A history of Freemasonry: from Enlightenment ideals to satanic conspiracy stories

Historian John Dickie talks to BBC History Magazine's Ellie Cawthorne about his new book charting the history of Freemasonry, from Enlightenment ideals and influential networks to secrecy and satanic conspiracy stories

As seen in this early 19th-century depiction of an initiation, Masons have long used secrecy to

Ellie Cawthorne: When you tell people you are writing a book on the Freemasons, what are the initial reactions you get?

John Dickie: In Britain, I think there are two competing stories that dominate discussions of Freemasonry. On the one hand, they appear in the public imagination as a shady organisation with something to hide. And this is what fuels the newspaper coverage they get – outlandish stories in which they are responsible for cover-ups of the sinking of the Titanic, or the Hillsborough disaster. People put two Freemasons in a row and make a conspiracy.

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Counter to that runs the Freemasons’ own narrative of their history, one of a noble, honourable tradition of brotherhood and altruism. This, admittedly, is much more dull.

But somewhere in between these two stories is a vast, untapped world of extraordinary tales about what Freemasonry has meant to people, about the things it has got involved in and the paranoia that Freemasons have generated throughout their history. And also how Freemasonry has been hugely historically important.

Historian John Dickie. (Image by Mikael Buck)
Historian John Dickie. (Image by Mikael Buck)

From its inception, secrecy has undoubtedly been an important element of Freemasonry. Why is this the case?

That’s certainly true. It’s been a great selling tool for them – this idea that if you join the Masons, you will learn the secrets and become part of an elect band with access to privileged knowledge. But the way that Masons use the word ‘secrecy’ actually translates to something more like sacredness, because it’s used to create a sense of awe and specialness around their rituals, which are very important to them.

The idea that if you join the Masons, you will learn the secrets and become part of an elect band with access to privileged knowledge, has been a great selling tool for them

But while it’s been a very powerful tool in the Masons’ arsenal, secrecy also inevitably leads to misunderstanding. After the 1980s, they had a kind of glasnost and opened their institutions and their libraries to non-Freemason scholars like me. But their latest formula for explaining it gives you some idea of the problem. Now they say: “We are not a secret society, we’re a society with secrets.” That’s not exactly going to put people’s minds at rest, is it? Instead, secrecy offers up a dark mirror for the rest of the world to project whatever it wants into. The way that secrecy is manipulated on both sides has been one of the great engines of Masonic history.


Listen: John Dickie sifts fact from fiction in the history of a much misunderstood organisation in this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


What can you tell us about the genesis of Freemasonry as a society?

The big question is how you get from stonemasons, who have calluses on their hands and put slabs into walls, to Freemasons, who have nothing to do with actual stonemasonry but instead adopt its tools – plumb lines and trowels and so on – as moral metaphors. Building offers a good metaphor for making yourself a better person.

But how did that transition happen? I think the first crucial stage was in the Scottish court of James VI, where ministers were trying to win over the stonemasons guild and introduced them to some very powerful elements of Renaissance culture. One key aspect of this was the art of memory. The great Roman orator Cicero used to remember his speeches by imagining himself in a building. Each room would represent a section of his speech, and each item in the room would be a point he needed to make. In the Renaissance, that kind of memory exercise was seen to have almost magical properties. It could, in the right circumstances, give you access to the mind of God. And the Masons began to see their ritualistic spaces as something similar, as theatres of memory. You can still see this in the design of Masonic lodges today: a chessboard floor with thrones around the edge and lots of symbols, such as globes, candles, columns or Bibles. It’s a sort of ritual theatre where you go through your Masonic journey, with each stage marked by a ceremony.

I think that was the magic moment that really elevated the initiation rituals of a stonemason’s guild into something more philosophically ambitious. Then gentleman non-stonemasons began to be attracted to Freemasonry as an organisation that was open to exciting intellectual developments.

Another crucial moment was the foundation of the first Grand Lodge of England, a kind of governing body for Freemasonry, in 1717. That event took place at the time when the Whig regime was establishing itself, and influential Tories were thrown out of every available position of influence in society and politics. The early years of the Grand Lodge are still surrounded in mystery, but there was certainly a Whig takeover there too. This was the moment where Freemasonry came off the byways of culture and entered the motorway of the Enlightenment. Within 15 years, there were Masonic lodges across Europe and the world, in Istanbul, the Caribbean, North America and Aleppo. It’s the most extraordinary success story of an idea that had found its moment.

What motivated men to join the Freemasons?

Undoubtedly, networking was part of the story. It was a way to connect yourself to certain bigwigs. It’s no coincidence that Huguenot exiles were important in early Freemasonry. These were immigrants on the make, and Freemasonry allowed them to make a play for patronage. It was a place for young men to learn from older men, and it could be enormously helpful if you needed to travel across the globe. Wherever you went, you would have a ready-made home from home, with familiar rituals and contacts, and your reputation would be able to travel with you.

There was undoubtedly a lot of boozing and back-slapping going on too. But it was by no means all cynical. There was clearly something very powerful about Freemasonry’s formula of ritual symbolism and moral messages for its members. It offered a means not only of individual development, but also a feeling of shared growth and male bonding. After the world wars, a lot of men turned to Freemasonry for the comradeship and sense of meaning that they found in war, but also for a way of coming to terms with big spiritual questions such as the meaning of life.

People often make vague assertions about Freemasons pulling all the strings. Can you give some examples how their influence actually played out in reality?

It could be extremely varied. Research done on early 19th-century Dresden shows that an awful lot of doctors and lawyers were Freemasons. This meant that it was much harder to become a successful lawyer or doctor if you weren’t a Freemason. But if you were an outsider wanting to get into the profession, joining the Masons was actually a relatively small price to pay in order to gain access. The network also had a role in monitoring people’s reputations and making sure that they maintained professional standards. In a sense, that could be seen as a positive thing.

Another example comes from under Napoleon, who revived Freemasonry after the French Revolution and used it as an instrument of his regime. Masonic lodges became temples for his personality cult. Tons of his generals and top people in his regime were installed at the head of grand lodges in countries that were then incorporated into the French empire. If you were an ambitious Neopolitan, for example, the lodge would be the place to hobnob with the French who’d come down to run the kingdom. So Freemasonry was a mechanism to control political culture; it was an instrument of the regime.

Probably the best example of Masonic networking at its very worst is Italy’s P2 Lodge, which was mixed up in all kinds of corruption: blackmail, information gathering, rightwing terrorism, laundering money for the mafia – you name it.

So Freemasonry didn’t always live up to its foundational ideals?

Many Freemasons were dedicated to trying to live by those ideals – enlightened principles of universal brotherhood and reason, as well as inclusiveness irrespective of race, creed, colour and background. And it’s important to acknowledge that they weren’t just paying lip service to these ideas: they truly believed in them.

But that universalism was paradoxical from the beginning. It preached equal values for all, except if you were a woman. Or if you couldn’t afford the entrance fee. While it may have been formed with high ideals, it was ultimately victim to the same societal forces as everything else. Geography is a key qualification in any discussion about Freemasonry. Because very soon after it was created, the organisation was presented with a huge problem of brand control. People were inventing different forms all over the place to suit their own interests.

One interesting aspect of your research is Masonry’s relationship to race and imperialism. What can you tell us about that?

Freemasonry’s foundational code theoretically makes it open to all. That said, in many contexts, it has had a lot of problems dealing with race. The United States is the most startling case: it’s a universal brotherhood founded on the ideals of freedom and tolerance that has been racially divided since 1775. America has always had two Freemasonrys – one black and one white. That’s still the case to this day.

Members of an African-American grand lodge in 1897
Members of an African-American grand lodge in 1897. US Freemasonry has been “racially divided since 1775,” says John Dickie. (Image by Alamy)

Imperialism is another huge blind spot in the way that Masons talk about themselves and their own past. In many ways, Masonry oiled the wheels of empire. As an imperial bureaucrat sent across the globe, you could walk into a lodge in Cape Town or Calcutta and instantly tap into a social life and support network. It also provided a handy cover story for imperialism, by cloaking it in the ideals of brotherhood and universal cooperation. But what happened when the locals wanted to join? In some cases, like in 18th-century India, some were welcomed into lodges very early on because imperialists wanted to co-opt local rulers. But towards the end of the 19th century, when Indians wanted to be integrated into power structures, attitudes towards their membership became more complicated. The ways that people like Rudyard Kipling, who believed profoundly in Freemasonry but was also profoundly racist, negotiated those strange contradictions is something that today’s Masons need to come to terms with.

How have the conspiracy theories surrounding Freemasonry led to Masons being persecuted?

The Freemasons have inspired a lot of fear over the years. They were already worrying conservative Europe in the 18th century, when the French Revolution came along. A French priest in exile in London called Augustine Barruel wrote a book blaming it all on the Freemasons. That really fired the starting gun on the conspiracy theories.

From that point onwards, anti-Masonry became a feature of almost all rightwing thinking. The idea of a Masonic conspiracy – an infiltrating power hidden in the lodges, some weird Magus or homunculus pulling all the strings – became the template for a new incarnation of anti-Semitism based on the idea of an obscure financial elite controlling everything. As the two began to merge, the idea of the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy emerged, which Hitler talks about in Mein Kampf. Hitler was prepared to turn his anti-Masonry on and off as suited his political purposes, and his political purposes were fundamentally anti-Semitic. Targeting the Masons also gave a socialistic flavour to his ideas when he needed it, because it seemed like he was sticking it to a bourgeois cabal.

Very few people know about Franco’s persecution of the Freemasons, which was astonishingly paranoid. During the Spanish Civil War, his people massacred Masons out of hand. It’s thought there were probably about 5,000 in Spain before the civil war. By the time it had ended, so many had gone into exile or been killed, that number had dropped to less than 1,000. This persecution went on into the ‘60s and ‘70s. There was a special tribunal set up to try Masons, and the minimum sentence was 12 years and a day. Franco’s great archive in Salamanca had index cards for 80,000 suspected Brothers. And this whole repressive machine was driven by the same old fantasy – of an endlessly resourceful, invisible Masonic conspiracy.

What about Freemasonry’s relationship with the church?

For most of the 19th century, the official policy of the Catholic church was that Freemasons had caused the ills of the modern world through a demonic conspiracy. The papacy couldn’t see their rituals and code of religious tolerance as anything other than heretical.

Taxil said he’d witnessed satanic goings on, and seen the devil himself in Masonic lodges. He claimed to have been party to a Masonic conspiracy led by chain-smoking lesbians

One peculiar incident that highlights the deep level of distrust is the Taxil hoax. In the 1880s, the Catholic church was locked in a culture war with the forces of secularisation. The church saw this as the rise of Satan and blamed the Freemasons. In this context, a man called Leo Taxil, who had been fervently anti-Catholic, converted and declared that he was a former Freemason who’d witnessed satanic goings-on and that he’d even seen the devil manifest himself in lodges. He claimed to have unmasked a Masonic conspiracy led by chain-smoking lesbians (bizarrely, Masonic conspiracies often end up with women at their head). Taxil went on to write reams of ever more far-fetched material and gained massive support from the Catholic church hierarchy until, 12 years later, he declared the entire thing had been a hoax.

Has Freemasonry adapted well to changing times?

Yes, in that its most successful era was probably the mid-20th century. I think the peak was in 1959 in the United States, when there were more than 4 million members. If you were white, American and middle class, you were fairly likely to be a Freemason.

I don’t think they are likely to die out anytime soon, but they are now a largely greying organisation. I think in order to sustain themselves, they do need to reflect on what their success was built on. The picture of the classic Freemason in 1950s America was the guy who drives back from the office to find his dinner prepared for him and then heads out for an evening at the lodge, leaving his wife behind to polish the floor. You just can’t live like that anymore. But there are some signs of moving forward. For example, French Freemasons recently admitted women to the Grand Orient. Interestingly, it was a trans woman who first broke the mould.

Why do you think it’s important to understand Masonic history?

The sheer scale of its reach, to start with. Freemasonry has proven to be extraordinarily contagious. That model, of organising yourself into a brotherhood with rituals, symbols and so on, helped give rise to things as diverse as the Sicilian Mafia and the Mormon church.

I’m also intrigued by anybody who believes in the great Enlightenment ideals of tolerance, reason, cosmopolitanism and the equality of rights. We need to understand the history of those ideas and how they’ve been put into practice. I think of Freemasonry and its different manifestations as a kind of tragicomedy of those Enlightenment values, brought into very sharp focus. It makes us think about how hard it is to live out our ideals and what it can take to achieve that.

The Craft: How Freemasons Made The Modern World (Hodder & Stoghton) is out now. John Dickie is professor of Italian studies at UCL. His books include Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia (Hodder and Stoughton, 2004), and Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and Their Food (Free Press, 2007). John has written and presented a number of historical TV documentaries. His website is johndickie.net.

Listen to an extended version of this interview with John Dickie on the HistoryExtra podcast

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This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine