At the Order’s Origins

The United Lodge of England

At the Order’s Origins, Once upon a Time in London . . .

As the international Masonic world still bears the dominant brand of the Order’s origins in London, it is inevitable that we need to look at the genesis, history, and characteristics of the United Grand Lodge of England such as they have been laid down. This involves recalling the reality of a very old institution with which all the world’s Masonic authorities share the same original legacy. As recommended by Georges Lerbet and René Le Moal, “We shall not abandon ourselves to cheap reductionist notions.”1 This means, of course, that only the scientific method, the very same one applied by researchers and historians, allows an innovative approach of Masonic maieutics for drawing up a picture that restores—as precisely and closely as possible—the historical realities and their meanings.

The British cradle of our initiatory Order is evidence that continues to unfold some three hundred years later of the global supremacy of the United Grand Lodge of England, whose inner workings are worth analyzing. It is also worth attempting to place this into a contemporary perspective, as it is crucial for a proper appreciation of the forces that are present like axes around which the players gravitate. The overall Masonic weight of London has been a dominating force for almost three centuries. While it is in decline today, it remains particularly visible on the American side of the Atlantic for reasons everyone will easily grasp, such as strong linguistic, cultural, and historical ties. American society has evolved considerably since the War of Independence and the arrival of successive waves of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island (the famous immigration center of New York).

All serious research studies push back the origins of Freemasonry, in the best of cases, to a Chester Lodge, whose existence is vouched for in the 1670s. Nonetheless, no serious proof has ever been put forth that can establish a connection between what the legal scholar, physician, and archaeologist Elias Ashmole mentioned in his 1682 journal and the founding of the four lodges of the Grand Lodge of London in 1717. It is therefore a good idea to interpret prudently the “awakening” mentioned by Anderson in his history, especially if the essential proof is not there. Freemasons are in agreement at least on one point, although simplified: all make reference to origins going back to “times immemorial.”

As Florence de Lussy writes, “By giving themselves, from the time they became organized, a prestigious origin that goes back to the most remote time, by deliberately inscribing the new institution into a mythic context, they could not help but encourage among their historians, whether fervent adepts or detractors, a taste for half truths that engender and maintain confusion.”2 This occurred in the United States as it did everywhere else.

Everyone is familiar with the Reverend James Anderson, who was charged in 1723, with Jean Théophile Désaugliers, to codify the Order’s rules and customs since its origin into what it is appropriate to call the Constitutions, a work that bears his name. They are the cornerstone of the first grand lodge of London. Every Freemason today still makes reference to them. The spiritual and philosophical influence of England in the European Masonic world since the beginning of the eighteenth century, then soon reaching America, is considerable, as is the grandeur of the extraordinary intellectual distinction of the prestigious English intelligentsia who were members of this first grand lodge.

Désaugliers, grand master of the Grand Lodge of England in 1719, a French Huguenot driven out of New Rochelle at a tender age following the repeal of the Edict of Nantes, was one of many great notables of a scientific and philosophical elite deeply marked by ties with John Locke and Isaac Newton, the latter a president of the Royal Society. Some forty of the two hundred members of this science academy were Freemasons, and twenty-one of them were grand masters of the Grand Lodge of London. The election of Désaugliers in 1714 as secretary of this prestigious scholarly society coincided with the Hanoverian succession crisis. He included in his entourage not only Ashmole but also the geometer and architect Christopher Wren, while his scientific collaborations brought him to France on several occasions and led to his meeting the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in London.

The effects of great mobility and the intense currents of exchange that were already flowing then were thus factors in the intermingling of ideas; these should not be overlooked when studying the precocious influence of the Grand Lodge of London. An essential stage in human emancipation, the emergence of English Freemasonry will remain as a major event in the evolution of societies. The lodge became the new framework for free thinking and a place for socializing in which men of different social status and convictions could mingle and, in the closed space of their meeting room, exercise their freedom of speech without constraint.

As François Thual writes, “For more than a century, British Masonry was being tugged between supporters of Stuart and those of Hanover. Since its origins, Freemasonry had always been divided within its organization into rival obediences.”3

This reality, when all is said and done, has little to do with strictly doctrinal Masonic considerations but is precociously revealing of the interweaving of the political, the spiritual, and the Masonic in a ternary England that still rested (and did so until very recently) on the three major pillars of monarchy, church, and Masonry. The encounters of authority or the authorities with the Freemasons create a recurring theme that the denials of the English Freemasons, subsequently echoed by their American brothers, can do nothing to change.

It was Andreas Önnerfors, the former director of the Center of Masonic Studies at the University of Sheffield, who wrote in this regard.

Two concepts of the Order appear. For the Anglo-Saxons, an association based on voluntary adherence was incompatible with a political role sui generis, but should be at the heart of a liberal concept of civil society. In France, to the contrary, with a more radical reading, Freemasonry identified itself as an active force for social, progressive, and critical change, if not to say social engineering. This is why we can see two directions that are partially detectable since the eighteenth century: the one “esoteric” and resistant to revolutionary ideas, that finds common ground with the ideological powers of the Church and State, and the other that proactively pushes toward an “exoteric” realization of philanthropic ideas in conflict and in opposition with the existing powers.

On the individual level, the two ways come to bear, but differently, on the choice of responsibility and on the nature of freedom. While the first direction regards ethical duty as the mainspring of the individual and Freemasonry’s role in society is created by the sum total of the individual actions (intra-muros) morally assumed by the brothers, the more recent holds the individual as responsible for the liberation and transformation of society so that the political virtues cultivated in Freemasonry require by definition an extra-muros sociopolitical activity.

Such a clear-cut distinction however is not applicable during all the decades of the century and not held as true for all the individuals that have subscribed to one or the other of these readings of Freemasonry. But it facilitates our understanding of the divergent positions and the notion of Freemasonry according to various politi-cal cultures. And it helps us understand more clearly the difference between the various authoritative narratives, by taking into account the imaginal realm of the national communities and the construction of national identities that were such a pressing concern for the nineteenth century.4

This makes something quite obvious that would not be without consequence to the life of the Order in the United States: the Grand Lodge of London, like the United Grand Lodge of England after 1813, which was born of the reconciliation of the previously antagonistic currents of the Moderns and Ancients, recruited all its grand masters from the royal family. (The current grand master—since 1967—is none other than the Duke of Kent, with the executive office however belonging to the pro–grand master elected by his peers, who today is Derek Dinsmore.) The Grand Lodge has claimed since 1720 a worldwide predominance that is the expression of a political will translated by the codification of rules and basic principles, more commonly known as Landmarks. We can find them formulated already in Anderson’s Constitutions in 1723, even if the chief objective of the author was most likely not yet the desire to establish a universal doxa. It is nonetheless true that the London leadership would impress itself in enduring fashion on the Masonic order, even though this position would be constantly challenged by the liberal Masonic currents, with the GODF being its principal rival and detractor.

But it is obvious that the stakes go beyond those of the Masonic sphere alone and touch, as everyone will easily understand, on the eternal competition between the two major powers of Britain and France. The obediences could not escape this. Pierre Mollier has said it best.

When in 1773, the Grand Orient of France succeeded the first Grand Lodge of France, . . . a fairly random correspondence had existed . . . with the Grand Lodge of England (of the “Moderns”) since the 1760s. It even seems that an agreement had been signed in 1766 . . . and, since 1774, the English Grand Secretary and Deputy Grand Master had been sounding the Grand Orient de France out on its intentions concerning an international accord . . . which proposed to London a prospective treaty. . . . Based on the strict equality of the signers, the Grand Lodge of England demanded that its primacy be recognized. . . . The Grand Orient of France refused to recognize any preeminence, even historical, to Grand Lodge of England so because that lodge made this recognition a sine qua non. . . . The great plan never came to fruition. The Grand Lodge of England, or its successor, the United Grand Lodge of England, and the Grand Orient of France would therefore never maintain official relations.

Mollier goes on to write:

When questioned on the reasons that led the GODF to refuse to accept . . . something that was yet patently obvious, when this minimal concession would have in no way limited its independence or sovereignty, we should probably refer back to the context of the era. The French defeat at the hands of England in the Seven Years War (1756–1763, cf. Barry Lyndon) had left a bitter taste. The 1770s saw the emergence in France of a patriotic sentiment of which, to a certain extent, the creation of the Grand Orient of France was the Masonic translation. This national sentiment and its direct consequence, revenge on England, would be stimulated from 1774 on by the “war in America.” The refusal of England’s Masonic primacy, although self-evident, is probably the echo of the refusal to accept England’s colonial supremacy.5

By instituting Landmarks that would be repeatedly updated and revised, as a constant strategy to ensure dominance over the universal space of Masonry, London strove, with admirable consistency, to develop its pragmatic and dogmatic doctrine. These actions were solidly influenced by London’s obvious concern for preserving its private garden, to such an extent that it is not too exaggerated to find an analogy between it and the papal bull of Pope Clement XII, In eminenti. In fact, the grand lodges recognized by London were obliged, at the risk of their excommunication, along with that of their members, to submit without any concession to the canons enacted in the form of Landmarks. The first adaptations to these Landmarks were made in 1929, and they have been tailored several times since then in response to geopolitical fluctuations, as so splendidly analyzed by Marius Lepage.

In the dialectic of the United Grand Lodge of England, this posture assumes a dual meaning: the recognition of a grand lodge is conditional on a catalogue of stipulations that has nothing to do with Masonic initiation; this latter notion, moreover, does not exist in English and American Freemasonry, where the individual candidate simply makes his “entry.” One of these conditions—one that is politically essential—stipulates that only one obedience can benefit from that status in a given country. London thereby assumes the exclusive prerogative of writing the law by boasting its precedence going back to 1717, a historical fact that nobody contests.

The exclusivity that derives from this is quite another matter, one that is of course another source of contention. The fact remains that it is a time-proven, dreadfully effective diplomatic tool to establish and install one’s empire in a rule that is practically undivided, as long as the others consent. In this way any form of Masonic heresy (meaning deviation from any Landmark) that may arise to disrupt this sterilized environment that attests to fine doctrinal certitudes can be expelled. But in practice, a dent had already been made in this rule of exclusive jurisdiction, most importantly since the recognition of the African American Prince Hall Grand Lodge. The opening of this breech had obviously prompted covetousness—as well as speculations, most unexpectedly in France.

Two essential principles of the Landmarks of September 4, 1929, are worth lingering over momentarily: regularity and its corollary, irregularity, as criteria for recognition are formed from whole cloth, and none of the foundational texts ever mentioned them. For instance, the basic principles as formulated by Anderson in the 1723 Constitutions did not possess the constraining nature that is attached to the fundamental principles of the United Grand Lodge of England. The criteria London used in the definition of the Landmarks emphasized the specific history of the Ancients, who had retained as their three sources of wisdom the Bible (renamed Volume of the Sacred Law), the square, and the compass. This was, however, without taking into account the first tradition, that of the Moderns, for whom the three great lights at the origin of the Order were the sun, the moon, and the elder master in the lodge, which would have rendered the coercive exercise somewhat more complex.

In passing we see there the geopolitical interlinking of elements of obediential doctrine and strategies. The earliest sources of the doctrine that was gradually conceived and established by the United Grand Lodge of England in the form of metarules only date, by the way, from 1809. As Lepage strove to show in the footsteps of Henry Sadler, it was the Lodge of Promulgation that during this year undertook a codification, starting with the fixing of two restrictive rules for the ceremonies for installing their masters.6 What followed in 1929 was of an entirely different nature and aimed at determining the criteria that authorized London to declare an obedience as regular or irregular, which is to say to maintain its tight control.

At the end of the nineteenth century the American Albert Mackey had already attempted to establish (and was the first to do so) an extensive catalog of twenty-five Landmarks, a veritable dogmatic set, published in his An Encyclopedia of Freemasonry. It was therefore by a very gradual process that the United Grand Lodge of England equipped itself with a new body of texts, the Aims and Relationships of the Crafts, written in 1929, then amended in August 1938 and again in 1949. The last revisions were made in 1989. Spencer Douglas David Compton, Lord Northampton, former pro–grand master of the London obedience and considered to be a liberal authority—who has since been replaced by a more conservative successor—set the doctrine by interpreting it as follows:

Several obediences can be considered to be regular in each country or region. It is not the responsibility of the United Grand Lodge of England to prejudge as the prerogative of recognition belonging to the obedience recognized by London, and it is up to the Masonic authorities concerned to find agreement among themselves.

Recognition by a recognized obedience in no way implies recognition on the part of the United Grand Lodge of England.

Consequently, an obedience recognized by the United Grand Lodge of England keeps the latitude of recognizing obediences that are not recognized by the United Grand Lodge of England.

This recent development is evidence of a new plasticity in the system of recognition that takes nothing away from the primacy of the United Grand Lodge of England, whereas each of the preceding texts had restricted a little more each time the freedom of contact with the liberal obediences, designated with much condescension and sometimes proscribed outright. Those who remember the twists and turns surrounding the Alpina Grand Lodge in the 1960s will recall the shock waves caused by the English policy concerning obediences in continental Europe, particularly in Germany and France. In this way, the United Grand Lodge of England, in a belated doctrinal reorientation, unilaterally maintains the arrangements determining recognition by imposing the norms of regularity, all while recently introducing a more subtle dialectic that on the whole is most pragmatic.

It remains no less established that American Masonry, long under the grip of the doctrine formulated by the United Grand Lodge of England, fit itself into this caesura between the two Masonic trends that developed as they drew ever further away from each other. The session of the Grand Lodges Conference at Baltimore, Maryland, in February 2014 offered confirmation of the qua eternal contortions of Franco-American interactions in this domain. I would like to cite the report that appeared in the blog “La Lumière” by the journalist François Koch in L’Express.

The Grand Master of the GLNF (25,000 brothers), Jean-Pierre Servel, pronounced himself “satisfied” with his visit to Baltimore where he attended the Conference of the North American Grand Masters from February 15–18, 2014, in the state of Maryland on the East Coast of the United States. This large annual gathering officially claims representation of some two million masons and sixty Grand Lodges belonging to the United States (including Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico), Mexico, Canada, as well as incidentally the American-Canadian Grand Lodge of Germany that was created after the Second World War in the former occupied zones. In 2014, the French question was brought before the Commission on Information for Recognition, with the interventions of not just one advocate for the cause but both protagonists of the structures created by the crisis of the GLNF in 2013, Allain Juillet (grand master of the Grande Loge de l’Alliance Maçonnique Française [GLAMF]) and Jean-Pierre Servel (grand master of the GLNF).7

Servel was asked the following three questions by Koch.

Why were you satisfied?

Because the Commission on Information for Recognition, which, in 2012, had deemed it reasonable to “suspend relations with the GLNF,” has changed its position: “Considering the resolution of administrative problems, the member Grand Lodges can, if they so desire, reconsider this suspension. This is positive for us. All the same, you should know that we are not starting from zero: out of 51 American Grand Lodges, we are recognized by 35 (by an additional 4 over the past two years).

Is the return of English recognition anticipated to be soon?

I am quite hopeful of this. I spoke at length with the Grand Chancellor of the United Grand Lodge of England (Derek Dinsmore). What the English wish is for peace to be restored and for the brothers to be happy. In Baltimore we showed a pacified Masonry, without permanent war.

What are the consequences for French Masonry?

I have never said that the GNLF should remain the sole regular obedience in France. If one or more strictly respect the Landmarks (belief in God, the rule of no Masonic intervisits with irregular Masonic entities . . .), I am favorable to joining together in a confederation or within the United Grand Lodges.

Meanwhile Juillet, grand master of the GLAMF (with seventeen thousand members), which was born from the scission of the GLNG in 2013, was already betting on a confederation of French Masonry bringing together some seventy thousand brothers with a strategy based on the Declaration of Vienna of January 2014 (see the appendices). This declaration was written by five European grand lodges, with the United Grand Lodge of Germany being the most passionate of the militants for the cause and consequently seen as the leader.

What we are seeing here are the sudden jolts of institutions seeking an exit and in quest of recognition and therefore international legitimacy in an eternal Franco-American interaction, as well as, in some way, a drift of Masonic continents henceforth separated by abysses.

The grand masters of the grand lodges of North America and their Commission on Information for Recognition, for their part, defined the standards this way in 1952:

Legitimacy of origin, in other words, when going back to their historical sources: what obedience provided their charter?

Exclusive territorial jurisdiction, exceptions made by mutual agreement and/or treaty;

Adherence to the old Landmarks—more specifically: belief in God; the Volume of the Sacred Law forms an essential and constituent part of the lodge, and the taboo on political or religious discussions.

It was therefore on these criteria that obediences in trans-Atlantic, or more generally, international, relations were either recognized or not. However, the commission today explicitly states that it communicates this information for their use by the grand lodges “with no intention of influencing or recommending the actions they would wish to be taken.” This is a theoretically more liberal reading than that of the United Grand Lodge of England, which thereby leaves some virtual maneuvering room for each obedience, on condition of respecting one doxa at minimum. The future will say what practical consequences will be drawn from this and how they will be judged by the measure of actual recognitions.

With regard to the United Grand Lodge of England in London, even with the belated softening agreed to lessen the pressure of realities, it has imposed its Landmarks in a way that is both lasting and quite effective. Respect for these Landmarks is required of the regular grand lodges, in the sense this Masonic authority is interpreted. American standards are therefore an interpretative application of English norms. The obediences in this circle of influence meet every two years in international conferences organized by each member lodge in turn, in regional or continental alternation.

This international network currently contains 246 grand lodges worldwide, which breaks down to 107 in North America, 68 in Latin America, 43 in Europe, 17 in Africa, and 11 in the Asian Pacific region. Furthermore, the leadership of the United Grand Lodge of England mainly manifests as external policies coordinated with the American network, reaching wherever it is deemed necessary and especially helpful for the penetration of this Masonic network into new areas. In Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and in Russia and its former satellites after they were opened in 1991, the creation of grand lodges in this circle of influence multiplied without the lodges necessarily always being successfully established.

These activities were led with the openly displayed support of the Commission on Information for Recognition of the Grand Lodges of the United States of America, and they obviously obeyed a geostrategic and diplomatic philosophy. The unacknowledged but established political links with missions serving American interests are obvious and even publically notorious, because they involve ensuring external relays suitable to serving the higher causes of the empire. So there will be no cause for surprise upon learning of the generosity that benefited those who took as their mission the formation of grand lodges in the countries of the former Eastern bloc. In this respect, we shall see in chapter 7 how when the interests of the Supreme Council of France entered into conflict with those of the Southern Jurisdiction in 1995, this mirrored exactly the competition between the French and the American nations.

This was the resounding expression of what was aimed for here. And, sticking with the theme of geopolitical realities, it should come as no surprise that Russian president Vladimir Putin chose to join in a philosophy of reciprocal support with the Russian obedience of the Grand Orient of the Russian Peoples.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!