Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Ancient Landmarks revisited, part 2: How Freemasonry lost its way

The Ancient Landmarks Revisited, part 2: How Freemasonry Lost Its Way, by Bro. Jeff Peace

In Part 1 of this paper I asserted that the Ancient Landmarks were based around the common definitions of Freemasonry from the early eighteenth century.
  1. Freemasonry is a peculiar system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.
  2. Freemasonry is dedicated to the brotherhood of man under the All-Seeing Eye of Deity.
  3. Freemasonry is a progressive science.
  4. Freemasonry is a natural philosophy, or system of natural philosophy.
If there ever was a document listing the Ancient Landmarks it is now lost, but we do have the old definitions, and when put together with historical events, I believe we can still come to an understanding of the guiding principles of the original Speculative Freemasons.

We know from existing historical documents the nature of the men who called themselves “Freemasons” and what they were doing both inside and outside the Craft. Since it is human nature to join together with men like your self we can safely assume that some common thread of interests must run through all of these people. I believe that common thread of interest is both spelled-out and veiled by the definitions above.

History would suggest that these men were bonded together by a peculiar or unique system of guiding moral principles that were distinct from those of the common people of the eighteenth century. And, that these moral principles were conducive to joining all people together in peace and harmony into one great brotherhood. Since religion and divine revelation were the framework of morality at the time it is clear that such an ideology would have met stiff resistance from both church and state; thus, the need for absolute secrecy in lodges. In light of this the grisly oaths and obligations begin to make perfect sense.

This new morality is evolving at a time when the Catholic Church in Europe had been weakened by both political and philosophical changes within society, and advancements in science and understanding. During the Middle Ages the church had become tyrannical, and questioning its authority or ideology was a death sentence to those courageous enough to do so. Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno are examples of this behavior. Modern free-thinkers had finally come to realize that divinely revealed systems of morality were incompatible with the advancement of humanity, and that too many people had needlessly died defending one religion from another during the Crusades. Thus, the unique system of morality proposed by the early Freemasons was entirely devoid of religion and instead based on Natural Philosophy. Unlike religious morality the new system would be adaptable to advancements in human understanding and open to a progressive science, thus ensuring that the Galileos of the future would not be silenced for their ideas. This is the dawning of what will become known as "The Age of Enlightenment" and it will be driven by the Light given to mankind by Freemasons.

What were these early brothers really like? What did they do in lodge? Were they really a society of mystics searching for some lost inner truth, or were they a product of the changing times in Europe? By gaining an understanding of this we can better comprehend the true nature of Speculative Freemasonry.

The earliest Speculative Freemasons came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Most were protestants, some devout and others barely religious. There were Pantheists, Atheists, Gnostics, Jews; men of every religious and non-religious persuasion joined the Craft. Most were from the growing middle class, and some were a part of the old aristocracy.

From the minutes of old lodge meetings we learn that Bro. John T. Desaguliers was teaching Newton’s Calculus and the Laws of Motion at their meetings. A brother who was a doctor brought a corpse to lodge and dissected it showing the brothers how the human body worked. From the periodicals of the time we learn that the early Freemasons were the ultimate party club of the eighteenth century. They were notorious for staying up to all hours of the morning drinking and singing. Tavern owners began to hate them for breaking all the glasses. Eventually super thick and difficult to break glasses were created just for the Freemasons. These were known as "firing glasses." On one noted occasion the Freemasons of Savannah, after a night of drinking, commandeered one of the king’s gun boats and took it for a cruise around the harbor. The idea of them being humble introspective mystics just doesn’t seem to fit with the history. If anything they appear to be rebelling against the rigid customs of society and enjoying the freedom of the human spirit.

The early Freemasons were also prolific underground printers circulating various heretical and revolutionary tracts throughout Europe like the "Treatise of the Three Impostures." In a sense they were the first political activists who spawned many of the revolutionary ideas that would help to form both modern Europe and America.

Within sixty years of the founding of the Grand Lodge of London in 1717 Masonic ideology will have pervaded most of Europe and crossed the Atlantic to America. On July 4, 1776 it will move from a “Speculative Art” to an Operative one.

"When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them...." — The Declaration of Independence

In the very opening words of the American Declaration of Independence we see traces of Masonic ideology. It does not make an appeal to any religious God, but to "the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God." The new world and its laws will not be based on the divinely inspired decrees of pontiffs and priests, but upon the principles of Natural Philosophy. Masonic lodges were democratic in operation as would be the new nation. The Masonic idea of tolerance as the cement of brotherhood will be applied in the American government which protects the freedom of religion.

If you step back and look objectively at the Freemasonry in America today does it resemble that of the past? Were George Washington and Benjamin Franklin humble introspective mystics? Was Freemasonry about self-discovery or the advancement of all of humanity? Perhaps it was a little of both?

— Bro. Jeff Peace
June 7, 2007, Atlanta, Georgia

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  1. At our table lodge last month there were at least 4 or 5 glasses broken at my table alone while "firing" during the toasts. :)

  2. whats funny is that myself and some of my brothers are feeling the spirit of 18th century freemasonry in our temple, but that freedom of thought and actions is getting us in hot water with our GL. I guess they d not like free thinkers in free masonry?
    Men who feel that liberty, equality and faternity mean freemasonic ideals within the lodge...

  3. The idea of them being humble introspective mystics just doesn’t seem to fit with the history. If anything they appear to be rebelling against the rigid customs of society and enjoying the freedom of the human spirit.

    Holy Irony, Batman!

    We need to be careful on how we interpret what we see; context can influence our perceptions. Reading the article, I smiled at the image of some reveling brothers taking a ship around the harbor in the middle of the night. But I'm sure that many of us would recoil in horror at the idea of a bunch of reveling Shriners commandeering a bus for the evening.

    It's interesting that the qualities that once (according to this article) distinguished Freemasons are now those same qualities from which we seemingly strive to distance ourselves. Who moved our cheese?

  4. Bro. Tom,

    You can read more about the early Freemasons in books such as "The Revolutionary Brotherhood" by Prof. Steven Bullock, and "The Radical Enlightenment" by Prof. Margaret C. Jacob. In the last book by the Scottish Rite (I don't remember the name of it) they had color photos of the firing glasses and a brief discussion of the need for them.

  5. Bro. Jeff -

    So, were they drunken revelers or men of enlightenment?

    A while back, I wrote about the idea that the Masons of 200 years ago were probably pretty much like the ones around now, most of them good, honest guys, and some who are merely attracted to the hip uniforms and flashy bling. The painter Hogarth did a series on the seamier side of London, and has one entitled "Night", which shows a couple of drunken Freemasons tottering home. Consider that he was painted in the mid-1700s, and you can understand my perspective.

    I recently borrowed a copy of Bullock's book, but have only got partway into it.

  6. Bro. Tom,

    The Freemasonry we have in America today didn't really get started until after the Civil War. It was at that time that alcohol was removed from the lodges, and that EAs and FCs were no longer permitted at regular meetings. This was all the result of the Morgan Affair.

    The partying side of Masonry didn't go away. Quite to the contrary Masons found a "loophole" in the new laws and created the Shrine in the 1880's.

    Our view of early Masonry is very distorted because all we've had until recently are books written by Masonry about Masonry. These books only tell us how great it is or was. Starting the 1960's serious objective historical scholarship began, and we are starting to see a very different picture emerge than what we had before.

    The Masons of the past (pre civil war, especially 18th century) were a very different breed of men. They were revolutionary in their thinking and in some cases their actions. Masonic lodges helped spread the Enlightenment around the world.

    The founding fathers of America and the revolutionary leaders in France were certainly not the type of men to just sit around and argue over the electric bill.

  7. nor who to appoint to Grad Lodge out of the list of ass kisser looking for bling and titles!


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