NOTES ON HISTORICAL FREEMASONRY
Robert Freke Gould
THE RELIGION OF THE SOCIETY
" — there is but one religion, though We strive over opinions, but opinions are not religion, for it appears under many forms." — Herder.
The famous Comte de Buffon has remarked, and from the authority of that great writer there is scarcely any right of appeal;
"Tout sujet est un; et quelque vaste qu'il soit, il peut être renfermé dans un seul discours." "Every subject is one; and however vast it may be, is capable of being contained in a single discourse."
There is also a Spanish proverb that will fit in very well with the matter in hand;
"No discourse that is long can be pleasing."
And another which is even more to the point;
"To a good listener few words,"
and I shall therefore ask the indulgent reader to accord me his patient attention, while I proceed with a further instalment of the Short Studies on Historical Masonry which are appearing monthly in the columns of this journal.
The subject of which I am about to treat has already received much notice at the hands of controversialists, both in the Old World and the New. But though I have diligently perused all articles on the topic that have fallen in my way, with hardly an exception they resolve themselves into a set of disquisitions, which I can best describe by borrowing a few lines from an interesting work.
"Alexandre Dumas the elder," observes Mr. J. F. Boyes, "makes mention in his Carricolo of an ingenious book written to shew how we may walk all day long through the different streets of Naples without once getting into the sunshine. Yet this is not so singular a world as at first sight it might appear to be, seeing the number of authors who have written treatises showing how we may travel through all the ramifications of the subject on which they treat precisely in the same manner." (Life and Books, 175.)
The peculiar monotheistic doctrine of Masonry, it is affirmed, places upon it the indelible stamp of an origin prior to the Christian era — which may possibly be true; and the theology of the Craft (or Society) may have passed through three distinct phases, beginning with a belief in the unity of God and in the immortality of the soul, continuing with a profession of the Christian faith, and concluding with an acceptance of the somewhat latitudinarian — and certainly nebulous — doctrine, of which no exact definition is ever likely to be attained. These phases or manners would coincide with the respective periods of the Ancient Mysteries, of the English Freemasons prior to the era of Grand Lodges, and of the Freemasons of all countries (with a few recent exceptions) from about the middle of the eighteenth century down to the present day.
To quote Mr. William Henry Upton — and I know of no higher authority as a teacher of the Craft — "Masonry, like man, consists of two parts, a body and a soul….Its present body, we have little doubt, was found in certain of the operative Masonic organisations of the Dark or Middle Ages. Its soul — its symbolism and philosophy — we hardly less confidently believe was at one time incarnated in the Ancient Mysteries." But the same writer goes on to say, and the qualification is precisely what we might expect from him; "We are not professing to write history, but to state possibilities or probabilities not entirely unsupported by shreds of evidence."
An hypothesis, indeed, although indispensable as a provisional method of grouping together facts, and giving them some sort of explanation, is after all only a guess, and however ingenious may be absurdly wide of the truth.
That the Freemasons, however, of the Middle Ages must have had a far-stretching, unknown history behind them few of our archaeologists will be prepared to gainsay.
But, alas! in our present state of knowledge and until the advent of a great accumulation of new and searching discoveries, any attempt to penetrate beyond the forest gloom of mediaeval antiquity would be utterly futile, and stand on the same footing with an inquiry into the internal structure of the earth or into the question whether the stars are inhabited. It would be an endeavour to solve a problem, for the solution of which (at the present time) no sufficient data exist.
The Written Traditions of the Society carry us back to the fourteenth century, at which period and until some years after the formation of the earliest of Grand Lodges (1717), there was required of every candidate at his admission a profession of the Christian faith.
The particular manner in which the old system of theology was supplanted by the new, has never been very closely examined, though the materials for such a task are not far to seek.
A Book of Constitutions was published by De. Anderson in 1723, but the circumstances under which this was compiled are only revealed in a subsequent "book" of the same character and description, and written by the same author, which appeared in 1738.
What I shall therefore ask the reader to do is to accompany me on ground with which he will already be familiar, while I deal in strict chronological sequence with a series of events which began in 1721 and culminated in 1738. The "Constitutions"of the latter year (1738), which contain the only connected account of the proceedings of the Grand Lodge from 1717 to 1723, I shall not lay under contribution in any way, until we reach the date at which it appeared.
On June 24th, 1721, as we learn from the diary of Dr. Stukeley, that worthy was present at a meeting of the Grand Lodge, and Mr. George Payne (twice Grand Master) "read over a new sett of articles to be observed." At that date Anderson was unheard of in English Masonry, nor is there any contemporary evidence associating him with the Craft of South Britain, prior to the appearance of his first Book of Constitutions in 1723. The General Regulations — 39 in number — compiled by Mr. George Payne, were given in the work referred to, and how much or how little they received touches at the hand of Dr. Anderson, though matter for interesting speculation, will be passed over at this stage of the enquiry. The introductory portion of the book, however, together with the "Charges of a Free-Mason," comprising the particular article "Concerning God and Religion," may safely be ascribed to the latter. The three striking Innovations introduced by the first Book of Constitutions (1723) have already been described in previous "Notes" of the present series. The first of them, the drawing of a sponge over the Ancient Charge "to be true to God and the Holy Church," was doubtless looked upon by many Masons of these days in very much the same way as we now regard the absence of any religious formulary whatever in the so-called Masonry of the Grand Orient of France.
Masons of the present day, indeed, take so little interest in the past history of the Society, that the attitude of certain Grand Lodges by whom the obliteration of the first and principal Charge of the Ancient Masons has not been tamely acquiesced in, is simply viewed as a very ordinary example of Continental (or Scandinavian) perversity. But our foreign brethren, who point to the original Masons' Creed as a landmark, assert (and it is easier to ridicule than to confute them) that in so regarding it, they are the orthodox Freemasons, and ourselves the dissenters.
Without any doubt, however, the "Constitutions" of a.d. 1723 caused a great commotion, and the book was certainly not accepted, even by the Lodges and brethren of London and Westminster, as an authoritative code of the laws and usages of the Fraternity. The reader who is desirous of fully satisfying himself on this point in the shortest possible manner, should carefully scan Hogarth's singular plate, "The Mystery of MASONRY brought to light by ye Gormogons," and endeavour to understand the moral it conveys.
The Gormogons, of whom the Duke or Wharton was a leading spirit, would seem to have been a small Club, Society, or Order, composed of discontented and renegade Freemasons. The publication of the Book of Constitutions, and the apostasy of the members of Lodges who formed themselves into this Order, probably represent cause and effect. The Gormogons are first heard of in 1724, and in one of their manifestoes of that year there is a reference to "that empty book called 'The Constitutions of the Freemasons,' written . . . by a Presbyterian Teacher, and pompously recommended by a certain Reverend Orthodox, tho' Mathematical Divine." Anderson and Desaguliers, who are here indicated, are also transparently referred to in the same publication as having taken unwarrantable liberties with the Written Traditions of the Society; while in Hogarth's plate, which may be called a pictorial symbolization of the "manifesto," both the Book of Constitutions and its author are unmercifully ridiculed, and in the case of the latter with such indecency, that the meaning of the artist, though presenting no difficulties of interpretation, I shall not attempt to describe.
It will next be convenient to record that the "Constitutions" of 1723 were "digested" for the use, and published with the approval of, the "Lodges, Brethren, and Fellows in and about the Cities of London and Westminster." The new Charges and Regulations were not proclaimed Urbi et Orbi, as the loose and inaccurate generalizations of the bulk of commentators might induce one to believe, but were compiled purely and solely for the use of Lodges and Brethren in what would now be called the "London District," and which at that time comprised the Metropolitan area within the purview of the "Bills of Mortality."
In the same year (1724) that witnessed the attack upon him by the Gormogons, Dr. Anderson went into exile for a long period; whence, however, he emerged in 1731, and four years later obtained the permission of the Grand Lodge to print a new edition of the Book of Constitutions, which duly made its appearance in 1738.
In this work we meet for the first time with a connected history of the Grand Lodge of England from its formation in 1717 down to 1723. The book is very carelessly written.
The legendary portion, which begins with the "Creation of the World," is a farrago of nonsense. The historical narrative leaves upon the mind as many unsatisfied doubts as there are opportunities of testing it by other evidence, and the Charges and Regulations when compared with those of the first edition, exhibit discrepancies which leave even the most docile followers of the "Father of Masonic History" in despair.
The late Henry Josiah Whymper observes; "That Anderson was not satisfied with the 1717 Charges is evidenced by the 'Constitutions ' which he published in 1738. That the Grand Lodge was on this dissatisfied with Anderson's revision may be deduced from the issue of the 1756 'Constitutions,' and that there was a Masonic party in sympathy with Anderson's later views is proved by the adoption of his 1738 revisions by the Irish and Scottish Grand Lodges, and by the publication of a counter set of 'Constitutions,' under the authority of a dissentient body which had sprung into existence in England, claiming to represent Ancient Masonic principles. In the year 1756 the English Grand Lodge 'Constitutions' reproduced the extraordinary statements in the Charges concerning the Religion of Masonry which had been abandoned in 1738."
I am not, however, proposing to the reader that he should accompany me any further on the present occasion than the latest phase of the "Period of Transition," and the remarks of Mr. Whymper are chiefly introduced in order to show that the Masons' Creed as formulated in the "Constitutions" of 1723, though temporarily varied by Anderson in 1738, was reprinted in its original form by John Entrik in the "Constitutions" of 1756 and 1767.
In the second Book of Constitutions (1738) Anderson, instead of giving the laws continuously, places them in two columns, headed "Old" and "New Regulations" respectively. But the former are by no means reproductions of the laws of 1723, as their description would imply, for excluding mere verbal alterations no less than fourteen of the thirty-nine articles professedly given as the Regulations appearing in the "Constitutions" of 1723, are amended (or "digested") almost out of recognition in the "Constitutions" of 1738.
Surely, it Dr. Anderson permitted himself such licence in the shape of alterations, omissions, and additions in the "Old Regulations" which are shewn in his edition of 1738, is it not reasonable to suppose that he may have tampered to an even greater extent not only with the "Old Gothic Constitutions" (about which no doubt whatever exists), but also with the General Regulations, ascribed to George Payne, that were promulgated for the benefit of the Fraternity in the earlier work of 1723?
The subject is far from having been exhaustively treated, and I can only hope that a question of such general importance may be more fully dealt with, and by some abler hand. The limits, however, within which the present article must be contained, restrict me to the contention that a fundamental change in the Religion of Masonry, which should be binding on the whole Craft, could not be legitimately carried into effect at the will of a Grand Lodge ruling over — at most, a majority only — of the Lodges and Brethren of London and Westminster, in 1723. Indeed, if we can suppose for an instant that the independent lodges in London, together with the Lodges in the country, and those in Ireland and Scotland were under moral compulsion to fall into line (on the question of religion) with the Grand Lodge of England in that year — we should have to carry our faith to the extreme point of believing that by a further word of command from the same paramount authority, all the Lodges and Brethren in the British Isles were under an equally moral obligation to hastily discard the creed which had been so recently imposed on them, and to instantly take up an entirely new position, in 1738.
It is well known, that from about the middle of the eighteenth century down to 1813, there were two Grand Lodges of England. After 1738, according to Mr. H. J. Whymper, "two parties were formed, the Grand Lodge which was established in 1717, taking the Deistic, and the Masons who claimed to be the representatives of Ancient Masonry taking the Christian side. In the same year, 1756, the two rival Grand Lodges published counter Constitutions, each specifying its own religious views." Finally, however, there was a Union of the two bodies (1813), and the Constitutions of the United Grand Lodge of England, in its "Charge concerning God and Religion," proclaims the doctrine which is cheerfully subscribed to by the English Freemasons of to-day.
"For Modes of Faith let graceless zealots fight
His can't he wrong whose life is in the right."
Before parting with the general subject, there is an observation by Madame de Stael, which will serve to introduce a few closing speculations with respect to the antiquity of the Masons' Creed. It is this, — "That past which is brought forward as a precedent for the present, was itself founded on an alteration of some past which went before it."
Can these words have a possible bearing on the past of the Religion of Freemasonry? Was Christianity, which we know to have been the immediate past of our present formula of belief, itself "an alteration of some past that went before it?"
Let us listen to Albert Pike, — "One by one," he tells us, "sometimes with long intervals between, meaning after meaning disclosed itself to me; and I had not gone far when I became convinced that in Free-Masonry the Ancient Greater Mysteries were revived and that, as theirs did, its super-excellence consisted in the philosophical and religious doctrines concealed in its symbols. I began dimly to discern that Masonry was a far greater thing than it had seemed to me as I received its degrees. Then the conviction dawned upon me that in its symbolism, which, and its spirit of brotherhood, are its essence. Free-masonry is more ancient and venerable than any of the world's living Religions. It has the symbols and the doctrines of the old Aryan faith, which, far older than himself, Zarathustra inculcated. The Brahmins neither knew the meaning of the Vedic hymns, nor what the Deities were whom these extolled; and the old Gathas of the Zend-Avesta speak to the Parsees of to-day in an unknown tongue; and it seemed to me a spectacle sublime, yet pitiful, that of the ancient Faith of the kindred of our ancestors, a Faith already crowned with the hoar-frost of antiquity when the first stone of the first Pyramid was laid, holding out to the world its symbols once so eloquent and mutely and in vain asking for an interpreter.
And so I came at last to see clearly that the true greatness and majesty of Free-Masonry consists in its proprietorship of these and its other symbols; and that its symbolism is its soul."
The obvious truth, however, must not be overlooked, that the symbols of antiquity were not used to reveal, but to conceal. Each is an enigma to be solved, and not a lesson to be read; a hieroglyph to be deciphered, and not the letters of a vulgar alphabet familiar to all.
Still, as Thomas Carlyle so finely observes, "In a symbol there is concealment and yet revelation, silence and speech acting together. Some embodiment and revelation of the infinite, made to blend itself with the finite, to stand visible and, as it were, attainable there." — But, after all, how shifting and uncertain is the result of modern research, — "We see through a glass darkly. The past is an enigma. The voices of the dead are faint and distant. History will not become a branch of positive science till the secrets of all hearts are loosed, till at eventime it is light."
In Booth's Review of the Ancient Constitutions of Greece and Rome there is a passage with which I shall conclude; "Time, the eldest of the gods of Greece and Rome, has seen Olympus despoiled of its deities, and their temples crumbled into dust. But, amid those mighty revolutions, religion has survived wreck. Man, never ceasing to look for happiness in the heavens, has raised other structures for his devotion, under the symbols of the Crescent and the Cross."