Saturday, June 24 brought the 300th anniversary of the day four Masonic lodges in London revealed themselves to the public and organized themselves into the Grand Lodge of England. The following was written for the New York Times’ Op-Ed page, but was not published, so I offer it to American Creation’s readers.
Freemasonry: Making a Good World Better for 300 Years
On June 24, 1717, four lodges of Freemasons that met in various taverns in London united in revelry for the purpose of forming a “grand lodge,” thus revealing their existence to a curious public and initiating a movement that would spread a benevolent culture around the globe.
The facts of the actual founding of the Masonic fraternity are lost to time, but it was on that date when the modern Freemasonry the world knows today was hatched. The fraternity that thrived with, and derived much of its identity from, the Enlightenment would see its members become heads of state, military greats, geniuses of science and industry, legends of the arts, influential spiritual thinkers, and prominent in so many more walks of public life, all united by a philosophy that helped birth and develop the modern world.
In its early decades, there were many competing theories of Freemasonry’s origins. There were plenty who insisted Freemasonry descended from the Greek god Hermes, inventor of letters and sciences. Others taught the beginnings are found in the rites of the Dionysians, or the Pythagoreans, or the Essenes, or the Roman Collegia, or the Druids, or the Gnostics, or the Rosicrucians, or other societies. The most popular, but equally unfounded, opinion says the Knights Templar of the Crusades is Freemasonry’s ancestor. The likely truth lacks glamour and romance: the Free and Accepted Masons of these past 300 years are an evolution from the stone workers and architects of the Middle Ages who constructed the mighty fortresses, castles, and cathedrals of the British Isles and Europe, having mastered and kept inviolate the secrets of geometry, the almost godly techniques of Western architecture, particularly in the Gothic style.
The transition from hardy workers in stone to enlightened thinkers came of necessity. The Protestant Reformation brought the end of cathedral building while simultaneous changes in how wealth was produced lessened the reliance on countryside castles, and the advent of explosives proved new vulnerabilities to stone forts. But the divine secrets of Euclidean geometry guarded by those workers in stone could not be disregarded as useless old knowledge.
Scottish Masonic lodge meeting minutes from the final years of the 1590s show how membership was extended to influential men unconnected to the building arts. Such records are scant, but one diary jotting in 1646 by Elias Ashmole notes his initiation into Freemasonry in Lancashire. Ashmole was no stonecutter. He held an assortment of government positions before and after the English Civil War; had married into money and position several times; and was a known student of alchemy, astrology, and magic. His bequest to Oxford University is known to us today as the Ashmolean Museum.
Whatever Freemasonry did in Scotland and England to the early 18th century is not understood in detail. Even from the years immediately after 1717 the details remain opaque. The first official history of the fraternity was published within the pages of the Grand Lodge of England’s Constitutions of 1723, but it is a history typical of its time, relying on myth, legend, Biblical personalities, and audacity. Authored by a Presbyterian minister named James Anderson and dedicated to the Duke of Montagu, the “History of Masonry or Geometry and Architecture” confers Masonic membership upon Israelite patriarchs, early English kings, and many other unsuspecting figures.
However illustrious or plain the history of Freemasonry is, it actually is the philosophy of the fraternity that enabled it to travel the entire world and endure the centuries. It is true that having divine and royal patronage adds luster and allure, but those conditions also serve to restrict membership to the elites of society, which is the problem that withered first Grand Lodge of England of 1717 until it collapsed less then a century later.
The philosophy of Freemasonry however can inspire those of all stations and places. There are various ways to phrase it, but citing the Golden Rule suffices as well as any other means. Perhaps its most known rendering is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which comes from Matthew 7:12 where Jesus borrows from Jewish law, but it is a concept found in all the major religions.
Was it necessary for Freemasons to mimic established religion when there already were so many sects one might support? That answer also is quite simple: Freemasonry itself is not and never has been a religion. Rather, it offers an ecumenical space where people of many faiths may enjoy fellowship together. Starting in 1717, Freemasonry provided a non-sectarian place where not only Catholics and Protestants could meet in friendship, but also a venue where those of the various Protestant denominations could coexist in brotherhood. It was a time preceded by Civil War (1642-51), Restoration (1660), Glorious Revolution (1688), English-Scottish Union (1707), Jacobite rebellion (1715), and wild change in royal families until the stability of British monarchs was solidified in 1714. Somebody had to do something.
This shows that what we today know as diversity dwelled inside the hearts and minds of decent people 300 years ago. During the 1720s, the first initiation of a Jew into a London Masonic lodge was recorded—it would be well more than a century before Jews in England would receive anything resembling what we today consider civil rights. As the British Empire reached around the world, Freemasonry accompanied it.
A second and separate grand lodge emerged in 1751 whose lodges offered their fraternal embrace to people of more modest backgrounds: Soldiers, sailors, merchants, craftsmen, and others without noble relations were welcomed into Freemasonry, and as they traveled the world, they established lodges everywhere possible. In the 19th century, Muslims, Hindus, Parsees, and others would be initiated into the fraternity. The result was a dynamic cosmopolitan world we take for granted today.
From London, Freemasonry spread fairly rapidly to Europe and the New World. Freemasonry existed in the British Isles before 1717, and grand lodges would be established in Ireland before 1730, and in Scotland in 1736. Lodges appeared in Dunkirk, Hamburg, The Hague, and elsewhere on the Continent by the early 1730s. In the early and mid 18th century, lodges would be founded in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Savannah, Portsmouth, Newport, Annapolis, New Haven, and at various points across Delaware and Virginia.
Where lodges settled, the Masonic philosophy took root. The old builders in stone are not forgotten, as the working tools they wielded were converted for symbolic use for moral and civil instruction. The gavel, the stonemason’s hammer, is employed to teach divestment from the vices and superfluities of life, and is used in practicality to bring order to meetings; the plumb teaches moral rectitude; and the level inculcates equality, to name only three.
The functions of the Masonic lodge taught early Americans about democracy, as lodge officers are elected by secret ballot, and fraternity jurisprudence likewise is decided by member vote. This was a time when only landowners voted in civic elections, but in lodge, one need not have been so well to do. The image of three classical pillars in Masonic teaching aids have been interpreted to symbolize the three equal branches of American governance from the local to the state and federal levels.
While it is untrue that “all” American Founding Fathers were Freemasons, it is true that nine of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence are known to have been Masons, and 13 of the 39 signers of the Constitution are known to have been members. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and many others were prominent Freemasons; Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and far more were not Masons.
In 2017, there are approximately 40,000 members of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York (est. 1781), and on this very day there are hundreds assembled at Utica to celebrate the past, present, and future of their fraternity.
Jay Hochberg, a freelance writer and editor, is a member of Publicity Masonic Lodge No. 1000 in New York City.