The path to modern Freemasonry

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In my last post, I discussed the importance of establishing differences between operative and speculative masonry. I suggested five traces that may be observed as the distinguishing aspects of speculative masonry, whether they were the cause or consequence of that phenomenon. I also observed that although speculative masonry has some characteristics of what we know today as Freemasonry, the term cannot manage to characterize its later evolutions. By later evolutions, I am referring to the first quarter of the 18th century onwards. What happens at that point in England makes the definition of “speculative masonry” become not useless, but insufficient.

We left our speculative masons at a point in which that new sociability was spreading from Scotland to England and Ireland. From and to where it sprouted, migrated, returned, or was revamped, is a matter for another discussion. The convoluted nature of the history of operative and speculative masonry, and the amount of amateur writing on it, cast a fog into all these discussions. Nowadays, something similar happens with Wikipedia articles, a usually accidental confusion called wikifogging.

Back to England, at the beginning of the 18th century. What sources tell us is that there was some form of survival of English lodges practising the acception. Important to highlight that whenever we are talking about lodges, we are referring to speculative masonry. Why? Because operative masons were not organised in lodges. The contrary is affirmed by a hindsight will of associating operative and speculative.

There are three main sources to understand what was happening at this point. One is the reports of travellers, a type of learned literature common in the Early Modern Period. Books such as the famous The Natural History of Strafford-Shire, by Dr Robert Plott. The other type of source is the diaries of men who were accepted into masonry at the time, like Dr William Stukeley, who was made a mason in 1721. Another interesting source is the exerts of rituals practised at that time. Exerts since there were no printed rituals or exposures circulating, but aide-memories, small extracts of parts of the ceremonies with not many specifics. From these sources, we may affirm that speculative masonry, or the acception, developed into a completely independent practice from rituals that guilds may have had. This was noticeable already in the last quarter of the 17th century.

It becomes clear that some lodges started to grow in membership and to become more organised in their procedures. This was not a unique and unprompted event, socially and culturally speaking, since clubs, fraternities, and societies were sprouting everywhere in England, especially in London. Many of the London masons themselves were from a unique and exclusive club, the Royal Society, a mix of academy of sciences with learned society, a one-of-a-kind at the time of its foundation, the year 1660. There was not only the inclination but also the experience to transform the organic acception into something more structured.

The sources point to the second half of the decade of 1710 as the turning point for Freemasonry. At that point, the practice of acception was already institutionalised into lodges. However, different from what can be assumed by the common and anachronistic interpretation that lodges were physical places with regular meetings, they were in fact regular assemblies of masons. This detail will help us to understand why there will be a rupture later.[1]

This understanding of a lodge may be verified in the way that lodges were described at the time. Minutes and official papers usually describe them as “the lodge meeting at the Devil’s Tavern”, or “the lodge at Queen’s Head”. Therefore, the lodge is a collective noun, a concept. Differently from what is deduced, anachronistically, there was no “Devil’s Tavern Lodge” or “Queen’s Head Lodge”, as a thing, a noun, an assembly with a name.  The process of numbering and naming lodges is of a later date, and we will go back to that in a future article.

This detail is relevant because it allows us to understand what happens next. These lodges, meeting regularly at these pubs and taverns, apparently, perceive the need for a wider organization. At this moment, is when the narrative written by James Anderson in 1738 comes into play. The famous account that in 1716 four lodges found themselves neglected by Sir Christopher Wren, “thought fit to cement under a Grand Master as the Center of Union and Harmony”. Therefore, the four lodges, meaning, four established assemblies, that met at regular places, decided to elect a Grand Master. Additionally, Anderson’s accounts say that they revived the “Quarterly Communication of the Officers of Lodges (call’d the Grand Lodge).”

From these exerts, some things become quite clear if the accuracy of what James Anderson is narrating is taken at face value. First, Sir Christopher Wren was an accepted mason, at the time around 84 years old, and performed some sort of overseer role for the lodges now performing the acception.  Second, these four lodges were probably the prominent or more active ones in the region of London and Westminster, since they took the initiative of reviving what is recounted as a tradition and establishing some structures for the governance of the lodges. Third, they decided to elect a Grand Master, someone who would perform a figurehead role for the accepted masons, now living a separate life from the guilds of builders. Fourth, the assembly, held every trimester, was the Grand Lodge. As the lodges were assemblies, and regarded as such when united, later to be understood as a permanent group, so was the Grand Lodge at the beginning. A meeting, an assembly, which will become a permanent institution under the same name later.

The first Grand Master, still, according to James Anderson’s account was Anthony Sayer. His title was “Grand Master of Masons”. So, not a master of a Grand Lodge, but of the masons as individuals, which, in turn, gathered in their lodges. These lodges were, only then, becoming more of a permanent and regular assembly, thus identifiable by the name of the place in which they met.  

[1] For historical studies, rupture may be understood as a breach of some kind of established situation, but not necessarily caused by dissent. We use the term rupture to mark that there is another situation, environment, or organisation emerging. Therefore, it requires different considerations from the previous situation.