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    Why not speculative alchemy?

    By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.

    Rev Dr John Theophilus Desaguliers

    Rev Dr John Theophilus Desaguliers

    Enlightenment thinking taught that it was man’s reason that determined truth, not dogma or precedent. The movement had no one beginning: historical forces never do. But what the historian Peter Gay has called “the sacred circle” of inherited dogmatism could not remain uncriticised. The challenge built up over a number of decades. To an extent it developed in clandestine societies that met behind closed doors to discuss and debate theory and, in the field of science, to carry out experiments.

    In England the scientific process led to the creation in 1660 of the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Science. Its informal meetings in the 1640s brought the name, “The Invisible College”; then it emerged in public under royal patronage. Members were not necessarily professional scientists; some were “gentlemen” (scientific amateurs and/or affluent patrons). By the early 19th century there were attempts to reduce the numbers of honorary members, though the borderlines were not always clear: thus in 1836 Sir Moses Montefiore, a non-scientist, became a Fellow for promoting coal gas as a source of illumination.

    Crucial contributions were made by Sir Isaac Newton, president from 1703-27. His assistant was Rev Dr John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683-1744), a clergyman and natural philosopher from a Huguenot family who had fled to England and was possibly the discoverer of the properties of electricity; he was the inventor of planetariums. As a Freemason, Desaguliers was the third Grand Master (1719) of the premier Grand Lodge in England and largely shaped the doctrines, ritual and structure of the Masonic craft.

    Freemasons’ lodges pre-dated his time. They had a scientific bent, sometimes circulating works which could not be published openly. Freemasonry could thus have developed as a scientific subculture of the Royal Society. Desaguliers seems to have determined differently. As a clergyman as well as a scientist he probably decided that the movement would fill a different gap. Instead of focussing on science, he would develop a network of societies that would examine the nature of man and man’s role in the universe.

    It would promote a doctrine of man as inherently good, rational and capable of creating his own destiny. It would be man’s task to build a good society through first building a good human person: an approach reminiscent of Plato’s plan in “The Republic” (c 360 BCE) of the well-ordered man and the well-ordered state. God would be the Great Architect of the Universe, its Grand Geometrician, its master builder. These ideas were incorporated into Masonic ritual and in the Constitutions which, drawn up by James Anderson, were supervised by Desaguliers.

    The Constitutions, believing that a good man could use his own initiative to become a better man, appeared harmless enough, but they alarmed Augustinian thinkers who upheld the theology of Original Sin and opposed the Pelagian “heresy” that man could be saved on his own and did not necessarily require a Divine gift of grace.

    Because Freemasonry challenged conventional theology, prudence dictated the adoption of a mild disguise. One was available in the now declining operative lodges which not only spoke of building but had a structure and an inclination for secrecy. Operative Masons were practical people, not so highly educated, but if their movement could be taken over by the intellectuals, the new thinking could find a home and protect itself.

    In time the need for secrecy disappeared, but the movement developed it into a fetish and almost invited the allegation, in an age of more open communication, that it was a secret society and therefore apparently reprehensible.

    In the meantime Desaguliers and his colleagues had provided Freemasonry with a largely mythical structure of symbolism and story that clothed its origins and ethos in ancient fables and phrases. Freemasons enjoyed their ritual without knowing that its ideals and practices had developed to meet a need at a particular time.

    For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.


    Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.

    Order the paperback or Kindle edition from Amazon or the paperback from The Book Depository to receive free shipping. Selections from the book can be previewed on Google Books.

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