HISTORIC ASPECTS OF FREEMASONRY
by W.Bro Yasha Beresiner WM
Quatuor Coronati Lodge #2076
United Grand Lodge of England
An illustrated lecture for freemasons and friends presented at open meeting
Worshipful Master, Ladies, Gentlemen and Brethren,
(*1) Consider that this very moment, as we sit in this Hall, there are tens of
thousands of masons meeting just like us along our meridian, stretching from
Stockholm in Sweden to Cape Town in South Africa, men as diverse in intellect
and culture as you can imagine. Judges and dustmen, bus drivers and city mayors,
bakers, teachers, clergymen and royalty. Christians and Muslims, Jews and
Buddhists. Black, coloured and white.
All surrounded by furniture and decor similar to that here in this beautiful
Temple, all wearing aprons just like ours, all practising, in essence, the same
ceremonies, sharing the same pleasure and pride.
What is the magnetism in Freemasonry that draws such diversity of people to form
one single world-wide compelling fraternity?
That is the question I should like to try to answer this evening.
It could be that we are bound to each other because each one of us has
experienced the same initiation ceremony(*2), a ceremony you have to participate
in if you wish to witness it.
From the day of my initiation I have been fascinated by the thought that for 350
years or more great men of history have gone through a similar ceremony, just
like me; including dozens of members of Royal families in Sweden, Belgium,
Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and England. (*3).
H M King George the VI, who was initiated in 1919, accepted the Rank of Past
Grand Master on his accession to the throne in 1937.
Nearly 200 years earlier in 1752 (*4)George Washington, first President of the
United States of America, was made a freemason in Virginia. Twelve other
Presidents have followed in his footsteps as well as ......Winston Churchill...
Giosue Carducci and Salvatore Quasimodo, Nobel prize winning poets...Niccolo
Paganini and Mozart...(*5)Simon Bolivar..... Houdini... Lindbergh..... even
Casanova...all masons having experienced the same initiation ceremony as myself.
The greatest fascination to me, however, has been to visualise the initiation in
England of (*7)Alias Ashmole. There is irrefutable evidence that he was
initiated as a freemason at Warrington in Lancashire at 4.30 pm on the 16
October 1646. We can be that precise because there is an entry in his diary(*8)
in his own handwriting, recording the event. Ashmole was a very prominent
gentleman of the period. A Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society, an
antiquarian, an astrologer and an alchemist...and it is definite that he had
nothing whatsoever to do with stone masons in their operative or working sense.
Thus the importance we place on his initiation as evidence of our own antiquity
as an institution.
It may very well be that this fascination with our still unknown roots is the
common factor between all of us freemasons across the world.
There are innumerable theories and no final conclusion as to when, where and how
freemasonry began. It would make sense to reach the conclusion that we are
descended directly from operative, that is working, stone masons. Today we use
as our own laws(*9) the same ancient charges and regulations that applied to
operative masons as far back as the late 14th century. This transition theory
visualises a situation where the operative working masons involved in the
building, say, of an ancient (*10) cathedral invited non-masons to their
ceremonies. These would be men of the clergy and finance who were directly
involved in the building. Civics and other members of the community may have
also been invited to participate at the festive boards, which are known to have
been held by the working masons in their Lodges.
On completion of the work, so the transition theory continues, the operative
masons would have moved on to their next undertaking. Those who remained behind,
who had participated over decades, perhaps, in pleasant and convivial
ceremonies, may have decided to continue regular social meetings using, now
symbolically, all the implements and ritual they had witnessed in practice among
the operative masons.
Thus may have been born the speculative or symbolic masonry we practice today.
We don't know.
What we do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that on the 24th of June 1717 four
Lodges in London met together at the (*11) Goose and Gridiron Tavern in St
Paul s Churchyard and formed the Grand Lodge of England, the first Grand Lodge
anywhere in the world and the beginning of organised freemasonry.
If the success of an organisation can be judged by the opposition to its
existence then freemasonry began as a successful institution long before its
formal launch. In 1698, nearly two decades before Grand Lodge was formed, a
(*12) pamphlet was distributed warning Londoners ..of the Mischiefs and Evils
practised in the sight of God by those called Freed Masons...They are the Anti
Could this then be the secret as to what has kept freemasonry a strong and
successful fraternal organisation through the centuries? Those same criticisms
that began three centuries ago continue today in almost identical form and
wording but have never been backed by fact.
(*13)Their arguments and criticism fail to mention that Freemasonry supports
religion and there is nothing in a Freemason s obligations that can be
considered to cause conflict with public duty. It is, however, always
sensational articles and books claiming to reveal all the secrets of the
The fascination to me is that these authors are unaware of the fact that they
are mimicking (*14)Samuel Prichard, who in 1730, more than 250 years ago, had
made exactly the same claim about revealing the secrets of the Freemasons, in
his book Masonry Dissected. Prichard claimed to belong to a recently constituted
Lodge though there is no evidence that he ever was a freemason. The only common
denominator between Prichard and the modern authors of anti-masonic literature
is the reason for their respective publications: monetary gain.
BLESSING IN DISGUISE
In Prichard s case, however, his exposure - as these publications disclosing
Masonic ritual came to be known - is a blessing in disguise for the student of
today. The only available contemporary Grand Lodge information is to be found in
(*15) Anderson s Constitutions of the Free-Masons published in 1723. As a source
of historical information, it is considered to be quite unreliable. The
(*16)frontispiece, however, is possibly the only totally reliable information in
the entire publication.
It depicts the Constitutions being passed by the Duke of Montagu to the new
Grand Master the Duke of Wharton. They are surrounded by identified freemasons
of prominence in the premier Grand Lodge of England. We also have an insight to
the costumes and aprons of the period.
In the body of the Constitutions there is certainly no information about ritual.
It is here that Prichard s Masonry Dissected serves a useful purpose to the
historian. It gives us a detailed account of the ceremonies practised in England
in the 1730s.
Masonry Dissected was an exceptionally successful book. It went into three
editions in eleven days, which is quite remarkable, considering that this was a
period when much of the populace was illiterate and Freemasonry only one of
numerous fraternal organisations.
Why the success of this particular book?
The inevitable conclusion is that Freemasons themselves purchased the exposure
because it gave them an opportunity to better learn their ritual for which there
was no other written source available at the time.
The irony of this situation is that there is probably equal truth with regard to
the recent publications by those attacking freemasonry. The limited success of
their books can be attributable to Freemasons purchasing volumes for their
libraries whilst the public in general remains oblivious or even bored by the
Prichard's success coincided with the spread of freemasonry into Europe where
many similar exposures soon began to appear. In Italy in 17?? the exposure
(17*)'I secreti dei Franchi Muratori' was intended to allow non-masons access
to masonic lodges by telling them the secret words and signs by which they would
be admitted. The illustrations in the book show the (18*)'Preparazione al
ricevimento di un novizio and the text details the procedure in (19*)Articulo
III showing (20*)Lo Strano Apparato della Loggia another illustration gives us
an insight to (21*)La Loggia e Il Maestro.
In France we have more fascinating illustrations(*22),
often derogatory, as in the case of the exposure first published in 1745
entitled Les Francs-Macons Ecrases (The Freemason crashed) by the Abbe Larudan.
The Master of the Lodge in the foreground is seen in a state of disarray whilst
the building, symbolic of freemasonry, is collapsing and masons are falling to
the ground. In the background, a group of lay onlookers are cheering and
The first illustration we have of a Lodge in session was published in Germany
(*23)just three years earlier, in 1742. The 8 illustrations are known as the
Gabanon prints, because they are dedicated to Louis Travenol, the author of
another French exposure entitled Le Catechisme des Francs-Macons and whose
pseudonym was Leonard Gabanon.
Whilst the (*24)first seven plates are all illustrative of Masonic ceremony, the
last (*25)is intended to be offensive, depicting masons of the French
aristocracy as animals.
The greatest fascination that outsiders have with freemasonry seems to be
connected to our initiation ceremony. Because we state that we treat our
ceremonies as private, there have been many extraordinary insinuations as to how
a mason is initiated. In 1721 the anonymous Hudibrastic Poem was published with
clever though highly offensive insinuations of the activities of freemasons.
This led in the 1760s (*26) to some satirical illustrations depicting candidates
being branded with the letters FM on their posterior. Such caricatures continued
well into the 19th century (*27).
SATIRE & FUN
Not all of the satirical depiction of freemasons show them in a negative light.
The most famous engraver of the eighteenth century, William Hogarth, himself a
freemason, depicted (*28) in a print published in 1738 the Master of his Lodge,
drunk after an obviously successful meeting, being escorted home by the tyler.
The print is entitled Night and is one of a series of four known as The Times Of
Day. They are a wonderful reflection of freemasonry of the period. The Master
has been identified as Thomas de Veil, a local magistrate, known not to be in
total amity with Hogarth. That is why the content of the chamber pot is being
poured onto his head. Lawson Wood also drew a series of masons in his well known
(*29) Gran pop series.
We now come to the cross-roads in English Masonic History - which appears such a
coincidental precedent to the history that is in the making here in Italy now,
this very decade. Laurence Dermott, (*30) has been described as the most
extraordinary Masonic personality of any generation. Under his auspices a
competing Grand Lodge was formed in England in 1751 styling itself as the
Antients. It successfully dubbed the Premier and older Grand Lodge as the
Moderns. The competition between the two was fierce and continued for over half
It was only by the grace of (*31)the Duke of Sussex that a union between the two
rivals was finally achieved in 1813. That is why today we are known as the
United Grand Lodge of England.
So we come back to my original question. What is it that has made freemasonry
such a successful and long lasting institution world-wide? Is it its antiquity?
Its resilience? or maybe its exclusiveness or the air of secrecy associated with
Its universal appeal may lie in every man being able to find within freemasonry
some satisfaction in his own field of interest, be it ritual, history,
theatricals, mysticism or just plain social contact. There is no simple answer.
If you were to ask me now the straightforward question: what is freemasonry? I
would reply in one single word: Charity.
Not merely the charity of our pockets, as important as that is, but the charity
of our hearts: the genuine and sincere shared sentiments of brotherly love,
relief and truth.
To end, I will quote one short paragraph from the closing ceremony as practised
in most of our in England and here in Italy. It states:
...you are now about to quit this safe and sacred retreat
of peace and friendship and mix again with the busy
world. Midst all its cares and employment forget not
the sacred duties which have been so frequently inculcated
and strongly recommended in this Lodge.....that by
diligence and fidelity to the duties of your respective
vocations, by liberal beneficence and diffusive charity,
by constancy and sincerity in your friendship, by
uniformly kind, just, amiable and virtuous deportment,
prove to the world the happy and beneficent effects of
our ancient and honourable Institution.
How wonderful this world would be if we could all put into practice such
Yasha Beresiner WM
Quatuor Coronati Lodge #2076
United Gran Lodge of England