Undoubtedly one act for which Laurence Dermott will always be remembered is his publication of Ahiman Rezon. It was a private venture just as the 1723 Constitutions was a private publication of Dr. James Anderson and, just as the latter became the official constitutions of the Moderns so the former became the official constitutions of the Antients though there is no mention of its issue in the Grand Lodge minutes. Nevertheless it was an important factor in the evolution of the Antients and so must be considered in some detail. Why Dermott chose such a title is difficult to understand but it could have arisen from his private vendetta against the Moderns inasmuch as it represented his attempt to give tone to the constitutions of his Grand Lodge by providing them with a distinctive title and at the same time added to his personal prestige. Much ink has been used without good purpose in trying to decide its meaning and it was for long a problem for Lodge Secretaries one of whom, the Secretary of Newstead Lodge No. 47, referred to it in his records as ‘A.H. Iman’s Reasons’. Dermott own translation, or perhaps more correctly his alternative title, was ‘A help to a Brother’ and one Hebrew authority, the Rev. Morris Rosenbaum, translates it in somewhat similar words (AQC 23 p. 162) as ‘Faithfully Brother Secretary’. Brother Rosenbaum also pointed out that it was usual for Jewish writers to choose titles for their books so that the numerical value of the letters in such title equalled the numerical value of the letters in their names and apparently Dermott knew this. The numerical value of Ahiman Rezon is 372 and that of Dermott’s name is 371. In numerical cryptography these would be regarded as equal.
The book has 238 pages measuring approximately 8 inches by 5 inches, so that it could be carried in the pocket, a great advantage over Anderson’s much larger Constitutions. The first edition, published in 1756 was by subscription and 216 persons are shown as subscribers, including fifteen ladies. A peculiar circumstance about this first edition is that in the Public Advertiser of 16 th November 1754 it was advertised as ‘Now in the Press and speedily will be publish’d’. It is dedicated to the Earl of Blessington but there is no reference to him as Grand Master. As he was not appointed until 27 th December 1756 it seems likely that Laurence Dermott delayed publication of his book for two years and until such time as it was certain they would have ‘a Noble Personage’ to preside over them. The original price in London was three shillings but apparently elsewhere it was different, though whether more of less is unknown. Later editions were far more expensive and indeed it became quite a profitable undertaking, far more so than Anderson‘s Constitutions. Although it was Dermott’s personal property he did not retain for himself the full benefit of the demand for his book. On 29 th September 1785 Grand Lodge expressed thanks to him for ‘his Condisention in giving his property in Ahiman Rezon to the Charity’, whilst his generosity prior to this included the gift of a Grand Master’s Throne as a cost of £34 which was quite a considerable sum in those days.
Apart from the introduction, ‘the Editor to the Reader’, only a small portion of the book is Dermott’s own work. He writes:
I placed the following Works round about me, so as to be convenient to have Recourse to them as Occasion should require, viz. Doctor Anderson [Anderson’s Constitutions (?1738 edition)] and Mr. Spratt [Spratt’s Irish Constitutions (1756)] directly before me, Doctor D’Assigny [A Serious and Impartial Enquiry into the cause of the present Decay of Free-Masonry in the Kingdom of Ireland (1744)] and Mr. Smith [Pocket Companion (1735)] on my Right-hand, Doctor Desagulier [? 1723 edition of Anderson’s Constitutions] and Mr. Pennell [ Book of Constitutions (Dublin) 1730] on my left-hand, and Mr. Scott and Mr. Lyon behind me [?Councillor Schott and Jacob Jehuda Leon, each of whom wrote a description of King Solomon’s Temple and had a model of it on exhibition in London].
He made most use of Spratt’s Irish Constitutions, in fact it could be said that most of Ahiman Rezon is a rewrite of that book which, in turn, is largely a rewrite of Anderson. His interest in Spratt’s book seems to have dated from the time he was still a Master Mason in Ireland for in the list of subscribers to the 1744 edition there is included the name Laurence McDermott which almost certainly refers to him. If so, it is the only Masonic reference to him in Ireland. When he came to write his own book of constitutions, no doubt his intense dislike of the Moderns caused him to avoid making direct use, as far as possible, of any book connected with that body. Nevertheless he makes virtually no reference to the Moderns in the original edition and we have to wait for the second edition of 1764 for his opening offensive against them.
Apparently Dermott was in two minds about one thing. He felt that he should begin with a history of masonry as others had done ‘from the Creation of the Time of their writing’ but he did not wish to copy or imitate what Dr. Anderson had written in his Constitutions. He therefore queried ‘Whether such histories are of any Use in the secret Mysteries of the Craft’ but says, nevertheless, that he wrote ‘the first Volume of the History of Masonry’. However, whilst he slept a young puppy entered the room and, so he relates, ‘eat a great Part’ of what he had written. This he regarded ‘as a bad Omen’ which caused him ‘to deviate from the general Custom of my worthy Predecessors, otherwise I would have published a History of Masonry’. It is difficult to accept this as being the truth but that he did not do so hardly be regretted as it might well have been even more fanciful than that of James Anderson though the real reason must surely have been that the Antients had no history for him to relate.
Following the custom of those days, the book opens with a subservient dedication ‘To The Right Honourable William, Earl of Blessington’. Possibly because Dermott had him in mind as a suitable Grand Master. He was originally a member of a Modern Lodge meeting at the ‘Bear and Harrow’ in Butcher’s Row, London, had been Grand Master of Ireland (1738-40) and was living in London when Ahiman Rezon was published, though as yet he was probably not an Antient mason. The dedication is followed by a series of articles gathered from various sources relating to the duties and characters of masons and the value of Free-Masonry. After these comes a list of Old Charges copied from Spratt’s Irish Constitutions, ‘The Manner of constituting a new Lodge’ and four prayers, the last of which is entitled Ahabath Olam [Eternal Love], a ‘Prayer repeated in the Royal Arch Lodge at Jerusalem’. Next comes the main section of the book, the real reason for it being printed, in which Dermott relies heavily upon Spratt and D’Assigny. First there is printed, a list of twenty-seve General Regulations copied from Spratt’s Irish Constitutions, but with such alterations as Dermott considered necessary for use by the Antients. They are printed just as Spratt took them from Anderson, with the Old and the New Regulations in parallel columns. At the end of these is a new Regulation (no. 280 divided into ten sections, all of which deal with procedure in Grand Lodge, followed by ten Regulations for Charity, the Irish Regulations and those for York Masons being given in parallel columns. There is an interesting footnote to the section, ‘They [i.e. the Antients] are called York-Masons, because the first grand lodge in England was congregated at York A.D. 926 by Prince Edwin, who (at the same time0 purchased a free charter from king Athelstan, for the use of the fraternity’. This is a fable that has caused a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion both here and abroad and has resulted in so many American brethren, especially those whose Grand Lodges are of Antient origin, claiming that their ancestors were the York masons of the tenth century and that they work the ancient York rite.
Finally there are the words of sixty Masonic songs, three of which are by Dermott himself, several Prologues and Epilogues and the words of Solomon’s Temple, an oratorio performed in Dublin for the benefit of distressed Free-Masons.
Eight years later (1764) the second edition appeared with certain alterations, mainly of a minor nature, but it seems that Dermott now regarded his Grand Lodge as being on a firmer basis as he did not hesitate to write scornfully of the Moderns, referring in most derogatory terms to some of their practices. In the frontispiece there appears for the first time ‘The Arms of ye most Ancient & Honorable Fraternity, of Free and accepted Masons’. On the shield id depicted a lion in the first quarter, an ox in the second, a man in the third and a eagle in the fourth, with the Ark of the Covenant as the crest and two cherubim as supporters. Underneath, in Hebrew and English, is the motto ‘Holiness to the Lord’, all features that have special significance for Royal arch masons.
There is a new section in which the rival bodies are compared. It is here that he says ‘I had the like curiosity myself, about sixteen or seventeen years ago [i.e. 1747 or 1748] when I was first introduced into that society’. Later he adds ‘I have not the least antipathy against the gentlemen members of the modern society; but on the contrary, love and respect them, because I have found the generality of them to be hearty cocks and good fellows (as the bacchanalian phrase is)…’ These two statements would seem to confirm the suggestion previously made that shortly after arriving in England Dermott joined a Modern lodge. There is no documentary proof of this but it must be remembered that records in those days were far from being complete and it is difficult to understand how Dermott could have acquired sufficient experience of Modern freemasonry to make such specific remarks both here and elsewhere if he had done no more than visit one of their lodges.
He is conciliatory in his attitude when he concludes this section by writing ‘And hope, that I shall live to see a general conformity and universal unity between the worthy masons of all denominations. This is the most earnest wishes and ardent prayers of…. Laurence Dermott’. This unity was something that was being discussed amongst Freemasons in the latter part of the eighteenth century and it is most unfortunate that Dermott did not devote his undoubted talents and organizing ability to bringing about such an eminently desirable union. Had he done so it might well have become an accomplished fact during his lifetime rather twenty-two years afterwards? Indeed he might have played an important and memorable role in establishing a United Grand Lodge of England and the debt that freemasonry owes to him would have been so much greater. Perhaps, however, he was only paying lip-service to the idea or perhaps he was willing to consider it only if the Moderns conformed to the practices of the Antients for, elsewhere in his book, he did not hesitate to pour score on them in words that he cannot possibly have intended should be taken seriously: ‘Nor is it uncommon for a tyler to receive ten or twelve shillings for drawing two sign posts with chalk &c. and writing Jamaica rum upon one, and Barbadoes rum upon the other, and all this (I suppose) for no other use, than to distinguish where those liquors are to be placed in the lodge. There are many other unconstitutional proceedings, which (to avoid giving offence) I pass over in silence’.
He certainly did this but he returned to the attack in the next edition , which was revised by him whilst he was Deputy Grand Master and is shown as having been printed for James Jones, Grand Secretary. He pours scorn on Anderson’s history of masonry, he makes several accusations of deceit, declares the premier Grand Lodge to have been irregular in its foundation, accuses them of having usurped the arms of the London Company of Masons and their title of ‘free-masons’ which, he says that Company alone had the right to bear and he charges them with having initiated eunuchs and women. He also accuses them of having corrupted pure and ancient freemasonry: ‘It is a truth beyond contradiction, that the free and accepted Masons in Ireland, Scotland and the ancient Masons in England, have one and the same customs, usages, and ceremonies: But this is not the case with the modern Masons in England, who differ materially not only from the above, but from most Masons under Heaven’.
In addition, he ridicules their ceremonies, as for example: ‘After many years observations on those ingenious methods of walking up to a brother, &c. I conclude, that the first was invented by a Man grievously affected with the Sciatica. The Second by a Sailor, much accustomed to the rolling of a Ship. And the third by a man, who for recreation or through excess of strong liquors, was wont to dance the drunken Peasant’. All that from one who protested that his ‘most earnest wishes and ardent prayers’ were for ‘a general conformity and universal unity between worthy masons of all denominations’!!!
A strange outcome of this second edition of Ahiman Rezon was the publication of an anonymous pamphlet bearing the over-lengthy title of A Defence of Free-Masonry, as practised in the Regular Lodges. Both Foreign and Domestic, Under the Constitution of the English Grand Master. In which is contained, A Refutation of Mr. Dermott’s absurd and ridiculous Account of Free-Masonry, in his Book, entitled Ahiman Rezon; and the several Queries therein, reflecting on the Regular Masons, briefly considered and answered. All the vituperation was not on the side of the Antients for this was a most scurrilous pamphlet and certainly reflected no credit on the Moderns. Henry Sadler (Masonic Facts and Fictions) suggests that John Revis, Grand Secretary of the Moderns 1734-56 and Deputy Grand Master 1757-63 was the author, or possibly his successor, Samuel Spencer, Grand Secretary 1757-68.
A third edition of Ahiman Rezon was published in 1778 and a fourth in 1787, the last English edition to be issued during Dermott’s lifetime. There were later editions in 1800, 1801, 1807, c.1810 and 1813, all edited by Thomas Harper, Deputy Grand Master of the Antients (1801-13) who no doubt was responsible for the deletion of much of Dermott’s fiction. There were twenty-one Irish editions between 1760 and 1858 and numerous American editions from 1783 onwards. It was, in fact, adopted as the basis of their constitutions by the Grand Lodge of Ireland and by seven Grand Lodges in America that were of Antient origin viz. North and South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, Nova Scotia, Pennsylvania and Virginia. It may seem strange, especially in view of the close connection between them and the fact of their ceremonies being identical for all practical purposes, that it was not also adopted by the Grand Lodge of Scotland, but there were no official constitution issued by the body in the eighteenth century.
When the first edition was published in 1756 the Antients’ Grand Lodge was small and virtually unknown, having possibly some 30-odd active lodges and probably less than 500 active members, precise figures being impossible to ascertain. It had no history and, as indicated earlier, Dermott felt obliged to invent a most bizarre excuse for not including one. By the time the union came in 1813 it was well established both here and abroad and this was due very largely to Laurence Dermott and to his propaganda in the various editions of Ahiman Rezon, writings that illustrate quite clearly his amazing energy and dynamic personality. By the time of his death in 1791, its purpose had been served and much of what he had written was omitted from the 1800 and subsequent editions but nevertheless echoes of his writings survive even today in the constitutions of various Grand Lodges.
(c) Ray Shepperd, 2006