Reprinted 27th August, 2004 – CANMAS
The development of the “accepted” mason within the Worshipful Company of Freemasons in the City of London is a curious stage in the progression from artisan guild toward voluntary philosophical society. While the paucity of historical records covering this transitional period has encouraged wild conjecture from certain writers, in fact there is sufficient archival information pertaining to Masonic evolution to accurately discuss and assess the significance of the “Accepteds” within the London Company.[i]
The roots of modern Speculative Freemasonry began with the 17th century acception of non-artisan members into the London trade guild, and tracing and assessing this development offers insights into Masonic history.
Although very few contemporary English associations and organizations of the late Reformation period maintained and preserved written archives for posterity, and Masonic records pertaining to the introduction of “accepted masons” is limited, we are fortunate the introduction, or “acception,” of non-operatives into English and Scottish Masonic circles was contemporaneous. We can therefore draw upon Scottish records for certain perspectives into the evolution of Masonry.[ii]
It is therefore worthwhile to discuss the development of “accepted” masons in both countries, noting the similarities and distinctions.
The Worshipful Company in London was established as a trade guild in late medieval England. It was preoccupied with trade rights, regulation and protection. As did other contemporary guilds, it allowed non-operative members, most often the caveat being a direct and immediate family relationship (e.g. father-son) as the basis for such membership. Membership could be lucrative to non-members, even after paying extra surcharges, because of significant social and economic benefits strong guilds offered.
Non-operative memberships remained rare and infrequent into the 17th century. Indeed, the Worshipful Company of Freemasons in the City of London remained an emphatic artisans guild preoccupied with matters of trade through until the early 1700’s. However, as the 17th century progressed non-operatives, many without familial ties to the guild, were recruited into the Company in increasing numbers. The majority of these new “accepted” masons was from the emerging English gentry, and did not join as members of a particular class or estate, or because of religious or political affiliation. [iii] Over the course of the 17th century these non-operative members became recognized as “Accepted” Masons.
Both operative and accepted recruits were initiated through the use of similar, relatively elaborate rituals.[iv] Documents show these rituals became uniform and consistent by 1619, featured language describing the “making of masons” by 1620-21, and the recognized the distinctive “acception” of members by 1630. Archival records list regular “acception” meetings and banquets occurring in 1645-7 and 1649-50.[v] These assemblies became more sporadic with the resumption of tensions and upheaval of the English Civil War. This infrequent documentation and its changing nomenclature has encouraged dispute, and alone does not conclusively elaborate on the intermediary stage between operative guild and speculative society. [vi]
The ritual of “accepted” membership might have been wholly ceremonial, the purpose being little more than a festive celebration leading to the conveyance of social benefits and privileges. As “acception” ceremonies, banquets and feasts became more infrequent as the sixteenth century progressed it is difficult to conclude accepted masons played a significant role within the Worshipful Company. Moreover, since English non-operatives had little recorded interaction with their artisan brethren beyond the ceremony of initiation, it would appear they were gentlemen creating convivial banquets and gatherings strictly for the social exercise.
What can be ascertained from these records is that “accepted” masons formed a distinct body apart from their operative cousins in the London Company. In spite of sharing similar initiation rituals, artisans were required to undergo a second ceremony prior to induction as “accepted” masons. Moreover, although the trade-conscious London Company retained ultimate authority over both organizations, membership in the accepted cell was not automatically open to the operatives: it required approval. Moreover, membership selection was not necessarily a matter of eminence within the trade guild: only a few operative masons were extended membership in the accepted body. These restrictions placed on artisan masons offer strong evidence that the “accepted” body comprised a distinct cell within the Worshipful Company.[vii]
This is markedly different from the Scottish experience. In Edinburgh the “acception” of non-operatives occurred in a wholly separate, parallel organization with which artisans could easily affiliate.[viii] Apprentices, journeymen and guild masters were all eligible to join the non-operative body, which in fact performed the rituals of initiation and transmitted the Masonic secrets and modes of recognition. [ix] Both Scottish artisans and non-tradesmen were eligible for the same two grades of membership, whereas the London Company offered one grade to its “accepted” members.
Moreover, surviving Scottish evidence documents stronger participatory roles of non-operatives within operative lodges. In Scotland, non-operatives engaged alongside their operative brethren in ceremonial rituals and liturgy, and frequently held organized meetings using established membership lists. So closely connected were operatives and non-operatives that the term “accepted” was not even used to distinguish between the two: in Scotland, the term lacks the historical context it has in England.[x] The contrasting practices illustrate the difference between Scottish and English masonry particularly as it concerned non-operative, or accepted masons
Nor is it altogether certain English ceremonies and banquets of “acception” can be read to connote “lodge,” whereas in Scotland the term began usage in the modern Masonic context with the passage of the Schaw Statutes of 1598 and 1599. Whereas in Scotland the word “lodge” referred to a regular and formal institutional meeting, in England the word implied a festive ceremony and banquet, possibly featuring initiations. This would explain why certain lodges such as the one at Warrington, where antiquarian Elias Ashmole was initiated as an accepted Mason, have no further documentary evidence attesting to their existence. Conducting a purely ceremonial and festive function precluded the requirement of records. [xi] There are scant records detailing the role “Accepteds” within the London Company much further. Documents dated 1663 list “the names of the Accepted Masons in a faire enclosed frame with lock and key” among other important papers.[xii]
In 1676 the Company referred to the Old Charges as the constitution of “accepted masons,” and reported the following year all monies collected from “the last accepted Masons” had been spent.[xiii] This marks the final entry discussing “accepted masons” within the minutes of the London Company.
In 1682 Elias Ashmole further recorded attending a “lodge” at the London Masonic Hall in his diary. On 10 March he had received a Summons to appeare at a Lodge to be held the next day, at Masons Hall in London.. Accordingly I went, and about Noone were admitted into the Fellowship of Free Masons. [xiv]
Ashmole’s entry is remarkable on two counts: first, it offers the first categorical use of the word “lodge” in a social, non-operative context in England. Second it suggests that, having gained its autonomy from the London Company following the Guild’s reorganization of 1677, the Accepteds made a last desperate effort to maintain their social ceremonies and functions.[xv] However, the irregular ad hoc nature of the Accepted entity seems to have been the downfall of the body, and there are no further records of its existence. The culmination of the English Civil War, particularly the conclusive finality of the 1689 “Glorious Revolution,” produced an upsurge in the number of civil societies and voluntary associations across England.[xvi] By the end of the 18th century as many as 25 000 different clubs and organizations flourished across England and its colonial possessions.
This was not a new phenomenon: England had a rich legacy of fraternities and religious associations dating back to the late medieval period upon which to draw. Estimates suggest upwards of 30 000 clubs and sodalities existed during the 14th and 15th centuries, with London proper supporting 200 different fellowships.[xvii]
The rise of the “accepted” Masons within the London Company of Freemasons, and the introduction of non-operatives in the northern Scottish lodges, was the consequence of this legacy. From the extraordinary practice of admitting non-operatives to the irregular acceptance of them by 1620’s, “made” or “accepted” masons emerged from being a distinct cell in the London artisans guild and evolved into an independent entity that proved incapable of survival. The relatively quick collapse following independence from the London Company was likely a consequence of being an unstructured organization that infrequently assembled, and only then primarily for festive purposes.
Theirs was a small, and relatively insignificant role in the transformation from artisan guild into a voluntary association espousing philosophical and moral instruction, a transformation that occurred progressively over the course of the 17th century and into the 18th. The modern Fraternity founded in 1717 was built on the Scottish organizational model: the legacy of the Accepted Masons of the London Company was limited to name.
by James O’Halloran, PM
[i] Peter Clark, “British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World,” 9-10, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001. Among those writing sheer conjecture, most notably Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas (“The Hiram Key,” “The Second Messiah,” and “Book of Hiram”), and Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (“The Temple and the Lodge”) have done great disservice to genuine research into early Masonic history.
[ii] David Stevenson, “The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century, 1590-1710,” 216-217, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003.
[iii] Margaret Jacobs, “Living the Enlightenment, Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth Century Europe, ” 20, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994.
[iv] Stevenson 217.
[v] Stevenson 217.
[vi] Stevenson 218. For controversy over the meaning of “acception,” see E. Condor, “The Masons Company of the City of London and Lodge of Accepted Masons connected with it,” AQC, 9 (1896) and H. Carr, “600 Years of Craft Ritual,” AQC 81, (1968).
[vii] Stevenson 218.
[viii] Stevenson 218.
[ix] Stevenson 218.
[x] Stevenson 219.
[xi] Stevenson 220.
[xii] Stevenson 218.
[xiii] Stevenson 218.
[xiv] Stevenson 221.
[xv] Stevenson 218.
[xvi] Clark 2.
[xvii] Clark 20.