Around midsummer 1717, the first masonic Grand lodge is said to have been created in London. Although the event is not documented in any primary sources, Freemasons across the globe – and there are between 2 and 3 millions of them – celebrate this tercentenary with a host of special events: concerts, exhibitions, and parades. But what role has the fraternity – that in our day also includes a growing number of women – played in history? Who were the men (and women) attracted by secrecy, initiation, and symbolism? Are the masonic lodges precursors of modern civil society?
Our view of freemasonry oscillates between two typical positions: idealization and distrust. Pierre Bezukhov, the hero of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) joins a masonic lodge in St Petersburg which marks a profound transformation. Pierre develops an ethos of philanthropy and global consciousness and there is no doubt that Tolstoy viewed the brotherhood as a positive force in history, which of course most of masonic practitioners have done since its inception.
But at the latest, starting with the French revolution, another image has prevailed. In a nervous search for culprits, the spotlight was directed towards fraternal orders such as the Freemasons or the infamous Bavarian Illuminati that could be blamed for the downfall of crown and church. Since then freemasonry has been the object of conspiracy theories preferably in authoritarian states. But even in Britain an Unlawful Societies Act was adopted in 1799 that placed masonic lodges under governmental control until 1967. And about three decades later, the Home Affairs Committee investigated the alleged influence of freemasonry in society, triggered by some high profile miscarriages of justice.
Modern freemasonry became a global movement in the 18th century and its ideas have since created a considerable social, cultural, and political impact. Since its official inception in 1717, without any formal governing body, it spread throughout the world as a prominent feature of associational life. It became one of the largest non-governmental secular organizations. Following a dispute over ideological matters in the 1870s, the masonic world is divided into two main spheres of influence: lodges adhering to the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE, 1717/1813) and those adhering to the Grand Orient de France (GODF, 1738/72). Besides these two major masonic bodies there exists a large number of independent, self-authorized masonic lodges and masonic-like fraternal orders. Female membership is today a prevalent yet still disputed feature of freemasonry. And a wide range of other fraternal organizations were established, based on principles of freemasonry.
The historical origins of freemasonry are to be found in medieval professional craft-guilds for stonemasons, active in the construction of cathedrals, churches, and secular buildings around Europe. Modern freemasonry was modelled on the imaginative world of these guilds, with their architecture and geometry, mythology, symbols, feasts, and rituals, and it represents both in real and in imagined terms a continuation of this heritage. Strikingly, blended into this heterogeneous mix was the powerful idea of descent from Chivalric orders in general and the Knights Templar in particular, as well as from Greek and Roman mystery cults.
The medieval heritage was later merged with the scientific and associational culture of the early Enlightenment, creating an eclectic mixture of intellectual and religious traditions. It was now, that freemasonry for the first time opened up to female membership and developed features of a strong associational impulse constituting a school for self-governance and democratic government.
Against the backdrop of a strongly polarized view on freemasonry, recent scholarship has attempted to clear a middle ground from which fraternal history can be studied, solidly based on documentary evidence.
The idea of a universal, all-embracing brotherhood has clear elements of cosmopolitan thought that recur throughout the history of freemasonry. However, prominent freemasons have been involved in a number of national liberalization and independence movements across the globe. And despite its cosmopolitan ethos, issues of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation illustrate the fault-lines and limits of masonic tolerance.
Since the early 18th century there has also been a friction between established Christian churches and freemasonry. Starting with the first papal ban in 1738 (followed by many more), the Catholic Church was most prominent in its condemnation of freemasonry. These condemnations have however not prevented practicing Catholics from joining masonic lodges, and in countries like Ireland freemasonry was and is particularly evident. At least since the French Revolution, freemasonry has been accused of orchestrating radical political change. Reinforced by anti-masonic and anti-Semitic writings at the turn of the 19th and into the 20th century, European right-wing groups mainly after World War I absorbed this anti-masonic ethos into their ideological and political agendas.
After a negative trend in membership recruitment following the 1960s, there have been signs of recuperation not least occasioned by the collapse of Soviet communism after 1990, and many new national grand lodges have been established in central and eastern Europe.
Against the backdrop of a strongly polarized view on freemasonry, recent scholarship has attempted to clear a middle ground from which fraternal history can be studied, solidly based on documentary evidence. Spearheaded by individual researchers in France, Austria, and the US and occasioned by a new availability of sources since 1990, a growing global group of scholars has produced primary research that throws new light on the fascinating history of the brotherhood. This trend has manifests itself in the publication of handbooks, critical source editions, academic journals, and conferences devoted to the subject.
Featured image credit: The traditions, origin and early history of Freemasonry (1882) by Internet Archive Book Images. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.