The Great Dissension or Schism in Freemasonry

To many Brothers there has really never been more than one Freemasonry. In fact not long after the founding of the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster (what the premier Grand Lodge in England was named previously) there was tension between Lodges and brothers. This tension built until in 1751, another Grand Lodge was formed and Freemasonry was split in England and everywhere it was established.

If you’ve ever wondered why there are different letters following some jurisdictions Grand Lodge or Lodges, well this may clear up some of the mystery.

What follows is the text of an address given by Wor. Bro. E. J. E. McLagan, a member of the Hobart Lodge of Research, on the 21st. July, 1967.

I now address the issue of the Great Dissension which occurred  in the 18th. century, culminating in Freemasonry in England being divided into two factions bitterly opposed to each other.  These rivals became known as the “Antients”  who formed a rival Grand Lodge in 1751, and the “Moderns”, who loyally adhered to the original Grand Lodge constituted in 1717.  Until comparatively recently the “Antients” have been apt to be described as “Seceders” or “Schismatics” , but  both terms are quite unjustified seeing that not one of the first dissidents belonged to any lodge under the jurisdiction of the Premier Grand Lodge, and also that their ritual and customs differed scarcely at  from those of their Scottish and Irish Brethren, whose Grand Lodges, as we shall see later, were to recognise the so called  “Antients” as the Grand Lodge of England.

Freemasonry, as we know it today, does not claim to be a religion, but a “Way of Life” open to all men irrespective of colour, race or creed, who believe in the G.A.O.T.U. as the Supreme Being and regard Brotherly Love , Relief and Truth as the standards by which a worthy Mason should endeavour to live. The “Moderns” however , regarded no man as worthy unless he professed himself to be a Christian, though, from studies made, there are very grave doubts that for many the sincerity of their claim was merely words, not actions.

The Grand Lodge of 1717 cannot be claimed to be a truly united lodge of all lodges practicing  in England at the time of it’s formation, but was in reality only a joining together, of six lodges, meeting in London, combining together for the furtherance of  the Craft as practiced in London at that time, and, as history has revealed was nothing more than a club for aristocratic gentlemen , enrolment being limited to men of substance or royal birth.  Money and birth were the qualifications to become a Freemason in the lodges under the banner of the Moderns.

The first Grand Master, Anthony Sayers Esq.. , was fortunate in having under his jurisdiction two men who played an important role in the furtherance of Freemasonry in England, I refer to Dr. Desaguliers and the Rev. Dr. James Anderson, to whom we are all indebted for a book known as” History, Charges, Regulations and Masters Songs”.  Anderson attempted to trace the history of Masonry back to Adam, and he was convinced that Geometry or Masonry began with Lamech before the time of the Great Flood, from which only Noah and his family escaped.  The early Grand Lodge recognised only two degrees E.A. and F.Cs.   Anderson certainly allowed his imagination to enter into his History of the Craft, as he includes in his list of Grand Masters Moses, Nebuchadnezzar , Alfred the Great, Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Christopher Wren, claiming a universal Grand Lodge existed centuries before the Grand Lodge of England was formed in 1717.

The death of Dr. Anderson in 1739, Masonry gradually fell into decline and unscrupulous Innkeepers  used their Taverns as Lodges displaying signs “Masons made for 2/6”.  The famous writer Hugh Walpole, himself a Mason, claimed in 1743: “The freemasons are in low repute in England.  I believe that nothing but a persecution could bring them into vogue again.”  There was no persecution, but a fierce dissension in their ranks took place in 1751, when the “Antients” formed a rival Grand Lodge.

What was the cause of these dissension’s ?

They were many, consisting of variations in ritual and beliefs.  These variations can be traced to a book “Masonry Dissected” by Samuel Prichard, first published in 1730, this exposure proved so popular that it run to three editions; raising great panic among the Freemasons of the period.  The weak administration then governing  G.L. attempted to stem the exposure by denials and variations in their ritual.  The G.M. at that time was Lord Raymond, 22 years of age, who during his reign of five years attended Grand Lodge on three occasions, whilst the same Officers and Stewards remained in office throughout the whole period.   The Points of dissension can be stated with some certainty to be as follows :-

1.  The de-Christianisation of Freemasonry, which had started as early as 1723.

2.  Neglect of the days of St. John as special masonic festivals  t. John’s day was the traditional birthday of  John the Baptist,  June 24th.   Between 1730 and 1753 not one G.M. was installed on that day.  Amongst 18th. century F.M.s  this was regarded as a most serious matter.

3.  Transposition of the modes of recognition in E.A. and F.C. degrees.

4.  Denied any claim of Freemasonry being Universal,  thus destroying a Landmark.

5.  Abandonment of the esoteric part, slight though it was in the ceremony of installing a  Lodge Master.

6.  Neglect of the catechisms attached to each degree.  These catechisms are not in use today, though short ones are used as questions to be answered by a candidate prior to passing to a higher degree.

7.  Difference in Password  in F. C. and M. M. degrees

8.  Difference in word for M.M. degree.

9.  The Methods of placing the three lights and the Wardens.

10. Employment of Deacons in Lodges.   These Officers were used by the “Antients”  and had been used in  Ireland as early as 1727.

11. Refusal of Grand Lodge to recognise the Royal Arch Degree.

When exactly the Grand Committee, which represented the G.L.  of the Antients was formed is not known,  though some historians put it as early as 1739.  What we do know, however, is that a General Assembly in July, 1751, was held when the “Rules and Orders to be Observed by the Most Antient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons” were agreed by five members including a Grand Secretary.  Next year we find the Grand Committee an established fact of “nine” duly numbered lodges, “all  the Antient Masons in and adjacent to London.”  There was undoubtedly a large Irish element in these lodges, whose members were mainly Mechanics or Shopkeepers.

In December, 1753,  Robert Turner Master of Lodge No. 15, was appointed G.M.  With the election of Grand Wardens the transformation to a G.L. was complete.  The minutes of 1752 record the appointment, as Grand Secretary, one who has been characterised  as the “Most remarkable Mason  that ever existed”  –  Lawrence Dermott,  who was born in Ireland in 1720.  Initiated in Dublin at the age of 20, he was Master of the Dublin Lodge in 1746, and the same year was exalted in the Royal Arch, the allusion to this in the Antient records, being one of the earliest known references to this degree.  He came to England in 1748,  as a Journeyman Painter ( working 12 hours a day at his trade).  He first joined a Lodge under the “Moderns” but quickly transferred his allegiance to  the “Antients.” He later became a wine merchant and prospered exceedingly .   He was a dynamic personality with a good education  including Latin and Hebrew.  Such was his force of character, he was the life and soul of the “Antient” movement, and more than a match in debate for any of his “Modern” antagonists.

In 1756, mainly through the efforts of Lawrence Dermott, the Earl of Blessington was persuaded to accept the G.M.’ship of the Antients (In proxy) as the four years of his term of office were to be continued.  His absence can be accounted for by the fact that the Seven Years War  ( 1756 – 63 ) made it necessary for him to be in Ireland.  Getting a member of the aristocracy  as G.M. , was an undoubted boost  to the Antients and it is said, that to get him to accept the office, Dermott discreetly  dedicated his book “Ahiman Rezon” to him.  Ahimon Rezon  (Hebrew words,  when freely translated, meaning “Help to a Brother” in which he laid down the rules and regulations of the  “Antients “ ritual, together with  118 poems and songs to be used by Masons.

Through Dermott’s efforts prominent men were induced  to join the Antients thus lessening the hold of the Moderns, and in 1767 Thomas Matthew ( a wealthy man ) became the G.M.  He was a Roman Catholic, but in spite of  the Papal Bulls of 1735 and 1751 forbidding Catholics  to become Masons (classified as Heretics),   he was a most ardent freemason, and held lodge meetings on his estate and insisted that all his servants were members of the Craft; but, in spite of his actions, he was never excommunicated from  his Church. Some claim his great charity to the church saved him from having to suffer such indignity.

The Duke of Atholl became the G.M. in 1771 and the Duke of Atholl continued  to reign as G.M. until 1813, thus the causing the “Antients” to be known as Atholl Masons. At the height of  the feud between the Antients and the Moderns both Grand Lodges fulminated against a member of the rival body being admitted to one of their lodges, even as a visitor, and to do so a brother had to permit them to remake him before he could be allowed to enter the lodge.  This rule was carried to ridiculous  lengths, as in the case of the Provincial Grand Master of Quebec, being refused admittance to an “Antient” lodge, because  his lodge owed  it’s existence to the “Modern”  G.L. of England, who had granted its charter.

In 1742, one of the “Antient Lodges” initiated a young man of 20, William Preston, who was destined to play a big part in the reconciliation of the two Grand Lodges.  He composed and delivered lectures, which were so ably written they earned him the title of “Little Solomon”.

The fight for supremacy in England, was not limited to the Antients and Moderns  two other Grand Lodges claimed the honour, they were the Grand Lodge of York (who claimed the title of The Grand Lodge of All England) and the grand Lodge of England , South of the Trent (1779 – 89).   The Moderns endeavoured to take over control of York and were met with such antagonistic opposition that they were forced to abandon their attempts.  The Grand Lodge of England, South of Trent was really the lodge of Antiquity, first of the ‘Four Old Lodges,’ and was the mainstay of the First Grand Lodge, but owing to differences had broken away from the G. L.  and set up as a rival organisation.

In 1810, the Atholl Grand Lodge ( The Antients) resolved that a Masonic Union on principles equal and honourable to both “Antient’ and “Modern” lodges, and preserving the Landmarks of the Ancient Craft would be expedient and advantageous to both Grand Lodges.  Meetings between the earl of Moina ( G. M. of the Moderns) and the Duke of Atholl  (G. M. of the Antients) took place, and a committee was formed  to discuss reconciliation.  The formation of a Lodge of Promulgation resulted in the adoption of a method of working acceptable to both parties,  though the “workings” were mainly those in use by the “Antients,” notably the use of Deacons, and the recognition of the expression “Board of Installed Masters” for the installation of a Wor. Master.

In 1813 the Duke of Atholl, whose family had ruled the Antients  since 1774 was succeeded  as G. M. by the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria,.  In the same year, 21 Articles of Union  between the Antients and the Moderns  were signed and sealed by both Grand Masters.  The second Article lays down that “Pure and Antient Masonry consists of three degrees  and no more, viz.  those of  E.A.,  F. C. , and M. M., ( including  the Supreme Order of the Royal Arch).  The Articles of Union were soon ratified by both G. L.’s and the Grand Lodge of York, thus was born the present United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE).  The first Grand Master was the Duke of Sussex, who was proposed for the office by the Duke of Kent, thus happily concluding a feud that had lasted for sixty years.  This re-union  was to prove of inestimable benefit to Freemasonry, and raised the Craft to the highly respected  status that has been maintained to the present day.

To address why we find different letter designations from jurisdiction to jurisdiction (primarily in the US).

From the start of the great schism to it’s conclusion and re-union in 1813, both Grand Lodge established Lodges in areas outside the nation where their Grand Lodge was established, a practice still in use today. However during this period both established Lodges in the same cities and towns as their rival. Depending on which GL had more established Lodges state GLs were formed and usually took either the A.F. & A.M. or F.& A.M. (with some exceptions).

After the Union of 1813 and the UGLE was formed most Lodges in the stated followed suit and one GL was chosen and those of the smaller number typically turned in their charters for a new one under the consolidated GL of that jurisdiction. This also accounts for the minor variations we see in Masonic ritual from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. 

An experience in Freemasonry usually upsetting to the newly-raised brother is his first visit to a lodge in another jurisdiction than his own. Having carefully been taught a certain ritual, in all probability with positive emphasis upon the necessity of being “letter perfect,” he learns with a distinct shock that the ritual in other States differs from his own, and these differ each from the other.

If he converses with those “well-informed brethren who will always be as ready to give as you will be to receive instruction” he is more than apt to be met with a puzzled, “I don’t know, I’m sure, just why they are different from us, but of course. ours is correct.”

The riddle becomes much plainer as the neophyte studies Masonic history – but, alas, many never open a Masonic book! Yet divergences in ritual cannot be understood without some historical background. It is necessary to understand, for instance, that Freemasonry came to this country, some time prior to 1731, at a time when English ritual was in a process of formation. We did not receive our Masonry from one central source. but from several; nor did we obtain it as a whole. Several different localities, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia) received Freemasonry from across the sea and from them our forms and ceremonies radiated to other sections.

The schism in the first Grand Lodge in England (1753) resulted in two Grand Lodges; the “Ancients” (the younger, schismatic body) and the “Moderns”” (the older. original Grand Lodge). Each had its own ritual; our rituals sometimes lean to one, sometimes to the other, and often to both. Literal ritualism is comparatively a modern matter; and “mouth to ear” in the early days meant nothing more than giving of information, not transmitting it in a set form of words.

Most of our Grand Lodges have been formed by a union of particular Lodges, many of which received each its ritual from a different source, with the result that the ritual finally adopted is a combination of several. And finally, Grand Lodges have not infrequently changed, added to and taken from their own rituals, either as matter of legislation or by the easier course (in early days) of adopting with little or no question the variations suggested by positive minded ritualists, Grand Lecturers, Custodians of the Work, ritual committees and so on. Some of these, unfortunately, had little or no Masonic background, and changed and altered, added and subtracted with no better reason than “this seems much better to us!”

Certain fundamentalists are to all intents and purposes the same in every one of our forty-nine Grand Jurisdictions. All American Lodges have a Master and two Wardens, a Secretary and Treasurer, an Altar with the V.S.L. and the other Great Lights, three degrees; unanimous ballot required; make Masons only of men; have the same Substitute Word given in the same way; are tiled; have a ceremony of opening and closing. To some extent all dramatize and exemplify the Master’s Degree, although the amount of drama and exemplification differs widely.

But beyond these and a few other simple essentials are wide variations. Aprons are worn one way in one degree in one Jurisdiction and another way in the same degree in another. Some Jurisdictions have more officers in a Lodge than others. In some Jurisdictions Lodges open and close on the Master Mason’s degree; others on the First degree; others only in the degree which it to be “worked.” Lesser Lights are grouped closely about the Altar, in the stations of the Master and Wardens. In some Lodges the I.P.M. (immediate Past Master) plays an important part, as in England. Other Lodges know him not Some Lodges have Inner Guards and two Masters of Ceremonies – others will have none of these.

Dividing, lettering, syllabling are almost as various in practice as the Jurisdictions. Obligations show certain close similarities in some requirements; but what is a part of the obligation in one jurisdiction may be merely an admonition in another, and “vice versa.”

Discovering all this (and much more) the thoughtful initiate is apt to wonder why it is deemed so important that he memorize his own particular “work” so closely; when he travels he finds that what he knows as familiar words and forms and phrases are strange to the Lodges he visits. Not is this the place to ague for purity of the ritual as taught. There are good and sufficient reasons why we should hand on to our sons and their sons the ritual as we received it – if only to preserve without further alteration and change that which was formed by the fathers. Suffice it that while uniformity in work within a Jurisdiction is fairly well established as good American Masonic practice, it is not universal. there are several “workings” for instance, permitted in English Lodges, and even in some American Jurisdictions (“vide” Connecticut) not all Lodges use the same ritual. The reasons for all this are so involved, complex, and cover such a long period; that a complete understanding is difficult even for the student willing to read the enormous amount of history and authority which may make it plain. Briefly, and in general, the matter becomes clearer if we visualize our sources of ritual.

We received our Masonry from:

The Mother Grand Lodge of England 1717-1753
The Grand Lodge of the “Ancients” 1753-1813
The Grand Lodge of the “Moderns” 1753-1813
The United Grand Lodge 1813 and on –
The Grand Lodge of Ireland 1724- and on –
The Grand Lodge of Scotland 1736 and on –

and From the Pre-Grand Lodge era of Lodges of England, Ireland and (or) Scotland.

Unfortunately for the historian, this list does not signify six or seven different but “pure” forms. The ritual of the original Grand Lodge changed as it flowed, through many years after 1717. The Grand Lodges of “Ancients” and “Moderns both made alterations in ritual so that rival members of each body found it impossible to make themselves known Masonically in the other. Ireland and Scotland were, and are, as different as Pennsylvania and California. From pre-Grand Lodges members came to this country to form themselves into Lodges without Warrant or Charter (as was the custom in early days). A dozen men, bringing “what they remembered of the” ritual they heard when “made,” to form a Lodge, would naturally include in their ritual a little of one original source, some phrases from another beginning, a paragraph from a third wellspring, and so on.

The Mother Grand Lodge ritual (1717 to 1753) was not the ritual of the United Grand Lodge which came into existence in 1813, when the two parts of the original Mother Grand Lodge (“Ancients” and “Moderns”) again came together. The United Grand Lodge, or Grand Lodge of Reconciliation, formed its ritual from the best of the divergent rituals of the “Ancients” and the “Moderns.”

Thus, Lodges in this country which received ritual, in any and all states of purity or impurity, from either of these several sources, would differ decidedly each from the other.

Come we now to the spread of Masonry in the thirteen colonies, and later, through the forty-eight states, territories, and the District of Columbia. To write even one paragraph of Masonic history of ritual in so many subdivisions would make this Bulletin unreadably long. But a few high lights may be noted.

From our primary American sources of ritual, in one way or another all other American Grand Jurisdictions, in part at least, received their “work;” Massachusetts, which at first sent forth what must have been at least an approximation of the work of the original Mother Grand Lodge, though her ritual today is derived from both “Moderns” and “Ancients;” Pennsylvania and Virginia, both giving forth individual variants of a combination of “Modern” and “Ancient,” and North Carolina, almost purely “Modern.”

In 1915 Dean Roscoe Pound showed how various were the next groups of States which received their rituals from the first four American sources. He developed that Maine derived from Massachusetts since the fusion; Vermont derived from the Grand Lodge of “Ancients” in Massachusetts before the fusion; Ohio derived from Massachusetts, from Connecticut, a strictly “Modern” Jurisdiction, and from Pennsylvania; Indiana derived from Ohio and Kentucky, which later represents Virginia after the fusion, Michigan derived from the “Ancient” Grand Lodge of Canada and from New York, which since the Revolution was a Strictly “Ancient” Jurisdiction; Kentucky derived from Virginia; Tennessee derived from North Carolina, a purely “Modern” Jurisdiction; Alabama derived from North Carolina, from South Carolina and from Tennessee, thus representing Virginia and North Carolina; Louisiana derived from South Carolina, from Pennsylvania and from France; Florida derived from Georgia and from South Carolina; Missouri derived from Pennsylvania and from Tennessee, representing therefore, the fusion in Pennsylvania and the “Modern Masonry” of North Carolina; Illinois derived from Kentucky and so represents Virginia; and the District of Columbia derived Maryland (a fusion of “Modern Masonry from Massachusetts and from England direct, with the “Ancient Masonry” from Pennsylvania), and from Virginia.

The further west we go, the more we find a mixture of sources, complicated rather than simplified by such matters as the splitting of the Grand Lodge of Dakota into the Grand Lodge the of South Dakota and North Dakota, when these two States were formed, and the formation of the Grand Lodge of California, which drew its work from many different sources. California Lodge No.13, of the District of Columbia, was formed for the purpose of carrying Masonry to the Golden Gate at the time of the gold rush. That Lodge is now No.1 on the California Grand Lodge Register. But California’s ritual is not more similar to the District of Columbia working than that of any other State, since the District Lodge was but one of several which formed the Grand Lodge of California.

There have been certain unifying influences; the Baltimore Convention of 1843, the conclusions of which were adopted in whole or in part by several American Grand Jurisdictions, and the work of Bob Morris and his conservators, which, despite its chilly reception by many Grand Jurisdictions, undoubtedly left its impression on American ritual. A third unifying influence has been the tremendous impress made on almost all American Jurisdictions by Thomas Smith Webb, and Jeremy Cross, plainly evident in the exoteric paragraphs printed in many State Monitors or Manuals. A fourth has been the honest desire and strenuous efforts of many Grand Lodges through District Deputies, Grand Lecturers, Schools of Instruction and similar machinery, to preserve what they have in its supposedly ancient perfection. But by the time these latter were in operation, ritual was more or less fixed. Because of the reverence of the average Mason for what he is taught, and his fierce resentment of any material change in that which he learns, rituals and degree forms, ceremonies and practices, usages and customs continue to be what he believes them to have been “from time immemorial” even when sober fact shows that they have an antiquity of (in all probability) less than two hundred years.

For the benefit of those Masons to whom divergence of ritual is not the less distressing thing, but that it is understandable, it may be said that most authorities agree that it is really not a matter of great moment. All over the world Freemasonry teaches the same truths, offers the same spiritual comfort, creates and continues the same fraternal bond. In “non essentials, variety; in essentials, unity” might have been written of Masonry. It matters little how we wear the apron in a given degree – so be it that it is worn with honor. The method of giving a sign or a pass matters much less than that what we do is done with understanding.

While Freemasonry continues to observe and revere those few Landmarks which are undisputed everywhere – those which Joseph Fort Newton says are “The Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the hope of Life Everlasting,” it becomes of less moment that different men, in different times, in different localities, have found more than one way to phrase and to teach the ancient verities of the old, old Craft.

– Source: Short Talk Bulletin – Jan. 1934