Who’s Afraid of Freemasons? The Phenomenon of Freemasonry 
by Alexander Piatigorsky.
Harvill, 398 pp., £25, August 1997, 1 86046 029 1
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Our experience of Freemasonry is one of the minor peculiarities of the British. From The Grand Mystery of Freemasonry Discover’d (1724) and Samuel Prichard’s Masonry Dissected (1730) to Martin Short’s Inside the Brotherhood: Further Secrets of the Freemasons (1989), the dominant genre in Masonic literature has been the ‘exposure’. Rituals, passwords, oaths, handshakes and symbolic imagery pique the curiosity of the uninitiated, or ‘cowans’ in Mason-speak. Yet, despite its exotic paraphernalia, the Craft’s wider influence on British society is perceived to be mundane and narrow in compass. The list of allegations on the dust-jacket of Short’s book runs to corruption in local government, perversions of justice, ‘the promotion of mediocrity’ and ‘marital break-ups’: why, the cover asks, ‘do so many husbands don an apron at the lodge when they wouldn’t be seen dead in one at home?’

British fears of Masonic conspiracy have never risen to the same pitch as on the Continent or in the United States, not least because our history lacks an adversarial Enlightenment and its culmination in a violent democratic revolution. The French Revolution unleashed a reactionary critique of secret societies. Augustin de Barruel’s widely translated Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme (1797) traced a triad of conspiracies – of philosophes, Freemasons and Illuminati – which lay behind the assault on the Ancien Régime. English Masonry, however, unlike the noxious, anticlerical French model, was misguided rather than vicious. This distinction was confirmed by John Robison, professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh, in Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe (1797). British Masonry stood in a different relationship to the visible Establishment. Whereas in 1738 Pope Clement XII’s bull, In eminenti, had excommunicated all Freemasons, British Masonry continued throughout the turmoil and accusations of the Revolutionary era to enjoy direct Hanoverian patronage from its Grand Masters, the Duke of Cumberland, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex.

Robison’s work triggered an immediate panic in New England, which supported the conservative Federalists against the rising tide of democracy. In his Fourth of July address in 1798, the President of Yale asked: ‘Shall our sons become the disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat; or our daughters the concubines of the Illuminati?’ A further scare followed the disappearance in 1826 of the anti-Masonic campaigner William Morgan. Soon, America had its own Anti-Masonic political party, which held the very first Presidential nominating convention, when, in November 1831, it selected William Wirt of Maryland. Wirt won only one state as a third-party candidate against the victorious Democrat (and Mason) Andrew Jackson and the National Republicans’ Henry Clay (nominally ‘on the square’, though inactive), but the Anti-Masonic movement would play a central role in the formation of the Whig Party. Several Whig leaders emerged from the movement, including President Harrison, who ran in 1840 as the nominee of both the Whig and Anti-Masonic Parties. Anti-Masonry’s focus on conspiratorial threats to republican virtue and its appeal to the evangelical culture of moral reform also shaped the identity of Whiggery, particularly its antislavery ‘Conscience’ wing. As the grandfather of the Republican Party, Anti-Masonry plays a prominent part in American historiography.

The very disconnectedness of Freemasonry – which now has perhaps half a million members in Britain – to the wider history of British society is one of the central concerns of Alexander Piatigorsky, an émigré Russian who teaches comparative religion at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Equipped with a phenomenological method and an encyclopedic knowledge of ritual, Piatigorsky is no muck-raker. ‘Who can speak of secrecy,’ he asks, ‘when the minimum bibliography on Masonry amounts to some 60,000 titles?’ Yet there is a glaring lacuna: embarrassed Masonic antiquarians have studiously ignored the religious aspect of Freemasonry and the Craft’s ambivalent relationship with the churches. Is Masonry a religion?

History provides part of the answer. In the beginning, Masonry was nothing more than a craft organisation, albeit one which, because of the transient careers of cathedral builders, acquired its own secret codes. By the early 18th century, this operative Masonry had somehow been transformed into speculative Freemasonry, which admitted non-operatives, including architects, scientists, antiquarians and clergymen. These literati, influenced possibly by Rosicrucianism and by the renaissance of Vitruvian ideals in architecture, grafted a symbolic ritual onto the craft and its traditions. If Freemasonry is a religion, its provenance is Early Modern.

The second half of Piatigorsky’s book investigates Masonic ritual, the key to explaining Freemasonry’s religious status and its odd place in British life. Freemasonry, Piatigorsky concludes, is a religious society, but ‘a phenomenon oriented centripetally and to the past’, which lacks a religious message or mission to the wider world. Participation in the esoteric rituals is an end in itself. Serious commitment to a ritual in which few Masons detect any higher religious seriousness is, Piatigorsky believes, peculiarly congenial to the British, a people ‘accomplished ... at doing unserious things seriously, and vice versa’.

Given its indifference to society, Piatigorsky is able to absolve British Masonry from charges of conspiracy. Instead, he conjectures that the preference given to fellow Masons in jobs and contracts may have developed informally outside the Lodge, and is no more sinister than an ‘unsystemised’ old-boy network. However, there might also be a historical explanation which Piatigorsky misses. John Brewer’s pioneering work on 18th-century commercialisation has shown that Freemasonry took hold in a world plagued with sudden credit squeezes, where mutual benevolence and extended brotherhood answered real economic needs.

Here we encounter the major flaw in a fascinating but uneven book. The 18th-century backdrop is crucial to an understanding of Freemasonry, as Piatigorsky knows. British Freemasonry, he argues, is a survival, whose defining characteristics – ‘political non-involvement, social abstractedness, religious vagueness and ideological unseriousness’ – have existed ‘almost unchanged since the beginning of the 18th century, quietly defying history and the march of time’. Piatigorsky’s thesis demands a more sustained analysis of Masonry’s original habitat than is offered here.

Unlike Continental Masonry, British Freemasonry is non-political and its membership evenly distributed across the political spectrum. According to Piatigorsky, the Craft ‘started on the long road of social neutralism’ during the first uncertain decade of Hanoverian government. A Stuart restoration remained a potent threat in a society split between loyal Hanoverian Whigs and a Tory opposition which was soft on Jacobitism. At this stage, modern Masonry was still in its infancy. In 1717, the Grand Lodge of England was formally established and in 1723, James Anderson, commissioned in 1721 to ‘digest’ the old ‘Gothic’ charges of Masonry, published its modern Constitutions. A Jacobite, the Duke of Wharton, did hold the Grand Mastership in 1722-23, but left – tongue and throat intact – in 1723, under mysterious but far from amicable circumstances, to found a rival society, the Gormogons. Was Masonry now politically neutral – or merely free from the taint of Jacobitism?

Piatigorsky does not explore this question. Historians remain uncertain about the political colours of 18th-century Masonry, but their tentative conclusions are at odds with Piatigorsky’s thesis. Paul Monod thinks that the message of restoration underpinning Masonic ritual – the rebirth in every Master Mason of King Solomon’s murdered builder Hiram Abiff – proved congenial to English Jacobites, while Philip Jenkins detects a distinctive Jacobite and Country hue in Welsh Masonry. On the other hand, John Money, a keen student of provincial clubbability, notes that while the political stance of Masonry remained broadly Whiggish, in practice the lack of metropolitan control over lodges allowed for considerable local diversity.

However, the slipperiness of the comprehensive loyalism found in Anderson’s Constitutions lends plausibility to Piatigorsky’s position. Each mason was charged to be ‘a peaceable subject to the civil powers ... and is never to be concern’d in plots and conspiracies against the peace and welfare of the nation’. Should a ‘Brother’ rebel, he was ‘not to be countenanc’d in his rebellion’ and the ‘Brotherhood’ was to ‘disown his rebellion’ for fear of giving ‘umbrage or ground of political jealousy to the government’; nevertheless, the rebel was to be ‘pitied as an unhappy man’ and could not be expelled from his lodge. The club, a body turned in on itself and having its own particular rules, provided a means of cementing a society divided by the rage of party. Is it too fanciful to see Mr Spectator’s Club as a model for Masonry? Addison, a staunch Whig, showed how shared conviviality – tempered at times with a mild raillery – could bind such opposites as the Whiggish merchant Sir Andrew Freeport and the booby Tory squire, Sir Roger de Coverley. Spectatorial politeness and Masonic role-playing were different ways of overcoming the mischief of party.

In Britain there has been no direct conflict between Church and Masonry, but some uneasiness as to whether Masonry is an expression of natural religion, an idolatrous parody or a parasite on the mainstream Protestant denominations. Though subtly tracing the clericalism of Masonry and its uncomfortable, yet domestic, relationship with the Church of England, Piatigorsky is surprisingly reticent about the provenance of the Craft’s religious latitude. Freemasonry emerged in an era of religious anxiety, when the run-of-the-mill confessional bitterness of the Early Modern wars of religion was superseded by direct criticism of Christianity itself, pained as well as scoffing. Not only had the Toleration Act of 1689 put paid to the ideal of a comprehensive national church, but the Union of 1707 created a monstrous hybrid, two established churches, Episcopalian and Presbyterian, within the same realm. Moreover, in 1695 the Licensing Act had lapsed, leading to a flood of subversive publications. Core doctrines such as the Trinity came under assault from a variety of positions: Arian, Socinian and Deist. Worse, as orthodox Trinitarians attempted to see off these assailants, their own formulations were found wanting: it was hard to steer an acceptable course between the reefs of tritheism and the opposite Sabellian heresy. But who needed priests, theologians and ‘the gibberish of the divinity schools’ anyway? It was even mooted that theology was the invention of the Devil, and that all religious organisations deployed doctrine instrumentally, to hoodwink the laity out of tithes and donations.

The Quasi-religious cult of Masonry emerged in this strained environment. Its major ‘author’, James Anderson (c.1680-1739), repays closer investigation. Born and educated in Aberdeen, he became Presbyterian minister at the Swallow Street church in London, where he felt keenly both the barbs of High Tory Anglican pamphleteers and the scoffing of sceptics. In ‘No King-Killers’, a sermon delivered on 30 January, the anniversary of Charles I’s execution, Anderson defended Presbyterians from Tory smears that this rebellious and regicidal sect bore prime responsibility for the fate of the Royal Martyr, demanding instead an end to partisan and sectarian name-calling: ‘so shall we be an happy people, Ephraim shall not vex Judah, nor Judah Ephraim.’ Elsewhere, Anderson denounced heterodox Trinitarians and those who ‘burlesque the Holy Scripture’, while also showing signs of a latitudinarian temperament which prefigured his later involvement in the Craft. Christians were all ‘members of the same mystical body ... however they may freely differ in other things’. Ironically, Anderson reflected that there were ‘too many [who] think God is an idle spectator of the affairs of the world, and will allow him no further superintendency over it than a clockmaker or an architect’. Within a decade, his Presbyterian God of ‘vindictive justice’ had become the Masons’ ‘Great Architect of the Universe’.

The late 17th and early 18th centuries witnessed various schemes advanced by projectors of many different stripes to conserve a core of common Christianity around which bickering confessions could unite, and to which even proponents of natural religion might subscribe. The Masonic Constitutions answered these needs, without assaulting fundamentals. As we have seen, Anderson’s tolerance was limited: a mason was ‘oblig’d, by his tenure, to obey the moral law; and if he rightly understands the art, he will never be a stupid atheist, nor an irreligious libertine’. Nevertheless, accidental accretions could be disregarded as things indifferent: ‘But though in ancient times masons were charg’d in every country to be of the religion of that country or nation, whatever it was, yet tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves.’

Did Anderson fabricate a religion? The answer to Piatigorsky’s conundrum lies not in comparative religion, but, largely, in the history of English irenicism. Rather than proclaiming a new religion, the Constitutions suggested a solution to the problems of Christian fragmentation. Anderson’s revised Constitutions of 1738 made this more explicit, with its reference to Masonic agreement in the ‘three Articles of Noah’, a primitive creed which also supplied the Scriptural foundations for Isaac Newton’s theology of latitude.

Yet Freemasonry appeared to offer its own esoteric truths, a supplement to Christianity. The quest for ancient wisdom – ‘prisca theologia’ – had absorbed the clerisies of 17th-century Europe. Contemporaries were also familiar with the notion of the ‘double doctrine’, whereby a religion might comprise an outer shell, the creed of the vulgar, and an inner esoteric truth known only to the initiated. Most famously, William Warburton’s Divine Legation of Moses (1738-41) claimed that belief in a future state of divine rewards and punishments was present in all the world’s pagan religions, albeit often as an exclusive mystery cult. Compare the situation within the Lodge, where the apprentice ascended the basic rungs of the Craft to the wisdom of the Master, beyond which lay the more sublime secrets of the higher degrees of Royal Arch Masonry. The church antiquary William Stukeley sought admission to Freemasonry, ‘suspecting it to be the remains of the mysteries of the ancients’. For Stukeley, ancient wisdom was embodied not only in Masonry, but in the Druidism of the Old Testament patriarchs, out of which had arisen his beloved Church of England.

Anderson’s bizarre historical preambles to the Constitutions, which Masons have long found embarrassing, were not out of place in this milieu. That the pedigree of Masonry could be traced from the building of Solomon’s Temple was credible in a world peopled by the ‘Arkite ogdoad’ – Noah, his three sons and their wives. Similarly, Anderson’s pseudo-historical concern with King Athelstan’s grant of a charter to the Craft meshed with the current cult of an ancient Anglo-Saxon constitution.

However, as Anderson’s career indicates, the rise of Freemasonry was far from confined to England. The Craft provides a fascinating sub-plot to Linda Colley’s story of the making of Britons. Recently, David Stevenson’s innovative The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century 1590-1710 (1988) has attempted to shift the focus of Masonic reorganisation away from 18th-century England, to investigate the experience of Scottish Masonry between the Schaw statutes of 1598 and Anderson’s appearance in London. His leading critic, Margaret Jacob, concedes that pre-1707 Freemasonry might have been a ‘phenomenon ... truly British avant la lettre’, but notes that the English terminology and constitutionalism of Anderson’s invented traditions were then re-exported north of the Border when the Grand Lodge of Scotland was established in 1736.

The blending – and sifting – of the 18th-century ‘British’ nation is typified by other Masonic careers. John Theophilus Desaguliers, a scientist of Huguenot parentage, figured in the Andersonian project, and the leading light of the schismatic Grand Lodge of Antient Masons, established in 1751, was the London Irish printer Laurence Dermott, whose Ahiman Rezon proclaimed the higher Royal Arch Ritual to be the essence of Masonry. The ‘Chevalier’ Andrew Ramsay, a Scots Jacobite émigré and ecumenical mystic, was another who puffed the Royal Arch.

Piatigorsky ignores the wider proliferation of pseudo-masonic clubs which flourished alongside the Ancient and Modern Masonic orders, whether as rivals, local complements, or alternative national networks: the Bucks, the Gormogons, the Lumber Troop, the Society of the Grand Khaibar, the Half Moon Society, the Birmingham Bean Club, the Oyster and Parched Pea Club of Preston, and various ‘mock corporations’ replete with bizarre rules and office-holders. The real mysteries of the Craft are its longevity, appeal and public profile long after the passing of the peculiar masculine sociability of Enlightenment Britain. Who’s afraid of the Gormogons?

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