The first Masonic charge – Concerning God and Religion – is a statement in favour of personal morality and religious tolerance:
A Mason is obliged … to obey the Moral Law … But tho’ in ancient times Masons were charged in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet ’tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguished; whereby Masonry become[s] the Centre and Union, and the means of conciliating true Friendship and Persons that must have remained at a perpetual Distance.
The charge replaces the former statement of Trinitarian Christian belief with an obligation to ‘that Religion in which all Men agree’. In essence, it affirms a belief in a divine being rather than adherence to a specific religious doctrine or church. It is a latitudinarian or deist declaration in favour of religious tolerance and as such sparked attacks on Freemasonry from established churches and religious authorities in several countries, most notably the 1738 Papal encyclical – In eminenti apostolatus – which threatened the penalty of excommunication and encouraged the Inquisition to ‘investigate and proceed against the transgressors and pursue and punish them’.
The first Masonic Charge made clear that Protestant Dissenters, Catholics and Jews (and later Hindus, Zoroastrians, Muslims and those of other faiths), were welcome in Freemasonry. Indeed, despite political and religious hostility to Catholicism in eighteenth-century England, Thomas Howard, 8th Duke of Norfolk, England’s leading Catholic, was installed as Grand Master of Grand Lodge in 1729. English Freemasonry was regarded as a vehicle for assimilation, a feature underlined in the 1700s when many Huguenots who had found religious sanctuary in England chose to join Masonic lodges. The same applies today.
Designed to promote Enlightenment principles, it is not surprising that key figures involved in the composition and promulgation of the Charges and Ritual were Newtonian natural philosophers who shared a belief in rational observation and interpretation and embraced ‘the universal Religion or the Religion of Nature’. In their eyes, ‘the essential part of religion [was] of an immutable nature because [it was] grounded upon immutable reason… religion may therefore be called the Moral Law of all nations’.
This is an intellectual approach founded on Newtonian principles that unites a belief in a deity with the rational observation of the natural world. Contemporary texts such as Long Livers express a similar approach. Dedicated to the Freemasons and to ‘Men excellent in all kinds of Sciences’, Long Livers proclaims that:
it is the Law of Nature which is the Law of God, for God is Nature.
The concept became part of the Masonic mainstream:
As Masons we only pursue the universal Religion or the Religion of Nature. This is the Cement which unites Men of the most different Principles in one sacred Band and brings together those who were most distant from one another.
The principal author of the Charges was Jean Theophilus Desaguliers, a Huguenot émigré educated as a servitor scholar at Christ Church, Oxford, and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at Isaac Newton’s behest. Desaguliers was a religious latitudinarian and one of the foremost scientific lecturers and Newtonian scholars of the age. His Enlightenment views were shared by others within Grand Lodge, including Martin Folkes, a Vice President and later President of the Royal Society; the Duke of Montagu, the first noble Grand Master of Grand Lodge; and the Duke of Richmond, the fourth noble Grand Master and master of one of London’s most influential Masonic lodges.
The second Masonic charge – Of the Civil Magistrate Supreme and subordinate – addresses civic responsibility in the context of the political uncertainties that accompanied the Hanoverian succession and the threat from the exiled James Stuart and his Jacobite supporters. The charge states that
A Mason is a peaceable Subject to the Civil Powers… never to be concerned in Plots and Conspiracies against the Peace and Welfare of the Nation [and] if a Brother should be a Rebel against the State, he is not to be countenanced in his Rebellion, but he may be pitied as an unhappy Man; and, if convicted of no other Crime, though the loyal Brotherhood must and ought to disown his Rebellion, and give no Umbrage or Ground of political Jealousy to the Government for the time being; they cannot expel him from the Lodge, and his Relation to it remains indefeasible.
It was a radical concept that a freemason could be ‘a Rebel against the State’ and although he might be ‘disowned’ his rebellion would provide insufficient grounds for expulsion in the absence of any crime. The logic follows from the first Masonic charge in which Masonry is ‘the means of conciliating… persons that must have remained at a perpetual distance’. It is also a nod to the different political views within contemporary freemasonry. But even so, an obligation to pay due obedience to the state is evident and in his formal welcome to the lodge a new Entered Apprentice is enjoined to ‘behave as a peaceable and dutiful Subject, conforming cheerfully to the Government under which he lives’.
Although allegiance to an absolute monarch – to be ‘a true liege man to the king’ – had been at the core of the Old Charges, it was now the case that freemasons were to respect the ‘supreme legislature’: an elected parliament, independent judiciary, working in conjunction with a constitutional monarch.
Desaguliers expressed the concept of such an ideal political structure – that ‘which does most nearly resemble the Natural Government of our System’ – in his allegorical The Newtonian System of the World:
The Primaries lead their Satellites,
Who guided, not enslav’d, their Orbits run,
Attend their Chief, but still respect the Sun,
Salute him as they go, and his Dominion own.
Masons would thus no longer be blindly loyal liegemen ‘without treason or falsehood’, but would instead ‘attend’ and ‘respect’, and be ‘guided, not enslaved’.
The third Masonic charge – Of Lodges – reinforces the point that although membership is open, freemasonry is aspirational:
The persons admitted Members of a Lodge must be good and true Men, free-born, and of mature and discreet Age’.
The sentiment is reinforced by the next charge – Of Masters, Wardens, Fellows and Apprentices – which offers a radical approach to preferment in an age when rank, patronage and precedence was fundamental to social order and promotion based rarely on merit:
All preferment among Masons is grounded upon real Worth and personal Merit only; that so the Lords may be well served, the Brethren not put to Shame, nor the Royal Craft despised… no Master or Warden is chosen by Seniority, but for his Merit.
The charge continues, emphasising that Freemasonry offers promotion based on experience:
No Brother can be a Warden until he has passed the part of a Fellow-Craft; nor a Master until he has acted as a Warden, nor Grand Warden until he has been Master of a Lodge, nor Grand Master unless he has been a Fellow-Craft before his Election, who is also to be nobly born, or a Gentleman of the best Fashion, or some eminent Scholar, or some curious Architect, or other Artist, descended of honest Parents, and who is of similar great Merit in the Opinion of the Lodges.
The fifth Masonic charge – Of the Management of the Craft – is a continuation of the long-standing practice of using operative Masonic tools allegorically, something expressed overtly in the explanation of the working tools in each of the three degrees.
The sixth and last charge – Of Behaviour – deals with etiquette and personal conduct, placing civility and morality – ‘politeness’ – at the heart of personal behaviour for the good of society as a whole.