Background to Masonic Enlightenment

By Bro. Squire Speedy, Associate


One of the world's foremost masonic scholars and historians, W. Bro. John Hamill, PSGD (EC), Librarian and Curator of Freemasons' Hall, London and Past Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No.2076 (EC) in 1992 said: 'One of the problems is there is a great tendency to view Freemasonry as something separate and unique which existed in a vacuum outside society. We have to look at the whole society in which all this was going on, not just how, when and where, but very much the "why" of Freemasonry.'


My thesis is that attitudes, conduct, manners and morals are not established in a cocoon isolated from society. The intellectual climate would have influenced the founding fathers of Freemasonry when they established Grand Lodge in 1717 and when Anderson wrote his Constitutions of 1723. Thus Freemasonry's morality, philosophy. ritual and tenets owe much to the strong stimulating forces during the period of the early Enlightenment.

Inspirational Origins:

The inspirational origins of Freemasonry are traditionally traced back through the practical art of the stonemason to the building of King Solomon's Temple about 950 BCE. There is written evidence of an operative lodge in England as early as about 1390 and of non-operative lodges that date from at least 1598 in Scotland, 1646 in England and 1688 in Ireland.

Unfortunately little is known for certain about speculative Freemasonry before the formation of the Grand Lodge in England in 1717.

Key Masonic Figures:

Key masonic figures in those early years included the Presbyterian Rev. James Anderson, (later in 1732 DD), author of the founding Constitutions of 1723; Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers, FRS, Huguenot pastor and scientist; Captain Joseph Elliott; Jacob Lamball; John, Lord Montague, FRS; George Payne; Antony Sayer, the first Grand Master; and Philip, Lord Wharton.

The Period of the Early Enlightenment:

The early Enlightenment was that period of about 300 years between the mid 1400s and mid 1700s when new attitudes were being forged out of the growth of knowledge and religious struggles, nurtured by great literary, philosophic and scientific minds. It was a time when gradually new light was thrown on ignorance, by knowledge; and on superstition and fear, by reasonableness and common sense.

It was that period when the Western tradition of freedom of thought was being established that set the intellectual climate that moulded attitudes. Many of these ideas had their origins in the teachings of the Old and New Testaments and in classical Greek and Roman philosophies but liberated by the great intellectual and social movements, like tectonic plates of change that ground slowly, producing human eruptions and earthquakes of reaction from time to time.

The Renaissance:

The Renaissance was triggered in 1453 when the powerful guns of the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople. It was at the crossroads for East and West for trade, religion and culture. For over 1100 years Constantinople had been the eastern Rome where scholars kept alive ancient manuscripts from classical Greek, Jewish and Christian cultures as well as the architecture, arts and mathematics of the Byzantine and Islamic empires.

After the fall of Constantinople the learned churchmen fled to Italy, taking with them their knowledge and scripts. Stimulated by the printing press and the growth of the book trade, in a short period of time this knowledge led to a rebirth or renaissance of learning in the West. This is alluded to in our Ritual. Learning originated in the East, thence spread its benign influence to the West

The Printing Enlightenment:

The printing age began when Gutenberg produced the first Latin Vulgate Bible using moveable type in about 1456. It was followed in England by Caxton who produced his first printed English text in 1474.

Printing was a key force in the early Enlightenment that accelerated reading and writing and increased classical learning, as well as the growing culture of literature, philosophy and later, science. It helped to broaden the minds and changed the attitudes of the growing numbers of literate people. It also developed new cultural and religious interests and stimulated early enlightening changes.

Publishers of scientific and other learned works shared knowledge with intellectuals of both the East and the West. Interwoven were astronomers, cartographers, draughtsmen, instrument makers, mathematicians and navigators. The easy availability of printed astronomical tables and charts led to the age of navigation with great sea voyages of discovery by Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Cartier and others that stimulated trade, settlement and new intellectual horizons.

The power of enlightening and liberating ideas, spread by the printed word, can hardly be over-emphasized. They were to affect permanently the intellectual, political and religious climate of the West, including the general tenor of Anderson's Constitutions of 1723. Printing was to those times what TV is to ours.

The Reformation:

The Reformation was sparked in 1517 when Martin Luther struck the first overt blow for religious freedom, hoping to reform the Roman Catholic Church. His most important thesis was that all men are equal before God.

Luther preached a new freedom of direct access to God without the intervention of the priest. Aided by the printing press, his bold steps paved the way for religious enlightenment, but also, unwittingly, it led to the main divisions in Christendom that evoked religious wars.

The Protestant theme was taken up by several theologians including the Frenchman, Jean Calvin, whose strict puritanical ideas were followed in France by the Huguenots, then by John Knox in Scotland, where they led to the establishment of the Presbyterian Church. In England the Reformation led to the formation of several sects.

The Protestant movement helped set the ethical standards for modern Freemasonry.

Enlightened Literary Heritage:

The early Enlightenment was an important period in literature that helped to shape our language and ideas. Many literary giants made great contributions to the movement towards independent thought and political and religious tolerance. The various events of this period, coupled with direct access to the Bible and the increase in knowledge from printed literature, stirred the enquiring minds of thinkers of that age who were stimulated to question ideas that had been previously taken for granted. A significant influence was the early printing of the Bible in English. Later, in 1579, the Geneva Bible was published in Scotland. A long-term general influence in England was the printing of the King James Bible that appeared in 1611. The Book of Common Prayer first appeared, amidst controversy, in 1549, with the well-known revised third edition in 1662. These masterpieces, along with many other great books, have helped to mould our intellectual climate. They have had a profound effect on art, freedom of thought, language, literacy, literature and in due time, science and Freemasonry.

The Birth of Science:

The scientific age began with the publishing in 1543 of the astronomical discoveries by Nicolaus Copernicus. Later his ideas were supported by Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei. The Earth's revolutions around the sun were now explained mathematically.

This period was part of the age of reason, so named after the French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes, who believed that the only secure basis for the understanding of nature and mankind was through deduction drawn from observation and experiment. It was this new scientific approach, and an easier availability of such knowledge, that caused a change of attitude that enabled Western civilization to move gradually from the Dark Ages into the modern period of intellectual enlightenment.

Clash of Science and Church:

The revelation by Galileo that the earth was not the centre of the universe after all upset both Catholics and Protestants. They could not abide the idea that the earth revolved around the sun. It questioned the authority and reliability of the Bible. It was also thought to down-grade God's Earth and by implication, the Almighty's noblest creation, mankind.

For more than the best part of one and a half millennia the Roman Catholic's views of God and the firmament had held sway. The intolerance and cruelty of the barbaric Inquisition was threatened again. Galileo in 1633 under the threat of torture, as a wise man, he recanted. The German mathematician, David Hilbert, has justified Galileo's action by pointing out that a scientific truth needs no martyr for its proof. The allusion that the planets in their various revolutions form a beautiful border or skirtwork around that grand luminary, the sun, is clearly a post Galilean concept, one of many in our Ritual.

Religious and Political Strife:

Britain suffered from religious, political and constitutional turmoil during the early Enlightenment. Hatred and fighting were often incorrectly undertaken in the name of religion. Prejudice and intolerance lies deep within mankind's ignorant and fearful breast and easily rises to the surface.

The Puritans were extreme Protestants, who opposed (Anglican) King Charles I in the Civil War of 1642. It led to the triumph of Puritanism, but also its proliferation into sects. Unfortunately bitter religious and political conflicts developed. Roundhead forces under the Puritan country squire, Oliver Cromwell, beheaded Charles I in 1649 and established the Commonwealth. Under Cromwell, Jews were re-admitted into England when society began to become more secular and tolerant and their money and financial expertise would be useful.

What became known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 saw the new English sovereigns, Protestant William of Orange and Mary seated on the English throne.

It was a major political and intellectual turning point that breached the previously held idea of the divine right of monarchs to rule. Henceforth monarchs were made subservient to Parliament. It led to the Bill of Rights of 1689 that clipped the wings of all future English monarchs and bound them to be non-Catholic. Catholics were banned from holding public office and from the universities.

Religious Tolerance:

In principle at least, both the Catholics and the Protestants acknowledged that at the heart of Christianity is the concept of the supreme, infinite value of the individual soul, from which is derived the mainspring of individual freedom. The Toleration Act of 1689 formally recognized the Church of England as part of the Establishment and granted freedom of worship to Protestant nonconformists. These events deeply affected religious values and freedoms.

Freemasons were to became beneficiaries of this free intellectual and religious climate.

A small, but influential group, who later came to be known as Unitarians, held the view that reason and conscience were their criteria for belief and practice.

Supporters of such views are thought to have included John Locke, John Milton and Sir Isaac Newton. Another movement was that of humanism. Adherents were keen to promote spoken and written eloquence by the study of the writings of classical antiquity.

Migrations to Freedom:

In the 17th century, in addition to religious strife, the population was greatly increasing, which led to inflation in prices. These factors encouraged thousands of people to emigrate, especially to the American colonies. They took with them their meagre chattels and their religion and also a wealth of Western and British culture.

By contrast, from 1685 half a million Protestant Huguenots fled France to escape religious persecution, many of whom went to religiously free Holland, England and Scotland. It is significant that one of the founding fathers of Freemasonry, Pastor Dr. John Desaguliers, was also the son of a Huguenot pastor and that Dr. Anderson was a Presbyterian minister.

Growth of Individualism:

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries emphasis was placed on individual freedom and laissez-faire principles of least interference by Government in business affairs. This business freedom was spurred on by the Protestant work ethic. It led to increasing entrepreneurship in trade, commerce and industry that produced burgeoning exports, imports and later banking.

There emerged a wealthy, literate, independent, middle class of professionals and businessmen who, together with a sprinkling of gentry and landed squires, were economically free. It was an age of the nouveaux riches. Industrial and commercial barons built stately homes designed by architectural artists such as Inigo Jones. In 1607 he was the head of the operative masons. It was from such classes that Freemasonry was later to draw its members. A side product of the times was the deplorable social hardship for most people.

Because there was very meagre help under the poor laws, there was a need for decent people to practise charity for those in poverty and in distressed circumstances. It is not surprising that this was a fundamental theme to be adopted by the speculative Craft.

The Age of Science:

The seventeenth century saw a tremendous surge in scientific and philosophic thinking, as men of that age sought to explore nature and science. Francis Bacon, philosopher, lawyer and Lord Chancellor, believed that mankind was less subject to God's nature and was beginning to become master of his own fate. His philosophy proclaimed a new era of natural science. He proffered the idea that mankind was created by God to interpret and dominate over nature. He encouraged the emerging scientific world into sailing forth into unknown waters of scientific discovery. He also encouraged the study of liberal arts and science. He believed that knowledge is power.

The year that Tasman discovered New Zealand, 1642, marked the birth of Sir Isaac Newton. He was a towering scientific figure, regarded as a sage and a genius, with a touch of divinity and the true founder of modern science. He greatly influenced the scientific age with his theories on gravitational forces that regulated God's universe.

Newton was a member of England's prestigious scientific body, the Royal Society, formed in 1660. It was inspired by Bacon, thirty-four years after his death.

Newton was elected a Fellow In 1071 and was president from 1703 until his death in 1727. Although he is not believed to have been a freemason, the power of his stature had a major impact on educated society.

The ranks of the Royal Society included many famous names, such as Robert Boyle of Boyle's law, Edmund Halley of comet fame and Samuel Pepys, famed for his Diary, as well as the key freemasons Dr. Desaguliers and Lord Montague. The Royal Society can be seen to have influenced the masonic tenets of keeping politics and religion out of its discussions and also in encouraging the study of the liberal arts and sciences. These included rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry music and astronomy.

John Locke was another influential figure in the Royal Society who followed many of the ideas of Bacon. He became a spokesman for the scientific age by his philosophic advocacy of scientific experimental knowledge and reflective reasoning. while in Holland he had a close association with the Calvinist Huguenot refugees. His philosophy and clarion call for tolerance in religion and politics is believed to have strongly influenced masonic recognition of a non-denominational God.

Another important early leader was Sir Christopher Wren. After the destruction caused by the Great Fire of London in 1666 that followed the bubonic plague the year before, he turned his mind to the rebuilding of central London. This great scientist and architect brought his art and mathematical expertise to the design of the first Protestant cathedral, the elegant, domed St. Paul's. Wren was involved with the design of 52 churches between 1670 and 1686. It is said that in 1681 he became an accepted mason.

As operative masonry decreased after that building boom, there was a time of great growth in speculative Freemasonry.

Conflicts and Acrimony:

Unfortunately the rest of the British Isles was still to find peace. In Ireland in 1690 an English Protestant army under William of Orange beat the Irish Catholic forces in the Battle of the Boyne. With the political union with Scotland in 1707, Presbyterianism became its official faith. The wars that continued were religiously as well as politically inspired. The mainly Catholic Highland Jacobite movement to restore the Stuarts to the English throne made fifteen serious attempts between 1698 and 1745. The acrimony over the Jacobite Revolt of 1715 was fresh in the minds of the key freemasons.

An Enlightened Brotherhood:

Christian principles had often been disregarded by religious zealots in those disturbed times. It is to the great credit of the freemason fathers that, in the emerging Protestant and also secular society, lessons had been learnt from such strife. Even though Freemasonry was nurtured in the influence of Protestantism and embraced many of its themes, paradoxically, by Anderson's Constitutions of 1723, it was intended to be dechristianized. However, it was not until 1816 that the Craft was finally dechristianized even though in earlier years some members of different religious beliefs had been admitted.

Although the Craft is usually described as 'a peculiar [i.e. a particular or special] system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols', it is Anderson's 1723 charges that set out the specifics of that morality. They require freemasons to obey the moral law, never to be a stupid atheist, but to follow that religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves. Freemasons are also required to be good and true men of honour and honesty by whatever denomination or persuasion they may be distinguished. Freemasonry was intended to be the means of conciliating true friendship among persons who otherwise must have remained at a perpetual distance. The Craft was thus able to provide a safe haven for all freemasons to meet in a neutral atmosphere free from any religious or political disruption or acrimony The way was thus paved to admit Christians of various denominations, Jews, Turks and others who had a belief in God and the principles of brotherly love, relief and truth. Masonic philosophy and tenets, some of which followed the example set by the Royal Society, are clearly products of the intellectual climate of the period.

Masonic Ethics:

Stemming from the Reformation, through Calvin, Knox and founding freemasons Anderson, Desaguliers and others, is the Protestant ethic of hard work that is reflected in the hard mental effort and concentrated work required to master the precise wording of the ritual; the injunction to be just and upright; to carry out one's allotted task; to adopt the principles of virtue that include justice, fortitude, patience, prudence, brotherly love, moral truth and charity. These are all good principles for a decent citizenry redolent of Calvinistic Protestantism of the early Enlightenment.

Literary Influences in the Ritual:

Many freemasons love the Craft for its oratorical style of ritual with its vibrant cadences, dramatic use of metaphors and circumlocution, together with its elegant, albeit archaic, language steeped in allegory and symbolism.

The ritual draws heavily on the Geneva Bible used by both Anderson and Desaguliers. John Milton had a special impact with his resonant, rhetorical form and message of tolerance, while Shakespeare has left his mark.

The ritual was mainly developed during that period of English literature known as the Augustan age. It centred around the reign of Queen Anne, (1702 to 1714), but its literary influences ran from about the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, to well into the Georgian period.

The Augustan age was named after the golden age of Latin literature at the time of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. The modern Augustan age promoted common sense moderation and reason. It had a significant influence on conduct, manners and morals in that important masonic period.

Masonic ritual was further expanded and embellished during the Johnsonian period, named after the great Dr. Samuel Johnson (famed for his Dictionary of 1755). The period was characterized by the use of latinized vocabulary and rolling sentences with long words and phrases, often with thunderous sounds.

Clearly the form and content of our ritual has been influenced by our great literary heritage.


The enlightened masonic morality, philosophy, ritual and tenets were significantly influenced by developing Western traditions and heritages, together with the ideas of many of the outstanding Western philosophers, Protestant leaders, scientists and literary giants, who helped to form the intellectual background at that important time.

After long periods of religious and political strife, modern Freemasonry evolved at a time of growing individual freedoms and the need for tolerance. The main intellectual seismic reactions came most significantly from the early Enlightenment that commenced with the Renaissance. The Reformation, sparked by Luther, freed the spirit. The age of printing above all, was the catalyst that with the scientific revolution, moved mankind into the modern, enlightened, intellectual era.

The desire of good men to seek a safe haven of fellowship, free of religious and political acrimony, at that crucial period, led to the development and growth of the speculative Craft.

During the ceremonies, candidates go through experiences and teachings that produce their own personal renaissance and enlightenment. Many of the early enlightening influences are not only contained within the wording of to-day's ritual, but also they can be subtly detected between the lines.

Selected References:

Anderson, James, Constitutions of 1723 and 1738.
Anderson, J.D., Birth and Infant Nurture, United Masters Lodge No.167, Transactions, Vol.29 No.15 (April 1993).
Burke, James, The Day the Universe Changed, 1985, BBC and John Murray, London.
Chambers A.R. Questions and Answers 2nd ed.. 1983. Masters and Past Masters Lodge No.130, Christchurch.Page 57
Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation, 1969, BBC and John Murray, London.
Duddin, G., The Bible and the Craft - Part Two', United Masters Lodge No.167, Transactions, Vol.29 No.10 (June 1992).
Dyer, Colin, Symbolism in Craft Freemasonry, 1976, Lewis Masonic, London.
Jones. Bernard B.. Freemason's Guide and Compendium. 3rd ed., 1994, Dobby, Kent Morgan, Kenneth O, Ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, 1984, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Hawkins. Joyce M. and Allen, Robert, eds., Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary, 1991, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Hamill, John (Henderson, John, ed.) Masonic Perspectives: The Collected Papers of John Hamill, 1992. Australian Masonic Research Council, Belmont, Victoria.
Hill, Christopher, The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution, 1993, Penguin, London.
Hughan, W.J., Introduction to Constitutions of 1738, Lodge Quatuor Coronati, No.
2076 London Jardine, Liza, Worldly Goods' A New History of the Renaissance, 1996, Doubleday, New York.
Ingram, P., The World of Early Operatives, United Masters Lodge No.167, Transactions, Vol .29 No.14 (October 1992).
Lennox, R.G., Pedestal or Altar, United Masters Lodge No.167, Transactions, Vol.31 No.5 (August 1996).
Morgan, Kenneth O, Ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, 1984, Oxford University Press, Oxford. Newton, London.
Newton, Joseph Fort, The Builders, 1919, George Allen and Unwin, London.
Roberts, J.M., The Triumph of the West, 1985, British Broadcasting Corporation, London.
Rogers, Pat, The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature, 1987, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Seaman, L.C.B., A New History of England 410-1975, 1981, Macmillan (1982)
Selected Papers. (Vols 1(1957), 2 (1961) and 3(1993), United Masters Lodge No.
167, Auckland.
Strong, Roy, The Story of Britain, 1996, Hutchinson, London.
Tarnas, Richard, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Shaped Our World View, 1991, Ballantine Books, New York.
Vibert, Lionel, Foreword to Constitutions of the Freemasons 1723, 1923, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, London.
Waite, Arthur Edward, A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry 1920, Weathervane Books,

Food For Thought