- Initiating the Enlightenment?: Recent Scholarship on European Freemasonry
Historians of Masonry, complained New York governor De Witt Clinton in 1825, too often engage in “gratuitous assumptions and fanciful speculations.” “The absurd accounts of its origin and history, in most of the books that treat of it, have proceeded from enthusiasm operating on credulity and the love of the marvelous.” Rather than “giving the rein to erratic imagination,” he recommended an attempt “to sober down our minds to well-established fact.” 1
Although Clinton, founder of the New York Historical Society and the state’s Masonic Grand Master, was also sure that such a clear-eyed investigation would prove Masonry “the most ancient society in the world,” his complaints about the state of the fraternity’s history still have relevance. Up until about ten years ago, the study of Masonry remained a backwater. Indeed, the long-since-refuted eighteenth-century charges of the Abbé de Barruel and John Robison that Free- masonry, after being corrupted by the atheistic Illuminati, had masterminded the French Revolution (accusations that Clinton believed in 1825 had “been consigned to everlasting contempt”) remain current in some circles. The French writer Bernard Faÿ, author of what is still perhaps the most widely available study of the eighteenth- century fraternity, argued that it “fostered the revolutionary spirit” and even “prepared and achieved” the late eighteenth-century revolutions—arguments that later turned malignant when he collaborated with the Nazis to suppress the fraternity. 2 More recently, television evangelist and political power Pat Robertson has revived tales of the Illuminati pursuing a now two-century-old subversion of Christianity and economic liberty in order to create a “new world order,” a phrase that George Bush reportedly stopped using because of Robertson’s influence. 3 Such conspiracy theories ironically have led many scholars to the opposite view, that Masonry was merely [End Page 80] another social club, an intellectually vacuous Rotarian organization purveying busi- ness networking and bland sociability. Outside of France (and, to a lesser extent, Germany) where the Masonic origins of the French Revolution remain a continuing, if minor, issue, the study of the fraternity has largely remained the province of antiquarians. As James Stevens Curl notes in his preface (echoing Clinton), “much tedious, barmy, entirely fanciful, and usually nonsensical material” on Freemasonry has appeared in the last half century (p. 10).
Yet, as Curl also notes, “it would be irresponsible to ignore” the fraternity (p.10). Virtually any short list of eighteenth-century notables would include such Freemasons as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Pope, Horace Walpole, Sir Robert Walpole, Mozart, Goethe, Frederick the Great, Franklin, and Washington. In addition, Masonic brothers play a number of intriguing supporting roles, from James Thompson (author of “Rule Britannia”) and the Abbé Siéyès (author of Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? and the Tennis Court Oath) to Benedict Arnold and Dr. Guillotin.
The works considered here herald a new era in Masonic history, one in which accomplished historians take the fraternity (and its ability to attract such a mem- bership) seriously. For these authors, Freemasonry is neither a mystic key to all history nor an irrelevancy. Instead, these books believe that the fraternity was intimately intertwined with the major issues of the eighteenth century, with her- meticism, the Enlightenment, and the rise of democracy. If, as will be suggested later, their connections are often too mechanical and rigid, they nevertheless make the history of the fraternity a topic that does not, as Clinton complained, “mortify our intellectual discrimination” (McClenachan, 2:432).
The confusion about Masonry partly arises from a paucity of the “well-established” facts that...