In the annals of Freemasonry, the name John Theophilus Desaguliers stands as a pivotal figure whose contributions left an indelible mark on the fraternity. Rev. Desaguliers was a man of diverse talents: was not only a prominent cleric and also a respected natural philosopher.
Born in La Rochelle, France, in 1683, to a Protestant parents, Desaguliers came to England in 1692 when his family were exiled for their Huguenot beliefs.
As an adult, Desaguliers found himself in the midst of a period marked by fervent intellectual exploration and the rise of Freemasonry in England. He became an esteemed member of the Royal Society, a distinguished scientific organization, where he participated in many notable experiments.
Desaguliers’ initiation into Freemasonry in the early eighteenth century coincided with the development of the premier Grand Lodge in London. His dedication to Freemasonry led him to become a well-known—though apparently at times controversial—figure within the movement.
There is great speculation regarding how extensively Desaguliers drew upon his scientific acumen in his dealings with Freemasonry. It is commonly asserted that he may have encouraged some brethren to explore the connection between the mysteries of nature and the teachings of Freemasonry via scientific experimentation. However, this does not appear to have been widespread.
More certain is Rev. Desaguliers' contributions to James Anderson’s seminal work, The Constitutions of the Free-Masons, Containing the History, Charges, Regulations, &c. of that most Ancient and Right Worshipful Fraternity. The four-page dedication of the Constitutions, written by Desaguliers, is revealing. The work is dedicated to the Duke of Montagu, because it was Montagu who had commissioned the book when he had been the Grand Master in 1721. Desaguliers, himself a past Grand Master (in 1719) the institution, was in an ideal position to authoritatively dedicate the important volume.
While some have attempted to suggest that Rev. Desaguliers disapproved of Anderson’s work, there is no evidence to suggest that. Instead, Desaguliers offers a ringing endorsement of the efforts of Rev. Anderson:
I need not tell your GRACE what pains our learned AUTHOR [Anderson] has taken in compiling and digesting this Book from the old Records, and how accurately he has compar’d and made every thing agreeable to History and Chronology, so as to render these NEW CONSTITUTIONS a just and exact Account of Masonry from the Beginning of the World to your Grace’s MASTERSHIP, still preserving all that was truly ancient and authentick in the old ones: For every Brother will be pleas’d with the performance, that knows it had your GRACE’s perusal and approbation, and that it is now printed for the Use of the Lodges, after it was approv’d by the GRAND-LODGE, when your GRACE was GRAND-MASTER.
It is very possible that Desaguliers’ influence on the work was multifaceted and not limited only to the Dedication. As an erudite scholar, he may have helped Anderson frame the mytho-historical and philosophical content of the Constitutions. Desaguliers is often considered an intellectual contributor to the work. His role was likely that of an editor or advisor, and his official role in the Grand Lodge and his firm relationships with other Masonic leaders may also have enabled him to garner the necessary support and consensus for the book’s publication.
It is likely that one reason for Desaguliers’ strong attraction to Freemasonry may have been the organization’s notable policy of broad religious toleration. Anderson’s Constitutions makes it clear that men of all faiths may be welcomed into the Craft. Surely he remembered the ordeal of being exiled from France at age nine due his family’s Huguenot beliefs. (Freemasonry continues this tradition to this day: all who believe in a Supreme Being, whatever religion they privately follow, may apply to be considered for initiation.)
Sadly, the Dedication is the only surviving Masonic statement of Rev. Desaguliers. Although he is recorded as giving occasional speeches during meetings of the Grand Lodge, none of these were published nor otherwise preserved. This is highly regrettable, as they would certainly shed valuable light upon his Masonic values and concerns.
John Desaguliers’ contributions to Freemasonry remain a testament to the symbiotic relationship between intellectual curiosity and the timeless teachings of the Masonic fraternity. Rev. Desaguliers’ influence remains an significant part of Freemasonry’s history, and is a testament to the enduring impact of a man whose pursuits spanned the duties of a priest, the labors of experimental science, and the mysteries of the Ancient Craft.