Over two hundred academics and Masonic researchers attended the first International Conference on the History of Freemasonry held at Freemasons’ Hall, Edinburgh, over the last weekend in May
The conference patrons were the Grand Master Mason of Scotland (Sir Archibald Orr Ewing, Bt), the Pro Grand Master of England (Lord Northampton) and the Grand Master of Ireland (George Dunlop), who jointly opened the conference and attended many of the lectures.
Seventy-two speakers from around the world gave presentations covering an enormous range of Masonic topics from early Scottish Lodges to historical surveys of Freemasonry in Europe, the Middle and Far East, North, Central and South America. More specialist presentations covered Freemasonry and the Enlightenment, fraternalism, religious and ethical connections, symbolism, secularism, architecture, leisure, music, journalism, publishing, women and sociability.
There were five plenary lectures given by major academics. Professor Jan Snoek from Germany opened the conference with a stimulating lecture Researching Freemasonry; where are we? Professor Margaret Jacobs from California, whose writings on Freemasonry in the 1980s brought the subject back to academic respectability, spoke on Benjamin Franklin and Freemasonry.
Professor J. A. Ferrer Benimelli, President of the Centre for Historical Studies of Spanish Freemasonry presented a survey of relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Freemasonry. Professor David Stevenson of St Andrew’s University spoke on Working class Freemasonry in Scotland and Professor James Stevens Curl ended the conference with a lecture on Freemasonry and garden history: ideas, allusions, fabriques and the Enlightenment.
There was a great diversity of subjects, but there was a certain frustration that with three sessions running in parallel each day, choosing which to attend was difficult and Murphy’s law often operated – two speakers or subjects you wanted to hear being presented at the same time!
To be fair, however, the conference organisers, Supersonic Events Limited, did a tremendous job of organising over 200 people within the limited confines of Freemasons’ Hall, running sessions to time and ensuring that coffee and lunch breaks kept the body going whilst the mind was being feasted.
As with all conferences, equally important to the formal sessions was the opportunity of meeting old and making new friends and having the opportunity to sit down, or more often stand with a drink in hand, to discuss pet theories, new insights and new information provided in many of the formal presentations. It was certainly to the benefit of both the academics and the Masonic researchers to have this great opportunity of meeting together and comparing notes.
The social side was as well planned as the formal sessions, including a gala dinner followed by a traditional ceilidh at the stunning Royal Museum of Scotland.
The Conference had been preceded on the Thursday evening at the Freemasons’ Hall by the final of the Scottish Youth Orchestra’s Young Musician of the Year Competition.
Three very talented young musicians – two violinists and a clarinettist – played two pieces each and quite how the adjudicators were able to sort them out into first, second and third places, so well had each played, remains a mystery to the delighted audience. The three Patrons of the conference presented the prizes.
The Grand Lodge of Scotland is to be congratulated on promoting and supporting this first major conference. The organisers and the Local Organising Committee (Robert Cooper, Curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, James Daniel, former Grand Secretary of England, and Professor Andrew Prescott, formerly of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry, Sheffield University), learned a great deal about running such a major event and are not daunted by the prospect of future Conferences. Indeed, thought is already being given to having a second conference in 2009 to tie in with the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns!