By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
There may be a case for Desaguliers as the real trailblazer. But it is James Anderson who is believed to have laid the foundations of modern Freemasonry, with its generalised form of religious belief that enabled Jews to become members, and eventually also Muslims and members of eastern religions. Anderson is credited with being a progressive thinker, strong on deism, which had substituted reason for revelation and regarded nature as the best evidence of God, instead of the conventional view which saw God as Person and Creator and, in Christianity, regarded Jesus as His Son. It is probably Anderson who coined for Freemasonry the famous words about “that religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves”, which meant that the denominational churches could interpret theological doctrine but not impose its dogmas on anyone.
For Anderson, the craft could endorse neither Roman Catholicism with tenets such as the Virgin birth, nor the established Church of England. But neither could it abandon religion as a whole. Hence the statement (again probably Anderson’s phrase) that a Mason “will never be a stupid Atheist, nor an irreligious Libertine”. Interesting words. As against the Mason, who “is obliged, by his Tenure, to obey the Moral Law”, the libertine must necessarily be irreligious, since morality was grounded in religion. The phrase “a stupid Atheist” is more difficult. If religion is not to be forced upon people, should an atheist not have the same right to disbelieve as the religious person has to believe? The word “stupid” implies that a logical thinker will inevitably believe in belief. But Anderson is fighting a battle. He may be a progressive, but he cannot abandon revelation. He fears that deists, by making a god out of reason, are becoming virtual – and illogical – atheists.
In NSW in recent years an eminent Grand Chaplain, Rev Brian Burton, argued that the shape Freemasonry took is owed to the fact of Anderson being a Presbyterian and, like all nonconformists, unable to hold any leading office under the Crown and penalised for rejecting establishment patterns of worship. Had Anderson belonged to of the Church of England, he would have chafed less and Freemasonry would have been different.
Anderson wanted to enable nonconformists to join Masonry without giving it a stigma as a subversive organisation with Scottish connections. Burton says, “Anderson made it possible, and this was his whole and complete aim, for fellow Christians to sit together in Lodge, without hassles and arguments… so the Lodge became the only sanctuary in England where a Scottish Presbyterian and an English Anglican could sit side by side, and together, without any hesitation, say they believed in the Great Architect of the Universe… Anderson, far from taking Christianity out of the Lodge, gave us a wonderful and far-reaching vision of the true essence of Christianity.” Burton may have exaggerated Anderson’s achievement; only further research will tell.
The new dispensation made basic craft Freemasonry non-denominational, but certain degrees and rites remained Christian. In craft Freemasonry a Jew could be at home, at least in England, despite the sporadic opposition to Jewish membership even there. Jews came to play an increasingly important role in the craft, both in English-speaking lands and in some Continental countries. They even wrote Masonic tracts in Yiddish (an 1813 leaflet written in France is listed in the Elkan Adler manuscript catalogue), and all over the British Empire it was taken for granted that Jewish clergy and lay leaders would join the movement. Some Continental Lodges remained antisemitic, yet at the same time the opponents of Freemasonry frequently attacked it because it was too Jewish and alleged that Jews and Masons were jointly conspiring to take over the world.
In German Freemasonry prior to 1930 there were rival groups of Grand Lodges. The major divide was between the Old Prussian Lodges which insisted that they were Christian and never accepted Jews, and the Humanitarian Lodges, which at various points in the 19th century decided that they would accept Jewish applicants. Some groups bravely resolved to oppose National Socialism and thus, according to Wor Bro Alain Bernheim, “saved the honour of German Freemasonry during the most difficult period of his history”. They had no chance of winning, but at least they tried. Others thought acquiescence would redeem them in the eyes of the Nazis. They sent messages and resolutions to loyalty to the Nazi leadership, but neither this nor their revision of the ritual (they deleted Biblical words and names, turned Solomon’s Temple into “the German Cathedral” and substituted “Faith” for “God”), saved them. Even the Old Prussian Lodges had dissolved by 1935. The few Freemasons who had refused to abandon Masonic humanitarianism are now considered martyrs of the Order.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.