Men in Aprons

Colin Kidd

  • Who’s Afraid of Freemasons? The Phenomenon of Freemasonry by Alexander Piatigorsky
    Harvill, 398 pp, £25.00, August 1997, ISBN 1 86046 029 1

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?

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