A Brief History of Freemasonry: A New Model
After years of research I have begun to view the evolution of Freemasonry through the lens of a new theory of biological evolution called “punctuated equilibrium.” Punctuated equilibrium holds that evolution, change, in a species does not happen gradually but suddenly. In simple terms it holds that the relationship between a species and its environment reaches equilibrium, balance, and stays static until something changes in the environment and then the species will select only those members who can survive the change to reproduce. This results in a fossil record that shows that long periods of stability in a species with periods of rapid change, then long periods of stability.
In the case of Freemasonry I have found a similar process at work. I have broken the development of the Craft into five distinct periods, each initiated by an event that demanded evolution or extinction. These five periods or eras are, Operant Craft Masonry, Pre-Speculative Masonry, Speculative Masonry, Post-speculative Masonry, and Philanthropic Masonry. I like to imagine each of these stable periods as mountain lakes, ending at a waterfall and feeding the next lake. The waterfalls represent the change or crisis that caused an in-equilibrium (instability) that required the Craft to evolve.
Operant Craft Masonry (ends in 1350) is exactly what it sounds like, stonemason guilds working to build the great stone structures of Europe’s medieval period. This period is characterized by the lack of “accepted masons” and that the work of these masons was centered on construction. In this period masons would move from one job site to another, thereby making Lodges temporary entities that were literally lodges for living and working. Part of what brought stability to this period was the feudal style of government based on the manorial system. In this period the State and the Church limited social mobility. This stable period was ended by the impact of three environmental factors, climate change (Europe cooled considerably), the great famine (caused by climate change) and the Black Death. These three forces all hit in about 50 years and saw Europe’s population drop by more than half. That drop in labor resulted in competition for the remaining work force, enabling the common man and the craftsman to seek better pay and better living conditions. It also saw the beginnings of towns or burgs, which were often governed in part by guild members.
The Pre-Speculative Era (1350-1642) is defined by the decline in the masonic guilds being focused exclusively on construction, the first appearance of “accepted” masons, the involvement of mason’s in the community beyond just building (burgesses in the towns for example), the fixing of Lodges in one geographic location, and a growing interest in the Craft’s mysteries.
The period between 1350 and 1642 saw the beginning of the renaissance, the protestant reformation, the English civil wars, and the growth of the middle class. European educated elite were obsessed with the previously lost knowledge of the Classical age that was flowing back into Western Europe after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Masonic lore held that as a Craft it’s science (geometry/ architecture) had come to them from Euclid and Hermes Trismegistus (See the Cooke Manuscript circa 1425). When gentlemen scholars, already hungry for more ancient wisdom, learned this they were naturally curious about what else was held secret in masonry. Amongst the “accepted masons” a new type of mason shows up “speculative” masons, who tended to be from among the educated nobles of Europe.
In 1599 William Shaw the Warden of Masons in Scotland issued his statues. There were two elements to the Statues that initiated the change that would create the “Speculative era”. First he fixed Lodges in geographic locations, as we know them today and he called Masons to include the “art of memory” in their instructions.
The art of memory was more than just memorizing lines in a ritual, but was an integral part of a spiritual system called “Hermeticism. ” Hermeticism takes its name from Hermes. The subject of hermeticism could easily fill volumes on its own, so I will not dive to deeply here, except to say it touches on topics like astrology, alchemy and Kabbalah. It seems that Shaw had met with famous hermeticist Giordano Bruno, and had been influenced by him. In the Shaw Statutes we see the codified origin of much of the mystical component we know in modern Masonry. Shaw’s motivations for writing these Statutes is unfortunately lost as he died three years later. What we do know is that the stage was set for the great golden age of masonry. It’s important to note that the appearance of Hermetic subjects in the Lodge coincided with its appearance in society in general.
The Speculative Era (1650-1826) was initiated by two events; the Protestant Reformation and the English Civil war. This era is marked by the decline of operative masons, and the ascendance of speculative masons. Back near the end of the Operant era, just before the Templars were arrested the French King Philip manipulated events so that he could place his ally on the throne of St Peter (the Pope). Over the next few years the Papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon (1309-1377), so that the King of France could control the Pope. Eventually the Italians named an alternative Pope and for a few decades there was two Popes. These popes famously wrestled for power including but not limited to efforts to use sorcery to defeat their each other. Of course this weakened the sanctity of the Papacy in the eyes of Europeans, and when combined with papal abuses of power obvious during this period a resistance to the power of Rome began to grow, culminating in Martin Luther’s famous 99 theses (1517) that initiated the Reformation.
Protestant or Catholic was the question that decided what side of numerous wars your nation would be on. At the same time, the right of a King to rule based on ‘divine right’ came into question, leading to the second great conflict of this period namely whether kings or parliaments would rule. These competing forces tore Europe apart for over a century.
During this period of uncertainty Masonry, for the most part, seems to have attracted men from both (all four) camps and is probably the source of our prohibition against religion and politics being discussed in Lodge. That said, it is clear from the public lives of many of our Brethren of this period like Benjamin Franklin and François Marie Arouet (Voltaire) that the topic of democracy was important to them and they were active in bringing it to fruition in both the American and French Revolutions. I personally believe it was the safety of association that our tyled lodges provided that was the incubator of much that developed in this period.
The list of prominent Freemasons of this era reads like a who’s who list of revolutionaries, scientist, and reformers of the period. While there is little evidence that Masonry as an order conspired to change the world, there is substantial evidence that the lessons and tenets of Freemasonry held in the hearts and minds of her members did change the world through their participation in many reforming political movements.
Unfortunately with the fame that came to the order during this era were planted the seeds that were nearly her undoing. Three events that occurred between 1776 and 1826 created the crisis that caused our next evolutionary adaptation. The Illuminati, founded in 1776, the French Revolutions de-evolving into the Terror 1789, and the Morgan Affair 1826 all cast a very dark shadow over our order in the eyes of many non-members and the backlash almost destroyed Masonry.
The French revolution (1789-1799) had many causes, but primary among them was the poverty experienced by society that was caused by the Seven Years War (American French and Indian War) and the French participation in the American Revolution (1776-1784). In 1793 the results of the French Revolution degenerated into the Terror (1793-94). After the Revolution was over Freemasonry was accused of being the agitator that caused the revolution. Of course this is not true, but the accusation stuck in the minds of many non-masons.
The Bavarian Illuminati was an order founded on May 1, 1776 by Adam Weishaupt “to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice, to control them without dominating them.” From the start the Illuminati were associated with Freemasons and when they fell in to disrepute the association was exaggerated. In 1798 there was what is known as the ‘Illuminati Scare’ in New England, which held that the Illuminati were infiltrating and manipulating government. Combined with suspicions that they and Freemasons had orchestrated the French Revolution a general air of suspicion was building in the public eye toward Freemasons.
In 1826 a man named William Morgan threatened to publish all of the Masonic secrets he had learned as an initiate. Obviously there were Masons who spoke out against this action, and when Morgan was kidnapped and never seen again, it was assumed Freemasons murdered him. Several prominent Masons were accused of his murder and some did serve prison sentences. Today it is widely believed that individual Freemasons acting on their own murdered him, even though there was reports that Morgan survived and was sighted in Europe. In any event the entire episode set badly with the public and forever blemished the reputation of the order that opened this era with such prominence. It seemed that the claims of a worldwide Masonic conspiracy had been proven on the home front. In New York, where the Morgan Affair occurred, the number of Masons dropped by more than half. Soon after Americas first third political party was formed based on anti-masonic ideology.
The Post Speculative Era (1826-1945) opened with Masonry in decline. For the first time in it’s history being a Freemason was not necessarily a good thing. In the world Napoleon had finally been defeated and France was again a monarchy, America had defeated England in what has been called our second war of independence, and the tensions that would lead to the American civil war had begun to build.
Because of the negative publicity generated at the end of the Speculative era it was less common that a prominent politician would be actively, openly, involved in Masonry.
Most Masons would be at home in the Blue Lodges of this era, our rituals and customs being largely unchanged. The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite had come to Charleston, from France, via Jamaica. The period of “higher degree” development ended and the AASR was composed of 33 degrees. While Freemasonry was recovering in some areas it had not regained the vitality it had known before the Morgan Affair.
After the Civil War a former Confederate general and polymath named Albert Pike ascended to the Grand Commander position of the Southern Jurisdiction of the AASR. In an effort to revitalize the fraternity Pike published in 1872 Morals and Dogma, a tome of 861 pages that was a compendium to the degrees of the order. By 1884 he had revised all the degrees, and the Scottish Rite blossomed into a vital and expanding rite.
The degrees are set in historical periods, teaching the moral, ethical and spiritual lessons in the context of antiquity. It is my opinion that by focusing so much of the degree work on ancient subjects Pike unintentionally focused the Craft on past glories. Even today, outside of the philanthropic activities of the craft, much of our scholarship and energy is devoted to the past, not the future. During the Speculative Era the luminaries of Freemasonry applied their energies to advancement of all mankind, thru democratic reforms, scientific discovery and social activism. While there are certainly examples of progressive masons today, where are the specifically Masonic contributions to the modern civil rights movement? Where is our great debate on the moral and ethical issues of our day? Has there been a presentation in your Lodge on scientific breakthroughs? In the last few years there have been many paradigm-shifting discoveries, have we shared in the excitement that they produced? How long after the end of the Civil War, after the Slaves were emancipated, after the African Americans got the vote before White Masonry recognized the Prince Hall Lodges? We certainly were not in the lead. Can you imagine the Freemasons of Franklin and Washington’s era being so slow to champion the cause of civil rights? The power of Pike’s contribution changed the course of the Craft, in order to save it from the ravages that came at the end of the previous era. Our prohibition against discussing politics in Lodge seems to have silenced our voice in world affairs. Its understandable, but perhaps its time to reevaluate.
This era ended with the last of the World Wars. The world had changed and Masonry was as affected as everything else. Unfortunately our retrograde focus left us playing catch up with the rest of the world.
I have named the next era the Philanthropic Era (1945 to present). It opens with thousands of men coming home from war looking for the fellowship they had known in war and found it in Masonry. In many lodges the numbers of members swelled, and many new Lodges were formed. These men brought a sense of public service and patriotism to the Craft, and from that the great Masonic charities grew. Today’s Lodges and concordant bodies raise millions of dollars each year to help the needy. Children’s hospitals, reading programs, support for widows and orphans. Today the face of Masonry is best recognized at the fundraiser.
Unfortunately the upheaval of the sixties saw a change in fortune for Masonry. While the men of the greatest generation flocked to Freemasonry their sons did not. The reasons could fill a book, and I will not go into them today. What is important here is that they did not join. Today, across America numbers are dropping as the men who joined in the 40s and 50s pass away. The threat to the Craft is as great as after the Morgan Affair. My own Lodge has lost approximate 40% of its membership in the last 10 years.
To further complicate things in the early 2000s Dan Brown wrote the Da Vinci code, which later became a blockbuster movie. Nicolas Cage stared in National Treasure, another blockbuster. Both movies had components of the legends of Freemasonry, and as a result interest in our Fraternity grew again. Cable media has been flooded with pseudohistorical documentaries about Freemasonry and as I said in an earlier Blog a new story about Freemasonry is evolving that is not necessarily true and likely will not benefit the Craft in the long run.
What’s next? If the pattern I have described holds we are approaching another crisis. Diminishing numbers alone will threaten the Craft soon and combined with the false history that is being developed in the media we face a real dilemma.
But with crisis comes opportunity. We stand now at a threshold, we can choose to take a leadership role in the world once again. In addition to the great charities we support we are uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in religious tolerance and we have 300 years experience with civility in debate. In a time of such angry bipartisan disagreement and disrespect we could be the example that shows the way forward. Once our great fraternity was leading man toward the great unification of humanity and I think the time has come for us to do that again. While I would willing admit in many small ways we still do, but in the larger sense we seem to have rested comfortably on our laurels for almost 200 years. During the early speculative era we provided Catholic and Protestant, Royalist and Parliamentarian a place to meet that was safe, based in their common humanity and belief in a God. From this grew the tolerance that today allows me a Buddhist to sit comfortably in Lodge with a Christian. As a Democrat I am able to enjoy the fellowship of Republicans. As a white southern man I can take the hand of an African American in friendship and brotherhood and as a scientist I can marvel at the wonders of the universe with a brother who defines himself as a religious man. Because of this experience, I can imagine the Masonic Temples becoming a place where the advancement of science could be presented to the public, a place where difficult topics that currently divide our Nation are discussed in a safe and civil manner. Perhaps the time has come for us to be the shepherds of society, protecting and guiding society to a better, calmer state, not a particular place, but along a particular path that honors the humanity of all people. I am encouraged by the efforts of progressive Masons who are calling for those of us who seek the Light to become the Light for others.