Way back in February 2018, The UK newspaper The Guardian ran a story entitled ‘Secret Freemasons Should Have no Place in Public Life’. It was a rather sensationalist and negative piece that caused a stir at the time, and was accompanied around the same period by another unfavourable piece, also published by the same newspaper. I know that my letter, written in response to these articles, wasn’t the only letter that reached their desks, and I recently found the letter again, which reads as a short compilation of some of my published articles, some that have been posted on my website over the years, so I thought I would post it up with some links back to the original articles.
In response to the recent negative articles concerning Freemasonry that have appeared in The Guardian, I would like to take this opportunity to point out how Masonry has contributed to the development of modern society worldwide in a positive way, especially during the age of Enlightenment in the long eighteenth century. Freemasonry is practised in lodge rooms, and the lodge room is a sacred space, being designed on Solomon’s Temple, the idea of a sacred space becoming prominent after the English Civil War so learned men from both sides of the political spectrum could come together and participate in intellectual and polite discussion. This can especially be seen with the development of the Royal Society which, when founded after the Restoration in 1660, became the world’s leading intellectual lighthouse, and went on to include many Freemasons amongst its esteemed Fellows. One such Fellow, Elias Ashmole, was the first recorded English Freemason, a Royalist, who became a Mason in my home town of Warrington in 1646. On the same day Ashmole entered into Freemasonry, another historical figure of the Civil War also became a Freemason in the same lodge; Colonel Henry Mainwaring, a Parliamentarian. Two men from both sides of the conflict being brought together in a sacred space. Even today, the discussion of politics and religion are forbidden in the lodge room.
Freemasonry has, since its earliest records, promoted education and charity, and we read much about how Freemasonry today is the second largest giver after the National Lottery. This support for good causes is nothing new and records reveal how at a local level, lodges were giving to local infirmaries, local schools and contributed to the promotion and building of local libraries from the later eighteenth century onwards. One example is the Warrington Academy, a progressive and independent centre of learning for non-conformists that had the support of Freemasons from the local Masonic lodge and was opened in 1757. The Academy attracted such respected teachers as natural philosopher and liberal political theorist Dr Joseph Priestley and naturalist John Reinhold Forster. A circulating library was established to supply books to students of the Academy. The ethos of education is important to Freemasons, and its promotion in Victorian society became part of an established philanthropic drive that resulted in many local schools being built along with the establishment of many learned societies. The Mechanics Institute was one such organisation that received support from local lodges up and down the country.
The Enlightenment became entwined with Freemasonry, and the many leading revolutionaries that were members of the society during the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has led conspiracy theorists to claim that Freemasonry was behind a sinister new world order. The revolutions in America, France and Southern America certainly included many Freemasons as leaders; George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de Lafayette, Jean-Paul Marat, Francisco de Miranda, José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar were all Freemasons, but their belief in liberty emerged from the ideas of the Enlightenment that Freemasonry was a part of. Masonic lodges taught about the power of education and gave an experience of equality that inspired men to try to make the world a better place.
On a scientific level we have Edward Jenner who was a Freemason, a natural philosopher, a Fellow of the Royal Society and discoverer of the Small Pox vaccine. This disease killed countless people, maiming the survivors, and Jenner’s work is said to have saved more lives than any other person. His work laid the foundation of immunology, and Small Pox was declared an eradicated disease in 1979. Jenner held a ‘science select lodge’ to promote science within the context of Freemasonry, were lodge members had to present a paper on a scientific subject. We can certainly learn from the Freemasonry of the past and how it has assisted in the growth of education, charity and in the ideas of political liberty and equality, ideas that are still needed today.
Dr David Harrison is the author of a number of books on the history of Freemasonry and has lectured at the University of Liverpool and Liverpool Hope University on the subject.