Brief History Of Freemasonry

There are very few incontrovertible facts about the origins of Freemasonry. Probably the single most significant event was the formation of the first Grand Lodge in London in 1717. Working backwards from that time, the following facts or landmarks stand out:

  • 1717 formation of the first Grand Lodge in London
  • 1646 initiation of Elias Ashmole into Freemasonry in Warrington
  • 1641 initation of Robert Moray into Freemasonry in Edenroth
  • 1599 minutes of the Aitchisons Haven Lodge and St Mary’s Lodge in Edinburgh
  • 1599 William Schaw creates the Statute of 1599, asserting the first, veiled, reference to the existence of esoteric knowledge within the craft of stone masonry (Speculative Masonry). It also reveals that The Mother Lodge of Scotland, Lodge Mother Kilwinning, No.0, was in existence, and active, at that time.
  • 1598 William Schaw publishes his Statutes, outlining the duties of all members to the Lodge and to the public. It also imposed penalties for unsatisfactory work and inadequate safety during work. His instructions, to all LODGES (not incorporations), that they must begin to keep written records, meet at specific times, test, annually, members in the “Art of Memory” and enter apprentices in the Lodge records meant that Lodges became fixed, permanent, institutions.
  • 1425 statute of Henry VI of England forbidding the yearly congregation of Masons
  • 1410 Cooke Manuscript
  • 1390 Regius Poem or Halliwell Manuscript
  • 1376 earliest known use of the word Freemason
  • 1356 formation of the London Masons Company; also ordinances governing the Lodge at York Minster

And that is as far back as documented history goes. Harry Carr, a noted masonic historian, was probably alluding to this when he said it all began with the formation of the London Masons Company in 1356. From that date forward the history of Freemasonry is comparatively well established and there is increasing documentary evidence to support its gradual evolution.

The Craft that evolved into modern Freemasonry emerged in the period between the Black Death, 1348, and the Wars of the Roses, 1453. Before that date there are no trends or events that can be identified as leading definitely towards Freemasonry. It appears to have emerged from the building industry as a whole. Equally, there is no part of England that can claim the honour of originating Freemasonry. The later pre-eminence of London was not apparent at that era. The Regius Poem and Cooke manuscripts, about 1390 and 1410 respectively, are written in the dialects of west and southwest of England. They may have been written for the school of masonry associated with Salisbury Cathedral.

The first recorded use of the word lodge in a Masonic context was in 1278 during the building of a Cistercian Monastery at Vale Royal near Chester. Initially the lodge was no more than a rude hut in which the masons worked and possibly took their midday meal. At other sites they may also have slept in the lodge. By 1352 there were elaborate rules governing the behaviour of the mason connected with the lodge at York Minster. These regulations are described as the “ancient customs of the masons” (consuetudines antiquae quibus cementarii). The Master and Deputy Master were required to swear an oath that the ancient customs would be adhered to. Fifty years later all masons were required to swear the same oath. We are not aware of anything esoteric about these customs; they mainly concerned rates of pay, hours of work, holidays etc. However, given the medieval obsession with mysticism it is unlikely that their customs were wholly mundane.

A pen drawing by Matthew Paris, circa 1250, purports to show Henry II in conference with his masons. The men building a wall are shown using a level. The mason actually being addressed by the King is holding a large square and compass almost as if to demonstrate his importance, the implication being that he is the Master Mason. There is a similar carving in Worcester Cathedral, circa 1224, which shows the architect clutching a pair of dividers and, apparently, discussing the plans with a monk. These may suggest the beginnings of the ceremonial significance which is now given to the square and compass.

The earliest occurrence of the word Freemason was in London in 1376. Four men were chosen to represent the city’s builders on the Common Council of Trades, this was the first time they had been represented. They were originally listed as Freemasons although the word is then crossed out and replaced with Mason. The possible reason for this error is significant. Much of the building in the South of England was done with a material called Freestone. This is a form of limestone which is soft and easily worked when freshly quarried but afterwards hardens and becomes very durable. And the men who worked it were of course, called Freestone Masons. There seems to be no evidence to link the prefix free- with freedom. The balance of probability seems to suggest that Freemason is indeed a contraction of Freestone Mason.

John Wycliffe, writing about 1383, used the terms “men of sutel craft, as fre masons and others” he also refers to “fraternytes or gildis”. Then Henry Yevele, a master builder who died in 1400 may have been described as a Freemason on his tombstone. On the other hand the word Freemason appears in neither the Regius or the Cooke Manuscripts.

At this distance in time there can be no certainty but the evidence does strongly support the suggestion the Freemasonry could have developed from Guilds and Lodges of the medieval masons. This does not mean that other movements or bodies of ideas or organizations did not also contribute significantly to survival and growth the Freemasonry. Indeed it seems very probable an organization that has survived five hundred years must have been prepared to absorb and use any ideas that could contribute to its strength and growth.

Freemasonry has thus also been said to be a direct descendant of the “Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomonâ€? (the Knights Templar); an offshoot of the ancient Mystery schools; an administrative arm of the Priory of Zion; the Roman Collegia; the Comacine masters; intellectual descendants of Noah; to have existed at the time of King Athelstan of England, in the very late 10th century C.E. – Athelstan is said by some to have been converted to Christianity in York, and to have issued the first Charter to the Masonic Lodges there; and to have many other various and sundry origins. These theories are noted in numerous different texts, and the following are but examples pulled from a sea of books:

  • In “A History of Freemasonryâ€? by H.L. Haywood and James E. Craig, pub. circa 1927
  • In “Born in Bloodâ€? By John Robinson, pub. 1989
  • In “The Holy Blood and The Holy Grailâ€? by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, pub. 1982

It seems reasonable to suppose that, whatever its precise origins, Freemasonry provided a haven for the unorthodox and their sympathizers during a time when such activity could result in one’s death, and that this has something to do with the tradition of secret meetings and handshakes. As the Middle Ages gave way to the Modern Age, the need for secrecy subsided, and Freemasons began to openly declare their association with the fraternity, which began to organize itself more formally. In 1717, four Lodges, which met at the “Apple-Tree Tavern, the Crown Ale-House near Drury Lane, the Goose and Gridiron in St. Paul’s Churchyard, and the Rummer and Grapes Tavern in Westminster� in London, England (as recounted in (2)) combined together and formed the first public Grand Lodge, the Premier Grand Lodge of England (PGLE). The years following saw Grand Lodges open throughout Europe, as the new Freemasonry spread rapidly. How much of this was the spreading of Freemasonry itself, and how much was the public organization of pre-existing secret lodges, is not possible to say with certainty. The PGLE in the beginning did not have the current three degrees, but only the first two. The third degree appeared, so far as we know, around 1725.

The Two Great Schisms of Freemasonry (1753 and 1877)

The PGLE (Premier Grand Lodge of England), along with those jurisdictions with which it was in amity, later came to be known colloquially as the “Moderns�, to distinguish them from a newer, rival group of Freemasonry, known colloquially as the “Antients�. The Antients broke away and formed their own Grand Lodge in 1753, prompted by the PGLE’s making changes to the secret modes of recognition. The differences between the two groups ran deeper than just that, however. The “Antients� were based in York, and claimed that their version of the Freemasonic Ritual (which included an additional fourth degree, the “Royal Arch�, with Christian elements) was truer to ancient tradition. From the point of view of the Moderns (actually the older group, in spite of the name), the Antients were trying to Christianize a fraternity that had always been non-Christian and religiously non-dogmatic. From the Antient point of view, on the other hand, the fraternity had been a Christian organization during the Middle Ages, and the Moderns had de-Christianized it. In fact, both groups changed Masonry in the eighteenth century by adding new degrees, so neither can claim to be thoroughly ancient in practice. Tensions between the two groups were very high at times. Benjamin Franklin was a “Modern� and a deist, for instance, but by the time he died, his Lodge had gone “Antient�, and would no longer recognize him as one of their own, declining even to give him a Masonic funeral (see “Revolutionary Brotherhood�, by Steven C. Bullock, Univ. N. Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1996).

The schism was healed in the years following 1813, when the competing Grand Lodges were amalgamated, by virtue of a delicately worded compromise which left English Masonry clearly not Christian, returned the modes of recognition to their pre-1753 form, kept Freemasonry per se as consisting of three degrees only, but which was ambiguously worded so as to allow the Moderns to think of the Antient Royal Arch degree as an optional higher degree, while still allowing the Antients to view it as the completion of the third degree.

Because both the Antients and the Moderns had “daughter� Lodges throughout the world, and because many of those Lodges still exist, there is a great deal of variability in the Ritual used today, even between UGLE-recognized jurisdictions. Most Lodges conduct their Work in accordance with an agreed-upon single “Rite,� such as the “York Rite� which is popular in the United States, or the “Canadian Rite� which is, in some ways, a concordance between the Rites used by the “Antients� and “Moderns�.

The second great schism in Freemasonry occurred in the years following 1877, when the GOdF started accepting atheists unreservedly. This on-going schism is in many ways a re-emergence of the same basic conflict that created the split between the Antients and Moderns: the religious requirements, if any, for being a Freemason. While the issue of atheism is probably the greatest single factor in the split with the GOdF, the English also point to the French recognition of women’s Masonry and co-Masonry, as well as the tendency of French Masons to be more willing to discuss religion and politics in Lodge. While the French curtail such discussion, they do not ban it as outright as do the English. The schism between the two branches has occasionally been breached for short periods of time, especially during the First World War when American Masons overseas wanted to be able to visit French Lodges.

Concerning religious requirements, the oldest constitution of Freemasonry that of Anderson, 1723, says only that a Mason “will never be a stupid Atheist nor an irreligious Libertine� if he “rightly understands the Art�. The only religion required was “that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves�. In 1815, the newly amalgamated UGLE changed Anderson’s constitutions to include more orthodox overtones: “Let a man’s religion or mode of worship be what it may, he is not excluded from the Order, provided he believes in the glorious Architect of heaven and earth, and practices the sacred duties of morality.� The English enforce this with a requirement for belief in a Supreme Being, and in his revealed will. While these requirements can still be interpreted in a non-theistic manner, they made it more difficult for unorthodox believers to enter the fraternity.

In 1849, the GOdF followed the English lead by adopting the “Supreme Being� requirement, but there was increasing pressure in Latin countries to openly admit atheists. There was an attempt at a compromise in 1875, by allowing the alternative phrase “Creative Principle�, which was less theistic-sounding than “Supreme Being�, but this was ultimately not enough for the GOdF, and in 1877 they went back to having no religious entrance requirements, making the original Anderson document of 1723 their official constitution. They also created a modified ritual that made no direct verbal reference to the G.A.O.T.U. although, as a symbol, it was arguably still present. This new Rite did not replace the older ones, but was added as an alternative. European jurisdictions in general tend not to restrict themselves to a single Rite, like most North American jurisdictions, but offer a menu of Rites, from which their Lodges can choose.

The first Freemasons lodge opened in what would become the United States on July 30, 1733.