Dominic Green

Demystifying freemasonry

John Dickie presents the movement as egalitarian and democratic rather than as a sinister secret organisation

Demystifying freemasonry
The Masonic handshake. Credit: Getty Images
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The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World

John Dickie

Hodder & Stoughton, pp. 456, £25

The history of rubbish can be scholarship, but the history of scholarship is often rubbish. Hindsight diminishes earlier habits of thought and behaviour, especially when, as with freemasonry, they involve rolled-up trouser legs, coded handshakes and a curious blend of mysticism and matiness. Yet freemasonry was once a radical, even revolutionary, rite — to its adherents a harbinger of egalitarian, middle-class democracy, to its detractors a conspiracy of Jews, satanists and sex addicts.

The Craft is a shadow history of modernity. Though more sober than most lodge meetings, it is, like its subject, ingenious and frequently bizarre. Freemasonry, John Dickie argues, is one of Britain’s ‘most successful exports’, along with other club activities such as tennis, soccer and golf. It is ‘a fellowship of men, and men alone, who are bound by oaths to a method of self-betterment’. If this ideal of tolerant fraternity sounds modern — the absence of women aside — it is because it is.

It traces an ancient genealogy from Hiram, the Phoenician architect who built Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem, to the medieval stonemasons who, as ‘free’ artisans, carried the secrets of their craft, the ‘Old Charges’, from job to job, cathedral to cathedral. But freemasonry is a child of the Renaissance and the Reformation. It speaks the universal language of reason, and the particular languages of Protestant Hebraism and mystic Neoplatonism. Like golf and whisky, it emerged from Scotland and conquered the world.

In 1594, James VI of Scotland celebrated the birth of a male heir by commissioning William Schaw, his master of works, to construct a new chapel at Stirling Castle. The ‘earliest Renaissance building of its kind’, the Chapel Royal was, like the Sistine Chapel, made to the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple. Warming to his revivalist theme, in 1598, Schaw incorporated the masons’ sacred geometry and guilds (called ‘lodges’, after the temporary shacks on their building sites) into the old-new learning: the ‘art of memory’, once extolled by Cicero, and the religious mysteries attributed to Hermes Trismegistus.

Scotland’s ‘operative’ masonry depended on trade secrets, so much so that the bond ran deeper than the rivalry between Catholics and Protestants. The ‘speculative’ masonry that took off in London in the early 18th century attracted a broader public. In the golden age of the club and the coffee house, the gentleman amateur, the tradesman and the artisan all shared in ‘English liberty’.

Outside, the landed aristocracy and the Anglican settlement still ruled. Inside, the ‘illustrious topers’ of urban England networked with Jews, Catholics and Protestant sectarians, politely speculating on the mystical backdrop to the Anglican universe and, judging from the drunken mason stumbling home in Hogarth’s ‘Night’, putting away patriotic doses of drink. Dr John Desaguliers, the scientist-theologian who codified the craft in these years, even managed a poem that ‘merged the Newtonian system, masonic symbols and the Hanoverian monarchy into a single vision of universal harmony’: the Whig interpretation of spiritual history.

This ideal emigrated to America, where masons such as Benjamin Franklin established the thoroughly respectable American lodge system, a Rotary Club of the soul. Later, the British carried it around the world. The lodge was a link with home, but also common ground in an imperial society divided by colour, caste and class. As Kipling wrote in ‘The Mother Lodge’ from Barrack-Room Ballads:

Outside — ‘Sergeant! Sir! Salute! Salaam!’

Inside — ‘Brother’, an’ it doesn’t do no ’arm,

We met upon the Level an’ we parted on the Square,

An’ I was junior Deacon in my Mother-Lodge out there!

In the lodge, Kipling’s soldier is equal to ‘Bola Nath, Accountant’, ‘Saul, the Aden Jew’, ‘Din Mohammed, draughtsman’, ‘Babu Chuckerbutty’ and Castro the Catholic ‘from the fittin’ sheds’. But tolerance ended as the members stepped outside again. Kipling, Dickie reminds us, was a member of the same lodge at Allahabad as the young Nehru, whose Anglicised manners made him a member of the babu class that Kipling despised.

Freemasonry’s paths in Europe werea darker, more elaborate business. French lodges banned ‘Jews, Mohammedans and Negroes’, though the Chevalier d’Eon, a celebrated transvestite, was one of the boys some of the time. The rites mutated and multiplied too. After a Jacobite named Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Knight of St Lazarus of Jerusalem, tried to reconcile the craft and Catholicism, a Scottish rite developed in France, offering a ‘tropical forest’ of degrees and rituals. Next, Jean-Baptiste Willermoz added the Knights Templar and the new science of Mesmerism.

And then, according to Augustin de Barruel, the Illuminati, a failed Bavarian political club, executed a masonic plot to launch the French Revolution. In the century after 1789, this theory became a weapon in the Catholic Kulturkampf with secular power. Sponsored by clerical fantasy and aristocratic resentment, and fusing with anti-Judaic conspiracy theories, it developed a life of its own.

In Italy the patriotic Carbonari adopted Barruel’s black legend as a handbook of revolution, which is one reason why Italians remain keen on masonic conspiracies, another being curious incidents such as the death of the banker Roberto Calvi. In France, where ‘some 40 per cent of civilian ministers of the Third Republic were “on the square”’, the anti-clerical smut-peddler Léo Taxil, the author of Grotesque Cassocks and The Debauched Confessor, changed sides and became an anti-masonic smut-peddler, the author of Masonic Sisters and The Devil in the Nineteenth Century. French novels also supplied the material of the most successful forgery in history, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1905).

By 1925, the fantasy of a ‘Judeo-Masonic conspiracy’ was ‘bread-and-butter’ to Hitler’s first supporters. Some were free-masons too, which must have been confusing for them. In 1926, the Old Prussian Grand Lodges voluntarily Aryanised their mythology, and in 1932, Germany’s Grand National Lodge declared itself to be völkisch. This did not stop Hitler from following Mussolini’s lead and banning freemasonry. In 1934, a recruit to the SS’s intelligence agency demonstrated his organisational skills by compiling a central list of German free-masons. His name was Adolf Eichmann.

Postwar freemasonry echoes these historical schisms between Anglophone and non-Anglophone traditions, and Protestants and Catholics. In 1983, Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, wrote that Catholic freemasons are ‘in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion’, while in 1993, the Southern Baptist Convention ruled that membership of a lodge was a private matter. In the English-speaking world, freemasonry remains so reasonable as to be mocked as ‘the mafia of the mediocre’, but in Italy the P2 Lodge was considered the incubator of conspiracy.

Freemasonry’s promise of tolerance, Dickie writes, has been fulfilled in the truly ecumenical lodges of India, but it still provokes paranoia in Muslim societies. In Pakistan, where General Zia-ul-Haq banned freemasonry in 1972, Kipling’s old lodge is now a government office. The charter of Hamas lists freemasonry, the Lions and the Rotary Clubs as ‘networks of spies’, created by Jews to ‘destroy societies and promote the Zionist cause’.

Dickie’s previous book was Cosa Nostra, the first history of the Sicilian mafia to be written by an outsider. The Craft is well-crafted and sensible, making good use of English archives which have only recently been opened. By offering a new way of socialising, freemasonry laid the foundation of our commercial society, providing a sense of purpose to its practitioners — but also to its enemies, who confuse it with their own fantasies of power. ‘I am utterly opposed to it and to the influence of other secret organisations, because I believe them to be deeply corrupting,’ a Labour backbencher told the Commons in 1988. Who was that brave speaker of truth to power? Jeremy Corbyn.