Dudley Wright I: A Brief Introduction
Dudley Wright was an individual who refused to embrace the modern spirit of secularisation and cultural “disenchantment,” countering it instead with a quest to find esoteric wisdom, spiritual “truth,” and an “original” ur-religion or prisca theologia. As a Freemason, Dudley Wright was a member of several lodges, and was on the editorial team of a number of prominent Masonic periodicals. For several years he was the assistant editor, and briefly the principal editor, of the main English Masonic newspaper, The Freemason, and was the founder-editor of The Masonic News. He was also on the editorial team of a number of other Masonic periodicals, such as The Builder and The Master Mason. He published several books and dozens of articles about various aspects of Freemasonry. In addition to his works on Freemasonry, Wright also published articles and books on various religious, theosophical, spiritual and esoteric traditions. He also had a keen interest in psychic and supernatural phenomena, and wrote many articles and books on vampires, poltergeists, the after-life, and resurrection. He was – to use his own phrase – a “truth-seeker” on a spiritual journey. He believed that all religions and mystery traditions share a universal spiritual foundation, and one of the goals which permeated his discourse throughout much of his life was to trace the core truths which he believed all religious systems shared. From 1906 until 1949, he published nearly 30 books, and more than 200 articles and essays in a wide variety of Masonic, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, Christian, theosophical and other religious and spiritual magazines. According to a study by Paul Calderwood (link), he also wrote over 800 short articles and reports on Masonic subjects for The Times newspaper.
Dudley Wright (Circa 1919)
Dudley Wright’s Signature (1911)
In 1908, four years prior to becoming a Freemason, Wright published a series of short essays relating to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in magazines such as Spiritual Power, the Homiletic Review, and the Bible Review. Wright also published his second book, Was Jesus an Essene?, in 1908 (his first book or booklet, The Fourth Dimension, has proven elusive). In Was Jesus an Essene?, Wright argued that Jesus was a member of the Essenes, a Jewish sect at the end of the Second Temple period, rather than the Son of God, or a part of the Trinity. At this stage of his life, and until he converted to Catholicism in the early 1930s, Wright did not consider himself a Christian. When he wrote a letter to the Jewish Chronicle in 1910, he explicitly identified himself as “a Gentile, though not a Christian reader of the Jewish Chronicle.” Whilst he held Jesus in high esteem as a teacher, he was often critical of what he referred to as “orthodox” forms of Christianity. Was Jesus an Essene? contains the earliest evidence of this antipathy. Wright argued, somewhat imaginatively, that Jesus was influenced by Eastern religions such as Buddhism. In support of this, he observed that a recently discovered manuscript, “a copy of a chronicle of a life of Jesus,” showed that Jesus spent a period of his life in monasteries in India and Tibet. Unbeknown to Wright at the time, the chronicle in question, the so-called “Life of Issa”, did not really exist, having been invented rather than discovered by Nicolas Notovitch. In a passage in Was Jesus an Essene? reminiscent of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Wright observed that this chronicle was “so inimical to orthodox Christianity that a certain Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church offered to recompense [the researcher] for the expense to which he had been put, and the time occupied in research, if he would abstain from publishing the manuscript, and hand it to the Papal Power.” According to Wright, this demonstrated that “orthodox” forms of Christianity had “failed to catch any of the spirit of the teachings of Jesus.”
Wright was also involved in speculations of a more occult and psychical nature. In 1908, he monitored a series of tests involving so-called “thought-readers” for the Annals of Psychical Science, a periodical he later owned and edited (in 1909 and 1910). According to Wright, the purpose of this periodical was to examine “well-attested observations” of “telepathy,” “clairvoyance,” “premonition” and “apparitions.” In 1910, Wright published a booklet and an article examining questions relating to reincarnation, previous lives, immortality, and the fate of the soul. Wright believed that “psychical science” was gradually demonstrating the likelihood of some form of continuity of life after death. However, he rejected dogmatism, suggesting that it was necessary to be open to the possibility of being proven wrong. “The danger,” he explained, “lies in our becoming dogmatic,” as “dogma has been the cause of the degeneracy of every religious system.” This so-called “degeneracy” or “corruption” of religious systems was a key concern for Wright.
Whilst Wright expressed scepticism about the value of sacred texts as sources of literal history and dogma, he considered them essential as sources of parables and hidden wisdom. In two articles published in 1910 and 1911 in The Theosophist, Wright observed that the Essenes regarded the sacred texts as parabolic rather than historical. It was, he argued, their “spiritual or hidden meaning,” rather than a “literal rendering,” that was important. Wright believed that for “students of the mysteries of all Scriptures,” it was important to look for the “deep substratum of esoteric and occult teaching, some gem buried deep beneath the soil.” “The Spirit of Truth,” he concluded, cannot be directly communicated to the world, but must be presented in the form of parables.
Wright also sought for truth in a number of other esoteric sources. For example, he examined folktales and testimonies about supernatural creatures, such as vampires and poltergeists. In July 1910, Wright published an essay entitled “A Living Vampire” in the Occult Review. The Occult Review was a monthly magazine, contributed to by notable writers on the occult, such as Aleister Crowley and Arthur Edward Waite. A few years later, he expanded this essay on vampires into a still popular book entitled Vampires and Vampirism. Around this time he also published a book about a prominent poltergeist episode, which supposedly occurred in 1717, at the family home of John Wesley, the founder of the Christian Methodist movement. This was based primarily on letters between the various Wesley family members, which were initially published by Unitarian theologian, Joseph Priestley, in 1791 (in Original letters, by the Rev. John Wesley, and his friends, illustrative of his early history).
In addition to the occult, spiritualism and psychical science, Wright was also interested in Buddhism. From 1911 to 1913, he published a number of articles and books about Buddhism, and he was for a time the editor of the Buddhist Review. In 1913, Wright argued in the Buddhist Review that “all religious systems are characterised by the same historical development. There is first the teaching of the truth in purity and simplicity, so far as it can be ascertained; then there is traceable the gradual accumulation of errors, until, sometimes, there appears to be no visible trace of the foundation.” It was the original unsullied foundation of “truth,” prior to the accumulation of human errors, a kind of universal ur-religion, that Wright often seemed to be in search of. Wright argued that unlike Christianity and other major religions, “the fundamental principles of Buddhism” have not changed from those originally “taught by Buddha.” Wright acknowledged that various small additions had been added to Buddhism, but he contended that “the foundation [of Buddhism] remains throughout clearly visible.” He concluded that Buddhism was the “ultimate of human thought and aspiration, for no religion or philosophy since evolved … has surpassed it either in simplicity or grandeur.” According to Wright, “if the various religions that have sprung up since the days of the Buddha are examined and the essential doctrines noted, … it will be found that the basic principles are to be found in Buddhism.”
A couple of years later, Wright found himself drawn to Islam, and in 1915, Islam seemed to replace Buddhism in his thinking as the purest of religious systems. The first of his many articles on Islam was published in the Islamic Review in August 1915. In this article, as he had previously as a psychical researcher, spiritualist and Buddhist, he argued that whilst all religious systems have truth at their foundation, nearly all of them had degenerated from their original spiritual base. It was, however, now Islam’s turn to be the “one religious system in which this downgrade tendency is absent.” As he had previously with Buddhism, he argued that the core beliefs of contemporary Islam, are “precisely” as they were when they were first “propagated by its founder.” According to Wright, Islam was not a new religion, but rather an uncorrupted version of the original religion, an ur-religion, that had been revealed to mankind at the beginning of human history. Significantly, Wright had previously made a similar point about Christianity, observing that “Jesus did not introduce a new religion to the world.” According to Wright, the various prophets, such as Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, had each been sent to restore various forms of human-corrupted religion to their “original purity.” Wright concluded that into the midst of religious confusion, “came the word of God, spoken through Mohammed.”
When he first wrote about Islam in August 1915, he was not as yet a Muslim. However, by September, he had embraced Islam. The Islamic Review reported his conversion, and listed his name amongst other recent prominent converts. The mosque that he joined was a part of the Ahmadiyya community, a liberal, non-sectarian, and to this day little known and often persecuted branch of Islam. Like Dudley Wright (in the 1910s and 1920s), the Ahmadiyya movement believes that there is common ground in the core teachings of all religions, and recognizes the founders of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and other major religions, as prophets and saints of God. Ahmadiyya-ism has been deemed heretical by some Muslims, and in some cases the Ahmadi have been branded as kafirs or unbelievers (link for more on this). From circa 1915 to 1920, Dudley Wright was a frequent contributor to the Islamic Review (the periodical of the English Ahmadiyya movement), and a preacher and resident at a temporary mosque on Upper Bedford Place in London. According to the September 1915 issue of the Islamic Review, he adopted Muhammad Sadiq as his Muslim name.
Dudley Wright’s esoteric quest for universal truth can also be found in his writings about Freemasonry, and I suspect that it was this quest that led him to Freemasonry in the first place. Wright was initiated into Freemasonry in 1912. By 1918, he was writing essays about Jewish and Masonic legends, and in particular about King Solomon and the Jewish Temple, which he later expanded into a book entitled Masonic Legends and Traditions. In 1919, he argued in a book entitled The Eleusinian Mysteries & Rites, that at one time the Ancient Mysteries of the various nations were the principal vehicle for the existence of religion throughout the world, and that without them the very idea of religion may have died out. He suggested that if Freemasonry and the ancient mystery religions were not connected, then their close resemblance was a remarkable coincidence, and he observed that the Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece and Rome bore a “striking resemblance” to some of the rituals of Freemasonry. As he had previously with Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, he hinted that the various Mystery religions were related to an original but now veiled underlying religion. He also suggested, in articles published in The Freemason in 1922, that Freemasonry was in some way connected to the rituals and traditions of the ancient Jewish Essene sect. In 1924, in a book entitled The Ethics of Freemasonry, he suggested that Freemasonry was the latest unifier of religious truth. According to Wright, unlike each of the individual religious systems of the world, Freemasonry “is a unifier, not a divider. It soars far higher than any of the religious systems that have found a home among the dwellers on earth. Within its temple there gather together for one common aim and object, Jew and Gentile, Moslem and Buddhist, Parsi and Confucian, ignoring, because forgetting, the divisions that will separate them when they leave the shelter of the sacred fane.”
Dudley Wright wrote a number of positive articles about Jews, Judaism and Jewish mysticism throughout the 1920s for the Open Court, the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish Guardian and the Masonic News. He also published a book about the Talmud in 1932. In this he praised the Talmud and examined several incidents of the confiscation and destruction of the Talmud from the thirteenth century onwards. According to Wright, “the Talmud is an inexhaustible mine, embodying the purest gold and the most precious of stones; its maxims and its ethics instil the teachings of religion and morality of the very highest order.” In 1932, he was described by Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein, a respected scholar and community leader, as “a scholar whom we are glad to welcome among the small band of the Chassidé Umot Haolam to which belong Strack, Moore and Herford. His is a work of true love and piety.”
In 1920 and 1921, Wright published several articles in The Freemason and The Builder which criticised Roman Catholicism and condemned Catholic anti-Masonry. In 1922, he published a book entitled Roman Catholicism and Freemasonry. These articles and the book examined numerous incidents, publications and declarations of anti-Masonic hostility by Catholic laymen, priests, bishops, and cardinals. They referred to incidents in which Freemasons had been imprisoned or tortured by the various inquisitions, and quoted at length from Bulls, encyclicals and pastoral letters by a number of popes, which condemned Freemasonry and prohibited Catholics from being members of Masonic lodges. Wright also observed in a letter to The Builder in 1921, that “the warfare against Masonry is conducted with all the powerful machinery at the disposal of the Catholic Church and under the complete direction of the whole Roman hierarchy.”
As I discovered whilst searching the archives of the Catholic Guild of Israel, at some point in the early 1930s, Wright embraced Roman Catholicism. At around the same time, he drifted away from Freemasonry, perhaps because, as Robert Gilbert has noted, the “esoteric school” of Masonic research that William Westcott represented – and which Dudley Wright also favoured – had fallen “beyond the pale” by the 1930s (See R. A. Gilbert, “William Wynn Westcott and the Esoteric School of Masonic Research,” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 100, 1987: 6). Wright’s membership of the Wellesley Lodge ceased in 1931, and his membership of the Eccleston Lodge was terminated in 1932, as a result of non-payment of fees. The newspaper that he founded, the Masonic News, also folded in 1931. Wright joined the Catholic Guild of Israel on 28 October 1933 (according to the Guild’s membership logbook). His transition from Freemasonry to the Catholic Guild of Israel (an organisation dedicated to the conversion of Jews, and which regularly repeated antisemitic myths and stereotypes), was marked by a sudden inversion in his discourse about Jews and Catholicism. His discourse had previously been critical of Catholicism, Christian theological ideas such as the Trinity, and Catholic anti-Masonry, and positive about Jews and Judaism. From 1934 to 1938, he praised Catholicism, defended the concept of the Trinity, and repeated antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish usury and power, and the myth of a Jewish conspiracy bent on destroying Christian civilisation, in publications managed by the Catholic Guild of Israel (and in unpublished manuscripts held in the Catholic Guild of Israel archives). He also caricatured the Talmud and Jewish literature as venomously anti-Christian (link for more on the anti-Judaism of Dudley Wright).
In the early 1940s, Wright abandoned Catholicism and the Catholic Guild of Israel, returned to the Ahmadiyya movement, and readopted the name Muhammad Sadiq Dudley Wright. When he returned to the Ahmadiyya branch of Islam, he became a very regular contributor to the Islamic Review, contributing twenty-two articles from 1944 to 1948. Significantly, closely following Ahmadiyyan non-sectarianism, Dudley Wright’s antisemitic representations of Jews disappeared from his discourse after he returned to the Ahmadiyya movement, and he observed that Jews and Muslims were alike in believing in the “eternal unity” of God. As he had in the 1910s and 1920s, he argued that all religious systems have truth at their foundation, and he concluded that Islam was distinctive in that it recognized the wisdom and truth of the prophets and founders of all religions.
Did Dudley Wright find in the Ahmadiyya movement the peace and answers that he sought? Perhaps in the final analysis, the “truth” that he sought, that most enchanting of ideas, a universal foundation at the heart of all religion, was less important than the journey he experienced searching for it. Islam was the only religion Dudley Wright ever re-embraced, and it is thus tempting to believe that before he passed away in 1949, he was satisfied that his spiritual journey had brought him home.
* For a more detailed examination of Dudley Wright, in which John Belton focused on the Masonic aspects of his life and career, whilst I concentrated on his non-Masonic theological discourse and his search for the “prisca theologia“, please see: Simon Mayers and John Belton, “The Life and Works of Dudley Wright,” Heredom 23, 2015. For a partial bibliography of Dudley Wright’s published and unpublished works, please see: Dudley Wright Bibliography