The Widely Accepted History of the Origins of Masonry and the Grand Lodge of England
In 1723, The Constitutions of the Free-Masons by James Anderson boldly contains a history of Freemasonry starting with the creation of the world by the “great Architect of the Universe.” Anderson claimed Adam (yes, that Adam) had taught his sons the science of geometry and that Noah “the ninth son of Seth, was commanded and directed of God to build the great Ark, which, tho’ of Wood, was certainly fabricated by Geometry, and according to the Rules of Masonry.” Thus, Masonry existed from time immemorial.
Masonry can be divided into two subcategories: (1) operative and (2) speculative. Speculative Freemasonry is what Masonic Lodges practice throughout the world today. The Speculative Freemason uses the working tools of the operative mason and looks to them as symbols. To those symbolic working tools, the Speculative Freemason attributes meanings regarding the Brotherhood of Man, the Fatherhood of God, and the Immortality of the Soul.
Traditionally, the Grand Lodge of England claims to be the oldest Grand Lodge in the world. According to the traditional story published in a 1738 revised edition of The Constitutions by James Anderson, preliminary meetings were held between four speculative lodges at the Apple Tree Tavern in 1716 and the Grand Lodge was finally established at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in 1717. In the years leading up to the establishment of the Grand Lodge of England, Masons met in taverns and coffeehouses and named their lodges after the places they met.
According to the account of Masonry’s speculative origin, the Apple Tree Tavern was located on Charles Street in the Covent Garden district of London. The other lodges that attended the meeting were the Crown, the Goose and Gridiron, and the Rummer and Grapes. These Masons were concerned with how to distinguish Freemasonry from the other clubs and social groups that were popping up throughout England. It is worth noting that at the time London was the largest and fastest-growing city in Europe.
As people moved into London from the countryside, a merchant middle class exploded to meet their needs. Suddenly, skilled laborers, merchants, bankers, and nobles were all sitting together in one place: a Masonic Lodge. This interspersing of social classes wanted Freemasonry to grow and had to develop a means of governance. And on June 24, 2017, also known as Saint John the Baptist’s Day, they established a Grand Lodge and elected Anthony Sayer the first Grand Master of England. Or did they?…
Freemasonry’s 1717 Origin Story in Question
A recent article published by the University of Glasgow argues against this 1717 formation. In Searching for the Apple Tree: Revisiting the Earliest Years of Organized English Freemasonry (2017), Professors Prescott and Sommers review the evidence used by Anderson to create the 1717 Grand Lodge of England establishment. They argue that Anderson, for whatever reason, got it wrong.
The professors argue that diary entries by William Stukeley and rough minute books in the possession of the Lodge of Antiquity indicate that the Grand Lodge was not in fact established until the appointment of the Duke of Montagu as Grand Master in 1721. Among the other discoveries is the fact that the Apple Tree Tavern did not exist in 1716 or 1717. So Anderson’s fanciful tale that Masonry existed from time immemorial and culminated with the creation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717 may be just that—a story.
2017 is, therefore, not the 300th anniversary of the Grand Lodge of England. The true 300th anniversary will occur in 2021. Nonetheless, the Grand Lodge of England remains the oldest Grand Lodge in the world.
Contributed by: Christopher Livingston, P.M. Hillcrest Lodge