While some of the adversaries of Freemasonry have pretended that its origin is to be found in the efforts of the Jesuit who sought to effect certain religious and political objects through the influence of such a society, one, at least, has endeavored to trace its first rise to the Socinians, who sprang up as a religious sect in Italy about the middle of the 16th century.
This hypothesis is of so unhistorical a character that it merits a passing notice in the legendary history of the Institution. It was first promulgated (and I do not know that it has ever since been repeated) by the Abbe Le Franc, the Superior of the House of the Eudists, at Caen, in a book published by him in the year 1791, under the title of Le Voile leve pour les curieux, ou le secret des Revolutions, revele a l'aide de la Franc-Maconnerie, or "The Veil lifted for the Inquisitive, or the Secret of Revolutions revealed by the assistance of Freemasonry." This work was deemed of so much importance that it was translated in the following year into Italian.
In this essay Le Franc, as a loyal Catholic ecclesiastic, hating both the Freemasons and the Socinians, readily seized the idea, or at all events advanced it, that the former was derived from the latter, whose origin he assigns to the year 1546.
He recapitulates, only to deny, all the other theories that have been advanced on the subject, such as that the origin of the Institution is to be sought in the fraternities of Operative Masons of the Middle Ages, or in the assembly held at York underthe auspices of King Athelstane, or in the builders of King Solomon's Temple, or in the Ancient Mysteries of Egypt.
Each of these hypotheses he refuses to admit as true.
On the contrary, he says the order can not be traced beyond the famous meeting of Socinians, which was held at the City of Vicenza, in Italy, in the year 1546, by Loclius Socinus, Ochirius, Gentilis, and others, who there and then established the sect which repudiated the doctrine of the Trinity, and whose successors, with some modification of tenets, still exist under the name of Unitarians, or Liberal Christians.
But it is to Faustus Socinus, the nephew of Loclius, he asserts, that the real foundation of Freemasonry as a secret and symbolical society is to be ascribed.
This "artful and indefatigable sectary," as he calls him, having beheld the burning of Servetus at Geneva by Calvin, for maintaining only a part of the system that he advocated, and finding that both Catholics and Protestants were equally hostile to his views, is said to have concealed it under symbols and mysterious ceremonies, accompanied by oaths of secrecy, in order that, while it was publicly taught to the people in countries where it was tolerated, it might be gradually and safely insinuated into other states, where an open confession of it would probably lead its preachers to the stake.
The propagation of this system, he further says, was veiled under the enigmatical allegory of building a temple whose extent, in the very words of Freemasonry, was to be " in length from the east to the west, and in breadth from north to south." The professors of it were therefore furnished, so as to carry out the allegory, with the various implements used in building, such as the square, the compasses, the level, and the plumb.
And here it is that the Abbe Le Franc has found the first form and beginning of the Masonic Institution as it existed at the time of his writing. I have said that, so far as I have been able to learn, Le Franc is the sole author or inventor of this hypothesis. Reghellini attributes it to three distinct writers, the author of the Voile leve, Le Franc, and the Abbe Barruel.
But in fact the first and second of these are identical, and Barruel has not made any allusion to it in his History of Jacobinism. He attributes the origin of Freemasonry to the Manicheans, and makes a very elaborate and learned collation of the usages and ceremonies of the two, to show how much the one has taken from the other.
Reghellini, in commenting on this theory of the Abbe Le Franc, says that all that is true in it is that there was at the same period, about the middle of the 16th century, a learned society of philosophers and literary men at Vicenza, who held conferences on the theological questions which at that time divided Europe, and particularly Germany.
The members of this celebrated academy, he says, looked upon all these questions and difficulties concerning the mysteries of the Christian religion as points of doctrine which pertained simply to the philosophy of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Christians and had no relation whatever to the dogmas of faith. [i]
Considering that out of these meetings of the philosophers at Vicenza issued a religious sect, whose views present a very important modification of the orthodox creeds, we may well suppose that Reghellini is as much in error in his commentary as Le Franc has been in his text.
The society which met at Vicenza and at Venice, though it sought to conceal its new and heterodox doctrines under a veil of secrecy, soon became exposed to the observation of the Papal court, through whose influence the members were expelled from the Venetian republic, some of them seeking safety in Germany, but most of them in Poland, where their doctrines were not only tolerated, but in time became popular.
In consequence, flourishing congregations were established at Cracow, Lublin, and various other places in Poland and in Lithuania. Loelius Socinus had, soon after the immigration of his followers into Poland, retired to Zurich, in Switzerland, where he died. He was succeeded by his nephew, Faustus Socinus, who greatly modified the doctrines of his uncle, and may be considered as the real founder of the Socinian sect of Christians.
Now, authentic history furnishes us with these few simple facts. In the 16th century secret societies were by no means uncommon in various countries of Europe In Italy especially many were to be found. Some of these coteries were established for the cultivation of philosophical studies, some for the pursuit of alchemy, some for theological discussions, and many were of a mere social character.
In all of them, however, there was an exclusiveness which shut out the vulgar, the illiterate, or the profane. Thus there was founded at Florence a club which called itself the Societa della Cucchiara, or the Society of the Trowel. The name and the symbols it used, which were the trowel, the hammer, the square, and the level, have led both Lenning and Reghellini to suppose that it was a Masonic association.
But the account given of it by Vasari, in his Lives of the Painters and Sculptors, shows that it was merely a social club of Florentine artists, and that it derived its existence and its name from the accidental circumstance that certain painters and sculptors dining together once upon a time, in a certain garden, discovered, not far from their table, a heap of mortar in which a trowel was sticking.
In an exuberance of spirits they began to throw the mortar on each other, and to call for the trowel to scrape it off. In the same sportive humor they then and there resolved to form an association which should annually thereafter dine together, and to commemorate the ludicrous event which had given rise to their association, they called it the Society of the Trowel, and adopted as emblems certain tools connected with the mystery of bricklaying.
Every city in Italy in which science was cultivated had its academy, many of which, like the Platonic Academy, established at Florence in 1540 held their sessions in secret, and admitted none but members to participate in their mystical studies. In Germany the secret societies of the Alchemists were abundant. These spread also into France and England.
To borrow the language of a modern writer, mystical interpretation ran riot, everything was symbolized, and metaphors were elaborated into allegories. [ii] It is a matter of historical record that in 1546 there was a society of this kind, consisting of about forty persons, eminent for their learning, who, in the words of Mosheim:
"held secret assemblies, at different times, in the territory of Venice, and particularly at Vicenza, in which they deliberated concerning a general reformation of the received systems of religion, and, in a more especial manner, undertook to refute the peculiar doctrines that were afterwards publicly rejected by the Socinians." [iii]
Mosheim, who was rigorous in the application of the canons of criticism to all historical questions that came under his review, says, in a note appended to this passage:
"Many circumstances and relations sufficiently prove that immediately after the reformation had taken place in Germany, secret assemblies were held and measures proposed in several provinces that were still under the jurisdiction of Rome, with a view to combat the errors and superstitions of the times."
Such was the character of the secret society at Vicenza to which Le Franc attributes the origin of Freemasonry. It was an assembly of men of advanced thought, who were compelled to hold their meetings in secret, because the intolerance of the church and the jealous caution of the state forbade the free and open discussion of opinions which militated against the common sentiments of the period.
The further attempt to connect the doctrines of Socinus with those of Freemasonry, because, when speaking of the new religion which he was laboring to establish, he compared it to the building of a new temple- in which his disciples were to be diligent workers, is futile.
The use of such expressions is to be attributed merely to a metaphorical and allegorical spirit by no means uncommon in writers of every ago The same metaphor is repeatedly employed by St. Paul in his various Epistles, and it is not improbable that from him Socinus borrowed the idea.
There is, therefore, as I conceive, no historical evidence whatever to support the theory that Faustus Socinus and the Socinians were the founders of Freemasonry. At the very time when he was establishing the sect whose distinctive feature was its denial of the dogma of the Trinity, the manuscript constitutions of the Masons were beginning their Legend of the Craft, with an in,vocation to "the Might of the Father, the Wisdom of the Glorious Son, and the Goodness of the Holy Ghost, three Persons and one God."
The idea of any such connection between two institutions whose doctrines were so antagonistic was the dream-or rather the malicious invention-of Le Franc, and has in subsequent times received the amount of credit to which it is entitled.
[i] Reghellini, "La Maconnerie," tom., p. 60
[ii] Vaughan. "Hours with the Mystics," I., p. 119
[iii] "Ecclesiast. Hist. XVI.," Part III., chap. iv.
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