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by Dr ANDREW PRESCOTT
GODFREY HIGGINS AND HIS ANACALYPSIS
In 1813, a Yorkshire magistrate found the defendant in an assault case to be insane, and ordered that he should be sent to the public lunatic asylum in York. Sometime afterwards, the magistrate found that the man had been badly treated while he was in the asylum, and decided to investigate conditions there. He was appalled by what he found: ‘When the door was opened, I went into the passage and found four cells, I think, of about eight feet square, in a very horrid and filthy situation. The straw appeared to be almost saturated with urine and excrement. There was some bedding laid upon the straw in one cell, in the others only loose straw … The walls were daubed with excrement … I then went upstairs and [the keeper] showed me a room which I caused him to measure, and the size of which he told me was twelve feet by seven feet and ten inches, and in there were thirteen women…’
The magistrate also found evidence of massive embezzlement of funds by the asylum’s staff, the excessive use of chains and other forms of restraint, and the rape and even murder of some of the inmates. He wrote to the press exposing the conditions within the asylum. This prompted a campaign to reform the asylum and led to a parliamentary commission to investigate the conditions in local lunatic asylums. The campaign to expose the abuses at York is considered a turning point in the modern history of the treatment of mental illness.
The kind-hearted Yorkshire magistrate who became the champion of the inmates of the York asylum was Godfrey Higgins (1773-1833), one of the most remarkable English freemasons, now largely forgotten. Higgins was a member of the Yorkshire gentry whose family owned the house of Skellow Grange in Doncaster. Higgins studied at Cambridge and was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1794, but not called to the bar. When Napoleon threatened invasion, he joined the 3rd West Yorkshire Militia, and served as a major from 1803-11. Eventually, ill-health forced him to resign his commission. He took an interest in radical politics, campaigning for the abolition of the Corn Laws and the laws protecting game. He was also active in promoting the cause of parliamentary reform. In 1831, Higgins was asked by some of the radical political unions in Yorkshire to stand for parliament, but he refused.
The reason for Higgins’s reluctance to stand for parliament was that he was immersed in some demanding studies. As a result of his illness, he determined to devote himself to the study of philosophy. He decided to investigate the evidence for Christianity. This developed into a study of all religions, and eventually became an investigation of the origins of language and nations. Higgins ruefully recollected that ‘Ultimately I came to a resolution to devote six hours a day to this pursuit for ten years. Instead of six hours daily for ten years, I believe I have, upon the average, applied myself to it for nearly ten hours daily for almost twenty years. In the first ten years of my search I may fairly say, I found nothing which I sought for; in the later part of the twenty, the quantity of matter has so crowded upon me, that I scarcely know how to dispose of it’.
Higgins’s publications on the history of religion nowadays appear extremely eccentric, but they are important in understanding many aspects of British radical thought and have had a profound influence on esoteric and new age movements right up to the present day. Higgins’s books fascinated many masonic writers during the nineteenth century. Higgins himself became a Freemason to further his researches, reporting his findings to the Duke of Sussex.
The Library and Museum of Freemasonry has recently purchased a remarkable copy of Higgins’s magnum opus, Anacalypsis, which sheds new light on the means by which Higgins’s work was circulated and received in British radical circles in the first part of the nineteenth century. Moreover, this copy of Anacalypsis contains extraordinary new evidence showing how Higgins formed a link between the highest echelons of English Freemasonry, including the Duke of Sussex himself, and radical writers such as the notorious atheist Richard Carlile (1790-1843) who were at that time publishing copies of masonic rituals and claiming that Freemasonry was a remnant of true religion and Christianity was a blasphemous confidence trick.
In 1819, Carlile had been imprisoned in Dorchester gaol for publishing Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. Far from languishing in prison, Carlile used his imprisonment to continue his campaign for freedom of speech, and published from his prison room his pioneering working-class journal, The Republican. In 1825, he devoted most of the twelfth volume of The Republican to an exposure of masonic rituals. In its original form, Carlile’s attack on Freemasonry simply mocked a leisure pursuit favoured by the aristocracy and middle classes. However, some years later, rereading Thomas Paine’s essay on the origin of Freemasonry, Carlile realised that his initial dismissal of Freemasonry had been overhasty. He wondered whether, as Paine suggested, Freemasonry might contain elements of the ancient religion of which Christianity was a perversion. Reprinting his original collection of masonic ritual as A Manual of Freemasonry, he argued that Freemasonry held the key to recovering the ancient science of the zodiac which lay at the root of all religion. Carlile was joined in his campaign to use Freemasonry to overthrow Christianity by Robert Taylor (1784-1844), a renegade clergyman known as the Devil’s Chaplain. Taylor preached sermons on the true nature of Freemasonry, and with Carlile planned public performances of masonic rituals.
In the introduction to his Manual of Freemasonry, Carlile states that in 1830 Godfrey Higgins ‘observed to me, without explanation, that there were but two masons in England – himself and the Duke of Sussex’. Carlile replied to Higgins that there were also two other masons, namely Carlile and Taylor. Higgins ‘asked me to explain, on condition that he was not to commit himself by any observation. I did so, as here set forth. He smiled and withdrew’. Carlile’s account of this conversation is slightly mysterious. What did Higgins mean by his claim? What exactly were the nature of Carlile’s links with Higgins, and how far was he influenced by Higgins’s work? Some answers to these questions are provided by the Library and Museum of Freemasonry’s newly-acquired copy of Anacalypsis.
Higgins’s first venture into the history of religion was Horae Sabbaticae, which was published in 1826, and argued that there was no biblical evidence to support strict observance of Sunday as a day of rest. Characteristically, Higgins pushed the argument further, deprecating public worship in favour of private devotion and declaring that ‘reason has nothing to do with religion’. Higgins’s interest in the religious basis of sabbatarian legislation was doubtless partly prompted by his responsibilities as a magistrate, and some of his Yorkshire neighbours protested at Higgins’s views. Higgins’s next publication in 1829 prompted an even greater storm. An Apology for the Life of the celebrated prophet of Arabia called Mohammed took the form of a letter to members of the Royal Asiatic Society. The pamphlet sought not simply to defend Mohammed from the most extreme slanders of his Christian detractors, but also to show that both Islam and Christianity ‘however unfortunately changed by time, are the same in their original foundation and principle’. Higgins espoused an openly relativist view of religion: ‘God is equally present with the pious Jew in the synagogue, the Christian in the church, the Mohamedan in the mosque, and the Brahmin in the Temple’.
Among those who were appalled by Higgins’s defence of a man then commonly considered by Christian commentators to be a charlatan was another Yorkshire friend and fellow magistrate, Robert Mackenzie Beverley. Beverley was notorious as a vituperative pamphleteer whose denunciation of the management of Cambridge University in 1833 was described by The Times as an ‘invidious, envenomed and offensive book’. Beverley shared many enthusiasms with Higgins, including opposition to slavery and a distaste for established religion and the clergy. Beverley’s opposition to an established church and clergy afterwards led him to join the Plymouth Brethren. Although Beverley had visited Skellow Grange many times, and wrote part of his pamphlet against Higgins in the breakfast room there, he pulled no punches against his friend, declaring that ‘those who would prove that Mohammed was no imposter are, to use the words of Rabelais, “shearing donkeys to get wool”’. Higgins asked Beverley to include a reply by him in the book, but Beverley refused and did not even send Higgins a copy of the book. By 1833, Beverley had become what Higgins described as a ‘Calvinistic preacher’. He returned all his copies of Higgins’s works to their author, and dropped Higgins from his circle of acquaintance.
In the same year that Higgins published his defence of Mohammed, he also produced his first major study, The Celtic Druids. This argued that the Druids were the priests of a black empire which once ruled Egypt and Asia. The Druids according to Higgins were the priests of a primordial religion, the chief features of which were sun and phallus worship. Higgins argued that the Druids were identical with many other ancient sects and that Christianity was a deliberate distortion of this ancient religion. The Celtic Druids was criticised by Christians as blasphemous and by Deists as excessively religious.
In a second edition of The Celtic Druids, Higgins announced that he was preparing a work which would demonstrate that ‘all the ancient mythologies of the world, however varied and corrupted in recent times, were originally ONE and that one founded on principles sublime, beautiful and true’. This was Higgins’s magnum opus, Anacalypsis, An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis; or, an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations, and Religions. Anacalypsis is a monumental work, and has been described as the first large-scale attempt at a synthesis of religion and science. Advance copies of the first volume of Anacalypsis were produced only seven weeks before Higgins’s death in 1833, and it is one of these rare advance copies that the Library and Museum of Freemasonry has acquired. The second volume was edited from Higgins’s papers after his death by his publisher, the Hackney printer, George Smallfield.
Anacalypsis is a Greek word which means uncovering or revealing, and Anacalypsis seeks not simply to prove the common origin of all religions but also to show that, ‘concealed under the garb of history’ is a secret doctrine which is the essence of this ancient belief-system. Higgins argued that stonemasons were the priests of this first religion: ‘as they were the people employed to provide everything requisite for honouring the Gods, the building of the Temples naturally fell into their hands, and thus priests and masons were identified’. Freemasonry, preserving the secrets of the ancient stonemasons, was thus for Higgins a lineal descendant of the primeval religion.
Higgins had used his own position as a Freemason to investigate these matters, and claimed to have found firm proof of his conjectures. He described how he suspected that there was a line of descent from the Chaldees, the astronomer priests of the Near East, to the medieval Celtic religious communities of the Culdees, and argued that they were all masons. Higgins had searched the records at Freemasons’ Hall in London and had found that a body called the Grand Lodge of All England had met in the crypt of York Cathedral. He went to York and interviewed the last survivor of this lodge, who showed him documents which established that the lodge had variously called itself a druidical lodge, a chapter of royal arch masons and a templar encampment, and had met in York for the last time in 1778. Modern masonic scholarship has not supported Higgins’s view of the antiquity of the Grand Lodge of All England. The Grand Lodge of All England was established at York in 1725 by an existing masonic lodge at York. It derived from an existing masonic lodge there, but the origins of this can only be traced back as far as the late 17th century and it is impossible to substantiate the connection with antiquity which Higgins proposed. However, this case does illustrate how Higgins undertook pioneering explorations into the masonic archive.
It is not known when Higgins was initiated into Freemasonry. He may possibly have joined a regimental lodge while he was serving in the militia. His further involvement in Freemasonry was encouraged by his friendship with Robert Beverley, the young Calvinist who fell out with Higgins over his defence of Mohammed. In 1822, Lord Dundas, the Provincial Grand Master of the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire, appointed the 24-year-old Beverley as Deputy Provincial Grand Master. Since Dundas spent much of his time abroad, much of the day-to-day administration of Freemasonry in eastern Yorkshire was undertaken by Beverley.
Although York was a long-established masonic centre, the most active lodges were in Beverley and Hull. However, the Hull lodges were prone to disputes and secessions, and posed constant problems for Robert Beverley. The Master of one of the Hull Lodges, the Humber Lodge (now No. 57), hoped to develop it into the leading lodge in the North and East Ridings and proposed to build a grand masonic hall. Robert Beverley staunchly supported the efforts of Humber Lodge to open its own hall, laying the foundation stone in May 1827 and six months later consecrating the new temple. Beverley evidently wanted to overcome the problems which had been caused by internal disputes within the Humber Lodge and to mark the consecration of the new temple with a prestigious event. He persuaded his friend Godfrey Higgins that it was about time that he proceeded to the degrees of Fellow Craft and Master Mason. The first ceremony to be performed in the new masonic hall at Hull on 3 October 1827 was raising of Higgins to the degree of Fellow Craft, with Beverley in the chair. Higgins was shortly afterwards made a master mason in the same lodge.
Almost as soon as he had become a master mason in Hull, Higgins joined the prestigious Prince of Wales Lodge (now No. 259) in London. This lodge had been created by the Prince Regent when he was Grand Master, and was originally intended only for those who held appointments under the Prince of Wales or were close associates of him. The Duke of York had succeeded the Prince Regent as Master, and on the Duke’s death in 1827, he was succeeded by the Duke of Clarence and then in 1830 the Duke of Sussex. Higgins could hardly have joined a more prestigious lodge. He remained a member until his death. The Prince of Wales Lodge was one of the ‘red apron’ lodges which had the zealously guarded privilege of nominating a Grand Steward, and Higgins was duly nominated as a Grand Steward in 1829.
Unfortunately, Higgins was unable to attend the Grand Feast due to illness, but in a fascinating letter recently discovered in the Library and Museum of Freemasonry apologising for not being able to travel to the feast, Higgins explains that he had been in York ‘searching into the antiquities of masonry by desire of his Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex’. This is an obvious reference to Higgins’s investigations into the origins of the York Grand Lodge, and indicates that the Duke of Sussex had taken an interest in Higgins’s work. It was perhaps the Duke who had arranged for Higgins to join the Prince of Wales Lodge. The Duke of Sussex was well known for his support of such liberal political causes as catholic emancipation and the abolition of the slave trade. He was also profoundly interested in the history of religion, assembling a celebrated library of printed and manuscript bibles. Sussex’s own religious views require further study, but there is every indication that he would have been sympathetic to many of Higgins’s ideas. A Swedish representative who was present at the time of the Union of the Grand Lodges in 1813 reported that, like Higgins, the Duke was interested in establishing whether there were really any links between Freemasonry and the Knights Templar.
Higgins was conscientious in his observance of his masonic oaths. He never revealed the full extent of his discoveries at York, but reported them dutifully to Sussex as the Grand Master. The documents which were given to him relating to the Grand Lodge he deposited with the Duke, ‘with whom they ought most properly to be placed’. Rumours continued to circulate for decades afterwards that Higgins had found evidence of a continuing Roscicrucian cell at York, which had disappeared into the Duke’s library.
The Library and Museum’s copy of Anacalypsis shows that Higgins was not only interested in sharing his findings with the Duke of Sussex but also with other less respectable figures. This copy of Anacalypsis is not only of interest because it is one of the copies that Higgins saw shortly before his death, but also because Higgins intended the volume for the use of Robert Taylor, the ‘Devil’s Chaplain’ and close associate of Richard Carlile. An inscription by Higgins in the front of the volume states that the book was lent by him to his friends Robert Taylor and Julian Hibbert on condition that they return it when asked and that they do not permit anybody else to read it and only discuss it in the most general terms. Hibbert (1800-34) was a wealthy member of a London banking family who helped finance Richard Carlile’s activities, himself publishing articles in Carlile’s journals and introducing Carlile to many of the classic deistic texts of the period.
Hibbert’s role in acting as an intermediary between Higgins and Carlile’s circle is made evident by a letter from Higgins to Hibbert pasted into this copy of his book. Higgins felt that he could not possibly meet Taylor in person, but wanted to Hibbert to invite Taylor to prepare a summary of the first volume of Anacalypsis to be inserted at the beginning of the second volume when ready. Higgins’s letter contains an important summary of his proposed structure for the second volume. He also asked Hibbert and Taylor for their assistance in spotting printer’s errors and in assembling further evidence in support of his theories. Thus, Higgins was not only working with the Duke of Sussex in investigating the origin of Freemasonry and religion, but was also in the weeks before his death seeking support from radicals considered at that time beyond the pale of respectability.
Sadly, Higgins was never to see the publication of the second volume of Anacalypsis. It seems that this advance copy was retained by Hibbert, who himself died, apparently his own hand, in 1834, when it passed to Taylor. The book is full of dozens of annotations which are themselves important evidence of the reception of Higgins’s work in radical circles. Hibbert’s annotations are precise and scholarly, concerning themselves mainly with points of etymology. Taylor makes more effusive annotations. He notes of one book cited by Higgins ‘It has been the favourite solace of my prison hours for two whole years’. Elsewhere, he declares of a particularly anti-christian comment by Higgins: ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Oh Mr Higgins hast thou no fear of gaol before thine eyes?’ The book seems to have been lent by Taylor to a number of other sympathetic readers who also make their own comments and corrections. The whole volume represents almost a posthumous dialogue between Higgins and his later readers.
Anacalypsis exerted a profound influence on the history of nineteenth-century Freemasonry. Among those who attended the laying of the foundation stone of the masonic hall at Hull was the Reverend George Oliver, who was a friend of Robert Beverley. Oliver was prompted by works such as Anacalypsis and Carlile’s Manual of Freemasonry to develop an elaborate philosophy of Freemasonry which took over many of Higgins’s ideas but argued that the primordial religion was Christianity. Oliver’s works, a direct reaction to Higgins, dominated the ideology of English F
Freemasonry in the nineteenth century. The persistent influence of Higgins’s work on English Freemasonry was apparent in its reprinting by the masonic publisher George Kenning in 1876, and Higgins’s hints of the persistence of a Rosicrucian group in York were enthusiastically taken up by Freemasons with occult and esoteric interests, such as A.E. Waite and William Wynn Westcott.
The impact of Higgins’s work was not confined to Freemasonry, but can still be seen today in many new age and radical groups. Various Druid orders, whose own origins can be traced back to Freemasonry through the Ancient Order of Druids, have claimed that Higgins was a successor of John Toland and William Blake as Chief Druid. Higgins’s idea that nations and religions derive from a great black empire have been enthusiastically taken up by black groups. Higgins was cited by Malcolm X. However, the most remarkable impact of Higgins’s work was on theosophy. Madame Blavatsky was an enthusiastic reader of Higgins, and it has been pointed out that in many ways Anacalypsis, with its emphasis on the cycles of history and the role of avatars, was in many ways a precursor of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled. When Annie Besant (who was one of the publishers of the Library and Museum’s reprint of a collection of Robert Taylor’s sermons) left the Fabian Society, a note was made in the membership register that she had ‘gone to theosophy’, but maybe she had not gone away but returned to an aspect of the British radical tradition which reached back to Paine, Carlile and Higgins, the Archdruid.