The Mystery of Masonry
Thomas E. Weir, FPS
We take Freemasonry very much for granted. We know what the Fraternity does and what it stands for. However, we judge mostly by our own experience and what we have heard from our immediate predecessors. What do we really know about our Fraternity and the heritage from which it springs? What great forces were at work to shape both Masonry and other social institutions of eighteenth century England? What vestiges are there in custom and usage of those early Lodges? The Mystery of Masonry is how and why the forms, uniforms and symbols of an ancient Craft became, in a few short years, a social force of widespread appeal and considerable impact.
The ritual of Freemasonry gives valuable clues, although differences in ritual are apparent. Those who travel from one American jurisdiction to another see many incidental differences in ways Lodges are opened and closed and degrees conferred. The sojourning Mason finds that the modern American version of Masonry is very much the same in spirit and practice from coast to coast, even though details differ. The typical American Lodge opens at 7:30, closes when the Worshipful Master and Brethren see fit and serves non-alcoholic refreshments after Lodge is closed. Are all Lodges alike?
For a different sort of Lodge, go to London. Attending a Lodge in London is relatively easy, and the welcome is most cordial. Before leaving home, obtain a letter of introduction from the Grand Secretary of your Grand Lodge. It is also courteous to ask one's Grand Secretary to write ahead to advise the Grand Secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England of your intended visit. Visitors to London Lodges are expected to bring aprons and gloves and to wear dark suits and black ties. Visitors who wish to participate in the dinner following the tiled meeting will, of course, be responsible for the cost of the meal.
Call at the Grand Secretary's office at the Grand Lodge building in Great Queen Street, near the Strand. The staff will advise names, locations and programs of Lodges meeting that evening. I was fortunate enough to be invited in by a Lodge that conferred both the first and second degrees on two separate candidates. Instead of the 7:30 opening usual for most American Lodges, the Lodge opened at 4:30 in the afternoon in one of the many Lodge rooms in the Grand Lodge building and closed, having conferred both degrees, about 6:00. We passed through an arch into the Connaught buildings, a complex of dining rooms adjacent to Grand Lodge. Wine was served with dinner, another difference from American practice. The Lodge dinner continued until 10:00 o' clock .
A second London Lodge, composed of Scout leaders and other youth workers and of which a close friend was Master proceeded in much the same manner. The Lodge met in the headquarters building of the Supreme Council, Scottish Rite, then went to the nearby Overseas League for dinner.
If the form of meetings of Lodges here and in London differ so much today, what were Lodges and Masonry itself like at the beginning? What are the roots from which we have grown? We may have mythical beginnings in King Solomon's Temple, but we, as a social rather than a professional body, have perceptible roots not much earlier than the formation of the Premier Grand Lodge in London in 1717 . Accounts of the deliberations of the early Grand Lodge do not indicate an interest in operative Masonry. The forces that shaped the institution of social Freemasonry must have lain beyond the community of operative Masonry.
In 1717, when the Premier Grand Lodge was founded, the Scottish Bishop's Wars, the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution which brought William & Mary to the throne were well past. King George, a German reputed not to speak English, had survived the "Fifteen," a primarily Scottish revolt in 1715, intended to return a Roman Catholic to the throne. "Bonnie Prince Charlie, " the romantic hero of the " Forty-five," had not yet been born. The Duke of Marlborough and British troops were regularly beating the French. Optimism was surging. Private fortunes were blossoming, mansions were being built by many on a scale never before equalled. The economy was booming. On the other hand, the ordinary London citizen was menaced by rampant poverty, drunkenness (whiskey was eight cents a quart; gin was cheaper), prostitution and crime. For much of the population, life was regularly threatened by a mixture of depravity and horror.
The Church of England was the Established Church. After the religious civil wars of the seventeenth century, other Christian denominations were tolerated, but Roman Catholics and Jews were disenfranchised. Deism was the socially and intellectually acceptable form of Christianity. Deism has been explained by describing the relationship of God and the universe as similar to that of a watchmaker and a watch. A watchmaker makes a watch according to established principles, winds it and lets it go. Thereafter, if the watch is well-made, he need not take any interest in the watch except a paternal satisfaction. The contention was that God had fashioned the complexities of the universe according to His immutable laws, then wished it well. For those who benefitted from the expanding economy and the dawning of the Agricultural Revolution, this was a comforting theology. In Deism, God was more or less the god of the comfortable.
John Wesley, an Oxford Don who could have withdrawn into academic isolation, felt, as the result of his ministry to miners and other laborers, that a God not involved in the lives of mortals is too distant to be of practical value to ordinary human beings. The Established Church of his day was described in The Spectator as, "The Conservative Party at worship." Wesley felt that self-satisfaction was not the goal of Christianity.
Thus Methodism and Masonry are certainly the product of the same socio-economic ferment and can be said to have been generated by the same religious and social concern. Wesley, not intending to leave the Church of England, organized societies of Methodists within the Established Church. Masonry cast a wider net, adapting the concept of the club, an idea flourishing at that time in London, to serve the ends of friendship, truth, morality, brotherly love and relief.
Man must have had clubs from his earliest days. Certainly, cavemen had clubs. The ancient Greeks had clubs [hetaireia]. In ancient Greece, the most common clubs were probably religious groups organized for the worship of obscure gods not recognized by the government. There were also political, commercial and athletic clubs, as well as social dining clubs [symposia] whose members met to eat and debate. The meeting and the conversation of one of these clubs is immortalized in Plato's essay, "The Symposium." Instead of being like modern clubs, these groups were simply haphazard fellowships of like-minded persons, meeting without schedule at the call of a leader.
The Romans imitated the Greeks in this as in other matters, then the Dark Ages succeeded the Roman Empire and clubs fell into disuse. In the Middle Ages, the English were unique in that they organized what amounted to fairly complicated clubs designed to meet the needs of members. In spite of the opinions of most historians, who feel that the common people of the Middle Ages were too limited in ability and opportunity or intimidated to organize for any purpose, the English yeomanry organized groups called parish guilds which cared for the sick, buried the dead, provided opportunities to win and exercise leadership, attend special church services and help support the local church. Clergymen were usually forbidden membership and the Nobility were tolerated, but only as ordinary members. There was no national organization. Although the gilds were popular and kings patronized them, the parish guilds were finally wiped out by Henry VIII in 1535. After the destruction of the parish gilds, their structure was perpetuated by the craft gilds of major cities, particularly London. The idea of the club persisted. Within a hundred years of the dissolution of the parish gilds, clubs began to be popular again in England.
In fact, the earliest known English club was le Court de Bone Compagnie, a dining club which flourished in the early 1400's in the time of Henry IV, meeting in a house near the Temple Church. In the late 1500's, the Friday Street or Bread Street Club met in the Mermaid Tavern and is thought to have been founded by Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1616, the Apollo Club was founded by Ben Johnson. Although exclusively male, it admitted women on special occasions. These early English clubs tended to be ad hoc organizations, in which a leader and his followers met to enjoy each other's company
In the mid 1600's, coffeehouses became popular in the London that replaced Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, with King Charles II. Coffee houses made it convenient for clubs to have regular (stated) meetings at a fixed location. The landlord usually set aside a special room for the club. Usually, the price of the food and drink covered the rental of the room. One may imagine the proceedings of a Club during the reign of Charles II to be similar to the proceedings of the dinners enjoyed today by modern London Masonic Lodges. Early clubs were often political, like their Greek predecessors, emphasizing the association of people who thought alike. There were also purely social clubs. In one of these, the Wednesday Club, founded by William Patterson at the Dog and Whistle Tavern, members drew up the scheme that resulted in the founding of the Bank of England.
During the reign of Charles II, a preeminent club was formed: The Royal Society, or The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Virtually every distinguished British scientist of the seventeenth century belonged to the Royal Society or its predecessor, The Philosophical Society. Qualification for membership was rigorous. Regular membership was limited to those noblemen with the rank of baron or greater. Medical doctors and science professors at "the two universities" (Oxford and Cambridge) could apply for supernumerary membership. The success of the Royal Society was assured not only by the landmark scientific achievements of its members, such as Sir Isaac Newton, but also by the King's application for membership a year after its chartering. The popularity of the Royal Society provided the spur for the organization of further societies for purposes other than entertainment. The proliferation of clubs in the eighteenth century was not altogether beneficial. The Hell Fire Club included many of the leading men of the early 1700's, including an early ducal Grand Master, and specialized in outrageous conduct. The Mohock Club terrorized the London natives by behavior little short of barbarism.
Perhaps the unconscious model for the best British clubs was the King and his court. The court, under the leadership of the sovereign, had rituals, ceremonies, degrees to be conferred, offices, honors, banquets, revelry and fellowship, as well as charity to be bestowed. Is it not logical to model the ideal club after the royal court, with all the attributes described above. The presiding officer would represent a king! However, in the social and philosophical ferment which were to produce the Wesleyan revival and Paine's RIGHTS OF MAN, an assembly of king and courtiers was not enough. A club that caught the excitement and dynamics of the Enlightenment and expressed a conviction of the inherent dignity of man, created in the image of God, must recognize the brotherhood and equality of all men by having as its keystone the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. Membership should be based not on social rank, wealth or possessions, but on the moral worth of the individual. As at court, charity would be an important concern in such a club. Imagine then, a group of men, as concerned as John Wesley about the moral and social welfare of the country, as dedicated to the inherent brotherhood of men as Thomas Paine and as reverently conscious of the Fatherhood of God as the established church.
Was it possible to organize a "club" with a set of values such that the members would daily " increase in faith, hope and charity?" Could they devise a system whereby the prerequisite for membership would be moral integrity rather than social position or wealth? Could they devise a strategy whereby such an organization could be passed from generation to generation rather than perish with the founders? By chance or predestination, there was such a group of men, Londoners who were "accepted" members of four Lodges of Free (operative) and Accepted (speculative) Masons, named after the taverns where they met: the Goose & Gridiron (in St. Paul's Church-yard), The Crown (in Parker's Lane near Drury Lane), The Apple Tree (in Charles Street, Covent Garden) and the Rummer and Grapes in (Channel Row, Westminster) . In 1717, they met to form a Grand Lodge.
Why choose Masonry as the pattern for the perfect club? Certainly, the inspiration did not come from London's Worshipful Company of Masons. For all practical purposes, the gilds of masons to be found in every major town were not essentially different from the other gilds of that town. Why not form a Lodge or guild of operative and speculative mercers, grocers or goldsmiths? The important factor was the distinction between "itinerant" Masonry and the masons' guilds was critical to the formation of the first Grand Lodge. Itinerant Masonry built the great ecclesiastical and civil buildings of the Middle Ages with Masons who were free to go from job to job. They had developed a brotherhood and means of recognition which offered to every Mason a job where workmen were needed or hospitality and a day's wages if there were no jobs.
In the sixteenth century, there was a tendency for Masonic Lodges to settle down in a particular location. In the seventeenth century, Masons had opened the doors of their Lodges to men who had formed a good opinion of the order, but had no intention of putting one stone upon another. Masonry provided the framework upon which the ideal club could be built. The Worshipful Master sat in the East, representing a king. Officers and honors, with splendid regalia, were available to those who could earn them. Degrees and rituals rivalled the impressiveness of those practiced by the Court. Ceremonies were elaborate and inspiring. The fellowship enjoyed by Masons at banquets and other gatherings were sometimes spontaneous and sometimes formal, but always designed for the enjoyment of all participants. Revelry, if we may judge by the accounts of witnesses within and outwith the eighteenth century Craft, got out of hand and had to be restrained. Charity was regularly practiced within the Craft and the potential for charity to all in need was unlimited. Other advantages of Masonry included the attractiveness of the "mystery" which surrounded it and gave the members a feeling of election in an almost theology sense, its demonstrated ability to survive for centuries and a system for perpetuating leadership and ritual .
London was unable to confine the ideals and practice of Freemasonry. Quickly, the Fraternity spread into the English countryside, across national boundaries until it spread everywhere under the canopy of heaven. Our Founders, asserting the brotherhood and equality of men and avowing our dependence upon God, established the Grand Lodge system of Masonry and provided the materials and the tools for satisfying our social and achievement needs, and have passed on those tools and materials to us. We face a world different from theirs with new values, new opportunities and new challenges. Let us build today a structure for tomorrow, worthy of the trust they have placed in us.