Freemasonry Around the World: Czechia
Author: WB Seann Maria. First published on the Blog of The Grand Lodge of Washington website
Czechia or the Czech Republic, as it is more commonly known in the United States, is a country many times divided. Like so many countries in this part of Europe it has been a part of an Empire and has had many names. The Celts were once its early settlers, later to be outnumbered by Germanic tribes and Slavs. Each one of these cultures deserves its own research to give it proper appreciation, however for the purpose of this article we will concentrate on the effect the country’s many cultures have had on Freemasonry.
In the 15th century religious division around the Catholic Church and rise of Protestantism divided the people of the area called Bohemia that would later become the largest portion of the country of Czechia. Over the next two centuries Bohemia’s ruling government, The
Austrian Empire, built an intolerance for the craft; while Brethren attuned to Protestant beliefs fled to more sympathetic lands such as England, Hungary, Poland, and the Netherlands.
The first documented freemason from Bohemia was Philip Count Kinsky who was raised in November 1731 while staying in England. He spent 12 years in London as Imperial Ambassador and upon his return became the highest Chancellor of Bohemia in Prague. Within a decade the first lodges would appear in record books coinciding with the influx of French, English, Scottish, Irish, Dutch and German military officers. It was also at this time that the Queen of the Hapsburg Empire, Maria-Theresa, and her long and shaky history with Freemasonry would begin to affect Bohemian Masons. Any studies into her life will eventually note that she made several rules of law to suppress Freemasonry yet eventually seemed to embrace Freemasons as her closest advisors and eventually her husband Francis I became both a Freemason and the Holy Roman Emperor. At a later date her son and co-regent Joseph II would become one of the largest supporters of the fraternity within Austria. This later acceptance of Freemasonry in her Empire extended into Prague where funds came from the Queen’s donations to the Masonic order building an orphanage within the city.
Prague began to flourish with Masons leading important institutions like the National Museum, the Academy of Sciences, and the National Gallery. In the late 18th century, the great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart frequented Prague seemingly more than any other city away from Vienna and seemed to keep company exclusively with fellow Freemasons. Eventually the Craft began to relax its means of selection and the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bohemia was split into six Provincial Grand Lodges of Austria, Bohemia, Galicia, Austrian Lombardy, Siebenbürgen (Transylvania), and Hungary. The Grand Lodge of Austria was set up as the central Grand Lodge and ordered limits on the number of lodges within each Provincial Grand Lodge while simultaneously making them state protected. This attempt to protect Masonry failed to last and soon lodges closed; at first voluntarily closed under political pressure from the succeeding monarchs and later were outlawed as anti-government secret societies. It wouldn’t be until the late 19th century that Bohemian lodges began to appear in neighboring regions of Slovakia and Hungary.
Lodges in Bohemia would work strictly under their number within the jurisdiction of a foreign Grand Lodge for decades. This created chaos in the form of different rituals in different languages and amounted to tension between the lodges. World War I changed the region forever and as Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918 the diversity of Masons grew wider with new groups of Germans, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenes, Jews and Gypsies, each with their own cultures and own languages. Throughout the beginning of the 20th century, there were many Masons who stepped forward to help the cause of founding native jurisdictions in the country. Among them was the famous painter Bro. Alphonse Mucha who displayed symbolism of the craft in some of his best works of art. By 1923 there were two primary Grand Lodges that claimed to be sovereign bodies of Czechoslovakia, The Grand Lodge, or more specifically “Lessing zu den drei Ringen“ (Lessing at the Three Rings), and The Grand Lodge of Czechoslovakia. The former of these names derives from the influence that the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and his famous work, The Parable of the Three Rings, had over these previously German lodges.
As the Nazi’s invaded in 1938, the Fraternity would again be scattered into exile and hiding during the siege of Europe in World War II. The Grand Lodge of Czechoslovakia would preside over scattered lodges in its jurisdiction around the world for decades. When finally Masons returned to the country en masse, they again proved divided between two major Grand Lodges. Finally, in a ceremony at Prague’s Strahov Monastery, in 2008, members of the Czech Republic’s two senior Masonic organizations finally united, when the Grand Lodge of the Czech Republic incorporated the members of the Czech Grand Orient becoming the Grand Lodge of record that stands today.
“The two grand lodges were following different traditions – one was following the Anglo-Saxon or English tradition while the other was following the French, or continental, tradition. Central Europe is a specific case where both of these tendencies were strong. But the formal dispute, which was at the core of this division of Freemasonry, has nothing to do with the Czechs, the Poles, or the Hungarians. It was therefore, after a certain time, understood that the natural evolution of Freemasonry was to unite – which we did on Saturday, March 8(2008).”
- Marc Verdier, the First Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the Czech Republic
Reflecting on this history can tell us what needs to be understood when considering the Masonry in Czechoslovakia. The Freemasons of this country have historically experienced so much adversity and diversity that a careful consideration of each Mason and each lodge is necessary when trying to understand the expected customs, language, and rituals they keep. Their amity with each other and with us is a product of unique observance of all these traditions they uphold. To best understand which lodges we are in a current relationship with, please contact your Grand Lodge who can give the proper and recognized process for travel and Masonic correspondence.
WB Seann Maria
St Johns Lodge No. 9