The Motion of 1877: How the Grand Orient de France really became adogmatic

By Karen Kidd, PM
(I speak only for me)

The story usually is retold like this: Protestant minister Frédéric Desmons in 1877 “strenuously urged” the Grand Orient de France (GOdF) remove from its constitution and its rituals all reference to the Great Architect of the Universe (G.A.O.T.U.). The GOdF approved the idea and it was done. The United Grand Lodge of England, in a valiant effort to defend faith and the landmarks of Freemasonry, withdrew relations from the GOdF, as did almost the rest of the Masonic world.

The above story is why members of the dogmatic orders, those that require belief in a Supreme Being or Power, too often refer to the GOdF and other adogmatic orders as “godless” and “atheistic.”

Those insults have stuck. I’ve even heard French Freemasons refer to the GOdF and other adogmatic Masonic orders in this way.

Trouble is the story isn’t true, not even on its face. And yet it is retold even by those who should know better and by those who may know the truth but who want to maintain the result of the story, which I’ll just start calling “the lie.” The point of the lie is to justify continued quarantine of Republican sentiments inside France and to keep other equally Republican-minded Freemasons, particularly those in the United States, on board.

And, nope, I’m not suggesting a tin-foil-lined conspiracy theory. Better Masonic historians than me have known the truth and have written about it for generations. However, the rank and file in Freemasonry, sad fact be told, pay little attention to Masonic historians(1) and the front-office folks very often would rather the lie be maintained.

That said, I can cram the truth into a single blog only by oversimplifying what really did happen. So, in an effort to head off a frenzy of mad keying, I’ll admit right away that I am well aware of what I’m leaving out. What I’m leaving in will be, I hope, inspiration enough for folks who want to know more to seek it out.

The dates, names and other details in the lie are accurate, in keeping with the strategy of passing off lies by wrapping them in a few truths. Lodges of the GOdF did meet in a General Assembly(3) in September 1877 during which a motion, No. IX, was made by a Lodge (not Desmons, but he’s coming soon) to replace certain words in the order’s constitution. The motion was to remove the phrase “Its principles are the existence of God, the immortality of the soul and human solidarity” and replace it with “Its principles are absolute liberty of conscience and human solidarity.”

A majority at the assembly voted in favor of the change and Desmons (there he is) wrote up the report and read it aloud. That was about all Desmons had to do with the motion, which did not – not even one little bit – advocate the suppression or removal of the G.A.O.T.U. from French Masonic Ritual or the order’s constitution. As WBro. Alain Bernheim noted(2) in 2011:

“Whoever wrote that Desmons favored the suppression of the G.A.O.T.U. likely never read what he said. The G.A.O.T.U. was not mentioned once in his report which concluded with the words: ‘Considering that Freemasonry is not a religion, that consequently it does not have to assert doctrines or dogmas in its Constitution, [the General Assembly] approves motion No. IX’.”

There’s a considerable amount of backstory I could get into and any number of relevant rabbit holes I could run down but, again, this is a blog not a book. Instead, I’ll point out that the Third Republic was a thing in 1877, bringing with it many ideas, including freedom of conscience and “laïcité.” The latter often is referred to as secularism as a way of life, rather than one’s life being predicated upon one’s faith or lack thereof.

The point wasn’t to suppress faith but to recognize it as a personal matter that should have no bearing upon a person’s livelihood, position in life, qualification to become a member of a fraternal order or anything else. The motion of 1877 was to make faith a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy within the GOdF by removing belief in a Supreme Being or Power as a membership requirement.

And. That. Was. All.

Meanwhile, across the channel in the United Kingdom, what had been for decades an overwhelming anxiety to keep Republican ideas – in the United States, France, where ever else they cropped up – in check got kicked up a few dozen notches with the rise of the Third Republic. English Freemasons in particular self-recruited into the crusade to keep French ideas in France and, with Third Republic ideas entrenched in French Freemasonry, brethren in the U.K. took up the additional challenge.

One relevant detail here: In 1875, two years before the GOdF General Assembly motion, the UGLE entered into fraternal relations with the Grand Orient de Belgique, despite the GOdB having actually removed “To the glory of T.G.A.O.T.U.” from its statutes. The UGLE didn’t become bothered about that until it decided to make it an issue and severed relations with the Belgian order in 1921.

To be clear, tensions between British – particularly English – and French Freemasons are even more deeply rooted in the French Revolution and the following decades of instability in France. French Masonic refugees in the U.K. often didn’t care much for how cozy the UGLE was – and is – with the Monarchy, the aristocracy and the Anglican church while English Freemasons didn’t care for what they saw as “mysticism” among French Freemasons(4).

In March of 1878, the UGLE had its own con-fab and adopted a resolution that included this run-on sentence(5):

“That the Grand Lodge, whilst always anxious to receive in the most fraternal spirit the Brethren of any Foreign Grand Lodge whose proceedings are conducted according to the Ancient Landmarks of the Order, of which a belief in T.G.A.O.T.U. is the first and most important, cannot recognise as ‘true and genuine’ Brethren who have been initiated in Lodges which either deny or ignore that belief.”

Leaving aside the canard about belief in a Supreme Being or Power being a landmark – hey, I can blog again – the rest of the UGLE resolution seems to entirely misunderstand the 1877 French motion. Except there was no misunderstanding, not really. This was the 19th Century, not the 14th. The UGLE front office knew then, just as they know now, what the 1877 motion was about. The reasons for this “misunderstanding,” and the subsequent promulgation of the lie, are deeper and far more complex than the UGLE resolution would suggest.

So what happened?

In a nutshell the UGLE, anxious to keep French ideas and politics – especially the anti-monarchical(6) and anticlerical bits – confined, was as anxious to get other Grand Lodges in the world on board. Going after French Republicanism would not convinced many of those Grand Lodges, especially those in the United States where Republican politics – classically defined, not the political party – are much appreciated.

Framing the 1877 motion as an attack on faith would.

And so it went. The rest of the Masonic world largely bought into the lie and the great schism happened. It persists to this day.

Yup, the above is an over simplification. Those who want to continue to believe the lie won’t care and those who want to learn more can go elsewhere and learn it from better folks than me. However, I will remind everyone of this: knowledge brings with it responsibility. You might have believed the lie before but now you have reason to know better.

Don’t blame me; I’m just the messenger.

And I advocate nothing. I’m not saying the UGLE and the GOdF should make nice or anything thing like that. Their official relations are no business of mine, they can do whatever they want.

I would, however, recommend that individual Brethren in the dogmatic and adogmatic orders have more respect for each other and recognize the right of all the orders to exist. Choice, above all else, should be respected. Candidates who believe in a Supreme Being or Power have lodges they can enter and candidates who don’t can find lodges that will accept them. It’s a system we know can work largely because it does.

And Humanity is in greater need of perfection than God is in need of glory. There is plenty of room for lodges that do one, the other or both.

Y’all be cool.


(1) Grand Lodge of Iowa Grand Historian Joseph E. Morcombe complained in a March 5, 1918 letter to then North American Universal Co-Freemasonry Grand Commander Louis Goaziou about a Brother who had expressed some “facts” to him about the motion of 1877. “I rapped him hard on the statement that the Grand Orient of France had never been recognized by English or American Masonry,” Morcombe lamented. “Yet such as he are the leaders and light-givers of the brethren. They will not dig for facts, taking their own intuitions or the mere say-so of others as ignorant as themselves as gospel, against all arguments that can be brought.”

In the same letter, Morcombe also explained to Goaziou why he even bothered to labor as a Masonic historian among so many “ignorant” brethren. “When will American Masons be open-minded and logical; when will they search for the light of truth without stipulating ahead or on the way that they will not venture into certain fields?,” Morcombe wrote. “Sometimes I am disgusted enough with hypocrites and ignorances in the Craft to cease my endeavors. But then comes the new ascension of the fighting spirit, and I try to hit all the harder.”

In my observation, that “fighting spirit,” rather than any attention payed by rank-and-file Freemasons, is what drives many modern scholars in the Craft as well.

(2) The correct word in French is “Convent.” In English, think “convention.”

(3) “Etudes Maconniques – Masonic Papers” in “My Approach to Masonic History”, an address delivered May 26, 2011 in Sheffield before members of the Manchester Association for Masonic Research. The address is available online here: http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/bernheim27.html#_ednref39

(4) See Andrew Prescott’s “A Body without a Soul? The Philosophical Outlook of British Freemasonry 1700–2000,” a paper Prescott gave during conferences for Free University of Brusells, the Cornerstone Society and the Canonbury Masonic Research Centre beginning in 2003. A version of this paper is available online here: http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/prescott13.html

(5) See Robert Freke Gould’s “The History of Freemasonry” (J. Beacham, 1886) Volume III, page 26

(6) Yes, I hear y’all over there in Ireland, but I really would like to bring this blog home in less than 10,000 words

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