Antients Freemasonry may have been established by the London Irish but its membership quickly spread to include English and Scottish freemasons from a wide range of occupations.
The Antients held that they practiced a more traditional form of Masonic Ritual. Correct or otherwise, this was used as a means of promoting and differentiating Antients Freemasonry from its rival, the original Grand Lodge of England, but this was not the primary reason for its success. That was driven by offering a more open route to polite association, the prospect of social and financial betterment, and an early form of mutual support.
A vital feature of the new Antients Grand Lodge was that it gave a platform to Laurence Dermott (1720-1791), Grand Secretary (1752-70) and thereafter Deputy Grand Master (1771-77, 1783-87). Dermott drove the organisation’s development, positioning Antients Freemasonry as an integral part of a well-established tradition of ‘keeping the ancient landmarks in view’. His disparaging of the rival Grand Lodge of England as ‘Moderns’ was – and was intended to be – pejorative. At a time when the age of an institution had powerful implications for its legitimacy and public standing it was a clever move. Indeed, the same tactic had been employed by the first Grand Lodge of England with its reference to ‘Adam, our first parent’, and by the mediaeval guilds whose faux histories dated English Freemasonry to St Athelstan, St Alban, Euclid, or biblical times.
Dermott recognised the value of history and tradition, especially its emotional impact on prospective recruits. But it was a mark of his confidence and intelligence that he was also willing to satirise Masonic historiography. In Ahiman Rezon Dermott writes in his editor’s note that he had determined to publish a history of freemasonry and had ‘purchased all or most of the histories, constitutions, pocket companions and other pieces (on that subject) now extant in the English tongue’. However, having supposedly furnished himself with pens, ink and paper, and surrounded himself with the relevant compositions and started work accordingly, Dermott ‘fell to dreaming’, only to be woken suddenly a while later:
A young puppy… got into the room while I slept, and seizing my papers, ate a great part of them, and was then (between my legs) shaking and tearing the last sheet… I looked upon it as a bad Omen and my late dread had made so great an impression on my mind that superstition got the better of me and called me to deviate from the general custom of my worthy predecessors otherwise I would have published a History of Masonry; and as this is rather an accident than a designed fault, I hope that the reader will look over it with a favourable eye.
Dermott’s ironic tone was deliberately at odds with the more precious style adopted by the Moderns’ chroniclers: ‘Doctor Anderson and Mr Spratt… Doctor D’Assigny and Doctor Desaguliers’. And Dermott’s conversational and relaxed literary style epitomised the approach adopted by the Antients and marked their accessibility.
The Antients expanded its membership rapidly and with considerable success in London, provincial England, and in Britain’s colonies and elsewhere. However, Dermott’s influence was such that a change to a less confrontational style and a rapprochement with the Moderns occurred only after his death. Tone and content were moderated on both sides, a key factor in allowing a Union to be negotiated and effected in 1813.
For additional insights, see Aubrey Newman’s The Moderns and the Antients Revisited (AQC 126).