Review of The Golden Builders: Alchemists, Rosicucians, and the First Free Masons

Tobias Churton, The Golden Builders: Alchemists, Rosicrucians and the First Free Masons. 

UK, Signal Publishing, 2002. Distributed by the Atlantis Bookshop, 49a Museum Street, London WC1A 1LY, UK.  Tel. +44  (0) 20 7405 2120. E-mail:  250 pp. ISBN 0-9453309-0-0.

Reviewed by Christopher McIntosh


Tobias Churton may already be known to some readers of this journal as the creator of an award-winning UK television series, The Gnostics, in the late 1980s, as the author of a book of the same title, which accompanied the series, as the former editor of the magazine Freemasonry Today and as the maker of  documentary films on the Rosicrucian tradition and on Elias Ashmole. In the present book he consolidates his work on these and related themes and links them together as part of a current of Hermetic thought running from ancient Alexandria to 18th-century England. It is one of the those books that, in the best sense, reflect a personal quest of the author -- a quest, as he writes in his preface, which has stemmed from a sense of "hiddenness" in the universe and of an element in human history which can best be described as the "magical." "One needs to see the world from a different perspective to that which has become familiar, or over-familiar ... Something is missing from the equation and this book represents part of my search to find out what that 'something' is, and is not."  Churton's method of proceeding is to cut an archaeological trench through successive layers of the spiritual history of the West and describe the connections that come to light. A trench is necessarily selective, but Churton's yields a rich and fascinating harvest. While much of the ground that he covers has already been explored, he brings a continually fresh and stimulating approach to his subject matter, and -- especially in the latter part of the book -- comes up with some bold and thought-provoking perspectives.

This is not a book for those who think that historians should treat esoteric subjects with sanitised gloves and a leaden pen. Churton is both a good scholar and one who makes no bones about his own profound respect for the traditions he is dealing with. He also writes with great liveliness and often with wit. The title of the book is taken from William Blake's poem, Jerusalem. Blake's "golden builders" are building the promised city of Golgonooza. "This city has its citizens," Churton writes. By that he means certain people throughout the ages who have glimpsed the Hermetic gnosis and attempted in some way to apply it.

Like Hermes himself, the "Thrice-Greatest", who is the key figure and the Leitmotiv of this book, the structure of the text is threefold. Part I, "The Hermetic Philosophy", is a broad survey of the Hermetic current and its transmission from  Hellenistic Alexandria down to the time of Paracelsus, examining inter alia  its role in alchemy, its links with the Sabians of Harran, and various of its avatars such as the astonishing fifteenth-century Hermetist Ludovico Lazzarelli and his even more astonishing mentor Giovanni Mercurio da Corregio who, on Palm Sunday 1484, entered Rome on a white ass wearing a crown of thorns and proclaiming himself as the "angel of Wisdom, Poimandres, in the most sublime manifestation of the Lord Jesus Christ" (Churton, 44). Lazarelli and Corregio, once considered minor footnotes in Renaissance history, have been shown, notably by Wouter Hanegraaff and now by Churton, to be figures of considerable interest and importance. While there is little original material here, Churton brings a fresh eye to the Hermetic tradition and gives some interesting insight into why and how it remained a catalyst within western thought down to the present day.  "The Hermetic tradition," Churton writes "was both moderate and flexible, offering a tolerant philosophical religion, a religion of the (ominpresent) mind, a purified perception of God, the cosmos, and the self, and much positive encouragement for the spiritual seeker, all of which the student could take anywhere." (5) It is easy to see how such a combination could appeal to the medieval alchemist, the Renaissance magician, the seventeenth-century Freemason and indeed the twenty-first-century New Ager. In a fascinating sub-chapter on Paracelsus, Churton describes how Hermes or Mercury became, in the eyes of the great German alchemist, "a metaphysical principle without which nature could not be sustained" (66).

            In Part II Churton focuses on the Rosicrucian movement as a vehicle of the Hermetic current, drawing on state-of-the-art research in this field, such as the works of the Spanish scholar Carlos Gilly. Churton has his own particular "take" on the Rosicrucian story. He shows not only the significance of the Roscicrucian manifestos themselves and the secretive circle from which they emerged but also the importance of the contemporary figures who took up the message and passed it on. One of them was Adam Haselmayr, the notary and Paracelsian physician who fell foul of the Inquisitioin and spent five years as a galley-slave for having written a sympathetic reply to the Fama Fraternitatis while it was still circulating in manuscript. Others included Prince August von Anhalt, for whose benefit Haselmayr wrote his rely, the Augsburg physician and theosopher Carl Widemann, and the Landgrave Moritz von Hessen, who is likely to have authorised the publication of the Fama at Cassel. As Churton shows, these men professed a Hermetic-alchemical-apocalyptic kind of Christianity, in which Paracelsian ideas played a key role and which formed a ripe soil for the ideas propounded in the Fama. What remains a mystery is why August, Widemann and Haselmayr apparently were never able to make contact with the Tübingen circle of Tobias Hess and Johann Valentin Andreae, that produced the manifestos, even though they knew the name of at least one member of the circle, namely Hess. Perhaps Hess avoided contact, but if so, why? As for Andreae, Churton sees him as a towering figure, possessing a vision of a holistic form of Christianity that initially overlapped with the Rosicrucian vision. Over time, however, as the Rosicrucian furore took on ever more extravagant forms, Andreae distanced himself from it and even parodied it, even though something of the Rosicrucian spirit is still present in his later writings.

Part III of the book focuses mainly on one man, the English polymath, antiquarian, collector, alchemist, astrologer and early Freemason, Elias Ashmole, whom Churton presents as another towering figure who has not been given his due by historians. Ashmole, after whom the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is named, fits into the overall theme of the book as one of a constellation of English Renaissance figures who carried the Hermetic current forward. Significantly, Ashmole called himself Mercuriophilus Anglicus, the English Mercury-lover. He was familiar with the Rosicrucian manifestos, possessed a copy of the Fama and even penned a request to join the fraternity. In this context Ashmole's initiation as a Freemason (or Free Mason, as it was then spelt) at a lodge at Warrington, Lancashire, in 1646, is an event of great interest, whose significance has been the subject of much dispute among historians of Masonry. Did Masonry, from an early stage, have a Hermetic component? Churton answers emphatically, yes, and backs this up with some convicing evidence from the Old Charges, the traditional histories of the Craft as presented to initiates up to the seventeenth century. Churton argues that the distinction between the old "operative" Masonry and the so-called "speculative" Masonry, which became established in 1717 with the foundation of the first Grand Lodge in London, is misleading. The date 1717, Churton maintains, has been falsely presented as the true beginning of Freemasonry as we know it today, when in fact there were earlier lodges that could have more justifiably claimed to represent the true spirit of the Craft. This will no doubt startle the more orthodox masonic historians, but Churton goes even further. He locates Staffordshire and the English Midlands as an important cradle of early Masonry and links this with the presence of a number of Cisterian monasteries in the region and a tradition of sacred architecture practised by the masons who built them. Ashmole and his fellow Masons of the seventeenth century were, according to Churton, attempting to keep alive this tradition, which had all but been destroyed during the Reformation and which was threatened once again with destruction at the hands of the Puritans in the English Civil War. This view of course will not find favour with those who see Masonry as an essentially a product of the Enlightenment, but Churton deserves credit for opening up a fascinating and fresh perspective on the early history of the Craft. Ashmole himself emerges as an intriguing, many-faceted and important figure, who deserves a full new biography, and it is hard to imagine anyone better qualified to write it than Churton.


—Christopher McIntosh
Hamburg, Germany