Reproduced fromFreemasonry Today
Is The Dream Still Alive? Matthew Scanlan
During the recent U.S. Presidential Elections, Barack Obama, now the country’s 44th President elect asked a thought-provoking question: ‘is the dream of the founding fathers still alive?’ On hearing this, I could not help but think that a similar question could equally be asked of Freemasonry Is the dream of our own founding fathers still alive; and what exactly was it? Musing on this question, I would advocate that we need to go back to basics, the Constitutions of 1723, which were compiled James Anderson and overseen by a specially appointed committee of the Grand Lodge. For this seminal work contains the essential principles which still guide our craft today. And yet most modern Freemasons do not realise just how radical many of these guiding principles were at this time. For instance, the first Charge ‘Concerning God and Religion’ stipulated that a mason should always ‘obey the moral law’ and must ‘never be a stupid Atheist, nor an irreligious Libertine.’ It further stressed that masons in former times had to abide by ‘the Religion of that Country or Nation’ in which they found themselves, but it was ‘now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion to which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves’. This was an extraordinary statement, as no such religion has ever existed, so what exactly did our forebears mean by it? During the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685) a series of laws called the Test and Corporation Acts were passed, which debarred those who did not conform to the established Church of England from holding both civil and military office. Those who did not conform became known as non-conformists, and they included Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians, Roman Catholics and Jews. However, some members of the Anglican Church were not so dogmatic and took a decidedly more liberal view. They believed that although one should broadly conform to the established Church, human reason, when combined with the power of the Holy Spirit, was sufficient in the determination of doctrinal truths, and because they adopted a wide latitude to such matters, they became known as Latitudinarians. Significantly, the author of the 1723 masonic Constitutions, James Anderson, was himself a Presbyterian minister and therefore a non-conformist. And his close friend and associate, Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers, was an ordained minister of the Anglican Church who subscribed to the Latitudinarian view; he was also a prime mover of the infant Grand Lodge and wrote the dedication of the aforementioned Constitutions. Consequently, the first Charge when viewed in this context becomes more understandable. For when it calls upon masons to follow ‘that Religion to which all Men agree’, it was really calling for tolerance. However, the tolerance espoused here was ostensibly aimed at facilitating better relations between different Christian denominations after a century of conflict and strife, and it was not a clarion call for interfaith ecumenism. Nevertheless, by the early 1720s it is known that several members of the Jewish faith were admitted to lodges, along with other non-conformists such as Catholics and Deists. Moreover, this early spirit of tolerance also helped to bridge the gap between different social classes, from tradesmen to the aristocracy, reflecting the craft’s desire for social cohesion by upholding the principle of fraternity and equality within the lodges. And when the second edition of Anderson’s Constitutions was published in 1738, it boldly extolled the Craft’s belief in ‘Liberty of Conscience’, thereby completing a trinity of principles, Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, although not explicitly stated as such. Interestingly, the tenets of the early Freemasonry were not lost on various commentators of the day, including an anonymous writer living in Amsterdam in 1746, who observed: The whole doctrine of the Freemasons is based upon two essential points: Equality and Liberty. They regard all as Brothers. The diversity of Religion, a fatal source of discord, does not break the peace among them. Within the Order all sorts of sects are tolerated, and they are quietly left to enjoy their rights and liberties. The Christian, who has become more humane than elsewhere, does not regard the Jew with contempt, and does not give the Mohamedan the odious name of Infidel. The Catholic persecutor is reconciled with the Heretic, and he recognises him as a Brother and Friend with the same cordiality that he would a Quaker. They recognize neither Ranks nor Dignities. Subordination is a mere chimera, which degrades humanity. This observation offers us a fascinating glimpse into how the craft was viewed at this time, and having identified what the craft’s early principles were, we can safely say that it was not far from the truth. That aside, the principle question still remains, and it is a question for us all:
Is the dream of our founding fathers still alive?