The Principles of Masonic Law/Chapter I
Grand Lodges under their present organization, are, in respect to the antiquity of the Order, of a comparatively modern date. We hear of no such bodies in the earlier ages of the institution. Tradition informs us, that originally it was governed by the despotic authority of a few chiefs. At the building of the temple, we have reason to believe that King Solomon exercised an unlimited and irresponsible control over the craft, although a tradition (not, however, of undoubted authority) says that he was assisted in his government by the counsel of twelve superintendants, selected from the twelve tribes of Israel. But we know too little, from authentic materials, of the precise system adopted at that remote period, to enable us to make any historical deductions on the subject.
The first historical notice that we have of the formation of a supreme controlling body of the fraternity, is in the "Gothic Constitutions" which assert that, in the year 287, St. Alban, the protomartyr of England, who was a zealous patron of the craft, obtained from Carausius, the British Emperor, "a charter for the Masons to hold a general council, and gave it the name of assembly." The record further states, that St. Alban attended the meeting and assisted in making Masons, giving them "good charges and regulations." We know not, however, whether this assembly ever met again; and if it did, for how many years it continued to exist. The subsequent history of Freemasonry is entirely silent on the subject.
The next general assemblage of the craft, of which the records of Freemasonry inform us, was that convened in 926, at the city of York, in England, by Prince Edwin, the brother of King Athelstane, and the grandson of Alfred the Great. This, we say, was the next general assemblage, because the Ashmole manuscript, which was destroyed at the revival of Freemasonry in 1717, is said to have stated that, at that time, the Prince obtained from his brother, the king, a permission for the craft "to hold a yearly communication and a general assembly." The fact that such a power of meeting was then granted, is conclusive that it did not before exist: and would seem to prove that the assemblies of the craft, authorised by the charter of Carausius, had long since ceased to be held. This yearly communication did not, however, constitute, at least in the sense we now understand it, a Grand Lodge. The name given to it was that of the "General Assembly of Masons." It was not restricted, as now, to the Masters and Wardens of the subordinate lodges, acting in the capacity of delegates or representatives, but was composed, as Preston has observed, of as many of the fraternity at large as, being within a convenient distance, could attend once or twice a year, under the auspices of one general head, who was elected and installed at one of these meetings, and who, for the time being, received homage as the governor of the whole body. Any Brethren who were competent to discharge the duty, were allowed, by the regulations of the Order, to open and hold lodges at their discretion, at such times and places as were most convenient to them, and without the necessity of what we now call a Warrant of Constitution, and then and there to initiate members into the Order. To the General Assembly, however, all the craft, without distinction, were permitted to repair; each Mason present was entitled to take part in the deliberations, and the rules and regulations enacted were the result of the votes of the whole body. The General Assembly was, in fact, precisely similar to those political congregations which, in our modern phraseology, we term "mass meetings."
These annual mass meetings or General Assemblies continued to be held, for many centuries after their first establishment, at the city of York, and were, during all that period, the supreme judicatory of the fraternity. There are frequent references to the annual assemblies of Freemasons in public documents. The preamble to an act passed in 1425, during the reign of Henry VI., just five centuries after the meeting at York, states that, "by the yearly congregations and confederacies made by the Masons in their general assemblies, the good course and effect of the statute of laborers were openly violated and broken." This act which forbade such meetings, was, however, never put in force; for an old record, quoted in the Book of Constitutions, speaks of the Brotherhood having frequented this "mutual assembly," in 1434, in the reign of the same king. We have another record of the General Assembly, which was held in York on the 27th December, 1561, when Queen Elizabeth, who was suspicious of their secrecy, sent an armed force to dissolve the meeting. A copy is still preserved of the regulations which were adopted by a similar assembly held in 1663, on the festival of St. John the Evangelist; and in these regulations it is declared that the private lodges shall give an account of all their acceptations made during the year to the General Assembly. Another regulation, however, adopted at the same time, still more explicitly acknowledges the existence of a General Assembly as the governing body of the fraternity. It is there provided, "that for the future, the said fraternity of Freemasons shall be regulated and governed by one Grand Master and as many Wardens as the said society shall think fit to appoint at every Annual General Assembly."
And thus the interests of the institution continued, until the beginning of the eighteenth century, or for nearly eight hundred years, to be entrusted to those General Assemblies of the fraternity, who, without distinction of rank or office, annually met at York to legislate for the government of the craft.
But in 1717, a new organization of the governing head was adopted, which gave birth to the establishment of a Grand Lodge, in the form in which these bodies now exist. So important a period in the history of Masonry demands our special attention.
After the death, in 1702, of King William, who was himself a Mason, and a great patron of the craft, the institution began to languish, the lodges decreased in number, and the General Assembly was entirely neglected for many years. A few old lodges continued, it is true, to meet regularly, but they consisted of only a few members.
At length, on the accession of George I., the Masons of London and its vicinity determined to revive the annual communications of the society. There were at that time only four lodges in the south of England, and the members of these, with several old Brethren, met in February, 1717, at the Apple Tree Tavern, in Charles street, Covent Garden, and organized by putting the oldest Master Mason, who was the Master of a lodge, in the chair; they then constituted themselves into what Anderson calls, "a Grand Lodge pro tempore;" resolved to hold the annual assembly and feast, and then to choose a Grand Master.
Accordingly, on the 24th of June, 1717, the assembly and feast were held; and the oldest Master of a lodge being in the chair, a list of candidates was presented, out of which Mr. Anthony Sayer was elected Grand Master, and Capt. Joseph Elliott and Mr. Jacob Lamball, Grand Wardens.
The Grand Master then commanded the Masters and Wardens of lodges to meet the Grand Officers every quarter, in communication, at the place he should appoint in his summons sent by the Tiler.
This was, then, undoubtedly, the commencement of that organization of the Masters and Wardens of lodges into a Grand Lodge, which has ever since continued to exist.
The fraternity at large, however, still continued to claim the right of being present at the annual assembly; and, in fact, at that meeting, their punctual attendance at the next annual assembly and feast was recommended.
At the same meeting, it was resolved "that the privilege of assembling as Masons, which had been hitherto unlimited, should be vested in certain lodges or assemblies of Masons convened in certain places; and that every lodge to be hereafter convened, except the four old lodges at this time existing, should be legally authorized to act by a warrant from the Grand Master for the time being, granted to certain individuals by petition, with the consent and approbation of the Grand Lodge in communication; and that, without such warrant, no lodge should be hereafter deemed regular or constitutional."
In consequence of this regulation, several new lodges received Warrants of Constitution, and their Masters and Wardens were ordered to attend the communications of the Grand Lodge. The Brethren at large vested all their privileges in the four old lodges, in trust that they would never suffer the old charges and landmarks to be infringed; and the old lodges, in return, agreed that the Masters and Wardens of every new lodge that might be constituted, should be permitted to share with them all the privileges of the Grand Lodge, except precedence of rank. The Brethren, says Preston, considered their further attendance at the meetings of the society unnecessary after these regulations were adopted; and therefore trusted implicitly to their Masters and Wardens for the government of the craft; and thenceforward the Grand Lodge has been composed of all the Masters and Wardens of the subordinate lodges which constitute the jurisdiction.
The ancient right of the craft, however, to take a part in the proceedings of the Grand Lodge or Annual Assembly, was fully acknowledged by a new regulation, adopted about the same time, in which it is declared that all alterations of the Constitutions must be proposed and agreed to, at the third quarterly communication preceding the annual feast, and be offered also to the perusal of all the Brethren before dinner, even of the youngest Entered Apprentice.
This regulation has, however, (I know not by what right,) become obsolete, and the Annual Assembly of Masons has long ceased to be held; the Grand Lodges having, since the beginning of the eighteenth century, assumed the form and organization which they still preserve, as strictly representative bodies.
- The Gothic Constitutions are that code of laws which was adopted by the General Assembly at York, in the year 926. They are no longer extant, but portions of them have been preserved by Anderson, Preston, and other writers.
- Preston, book iv., sec, 2., p. 132, n. (U.M.L.,vol. iii., p. 109).
- General Regulations, art. xxxix.