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“he will never be a stupid atheist nor an irreligious libertine”

I am currently reading the massive Satanism: A Social History by Massimo Introvigne. This is a scholarly work published by the esteemed publisher Brill. It was first published in Italian in 1994 and was later translated, rewritten and expanded in various languages to (currently) end with the 655 pages that Brill published in 2016.

There is something in this book that got me thinking about the early days of Freemasonry. There are many histories of these early days. Not all treat the rising of ‘modern’ lodges in the context of the late 16th, early 17th society. There are investigations showing that there were many social clubs, workers associations that either or not provided financial security in case of sickness, but besides social and philosophical clubs, there were also gatherings of another kind.

You have probably heard of “the” Hellfire Club. Actually, there was not one Hellfire Club, there were several.

In fact, the Hell-Fire Clubs, with this or similar names, constituted a spe-
cies inside a genus, which originated in the 17th century and developed in the 18th in England, Scotland, Ireland, and then in the American colonies. (p. 58)

Introvigne names quite a couple of similar groups. The Society of Dilettanti, the Divan Club, the Blasters, the Mohocks, to name a few. Not all groups were the same of course. The Dilettanti were primarily a literary club and the Mohocks amused themselves by beating up passers-by “intended as a symbol of free and wild behavior”.

Now with that last remark, we are already on different ground.

Until now, we are in the atmosphere of a libertine club: and there were other similar institutions in the 18th century. Anticlericalism and the ridicule of Catholic religious orders were also quite common in that era. (p. 55)

Introvigne describes how several of these clubs were sexually liberated (hence: libertines) and as we see, anticlerical (think of the Hellfire Clubs), anti-Catholicism, even downright atheist.

Some of the members frequented several of such clubs, which -of course- could be a problem when one of these clubs tried to be a respectable one.

It is interesting to note how, in the following campaigns that would try to connect Freemasonry and Satanism, the anti-Masonic camp would completely miss the fact that a member of the infamous Hell-Fire Club was one of the first Grand Masters of the Grand Lodge of London. (p. 58)

The “campaigns” talked about are of course anti-Satanic campaigns of churches and laymen hunting down people who did not conform to their standards. The connection between Freemasonry and Satanism alluded to in the quote is the famous case of Philip Wharton (1698–1731) who was not only a member of parliament, but more famous for having been active in the most famous of Hellfire Clubs and he shortly was Grand Master of the very first Masonic Grand Lodge in 1723.

That very year, 1723, is the year that the first version of the Constitutions were published and these contain the quote that forms the title of this little article. Could Wharton have been the “stupid atheist” and “irreligious libertine” that the Constitutions refer to? If that is the case, both words have to be interpreted somewhat stricter than the general meanings they are given today. The “libertine” does not refer to a political current, but to people from that time taking their liberty a few steps further than others. The “atheist” were not just unbelievers, but people gathering to mock the Church.

It may very well be possible that the young Grand Lodge tried to distance itself from clubs such as the Hellfire Clubs and that this is how this phrase found its way into the Constitutions.

Like I said, Freemasonry did not come to be in a vacuum, but this connection with the somewhat darker side of society of these days is, to my knowledge, not much investigated.

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