Freemasonry and Science

Eighteenth-century English Freemasonry was associated closely with education and science. A cross-over in membership with the Royal Society and the prominent position of Desaguliers and other leading scientists and FRSs led to several lodges becoming forums for education and debate. Scientific lectures were fashionable and a powerful draw for the aspirational, whether aristocrat or more middling. Historians have described such lectures as the ‘theatre of the upper classes’, albeit that this tends to underplay the utilitarian aspects of eighteenth-century scientific advancement.

Practical natural philosophers such as Desaguliers, described as ‘arguably the most successful scientific lecturer of the century’, applied science to resolve commercial problems and develop realistic ideas to generate income. They were integral to the process of wealth creation and the momentum that drove Britain’s innovations in agriculture and mining and its nascent manufacturing industries. But Newtonian science was more than just utilitarian. It also had philosophical dimensions. Desaguliers’ success in delivering lectures across Europe represented the ascendancy of Newtonianism with its emphasis on rational scientific observation and a universe governed by comprehensible laws rather than Descartes’ ‘innate knowledge’ and the religious diktat of the established church. Newtoniansim also championed the benefits of constitutional government over autocracy, something made clear in Desaguliers’ The Newtonian System of the World – The Best Model of Governments:

In Ancient Times, ere Bribery began 
To taint the Heart of undesigning Man,
Ere Justice yielded to be bought and sold,
When Senators were made by Choice, not Gold,
Ere the Cunning were accounted Wise,
And Kings began to see with other’s Eyes…

Although only a small number of early eighteenth-century Lodge minutes survive, those that do provide evidence that it was customary in at least some lodges for members, whether hobbyists or professionals, to share their knowledge via lectures ‘in such of the Sciences as shall be thought to be most agreeable to the Society’.

An unambiguous example is the Lodge at the King’s Arms tavern in the Strand. The King’s Arms was renowned for its lectures and for ‘promoting the grand design in a general conversation’. The earliest extant Minute Book covers 1733-56 and records thirty-six lectures in the decade to 1743. Seven concerned human physiology, some of which included dissections; six, ethics; five, architecture; and three, ‘industrial processes’. Nine examined different scientific inventions, techniques and apparatus, while others explored a broad range of topics from art and history to mathematics. They include a talk by Robert West, a portraitist, on ‘some evident faults in the Cartoons of Raphael’, and another by Isaac Ware, an architect, later Secretary of the Board of Works, on Andrea Palladio. Ware was also a member of Thornhill’s St Martin’s Lane Academy, re-founded by Hogarth in 1735.

In addition to Martin Clare, a leading educator and mathematician, members of the King’s Arms included William Graeme (1700-1745), a surgeon, and fellow physicians Edward Hody (1698-1759) and James Douglas (1675-1742). All four were FRSs.

Martin Clare’s philosophical approach to education is set out in his Discourse, a speech given to the Quarterly Communication of the Grand Lodge on 11 December 1735:

The chief pleasure of society – viz., good conversation and the consequent improvements – are rightly presumed… to be the principal motive of our first entering into then propagating the Craft… We are intimately related to those great and worthy spirits who have ever made it their business and aim to improve themselves and inform mankind. Let us then copy their example that we may also hope to attain a share in their praise.

Other lodges had similar programmes to that at the King’s Arms. Although only incomplete records exist, the Grand Steward’s Lodge ‘entertained their visitors with a diversity of knowledge, [including] natural philosophy [and] dissertations on the laws and properties of Nature’. Lectures were also held at the Lodge of Friendship meeting at the Shakespeare’s Head in Little Marlborough Street. Martin Clare spoke there in 1737 and eight lectures were given the following year, with topics ranging from astronomy to optics. The Minutes also record lectures in 1739-41. Other lodges thought to have done the same include the Swan and Rummer in Finch Lane. Constituted in 1725, its surviving first Minute Book is the oldest known to be extant.

Lectures were also given in the provinces including the Nag’s Head in Carmarthen, South Wales; the Saracen’s Head in Lincoln; and at lodges in northern England, including Warrington’s Lodge of Lights, some of whose members later formed a Dissenting Academy. European Lodges offer similar evidence of freemasonry as an educational force in its broadest sense, both philosophical and scientific.