There’s been a roiling controversy in Freemasonry for almost a year but unless you’re a Masonic scholar, you may not know about it.
It has to do with the year in which modern Freemasonry, “the revival,” began. Traditionally, that watershed year has been 1717 and the formation of the first Grand Lodge in London. That would mean this year is the 300th anniversary of Freemasonry in the modern era.
Now comes Dr. Susan Mitchell Sommers, professor of history at Saint Vincent College and General Editor of the Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism, and Dr. Andrew Prescott (pictured above), FSA, FRHistS, Professor of Digital Humanities, AHRC Theme Leader Fellow for Digital Transformations, University of Glasgow, to tell us that isn’t the right date. We are, Sommers and Prescott tell us, about four years off, that the actual date is 1721.
Prescott dropped that little tidbit during the Tercentenary Conference Celebrating 300 Years of Freemasonry this past September at Cambridge University. He was the last key-note speaker of that conference. Obviously, I wasn’t there but I’ve heard Dr. Prescott caused quite a stir when he effectively blew away the whole purpose of that conference. Oh, to have been a mouse under the podium in that moment.
Sommers gave a version of the paper during the World Conference on Fraternalism, Freemasonry, and History in Paris this past May.
Prescott’s talk at the Tercentenary Conference are similar to those given during the Dr. Charles A. Sankey Lecture Series in Masonic Studies the previous June. In his talk then, Searching for the Apple Tree: What Happened in 1716?, Prescott said the difficulty with the date lays in the account by James Anderson, author and editor of the Constitutions of the Free-Masons.
Anderson claimed that in 1716 four Masonic lodges from London met together at the Apple Tree Tavern in Charles Street, close to the centre of Covent Garden, and agreed to revive the annual feast. The following year, says Anderson, on 24 June 1717, those lodge met again at the Goose and Gridiron and there elected a grand master.
“The traditional and accepted story of the foundation of the grand lodge comes entirely from Anderson,” Dr. Prescott said during his Sankey lecture. “It appears for the first time in the second edition of the Book of Constitutions, published in 1738, 20 years after the event it describes and shortly before Anderson’s death.”
Anderson didn’t mention this story in his 1723 edition and no other publication mentions the event at all, despite the fascination the popular press had for Freemasonry, Dr. Prescott said. “It comes out of the blue in 1738,” Prescott said.
Not everything that Anderson wrote about was undocumented, exactly, Sommers said during her talk in Paris. “We can trace some of the sources Anderson used to write his history and they are all problematic,” he said.
Anderson did his best, she said. “Unfortunately, he also takes liberties when writing his history,” she said.
Which leads to one inevitable conclusion. “Without corroborating evidence, we must discard the canonical story,” Sommers said.
Sommers and Prescott then give, at length, their reasons why 1717 isn’t the correct date and that 1721 more likely is. One detail he points out is the 1721 Initiation of William Stukeley in London, at a tavern called “The Salutation”, which Stukeley later said had been the first initiation in the city in many years and that it had been complicated by the difficulty in finding enough Freemasons in the work the ceremony. “The claim that it had been difficult to find members to attend this lodge to initiate Stuckeley is very surprising if Grand Lodge had been founded four years previously in a tavern that is only two or three minutes walk from The Salutation,” Dr. Prescott observed.
Anyone who wants to read the Sommers-Prescott paper will find it in the newly release QCC publication “Reflections on 300 Years of Freemasonry” newly published by Lewis Masonic.
Dr. Prescott’s observations has Masonic scholars, the world over, all a flutter but most Freemasons are blissfully unaware.
The good news is that, if Sommers and Prescott are right, then we have four more years to plan a celebration of the real 300th Anniversary.