Compiled first by Mr George Payne, Anno 1720, when he was Grand Master, and approv’d by the Grand-Lodge on St John Baptist’s Day, Anno 1721, at Stationers’ Hall, London; when the most noble Prince John Duke of Montagu was unanimously chosen our Grand-Master for the Year ensuing.
The Old Charges contained regulations that protected local trade monopolies and provided a framework for governing a working stonemasons’ lodge. Payne’s General Regulations differed. Payne, a Grand Lodge officer and former Grand Master (1718 & 1720), focused instead on the new Grand Lodge and its constituent non-operative lodges, providing administrative parameters for what would be a federal structure of Masonic governance. But the General Regulations did more than provide a framework for English (and global) Freemasonry. They were copied by virtually all other secular clubs and societies in Britain and around the world.
The practices introduced included elections, majority rule, orations by elected officials, national governance, and formal constitutions. And they were accompanied by an ideology based on meritocracy and egalitarianism among aspirational men. Professor Margaret Jacob has noted 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.’
Despite an assertion to the contrary, Payne’s General Regulations were not a reduction of the ‘ancient Records and immemorial Usages of the Fraternity’ but a set of rules for a growing and soon-to-be national and then international organisation. They also introduced democratic accountability. Article 10, for example, states that a ‘majority of every particular Lodge, when congregated, shall have the privilege of giving instructions to their Master and Wardens… because the Master and Wardens are their representatives’. Article 6 requires the unanimous consent of members in respect of any new entrant to the lodge, notwithstanding that this was sometimes observed in the breach. And although the Grand Master had the right to nominate his successor, if that nominee were not approved unanimously, Articles 23 and 24 specify that members would be balloted.
Taken together, Desaguliers’ Charges and Payne’s Regulations were designed to provide Freemasonry with philosophical principles and a legal rubric. The same ideas underpin the changes to ritual and governance introduced later in the eighteenth century and in the early nineteenth century, when the two previously rival English Grand Lodges – Moderns and Antients – merged to form the United Grand Lodge of England.