Vol. LXXVII No. 7 — July 1999
MASONIC HISTORY: WHAT IS NEEDED
A. G. Markham
In November 1996, Brother A. G. Markham delivered a paper to Quatuor Coronati Lodge #2076, titled "Some Problems of English Masonic History". This paper was then printed in the 1997 Volume 110, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum Transactions. From that paper the July 1999 Short Talk Bulletin was extracted. Because of the length of the paper we could not use all of the material and had to delete the reference notes.
It is the feeling of MSA that this paper has enormous importance for all Freemasons. We have divided this Short Talk Bulletin into two parts. Part One-History and Part Two-Recommendations and Conclusions. The very brief history of early Freemasonry in Europe is both concise and informative. Part Two, Conclusions and Recommendations, is very, very significant. In this section Brother Markham explains the importance of involving professional general historians, who are not members of the Craft, to help show Freemasonry as "the remarkable historic institution, beneficial to humanity, which it is.
PART I — HISTORY
In the 1600s Freemasonry was restricted to the British Isles and was a private matter, rarely recorded in writing; least of all in Ireland, and less so in England than in Scotland.
This is a major problem; and it is surprising that we know as much as we do about English Masonry of the 1600s. It is possible to see the existence of a remarkable brotherhood of non-operative masons, based on well recognised custom (including, notably, secret modes of recognition and those curious archaic documents the Old Charges), spread more or less all over the nation, crossing class boundaries in a very class conscious age, harmoniously and convivially uniting men, including, I would accept, those of differing political persuasions, and practising mutual charity. But this evidence is limited in detail and does not extend to dispelling the mystery of its origins, a mystery, which, though since to some extent cherished by masons, has also lent itself to misinterpretation by writers, both masonic and anti-masonic.
In Scotland, written records of the 1600s show the existence of a considerable number of lodges of operative masons, with a proportion of non-operative brethren, some of them of high social rank, but without sufficient involvement to take control, so that the lodges remained operative in overall character as late as the 1720s. A wider organisation of these lodges is suggested through provisions of the Schaw Statutes of 1598/1599. Scottish masons had rudimentary ceremonies of admission, when the secret "Mason Word" was imparted, and versions of the Old Charges deriving from English originals. It is certain that Freemasonry existed in Ireland during, at least, part of the 1600s, but little more is known of it beyond a few questionable artefacts bearing masonic symbols.
Despite some improvement in the 1700s, lack of evidence, due to confidentiality, is a continuing problem; but, there is no doubt that in the 1720s a dramatic upsurge of English Freemasonry took place following the formation of a Grand Lodge by four nonoperative London lodges in 1717. This Grand Lodge flourished and greatly extended the number of lodges under its authority from 1721 onwards, when the practice started of having members of the peerage as Grand Masters, though mainly as figureheads. Two areas of masonic ideas can be associated with this upsurge, the first being moral rules known as the Charges of a Free-Mason, contained in a Book of Constitutions compiled at the request of the Grand Lodge by James Anderson, which was published (openly) in 1723; and the second being found principally in an exposure (of confidential matters) in catechism form known as Masonry Dissected, published by Samuel Prichard in 1730, which is concerned with secret modes of recognition and related ritual rather than moral provisions.
In the 1720s and '30s these two streams of ideas passed from England into British territories overseas (particularly the American colonies) and into continental Europe through France, where, for example, the exposure written by the Abbe Gabriel Louis Perau, known as Le Secret des Francs-Maçons, published in 1742, describes the ideas as practised with little variation in France at that time, and demonstrates, better than anything written in English, why Freemasonry was received with great acclaim.
But the French were not content with limiting the movement to the supposed moral customs, secrets and ritual of stonemasons, and soon related it also to ideals of knighthood, seeing the achievement of equality more as a levelling up than as a levelling down, as in England, though the wearing of masons' aprons continued as a feature. Possibly from an association with a Jacobite Scot living in France, the Chevalier Michael Ramsay, these knightly ideals were embodied in numerous additional related degrees, known as "Scottish Rites", producing a proliferation of ceremonial, but having, in fact, no clear connection with Scottish Masonry. Some of these degrees, notably the Strict Observance (which, deriving from France, was developed in Germany), exceeded acceptable standards, and brought Freemasonry into disrepute before they disappeared; but others have, of course, continued respectably and extensively in developed form up to the present day.
Despite excesses, the masonic movement was successful beyond all imagination; and within a very short space of time. In 1738, Frederick Lewis, Prince of Wales and, in 1739, Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia were made masons. Frederick of Prussia was the future Frederick the Great, who, on his accession as king in 1740, became a protector of the Craft. Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine, made an English mason as early as 1730, is said to have introduced masonic ceremonial into his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 1745.
In a later period, shortly before the French Revolution, masons included among their numbers both royalists and prospective revolutionaries and, later still, not only six of the sons of George III, but also most of the former non-commissioned officers of the army of Louis XVI who became Marshals of France under Napoleon. More significantly, great men, such as Montesquieu, Mozart, Goethe, Franklin and Washington became members of the craft. Washington wore a masonic apron in the masonic ceremony which took place at the laying of the foundation stone of the United States Capitol in the new city of Washington in 1793.
All this success was achieved despite strong anti-masonic opposition from the Church of Rome, commencing in 1738, and to a fluctuating extent, from some of the absolutist monarchies of Europe, influenced by groundless defamations of Masonry, such as allegations that masons had instigated the French Revolution.
The formation and development of the English premier Grand Lodge from 1717 onwards may be seen, in retrospect, as the most important feature in this period of masonic history. When, in the late eighteenth century, particularly in Germany, excesses arose in the attempted development of Masonry and its rituals, including attempts to use them for commercial gain, it was to the pure ideals of "English Masonry" that a return was sought. Eugen Lennhoff wrote with regard to the reforming work of Friedrich Ludwig Schröder:
"... All those superfluities which, in the course of time, had been added to the simple symbolism of English ritual, with all its beauty, were cast out by Schroder..."
We have seen that in 1742, Perau, a Frenchman (and the French have rarely been admirers of English culture) presented Masonry largely as it had arrived from England as an ideal system. Again, Lennhoff, when writing of the Charges of a Free-Mason of 1723 referred to them as:
"... a masonic Magna Carta; the will to avoid anything tending towards disunion; the yearning for 'friendly alliance with antagonists' ..."
But English commentators have tended not to appreciate these as great achievements or even to see them as English.
This is the next problem of masonic history to which I wish to refer, namely a failure properly to assess the significance of English Masonry as offered to, and accepted by, the world from the 1720s onwards, a seeming mental short sightedness, which has failed to grasp the overall historical perspective.
The Charges of a Free-Mason of 1723 have been largely unappreciated by the accident of being included in the same volume as the legendary history, written in similar vein to the legendary histories in the Old Charges (including evident absurdities). Both have been attributed to James Anderson (seen at the same time, inconsistently, as innovator of important masonic ideas and author of history which was not only unreliable but ludicrous); and this belief has persisted despite the fact that, as will be shown, the impossibility of such a view as to Anderson was explained by Professors Knoop and Jones nearly fifty years ago. The result is that the potential value of examining the Charges and legendary history to trace earlier tradition has, generally speaking, been ignored.
The significance of the Charges of 1723 has also been largely unrecognised, I believe, because of the pre-occupation of modem masons with ritual; the Charges being seen as a relic to be largely ignored in preference to ritual. But in the eighteenth century, it was the Charges with their simple yet profound virtues of brotherly equality, harmony and charity which enabled Freemasonry to achieve its lasting success, and to outride persecution by the Church of Rome, the caprices of absolutist monarchies and the French Revolution; and which, though emerging into continental Europe and the wider world with the Enlightenment, were to continue as a living force when the Enlightenment had become outmoded. Ritual, generally, was in a varying and unsettled state during that period.
To consider a further point, an implication may be drawn that as Anderson was Scottish (and the son of a prominent Scottish mason), the content of the Charges of 1723 is probably Scottish, although the Charges (which were adopted in the Irish Constitutions virtually in the same form in 1730) have never been adopted in the Scottish Constitutions, even now. Coupled with the fact that as the oldest surviving masonic catechisms are Scottish, and have some resemblance to Masonry Dissected (though much shorter), and through the Schaw Statutes and the Mason Word, it would follow that Masonry is, to all intents and purposes, Scottish in origin. The views of David Stevenson are recently familiar to us; but David Murray Lyon, an eminent Scottish masonic historian of a hundred years ago and protagonist of Scottish Masonry, was ready to allow that when John Theophilus Desaguliers, Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, was welcomed as a brother mason at the Lodge of Edinburgh in 1721, it was likely that he introduced the Edinburgh masons to speculative Masonry, Scottish Masonry still being largely operative.
PART II — CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
These final points are perhaps the most serious problems of masonic history, but I shall refer to them briefly in the light of what is widely known and what I have already said. The first of these is AntiMasonry. It is clear that there have been adverse reactions continuously, side by side with evidence of the existence of non-operative Masonry, from the 1600s to the present day, which have varied between ridicule and accusations of conspiracy and subversion. Anti-Masonry has been a happy hunting ground repeatedly for journalists with nothing else to write about; but, far more seriously, has been the basis of attacks on Freemasonry by important religious bodies who have felt impelled to adopt this attitude apparently in the belief that no one needs secrets unless they have something wrong to hide. These attacks have been taken to the extremes of persecution by the Inquisitions of the Church of Rome, and by absolutist monarchies and Fascist and Communist dictatorships.
The second of these problems is that, despite its very interesting historical character, Freemasonry has never been understood by non-masonic historians as part of general history. I believe that these two problems should be related together because an authoritative sympathetic understanding of the history of Masonry, even with some areas of doubt, might be a useful answer to Anti-Masonry. The use of professional historians in the tracing back of early features of masonic history against general historical background is also important because a reasoned interpretation of such features may have relevance to its essential meaning.
In these ways, professional general historians would have two main functions; first, in interpreting, and confirming or resolving the interpretation, of fragmentary early masonic history against general background; and, secondly, in interpreting the broad perspectives of early and later masonic history so as to integrate them as part of general history.
Masonic historians would also have two important functions here; first, in furnishing, in an accurate, complete and unbiassed manner, details of masonic history to form the basis of the work of historians who were not masons; and, secondly, in bearing in mind that areas of masonic history which are fragmentary must have explanations based somehow on fact and reason, and that pursuit of truth with strict objectivity does not justify emphasising supposed anomalies without attempting sensibly to resolve them by research into background history with the assistance of professional historians.
In the end, one would like to think it possible to show a proper recognition of Freemasonry as the remarkable historic institution, beneficial to humanity, which it is; and to demonstrate this notwithstanding anti-masonic attacks; and despite the incapability of explaining masonic origins entirely; but with, overall, a better image, by being more acceptable to reason and being accepted by non-masonic historians of high professional standing. It is plainly a difficult task, but what justification is there for not attempting it?
It is sometimes said that by defining problems one is already part way towards solving them. This has been a hoped-for objective of this paper, though with no claim to comprehensive coverage or success; but as a modest attempt towards the advancement of masonic knowledge.