Proofs of a Conspiracy, by John Robison 1798

Perhaps there never was a nation where all those cooperating causes had acquired greater strength than in France. Oppressions of all kinds were at a height. The luxuries of life were enjoyed exclusively by the upper classes, and this in the highest degree of refinement; so that the desires of the rest were whetted to the utmost. Religion appeared in its worst form, and seemed calculated solely for procuring establishments for the younger sons of the insolent and useless noblesse. The morals of the higher orders of the clergy and of the laity were equally corrupted. Thousands of literary men were excluded by their station from all hopes of advancement to the more respectable offices in the church. These vented their discontents as far as there was safety, and were encouraged by many of the upper classes, who joined them in their satires on the priesthood. The clergy opposed them, it is true, but feebly, because they could not support their opposition by examples of their own virtuous behaviour, but were always obliged to have recourse to the power of the church, the very object of hatred and disgust. The whole nation became infidel, and when in a few instances a worthy uttered the small still voice of true religion, it was not heard amidst the general noise of satire and reproach. The misconduct of administration, and the abuse of the public treasures, were every day growing more impudent and glaring, and exposed the government to continual criticism. But it was still too powerful to suffer this to proceed to extremities; while therefore infidelity and loose sentiments of morality passed unpunished, it was still very hazardous to publish any thing against the state. It was in this respect chiefly, that the Mason Lodges contributed to the dissemination of dangerous opinions, and they were employed for this purpose all over the kingdom. This is not an assertion hazarded merely on account of its probability. Abundant proof will appear by and by, that the most turbulent characters in the nation frequented the Lodges. We cannot doubt, but that under this covert they indulged their factious dispositions; nay, we shall find the greatest part of the Lodges of France, converted, in the course of a very few weeks, into corresponding political societies.

But it is now time to turn our eyes to the progress of Free Masonry in Germany and the north of Europe; there it took a more serious turn. Free Masonry was imported into Germany somewhat later than into France. The first German Lodge that we have any account of, is that at Cologne, erected in 1716, but very soon suppressed. Before the year 1725 there were many, both in Protestant and Catholic Germany. Those of Wetzlar, Frankfort on the Mayne, Brunswick, and Hamburg, are the oldest, and their priority is doubtful. All of them received their institution from England, and had patents from a mother Lodge in London. All seem to have got the mystery through the same channel, the banished friends of the Stuart family. Many of these were Catholics, and entered into the service of Austria and the Catholic princes.

The true hospitality, that is no where more conspicuous than in the character of the Germans, made this institution a most agreeable and useful passport to these gentlemen; and as many of them were in military stations, and in garrison, they found it a very easy matter to set up Lodges in all parts of Germany. These afforded a very agreeable pastime to the officers, who had little to occupy them, and were already accustomed to a subordination which did not affect their vanity on account of family distinctions. As the Ensign and the General were equally gentlemen, the allegory or play of universal Brotherhood was neither novel nor disgusting. Free Masonry was then of the simplest form, consisting of the three degrees of Apprentice, Fellow-craft, and Master. It is remarkable, that the Germans had been long accustomed to the word, the sign, and the gripe of the Masons, and some other handicraft trades. In many parts of Germany there was a distinction of operative Masons into Wort-Maurers and Schrift-Maurers. The Wort-Maurers had no other proof to give of their having been regularly brought up to the trade of builders, but the word and signs; the Schrift-Maurers had written indentures to shew. There are extant and in force, borough-laws, enjoining the Masters of Masons to give employment to journeymen who had the proper words and sign. In particular it appears, that some cities had more extensive privileges in this respect than others. The word given at Wetzlar, the feat of the great council of revision for the empire, entitled the possessor to work over the whole empire. We may infer from the processes and decisions in some of those municipal courts, that a master gave a word and token for each year’s progress of his apprentice. He gave the word of the incorporated Imperial city or borough on which he depended, and also a word peculiar to himself, by which all his own pupils could recognise each other. This mode of recognisance was probably the only document of education in old times, while writing was confined to a very small part of the community. When we reflect on the nature of the German empire, a confederation of small independent states, we see that this profession cannot keep pace with the other mechanic arts, unless its practitioners are invested with greater privileges than others. Their great works exceed the strength of the immediate neighbourhood, and the workmen must be brought together from a distance. Their association must therefore be more cared for by the public.

When English Free Masonry was carried into Germany, it was hospitably received. It required little effort to give it respectability, and to make it the occupation of a gentleman, and its secrets and mysteries were not such novelties as in France. It spread rapidly, and the simple topic of Brotherly love was sufficient for recommending it to the honest and hospitable Germans. But it soon took a very different turn. The German character is the very opposite of frivolity. It tends to seriousness, and requires serious occupation. The Germans are eminent for their turn for investigation; and perhaps they indulge this to excess. We call them plodding and dull, because we have little relish for enquiry for its own sake. But this is surely the occupation of a rational nature, and deserves any name but stupidity. At the same time it must be acknowledged, that the spirit of enquiry requires regulation as much as any propensity of the human mind. But it appears that the Germans are not nice in their choice of their objects; it appears that singularity, and wonder, and difficulty of research, are to them irresistible recommendations and incitements. They have always exhibited a strong hankering after every thing that is wonderful, or solemn, or terrible; and in spite of the great progress which men have made in the course of these two last centuries, in the knowledge of nature, a progress too in which we should be very unjust if we did not acknowledge that the Germans have been generally in the foremost ranks, the gross absurdities of magic, exorcism, witchcraft, fortune-telling, transmutation of metals, and universal medicine, have always had their zealous partizans, who have listened with greedy ears to the nonsense and jargon of fanatics and cheats; and though they every day saw examples of many who had been ruined or rendered ridiculous by their credulity, every new pretender to secrets found numbers ready to listen to him, and to run over the same course.

Free Masonry, professing mysteries, instantly roused all these people, and the Lodges appeared to the adventurers who wanted to profit by the enthusiasm or the avarice of their dupes, the fittest places in the world for the scene of their operations. The Rosycrucians were the first who availed themselves of the opportunity. This was not the Society which had appeared formerly under that name, and was now extinct; but a set of Alchymists, pretenders to the transmutation of metals and the universal medicine, who, the better to inveigle their votaries, had mixed with their own tricks a good deal of the absurd superstitions of that sect, in order to give a greater air of mystery to the whole, to protract the time of instruction, and to afford more room for evasions, by making so many difficult conditions necessary for perfecting the grand work, that the unfortunate gull, who had thrown away his time and his money, might believe that the failure was owing to his own incapacity or unfitness for being the possessor of the grand secret. These cheats found it convenient to make Masonry one of their conditions, and by a small degree of art, persuaded their pupils that they were the only true Masons. These Rosycrucian Lodges were soon established, and became numerous, because their mysteries were addressed, both to the curiosity, the sensuality, and the avarice of men. They became a very formidable band, adopting the constitution of the Jesuits, dividing the Fraternity into circles, each under the management of its own superior, known to the president, but unknown to the individuals of the Lodges. These superiors were connected with each other in a way known only to themselves, and the whole was under one General. At least this is the account which they wish to be believed. If it be just, nothing but the absurdity of the ostensible motives of their occupations could have prevented this combination from carrying on schemes big with hazard to the peace of the world. But the Rosycrucian Lodges have always been considered by other Free Masons as bad Societies, and as gross schismatics. This did not hinder, however, their alchemical and medical secrets from being frequently introduced into the Lodges of simple Free Masonry; and in like manner, exorcism, or ghost-raising, magic, and other gross superstitions, were often held out in their meetings as attainable mysteries, which would be immense acquisitions to the Fraternity, without any necessity of admitting along with them the religious deliriums of the Rosycrucians.

In 1743, a Baron Hunde, a gentleman of honorable character and independent fortune, was in Paris, and got acquainted with the Earl of Kilmarnock and some other gentlemen who were about the Pretender, and learned from them that they had some wonderful secrets in their Lodges. He was admitted, through the medium of that nobleman, and of a Lord Clifford, and his Masonic patent was signed George (said to be the signature of Kilmarnock). Hunde had attached himself to the fortunes of the Pretender, in hopes (as he says himself) of rising in the world under his protection. The mighty secret was this. “When the Order of Knights Templars was abolished by Philip the Fair, and cruelly persecuted, some worthy persons escaped, and took refuge in the Highlands of Scotland, where they concealed themselves in caves. These persons possessed the true secrets of Masonry, which had always been in that Order, having been acquired by the Knights, during their services in the east, from the pilgrims whom they occasionally protected or delivered. The Chevaliers de la Rose-Croix continued to have the same duties as formerly, though robbed of their emoluments. In fine, every true Mason is a Knight Templar.” It is very true that a clever fancy can accommodate the ritual of reception of the Chevalier de l’Epee, &c. to something like the institution of the Knights Templars, and perhaps this explanation of young Zerobabel’s pilgrimage, and of the rebuilding of the Temple by Ezra, is the most significant explanation that has been given of the meagre symbols of Free Masonry.

When Baron Hunde returned to Germany, he exhibited to some friends his extensive powers for propagating this system of Masonry, and made a few Knights. But he was not very active. Probably the failure of the Pretender’s attempt to recover the throne of his ancestors had put an end to Hunde’s hopes of making a figure. In the mean time Free Masonry was cultivated with zeal in Germany, and many adventurers found their advantage in supporting particular schisms.

But in 1756, or 1757, a complete revolution took place. The French officers who were prisoners at large in Berlin, undertook, with the assurance peculiar to their nation, to instruct the simple Germans in every thing that embellishes society. They said, that the homespun Free Masonry, which had been imported from England, was fit only for the unpolished minds of the British; but that in France it had grown into an elegant system, fit for the profession of Gentlemen. Nay, they said, that the English were ignorant of true Masonry, and possessed nothing but the introduction to it; and even this was not understood by them. When the ribbands and stars, with which the French had ornamented the Order, were shown to the Germans, they could not resist the enchantment. A Mr. Rosa, a French commissary, brought from Paris a complete waggonload of Masonic ornaments, which were all distributed before it had reached Berlin, and he was obliged to order another, to furnish the Lodges of that city. It became for a while a most profitable business to many French officers and commissaries dispersed over Germany, having nothing else to do. Every body gaped for instruction, and these kind teachers were always ready to bestow it. In half a year Free Masonry underwent a complete revolution all over Germany, and Chevaliers multiplied without number. The Rosaic system was a gospel to the Mason and the poor British system was despised. But the new Lodges of Berlin, as they had been the teachers of the whole empire, wanted also to be the governors, and insisted on complete subjection from all the others. This startled the Free Masons at a distance, and awakened them from their golden dreams. Now began a struggle for dominion and for independency. This made the old Lodges think a little about the whole affair. The result of this was a counter revolution. Though no man could pretend that he understood the true meaning of Free Masonry, its origin, its history, or its real aim, all saw that the interpretations of their hieroglyphics, and the rituals of the new degrees imported from France, were quite gratuitous. It appeared, therefore, that the safest thing for them was an appeal to the birth-place of Masonry. They sent to London for instructions. There they learned, that nothing was acknowledged for genuine unsophisticated Masonry but the three degrees; and that the mother Lodge of London alone could, by her instructions, prevent the most dangerous schisms and innovations. Many Lodges, therefore, applied for patents and instructions. Patents were easily made out, and most willingly sent to the zealous Brethren; and these were thankfully received and paid for. But instruction was not so easy a matter. At that time we had nothing but the book of constitutions, drawn up about 1720, by Anderson and Desaguilliers, two persons of little education, and of low manners, who had aimed at little more than making a pretext, not altogether contemptible, for a convivial meeting. This, however, was received with respect. We are apt to smile at grave men’s being satisfied with such coarse and scanty fare. But it was of use, merely because it gave an ostensible reason for resisting the despotism of the Lodges of Berlin. Several respectable Lodges, particularly that of Frankfort on the Mayne, that of Brunswick, that of Wetzlar, and the Royal York of Berlin, resolutely adhered to the English system, and denied themselves all the enjoyment of the French degrees, rather than acknowledge the supremacy of the Rosaic Lodges of Berlin.

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Methinks I am a conspiracy theorist. Art thou? Thou block, thou stone, thou worse than senseless thing, for whilst thou slept didst this become a badge of honor. Informed dissent shall always prevail, wherefore art thou worthy, or art thou this unwholesome fool in the group conformity experiment herein?

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