It should be of note that despite all the myths, legends and speculations one fact is undeniable, that about 10,000 years ago mankind developed farming and ceased to be primarily a hunter-gatherer society, building permanent settlements. This was the birth of Masonry. It was the birth of a time when man kind needed to build societies, create monetary systems, understand mathematics, technology, language and law. It was the first time humanity began to sculpt its own environment according to our own will. But what was soon discovered is that in the process of creating our environments, our environments shape us back.
Because Freemasons include mythological stories and anecdotes in their ritual work, a great amount of speculation exists as to the craft’s origins. Thousands of publications of widely varying quality in the form of books, pamphlets and articles have been written to attempt to uncover the truth about the ancient roots of our Fraternity. While the Grand Lodge of Washington holds no official position on the validity of alleged ancient origins of the Fraternity, nor as to whether or not there is any continuity between our organization’s predecessors and our modern institution, we are happy to share the opinions of others with the general public as well as share information about organizations that may have influenced Freemasonry as it evolved into its current form.
The legendary history of Freemasonry alleges that the craft was in existence at the time of the building of King Solomon’s temple. His legendary history leaves open the question of the origin of that organization. In fact, during the 18th century, the Tower of Babel figured prominently in Freemasonry’s legendary origins, and alludes to the idea that its existence may have proceeded the construction of King Solomon’s Temple. Freemasonry’s lore also contains references which point to the time of Noah!
While no extant primary texts from the time of King Solomon exist which reference Freemasonry, it is a historical fact that the Temple was constructed in the 10th Century BCE, and destroyed in the 5th century BCE. The particulars of the Masonic legendary account of its construction, which are privileged to Masons only, were written down mid-18th Century CE, and thus Solomon’s Temple holds special significance in the rituals and symbolism found in Freemasonry itself today.
Circumstantial evidence, in the form of physical artifacts, found in the archeological digs of homes of architects and stonemasons in Pompei and Jerusalem suggest to some that the modern myth has evolved through the generations from similar, even older variations.
Some scholars have even suggested the existence of evidence that the Masonic Mythical building of King Solomon’s temple is actually a Jewish variation of an even older Egyptian myth that may be tied to the architect Imhotep, who preceded the construction of King Solomon’s temple by over 1,600 years.
While there is no way to substantiate any cohesive succession or evolution of builders guilds tying those of the ancient Egyptians to those of the ancient Jews or medieval predecessors of modern Freemasonry, there is little doubt that the culture of building has had common themes that originated in Egypt. It is known that a similar society, of ship builders, employing allegorical and emblematic symbols of a moral nature also existed in ancient Egypt.
Speculation of closed societies of builders, also carrying knowledge of mathematics and the arts have implicated particular giants of human history as being potential “ancient members” of our Fraternity. Included among the men alleged to be our ancient Brothers include Euclid, Pythagoras, Moses, and even Jesus of Nazareth. Allusions to their inclusion were even reinforced by Masons such as Walt Disney, when he produced the movie “Donald Teaching Sacred Geometry.“
Guilds of builders have certainly existed since Roman times. As the Roman legions spread across the known world, expanding the empire, they needed to build fortifications. A manual for architecture, known as the “Ten Books on Architecture,” was written by Vitruvius during the time of Augustus Caesar. It became the most copied book of its time and was carried far and wide—making it one work that survived the fall of the Roman Empire. Yet, ironically, along with much ancient learning, other manuscripts were not largely cared for in Christian Europe.
The works of Euclid, and Pythagoras which greatly assist in the calculations needed during the engineering process of large stone construction, were not valued in the West. They were however treasured in libraries in Islamic Iberia, some monasteries in Ireland, and educational institutions in far-off Baghdad. Because of these circumstances, due to political and economic upheaval on the early Middle Ages, the construction of large structures made of stone such as complex cathedrals or intricate castles were far more rare in Europe between 400 and 800 AD, when wood constructions often were more common than stone in places such as the British Isles.
Outside the British Isles, however, the French maintained a culture of stone craftsmen, suitable for the construction of houses, fortresses and walls. These skills were refined after emperor Charlemagne’s campaigns to resist the Norse invasions. Even the name of the capital city, Paris, is not a reference to the Greek anti-hero of the Trojan War, but rather is a Gallic word meaning “the workmen.”
It was because of the French reputation for their ability to work with stone that French workmen were imported in the 870s in order to fortify townsin England, which was initiated by King Alphred the Great of England. Up until that point villages had been fortified by wood walls, which viking invaders would simply burn down to loot, rape and pillage the English countryside.
53 years later King Alphred’s grandson, King Ethestead,faced an unemployment issue with the Masons who began to fight among themselves for work. As a response to this, we see the first reference made to degrees in Masonry, and one of the oldest documents outlined as an official partial origin for modern Freemasonry. The following passage has been modernized out of the Halliwell Manuscript from 1390 about the Reign of King Athelstan.
“This craft came unto England, as I tell you, in the time of good King Athelstan’s reign; he made then both hall, and also bower, and lofty temples of great honor, to take his recreation in both day and night, and to worship his God with all his might.
This good lord loved this craft full well, and purposed to strengthen it in every part on account of various defects that he discovered in the craft.
He sent about into all the land, after all the masons of the craft, to come straight to him, to amend all these defects by good counsel, if it might so happen.
He then permitted an assembly to be made of divers lords in their rank, dukes, earls, and barons, also knights, squires, and many more, and the great burgesses of that city, they were all there in their degree; these were there, each one in every way to make laws for the estate of these masons.
There they sought by their wisdom how they might govern it; there they found our fifteen articles, and there they made fifteen points.”
We do have more information from a later manuscript from 1590, that continues the story for us:
“Soone after the Decease of St. Albones, there came Diverse Warrs into England out of Diverse Nations, so that the food rule of Masons was dishired (disturbed) and put down until the tyme of King Adilston. In his type there was a worthy King in England, that brought this Land into good rest, and he builded many great workes and buildings, therefore, he loved well Masons, for he had a sone called Edwin, the which Loved Masons much more than his Father did, and he was soe practized in Geometry, the he delighed much to come and talke with Masons and to learne of the the Craft.
And after, for the love he had to Masons and to the Craft, he was made a Mason at Windsor, and he gott of the King, his Father, a Charter and commission once every yeare to have Assembley, within the Realme where they would within England, and to correct within themselves Faults & Tresspasses that were done as touching the Craft, and he held them an Assembley, and there he made Maasons and gave them Charges, and taught them the Manners and Comands the same to be kept ever afterwards.
And tooke them the Charter and comission to keep their Assembley, and Ordained that it should be renewed from King to King, and when the Assembley were gathered togeather he made a Cry, that all old Masons or young, that had any Writeings or Vnderstanding of the Charges and manners that weere made befor their Lands, wheresoever they weere made Masons, that they should shew them forth, there were found some in French, some in Greek, some in Hebrew, and some in English, and some in other Languages, and when they were read and over seen well the intent of them was vnderstood to be all one, and then he caused a Book to be made thereof how this worth Craft of Masonrie was first founded, and he himselfe comanded, and also then caused, that is should be read at any tyme when it should happen any Mason or Masons to be made to give him or them their Charges, and from that, until this Day, Manners of Masons have been kept in this Manner and forme, as well as Men might Governe it, and Furthermore at diverse Assemblyes have been put and Ordained diverse Charges by the best advice of Masters and Fellows.”
GRAND LODGE FORMATION
The formation of the Grand Lodge of England on St. John’s Day (June 24) in 1717 is essentially the beginning of what is known as the “historical period of Freemasonry.” However we do know if the terms “Freemason” and “Freemason’s Lodges” were used during the mid-1600s. The formation of Grand Lodge itself established rules for running Lodges the same way, so as to make them “regular.” Before the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, there were no standard rules for recording membership, or meeting proceedings. Thus, the events leading up to the formation of Grand Lodge are difficult to verify.
While the term “Free Mason” appears in the Halliwell poem, one of the earliest references to being a “Freemason” prior to the formation of Grand Lodge in 1717, appears a generation before during the height of the English Civil War. Elias Ashmole wrote in his diary entry for 16 October, 1646:
“I was made a Free Mason at Warrington in Lancashire, with Coll: Henry Mainwaring of Karincham [Kermincham] in Cheshire.”
Many scholars believe that Freemasonry was one of many social clubs that arose during the English Civil War.
Elias was an English polymath; part of a circle known at that time as the Invisible College, which was a network of intellectuals who maintained correspondence with each other on natural philosophy (i.e., what we now call “science”).
Another notable member of the Invisible College who was believed to be a Freemason, was Christopher Wren, who built St. Paul’s Cathedral and many other buildings after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Scholars disagree as to the level of Wren’s involvement in the Fraternity. Some say that he was even the Grand Master of Freemasons, a title that is disputed because it is difficult to have a Grand Master without a Grand Lodge, unless the title is entirely ceremonial.
From the evidence we do have, we know that Lodges existed before 1646 and operated with some regularity between themselves before a governing body was formed to govern over them all. The exact members of each Lodge, where they met, what rituals they practiced, and the methods of recognition allowing members to visit or join other Lodges was never written down, and thus impossible to document with certainty.
What we do know is that the Grand Lodge of England was formed when four Lodges gathered together on June 24th, 1717 at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House outside of St. Paul’s Churchyard in London. However, it is evident that they had been discussing forming a governing body for several years before this time. The Grand Lodge was used primarily to provide legitimacy to Freemasonry in general, as well as a public awareness campaign to promote the growth of the Fraternity.
Shortly after the formation of Grand Lodge, Lodges were chartered in dozens of cities across England. It should be noted that many of those Lodges “formed” after the formation of Grand Lodge, may have already been operating as Freemasons long before Grand Lodge, and their “chartering” would have been an annexation of the Lodges under the Grand Lodge of England as part of consolidation.
There is considerable controversy about what motivated the formation of the Grand Lodge of England. It seems possible that the Hanoverians wanted to know who the Masons were—because they tended to favor the House of Stuart—and thus wanted Freemasonry more “out in the open.” Many Lodges beyond London are said to have destroyed their records in response to the formation of the Grand Lodge—a fact that adds some credence to the Hanoverian theory.
With the influx of so many Lodges under Grand Lodge, Dr. James Anderson, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, was commissioned to record the history of Freemasonry up to that point. “The Book of Constitutions” includes many myths, rumors and legends already mentioned here on our site, along with others. Unfortunately this being a consolidation after the fact, andhe cannot reference any primary sources, it cannot be considered as fact.
After the publication of Anderson’s “Book of Constitutions,” the minutes of every meeting of every Lodge were recorded. It is for this reason that after this point, Freemasonry entered its historical period.
ANCIENTS VS MODERNS
After the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, several lodges chose to remain independent by not merging with the larger superstructure. By not adopting the constitutions of the Grand Lodge of England, the rituals of many of these Lodges had variations that often were loved and held in high regard by their members. In an effort to preserve what they felt were older and more authentic rituals than the Grand Lodge of England, they formed their own Grand Lodge, which they called “The Most Ancient and Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons” according to the Old Constitutions, now simply known as the “Ancients” (then, often written as “Antients”).
EVOLUTION OF THE LODGES
As Grand Lodges formed in the United Kingdom to solidify the organization of preexisting Lodges of Masons and Charter new ones as well, they also sprang up across Europe and the world.
During the Colonial American period, Grand Lodges often planted or influenced the formation of new Grand Lodges in the United States. These likewise cross-pollinated, forming different styles of Freemasonry in what eventually would become the various states of the newly formed United States of America. Thus to this day, each state under its own sovereign Grand Lodge, often exhibits a combination of different traditions in their rituals and constitutions, resulting in slight, but usually insignificant discrepancies in ceremonial order, ritual wording, terminology, and nuances of their respective Grand Lodge organizations.
Most of the Grand Lodges of the United States were formed during the age of expansion from the original 13 colonies to the creation of new Lodges as new States were brought into the union. Oftentimes, Grand Lodges would be formed over territories, and then subsequently broken up as territories were then divided into states, thus forming new Grand Lodges whose Jurisdictions corresponded to state borders. The same is true in Canada, and in most parts of the Commonwealth.
As an illustration of the mixing and matching, this photo is taken from a a self-published Masonic book entitled “From Whence Came We” by George B. Clark, written in 1941. It illustrates how most states are descendants from not just one colonial mother Grand Lodge, but are actually a mixture of previous Grand Lodges.
Concordant bodies of Freemasonry are organizations that are affiliated with Freemasonry, and often require their members to be Master Masons before joining. Their creation, evolution and spread followed in the wake of the British, French and Spanish empires as Freemasonry spread across the globe, and as new Grand Lodges of Freemasonry were established around the world. Each Concordant body enjoys its own rich history, traditions, ceremonies, and missions.
The York Rite is a collection of Concordant bodies that had originally evolved independently. The result is a coalition of successive bodies, through which one advances by going through the degrees of one body before being eligible to join the next, in the following order:
- Royal Arch
- Cryptic Masonry, or Council
- Knights Templar
The 20th century saw two large phases of growth for Freemasonry, followed by a steady decline. The cause of these trends has been a topic of debate by our membership over the last twenty years.
Due in part to the institutionalized nature of Freemasonry, it was made popular as a networking organization for male community leaders after the turn of the last century. It was a place where men of every class could speak to each other as equals with the understanding of common values and commitments to themselves, their country, and their neighbor.
After World War II, there was a second surge in Lodge membership, because it helped maintain the types of brotherly relationships they had built during the war. While this was the largest boom for the Fraternity, it also carried with it the seeds of its steady decline in popularity over the next several decades.
The Freemasons who were WWII veterans tended to be single-minded during the postwar boom in the USA, particularly during the 1950s, which meant that it increasingly came to be viewed as being in alignment with the “establishment,” (if not “the Establishment” itself) and as an organization of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males.
In retrospect, it appears that the collective euphoria of enjoying massive numbers of members had the unintended consequence of watering down the depth and importance of Masonic ritual. At the same time, the lesser importance of ritual resulted in a lack of depth in relationships, a desire for study and commitment to the Enlightenment values which had nourished the evolution and spread of modern Freemasonry.
This reacted with the culture of the 1960s very poorly, when anti-establishment was the trend, and Freemasonry was on the wrong side of youth. The perceptions that most young people (of draft age) held regarding traditional institutions of all kinds were at odds with those held by their parents–a situation that was dubbed the “generation gap.” Young people at that time saw Freemasonry and Freemasons (often their fathers and uncles, of course) as part, if not often even the cause, of the country’s conflicts which they sought to address, whether by peaceful civil disobedience or violent protest.
Whereas normally the Fraternity had been passed on from father to son, laden with values that actually had many roots in the rebellions of the 18th century that led to the American and French revolutions, an entire generation of Americans opted out of Freemasonry for what they saw as more effective, if not more progressive movements.
Due to the Baby Boomers’ lack of interest in Freemasonry, the numbers greatly diminished across the country in the period of 1970-2000 as the WWII and Korean War veterans slowly died off. The initial lack of popularity of Freemasonry grew into lack of familiarity and eventually, many young people did not even know that Freemasonry existed. Ironically, this vacuum proved to be fertile ground for the Renaissance of Freemasonry in the late 1990s – a trend that is continuing as we enter the third decade of the 21st century.
The last two decades have witnessed an amazing, organic surge in the interest that young Millennials have in Freemasonry. Many of them attribute popular culture for their interest, but most find it as a way to connect more deeply with themselves and others by exploring the ancient craft. Many Masons of all ages see this trend as the rebirth of the Fraternity because, in a very significant way, young men are not simply picking up where their fathers left off but instead walking into Lodges on their own.
Freemasonry is particularly growing in urban areas where Millennials are flocking in droves attracted by technology jobs. The ironic bit is that it’s the authenticity and the bonding of ritual and genuineness of relationships that attract them most. What is not ironic is that this trend “rhymes” with the way Freemasonry expanded in the colonial period, when it found fertile ground for growth in thriving seaboard cities that attracted young tradesmen and other professional and educated men to the burgeoning mercantilism of international commerce and eventually the industrial revolution.
The idea of self is something that many Millennials find themselves in constant flux about. A Millennials’ brain is so shaped by technology that identity is something that is always in flux; as such, everyone is on a constant journey of self-discovery. Essentially, this is the idea of Freemasonry, that we are all on a journey of self-becoming, and that the friendships we make help determine who we become. Thus, in a very real way, the growth seen in the past two decades is a result of Freemasonry being able to return to its true purpose because of the changes in society. Freemasonry can continue to build relationships between men who share values, allowing them to live and work in brotherhood, and experience more enriched lives. As ever, but in ways that are new, Freemasonry brings men together who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance.