The Great Schism of Antients and Moderns

Newly-made members of the Craft might not be familiar with that troubled period in the 1700s referred to by Masons as “The Great Schism”. At that time there occurred a deep division within the fraternity into opposing factions given the names of “The Moderns” and “The Ancients”. The subject has renewed pertinence because there are many concerned Masons on this continent, and right here in this jurisdiction of Alberta, who point to trends in our conduct and activities today that, if unchecked, could lead to a second or North American “Great Schism”. In other words, they feel that unless we are alert to the symptoms, we may find Masonic history recurring. For it is a commonly accepted truism, that if we fail to heed the lessons of history, we may find ourselves obliged to repeat them.

To correctly summarize the events leading to the “Great Schism” and their consequences is no small challenge in itself. No less an author than Joseph Fort Newton found that the series of schisms within the Order which began in 1725 comprise a very complex period, and often prove both confusing and bewil­dering. (1) Certain myths and errors were long perpetuated and went largely unchallenged until more recent research put them to rest. Historian H. L. Haywood stated that the full facts, and hence their full significance, were not discovered until about 1900. Therefore, he warns, one must be wary of authorities relying on information prior to this date. (2)

Our starting point in these matters is the formation of the First Grand Lodge in London in 1717 and the publication of Anderson's Constitutions shortly thereafter. It is well that we note that the founding of a Grand Lodge was not n any way out of step with established usage and custom for the time. It was not a sudden and arbitrary act dreamed up by a few enthusiasts, thereby leaving themselves open to accusation that they introduced innovation from the very

Newton stressed that “nothing is clearer than that the initiative came from the heart of the order itself, and was in no sense imposed upon it from without . . . ” (3) He stated that the organization of the Grand Lodge, far from being an innovation ­much less a revolution - was simply a revival of older and well-established practices of quarterly and annual assembly, and he quoted Anderson of Constitutions fame to support his case “. . . 'it should meet Quarterly according to ancient Usage', tradition having by this time become authoritative in such matters. ” (4)

Going back even further, Haywood stated that prior to about 1400's it was established custom for groups of Masons to gather and constitute themselves a local Lodge to deal with a particular situation; say, building a church or manor house; and then to disband when their business had been concluded. It was only in the 1400s that in a few centers permanent Lodges, rather than just temporary, began to appear, with written charters. In the same manner the periodic assemblies of Lodges into a “Grand Lodge” evolved naturally into a perimnent General Assembly in 1717 when it was found to be of some benefit. (5)

Then as now, changes were indeed taking place with the march of civilization. But it is well to note that the changes were designed to reinforce timeless objectives, rather than to weaken them by the introduction of shallow and abstracting, and potentially dangerous, innovations.

In view of the later divisions within the Craft, it is perhaps worth noting the social status of the first Grand Lodge Officers. The incumbants of the offices of the first Grand Master and his two Wardens were described as simply “a gentleman, a carpenter, and a captain. ” According to Newton, beyond these three there is no record of the other individuals concerned. Nevertheless, we do know that, far from being an aristocratic body, the first Grand Lodge was democratic in the broadest sense. “. . . of the four Lodges known to have taken part (in its formation), only one - that meeting at the Rununer and Grape Tavern - had a majority of Accepted Masons in its membership; the other three being Operative Lodges, or largely so. ” (6)

It was stated, however, that the first Grand Master was to preside “. . . . 'till they should have the Honour of a Noble Brother at their Head. (7) Haywood noted that the desire to have a “Noble Brother” at their head was not an act of snobbery but followed the custom of societies in the nation to have a sponsor of the ruling class to act as spokesman in high places. (In fact, about a hundred years later Queen Victoria herself was to be the Royal Sponsor of Freemasonry. ) Nevertheless, herein lay the seed for future dissent!

As a handy reference for this period, The Pocket History of Freemasonry by Pick and Knight lacks the exhaustive detail of a more thorough volume of serious research. There is just not the space for hair-splitting argument and following up every clue and innuendo. At the same time, by its very brevity, this reference quickly sorts out the wheat from the chaff and underlines the key historical points. In discussing the causes of the “Great Schism”, it states “These can be found partly in the slackness and weak administration of the original governing body at this time . . . and partly in certain changes in custom and ritual which had been made, some deliberately. (8) Now, that might have been the understatement of the year, for those changes in custom and ritual were of such fundamental importance as to split the Craft asunder.

It all began in London when a member of the British aristocracy was chosen Grand Master. On the surface this appears to have been not unusual and perhaps harmless, but as things were in British society at this time, a chain of consequences was thereby set up. The Grand Master, chosen from the nobility, naturally associated with his class equals and tended to fill his appointments to Grand Lodge with aristocrats.

The class structure of society was so inflexible at that time, that no man would set aside the rights and prerogatives of his nobility even as a Grand Master. (9) Discrimination on grounds of colour or race was less important than discrimination on grounds of rank. The end result was that “. . . the whole system of British aristocracy was imported into the Fraternity. ”(10) The introduction of that innovation led to further innovation. (By the way, the term “inovation” might encompass today many of those things some Brethren refer to as “gimmicks” and “novelties”. )

Newton wrote that . . . there was a fear, not unjustified by facts, that the ancient democracy of the order had been infringed upon by certain acts of the Grand Lodge of 1717 … giving to the Grand Master power to appoint the Wardens…

Nor was that all. In 1735 it was resolved in the Grand Lodge “that in the future all Grand Officers (except Grand Master) shall be selected out of that body” - meaning the Past Grand Stewards. This act was amazing. Already the Craft had let go its power to elect the wardens, and now the choice of the Grand Master was narrowed to the ranks of an oligarchy in its worst form - a queer outcome of Masonic equality. (11)

The Craft had been captured by a special-interest group, who introduced more innovation tailored to suit their own needs!

Pick and Knight refer to an abuse in the form of the illegal sale of constitutions by Lodges operating under the guidance of these innovators. They cite the example of a certain George Lodge, then No. 3, who saw fit to sell their regalia and “… Warrant for thirty guineas to 'some HonourableGentlemen Newly Made'. ” (12) a group whose membership appears to have been heavily larded with members of the aristocracy. Another evident bias toward the nobility is revealed by the action of the Committee of Charity which was charged with looking into this irregularity. Far from correcting the abuse, the Committee saw fit to legalize it with their ruling that “ -. . as a mark of high respect to his Grace the Duke of Beaufort and the other Noblemen and Honourable Gentlemen who meet under the name of the Lodge of Friendship … the constitution of No. 3 should remain with them … ” (13)

It is also noteworthy that a minority seemed to have an influence in other ways out of proportion to its numbers. Pick and Knight state that one of those “Honourable Gentlemen Newly Made” who purchased the Warrant for the new Lodge named Friendship - one Thomas French - was appointed Grand Secretary a short year after. A later examination of the records revealed that over a certain period, out of 20 Grand Wardens recently appointed, no fewer than 13 had come from the ranks of this same Lodge of Friendship. ”(14)

These examples notwithstanding, Haywood's writings wade more boldly into the controversy by avoiding hang-ups over details while concentrating on the fundamental trends and on what he sees as their inevitable results: a deep split in the Craft between the innovators who came to be called “The Moderns” and a faction who wished to preserve our tenets and principles pure and unimpaired, calling themselves “The Ancients”.

If any one individual stands out above the rest in the ensuing struggle, it would be the champion of the Ancients, Laurence Dermott, who was Grand Secretary of the Ancients from 1752 to 1771; approximately twenty years.

The History Of Masonry And Concordant Orders asserts that Dermott, more than any other, seemed to have been the moving spirit in sustaining this great schism. (15) As might be expected, Dermott “… has been severely criticized by his opponents, and Laurie charges him with unfairness in his proceedings against the Moderns, with treating them bitterly, with quackery, with being vainglorious of his own pretensions to superior knowledge. (16)

Dr. Mackey, in his History Of Freemasonry, would seem to have partially agreed when he said “… I am afraid there is much truth in this estimate of Dermott's character. As a polemic, he was sarcastic, bitter, uncompromising, and not altogether sincere and veracious … (17) (Dr. Mackey's writings, it might be pointed out, appeared well before the turn of the century and therefore, according to Haywood, are suspect. ) If Mackey erred in his judgment of Dermott, he was in good company. No less a Masonic writer than R. F. Gould dismissed the man as little more than a house painter with little education. (18) But Haywood tells us that these descriptions were ill-considered, to say the least, ” … because almost nothing was even known about Dermott when Gould wrote his history. (19)

This writer cannot help but comment that any individual who today rises to defend the Craft against innovations and gimmicks risks attack by those who would hope to “modernize” the Order and change it to suit their own tastes. This is as true now as it was then! One may even suggest that Dermott's opponents were increasingly incensed as they gradually came to realize the “awful truth” that he was, after all, right!

Let us return to the exact words of Haywood based on the more recent evidence.

Dermott was what Eighteenth Century men called a genius, a small class of great men of which Christopher Wren and William Shakespeare were more famous specimens . . . He had many talents, and they were of high excellence; he was a learned man (he could read Ancient Hebrew), a forceful and even powerful writer as is proved by the Book of Constitutions which he wrote, a singer, an after-dinner speaker to hear whom men drove many miles, an organizer and administrator, a driving, daring, bold, tireless, ingenious, inventive, undiscouragable character, who withal had a great and an almost instinctive understanding of Freemasonry. Who were the greatest Masons (and as Masons) of that century? Desaguliers? Preston? The Duke of Sussex? Thomas Smith Webb? If so Dermott belongs to the list because he ranks second in achievement to none of these names. (20)

Would that we had a Masonic leader of such stature today!

Leaving the matter of personalities, let us return to the abuses that led to the Great Schism. The results of introducing the innovations, according to Haywood, are briefly as follows:

They gave rise to attacks on the Masonic hierarchy by the lower classes because they identified the Craft with the special-interest group: the aristocracy. In reaction, the Grand Lodge curtailed its activities; withdrew from public exposure; kept a low profile; made alterations in its modes of recognition; permitted changes and emasculation of the ritual; tolerated the lapse of the dignified ceremonies of Grand Lodge installations; and generally diverted the objectives and activities of the Craft from its time-honoured purpose.

The cumulative result was the chasm opening between Masons of the so-called “upper classes” and those of the “lower classes”, a division down the middle between the majority in the Craft and the minority of the special-interest group.

This “Great Schism” lasted some forty years while pressures built up against the innovations. The emasculation of the ritual meant a consequent lowering of its dignity, if nothing else. But Haywood said this had more fundamental import. In his words,

A Newly Made Mason ought to note that any question about the Ritual is a question of what Freemasonry is or is not, because in one form or another, directly or by implication, literally or symbolically, the Ritual is a series of statements about what it is to be a Mason, it is the means by which a Lodge “makes” a Mason. To omit something from the Ritual is to omit it from Freemasonry. (21)

When the Masonic offices were filled with aristocrats, the Lodges came to serve only the narrow considerations of a special-interest group. Many Lodges ceased to be Lodges and became purely social clubs, and the Freemasonry was replaced entirely with light-hearted conviviality. (22)

The situation seemed to come to a head with the great Irish potato famines, which saw some two to three million Irish migrating into England and other lands. Among the migrants to England were many good Masons who, on wishing to affiliate as was their right, found themselves blocked by those people who seemed to have captured much of the Craft. When they sought to visit they were turned back at the door and the reason why they were turned back was made abundantly clear, when they were told that too many of them were carpenters, plumbers, stone-masons, teamsters, and similar members of the lower classes. “These gentlemen were wearing a workingman's leather apron … (and yet) could detect no self-contradiction in their refusing to sit with Masons in a Masonic Lodge if a Mason was a carpenter. Jesus of Nazareth could not have visited auch a Lodge. This snobbishness was an extraordinary and fateful result of the 'modernizing' of the Fraternity which was being made. ” (23)

At this point it should suffice to relate that the immigrant Masons formed their own Lodges outside of the Grand Lodge of London. Meantime, to quote Haywood,

During this same period a number of Lodges on the List of the Grand Lodge at London . . . became so resentful at this new exclusiveness, and so violently disapproved of the innovations of which the Grand Lodge had become guilty, that they began to withdraw from it, and did so in such number that at a later time some 135 of them had been counted. By the end of the decade of 1740-1750 A. D. , where one Irish Mason withdrew himself from the Grand Lodge at London, ten English Masons had done so. Along with them, and agreeing with them, were a hundred or so independent regular Lodges (called St. John's Lodges), which had never been on the Grand Lodge's Lists. This refusal to recognize the so-called “modernizing” of Freemasonry reached such a pitch at the last that the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland withdrew recognition from the Grand Lodge at London. (24)

The struggle ensued for some two generations. With the Grand Lodges facing eye-ball-to-eye-ball for over forty-five years, it was the innovators who appear to have blinked first. In 1789 the Moderns were moved to appoint a committee, which was to approach their rivals to see if they could achieve a reconciliation. But reconciliation was slow to come. Feelings had been running so high that members of one faction were forbidden even to visit Lodges of the other. (25)

Nevertheless, despite efforts to lock out rivals, there continued to be a certain flow of traffic across the picket lines from one body to the other. Indeed, Pick and Knight (26) state that there were even cases of Brethren belonging to both the Moderns and the Ancients at the same time. This is not to say that they saw no grounds for dispute. It is at least arguable that they understood the situation quite clearly but hoped to help bring about a remedy by working from within.

Things moved to a conclusion in 1809 when the Moderns Grand Lodge apparently took a second look at what they had done and resolved that “It is not necessary any longer to continue in force those

Measures which were resorted to in or about 1739 respecting irregular Masons and do therefore enjoin the several Lodges to revert to the Ancient Land Marks of the Society. (27)

In 1810 the Ancients found it possible to make the following resolution: “. . . . a Masonic Union on principles equal and honourable to both Grand Lodges, and preserving the Land Marks of the Ancient Craft, would be … expedient and advantageous to both. (28)

This, briefly, is what has been recorded as “The Great Schism” in Craft Masonry: the period in which a minority in the Craft imposed upon the majority the innovations of class distinction, exclusiveness, restriction of Masonic offices, emasculation of the Ritual, replacement of Masonic teachings with purely social functions, etc. , and until the majority could bring about a return to the fundamental objectives of the Order.

In this writer's view, a clear lesson emerges. the lesson is this: innovations did occur, but correction was made and unity re-established when men of high principle and, indeed, whole Lodges stood up to be counted and demanded an end to tampering with the principles, practices and objectives of the Craft.

Historian Haywood described changes which were introduced into Freemasonry in the 17th century that led to the “Great Schism”: (29)

  1. The Craft was divided by the introduction of innovations.

  2. The image of Masonry was changed in the eyes of the public.

  3. The forms and customs were altered; the ritual was emasculated; the Craft objectives were diverted.

  4. The Lodges were changed into something they were never intended to be: straight social clubs.

  5. A minority special-interest group, the aristocracy, came to dominate much of the Craft.


1. Newton, The Builders, p. 198

2. Haywood, The Newly-Made Mason, p. 40

3 Newton, op. cit. , p. 172

4 Ibid., p. 170

5 Haywood, op. cit. , pp. 27 & 28

6 Newton,

7 Haywood, op. cit.

8 Pick and Knight, The Pocket History of Freemasonry, p. 102

9 Haywood, p. 31

10 Ibid.

11 Newton, ___

12 Pick and Knight, p. 113.

13 Pick and Knight, p. 11418 Haywood, op. cit. ,p. 40

14 Ibid. ,p. 113, footnote 19 Loc. cit,

15 History of Masonry and Concordant Orders, p. 554

16 Loc. cit.

17 Loc. cit. (quoting Mackey)

20 Haywood, p. 40

21 Ibid. , p. 41

22 Ibid. , p. 33

23 Haywood, op. cit. , p. 37

24 Loc. ci t .

25 Pick and Knight, p. 109, p. 122

26 Loc. cit. 28 ibid.

Source: an essay by Bro. William Neil Love, P. G. M. , Grand Lodge of Alberta, dated may 21, 1983. In Part 2 of his essay, Bro. Love applied the lessons of this history to what he saw as undue dilution and change being pushed by well-meaning brethren placing undue status upon appendant bodies of Masonry. You may read his entire essay as posted by his home lodge in Alberta or on the MasonicWorld. com site. The aim of the current redaction is greater legibility of the first part of the essay.
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