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Masonic Bios

John Theophilus Desaguliers

Of all those who were engaged in the revival of Freemasonry in the beginning of the eighteenth century, none performed a more important part than he to whom may be well applied the epithet of the Father of Modern speculative Freemasonry, and to whom, perhaps, more than any other person, is the present Grand Lodge of England indebted for its existence. A sketch of his life, drawn from the scanty materials to be found in Masonic records, and in the brief notices of a few of his contemporaries, cannot fail to be interesting to the student of Masonic history.

The Rev. John Theophilus Desaguliers, LL.D., F.R.S., was born on March 12, 1683, at Rochelle, in France. He was the son of a French Protestant clergyman; and, his father having removed to England as a refugee on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, he was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, where he took lessons of the celebrated Keill in experimental philosophy. In 1719 he received the Degree of Master of Arts, and in the same year succeeded Doctor Keill as a lecturer on experimental philosophy at Hert Hall (now Hertford College). In the year 1713 he removed to Westminster, where he continued his course of lectures, being the first one, it is said, who ever lectured upon physical science in the metropolis. At this time he attracted the notice and secured the friendship of Sir Isaac Newton. His reputation as a philosopher obtained for him a Fellowship in the Royal Society. He was also about this time admitted to clerical orders, and appointed by the Duke of Chandos his Chaplain, who also presented him to the living of Whitchurch. In 1718 he received from the University of Oxford the degree of Doctor of Civil Law, and was presented by the Earl of Sunderland to a living in Norfolk, which he afterward exchanged for one in Essex. He maintained, however, his residence in London, where he continued to deliver his lectures until his death in 1744.

His contributions to science consist of a Treatise on the Construction of Chimneys translated from the French, and published in 1716; A System of Experimental Philosophy, of which a second edition was issued in 1719; .4 Course of Experimental Philosophy, in two volumes, published in 1734; and in 1735 he edited an edition of Gregory's Elements of Catoptrics and Dioptrics. He also translated from the Latin Gravesandes Mathematical Elements of Natural Philosophy.

In the clerical profession he seems not to have been an ardent worker, and his theological labors were confined to the publication of a single sermon unrepentance. He was in fact more distinguished as a scientist than as a clergyman, and Priestly calls him "an indefatigable experimental philosopher."

It is, however, as a Freemason that Doctor Desaguliers will most attract our attention. But nothing is known as to his connection with Freemasonry until 1719, when he was elevated to the throne of the Grand Lodge, succeeding George Payne, and being thus the third Grand Master after the revival. He paid much attention to the interests of the Fraternity, and so elevated the character of the Order, that the records of the Grand Lodge show that during his administration several of the older Brethren who had hitherto neglected the Craft resumed their visits to the Lodges, and many noblemen were initiated into the Institution.

Doctor Desaguliers was peculiarly zealous in the investigation and collection of the old records of the society, and to him we are principally indebted for the preservation of the Charges of a Freemason and the preparation of the General Regulations, which are found in the first edition of the Constitutions; which, although attributed to Doctor Anderson, were undoubtedly compiled under the supervision of Desaguliers. Anderson, we suppose, did the work, while Desaguliers furnished much of the material and the thought. One of the first controversial works in favor of Freemasonry, namely, A Detection of Dr. Plots' Account of the Freemasons, was also attributed to his pen; but he is said to have repudiated the credit of its authorship, of which indeed the paper furnishes no internal evidence.

In 1721 he delivered before the Grand Lodge what the records call "an eloquent oration about Masons and Masonry." It does not appear that it was ever published, at least no copy of it is extant, although Kloss puts the title at the head of his Catalogue of Masonic Orations. It is indeed, the first Masonic address of which we have any notice, and would be highly interesting, because it would give us, in all probability, as Kloss remarks, the views of the Freemasons of that day in reference to the design of the Institution.

After his retirement from the office of Grand Master, in 1720, Desaguliers was three times appointed Deputy Grand Master: in 1723, by the Duke of Wharton; in June of the same year, by the Earl of Dalkeith; in 1725, by Lord Paisley; and during this period of service he did many things for the benefit of the Craft; among others, initiating that scheme of charity which was subsequently developed in what is now known in the Grand Lodge of England as the Fund of Benevolence.

After this, Doctor Desaguliers passed over to the Continent, and resided for a few years in Holland. In 1731 he was at The Hague, and presided as Worshipful Master of a Lodge organized under a special Dispensation for the purpose of initiating and passing the Duke of Lorraine, who was subsequently Grand Duke of Tuscany, and then Emperor of Austria as well as of Germany. The Duke was, during the same year, made a Master Mason in England.

On his return to England, Desaguliers was considered, from his position in Freemasonry, as the most fitting person to confer the Degrees on the Prince of Wales, who was accordingly entered, passed, and raised in an Occasional Lodge, held on two occasions at Kew, over which Doctor Desaguliers presided as Master.

Doctor Desaguliers was very attentive to all his Masonic duties, and punctual in his attendance on the Communications of the Grand Lodge. His last recorded appearance by name is on the 5th of February, 1742, but a few years before his death.

Of Desaguliers' Masonic and personal character, Doctor Oliver gives, from tradition, the following description:

There were many traits in his character that redound to his immortal praise. He was a grave man in private life, almost approaching to austerity; but he could relax in the private recesses of a Tyled Lodge, and in company with brothers and fellows where the ties of social intercourse are not particularly stringent. He considered the proceedings of the Lodge as strictly confidential; and being persuaded that his brothers by initiation actually occupied the same position as brothers by blood, he was undisguisedly free and familiar in the mutual interchange of Unrestrained courtesy. In the Lodge he was jocose and free-hearted, sang his song, and had no objection to his share of the bottle, although one of the most learned and distinguished men of his day (see Revelations of a Square, page 10).

In 1713, Desaguliers had married a daughter of William Pudsey, Esq., by whom he had two sons Alexander, who was 3 clergyman, and Thomas, who went into the army, and became a colonel of artillery and an equerry to George III.

The latter days of Doctor Desaguliers are said to have been clouded with sorrow and poverty. De Feller, in the Biographic Universelle, says that he became insane, dressing sometimes as a harlequin, and sometimes as a clown, and that in one of these fits of insanity he died. Cawthorn, in a poem entitled The Vanity of Human Enjoyments, intimates, in the following lines, that Desaguliers was in very necessitous circumstances at the time of his death:

How poor, neglected Desaguliers fell!
How he who taught two gracious kings to view
All Boyle ennobled and all Bacon knew,
Died in a cell. without a friend to save
Without a guinea, and without a grave.

But the accounts of the French biographer and the English poet are most probably both apocryphal, or, at least, much exaggerated; for Nichols, who knew him personally, and has given a fine portrait of him in the ninth volume of his Literary Anecdotes, says that he died on February 29, 1744, at the Bedford Coffee House, and was buried in the Savoy.

To few Freemasons of the present day, except to those who have made Freemasonry a subject of especial study, is the name of Desaguliers very familiar.

But it is well they should know that to him, perhaps, more than to any other man, are we indebted for the present existence of Freemasonry as a living institution, for it was his learning and social position that gave a standing to the Institution, which brought to its support noblemen and men of influence, so that the insignificant assemblage of four London Lodges at the Apple-Tree Tavern has expanded into an association which now shelters the entire civilized world. And the moving spirit of all this was John Theophilus Desaguliers.

The sounds in the French name Desaguliers as pronounced by Brother McClenachan will be found in the list of words printed at the end of the second volume of this work. A few comments may be made here upon the matter. All that can well be done is to indicate accepted custom. Doctor E. B. de Sauz, the leading American authority on modern languages, prefers the following from a French point of view: De, as in desecrate; sa, as za, the short a as in lateral; gu, as gu, the French or German u (the sound best imitated by shaping the lips as if to whistle and then uttering the u); li, as in lid or lit, and ers, as the French , shorter than the first e in desecrate. The reader will note that the final letters rs are not pronounced. Another and a fairly common pronunciation of the name among English-speaking Brethren is heard thus: Des, as in days or pays; ag, as in lag or tags u, as in mute or lute; li, as in lid or lit, and ers, as in pears or bears. A French naturalist of the same name is listed with the indicated pronunciation in Spiers' and Surenne's Dictionary (page 175) and as nearly as we can reproduce the sounds by English words may be illustrated thus: De, as in pay and way; sa, as 20 in zone; gu, as in gulf or gum, the French or German u sound being understood; li, as in lit or listen, and ers, as the a in cat or mat. Practically there is no tonic accent in French beyond a slight stress on the final syllable pronounced.

- Source: Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry

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