John Hamill explores the evidence surrounding the formation of Grand Lodge

Tuesday, 07 June 2016

When history is written

Director of Special Projects John Hamill defends the accuracy of the documentation detailing Grand Lodge’s formation

 Were it possible to travel back and forth in time, it would be fascinating to bring back some of those fewer than 100 brethren who came together at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in London on 24 June 1717 to elect the first Grand Master and bring into being the first Grand Lodge in the world. 

The brethren can have had no conception of what they were starting and would be amazed that they were responsible for what has become a worldwide brotherhood, now existing in places that to them were unexplored spaces on the maps of their time.

Masonic historians lament the fact that there is so little documentary evidence for the period, forgetting that those who brought about the formation of Grand Lodge were not aware that they were taking such a momentous step. They did not keep records of their actions until the first minute book of Grand Lodge was begun in 1723. Indeed, had it not been for James Anderson producing his historical information to be incorporated into the 1723 and 1738 editions of the Book of Constitutions, we still might not have known what happened in 1717.

That lack of additional documentation in support of Anderson’s facts has caused some academics to question their veracity. My answer would be to repeat the mantra with which my history tutor began each of our tutorials in my first term as a student: you cannot look at the past with the eyes of the present, you can only look at it in the context of the period.

The four lodges that came together in 1717 became just another group among many other societies and clubs of the time. As no one of social consequence of the day appears to have been involved, it is not surprising that the event was not recorded in the primitive press that existed in the 18th century. 

What seems to have been forgotten is that when Anderson wrote his histories there were still many around who would have attended or have known some of those who were present at the Goose and Gridiron in June 1717. 

Not only that, Anderson’s writing was approved by a Committee of the Grand Lodge and I have no doubt that had he recorded recent facts wrongly it would have been forcefully pointed out to him and that they would have been corrected before the Book of Constitutions went into print.

Celebrate the past

To cast doubts on Anderson’s statements regarding 1717 because the rest of his early history contains undoubted errors of fact is to ignore how the current definition of what constitutes history has changed. 

In Anderson’s day, rather than being a collection of carefully documented and verifiable facts, history was an amalgam of fact, folklore, biblical stories and mythology. 

It was not until after the profound effect that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had on Western intellectual life that historians began to apply the rigorous rules of scientific research to their studies.

Anderson does attempt to trace masonry back to Adam in the Garden of Eden and includes many biblical, legendary and historical figures as at least promoters of masonry if not actual Grand Masters. However, to cast doubt on events that Anderson records as taking place within the lifetime of his readers because of this ‘history’ is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Whatever academics might try to prove, I believe James Anderson. He had no reason to invent the meeting on 24 June 1717 and we have every reason to continue to celebrate it. More importantly, we should commemorate what has been built since that simple meeting elected a Grand Master to preside over an annual feast.

‘To cast doubts on Anderson’s statements regarding 1717 because the rest of his early history contains errors of fact is to ignore how the current definition of what constitutes history has changed.’

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