The Metropolitan Grand Chapter's Rob Soames looks to Laurence Dermott - Enigma and Trailblazer for clarity on Freemasonry's charitable origins
The Metropolitan Grand Chapter research project, which resulted in the book Laurence Dermott - Enigma and Trailblazer, didn't start with the question of when Freemasonry became a charitable organisation; we just wanted to know more about Laurence Dermott. But his focus on charity was an important consequence.
Dermott was Grand Secretary of the Antients' Grand Lodge which was set up in 1751 because many Freemasons, especially London Irish ones, were dissatisfied with the 1717 Moderns' Grand Lodge. The two English Grand Lodges remained in opposition until 1813, when the Royal Dukes of Kent and Sussex, each a Grand Master, brought them together as the United Grand Lodge of England. Had Dermott been less influential in the 1750s, some of us now wonder if Freemasonry as we know it would still exist.
The status of the Royal Arch degree was a cause of the schism. Was it integral to the third degree, as the Antients contended? Or was it, as the Moderns said, a separate degree? What they agreed is still in every Book of Constitutions as the rather ambiguous 'Preliminary Declaration'.
There were many differences between the two Grand Lodges in the mid-1800s, and most of Dermott's story, which nowadays is not well known, is about Craft Masonry. Yet Craft and Royal Arch Masonry today is mostly based on what he achieved between 1752 and 1771, especially regarding the organised approach to charity that we still use.
'Had Dermott been less influential in the 1750s, some of us now wonder if Freemasonry as we know it would still exist'
Dermott was an impoverished Irish Freemason who came to London in about 1748 to find work. Like many others, he found that the lodges of the time had many well-off gentry-class masons. But neither they nor he were comfortable together. So when he and those like him set up the Antients' Grand Lodge, they focused on the needs of masons most like themselves. If you lived hand to mouth and were ill or lost your job, you and your family risked homelessness and starvation. As an Irishman who had survived the 1739-40 Great Frost in Ireland (which had killed one million people) and who knew at first hand the second-class treatment the Irish received from the English, Dermott knew all about prejudice and poverty.
So the new Grand Lodge agreed that each sick member would receive one penny per week. In January 1753, they agreed that every member would give four pence a month towards creating a charity fund. A month later, they authorised the officers to pay 10 shillings a week (one shilling then is about £5 now) to a sick member, and seven shillings to those in debtors' prison, costs to be recovered from the charity fund.
To cover this, every member had to pay one shilling per meeting, and lodges paid two shillings six pence for each newly-made mason and one shilling for joining members.
Dermott was a first-class administrator. He introduced practices that we routinely follow today. The Minutes of the Antients during Dermott's lifetime (he died in 1791) show that he personally made the following proposals:
- Each approved lodge had to be registered with Grand Lodge via a Warrant issued for an official fee. Members received initiation certificates. New opportunities arose. British soldiers and sailors serving overseas wanted a link with home. Dermott issued them with warrants and certificates. By 1789 there were 50 lodges in the USA alone. Many still continue.
- Effective lodges need clear, up-to-date lodge by-laws. Dermott set the model.
- Good ritual encourages membership. He led from the front, travelling around England to set up and instruct lodges.