A Historical and Sociological Survey of Masonic Exposures

P. T. Thornton, PGIW

Many of the ideals and institutions which were to shape and mould western society—and thus largely, until recently, the major portion of the civilised world—had their beginnings in the eighteenth century or slightly earlier. Philosophers had, of course, advanced many theories on life for many centuries but, in a tangible sense, these ideas and institutions now grasped their first tenuous hold on practical life.

In the eighteenth century—although earlier or later within the century depends upon the country—that the basic issues of European politics were defined and acted upon for the first time.

Mankind in general underwent a gradual alteration in lifestyle. Slowly the old and established community structure of life experience built upon and around inherited subordination, church control and small family entities gave way to a secular and voluntary society with greater degrees of freedom for the individual. Indeed it could be claimed that mankind was progressing towards a true community in the fullest sense of the term.

The pre-eighteenth century family was a highly formalised unit which all but completely dominated life and each family was kept strictly to its rightful place within society as governed by the already mentioned inherent restrictions By the beginning of the eighteenth century England had already experienced the start of a change towards a greater respect for private, individual and far more informal activity. The duration of the century was to see this change also occur throughout much of Europe.

That this change had begun was evidenced by the appearance of such establishmen as coffee palaces, clubs and salons, places readily seen as the invention of people who wished to explore life beyond the restricting confines of blood, locality, religion, occupation and above all the family.

It is not altogether surprising that this demand for a new and exciting examination of the capacities of life should lead to secret societies.

Some of the societies which formed were very strongly, or even completely, inclined towards the lighthearted or friendly get-together with any secrets, such as there were, being purely nominal without any import, but others had a veneer of seriousness. Amongst all of the societies the Freemasons quickly became the strongest, they survived and they jealously guarded their door against the profane.

Many eminent men have written many thousands of words in an attempt to explain just why Freemasonry mushroomed when it did and just why it appealed to so many people from different walks of life. I have no intention of setting myself up in competition in this field but I do feel that we need to examine the question from the effect of one of the earliest exposures, the first printing and publication of the Antient Charges.

We know the author of these charges and we know that somewhat radical changes appear to have been made to Masonry—either by the actual printing of the charges or just before—but we really have no idea just how greatly the changing of English Society influenced the alterations in the craft.

It is quite possible that the contents of these charges did strongly reflect the changes occuring in everyday English life and there will be little argument with the premise that this was the first occasion on which such an emphatic statement of religious tolerance was placed in writing.

Admittedly this had become partly embodied within English law but such an explicit statement following upon a century of bitter quarrels over religious differences must have come as a breath of fresh air to many and must have suggested to the uninitiated that the Masons were startingly different men if they were able to remove religious controversy from their assemblies.

It was also, as was perhaps only to be expected, to lead to charges that the craft was anti-Christian. One reading of the charge could tend to suggest that theology had all but been eliminated with just, and only just, a specific belief in a Supreme Being being demanded. The majority of people were able to see that such a conclusion tended to deny the Masonic legendary background history which relied for its major support upon the Bible and ingnored completely the inescapable fact that Christians of various denominations were adherants of the craft, but it did provide the anti-masons with a convenient peg on which to hang their attacks.

Possibly of equal appeal to the public at alrge was the charge which prohibited the airing of private piques and quarrels let alone the more potentially disastrous political and religious disagreements which, while stating a positive disavowel of rebels, specifically stated that the rebels could not be excluded from fellowship solely on those grounds. Such a statement, giving in effect approval to strongly question the old way of life without risking the ultimate sanction of excommunication, awakened the interest of men who patronised the clubs, salons and coffee houses.

The craft, for whatever combination of reasons, grew rapidly and attracted conspicious patronage. Consequently it gained increasing publicity and the newspapers reported the processions and annual meetings. The craft also received its first recorded printed attacks. Before turning to these, hwever, let us make a bold assumption as to the prevailing reason why, during the 1720s, the craft was attractive.

Above all else it was probably an idealistic and an ideological motivation supplied by an atmosphere of tolerance in religious, and to a less obvious extent political, persuasions which appealed to enlightened men seeking an association where up-to-date ideas were held and more inportantly, could be discussed with understanding.

During the second and third decades of the eighteenth century, England was the leading country in Europe. As a result of successfully sustaining a war, acheiving a victorious peace, and through her strength and judicious alliances, England had a large measure of control in the nearer European areas. At home a long drawn out constitutional crisis had been resolved, a Union (?) with Scotland attained, a rebellion suppressed and a set of institutions which were to be the backbone of English life for the next two centuries created.

Thus it is not surprising that so successful an institution as English Freemasonry should cross the English channel. The attraction which made it so appealing in England would be equally as powerful an influence abroad even if only at its lowest level as an escape from the insufferable boredom of early eighteenth century society.

Indeed there are good grounds for suggesting that it was one of the most important, and under-rated, of English cultural influences on Europe during the last two and a half centuries.

But let us leave Europe alone, as it is my contention that continental Masonry at the craft level had little effect on England. Nor do I intend to explore the possibilities that it was all a Jacobite plot.

Beginning in 1723 and continuing a a rate of more than one a year a series of Masonic exposures appeared in England. These consisted of manuscripts, pamphlets, folios, newspaper articles or advertisements and purported to reveal lectures, test qustions or symbolic material as used in the London Lodges. They appear to have been solely of English origin.

They begun with A Mason's Examination in the Flying Post or Post Master, a London newspaper for April 11-13, 1723. This was followed by the first of the important exposures, the Grand Mystery of Free Masons Discovered, an anonymous pamphlet published in 1724. The work was claimed to have been extracted from papers in the custody of an old Mason who had suddenly died and some authorities are willing to allow it to be the work of an operative Mason, a man of not some considerable learning. It is also considered by some to be the basis of half a century later Masonry Dissected. Many emminent scholars believe it to contain an essential part of the ritual as of the close of the seventeenth century and it is thus extremely valuable. It is considered possible that this ritual, or one like it, was adopted by the embryo Grand Lodge and used until the production and perfection of the various degrees.

It was decidedly operative in character, shows no evidence of degrees and strikingly, teachers that the three great lights were the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. As a sidelight it may be mentioned that it taught that the Jerusalem word was giblin and the universal word was boaz.

The only other exposure of interest to us was the last of this period, the dare we say, notorious Masonry Dissected published by Pritchard in 1730 and first advertised for sale on the 20th of Ocotber that year. It was a severe diatribe on Masonry and was the first exposure to mention the hiramic legend by name. In the same year—and illustrative of its reception—Clare published his Defence of Masonry.

No other English exposure was published for nearly four decades, although Pritchard's work was reprinted on a number of occasions, and when new works in English were published they were taken directly from the French. Thus for the purpose of this paper written exposures finished with Masonry Dissected but there was a possible different form of exposure which we shall now examine.

There is little doubt that the Grand Lodge of 1717 was initially designed as a London-only body, that it did not necessarily expect the adhereance of all London lodges and that scattered throughout the country were the St John or Old Masons who wanted little to do with the new methods. It is publicly claimed that these destroyed many old manuscripts rather than have them fall into the wrong hands. The wrong hands could well have been the new Grand Lodge of London.

The Pilo-Musicae et Architecturae Societas Apollini was basically a musical society but its records show that during 1725 it confined its membership to Masons and initiated no new member that had not alreaddy joined the craft. This illustrated that during these years regulary made and loyal Masons felt no disloyalty or irregularity in conferring the degrees outside the control of the Grand Lodge and indeed believed that Grand Lodge did not possess the sole right. The Society was placed under attack by the Grand Master, the Duke of Richmond, and appears to have succumbed to this order.

The Antediluvian Masons, claiming an origin prior to the flood, were more a class or group of regular Masons who objected to the changes wrought by the new speculative Masons than a separate organised society. In 1725 they were too few to form a lodge but a newspaper notice calling a meeting in 1726 definately ridicules the new Masonry. No other trace remains.

The Appolonian Masons were referred to in at least one newspaper but no other trace remains.

The Honorary Masons also left all but no trace. This appears to have been organised lodge, anti the new ways in some aspects, and it is asserted to have rejected the administering of an obligation under oath in favour of binding its members by a pledge of honour only. In 1730 Desaguilers suggested to the Grand Lodge that measures be taken to prevent false bretheren such as the Honorary Masons from visiting lodges under Grand Lodge.

The Real Masons were another body of dissenters whose purpose was to disparage Grand Lodge, while the Modern Masons, having no connection with the Modern Grand Lodge, were so avowedly modern as to admit women to membership.

The Scald Miserable Masons were an unorganised aggregation of dissatisfied Masons who believed that they had not received their deserved recognition from Grand Lodge and sought to ridicule the craft by conducting public mock processions and parades. They rose much later than the other dissenters.

Most of these appear to have consisted of loyal Masons who misunderstood the purposes of Grand Lodge or differed in their concepts of Masonry. There was also, however, such bodies as the Ancient Noble Order of Gormogons, the Order of the Gregorians, and the Noble Order of Bucks, which were definitely not Masonic. They may have contained Masons or renegade Masons but their purpose was to ridicule, imitate or supplant Freemasonry.

It is significant that prior to 1717 such press notices in regard to Masonry as are preserved laudatory of the impartial while during the following twenty years a large percentage of the press items and printed materials was intended to expose, ridicule or condemn. This included the period of the exposures culminating in Masonry Dissected. There is thus an indication of increasing public interest and awareness which Grand Lodge tended to ignore other than to close its doors a little tighter with the exception of Clare's Defence of Masonry.

The Gormorgons were definitely unfriendly. Their existence seems to have been from 1724 to 1731, the year of the death of the Duke of Wharton. Many reasons have been put forward for their existence including the Jacobite theory and the removal of the Christian base of the craft. It has also been suggested that it was a deeply laid plot of the Jesuits or Roman Catholics to attain certain purposes by opposing Masonry and it was implied that many old Catholic Masons were offended by the renunciation of sectarian religion. There is little doubt that the Duke of Wharton was very active in this body if he was not actually the innovator.

The Gregorians began in 1730 as opponents of Masonry but grew tolerant over the years. They lasted until around 1807 and were probably political and anti-Stuart.

The Bucks formed around 1722-23 were imitators of Masonry with signs, tokens, obligations and ritual with Nimrod as the legendary founder. There was little resembance to Masonry and no serious opposition although the public at large tended to regard them as rival society.

Conclusion :

It does appear that there were four types of exposures :

  1. Those made by Grand Lodge
  2. Written Exposures
  3. The exposures by dissatisfied groups
  4. The exposures by antagonistic groups.

1. The first exposures were by Grand Lodge itself, e.g. processions, parades (they were becoming quite popular), the publication of the Book of Constitutions and the Antient Charges, the last of which had a profound influence on the public at large. Grand Lodge was also leaking information to the press from time to time, such as reports on the admission to the craft of important people. (NB there was little in the press prior to 1, certainly nothing that was derogatory.)

2. & 3. Written exposures. There were a number of groups of dissatisfied Freemasons who were unhappy with the actions of Grand Lodge. They felt that the Grand Lodge in London was not doing the right thing (in de- christianising Freemasonry). Such groups were called the Old Masons of St John, who were Roman Catholics. I suggest that they were reponsible for the exposure The Mystery of Freemasonry Discovered—which was the first major exposure, and that it was deliberate leaked by the Old Masons to show what real Freemasonry was all about.

The publication of Masonry Dissected by Prichard could have been a deliberate leak by the (Modern) Grand Lodge itself. It shows the new system of degrees etc; it was certainly a great seller. (Clare's Defence of Masonry was an official reply to the exposure). We of course have the benefit of hindsight and consequently we can see these theories as very plausible

4. These also gave further publicity to the craft.

During this early period (1717-30) the craft met with a receptive audience in England, because the society there was looking for something like Freemasonry. By the 1740s the craft was expanding rapidly and the exposures helped to set up the whole machinery for its expansion—for it helped in the dissemination of the Ritual to Freemasons outside London.

From Masonic Foundations, Lodge of Research No. 218.

This file comes courtesy of:
Martin Falconer
Odin Lodge No. 917
Orkney, Scotland