Skip to content

B.2 The Modern or Grand Lodge of England

By the year 1717 there were only four lodges in the London area and the Craft was in danger of losing its traditional identity. There was little reason for it to exist at all. It was a victim of its own success after overcoming the threat from the Church and being a promoter of democracy and open science. In the rest of England the situation was much better. A Grand Lodge formed in York before 1705 claimed to be the “Grand Lodge of all England”. Not to remain behind the four Lodges in London met at the Appletree Tavern in February 1717 and a general meeting of the four lodges was organised for the 24 June, St John the Baptist’s Day, at the Goose and Gridiron to elect a Grand Master to govern the Order. Mr Anthony Sayer, a member, was elected first Grand Master and the assembly drew up the regulations. This Grand Lodge and its elected Grand Master took control of all the English Lodges and decided which one was regular and which was not. Later on the Craft spread through the world partly under the London leadership. Not all lodges agree to this leadership of London and, in particular, the lodge in York objected, but lost. The new structure became stronger and stronger and regulated all the lodges in England. Later on the Royal Family took the top leadership, exactly as the local High Nobility ran the Scottish one.

Soon after the formation of the London Grand Lodge its second Grand Master, George Payne, collected many manuscripts on the subject, including copies of the Ancient Charges. It was decided to publish the Book of Constitutions in 1720 but, at that time, many old manuscripts were burn to prevent them to fall in the hands of a fraction known as the “moderns”. In 1724 the then Grand Master, the Duke of Richmond, established the first Committee of Charity to provide a fund to help needy Masons.

In 1727 the Office of Provincial Grand Master was created to run secondary centres of administration and its first Grand Masters for North Wales and South Wales were nominated. Also in 1727 the first warrants were given to oversee lodges in Gibraltar and Madrid and from 1728 many lodges opened in the British Colonies, in the USA and in many foreign countries. By 1733 fifty-three lodges were affiliated to the London Grand Lodge and in 1738 a revised Book of Constitutions was published. The relations between the London Grand Lodge and the York Grand Lodge deteriorated continuously while the relations with the Scottish Grand Lodge remained good, even if there was competition between them for seniority.

Organised Freemasonry was created on 24 June 1717 with the foundation of the Grand Lodge of England. During their meeting at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House in St Paul’s Churchyard, the four “Old Lodges” elected Anthony Sayer as “Grand Master” and agree to meet at a Grand Feast once a year. For three years it seems that this yearly social feast was the only meeting of the London lodges organised by the Grand Master, with no contact or interference with the provincial lodges. Sayer’s successors, George Payne and the Rev. Dr. Theophilus Desaguliers, with the help of Rev. Dr. James Anderson, reorganised the Craft. In 1720 Payne was responsible for the codification of the Grand Lodge regulations, and a grand secretary was elected charged to write the official Minutes. In 1723 Anderson wrote, and published, the first Constitution of the Freemasons that included the regulations, as well as a history of the Craft, based partly on the Old Charges, but with some imaginative extensions due to Anderson’s imagination. This made the Craft known to the public at large.

Dr. Desaguliers, through his friendship with Isaac Newton, attracted many well-known people to the Craft. Dr. Desaguliers, the son of Huguenot refugees, was a typical speculative Mason committed to the ideal of tolerance. He was also what is called a “physicist” interested in the study of the “Hidden mysteries of Nature and Science” who attracted many members and fellows of the Royal Society. After him, at least twelve other Grand Masters were Fellows of the Royal Society, and many others were Grand Officers. After 1720 all the Grand Masters were nobles or of royal rank.

By that time the operative Masons lost control of the Craft whose leadership passed to members of the upper English society. Starting around 1725 many provincial lodges fell under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge, although some refused to join, such as those of York which created their own independent Grand Lodge. Support for the centralised Craft grew during the eighteenth century and Freemasonry expanded rapidly through the Industrial Revolution.

The word “Lodge” has meant many things to different people. It describes the building, or room, in which the Freemasons meet; it also means the group of people using that room, or building; and finally, it refers to the meeting as such. Initially there were no permanent Masonic Halls or Temples, and Lodges were usually held in taverns, or coffee-houses.

The lodge room had an oblong table in the middle with the necessary objects laid on it. The Master and the Brethren sat around it. The emblems and symbols required by the current ceremony were displayed in a space delimited by a line drawn on the floor with chalk (“drawing the lodge”). The candidate was expected to wipe it off after his initiation. The following feasting and drinking took place in the same room. The same procedure was normally used for all Craft degrees during all the eighteenth century, although it is not known when they were introduced.

The structures of the ceremonies are better known. First the candidate took an Obligation on the Bible to preserve the mysteries of the Craft. The mason Word and Sign were then given to the candidate and the Charges (the New Mason duties to God, to his Master and to his fellowmen), as well as the legendary history, were read. A two-degree system of Entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft existed by 1700. The third degree of Master Mason was introduced around 1720. Slowly the ceremonies became more elaborate, a short catechism, using a simple symbolism based on the stonemason’s tools, was used and the purpose of the degree was explained. From the 1770s these explanations were greatly expanded, using additional working tools as symbols of specific virtues and symbolical explanations of the candidate’s preparation for each degree, as well as the lodge’s furniture and members regalia. To day there are many degree ceremonies but, basically, they are still the same as those used after a standard ritual was imposed in 1816.

The government of the Craft was also codified. The line of authority starting downward from the Grand Master in the Grand Lodge is also used in all the other lodges. The Master, the lodge’s principal officer, conducts the ceremonies and administers the lodge with the assistance of two Wardens. Below there are two Deacons who act as messengers between the Master and the Wardens; they also help the candidate in the ceremonies. There are also two Guardians of the Lodge, one inside and one outside. The Outer Guard, the Tyler, keeps out eventual intruders and prepares the candidate for the ceremonies. Before he was also “drawing the lodge” in chalk on the floor. The inner Guard controls the door and admits the candidates when they are ready and properly prepared. In the eighteenth century there was no Inner Guard and his duty were done by the Junior Warden, or by a Steward. The Stewards, initially depending of the Wardens, were responsible for the refreshments and this shows clearly the importance of conviviality in early Freemasonry. Now in England the Stewards serve wine at the festive board, the meal served at the end of the meeting of the lodge. The ritual and ceremonial is under the responsibility of a Director (initially Master) of Ceremonies and the day-to-day administration is done by the Treasury and Secretary.

In the eighteenth century communications were difficult and it was not easy to administer the provincial lodges. Provincial Grand lodges were created to solve this problem and their statute was defined in 1813. They were mainly responsible for creating new lodges in their province in Great Britain, and in the British Colonies and Possessions. In the foreign countries independent Grand Lodges were created.

Although there were many early operative lodges in Scotland, the first Grand Lodge dates from 1736 when four lodges got together on 30 November, and William St Clair was elected Grand Master Mason of Scotland. Operative Masons remained powerful much longer than in England, new lodges were slow to come, and serious internal dissension between operative and speculative Masons did not help. In 1743 Canongate Kilwinning Lodge left the Grand Lodge of Scotland and remained outside for seventy years during which it chartered lodges in Scotland and in North America. It was also directly involved in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, even if most lodges did not got involved in politics. One of the most famous Scottish Masons of that time was Robert Burns.

There is no historical evidence of operative lodge in Ireland and the first trace of a speculative one dates from 1688 in Dublin. The Grand Lodge of Ireland met in Dublin in 1725 and elected lord of Rosse as its “New Grand Master”. Many provincial lodges refused to accept the leadership of the Dublin Grand Lodge. Catholics and Protestants were accepted in the Craft from the beginning.

About ten years after the founding of the Grand Lodge of England some changes in custom and rituals were introduced, and some Brethren were rather upset with these interferences in the old rules. These members joined force with Irish Masons who had been refused entry in the English lodges, mainly because their rituals were different. In 1751 they formed six lodges and created a Grand Committee and, within two years, they also created an independent “Antients” Grand Lodge. They claimed to have restored the ancient procedures and they grew rapidly to become a strong rival of the earlier Grand Lodge, now known as the “Modern” Grand lodge. Laurence Dermott, an Irishman, was the Grand Secretary of the “Antients” Lodge for twenty years, and he wrote its Constitution. Within twenty years the “Antients” had two hundred lodges in England and overseas, that was half the number of lodges affiliated with the older “Modern” Grand lodge. Moreover the “Antients” Grand Lodge was recognised as the legitimate Masonic authority by the Irish and Scottish Grand lodges.

The “Modern” Grand Lodge increased in strength too. William Preston published his “Illustration of Masonry” in 1772 that confirmed the supremacy of the Craft over the fight between the two English Grand Lodges that were, however, good examples of tolerance and harmony. In Protestant England they were among the few national organisations run, from time to time, by Catholic Grand Masters. At the close of the eighteenth century Freemasonry was seen by the public as dedicated to benevolence and the moral good. The Craft was also non-political and the American Revolution had little effect on it, in contrary to what happened with the French Revolution of 1789. Initially the French Revolution was greeted with sympathy in England. The elimination of an absolutist tyranny, to be replaced by a constitutional monarchy and an elected government, were well accepted, but the “Terror” changed everything. Freemasonry was blamed for its part in releasing this violence, although there were no proof of any kind of interference. On the contrary English Freemasonry, which was run by Royal Grand Masters since 1782, was far from being a subversive organisation. In order to heal the trauma due to the implications of the French Revolution, both English organisations worked together from 1798. In 1813 the 21 Articles of Union were approved and the United Grand Lodge of England replaced the two previous ones under the Grand Mastership of Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex and son of King George III.

The Duke was politically and religiously tolerant in this age of bigotry. He supported Catholic emancipation and was friendly with the Jews. He reorganised the Craft and the Royal Arch so that they would be universal, and open to men of all faiths. The revised Craft of 1814-16 and the revised Royal Arch of 1834-35 were de-Christianised by removing all Christian references from both rituals. As a result, it was easier for non-Christians to enrol in the Craft, and Freemasonry could proclaim that, while supporting religion, it was not supporting any in particular; in other words, Freemasonry was not a religion.

This revision changed also the nature of the English Freemasonry. In the eighteenth century the rituals had been a mean to gain admission into a social society. The New Rituals, based on the three Masonic Principles of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth, emphasised the centrality of God in human existence, and they became the basis of Freemasonry and not only entrance ceremonies to a social club. In this way, Freemasonry, rooted in morality and religion, expanded rapidly through the whole world at a rate unthinkable by the early nineteenth century authors of the revised rituals.

The Grand Lodges of Scotland and Ireland followed closely the events that led to the United Grand Lodge of England and, while independent of each other, maintained close contacts between them. They all became part of the social environment. Freemasonry grew again during the Industrial Revolution. The new ideas that it generated created problems to most social organisations, with the exception of Freemasonry. The Craft, due to its unchanging basic principles, continued to offer to its members coming from all ways of life, but equal in their lodges, a place for polite discussion. (9)