General Transformation of Freemasonry

From an Operative to a Speculative or Philosophic Institution.

Emmanuel Rebold

DURING the troubles which desolated England about the middle of the seventeenth century, and after the death of Charles I, in 1649, the Masonic corporations of England, and more particularly those of Scotland, labored in secret for the reestablishment of the throne destroyed by Cromwell; and for this purpose they instituted many degrees hitherto unknown and totally foreign to the spirit and nature of Freemasonry, and which, in fact, gave to this time honored institution a character entirely political. The discussions to which this country was a prey had already produced a separation between the operative and accepted Masons. The latter were honorary members, who, according to long established usage, had been accepted into the society for the advantage which their generally influential position in the country might effect; but this very position made them at this time naturally the adherents of the throne and the strong supporters of Charles II, who during his exile was received as an accepted Mason by their election, and, in consequence of the benefits he derived from the society, gave to Masonry the title of Royal Art; because it was mainly by its instrumentality that he was raised to the throne and monarchy restored to England.

Notwithstanding, however, the favor with which it was regarded by the king, Freemasonry, during the latter part of the seventeenth century, decreased to such a degree that in 1703 but four lodges existed in the city of London, while throughout Great Britain at that time none other were known to the members, who, reduced to the smallest number, attended the meetings of these. In fact, with the completion of St. Paul's Cathedral, the city of London was considered rebuilt, and the occupation of the operative Masons seemed to have been brought to a close; while the accepted Masons, having obtained the object of their desire in the restoration of the monarchy, neglected the communion they had previously kept up with the operative members of the institution. Hence we find that in the year 1703 the lodge of St. Paul — so named because the operative Masons engaged in the erection of the cathedral held their lodge in a building situated in the churchyard or grounds thereof — passed an important resolution the object of which was to augment the numbers of the fraternity, and to give the Masonic institution some of its former importance in public estimation. Here, having agreed that they should continue the existence of so praiseworthy an institution to be used as the conservator of religion and tradition, and perpetuate, by the beautiful allegories of its legends and symbols, its eminently humanitarian doctrines, they for this purpose adopted the following memorable resolution:

RESOLVED, That the privileges of Masonry shall no longer be confined to operative Masons, but be free to men of all professions, provided that they are regularly approved and initiated into the fraternity."

This important decision changed entirely the face of the society, and transformed it into what we find it to-day; but many difficulties had to be removed, many years of probation had to be passed before this form of its workings could be successfully adopted. This was owing, first, to the want of union among the four lodges; second, to the exceedingly disreputable character which, for many years, had attached to the society — it having degenerated from an influential and privileged institution to little better than a pot- house companionship, with here and there a proud few who remembered its glories of other days — but perhaps, above all, the determined opposition of the Grand Master, Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of the new city of London, to the spirit of the innovating resolution. This opposition he maintained until his death; so that it was not until after that event, which occurred in 1716, that the four lodges which still existed, more in name than in fact, felt themselves at liberty to assemble their membership with the primary object of electing a new Grand Master, but more particularly to detach themselves from all connection with the lodge at York, that had for fifty years enjoyed but a nominal existence, and to put into active operation the decision involved in the resolution of 1703.

In that assembly, after electing the Master of St. Paul's Lodge, Anthony Sayre, to the office of Grand Master, there were gathered up the "Constitution and Charges of a Freemason," which, subsequently prefaced by a "History of Freemasonry," prepared by Dr. Anderson, were accepted, sanctioned, and printed in 1723, under the title of "The Constitution and Charges of the Ancient and Respectable Fraternity of Freemasons." And it is the date of this publication that may properly be considered the commencement of exclusively speculative or modern Freemasonry. The principle of civilization indwelling in the doctrines and pursuits of Masonry, after having burst the bonds which kept it grasped in the stiff embrace of a mechanical association, at once abandoning itself to all its powers of expansion, almost immediately penetrated the heart of the social system, and animated it with a new life. The new Freemasonry, in the short space of twenty-five years, spread itself in a manner but little less than miraculous into nearly every portion of the civilized world. It passed from England to France as early as 1725, thence to Belgium, to Holland, to Germany, to America, subsequently to Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, to Sweden, and to Poland; and, as early as 1740, were to be found lodges in Denmark, in Bohemia, in Russia, in the Antilles, in Africa, and in the British possessions in Hindostan.

If Freemasonry has ceased to erect temples; if it has ceased to engage in material architecture; if it no longer exhibits itself in the elevation of spires and turrets as points from which eyes may be directed and hopes ascend toward a better and a happier world, it has not less continued its work of moral and intellectual culture; and its success in this respect has been far more satisfactory than those who planned its design as a speculative institution ever hoped to achieve. In all time it has exercised a powerful and happy influence upon social progress; and if today, instead of holding itself at the head of all secular societies, it is known in some countries but to be rejected and despised, this condition is owing to the destruction of that uniformity and oneness of purpose which constituted its fundamental recommendation; and this destruction is due to the innovations introduced by ambitious and designing men for motives of personal influence and advancement, add in defiance of their solemn asseverations that it was not within the power of its membership to introduce innovations into the body of Freemasonry. But even here it has shown the immortality of its spirit; for, notwithstanding the multiplicity of rites which have been forced upon it, and the ceremonial degrees which have been added to it — thus dividing its strength, causing grave inconvenience, choking the sources of accurate information as to its origin and history, and creating useless and unsatisfactory distinctions among its members — that excellent spirit which its earliest teachings engender and subsequent culture fosters is ever exhibited in a fraternal regard for each other when the brethren meet in their popular assembly, and there lay aside "all distinctions save that noble distinction, or rather emulation, of who can best work and best agree."

Source: General History of Freemasonry in Europe — 1868