Freemasonry: Its Properties and Scope of Activities

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard B. Spence Ph.D., University of Idaho

Freemasonry originally started with real stonemasons. But over time, other members were initiated who belonged to higher classes, aristocracy, and even royalty. Why did this happen?

Gold seal and sealing wax in red marking a sealed envelope with the symbol of the Freemasonry.
The members were wealthy and powerful men from the upper-class.
(Image: Angel Soler Gollonet/Shutterstock)

The Varied Members of Freemasonry

British Masonry became known to the public in 1717. It kept expanding to 1000 lodges by the 1860s, 2000 by the 1880s, and 3000 by the early 20th century. In 1900, the number of British Freemasons was 250,000. But, compared to the population of nearly 40 million, it was just a small fraction. The members were wealthy and powerful men from the upper-class. The Grand Lodge of England did not consider all other lodges legitimate. Therefore, the irregular lodges attracted moral and political rebels like the occultist Aleister Crowley, once known as the ‘wickedest man in the world’. He was connected to esoteric organizations like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis, or OTO, which had Masonic origins. However, the Grand Lodge declared that Crowley didn’t have any associations with the lodge.

Learn more about Secret societies: the underworld of history.

Freemasonry and Theosophy

A clandestine branch that initiated both men and women was Co-Masonry. Its first signs appeared in the 18th century in some French lodges. However, it was appropriated by English occultists linked to the Theosophical Society. As the inspiring force of what we call today the New Age movement, theosophy tried to bring together western and eastern mysticism and form a universal occult doctrine.

Theosophy was characterized by spiritual enlightenment, with some members seeking political goals. For instance, the Englishwoman Annie Besant changed Co-Masonry into an extension of theosophy. She was a radical socialist who later became interested in Communism and Indian nationalism.

Politics and Freemasonry

The lodge officially banned politics, but avoiding politics was not practically possible. Masonic lodges provided a perfect environment for political conspiracy. A good example is the French Freemasonry, which created and inspired many continental lodges. Originally set up by British merchants in Dunkirk in 1721, it had English roots.

The portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, 1778.
Benjamin Franklin was the Initiate of a Masonic lodge called ‘Nine Sisters’. (Image: Joseph Duplessis/Public domain)

However, the French Masons founded a new Grand Lodge, the Grand Orient de France, in 1773. Inspired by radical ideas of the Enlightenment, the lodge nurtured revolutionary ideas. While it had English Freemasonry as its roots, it influenced lodges in Italy, Germany, Turkey, and Russia regarding those radical views. Not surprisingly, one of the mottos of the French Revolution was Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity: which was originally a motto of the Grand Orient.

The strongest radical views belonged to a Parisian lodge called ‘Nine Sisters’. It was founded in 1776, the same year the Bavarian Illuminati was formed, and the American Revolution began. The most celebrated initiates of this lodge include Benjamin Franklin, the American revolutionist, and his friend, Voltaire, who was an anti-religious philosopher. A lot of people who had a decisive role in the French Revolution were the initiates of ‘Nine Sisters’.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Religion and Freemasonry

Many people believed that Freemasonry promoted dangerous ideas. They had a point, while of course, exaggerating. The most significant opponent of the Freemasons was the papacy. The first decree against Freemasonry was issued by Pope Clement XII in 1738. He banned Freemasonry as they created doubt in the minds of righteous men. According to the Pope, their obsession with secrecy was a sign of their evil nature and actions.

In an attempt to mount anti-masonic propaganda, the Catholic Church created a hoax called the Taxil Hoax in the 1890s. A journalist, ex-Freemason called Joseph Jogand-Pages combined Freemasonry and Satanism to take advantage of the public anxiety. He wrote sensational books under the names of Leo Taxil and Dr. Bataille. In his books, like The Mysteries of Freemasonry and the Devil, he depicted Freemasonry run by a satanic cult, the Palladian in Charleston, South Carolina. The head of the cult was the American Freemason Albert Pike, and the masonic high-priestess was Diana Vaughan. She was a descendant of Thomas Vaughan, the 17th-century British alchemist, and Rosicrucian. In 1897, he declared that the whole story was a hoax, but there are still people who believe the story was true.

This is primarily because Freemasonry isn’t one thing but many. So, when people cannot find an explanation for something, they try to fabricate things and believe them. 

Learn more about Masonic revolutions in America and France.

Common Questions about Freemasonry: Its Properties and Scope of Activities

Q: What was Co-Masonry?

Co-Masonry was a clandestine Masonic lodge that admitted both men and women. It was appropriated by English occultists linked to Theosophical Society.

Q: Why was Freemasonry banned by the Catholic Church?

Pope Clement XII banned Freemasonry as they created doubt in the minds of righteous men. According to the Pope, their obsession with secrecy was a sign of their evil nature and actions.

Q: Was Benjamin Franklin a Freemason?

Benjamin Franklin was a member of a Parisian lodge called ‘Nine Sisters’. His friend and French philosopher, Voltaire, was also a member.

Q: Was Freemasonry involved in politics?

There are many signs that Freemasons were involved in politics. For example, one of the French Revolution’s mottos was Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. This was also the motto of the Grand Orient de France, the new Grand Lodge founded by the French Masons in 1773.

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