By a Blog Reader
It is not surprising that an institution that claimed to be “of all Nations, Tongues, Kindreds, and Languages” would eventually achieve a worldwide presence but the way it happened was always more a matter of accident rather than design. Freemasonry spread so widely, largely because several stars of the age conspired to coincide to facilitate it but this does not diminish Freemasonry’s inherent abilities, both administrative and ideological to adapt quickly to a new world that was arising.
It is perhaps one of those great ironies of history that an institution that places so much emphasis on fraternity and egalitarianism was to spread so widely primarily thanks to that ‘’most unequal of polities’’ – Empire.
As already discussed, since its inception, Freemasonry’s core ideological tenets of rising above political and religious sectarianism appealed widely to both the British and soon after a wider European society shaken to the core by the traumatic aftermath of the Reformation and the wars that arose from it. It slowly but surely spread first throughout Britain and later throughout the continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Yet still, throughout all this time, the most basic unit of Freemasonry’s network remained the local lodge, an autonomous and independent unit with little interaction with others and it was only with the onset of the early eighteenth century, that some lodges began coming together to form grand lodges. These quickly emerged as the network’s central hubs. Eventually, provincial grand lodges which became the network’s regional nodes also added to the network’s development.
Well what do networks do?
They bring people into contact and association with one another. Brothers got to know other brothers, lodges interacted with other lodges, and grand lodges communicated with lodges and with each other. They provided a structure for social interaction and mutual assistance. That such networks can be an effective and powerful means of association is something all of us realize. Our lives revolve around an intricate system of concentric networks. At their most basic, those networks are familial or parochial but they can also and often do extend outwards to include our professional affiliation and academic networks – and most of us naturally belong to more than one network simultaneously.
During the early decades of the eighteenth century, the growth of this nascent masonic network and the activities of these grand lodges turned speculative British Freemasonry into a readily identifiable institution with standardized policies and procedures, as outlined for the first time in Anderson’s Constitutions of 1723. When a new lodge emerged, it became a part of an ever-growing network that contemporaries readily recognized as masonic. Basically, British Freemasonry underwent institutionalization which is to say it emerged as a discrete, public institution with a centralized administration.
From the outset, Freemasonry’s metropolitan administration proved quite adaptable and responsive to opportunities for growth, not only throughout the British Isles and Europe but the wider world as well.
The first mechanism was the introduction of masonic certificates. As the brotherhood grew in popularity, it became vulnerable to impostors. To address this problem, the Grand Lodge of Ireland began issuing certificates to individual freemasons. A stranger could henceforth prove his membership in the fraternity by producing a certificate and demonstrating his knowledge of Masonic passwords, handgrips, and rituals. The second was to implement a system of mutual recognition and this served much the way international standards work today. When two grand lodges recognized the regularity of each other, a certificate issued by one grand lodge was readily accepted by the members of another as proof of the individual’s regularity and this was a highly effective way of facilitating further interaction while reducing substantially the effort that would otherwise be needed to be invested to ascertain proof. In effect, this worked much in the same way as international standards facilitate trade in our own world. If a company has a CE or ISO certification, you do not need to test the product all over again for quality because you know already that it has been tested for certain standards and therefore fit for purpose.
The eighteenth century is now acknowledged as the century that gave rise to globalism as we understand it today (but which was a new phenomenon for the people of the age for which they had no frame of reference) and the catalyst for this unprecedented phenomenon was the intense rivalries between the emerging nation states and empires of modern Europe. For the first time in the world’s history wars were being fought simultaneously across different hemispheres. Large numbers of people were continuously on the move to ‘newly discovered’ and colonized places across the globe inhabited by natives that Europeans had never encountered.
It was the quest for Empire, and by this, I don’t just mean the British, that ultimately propelled Freemasonry into a global presence.
And the most effective mechanism by far that enabled this was the creation of the military lodges of which we will speak in the next section.
In another of those ironies of history – Freemasonry’s ’cosmopolitan’ tenets, dispersed far and wide by Empire would within them contain the seeds that would fuel patriotic and nationalist movements all over the globe.
But that is a subject that we will address in due course.