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Freemasonry: Spiritual Alchemy – Christopher Earnshaw (2019)

The author was writing a book about spiritual Freemasonry and when the book pushed 550 pages the publisher asked to split it into three books because readers would be overwhelmed by a 500 page book. I personally would not have a problem and taken that this book is targeted at Freemasons (the publisher being Lewis Masonic) who, I guess, are used to reading too, I wonder if that was really the reason.

In any case, Spiritual Alchemy was published in August 2019. Then we have Freemasonry: The Quest For Immortality which was published in December 2019 and the upcoming Freemasonry: Initiation By Light (due April 2020). My guess was that Spiritual Alchemy was the first to read. Amazon has it listed as “spiritual Freemasonry series book 2” and towards the end I understand that the present title is mostly about the Fellow Craft degree (the second) and The Quest For Immortality about the third degree. Strange order of publishing! So when you want to read them by grade, perhaps you should wait until the Entered Apprentice book Initiation By Light.

Lewis Masonic publishes more esoteric works about Freemasonry recently. I suppose there is a growing demand. The author is a Freemason in Japan and the USA and has been looking for the original esoteric undercurrent of Freemasonry that has been largely lost. He poses the very interesting question: when and through whom did esotericism come into Freemasonry. Freemasonry is often described as “a peculiar system of morality”, but to Earnshaw this is only partly what it is. There are authors that think that originally Freemasonry was indeed a “system of morality”, but only became esoteric later (only to loose it in the course of time).

Fabio Venzi describes Freemasonry as such and he sees the esoteric influence coming from the so-called Cambridge Platonists. Earnshaw has focussed his investigations to “the first three Grand Masters”. He describes the events leading up to what he called the “revival” of 1717 in detail and also the people involved. These “first three Grand Masters” that he refers to are the Worshipful Masters of the three lodges that formed the first Grand Lodge: Anthony Sayer (“who may have been an alchemist”), George Payne and John Desagulier. The latter is the best known of the three, since he also had a hand in the constitutions of Andersson of 1723.

The first part of the book is mostly historical and very interesting. Earnshaw has a look as people such as John Wilkins, the “first three Grand Masters”, the history of and interest in subjects such as Rosicrucianism, Christian Cabala, Alchemy and the upcoming of science. In a very interesting period leading up to the Royal Society there were people involved in both approaches. Earnshaw ascribes a big influence on Isaac Newton who was both an alchemist and an early man of science. He intimately knew two of the three first Grand Masters. Earnshaw also mentions Desagulier meeting Emanuel Swedenborg.

Then follows a (to me) less interesting history of Alchemy which, according to the author, came from China. Writing about Western Alchemists, the author comes closer and closer to the start of the Royal Society and we know that more than a few members of this society were involved in the “revival” of Freemasonry.

From chapter four the book changes. Earnshaw says that the first three Grand Masters have put secret messages in the ritual for the inquisitive Freemason to find. They only hid it too well, so they added the third degree (a “Christian” degree) which gives leads to the steganographic riddles.

And thus the author has found 25 “signposts”, pointers in the ritual texts to something deeper. He will only give 24 to not give it all away. These signposts are strange words or numbers or ‘mistakes’ that when thinking through, may lead the searcher for a deeper layer in Masonic symbolism. To Earnshaw this layer is mostly Alchemical and he interestingly sifted out three Alchemical works that are very important to the building of the Masonic symbolism.

The book does not always convince me. Earnshaw keeps saying that the third degree was compiled after the “revival”, but there are references to three degrees in “Old Charges”. What I do agree with is that the ‘creators’ of Freemasonry combined elements from “operative” lodges with esoteric elements.

There are three other levels to the ritual; the encoded cipher to his the teachings from prying eyes, the esoterica to pique the curiosity of the Brethern, and the “Hidden Mysteries,” which are or should be the journey of all Masons, but there is still further to go, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (p. 229)

Earnshaw’s book makes a nice read. I sometimes find his writing style too ‘popular’ and too ‘see here, mystery!’, but especially his history makes a nice addition to the theories of Venzi. Also he seriously looks at a question that keeps occupying my mind too: when and through whom did esotericism find its way into Freemasonry? The next question is: what is left to salvage?

I am curious about the first/second book (already in my possession) and await the third part.

2019 Lewis Masonic, isbn 1086885414

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