CONTINENTAL FREEMASONRY BEFORE A.D., 1723
OLIVER D. STREET THE AMERICAN FREEMASON
THE orthodox view at the present time is that Freemasonry was introduced from England to the continent of Europe about A.D. 1725. The first impulse, therefore, of the informed reader will perhaps be to exclaim, what is he talking about, does he not know that prior to 1723 there was no such thing as Freemasonry on the continent! I reply at once that I know nothing of the sort, nor does anyone else.
A few decades ago Masonic writers were very knowing, as they conceived, as to what the facts of Masonic history were; to-day we are equally cock-sure that we know that they were not. The silence of the relatively few documents which have escaped destruction down to our time, concerning any fact or custom relating to Freemasonry, is with many of our most respected Masonic historians sufficient ground for the rejection altogether of such fact or custom. Negative evidence of this kind is held by them to far outweigh all our oral and written traditions. It is or should be well known that negative evidence of this character is of little value.
Thus we glibly assert that before A.D. 1717, Lodges had no authority for meeting, except the inherent right of Masons to meet any where and at any time and there make Masons and transact Masonic business; that prior to 1717, there was no Grand Master and no Grand Lodge; that prior to 1724, there was no Master Mason degree; that prior to 1740, there was no Royal Arch; and, finally, that prior to 1725, there was no Freemasonry on the continent of Europe.
It is to this last statement that I desire to call attention once more. It is directly contrary to the written traditions of the Craft as recorded in the so-called “Old Charges,” certainly for nearly five hundred years. These with practically one accord tell us that Freemasonry existed upon the continent before it did in England. It is not, however, on this body of evidence I wish to dwell, but to introduce a statement found in Anderson’s “Constitutions,” published in 1723, which, if it can not be explained away some how, seems to establish the existence of Freemasonry on the continent in 1723 and prior thereto.
In the first edition of Anderson’s Constitutions is published “The Charges of a Free-Mason, extracted from the ancient records of Lodges beyond sea (italics ours), and of those in England, Scotland and Ireland” etc., etc. In the “approbation” of this work signed by the Grand Master, Deputy Grand Master, Grand Wardens, and the Masters and Wardens of twenty particular lodges, it is explicitly stated that the author had “examined several copies from Italy.” This book was compiled and published by direction and authority of the Grand Lodge itself.
The statements above quoted plainly declare that in 1723, (and imply that much earlier), there was in existence on the continent an institution which the Grand Lodge of England and its officers then recognized as identical with their own Freemasonry. These passages from Anderson I have never seen subjected to analysis or criticism by any of our Masonic historians. But it would seem to require some temerity for writers of the present day, nearly two hundred years after the event, to maintain that these Masons of 1723 did not know what they were talking about.
It does not appear likely that these references are to Lodges recently credited in Europe either by the British Masonic authorities or by Freemasons of British origin acting on their own responsibility, because (1), we have no evidence of the introduction of British Freemasonry on the Continent prior to 1725, and (2), the customs and usages of such lodges would not have been regarded as authoritative in the mother country and their records could scarcely have been called ancient.
A common sense interpretation of the passages above quoted would seem to require either that we date much further back than has heretofore been supposed the introduction of British Freemasonry on the continent, or that we admit the existence there of an indigenous Freemasonry of its own.
The only escape from this conclusion is to suppose that Anderson has inadvertently said what he did not mean, or else that he has deliberately falsified. I know it is quite the fashion lately to brush aside with a sneer anything from Anderson that happens not to coincide with one’s views. Few have had the boldness to charge him with conscious falsehood, but his credulity, real and supposed, has been employed on all sorts of occasions to get rid of any troublesome statement made by him. Nothing in his life or character, so far as is known, warrants the charge of falsehood. As for inadvertence, it must be borne in mind that Anderson’s book was twice approved by the Grand Lodge, once by a committee of distinguished brethren after making some minor corrections, and finally by the Grand Master, Deputy Grand Master, Grand Wardens and the Masters and Wardens of twenty particular lodges. Then, there is the explicit statement about “several copies from Italy.” It is too much to suppose that all these brethren were ignoramuses or frauds.
So far as Anderson undertook to record the history and traditions of the Craft in times prior to his own he can not be regarded otherwise than as a mere compiler. He does not himself profess more; in fact he was not instructed to do more. This he seems to have done with much embellishment and little discrimination. Students of Masonry are no doubt correct in accepting these portions of his writings with hesitation. But it seems that distinct and positive statements made by him as to contemporaneous events, or as to records examined by him, and these statements approved by the leading Masons of his time, stand on an entirely different footing. To overthrow these something better than mere surmise should be forthcoming.
Brother Robert F. Gould, though holding to the belief that all Freemasonry has sprung from Great Britain, admits that in the short space of from ten to twenty years after the establishment of the Grand Lodge of England, Freemasonry had “obtained a firm footing in the remotest parts of the continent of Europe,” (History, vol. iii, p. 77); that “wherever the earliest lodges existed, there we find traces of previous meetings”; that in the first “Stated Lodges” there were present undoubted Masons initiated elsewhere, (History, p. 78).
In other words, this distinguished Masonic historian of the most exacting school admits, in effect, that we know not when or where the first Masonic meetings were held upon the Continent, nor whence hailed the Masons who held them; that is to say, Freemasonry has existed there “from a time when the memory of man runneth not to the contrary”, or from time immemorial. This is in precise accord with our traditions.
It is true Brother Gould attempts to account for the undoubted presence and general dissemination on the Continent, so soon after the “Revival”, of Freemasons made we know not where, by what can be regarded as no more than a very doubtful hypothesis. His theory is that at this period (i.e., A.D. 1717), England enjoyed great prominence in the eyes of Europe because of her wealth, her possession of Hanover, and the recent victories of Marlborough; that in consequence of these things thousands of visitors flocked to her capital; that they were attracted to the lodges by the fact that they saw them attended by “noblemen of high position and men celebrated for their learning”; that returning to their own countries they carried Freemasonry with them; and then asks Brother Gould, “what more natural than that those debarred from visiting our shores should desire to benefit by the new whim of ‘those eccentric islanders’, and that given a sufficient number of initiated in any one town lodges should be formed” ?
It must be admitted that not often do nations exhibit such immediate and remarkable enthusiasm for the new and strange institutions of another nation. It would seem a more reasonable explanation, and one harmonizing with our traditions, that Freemasonry was an institution not wholly unknown to the Continentals, though perhaps decadent and differing much from that of England; that the new impetus given to the Craft in England by the events called the “Revival” was also felt upon the Continent by kindred institutions already existing there, resulting in a development and growth similar to that which occurred in England. We know that kindred institutions did then exist and had existed there from time immemorial, namely: the Steinmetzen of Germany; the Compagnonnage of France; the Magistri Comacini of Italy, and in all those countries the Craft guilds and, alongside them and having much the same membership, the Craft fraternities. And the indications are numerous that all these institutions as well as Freemasonry trace back to the Collegia fabrorum of the Roman empire. If this be true, it would be remarkable indeed if Freemasonry or a society substantially the same should have existed only in remote Britain.
It must be obvious to the student of Masonic history that the last word has not yet been said concerning the origin of Freemasonry on the Continent. It is possible that both our English and certain of our German brethren, who have been claiming for their respective countries the exclusive distinction of having been the sole preserver of the Masonic institution, will be forced to recognize not only the share of each other in this work but even that of France and Italy.