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Freemasonry And Fraternal Societies – David Harrison & Fred Lomas (2016)

Freemasonry was not the only society that (gentle)men could join in the 18th and 19th century. Actually, this story is not just about gentlemen. The book gives a nice insight in an aspect of history that for some reason is not often spoken about together with Freemasonry.

The authors describe different kinds of societies that arose around the rising of ‘modern Freemasonry’ in 1717. On first glance these societies were very different. On second glance, these differences were a lot smaller than appears.

A type of society that is spoken of in the book are “box societies”. These had nothing to do with the sport, but they were organisations that people could join. They would pay a fee (stored in a box) and the society would financially help out in case of illness or death. Before social security this was an important insurance for many employers. When the state started to regulate social security, many of such societies died out or became insurance companies. There were different kinds of such sickness and death type societies.

Another kind of society was the social club often for the higher-up men. They could be either diner, drinking, games, philosophy or whatever kind of group that people joined for relaxation and networking. Some of such groups aimed at a specific audience, other were more inclusive. Some were very exclusive. Not a few had their own buildings. Quite some people were members of a number of the mentioned groups.
Because alcohol consumption was high, even a society for abstainers was founded. Several such in hindsight odd societies are mentioned in the book.

Either or not inspired by Freemasonry, several of such groups had initiations, grades even, passwords, grips and the like. Some were (almost) Freemasonry mockery groups, others were more akin to Freemasonry. In this entire network of societies and their members, Freemasonry formed a lively part. Its members met in different groups and/or were involved in the foundation of such societies.

Many of the names of the societies have been almost forgotten. Some have survived and even thrive today. Think of Odd Fellows, Foresters, Druids, Buffaloes, Gardeners, and Rechabites. They sometimes had (and have) regalia similar to that of Freemasonry, regulations that are similar, goals that are similar.

The book is a little thin (160 pages) and I would have loved to hear more about the ritual side of such groups, but Harrison and Lomas offer an interesting insight into a larger fraternal world of which Freemasonry is perhaps the best known, but by far not the only part.

2016 Lewis Masonic, isbn 0853184968

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

The Origins Of Freemasonry – David Stevenson (1988)

I ran into this title in the books of Tobias Churton. Like Churton, Stevenson is not a Freemason himself. The subtitle of the book makes it clear where Stevenson’s emphasis lays: Scotland’s century 1590-1710.

While many authors see the origin of ‘modern Freemasonry’ in England because it was in London that the first Grand Loge was founded, Stevenson focuses on Scotland. Not only is there much more material about Freemasonry predating 1717, but according to the author, Scottish Freemasonry differed from English Freemasonry and the former heavily influenced the latter in the years around 1717.

Stevenson also comes with a somewhat different version of the transition from so-called “operative” to so-called “speculative” Freemasonry.

Thus the assumption imposed by the terminology […] is that operative lodges, made up of stonemasons, must to operative things; non-operative lodges of gentlemen or speculatives do speculative things. This may make some sense in an English context, where nearly all lodges were ‘artificial’ foundations by gentlemen, but it is totally inappropriate for Scotland where virtually all the pre-1710 lodges were originally, and often long remained, closely tied to the mason trade. (p. 10)

And so we get the story that you may have ran into before with “Old Charges” (Scottish and some English), early lodge minutes, joining “gentry”, etc. Stevenson comes up with slightly different details and lays stress on other details to make his point that many things that we know of Freemasonry today, actually came into existence in Scotland and was only around 1717 introduced in England such as the Mason Word and the two grade system.

William Shaw is the person for Stevenson, whom restyled early Freemasonry into a form that would develop into what Freemasonry is today, including a big part of its esotericism. Also slightly different from several other authors is Stevenson’s ideas that gentry usually only experienced an initiation, but were not active in the lodge afterwards; that lodges consisted not only or masons as workmen, but other professions as well; and that “gentry” not only joined but also left lodges basically making them “operative” again.

It is an interesting history and Stevenson shines his own light on it. I find his ‘Scotland theory’ a credible one. Why would the French, when Freemasonry started to develop there, refer to Scotland (Ecossais) rather than England for their systems of ‘high degrees’? And is it so strange that in Scotland things were somewhat different, but elements found their ways to England right around the time that the first Grand Lodge was founded?

I just started reading another David Harrison book and in the first pages he proved himself critical towards Stevenson. Let us just take the different theories (emphasis) at heart and remember what appeals to us. When you are interested in somewhat dry historical Masonic history (think Knoop and Jones), Stevenson makes a worthwhile read.

The Magus Of Freemasonry – Tobias Churton (2004)

Here we have Churtons biography of Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) “Scientist, Alchemist, and Founder of the Royal Society”. Both Ashmole and Churton have lived in the city of Lichfield and Churton took it upon himself to not only clear the name of Ashmole of centuries of misinformation, but also to sift through archives for new information. The result is the interesting story of an interesting man.

After an introduction, we start in Ashmole’s early years of course. He had an overly stern father and a mother who tried to help him become an independent thinker within the range of her possibilities. Ashmole left his parental house as soon as he could (with a little help from his mother) only to loose his mother to the plague shortly after. This sets the tone of a life with highs and lows.

Ashmole lived in troubled times. There was a political war in which he served what later turned out to be the losing side. The Reformation took hold of religious life and its churches. There was the mentioned plague. Last but not least, the witch-craze started to develop as well, which made it hazardous to be interested in things such as alchemy, Rosicrucianism and the like.

Ashmole was mostly an antiquarian. He gathered information and objects and initially gathered that in books, towards the end of his life, he was found the very first public museum. Especially his successful book about the Order of the Garter made his name. He was quite familiar with other antiquarians and intellectuals of his time and had a bunch of long time friends even though he lived across the country.

Ashmole married three times, two wives he outlived. He could not really be without a partner, both for emotional and for financial reasons. He remained on good standing with his families in law, especially the first. He was even initiated into “Free Masonry” in 1646 together with a nephew of his first wife who had long passed.

The author looks at people close to Ashmole painting an interesting picture of early Freemasonry, but also of other pursuits that Ashmole was involved in, such as the Royal Society. Later in his life his name of “magus” did not have the negative marking it was likely to have in his days and even resulted in him being given a large part of the diaries of his big hero John Dee (1527-1608).

The not-so-good name that Ashmole still has, mostly comes from unjust legal actions against him. Some of his former family in law kept coming with new lawsuits over things that had been settled, but worse for his name was the incident in which he was given a large collection of rarities of a fellow collector, while by the time the man had died, his widow would accuse Ashmole of theft and also sue him. This suggestion of unjustly having acquired a large part of what would later become the collection of the Ashmolean Museum still stains his name. Churton sheds more light on these events.

Elias Ashmole was an interesting man with ideas that our quite ‘far out’ in our own time, but were less so in his own days. Also he was ahead of his time in his capacity as antiquarian, scientist and scholar.

2004 Inner Traditions, isbn 1594771227

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

The Path Of Freemasonry – Mark Stavish (2021)

I ran into this book a bit by accident. The subtitle is: “The Craft as a Spiritual Practice” and it is supposed to be a book about the esoteric side of Freemasonry. The introductions are written by no less authors as Arturo de Hoyos and Lon Milo DuQuette, both known esoteric Freemasons.

DuQuette starts with an anecdote about a secret meeting of esoteric Freemasons. Secret, because there are supposedly many ‘anti-esoteric Freemasons’. He does not even dare to name the country where the meeting was held. I doubt a man of the stature of DuQuette who has written many books on a wide variety of things esoteric would be unknown to be an esoteric Freemason amongst his brothers, so I found that story a bit weird.

Stavish promises a lot more than (in my opinion) he makes true. The book is not really an esoteric peek into Masonic symbolism or an ‘esoteric approach’ of The Craft. It is mostly a book with “suggestive retellings” (to use the author’s own term) of Western esotericism. Elias Ashmole, Rosicrucians, Qabbalah (author’s spelling), all esoteric subjects that are (vaguely) linked to Freemasonry in many books are written about without any really in depth information or clear links to Freemasonry. “Suggestive retellings”.

Stavish only scratches the surface and cuts corners. He says that the “placement of the officers” is part of the “Landmarks” while I cannot fathom he does not know that there are two different set-ups in lodges. He says where a Bible is opened in lodges, but this is not the same in every lodge. Or what about calling Jan Amos Comenius a “Moravian alchemist” or saying “the Grand Lodge of France, known as the Grand Orient of France”? France has many Grand Lodges, not just the Grand Orient.

Also annoying, it appears that Stavish has read something about mixed gender Freemasonry (or co-Masonry) which he supposedly thinks it still the same all over the world and exactly like it was in the Theosophical period. It has “invisible adepts” for example” (I never heard of that). The Theosophical period was perhaps two decades in the very early 20th century and the other century of its existence there was a short ‘anti-Theosophical’ movement in some Grand loges, but mostly a neutral stance.

Stavish does not present much new when it comes to Western esotericism, Freemasonry, its history of symbolism or the link between these two. There are also three appendices which are not wildly interesting (even though the geometry text by John Michael Greer did present things I never encountered).

“The Path Of Freemasonry” is not a boring read, but it is not exactly groundbreaking either. He does have some nice suggestions in his bibliography, has reading suggestions per subject and (very contemporary): exercises.

2021 Inner Traditions, isbn 1644113287

Rediscovered Rituals Of English Freemasonry – David Harrison (2020)

Once again Harrison publishes a book about old Masonic texts. About I must stress as we will see.

The concerning texts is a collection of Masonic rituals made by Richard Carlile (1790-1843) under the title Manual Of Freemasonry (first published 1845).

The book begins with Carlile, a political radical and not a Freemason (!) who wanted to educate the general public about a variety of subjects, including Freemasonry.

Carlile proves to be a good investigator with good sources and a keen insight in the symbolism and workings of Freemasonry. He compiled 30 rituals, including the three “craft degrees” (entered apprentice, fellowcraft, master mason). They are not presented as one system, Carlile compiled degrees from all kinds of systems. Besides, in these days, may degrees not all really were part of a system. The compilation does show what degrees were ‘worked’ in these days of course.

So you get ‘high degrees’, ‘side degrees’, many degrees that are now part of the Ancient And Accepted Scottish Rite, etc., etc. Unfortunately Harrison chose to only retell the stories of the degrees, rather than printing the texts that Carlile has published.

The historical part is somewhat interesting. The short stories of the degrees is only mildly so. What is of more interest is that Harrison shows how Carlile ordered his degrees so that there is some sort of developing story throughout the degrees.

It seems that again I have to conclude that the author appears to have much more information available than what he presents is this little book (just a little over 100 pages of text). Harrisons books would be much more interesting if he did not compress his information into tiny books such as this one.

Do I have to say that this book will only be interesting for people either ‘going through’ Masonic degrees and/or interested in their histories?

2020 Lewis Masonic, isbn 9780853185710

Freemasonry: Initiation By Light – Christopher Earnshaw (2020)

And number three published in the ‘spiritual Freemasonry series’. This time the author seems to imply that there will be only three books in these series.

The first book that was published in these series was very interesting, the second less so and the third is interesting again. I do -though- sure wish that it had been published in a single volume. There is a large part of history again in the beginning of this book, but it seems a bit out of place. My guess is that the author had intended a historical part and more esoteric history of the three degrees and had to spread that over three books, the result is a bit odd at times.

The largest of the three books again has much history, but it is more connected to the subject than in the previous book. Again there is a lot of focus on “the first three Grand Masters” and their connections. Earnshaw’s stance towards ‘the operatives’ confuses me. One time he seems to say that these “operatives” have nothing to do with modern Freemasonry and at other times he says that one of the first three lodges was an operative one.

We follow the trail to America and back, the expansion of Freemasonry in Britain and abroad and then comes the part that is the main focus of this book: China.

Earnshaw has a very interesting tale of Jesuits going to China, a convert visiting Britain and the influence of this Chinese Jesuit on the minds of some people close to the founders of the first Grand Lodge. Via this route Earnshaw suggests that the Dao ‘initiation by light’ heavily influenced the first degree of Freemasonry. The Chinese influences also partly explain the alchemical elements in the second degree.

I am mostly interested in Earnshaw’s information about the people around the first Grand Lodge, but the story of Shen FuZong is intriguing. The arguments and comparisons do not always convince me, but Earnshaw certainly describes how different influences came together in the early 18th century and how (possibly) modern Freemasonry was brewed from them.

2020 Lewis Masonic, isbn 979-8605924371

Freemasonry: Quest For Immortality – Christopher Earnshaw (2019)

Here we have the second publication in the “Spiritual Freemasonry” series. Here the author speaks about four books. I just ordered ‘volume 3’ Freemasonry: Initiation By Light and I suppose that Freemasonry: Royal Arch which is announced for September 2020 is the fourth title.

The previously reviewed title has an interesting history of esoteric currents and how people involved in “the Revival” of Freemasonry of 1717 fit into these currents. This time there is again a lot of history, but this time dull and I do not always see its use. 70% Of the book is filled with a history of the United Kingdom. Of course some of that says something about the ‘whys’, ‘whens’ and ‘whos’ of early Freemasonry, but of much of it I fail to see the connection.

There is a short chapter about Freemasonry and Kabbala, but unfortunately Earnshaw does not say when and through whom Kabbala found its way into Masonic symbolism, while exactly that was the interesting part concerning Alchemy in the previous book.

I was curious about the parts of this book about the Medieval mystery plays, in which Earnshaw sees the origin of the third degree, but that short part is not too strong.

Towards the end there is some note of the “signposts” (see previous review) and again the Alchemical origins of Masonic symbolism. That is the better part of the book.

With the first Constitutions, the history of Freemasonry was rewritten and expanded to include a glorious legend. The first Grand Masters, George Payne, John Desagulier, together with Anthony Sayer and possibly James Andersson, rewrote the three degrees with the objective of emphasizing the immortality of the soul, at a time when that concept was under attack. (p. 198)

Maybe some stress lays on the third degree in this book, but it is not like it is a book about the third degree, just as the previous was not entirely about the second. The previous book is the more interesting also with regards to the bigger picture that Earnshaw tries to sketch.

2019 Lewis Masonic, isbn 1673308120

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.

Read More »Freemasonry: Spiritual Alchemy – Christopher Earnshaw (2019)