Jonathan Swift is listed in Denslow’s 10,000 Famous Freemasons as a freemason and member of the Goat-at-the-Foot-of-the-Haymarket, No. 16 lodge in London. His writings from earlier in life in Dublin also indicate familiarity with Masonic rituals.
In a portion of Swift’s famous work Gulliver’s Travels, the main character Gulliver travels to an island name Lilliput, which is inhabited by tiny people 6 inches tall. Gulliver finds himself mixed up in a war between the Lillputians and their enemies on the neighboring island of Blefuscu. In the story, the focus of the war is a disagreement on which side of a boiled egg should be broken, between “Big Endians” and “Little Endians”.
The Big-Endian/Little-Endian is meant to represent British fights over religion in Swift’s time. Less than 200 years before the book was written, England had been a Catholic country; but beginning in the 1530s under a series of monarchs, most of England had converted to Protestantism. Lilliput acted as England, while Blefuscu, embodied by the propagandizing Emperor, stood for France.
Even though Jonathan Swift was an Anglican minister himself, he was communicating that religious conflict of his time was petty and was not worth the harm that it caused. Peppering the text with many direct parallels to the politics of the day, it generally painted the great issues of his day as causing great destruction over trifling distinctions.
Gulliver’s Travels was written in 1726, largely while Swift was in Ireland, but he came to London in the same year to have it published in November. Just three years prior, the first edition of Anderson’s Constitutions had been published, which collected and wrote down many things about Freemasonry which endure to this day, including the injunction not to discuss religion & politics.
This was a powerful time, right at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, and only a few years after the concept of “separation of church and state” is said to have been credited to John Locke. Locke said that the government lacked authority over an individual’s conscience, and that rational people could not give it up to the government or others to control. For Locke, this created a natural right in the liberty of conscience, which he said must therefore remain protected from any government authority. It appears that the Freemasons of the day were broadly on the same wavelength:
Years later, after the formation of the United States of America, the same sort of sentiments could be found in American writers, including in Thomas Jefferson:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists, 1802
Looking at the story of Lilliput in the context of what was happening in England, Jonathan Swift looks very much like a man of his times. While it is not certain that he was a Freemason, we can see his work as one thread of enlightenment values, in consonance with the development of values which have pervaded Freemasonry since.
While many Freemasons speak in lofty terms about the philosophical values behind religious tolerance, the story of Lilliput also demonstrates the practical impacts when those values are cast aside: namely that division, war, and death result.