Of Societies, Lodges, and Grand Masters.

Keep this page caffeinated, buy me a coffee buymeacoffee.com/cortereal

©The Two Crafts

We finished our last text with lodges gathering to elect a Grand Master of Masons in 1717. It is important to remember that the main account of such a fact is the second edition of the Constitutions, published in 1738. We also saw that Anthony Sayer was selected as Grand Master and that on every 24th of June, the Grand Lodge (meaning the assembly of Freemasons) would choose a Grand Master of Masons.

According to some accounts, but again, having James Anderson as the main narrative, the Freemasons did so from 1717 until 1720. The succession went as follows: George Payne in 1718, Jean Teophile Desagullier, in 1719, and George Payne again in 1720. The apparently uneventful succession hides a rise in the importance of its Grand Masters. Sayer was a bookseller; although the bookselling business flourished after the end of the 17th century, this trade would hardly pass beyond the nascent middling sort. Payne was First Clerk of the Taxes Office, and Desagullier was a scientific demonstrator and academic. It may be observed that these men, listed as the four first Grand Masters of Masons, were not noble, or even from the high echelons of society. Nonetheless, they made it above the cut, and apparently, they were not only keeping a London club but crafting something, maybe, more ambitious.

            Freemasonry was one of a kind in several aspects, but as stated before, clubs and societies were flourishing everywhere in Europe, especially in England. However, how do we know in which aspects Freemasonry was unique, and what others we are addressing as common features of the time? Historians, not having hard theories to contrast their findings against, and (at least most of us) trussing over the historicity of events, meaning that historical events are firstly characterised by their uniqueness.

            The main way of overcoming such uniqueness of historical events is to compare them with similar events, associations, persons, etc. It is important to clarify that none of the elements of such comparison will serve as a “control group”. A comparison in history has other goals than finding a general theory or a law. Historical comparisons assist to find possible generalizations but also different variations of similar phenomena and see how similar inputs may produce dissimilar outcomes.

            In the case of Freemasonry, as stated before, we see that although the special feature of its rituals, a mix of stonemasons’ craft with philosophical and spiritual meanings, they were evolving into club-like sociability, something common at the time. As also seen before, several Freemasons were also members of other clubs, societies, and fraternities. This fact takes the lodges and their quarterly assembly, the Grand Lodge, from a position of isolation, meaning that practices, procedures, elections, and so on, were not being made from scratch.

            Another element that may lead us to know better the early days of this new model fraternity, is one of the possible already mentioned sources: diaries of learned masons. On the matter, one diary is key: the diaries of William Stukeley. Stukeley had the profile of those interested in joining Freemasonry in the 17th and 18th centuries, a learned man, a polymath. Physician, antiquarian (the historians of the time), and Anglican priest. He was not only an antiquarian but one of the founders of the Society of the Antiquarians in 1707, ten years before the alleged Grand Lodge (an assembly) which elected a Grand Master. Stukeley was also the first Antiquarian’s secretary when of its formal establishment in 1717. Yes, there is something about this year…

            Of the many things that Stukeley wrote about Freemasonry, and to which we might come back in due time, one is of relevance for this scenario. Like Elias Ashmole, Stukeley registered in his diaries his initiation on the 6th of January 1721 at the Salutation Tavern in London. His entry registers as “I was the first person in London made a free mason in that city for many years. We had great difficulty finding members enough to perform the ceremony.” Surely, as with any testimony, Stukeley’s accounts must be taken with a pinch of salt. However, these remarks add an extra layer to our perceptions of the early days of organised Freemasonry in England. Stukeley was well-connected, especially when it came to fraternities and societies, so his observation that it was difficult to find people to perform the ceremony gives us at least two important pieces of information. One is the reinforcement of the lodge as an assembly, rather than a permanent group, since it was hard to find “members enough to perform the ceremony”. Similar descriptions may be found in the writings of Ashmole, and others. The second is that, apparently, Freemasonry was not as vibrant as one may think. Even if the claim that he was “the first person in London made a free mason in that city for many years” is not entirely precise, the whole entry gives the impression of scarcity.

            In 1721 we have notice of five lodges. However, the only coeval report is Stukeley’s report, which, as the text indicates, was an assembly which gathered for that meeting at the Salutation Tavern. The other four, are up to James Anderson’s account (late at its best, apocryphal at its worse), being the ones meeting at the Goose and Gridiron Ale-house in St. Paul’s Church-yard, the Crown Ale-house in Parker’s Lane off Drury Lane; the Apple-Tree Tavern in Charles Street, and the Rummer and Grapes Tavern in Channel Row, Westminster. These accounts by Anderson started to be scrutinized only recently, although previous masonic historians cast doubt on it before. Scholars such as Andrew Prescott and Susan Sommers are carrying out extensive research on Anderson’s life and works, so probably more on that to come soon. For now, one important piece of information that gives us some perspective on the veracity of the 1738 Constitutions’ story is that one of these places in which one of the four lodges allegedly met has not existed on Charles Street.

            One may argue that this is a minor mistake. However, Prescott and Sommers dedicate a whole article to explaining how that makes the whole story more fragile.[1] To that, I would add that the scenario of lodges meeting regularly at pubs also resembles developments of a later date. Stukeley, in 1721, still mentions the necessity of gathering masons to perform a ceremony rather than attending a specific lodge meeting regularly somewhere.

            Being so, it is essential to keep in mind what the sources are telling us. First, a lodge was still, at that point, an assembly of masons. Second, some assemblies did not have a regular meeting place, being something like impromptu lodges. Third, late or apocryphal papers mentioned the election of a Grand Master of Masons at the end of the 1710s, more specifically 1717. Fourth, such Grand Master was elected annually in the General Assembly, called Grand Lodge. Fifth and final, in 1721 something changed in the structure of governance of the Masons. This change will be the rupture that will prompt a new terminology for the history of Freemasonry.

[1] Prescott, A.  and Sommers, S. M. (2017) Searching for the apple tree: revisiting the earliest years of organised English freemasonry. In: Wade, J. (ed.) Reflections on Three Hundred Years of Freemasonry: Papers from the QC Tercentenary Conference. Lewis Masonic.