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John Theophilus Desaguliers

Can we still learn from a Past Grand Master born 319 years ago? It’s odd, isn’t it, how we seem to have an urge, individually and collectively, to establish our roots, our origins. Some of us spend hours of our free time and pounds of our hard-earned salaries researching our family trees. We carefully preserve photographs and letters of grandparents and mull over family history, especially in the company of other members of the same family. But also, collectively, we seek out details of the origins of organisations we belong to. And nowhere do we do this more than in Freemasonry. “Oh no,”I hear you cry, “not another treatise on the origins of Freemasonry!” Have no fear – I am not a masonic historian. I echo the words of our Pro Grand Master who said he found it much more interesting to know where the Craft is going than where it came from. But I did research and write the history of my mother lodge a couple of years back, and the material I then unearthed was totally fascinating and absorbing.

After London lodges became organised into groups, I found myself connected to the Desaguliers Group of lodges and I straight away wanted to know about Desaguliers – who he was, where did he come from, and what was his legacy to the Craft. So I thought I might interest you in MW Bro John Theophilus Desaguliers. The background is as follows. In 1598, after the infamous wars of religion in France, Henri IV promulgated a law, known as the Edict of Nantes, granting religious and civil liberties to his Protestant Huguenot subjects. However, in 1685, this Edict was revoked by Louis XIV, and Protestants were called on by the State to convert to Catholicism. Many refused, and this resulted in the fiercest persecution imaginable of Protestants. In 1683 John Theophilus (Theophilus = “lover of God”) was born in La Rochelle. His father, being himself a Protestant Minister, was staunchly opposed to conversion, and like many of his Huguenot countrymen was forced to flee in consequence. Accordingly, in 1687, the Desaguliers family came to England, the fouryear old John Theophilus being hidden in a linen basket! His father obtained a ministership in London, under the protection of Bishop Compton (incidentally a distant relative of the Marquess of Northampton). On completion of his schooling, John Theophilus went up to Oxford where he read the classics, and came down in 1712. He returned to London, married and lived near the Rummer Tavern where the Westminster Lodge no. 4 met (now Royal Somerset House and Inverness). Here he met Isaac Newton and other members of The Royal Society and became in consequence a lecturer at The Royal Society, put up by Newton himself, and in 1714 he became its Curator. At some time he became a Freemason and in 1719 he became the third Grand Master (after Anthony Sayer and George Payne). As a member of The Royal Society, Desaguliers was the first to prove the existence of the atom.

This was a period marked by the flowering of the Age of Enlightenment. Here then was a man who must have understood more deeply than most the seven liberal arts and sciences and their relevance to the way we lead our daily lives. He was possessed of a vivid appreciation of the precepts of Freemasonry, but who also, by the experience of his parents under persecution, understood more keenly than most the vital importance of freedom of conscience, humanity in its broadest sense, tolerance and the brotherhood of man. Subsequent generations, subsequent centuries, wars and unspeakable atrocities have tempered the steel of our resistance to inhumanity and intolerance, and if we, as Freemasons, succeed from time to time in highlighting injustice, of righting wrongs against the individual and stemming the tide of indifference where compassion is needed, then we have men like Desaguliers to thank for it.

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