The following account is an excerpt from the newly released book, Freemasonry: A Celebration of the Craft, edited by John Hamill and Robert Gilbert, with a forward by HRH, the Duke of Kent. The book was prepared to coincide with the 275th anniversary of the first Grand Lodge in England.
With the founding of the premier Grand Lodge in London on June 24, 1717, organized Freemasonry was born., The four "Old Lodges" that met at the Goose and Gridiron ale house in St. Paul's Churchyard elected one of their number, Anthony Sayer ("Oldest Master Mason and then Master of a Lodge" ) as Grand Master and agreed to hold a Grand Feast once a year. Sayer also appointed Grand Wardens and " commanded the Master and Wardens of Lodges to meet the Grand Officers every Quarter in Communication," although there is no evidence that these meetings ever took place. For the first three years of its existence Grand Lodge simply provided an opportunity of an annual social gathering of London lodges. There was no attempt, nor apparently any intention, to exercise control over provincial lodges. But the casual state of affairs was soon to change.
The Grand Master who succeeded Sayer - George Payne and the Rev. Dr. Theophilus Desaguliers - were men of a different stamp who, with the help of the astute and inventive Rev. Dr. James Anderson, remodeled and revitalized the craft. Following the codification of Grand Lodge regulations by Payne in 1720, and the election of a grand Secretary in 1723 (with the consequent establishment of official minutes), Anderson compiled and published the first official Constitutions of the Free-Masons (1723), which set out those regulations, together with a history of the craft derived partly from the Old Charges but expanded an embellished by Anderson's fertile imagination. Fanciful though this history was, the effects of Anderson's Constitutions was to establish the idea of Freemasonry firmly in the public eye - to such an extent that contemporary writers seized upon it as worthy object of satire.
This did not mean the craft was inimical to the intelligentsia of the time - far from it - and for this, much of the credit must go to Dr. Desaguliers, among whose many achievements was his invention of the planetarium. Associate and friend of Isaac Newton, Desaguliers was the archetypal speculative Mason. As the child of Huguenot refugees he was deeply committed to the ideal of tolerance, while as a natural philosopher (or what we should now call a physicist) he was an eager student of the 'Hidden Mysteries of Nature and Science.' There seems little doubt that the many Fellows of the Royal Society who became Free masons were influenced by Desaguliers' example, and it is surely no accident that no less than 12 Grand Masters where also Fellows of the Royal Society during the 20 years following Desaguliers.
It is also significant that, after 1720 every Grand Master was of either noble or royal rank. By this time a subtle shift had taken place. The old operative element - such as it was - lost control of the craft, while Grand Lodge, the governing body, became increasingly associated with the upper echelons of society. This was to have a profound effect on the development of English Freemasonry. But the history of the craft is not simply the history of Freemasonry in London. By the mid-1720's many provincial lodges began to accept the jurisdiction of Grand Lodge; others, however, denied its authority - notably at Your, where an independent Grand Lodge sprang up.
During the early days of the craft there were no permanent Masonic Halls or Temples, and lodges were usually held in taverns or coffeehouses.
From the latter part of the 17th century the following pattern was followed. First, the candidate took an obligation on the Bible to preserve the mysteries of the craft. The word and sigh were then communicated and the charges and legendary history were read. By 1700 a two-degree system, of entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft, was in place, and in the 1720's a third degree, that of Master Mason, made its appearance.
Gradually, the ceremonies became more elaborate. The obligation, accompanied now by a physical penalty, was followed by the communication of the sign and word of the degree in question, while in the second part of the ceremony there was a short catechism, using a simple symbolism based on the stonemason's tools, in which the ceremony and the purpose of the degree were explained. From the 1770's these explanations began to be expanded, incorporating additional working tools as symbols of particular virtues and symbolical explanations of the candidate's preparation for each degree, as well as of the lodge furniture and members regalia. today the basic framework of the craft in England is effectively the same as it has been since a standard for of ritual was introduced in 1816.
Given the existence of active operative lodges in Scotland, it is surprising that a Grand Lodge did not arise there until 1736. When it did, it was - as in England - the result of four old lodges combining. Their initial gathering led to a meeting of 33 lodges on November 30, 1736. However , a considerable operative element remained in Scottish Masonry; new lodges did not proliferate to the same extent as in England, and to dissension between operatives and non-operatives was added argument over historical precedence. In 1743 the latter controversy led to the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge resuming its independence, which lasted for almost 70 years and during which it chartered lodges both in Scotland and in North America. It was also involved in the even greater disruption of Scottish Masonry caused by Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.
There is no certain evidence that operative lodges existed in Ireland, and there is only a single literary allusion to a speculative lodge at Dublin in 1688. The first certain date is June 26, 1725, when a meeting of the Grand Lodge at Dublin elected the earl of Rosse as its " New Grand Master." The Dublin Grand Lodge, however, was not the only one in Ireland. Just as in England, provincial lodges were wary of submitting to a central authority. Many of them paid little attention to directives from Dublin, while in Cork an independent Grand Lodge of Munster survived for seven years until 1733. For the rest of the 18th century the Grand Lodge of Ireland had no rivals and, except for the brief emergence of a grand Lodge in Ulster in the early 19th century, it has continued to act as the sole Masonic authority in Ireland.
In Masonic terms, Ireland was also a model of religious tolerance. Protestants and Catholics came together in the craft, and for many years the statesman and patriot Daniel O'Connell played the active part in Irish Freemasonry, resigning from the craft only when a misguided belief that Freemasons were to blame for the excesses of the French Revolution led the Roman Catholic hierarchy to enforce the anti-Masonic Bulls of 1738 and 1751. This foolish action led to a great exodus of Catholics from the craft.
But despite such setbacks, Irish Masonry flourished. Lodges under the Irish Constitution were founded overseas and from 1732 it was the Grand Lodge of Ireland that issued the first traveling warrants to regiments of the British Army. While this had little impact on English Freemasonry, a later influence in English Masonry was to create an upheaval in the craft that would have dramatic and far-reaching consequences.
Little more than ten years after the founding of the premier Grand Lodge of England, changes in both custom and ritual began appearing which some members of the craft viewed with alarm. Becoming increasingly concerned with what they saw as unwarranted interference with the " landmarks" of the Order, they eventually threw in their lot with a group of Irish Masons who had been denied entry to London lodges - primarily because they were artisans, and because their ritual did not conform to English usage.
In 1751 these disaffected Masons formed themselves into six lodges and set up a Grand Committee that within two years had transformed itself into a vigorous and wholly independent Grand Lodge. Through the efforts of one remarkable man this " Antients" Grand Lodge - so called because it claimed to have restored ancient usages - went from strength to strength until it became a formidable rival of the earlier, and now paradoxically nicknamed, " Moderns" Grand Lodge.
Successive editions soon followed that were increasingly hostile to the Moderns and, by virtue of Dermott's polemical but engaging style, highly influential within the craft. Within 20 years of its foundation the " Antients" Grand Lodge had founded some 200 Lodges in London, the provinces, and overseas (almost half the number of lodges under the authority of the much older premier Grand Lodge). Even more galling to the 'Moderns' was the fact that the 'Antients were also recognized as the legitimate Masonic authority in England by the Grand Lodges of both Ireland and Scotland.
In spite of its quarrel with the 'Antients' and its problems with more recent rival grand Lodges, the 'Moderns' Grand Lodge also flourished - due mainly to the work of William Preston whose Illustrations of Masonry remained in print for almost a century after its first appearance in 1772. Preston's book undoubtedly helped to reassure ordinary Masons that the principles of the craft were more important than the petty squabbles in which their hierarchy indulged. But for all their feuding, the two Grand Lodges still offered notable examples of tolerance and harmony. In the overwhelmingly Protestant country that still proscribed Catholicism, it was a salutary example, both to the craft and to the nation as a whole, to see Freemasonry ruled by Roman Catholic Grand Masters - Thomas Mathew for the 'Antients' in 1767 and, five years later, Lord Petre for the 'Moderns'.
As the 1800's drew to its close Freemasonry was increasingly seen as an institution dedicated to the benevolence and the moral good of mankind; the image of the carousing Freemason established in the 1740's by the satirical engravings of William Hogarth (himself a mason and Grand Steward) had become a thing of the past. The craft was avowedly non-political, and the political repercussions of the American Revolution had very little effect on the institution as a whole. The effects of the French Revolution, however, were to be very different.
Initially, the events of 1789 were greeted in England with a degree of sympathy. Many saw the removal of an absolutist tyranny and its replacement by a constitutional monarchy and elected government as a desirable political end. But with the coming of the " Terror" sympathy was replaced by revulsion and hostility toward those who professed " Liberty, Equality and Fraternity." The superficial similarity between the revolutionary slogan and the basic principles of Freemasonry was seized upon by detractors who hysterically blamed the craft for unleashing the violence of the Revolution. Luckily, common sense prevailed and it was generally recognized that English Freemasonry - which from 1782 onward, could point to a succession of royal Grand Master - was in no way a subversive organization; in fact when the Unlawful Societies Act (for the suppression of seditious organizations) was passed in 1799, Freemasonry was specifically exempted.
The trauma of the French Revolution and its aftermath led to a general desire to heal national and social divisions, and within the craft a new generation of Freemasons sought to close up the rift in their own ranks. The firs move came from the 'Moderns' in 1798, and slowly, in 1813 the 21 Articles of Union were drawn up and agreed upon, and the United Grand Lodge of England was born.
The year 1813 was a watershed in English Freemasonry. On December 27 the rival " Modern" and " Antient" Grand Lodges came together to form the United Grand Lodge of England under the Grand Mastership of Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, a son of King George III. The Duke was a student of theology and Hebrew, and to scholarship he united unusual religious and political tolerance. In an age when religious bigotry was still rife in public affairs. the Duke of Sussex was an outspoken supporter of Catholic emancipation and went out of his way to associate himself with a number of Jewish causes.
In reorganizing the craft after the union, the duke was determined to make the Antient Charge " Of God and Religion" the centerpiece of the reconciled fellowship. It was intended that the craft would become truly universal and open to men of all faiths. And so when the craft ritual was being revised in 1814- 16, the process of de-Christianization that had been steadily occurring since the late 18th century was accelerated, resulting in the removal of all overt Christian referenced from both sets of rituals.
As a result non-Christians could now participate in Freemasonry without compromising their principles, while Freemasonry itself could demonstrate that, although it supported religion in general, it was not attempting to replace or challenge any particular denomination. In short, the revisions made clear that while Freemasonry had an archaic religious basis, it was not in any sense a religion in itself.
The revisions of the English craft rituals also has a profound effect on the nature of English Freemasonry itself. In the 18th century the rituals, while attempting to instill in members a simple moral code, had been basically a means of gaining admission into what was essentially a social society. The new rituals, which exemplified the there great Masonic principles of brotherly love, relief and truth, and emphasized the centrality of God in human existence, became the whole basis of Freemasonry, not simply entrance ceremonies for a club whose main purpose was social.
The Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland had carefully observed the negotiations that let to the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England The Three British Grand Lodges, while retaining their individual sovereignty and developing differences in practice, maintained a close rapport that has continued to the present day. In all three jurisdictions, Freemasonry was becoming part of the fabric of social life. As Britain was rapidly transformed into a major industrial power, Freemasonry grew on an unprecedented scale. With this social upheaval when an explosion of new ideas, especially in the field of science. What had been regarded as fundamental, inviolate truths now began to be questioned. In the midst of such social and intellectual ferment Freemasonry appeared to many to offer a haven of calm and certainty with its core of unchanging principles, and within the Masonic lodge men from all sections of society, who might be separated by class and political ideology in their daily lives, came together as equals.