The happy means
We hear a great deal about diversity and inclusivity these days but, as Director of Special Projects John Hamill explains, they are in the foundations of Freemasonry
There are many theories about the origins of Freemasonry. The one that I favour suggests that it was formed and developed by a group of men who, knowing what divided people, were looking for a means of bringing men of diverse backgrounds together. They wanted to discover what they had in common and find out how to build on that commonality for the good of the community.
The period in which Freemasonry was developing – the late 1500s and 1600s – was one of great religious and political turmoil. Those differences split families, eventually leading to civil war; the execution of the king; a republic under Cromwell; the restoration of the monarchy; and the beginnings of our present system of constitutional monarchy.
Religion continued to impact people’s lives long after the turmoil. Under the Test Acts, those who were not members of the established church could not take public office or public employment, or enter the universities or Parliament. Roman Catholics and Jews could not even move more than 10 miles from home without a licence from the magistrate.
Once Grand Lodge was formed in 1717 and began keeping central records, evidence emerges of the diverse nature of lodge membership. In 1723, 1725 and 1728, Grand Lodge asked its lodges to submit returns of members, which were copied into the Grand Lodge’s first Minute Book. When the Premier and Antients Grand Lodges began to keep central registers, the horizon expands still further.
In recent years, work has been done relating such membership lists to the poll and rate books, as well as the Huguenot and Jewish archives. It has shown that the London lodges were diverse and inclusive, with significant representation from the Huguenot, Jewish and non-conformist populations in London.
Having worked at times on a daily basis with the 18th- and 19th-century membership registers during my 28 years at the Library and Museum, I can state unequivocally that the membership of English Freemasonry has always been a microcosm of the society in which it exists. There is a myth that Premier Grand Lodge was mainly an aristocratic and upper-class organisation; while its Grand Masters were noblemen or Royal Princes, its registers show that lodge members were a cross section of the community in which the lodge met.
Nor was race a bar. In 1784 a group led by Prince Hall and describing themselves as ‘free blacks’ from Boston, Massachusetts, applied to Premier Grand Lodge for a warrant, which was granted under the name of African Lodge, No. 459.
Although the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had abolished the trade in slaves, it was not until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that owning a slave was made illegal in the colonies. In 1840 the English lodges in Barbados petitioned Grand Lodge for a change in its Book of Constitutions. The rules required each candidate to declare that he was ‘free born’. The lodges in Barbados stated that they had a number of educated blacks who would be good Freemasons but had not been born free. Without argument, Grand Lodge simply removed the word ‘born’ from the declaration to enable them to join.
When lodges began to proliferate in India in the 19th century, as well as in Africa and Asia in the early 20th century, they were not expatriate lodges. Rather, they welcomed the local populations and, particularly in India, were the one place that Europeans, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Parsees could meet together and build bridges between their communities.
By being diverse and inclusive, Freemasonry indeed became, in Dr James Anderson’s memorable phrase of 1723, ‘the happy means of conciliating friendship amongst those who must otherwise have stood at a perpetual distance’.
‘There is a myth that Premier Grand Lodge was an upper-class organisation; while its Grand Masters were noblemen, lodge members were a cross section of the community in which they met.’
Little is known about Anthony Sayer for the simple reason that there has been a lack of research into the first Grand Master. One explanation for this may be that he has been regarded as an ordinary person with low social standing, and has therefore been deemed of little importance. However, this approach flies in the very face of the essence of Freemasonry as we are all brothers, equally entitled to our regard.
Anthony Sayer was elected to be the first Grand Master on a majority show of hands by the members of the four lodges (some say six lodges and others add some ‘unattached’ older brethren) that met at the Goose and Gridiron Ale-house in St. Paul’s Church Yard, on 24 June 1717. The lodges had previously met at the Apple Tree Tavern, in Covent Garden in 1716 and agreed to form a Grand Lodge.
Dr James Anderson in the first Constitutions of 1723 records that at that meeting it was resolved to choose ‘a Grand Master from among themselves, till they should have the honour of a noble brother at their head’. Anderson goes on to refer to Sayer as ‘Mr Anthony Sayer, Gentleman’. This lack of further information regarding who he was and what he did has led to speculation that Sayer was of no real financial means. It certainly suggests that he was not a person with any connection to the aristocracy and therefore of low social standing.
Falling into disrepute
The matter is further clouded by the fact that Sayer had to call on the charitable assistance of the Grand Lodge. This is recorded on a number of occasions in the minutes of Grand Lodge, as is the extent to which he was assisted in some cases. Sayer’s reasons for asking for assistance are not known but it may be that he had simply reached the lowest spoke of fortune’s wheel. It is also recorded that he was charged with clandestine and irregular practice in relation to the Craft, but it was later found that his actions were only irregular, and he was admonished accordingly.
Sayer ended up acting as Tyler of his lodge up to his death after leaving the Grand Master’s chair, and in the interim was also Senior Grand Warden and Warden of his own lodge. This is considered a great demotion by some commentators, with detractors claiming that he was a ‘nobody’ who could not maintain his standing in the Craft and was in fact bettered by those who followed him.
other side of the coin
If these facts are interpreted in the true spirit of Freemasonry, with an open and charitable mind, the converse view could be true. It could be argued that Sayer was held in such high estimation among his brethren and fellows that he was elected on merit by the majority of brethren present as the best person for the job. At the very least, if this were not the case, it might be said that he graciously volunteered for what was undoubtedly an important and difficult role, overseeing the new concept of uniting lodges under one umbrella – a concept which has subsequently survived the wreck of mighty empires and the destroying hand of time.
Another view that may be considered is the humility of Sayer. When he was in need of assistance, he was not too proud to ask for it. Similarly, neither did his ego stand in the way of him acting as Tyler when previously he had been Grand Master. His misfortune did not cause him to turn away from the Craft and it could be argued that Sayer should be held up as a role model for Freemasons today.
When he left this life for the Grand Lodge above in late 1741, Sayer was buried in St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden in January 1742. Standing as a further indication of the esteem in which he was held by his peers, a newspaper article recorded the event as follows: ‘A few days since died, aged about 70 years, Mr. Anthony Sayer, who was Grand Master of the most Ancient and Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons in 1717. His corpse was followed by a great number of Gentlemen of that Honorable Society of the best Quality, from the Shakespears Head Tavern in the Piazza in Covent Garden and decently interr’d in Covent-Garden church.’
There may be several reasons why Sayer’s lineage cannot be traced, not least of which is that records of the era have not all survived, therefore forcing researchers to come to a dead end. However, it has been deduced that the family name ‘Sayer’ was quite common in southern England at the time, but the Christian name ‘Anthony’ was less so, and might be considered more continental in flavour.
It could well be that Sayer was not born in this country. Many people of the time were immigrants who upon settling here changed their names. Notably two people, who are also buried in St. Paul’s Church, come into this category: Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) and Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680). Gibbons, a famous sculptor in wood, was born and educated in Holland while Sir Peter Lely was born in Holland and was originally named Pieter van der Faes. He was portrait painter to the court of King Charles II. Both became naturalised citizens of England and both were consummate craftsmen, with Gibbons shown in a portrait painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) holding a pair of compasses and contemplating the proportions of a classical bust depicted in death mode.
There may yet be facts that can still be discovered about Sayer. Perhaps researchers might look at the wider course of European history for this, rather than stay within the confines of English masonic history. Perhaps we need to start again with the facts we have and look at them with an open mind and in a new light; to tread paths of research that have not yet
been taken. This approach may eventually unearth the real ‘Mr Anthony Sayer, Gentleman’, which, with the 300th year of Grand Lodge fast approaching, is perhaps long overdue. Most importantly, we ought not to forget the values we seek to uphold as part of our Craft and remember what the true reasons for being a Freemason are.
Steven Smith is a member of the West Essex Round Table Lodge, No. 9310