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Genesis Of Freemasonry – David Harrison (2009)

Indeed another Masonic history book. This is the first book of David Harrison, based on his dissertation of December 2007. “This book launched my career as a Masonic historian, researcher and author”. The book was slightly revised for the 2014 Lewis Masonic edition.

Historians of Freemasonry have, in the past, written work that has been selective. For example Gould who, as a Victorian Freemason, wrote from an official Masonic standpoint, dedicating his History of Freemasonry to the then Grand Master, the Prince of Wales and was harsh in his treatment of rebel Grand Lodges and rebel Masons, such as his discussion of the Grand Lodge of Wigan and his views on Thomas Paine. Others, most notably [Margaret] Jacob, have neglected certain elements of the society’s history, failing to mention the important role of Tory and Jacobite Freemasons in the Craft’s development during the early 18th century.

Harrison is to be applauded for his open view to Masonic history. Many Freemasons today, especially those whom regard themselves “regular” appear to forget or deny the fact that there have been multiple Grand Lodges from the start. Not just the “Premier/Moderns” versus the “Antients” since 1751, but the Irish, Scottish, York and Wigan Grand Lodges. A universally acclaimed Freemason such as William Preston (1742-1818) has been a member of all Grand Lodges that exited in his time. He even founded a ‘rebel’ Grand Lodge (to the “Premier/Modern” Grand Lodge) himself. Things have never been as clear-cut as some want us to believe.

Also Harrison does not deny the existence and involvement of colourful people such as Francis Dashwood (1856-1727) and Philip Wharton (1698–1731) who have not only been Grand Masters of the “Premier/Modern” Grand Lodge but who were also involved in organisations such as the Hell Fire Club. Such men too have -in their own ways- contributed to what Freemasonry became.

As for the history of Freemasonry, Harrison sees “three transitional periods”.

Firstly, the transformation from operative to speculative during the 17th and early 18th centuries. Secondly, the foundation of the London Grand Lodge in 1717 and the subsequent modernisation of the ritual. Thirdly, the schisms and rebellions within Freemasonry, which forced the society to rebuild and reconcile in 1813.

And even after the foundation of the United Grand Lodge of England, there were “rebels”. The “last rebel Grand Lodge survived until 1913”.

Harrison ascribes a big role in the revision of Freemasonry and its rituals to John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683-1744). This ardent follower of Isaac Newton (1642-1726) introduced a lot of ‘Newtonianism’ into Freemasonry. Even though frequently critical to Stevenson, Harrison does make an interesting suggestion in this regard. As Stevenson suggests, pre-1717 Freemasonry was different in England than it was in Scotland. The 1721 visit of Desagulier to a Scottish lodge may well have inspired him to introduce ‘Scottish’ elements into ‘English’ Freemasonry, such as the Masons Word and the three grade system.

Other elements that I do not see often in Masonic histories are remarks that both Desagulier and James Andersson (1679-1739) were also members of other societies (such as the “mysterious society called ‘Solomon’s Temple’) and a patron of Desagulier, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos (1673-1744), who would send him around the country for ‘scientific reasons’, but also for ‘Masonic reasons’. Chandos had more such men in his entourage.

There are quite a few elements to Harrison’s debut that are worthy of contemplation. A problem that I also have with other books of his that I read is that the author seldom (if ever?) dives into the details. It would have been very interesting if Desagulier would have gotten a more detailed look for example. What were his ideas, where did he get them from, what found its way into ‘his’ rituals and how? The book raises as many questions as it answers.

In any case, Harrison’s debut is indeed a ‘modern classic’ of Masonic history, but would have done better if the author was a pencil licker such as detail loving authors Knoop and Jones or Stevenson.

2014 Lewis Masonic, isbn 0853184992

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