The introductory history of The Freemasons

“A Brief History of the Freemasons” by Jasper Ridley

For a topic as shady as a secret society, a book needs to be super clear between facts, myths, and false stigmas, and should be able to present them all in a narrative that is clean and concise. This book just barely live up to that standard. In fact, it actually provides more [unnecessary] details that makes the puddle even muddier.

The book doesn’t feel like the history of the Freemasons per se, but rather the historical context of European politics during which the Freemasons were born, developed, and then rose to prominent. And the real history of the Freemasons themselves is scattered all over the narrative, and often appear with unnecessary revelation. Such as a whole series of mini-biographies of people’s activities that had nothing to do with Freemasonry, but with an ending of something like “he was a Freemason.” Or worse, after a long story it turns out that “he was not a freemason” after all.

Perhaps more disappointing for me, the book doesn’t really address all the hand gestures and the secretive rituals that they are infamous for. It doesn’t reveal when and why they build the lodges for, they just somehow appear in the story with no further elaboration. Or most importantly, the book doesn’t specify the main objectives of the existence of the Freemasons, or whether they are a centralised organisation with a leader on top or more like a franchise with regional bosses.

Although to be fair, in chapter 17 the book cited Dr. Eduard Emil Eckert’s book “The Order of Freemasons” that shows that the aim of the Freemasons is to overthrow the established religion and government in every country in the world (a bombastic statement that was cited without further explanation! A common thing for this book).

But I digress. I normally avoid these kind of books, because there cannot be a complete historical account about an organisation or society that remains secretive in nature. Not unless it is written by a former member or a whistleblower. But yet I still pick up this book, because in the old map of the old part of my city Jakarta, there are numerous buildings that were once blatantly named Freemasons Lodge. And I thought that I could pick up any background materials from this book, before I visit these places myself. For this purpose, this book provides me with the bare minimum.

The Freemasons were originally stone masons, builders of bridges and castles, that started off their organisation as a group of illegal trade union. They all accepted the doctrines of the Catholic Church, during the great battle between Vatican and the Protestant movements. But the organization then transformed between 1550 and 1700 to become an organisation of intellectual gentlemen who favoured religious tolerance and the simple thinking that a belief in God should replace theological doctrines. This, and their eventual meddling on politics, made them increasingly become the target of scrutiny and scapegoating (which, according to the book may or may not be justified).

Benjamin Franklin was a Freemason. Winston Churchill was a non-active member. Kemal Ataturk was a Freemason. Russia’s Peter the Great may or may not joined the Freemasons. Brazil’s Emperor Pedro I, Captain James Cook, Dr. Joseph Guillotin (the inventor of the Guillotine), General Douglas MacArthur were all a Freemason. 15 of the 41 US President (at the time of the writing) have been Freemasons. Some of the Cardinals in the Vatican were Freemasons. Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Alexander Flemming, and many more famous people were all Freemasons, while Mozart was very interested in Freemasonry, where 8 of his compositions had some connection with the subject.

What does this all tell us? Without the much-needed elaboration, absolutely nothing significant. Which makes this book feels like only touching the surface of a potentially revelationary findings. More readings are definitely required, but for an introduction I guess this book is suffice.