Inventing the future

The 1723 Constitutions

If anyone doubts that Freemasonry as it is practised today was derived from the Grand Lodge of England, let him compare the new Charges with those of an older date. He will find that the severance from any and all pre-existing connections was as fundamental and complete as was the severance of the American colonies from England after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Our national history begins with the Declaration. Indeed, the history of the United States is ‘merely the story of the working out of the principles set out in the Declaration’… Just so the history of Freemasonry begins with a declaration of principles. These are set forth in the New Constitutions promulgated by the Grand Lodge of England and form the basic law of the Fraternity throughout the world. Indeed, the story of Freemasonry is merely the working out of those principles.

Ossian Lang, History of Freemasonry in the State of New York (1922)

2023 marked the tercentenary of the publication in London of The Constitutions of the Freemasons the ‘1723 Constitutions’ – whose Enlightenment principles provide the philosophical foundations of modern Freemasonry. Many Masonic histories have been concerned with ‘when’ and ‘what’. Here we also examine ‘why’ – the context – and explore some of the consequences.

The 1723 Constitutions divides into three principal sections: a traditional (if affected) history of freemasonry which places the Craft within a literary historical context; Charges to which all freemasons are expected to adhere, unarguably the most significant component; and the General Regulations governing the administration of Grand Lodge and Masonic Lodges. Masonic songs celebrate the Master of the Lodge, his Wardens, Fellowcraft, and Entered Apprentices; and an Approbation lists the Grand Officers and Masters and Wardens of twenty lodges. The book begins with a dedication to the 2nd Duke of Montagu, the first noble Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, by Jean Theophilus Desaguliers, a former Grand Master.

The Constitutions is similar in structure to the Old Charges that governed medieval (and later) stonemasons’ lodges. This was intentional. It positioned the 1723 Constitutions and the Grand Lodge of England as a continuation of that which preceded it, a technique that affords legitimacy in tradition-based societies. But the ideas promoted by the Grand Lodge of England were not mediaeval. They were new and materially different.

A short film narrated by Derek Jacobi that captures (with a little artistic licence), the composition of the 1723 Constitutions can be viewed on Vimeo or YouTube

The Constitutions is based on Enlightenment foundations, values that lie at the core of modern Freemasonry in England and internationally. But the Constitutions and modern Freemasonry were not simply a product of the Enlightenment. They impacted upon it, not least as a vector for the transmission of Enlightenment principles globally.

On the following pages we set out those principles, consider the people involved, and explore the context – the framework – within which their ideas were formed. And we discuss how the 1723 Constitutions evolved, not just in England, Ireland and Scotland, but in Europe, America, and elsewhere across the globe. Before you begin you may wish to read a short summary: The Main Takeaway.

A century ago, Lionel Vibert of Quatuor Coronati Lodge, the premier lodge of Masonic research, marked the then bicentennial with a paper in AQC 36: ‘Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723’. Subsequent research has unearthed new evidence and reached other conclusions, but one comment should be re-emphasised: that the 1723 Constitutions is among Freemasonry’s most important documents. And not only in England. In 1730 it was taken by the Grand Lodge of Ireland as the model for the Irish Constitutions. It was re-printed verbatim by Benjamin Franklin in 1734 for use in America. It was translated and circulated widely throughout Europe in the 1730s and 1740s. And in the 1750s, via the Irish Constitutions, it provided the basis for Ahiman Rezon, the Constitutions of the Antients Grand Lodge, and thus, following Independence, of America’s State Grand Lodges.

The 1723 Constitutions set a pattern for Freemasonry throughout the world. Understanding why it was written helps to explain the origins of modern Freemasonry and shed light on the relationship between Freemasonry and Society today.

Readers are welcome to use the contents of this website freely, subject to acknowledging the source and copyright.

Ric Berman, PhD, FRHistS,
Editor & Compiler,
PM, Quatuor Coronati Lodge, # 2076

The analysis and opinions expressed on this website are those of the editor and named contributors alone.
Commemorative tercentennial events in London, Cambridge, Paris and Washington were sponsored by the following Grand Lodges: