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 marks the tercentenary of the publication in London of The Constitutions of the Freemasons – the ‘1723 Constitutions’ – a book whose Enlightenment principles provide the philosophical foundations of Modern Freemasonry and the structure for many civil societies. Past Masonic histories have been concerned with ‘when’ and ‘what’. This website examines the context and seeks to explain ‘why’.
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 freemasons are expected to adhere, unarguably the most significant component; and 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 structurally similar 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.
The book was set 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 nationally and internationally.
On the following web pages we set out Freemasonry’s principles, consider the people involved, and explore the framework on 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 bicentennial with a paper – ‘Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723’ – in AQC 36. Subsequent research has unearthed new evidence and reached other conclusions, but one comment can 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 was indirectly the basis for Ahiman Rezon, the Constitutions of the Antients Grand Lodge in England and, after Independence, of America’s State Grand Lodges.
The 1723 Constitutions set a pattern for Freemasonry throughout the world and an understanding of the context explains both the origins of Modern Freemasonry and 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. We will be adding additional material over time.
Ric Berman, PhD, FRHistS, PM, Quatuor Coronati Lodge, # 2076
The analysis and opinions expressed on this website are those of the editor and named contributors alone.
The Grand Lodges below are sponsoring and arranging commemorative events in London, Paris and Washington.