Did Freemasonry Really Begin in 1717?

Over the course of the past few years, a debate has been raging amongst Masonic scholars about the actual year of the fraternity’s inception. While it is widely agreed that 1717 is the year of ‘the revival,’ recent academic debate has brought this fact into question.

1717 is undeniably an important date for Freemasonry, as it is the year in which the first Grand Lodge in London, England, was formed. This is perhaps why many people accept the fact that Freemasonry must have been formally established in the same year.

That would mean, then, that Freemasonry has been part of the fabric of society for more than three hundred years. Still, recently scholars have been disputing this claim and suggesting that Freemasonry came into being at a different time altogether.

Did Freemasonry Really Begin in 1717

According to Dr. Susan Mitchell Sommers, General Editor of the Journal for Research into Freemasonry & Fraternity, and Dr. Andrew Prescott of the University of Glasgow, the year of Freemasonry’s inception was actually four years later, in 1721. That would make this year the 300th anniversary, and not 2017 as was initially thought.

Dr. Prescott certainly chose his timing, as he announced this during the Tercentenary Conference Celebrating 300 years of Freemasonry at Cambridge University in 2017.

It appears that Dr. Prescott takes this assertion from the uncertainty of an account entitled Constitutions of the Free-Masons that was edited by James Anderson in the early eighteenth century.

In Anderson’s publication, he claimed that four Masonic lodges from London met in 1716 at the Apple Tree Tavern in Charles Street, close to Covent Garden. During this meeting, they agreed to revive the annual feast and met the following year at the Goose and Gridiron to elect a Grand Master.

Dr. Prescott is concerned that Anderson’s 1738 publication is the only trusted account of the foundation of the grand lodge, and therein lies the problem. It concerns Prescott that Anderson didn’t mention the event in his 1723 publication, and it simply came out of the blue in 1738.

Dr. Sommers agrees that the practice of accepting Anderson’s publication as the only source is short-sighted, as she believes that many of the sources that Anderson himself drew upon are problematic and shouldn’t be accepted without discussion.

Sommers takes an issue with the fact that Anderson is not accurate with his commentary of historical events and suggests that without corroborating evidence, Anderson’s publication must be dismissed, and we must search for other historical documents that articulate the inception of Freemasonry.

Back to Prescott, he believes that 1721 is more likely to be the accurate date of the birth of Freemasonry because of the initiation of one William Stukeley at The Salutation Tavern in London. According to Prescott, his initiation was the first in London, and it was reported that it was challenging to gather together enough Freemasons to participate in the ceremony.

To him, this indicates that, due to the proximity between the Tavern and the site of the formation of The Grand Lodge, it’s implausible the lodge was formed four years earlier, as there should have been no issue with having Masons attend the ceremony.

While you might think that Prescott’s assertion is not necessarily proof of the fact that Freemasonry wasn’t founded in 1717 as has been widely agreed, you can read his joint paper with Sommers in the QCC Publication entitled Reflections on 300 Years of Freemasonry.

Although many Masonic scholars have reacted to the Prescott-Summers paper and believe it to have cast an interesting light on the debate surrounding the exact date that Freemasonry was formed, many brothers in lodges throughout the world don’t even know that such a contestation has been made.

Whether or not they have a point is still up for debate. If we look to the website of the United Grand Lodge of England, they paint a fascinating chronology of Freemasonry’s history. Their website states that:

On St John’s Day, 24th June 1717, four London Lodges, which had existed for some time, came together at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in St Paul’s Churchyard, declared themselves a Grand Lodge and elected Anthony Sayer as their Grand Master. This was the first Grand Lodge in the world. 

From their website, we can see that they still believe 1717 to be the accurate date, despite Dr. Prescott’s statement to the contrary. In truth, it will be challenging to re-write Masonic history to suggest that the date was four years later, as both Prescott and Sommers suggest.

For Masons the world over, 1717 is etched into their mind as a hugely significant date, and it has been consistently referred to as the year of the birth of modern-day Freemasonry over the course of the past three centuries.

What is interesting to note, however, is the fact that Masons do acknowledge the fact that Masonic activities did occur before 1717. Going back to the UGLE website, we learn that many of the questions of when, how, why, and where Freemasonry originated can be understood in the Middle Ages through the practices of the operative stonemasons.

Thereafter, in some time around 1660, there is evidence that exists of gentlemen being made into Masons in non-operative Lodges. Throughout the late seventeenth century, then, Freemasonry, as we know it today, began to take shape.

It is speculated that the reason why lodges welcomed non-operative members was a direct result of the fact that the number of operative masons was dwindling. They had to welcome men from outside their vocation to keep the lodges going. Overall, given the findings by Dr. Prescott and Dr. Sommers, the date of the actual inception of Freemasonry has been bought into disrepute. Whether it was 1717 or 1721 remains to be seen, although UGLE continues to believe it was the former.