12 June 2019
A presentation by Dr Ric Berman
Some years ago I was invited to a lodge in Greensboro, North Carolina. Having been seated, my neighbour informed me in a low voice that the ritual – like that elsewhere in North Carolina - was modelled on the form used in England in the early nineteenth century. However, much to my surprise, before the lodge was opened, the master asked the senior warden to order the deacons to ‘take the word’ from each of those present. And as the deacons walked the lines to receive the whispered password from each attendee, I was thankful that I had recently visited a lodge in Dublin and knew what was required. But rather than focus on my potential embarrassment, the more important point is this: North Carolina’s Masonic ritual was not from nineteenth-century England but had descended from the Irish and Antients, with roots dating back another sixty years to the mid-eighteenth century.
This made me think about historical context and how an awareness of the background to our ceremonies and ritual helps inform our understanding of Freemasonry and why we do what we do.
Many people consider that the origins of our Constitutions, published in 1723, lies in the ‘Old Charges’. These were the documents that governed the creation and regulation of stonemasons’ lodges and guilds, the first known of which – the Regius manuscript, dates from around 1390-1400. The second, the Cooke manuscript, is believed to date from around twenty to thirty years later. And there are more than a hundred such documents that reach from the end of the fourteenth century into the early eighteenth.
Each document follows almost exactly the same format. They begin with a statement of belief in God and the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; continue with a pledge of allegiance to the king and lawful authorities; contain a ‘traditional history’ of Freemasonry; and conclude with the regulations governing the operation of the guild or lodge.
There is a reason for this structure. Anti-labour legislation enacted by Parliament rendered wage bargaining illegal and in order to circumvent this the guilds need to demonstrate that they were not seeking to disrupt but rather respected the established order of Church and State, and that their demands for ‘fair wages’ were part of a long tradition that dated back centuries and was associated with leading historical figures.
The Regius manuscript dates the arrival of Freemasonry in England to King Athelstan, an Anglo-Saxon king reigning in the tenth century. He is regarded as the first true English king, a man who united England against the Vikings and an iconic figure to mediaeval Britons. The Cooke manuscript pushed the date back 700 years further to the third century and St Alban, the earliest English Christian martyr. The manuscript notes that ‘Saint Alban loved well masons, and gave them … their charges and manner first in England’.
Cooke also states that the level of wage rates the stonemasons were seeking to obtain had been ‘approved’ by Athelstan, who had also given his imprimatur to masonic guilds and assemblies: ‘and he loved well masonry and masons. And he became a mason himself, and he gave them charges and names as it is now used in England, and in other countries. And he ordained that they should have reasonable pay and purchased a free patent of the king that they should make [an] assembly when they saw a reasonable time.’
And James Anderson’s 1723 Constitutions appear to follow a similar vein, with Anderson noting that Freemasonry began with ‘Adam, our first parent … [who] had Geometry written on his Heart’.
It is important to understand that such histories were not to be taken literally. As with the Old Charges, Anderson’s historical account was designed to set a literary context for Freemasonry. By positioning it as an ancient institution linked to icons from the past, the narrative afforded the organisation legitimacy and gave it an aura and attraction that was important in a society that valued tradition.
But although the overall form and structure of the 1723 Constitutions may have been similar to that found in the Old Charges, the substance was fundamentally different.
The most important aspect of the 1723 Constitutions is a section known as the Charges. This was written by Dr Jean Theophilus Desaguliers, a Huguenot, the third grand master and a subsequent deputy grand master. Desaguliers’ Charges comprise a set of Enlightenment principles and provide the foundations for the creation of what is now modern Freemasonry. The philosophical outlook that Desaguliers’ Charges embrace was radical at the time, and the thoughts expressed remain valid today.
The first masonic charge - Concerning God and Religion - replaced the traditional invocation to the Trinity and formal declaration of Christian belief. As written, the charge obliged Freemasons only to ‘obey the moral law’ within a framework of ‘that Religion in which all Men agree’. It would no longer be the case that a mason should ‘be of the religion of that country or nation’ where he resided, but necessary only to believe in God and be a ‘good man and true’.
The charge was not an avowal of support for a specific religious canon or church. The new Masonic oath was a simple declaration of faith in a divine being without a stated preference for any given form of worship. It was openly latitudinarian, if not almost deist, and represented a denial of the importance of doctrine and of ecclesiastical organisation.
The second charge - Of the Civil Magistrate Supreme and Subordinate - made plain that there would no longer be fealty to a divinely-appointed absolute monarch – instead, a Mason will be ‘a peaceable subject to the Civil Powers wherever he resides’. He would also respect civil order – ‘A Mason is a peaceable Subject to the Civil Powers … is never to be concerned in Plots and Conspiracies against the Peace and Welfare of the Nation.’
At a deeper level, the second charge echoed the changes to England’s constitutional structure in the wake of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Where allegiance to the crown – ‘to be a true liege man to the king’ – was core to the Old Charges, the 1723 Constitutions and later oaths would state that Freemasons were subject to the ‘supreme legislature’. For Desaguliers and the new Grand Lodge of England, the ideal political structure was that ‘which does most nearly resemble the Natural Government of our System’. Grand Lodge and hence Freemasonry would be supportive of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary government aligned with an independent judiciary - the ‘supreme legislature’.
The implication was that resistance to the crown could be justified where a king was in breach of his Lockean moral contract with those he governed. This had been the basis of the Glorious Revolution and the justification for replacing James II with William and Mary. It was no longer obligatory for Freemasons to be bound to ‘be true liegemen to the King of England without any treason or falsehood’. They would instead ‘attend’ and ‘respect’, but be ‘guided, not enslaved’.
And in the fourth charge there would be a rejection of patronage, the wheel upon which eighteenth-century Britain turned: in Freemasonry, ‘all preferment is to be grounded upon real worth and personal merit’.
Taken as a whole, this was a social and political manifesto born of Enlightenment values and based on Enlightenment philosophical ideas pioneered by John Locke, Isaac Newton and others.
In June 1723, Freemasonry faced a threat to these tenets from one of its own – the Duke of Wharton, the second noble Grand Master. During his term of office the duke had embraced the Jacobites – the supporters of the exiled Pretender, James Stuart. In response, and at Desaguliers’ request, the Grand Lodge of England resolved ‘that it is not in the power of any man, or body of men, to make innovations in the body of Masonry without the consent first obtained of the Annual Grand Lodge’.
2023 will of course be the tercentennial anniversary of the publication of Anderson’s Constitutions and of Desaguliers’ Charges. The Constitutions and Charges provide the cornerstone upon which English and much of international Freemasonry rests. And it is not only appropriate but incumbent upon us to mark and celebrate this event. To paraphrase T. S. Elliot, we should explore our past and, at the end of so doing, arrive where we began and know the place for the first time.
But as we look back over three hundred years along the Road to 1723, it is also incumbent upon us to turn and to look forward.