Born and educated in Aberdeen, James Anderson (c.1679–1739), was ordained into the Church of Scotland in 1707 before travelling to London to take up a ministry at the Glasshouse Street congregation at the eastern end of Piccadilly, and then, in 1710, at the Presbyterian church in nearby Swallow Street. From 1734 until his death he ministered at the Chapel in Lisle Street, north of Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square).
Anderson is regarded by many as pivotal to the birth of Modern Freemasonry, however, it would be wrong to view him as the fulcrum on which Grand Lodge and Freemasonry turned. Anderson lacked the social, scientific and political networks of Desaguliers, Payne and others, such as Martin Folkes, William Cowper and Charles Delafaye, and had few robust connections to the inner circle within Grand Lodge, including the dukes of Montagu and Richmond.
Although Anderson is known as the author of the 1723 Constitutions, he was not its instigator nor was he responsible for its most important components. (He was the author of the 1738 Constitutions, but the contents of that book were replaced by a new and Grand Lodge-approved edition in 1756.)
Professor David Stevenson’s analysis of Anderson and his influence on eighteenth-century English Freemasonry is based in part on Anderson’s own account of events as set out in the 1738 Constitutions which, although there are other records, is a principal source regarding the establishment of Grand Lodge in 1717.
Stevenson argues that Anderson’s importance lies in his authorship of the first two editions of the Constitutions, the provision of a Masonic history that emphasised the Craft’s antiquity, and, among other things, his record of Grand Lodge’s development. Stevenson’s views are shared by others who emphasise Anderson’s relationship with Desaguliers, both of whom were members of the Horn Tavern and Solomon’s Temple, ‘the French Lodge’.
The counterargument holds that the most significant components of the 1723 Constitutions were the Charges and General Regulations, whose authors were Desaguliers and Payne, respectively, and that Anderson served as a ‘hired pen’ under Desaguliers’ direction and that of the publishers, Senex and Hooke.
The preamble to the 1723 Constitutions supports this. Dedicated to the Duke of Montagu, it is written by Desaguliers, not Anderson, who comments that he is dedicating the book to the immediate past Grand Master – ‘I humbly dedicate’ – and not doing so on behalf of others. Within the Dedication, Desaguliers refers to ‘the author’ as having ‘compared and made everything agreeable to History and Chronology’. The absence of any reference to the Charges and Regulations is significant and implies that these were not produced by Anderson. Indeed, the Charges are significantly at odds with Anderson’s personal religious beliefs which are displayed overtly in the 1738 Constitutions.
Anderson is identified as ‘the author of this book’ almost as an afterthought on page 74 of the 1723 Constitutions in a line in the middle of the second page of the Approbations. This stands in contrast to Senex and Hooke, the co-publishers, whose names appear prominently on the Frontispiece; to Desaguliers, who personally signs the Dedication; and to Payne, described as ‘the compiler’ of the General Regulations.
Had Anderson undertaken a more substantive role it would have been conventional for him to have received appropriate recognition with his name on the first page and an acknowledgement in the Introduction.
According to Anderson’s own record, he was instructed by ‘His Grace and Grand Lodge’ to ‘digest the Gothic Constitutions’ on 29 September 1721. A committee was thereafter appointed to examine the manuscript and on 22 March 1722, after ‘perusal and corrections’ by the past and current Deputy Grand Masters, John Beale and John Desaguliers, ‘and of other learned brethren’, the volume was presented to Montagu for formal endorsement.
Those listed as having approved the book comprise the Lodge Officers and Masters of the constituent Lodges falling within the orbit of Grand Lodge. Anderson’s name is included within the list, described as the Master of Lodge XVII.
It is interesting to consider why Anderson was hired as a writer and why he accepted. Although we cannot know for certain, there may have been several factors. First, Anderson’s income from his Swallow Street congregation, a church described as being ‘much out of repair’, was minimal. Second, he is believed to have speculated and lost money in the collapse of the South Sea Company’s shares in 1720. And third, he was known to Desaguliers and Payne as someone literate and who had been published, and who was familiar with Freemasonry and its deemed history and traditions.