In the ceremonies Freemasons are told that Freemasonry was in existence when King Solomon built the Temple at Jerusalem and that the masons who built the Temple were organised into Lodges.
Freemasons are also told that King Solomon, King Hiram of Tyre and Hiram Abif ruled over those lodges as equal Grand Masters. The ceremonies, however, are built up of allegory and symbolism and the stories they weave around the building of the Temple are obviously not literal or historical facts but a dramatic means of explaining the principles of Freemasonry. Freemasonry neither originated nor existed in Solomon’s time.
Many well-meaning but misguided historians, both Masons and non-Masons, have tried to prove that Freemasonry was a lineal descendant or a modern version of the mysteries of classical Greece and Rome or derived from the religion of the Egyptian pyramid builders. Other theories reckon that Freemasonry sprang from bands of traveling stonemasons acting by Papal authority. Others still are convinced that Freemasonry evolved from a band of Knights Templar who escaped to Scotland after the order was persecuted in Europe.
Some historians have even claimed that Freemasonry derives in some way from the shadowy and mysterious Rosicrucian Brotherhood which may or may not have existed in Europe in the early 1600s. All of these theories have been looked at time and again but no hard evidence has yet been found to give any of them credibility.
The honest answers to the questions when, where and why Freemasonry originated are that we simply do not know. Early evidence for Freemasonry is very meager and not enough has yet been discovered – if indeed it even exists – to prove any theory. The general agreement amongst serious masonic historians and researchers is that Freemasonry has arisen, either directly or indirectly, from the medieval stonemasons (or operative masons) who built great cathedrals and castles.
Those who favour the direct descent from operative masonry say there were three stages to the evolution of Freemasonry. The stonemasons gathered in huts (lodges) to rest and eat. These lodges gradually became not the hut but the grouping together of stonemasons to regulate their craft. In time, and in common with other trades, they developed primitive initiation ceremonies for new apprentices.
As stonemasons could easily travel all over the country from one building site to another, and as there were also no trade union cards or certificates of apprenticeship they began to adopt a private word which a traveling stonemason could use when he arrived at a new site, to prove that he was properly trained and had been a member of a lodge. It was, after all, easier to communicate a special word to prove that you knew what you were doing and were entitled to the wages it deserved that to spend hours carving a block of stone to demonstrate your skills.
We know that in the early 1600s these operative lodges began to admit men who had no connection with the trade – accepted or ‘gentlemen’ masons. Why this was done and what form of ceremony was used is not known. As the 1600s drew to a close more and more gentlemen began to join the lodges, gradually taking them over and turning them into lodges of free and accepted or speculative masons, no longer having any connection with the stonemasons’ craft.
The only problem with this theory is that it is based solely on evidence from Scotland. There is ample evidence of Scottish operative lodges, geographically defined units with the backing of statute law to control what was termed ‘the mason trade’. There is also plenty of evidence that these lodges began to admit gentlemen as accepted masons, but no evidence so far that these accepted members were other than honorary masons, or that they in any way altered the nature of the operative lodges. No evidence has come to light, after more than a hundred years of searching building archives, for a similar development in England. Medieval building records have references to mason’s lodges but after 1400, apart from masons’ guilds in some towns, there is no evidence for operative lodges.
Yet it is in England that the first evidence of a lodge completely made up of non-operative masons is found. Elias Ashmole, the Antiquary and Founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, records in his diary for 1646 that he was made a Free Mason in a lodge held for that purpose at his father-in-law’s house in Warrington. He records who was present, all of whom have been researched and have been found to have no connection with operative masonry. English evidence through the 1600s points to Freemasonry existing apart from any actual or supposed organisation of operative stonemasons.
This total lack of evidence for the existence of operative Lodges but evidence of ‘accepted’ masons has led to the theory of an indirect link between operative stonemasonry and Freemasonry. Those who support the indirect link argue that Freemasonry was brought into being by a group of men in the late 1500s or early 1600s. This was a period of great religious and political turmoil and intolerance. Men were unable to meet together without differences of political and religious opinion leading to arguments. Families were split by opposing views and the English civil war of 1642-6 was the ultimate outcome. Those who support the indirect link believe that the originators of Freemasonry were men who wished to promote tolerance and build a better world in which men of differing opinions could peacefully co-exist and work together for the betterment of mankind. In the custom of their times they used allegory and symbolism to pass on their ideas.
As their central idea was one of building a better society they borrowed their forms and symbols from the operative builders’ craft and took their central allegory from the Bible, the common source book known to all, in which the only building described in any detail is King Solomon’s Temple. Stonemasons’ tools also provided them with a multiplicity of emblems to illustrate the principles they were putting forward.
A newer theory places the origin of Freemasonry within a charitable framework. In the 1600s there was no welfare state, anyone falling ill or becoming disabled had to rely on friends and the Poor Law for support. In the 1600s many trades had what have become known as box clubs. These grew out of the convivial gatherings of members of a particular trade during meetings of which all present would put money into a communal box, knowing that if they fell on hard times they could apply for relief from the box. From surviving evidence these box clubs are known to have begun to admit members not of their trade and to have had many of the characteristics of early masonic lodges. They met in taverns, had simple initiation ceremonies and pass-words and practiced charity on a local scale. Perhaps Freemasonry had its origins in just such a box club for operative masons.
Although it is not yet possible to say when, why or where Freemasonry originated it is known where and when “organised” Freemasonry began. On 24 June 1717 four London lodges came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House in St Paul’s Churchyard, formed themselves into a Grand Lodge and elected a Grand Master (Anthony Sayer) and Grand Wardens.
For the first few years the Grand Lodge was simply an annual feast at which the Grand Master and Wardens were elected, but in 1721 other meetings began to be held and the Grand Lodge began to be a regulatory body. By 1730 it had more than one hundred lodges under its control (including one in Spain and one in India), had published a Book of Constitutions, began to operate a central charity fund, and had attracted a wide spectrum of society into its lodges.
In 1751 a rival Grand Lodge appeared, made up of Freemasons of mainly Irish extraction who had been unable to join lodges in London. Its founders claimed that the original Grand Lodge had departed from the established customs of the Craft and that they intended practicing Freemasonry ‘according to the Old Institutions’. Confusingly they called themselves the Grand Lodge of Antients and dubbed their senior rival ‘Moderns’. The two rivals existed side by side, both at home and abroad, for 63 years, neither regarding the other as regular or each other’s members as regularly made Freemasons. Attempts at a union of the two rivals began in the late 1790s but it was not until 1809 that negotiating committees were set up. They moved slowly and it was not until His Royal Highness Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex became Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge and his brother, His Royal Highness Edward, Duke of Kent, became Grand Master of the Antients Grand Lodge, both in 1813, that serious steps were taken.
In little more than six weeks the two brothers had formulated and gained agreement to the Articles of Union between the two Grand Lodges and arranged the great ceremony by which the United Grand Lodge of England came into being on 27 December 1813.
The formation of the premier Grand Lodge in 1717 had been followed, around 1725, by the Grand Lodge of Ireland and, in 1736, the Grand Lodge of Scotland. These three Grand Lodges, together with Antients Grand Lodge, did much to spread Freemasonry throughout the world, to the extent that all regular Grand Lodges throughout the world, whatever the immediate means of their formation, ultimately trace their origins back to one, or a combination, of the Grand Lodges within the British Isles.