A Lifetime of possibilities
Director of Special Projects John Hamill salutes the vital work of amateur masonic historians and their unceasing efforts to uncover new information and reveal new insights
Among the many things I have been privileged to be involved with over the 46 years that I have been a member of the Grand Lodge staff, masonic historical research is my favourite occupation and something I am looking forward to spending more time on when I fully retire.
When I first started work in what was then called the Grand Lodge Library and Museum in the summer of 1971, a number of my academic friends questioned whether there was anything left in masonic history to research. I very quickly found that there was more than a lifetime’s worth of possibilities. New discoveries come to light, old accepted theories need to be re-examined and there are still many areas in which only the surface has been skimmed.
In my time at Grand Lodge, the major change has been the growing interest in masonic history in academic circles. With an in-depth knowledge of the periods they are studying, academic historians have brought new insights and taught lay masonic researchers to look at Freemasonry in the context of the time they are investigating rather than in isolation. Their interest, however, has also brought a tension between the academics and the lay researchers – the former sometimes being dismissive of the efforts of the latter.
CENTRE OF RESEARCH
Outside the archives of Grand Lodge and Supreme Grand Chapter, the great storehouse of masonic historical information is the Transactions of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, No. 2076, the premier lodge of masonic research. For just over 125 years, the members of that lodge have produced an amazing range of papers, comments and notes covering the widest spectrum of the history and development of Freemasonry in all its branches, both at home and overseas.
In the past 50 or so years, the lodge members have been solidly in the historical camp but in the earlier days the Transactions contain many speculative papers drawing parallels between Freemasonry and other initiatory rites and systems. These comparisons were usually drawn in the search to find an answer to that still unanswered question: when and why did Freemasonry receive its birth and early nurture?
Over its history, the membership of the lodge has been eclectic. Some were academic historians and many others had academic training in other disciplines. A surprising number were scientists, engineers and architects who brought to their masonic research the same rigorous discipline of searching, analysing and testing evidence that they had learned in their own fields.
Most of the members of Quatuor Coronati Lodge were, and continue to be, amateurs in the best sense of that word. Their work might not meet with the rigorous standards of a modern university history department, but without it our knowledge of the history of Freemasonry would be greatly diminished. The discoveries they made, the way in which they brought together information from disparate sources and made it available through the Transactions has made life, in many ways, easier for the academic historians.
There is a wry irony in the fact that while some academic historians are slightly dismissive of the amateur masonic historians in their own published works, they regularly refer to papers by the ‘amateurs’ of Quatuor Coronati.
We live in an age of ‘experts’ but I believe that there is still a place in masonic research for those dedicated brethren who delight in their involvement in masonic history, spend hours scouring archives for new information and many times bring new insights to what are often considered closed cases. Long may they continue so we may enjoy the fruits of their hobby.
‘There is still a place in masonic research for the dedicated brethren who delight in their involvement in masonic history’