Of Societies, Lodges, and Grand Masters.

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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.

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.