|Washington in his Masonic Apron|
An important aspect of the Enlightenment that needs to be looked at before we can return to our series on the history of the Church of England is Freemasonry. Freemasonry is a system of lodges to which men belong in fraternal organization for purposes of business and social alliance, charitable works, and political activity. Historically it also had much to do with intellectual discussion and exchange of knowledge.
According to Masonic myth and legend, Freemasonry has an ancient history going back to the geometer Euclid, the construction of the monuments of ancient Egypt, the building of the temple of Solomon, the construction of the medieval cathedrals etc. Historical data is far more mundane however.
The medieval craft system of guilds organized professionals by craft for the training of new members for that craft as well as for charitable outreach, pious devotion, the regulation of the craft and its business practices, and socialization. One such guild was the stonemason’s guild. In Britain the guild system survived the Reformation and, in fact, the professional classes which the guilds represented were overwhelmingly in favor of the new Protestantism. Being of the professional classes and able to send their male progeny to universities, the guilds were composed of men of above average education who were very much alive to the scientific developments and philosophical/theological currents of the day. In Tudor and Stuart England, guildhalls were often the scene of lively conversations and political intrigue. They were as much gentlemen’s clubs as they were professional fraternities.
A stonemasons’ guild “lodge” in Edinburgh, Scotland –the Ancient Lodge of Edinburgh, Mary’s Chapel (so named because it met in Mary’s Chapel, Niddry’s Wind, Edinburgh) –was the first of these lodges that took in members who were not, in fact, stone masons. The minutes of the lodge show that in 1634 Lord Alexander, Sir Anthony Alexander, and Sir Alexander Strachan were admitted to the lodge as “speculative” members (as differentiated from “operative” members who were actual stone masons). Some claim that this lodge had been accepting these sort of honorary members since at least 1600. It is notable that these recorded members are from the aristocracy as it shows both a desire to participate in the intellectual and charitable life of the lodge on the part of men whose own social class lacked this sort of cohesion, and a certain liberality of mind in these nobility being willing to participate in activities with men of wealth but without title. Incidentally, Sir Alexander Strachan, one of these speculative members, was closely connected to King Charles I, which certainly made his membership politically advantageous to the lodge, at least until the Civil War.
It is difficult to say exactly why the Stone Mason’s guild became the nucleus of these new associations. There could be a number of factors. Stone Masons were a more mobile profession than most other guilds with masons moving around the country—indeed around Europe—wherever work was to be found and thus they had a stronger tradition of welcoming new members than the more settled guilds such as goldsmiths or furriers. Also, because they worked for contract rather than owning their own business, they were not so much in competition with one another as members of those guilds whose businesses in the same town encouraged a certain rivalry and mistrust. For whatever reason, through the seventeenth and certainly in the eighteenth century, there were fewer and fewer “operative” stonemasons and more and more “speculative” masons admitted to membership in English lodges.
And perhaps because masonry involved the sciences—mathematics, geometry, physics, and even a basic knowledge of geology and the different qualities of stone, the lodges drew men of scientific inquiry. During the years of the English Civil War and the religious chaos that came with the breakdown of English religion into dozens of sects from the orthodox Presbyterians and Congregationalists to the far more outré groups such as the Quakers, and even more the Diggers, Ranters, and Fifth Monarchy Men, many of your more educated and professional men began to question Christian doctrines such as the Trinity which they perceived to be irrational. We see by the end of the period the rise of Unitarianism and then the jump to Deism which posited belief in a Supreme Being but One who set the “clockwork” of the universe into an eternal motion and then abandoned it to itself.
Freemasonry spread from England to France in the early eighteenth century, aided by both the partisans of the exiled Stuarts and the commercial and intellectual ties that developed with France despite the political tensions between the two countries. The French Lodges tended to draw political liberals (as well as scientists and philosophes) and were in many ways the incubators for democratic ideas that would set in motion the French Revolution. Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot were all Freemasons. Freemasonry established itself among the American colonists as well and George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Monroe, John Hancock, Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and Elbridge Gerry were all Freemasons.
In Europe Freemasonry became associated with opposition to the Catholic Church as part of the ancien regime. The alliance of “Throne and Altar” which characterized pre-revolutionary France proved all but fatal to the Catholic Church. While Freemasons are not associated with the Jacobins and the extremes of the Terror, the French lodges had long served as breeding grounds of democratic ideals. The intellectual curiosity characteristic of Freemasonry also made the Masons question many Catholic beliefs and practices that represented the medieval world and had grown into an outdated ridiculousness by the Enlightenment. The papal bulls of Clement XII and Benedict XIV proscribing membership in the Freemasons had never been ratified by the French Crown and consequently many French clergy belonged to the Freemasons. Some lodges were exclusively clerical.
Freemasons, who found the rigid intellectualism of the Jesuits to be opposed to their own spirit of intellectual inquiry, played critical roles in having the Jesuits expelled from Portugal (1759), France (1764), the Spanish Empire (1767) and Malta (1769) leading up to the suppression of the Order in 1773. By no means, however, should they be credited (or blamed) entirely for the downfall of the Society of Jesus as the Jesuits had entire coalitions of enemies working against them.
In the nineteenth century, Italian Freemasons were very active in both the revolutions against the papacy in the Papal States and the move for Italian unification and the ending of temporal power for the Popes. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the “George Washington of Italy” whose military genius was able to bring down the power of the various Italian princes—including the papacy—was a vehement Freemason. All in all, the relationship between Freemasonry and Catholicism has not been a happy one.