholastic logic and the respectable “Annals of the World” by James Ussher. The book, published in 1650, was a study of the Old Testament and a credible source for the time. A version of this book was part of Dr James Anderson’s library, bien sûr.[1]

            The date of creation was a serious pursuit in the Early Modern period. Some figures forced into the ‘hard sciences box’ by today’s interpretation of history, such as Sir Isaac Newton, also dedicated their work to calculating the exact year, month, day, and time in which Genesis 1:1 happened. This is not a historical anecdote but an important reminder that the eighteenth century, and the whole Early Modern era, is an in-between of the Middle Ages and modern times.  Hence, having characteristics of the precedent era, and signs of the age to come. Freemasonry, alongside our political and moral compasses, including the plethora of Christian and Esoteric beliefs, were, if not created at, enhanced incommensurably in this period.

            If on the one hand, the premise adopted by James Anderson was a straightforward one at the time he wrote the Constitutions,[2] on the other, it is no less than anachronic today.  Another feature that was part of the historical mentality of the time, and part of the purpose of that document, was to link the craft of building (Masonry) with Freemasonry. Although in several languages, especially in the masonic milieu, Masonry and Freemasonry are used interchangeably, it is a far-fetched idea that Freemasonry exists since the first construction site was set in history. It would be equally questionable to set it at the beginning of the guild system. Here a clear definition makes itself indispensable: historical heritage and claimed heritage.

            Historical heritage is the one that a clear line may be traced for matters of nationality, religion, trade, or any other connection that leaves small room for subjectivities. For instance, the DeMolay Order is a youth organisation created in 1919, in the United States. It has its name to honour Jacques DeMolay, the last Grand Master of the order of the Temple, and in its rituals mentions values and legends related to the Knights Templars. However, there is no line of succession between Jacques DeMolay, who burned at the stake in Paris, in 1314, and the first DeMolays.  The order claimed the values and history of the Templars as theirs, as a guide, a homage. This is all legitimate, however, as a historian, it would be a mistake to trace an unmistakable historical line from DeMolay to Frank Sherman Land, if the topic history of the Knights Templars. What was done was the claiming of a heritage, meaning that there was a will to associate the emerging order with that legacy.

            Freemasonry is a bit of both, nonetheless, it is necessary to establish which bits are claimed and which ones are the fruit of historical development from the guilds. Freemasonry developed from the associative life and traditions of the guilds, especially, of course, masons’ guilds. However, there is a fundamental rupture which started what is usually called speculative masonry, a term coined by Freemasons to differentiate the trade of building, called then operative masonry, from the fraternal society.

            The fundamental rupture, different from the beginning of times, has a date and place: Edinburgh, 28th of December 1598. This was when William Schaw, decided to act on his appointment as Master of Works to the Crown of Scotland. On that date, he introduced statutes for the governing of lodges in Scotland, which re-organised their structure and added some renaissance bits to their rules. As with any position traditionally held by courtiers, it was more a sinecure than an actual position of overseer of works, having occasional practical duties. Schaw was interested in architecture, like many other savants of his time, as a science connecting all liberal arts.

            It is fundamental to understand that this phenomenon spread through the very porous borders between Scotland and England. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Mason’s guild in London already had its accepted masons, meaning people from outside the trade who were accepted as part of a social wing of the construction society. Indisputable is that in the late 1710s, these lodges of speculative masons were already having a life of their own, detached from the operative masons, the actual construction workers. Rather than a singular phenomenon, this was the result of a boom in associative life that took England, and especially London, by storm.

            When the time came for writing its Constitutions, which was a bold move that marked a more serious approach to that club, the choice of James Anderson and the tone of the narrative informs us of its intent. Anderson was a genealogist, an intellectual profession, but that usually involved claiming heritages that were not clear, or not at all, established. The tone of the Constitutions follows the tone given by the stone workers in the fifteenth century when they produced a document called the Old Charges. In sum, the document claimed a divine and mythical heritage to the trade of building, in response to a cap in payment stipulated by the government due to the Black Death.[3] To make their request, the historical and juridical mentality of the time was used: claiming antiquity and royal charters, both unable to be proven by documents.

            James Anderson wrote in a more comfortable position. Freemasonry was a clear Georgian society, meaning that they not only supported the recently established Hanoverian monarchy but also that the Grand Lodge was regarded as a respectable club. This even led to speculations that the letter G in Freemasonry would stand for George. Anderson then traced a line from Adam to the Duke of Montagu, then the Grand Master, merging Masonry with Freemasonry, and everything sacred and respectable in between.

            Although speculative masonry has its origins in the 16th century, it is only in the 1710s, probably in 1717, that Masonic lodges decided to formalise their difference to the Masons’ guild and to other fraternal societies. Additionally, it is in 1721, that their General Assembly, called Grand Lodge, start to be an institution responding by the same name. The first edition of the Constitutions of the Free-Masons, published in 1723, tells the mythological part of that story. The second one, published in 1738, sheds more light on the development of Freemasonry and the historical mentality of the eighteenth century. It demonstrates, more than the history (or stories) that it tells, the necessity to legitimise the institutional and historical discourses.

[1] Again, I must thank Professor Susan Sommers for her intellectual generosity and diligence.

[2] There are speculations, based on quite sound reasoning, that Dr Jean Théophile Desagulliers wrote the Constitutions, or that he gave the main directions. However, that is not enough sources to back that theory. Hence, I will be crediting the Constitutions to its named author due to the harder evidence of his authorship.

[3] The Black Death caused a severe shortage in Labour that caused a rise in wages. In 1351, the English Parliament passed the Statute of Labourers that prohibited salaries above Pre-plague levels, and also limited workers’ movements for better conditions.

One thought on “Freemasonry in the 18th century (I am the son and the heir…)

  1. Interesting how you brought this subject.

    Very enjoyable reading.

    The mentality of the period “ claiming antiquity and royal charters, both unable to be proven by documents” is still alive. Never stopped, in my point of view.

    Excited to read more.

    Much appreciated.


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