The Main Takeaway

Within barely a decade of the inception of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717, Freemasonry had become the largest and arguably most influential of Britain’s many clubs and societies. It remained so into the twentieth century.

A key factor in Freemasonry’s appeal was the widespread promulgation of the 1723 Constitutions which were pioneering in promoting leading edge Enlightenment principles:

  • religious tolerance, something wholly radical in a world characterised by religious conflict;
  • meritocracy, at a time when birth and wealth determined success;
  • high standards of interpersonal civility; 
  • scientific and artistic education; and
  • societal and personal self-improvement.

The 1723 Constitutions also provided a framework, a rulebook, for Freemasonry, which was emulated by virtually every other secular club and society in Britain and around the world.

Masonic practices introduced in the 1723 Constitutions include the election of Officers subject to democratic accountability, with one member wielding one vote; majority rule; orations by elected officials; national governance; and written constitutions. They were accompanied by an ideology – philosophical principles – based on meritocracy and egalitarianism among aspirational men. Margaret Jacob notes that ‘this identity did not prevent the lodges from being hierarchical and everywhere eager for aristocratic patronage, but it did ultimately tilt the lodges in the direction of being schools for government, inculcating principles for a more republican politics. It was a social atmosphere within which the new ideas of the age, religious toleration, scientific literacy, and intellect rather than birth as the criterion of excellence, could flourish.’

Freemasonry’s tenets were embraced in America and Europe. Historians, including Jacob and Peter Clark, note how Freemasonry built ‘polity within sociability’, ‘the political content of its moral vision and discourse’, and its ‘imitation and initiation of forms of governance’ and ‘strongly federal organization’.

In short, Freemasonry fostered an enlightened culture, setting out its principles in its Charges and specifying an organisational structure through its Regulations. Both were accompanied by a historical tradition – a faux history – inherited from the medieval guilds that traced Freemasonry’s evolution to ‘Adam, our first parent’, adding legitimacy in a tradition-based society.