The Golden Builders – Tobias Churton (2004)

I saw this book referred to in the mildly interesting work about esoteric Freemason The Path Of Freemasonry. Especially references to Elias Ashmole caught my interest.

The Golden Builders is subtitled: “alchemists, Rosicrucians, first Freemasons” which spans a subject I am much interested in as I am curious to know how elements of the named ‘philosophies’ found their way into Masonic symbolism.

Just as the book I found this title in, Churton starts with a fairly general overview of Western esotericism. Hermetica, Alchemy, Renaissance, Hermetica, nothing new really. What is somewhat interesting is that Churton used the (then) latest investigations from academic circles, so he does refer to recent findings here and there.

Especially referring to recent findings of Carlos Gilly, with the part about the Rosicrucians the book starts to become a lot more interesting. Churton really dug in the persons involved in the Rosicrucian ‘movement’, looking at Andreae and his surroundings, the religious turmoil of these days, where inspiration came from, etc. A trace can even be followed to the Royal Society.

Via John Dee we come to Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), whom Ashmole admired greatly. Ashmole is often ‘used’ to make a link between “operative” and “speculative” Freemasonry, but Churton shows that there is much more to say than only referring to both of Ashmole’s diary entrances about Freemasonry, the suggestion that he might have been a Rosicrucian and the fact that he was involved on the early Royal Society, which -in turn- influenced the rising of the ‘premiere Grand Lodge’ of 1717.

Ashmole was initiated a Freemason in 1646, 70 years before the foundation of the first Grand Lodge. Much has been written about why and how a non-“operative” was initiated into an “operative” lodge. Was it an occasional lodge? Where there separate lodges to initiate the “gentry” or did these noblemen join lodges and slowly but surely take them over, reforming “operative” lodges into “speculative” ones? Churton has a thing or two to say about this.

Through his first marriage, Ashmole can be linked to a long tradition of “operative” Masons going back to the dawn of Cistercian cloister builders. Even after losing his first wife the the plague, Ashmole was initiated together with a nephew of his late wife. Churton also has a look at that good man. In this regard it is also interesting to note the suggestion that people adhering the ‘old religion’ (Catholicism) appeared to have played a big role in the Masonic transition.

What makes Ashmole interesting is that he compiled alchemical works, was interested in Hermeticism and he was known for that, even in times of the witch-craze. It could have been Ashmole and perhaps people ‘like him’ who introduced certain elements to Masonic symbolism.

A subject that I would have preferred to have been worked out is the interesting case of Sir William Wilson who was known to be an “operative” Mason who was (again?) initiated, while Churton suggests that there was no “operative” versus “speculative” Freemasonry in these days.

the term “speculative Freemasonry” has been used to make a spurious distinction between post-1717 ‘symbolic’ masonry and the old trade which ‘preceded’ it, in effect drawing a cautious (and unnecessary) veil over the movement’s genuine past.

The Golden Builders became a more interesting book than I expected in the first half. Unfortunately (and of course) not all questions are answered, but the interesting case of Ashmole is a lot more clear now. Churton also published a book solely about Ashmole two years after this one, which is the next title on my reading list. Churton has more titles that appear to be of interest. In The Golden Builders he is not too clear about it, but he seems to do a lot of research himself not only recapitulating what has been written before. He dove into archives, tried to find family information, etc. He may be an author I will read some more of.

2004 Weiser, isbn 157863329X

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