Book Review: Freemasonry and the Birth of Modern Science

The year 2010 marks the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, more popularly known as the Royal Society, the oldest national science institute in the world. In his book Freemasonry and the Birth of Modern Science, author Robert Lomas examines the origins of the Royal Society, and in particular the debt it owes to Freemasonry.

The Royal Society was founded in November 1660. Fifteen years previously, Sir Francis Bacon in his utopian novel New Atlantis had called for a new direction in inquiry into the physical universe, based upon empirical demonstrations of hypotheses or scientific experimentation. His mythical Bensalem had a state-sponsored scientific institution called Salomon’s House, which became an inspiration and a model for a group of intellectuals who called themselves the Invisible College.

The Invisible College’s were the foremost intellects of their age: the chemist/physicist/inventor Robert Boyle; the clergyman John Wilkins; the mathematician and co-inventor (with Sir Isaac Newton) of calculus John Wallis; the diarist John Evelyn; architect and biologist Robert Hooke; architect and astronomer Sir Christopher Wren and economist Sir William Petty, the father of modern statistics. Boyle referred to these men in letters written in 1646 and 1647 as the “Invisible College,” and the name stuck. Members of the Invisible College fought on both sides of England’s bloody and brutal Civil War, half as Parliamentarians, half as Royalists.

Lomas’ own fascinating thesis is that the members of the Invisible College were not just England’s first scientists, but also England’s last magicians – and that it was the secular humanist influence of Freemasonry, principles of freedom, tolerance, equality, and rationality, that in the end won the battle for science. After all, as Lomas points out, Sir Christopher Wren was an astrologer, and Sir Isaac Newton—an early President of the Royal Society – both an astrologer and an alchemist, while Robert Hook’s experiments used unicorn horn as a chemical reagent. Among these men, only Boyle and Wren had no connection to Freemasonry – although there is evidence to show that Wren became a Freemason at a later point in his life. The Masonic doctrines that informed their collaboration are the same principles that underlie the study of science today.

The Invisible College met at each other’s homes and at Gresham College in central London. In 1658 they were forced to suspend meetings after Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers invaded their rooms. In 1660, however, they began meeting again. How and why?

Lomas gives much of the credit for this to Sir Robert Moray, Scotsman, soldier, spy – and Freemason.

A good deal of Freemasonry and the Birth of Modern Science is taken up with the fascinating details of Sir Robert Moray’s life and the important role Freemasonry played in it. After Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Moray used his Freemason connections to reassemble the scientists. The naval war with the Netherlands, first begun under Cromwell, was threatening once again to flare up, and the British Navy was no match for the Dutch. The Invisible College represented a pool of naval technology expertise that Moray could leverage on behalf of king and country. In deference to their assistance, a Royal Charter was signed in 1662 creating the Royal Society of London. That same year Sir Robert Moray became the Society’s first President.

The events Robert Lomas describes are so colorful and his writing style so compelling that Freemasonry and the Birth of Modern Science often reads more like a novel than a work of nonfiction. Indeed, some Freemasons believe that Lomas himself inspired the fictional character of Dr. Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s blockbuster bestseller, The DaVinci Code.