The Truth about the "Antients" and the "Moderns" by Bro. Jeff Peace
For many Freemasons the schism between the "Moderns"’ and the "Antients" is a thing of the remote past. Most believe that it was over the usage of the secret passwords used during the degrees and never give it any further consideration. Looking back does it seem reasonable that the entire Masonic organization would have splintered in two over something so simple? Is it possible that there was something much deeper taking place — something as shrouded in secrecy today as it was two hundred and fifty years ago?
As a historian it is my job to ask such probing questions and, if possible, attept to uncover the answers. Much of the written history of Freemasonry was written by men who could only speculate upon the details because they had little, if any, material from the early period of Freemasonry from which to work. Oliver, Mackey, Pike, Hall, and Wilmshurst were forced to work from the material they had available at the time they wrote their famous works. Serious Masonic scholarship wouldn't begin until the 1960's with the scholarly works of Yates. Today Masons have more accurate material to work with than at any other point in Masonic history. In 2002 the Russian government returned thousands of manuscripts, stolen by the Nazis in World War II, to their rightful owners in Paris and the Netherlands. This is original material from the eighteenth century when Freemasonry first began. It is from these documents that any serious history of the conflict between the "Moderns"' and the "Antients" must be derived.
The purpose of this paper isn't to discover who was right and who was wrong, but to discover the details of what ultimately led to the schism. It is believed that the schism came to an end with the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England in 1813, when the two opposing Grand Lodges merged. This, however, may not necessarily be entirely accurate.
The "Moderns" are typically portrayed as elitists and the "Antients" as commoners. This has led to the belief that the "Moderns" were composed primarily of educated men, and the "Antients" were uneducated peasants and soldiers. On the surface this does indeed appear to be true, but when we look through the membership rolls of the "Antients" we discover the names of many educated men as well as those of certain members of the nobility. This begs the question "could this schism have really been over secret passwords and the refusal of some 'Modern' lodges to admit Irish Masons?" The available evidence suggests something far deeper. Before evaluating the evidence we need to take a brief look at the merger of 1813 and the changes in society that led up to it.
The philosophical movement that led to the birth of Freemasonry is commonly referred to as the Enlightenment. This movement was built upon the ideas passed down to it by philosophers from the Age of Reason: men such as Sir Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Benedict Spinoza. The Enlightenment is characterized by the abandoning of faith for reason. The concepts of human rights, modern democracy and the equality of people were given birth to during this period. Science and mathematics went from being heresies and forms of magic to legitimate disciplines at the universities.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a reaction within society led by certain minor philosophers of the Counter-Enlightenment such as F. H. Jacobi. Jacobi is usually closely associated with the Romantic movement and their opposition to the Enlightenment concept of sufficient reason. Sufficient reason is where all things can be explained through scientific inquiry and logic. The Romantics saw this as a form of determinism that effectively removed the concept of freedom of will.
The merger of the two Grand Lodges takes place at a point in history where the ideas of the Enlightenment were falling victim to the moral fears of the Romantics. It is also worth noting that the "Antients" had far more lodges than the "Moderns" and out numbered them in Masons significantly. I think it is safe to say that "Moderns" simply gave up their quest to continue with their Enlightenment-based ideas.
So what exactly did the "Moderns" hope to accomplish? What were the differences that separated these two groups of Freemasons? In short, it was moral philosophy. The "Moderns" taught that the Great Architect of the Universe was eminent in his creation while the "Antients" taught that he was transcendent and not even involved in the creation. To the "Moderns" the deity was ever present and beyond good and evil. To the "Antients" the Cosmos was the creation of a demiergos and the deity was altogether transcendent of both the demiergos and the Cosmos because all physical matter was unclean and/or evil.
Ultimately, the argument would come down to a debate over the ideas of Benedict Spinoza versus those of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The "Moderns" viewed Spinoza's Geometrical Morality as the key to uniting mankind into one great universal brotherhood. The "Antients" saw this as pure heresy and adopted Leibniz as their patron saint because of his open opposition to Spinoza and his support of Judeo-Christian cosmology. By the time of the merger in 1813 Jacobi and the Romantics were also ardent supporters of Leibniz.
Throughout the nineteenth century the "Antients" flourished around the globe, but more especially in the United States. Then, in 1905, a previously unknown scientist shook the world with a radical new view of the universe. Albert Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity ended once and for all the debate over Leibniz's cosmology. In one brief moment of history the entire philosophy of the "Antients" was rendered incorrect. When Einstein was asked whether or not he believed in god, his reply was "In Spinoza's god."
The early "Moderns" had been right in their beliefs but it would take almost 200 years to prove it. Unfortunately, for both humanity and Freemasonry the "Antients" had nothing of value to offer in Einstein's new cosmology. It was at this point that Freemasonry was set adrift on a high sea without a guiding star. The philosophy and symbolism of the "Moderns" had been lost and forgotten. In 1949 things begin to look better for Freemasonry in America. It was the beginning of the Age of Social fraternities, and Freemasonry had the Shrine. Finally, after fifty years of wandering aimlessly the "Antients" had found something they could sell and people would buy. The Shrine reigned supreme up until the 1960's when social fraternities began to fade. At the beginning of the 21st century Freemasonry had declined to less than fifty percent of what it had once been.
On December 27th, 2005 a new Grand Lodge was formed based upon the principles and ideas of the "Moderns." The United Grand Lodge of America is dedicated to continuing the pursuit of the brotherhood of all mankind through the same peculiar system of Geometrical Morality envisioned by the "Moderns" of 1717. The United Grand Lodge of America offers a unique form of natural philosophy, the same as that of Thomas Jefferson. It supports a progressive scientific agenda believing that through knowledge and understanding mankind can overcome the many obstacles it faces today. The United Grand Lodge of America isn't your grandfather's Freemasonry; it is the Freemasonry of the 21st century.
— Bro. Jeff Peace
Image: Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677)
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