Born and educated in Aberdeen, James Anderson (c.1679–1739), was ordained into the Church of Scotland in 1707. He subsequently moved to London to take up a ministry at the Glass House Street congregation before moving in 1710 to the Presbyterian church in Swallow Street. From 1734 until his death he ministered at the Lisle Street Chapel.
Anderson is regarded as pivotal to the birth of Modern Freemasonry, but he was not the fulcrum on which Grand Lodge and Modern Freemasonry turned. Anderson lacked the scientific, social and political networks of Desaguliers, Payne, and others such as Martin Folkes, William Cowper and Charles Delafaye, nor did he have robust connections to the aristocracy and upper middling who shaped Grand Lodge. That he is identified colloquially with the 1723 Constitutions is ironic given that he was neither the principal author nor the instigator of that work, although he was responsible for the 1738 edition of the Constitutions, a work whose contents were not approved formally by Grand Lodge.
David Stevenson’s analysis of Anderson and his influence on eighteenth-century English Freemasonry is based partly on Anderson’s own account of events set out in the 1738 Constitutions. Although there are other records, the 1738 Constitutions provides a principal source of information regarding the creation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717, and the selection of its early Grand Masters and adoption of the Charges and Regulations. 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 the French Lodge: Solomon’s Temple. The counter-argument holds that that the most significant components of the 1723 Constitutions were the product of Desaguliers and Payne – the Charges and Regulations – and that Anderson was engaged as a hired pen acting under Desaguliers’ direction and that of the publishers, Senex and Hooke.
The preamble to the 1723 Constitutions supports this interpretation. Dedicated to the Duke of Montagu, it is written by Desaguliers, not Anderson, who comments that he was 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 a reference to the Charges and Regulations is significant and implies that these components were not designed or produced by Anderson. Indeed, the Charges were significantly at odds with Anderson’s Calvinist religious beliefs, something he displayed overtly in the 1738 Constitutions.
In fact, 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 the prominence given to Senex and Hooke, the co-publishers, whose names appear on the Frontispiece; to Desaguliers, whose signs the Dedication; and to Payne, who is described as the compiler of the General Regulations. Had Anderson fulfilled a more substantive role it would have been conventional for him to have received recognition with his name on the first page and an acknowledgement in the Introduction.
According to Anderson’s own record, on 29 September 1721 he was instructed by ‘His Grace and Grand Lodge’ to ‘digest the Gothic Constitutions’. A committee was 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 Desaguliers, ‘and of other learned brethren’, the volume was presented to Montagu for formal endorsement. Those described as having approved the book comprise a list of officers and Masters of the constituent lodges falling within the orbit of Grand Lodge. Anderson’s name also appears, described as the Master of lodge XVII.
It is useful to consider why Anderson was chosen as a hired pen and why he accepted that task. Although we cannot know for certain, there appear to have been several factors. Anderson’s stipend from his Swallow Street congregation, a church described as being ‘much out of repair’, would have been slight. He is also thought to have speculated and lost money in the collapse of the South Sea Company in 1720, and to have sought additional income as a consequence. Last, he was known to Desaguliers and Payne, and would have been a potentially attractive as someone who was literate, had been published, and was familiar with freemasonry.