Freemasonry has a long and distinguished history. Much longer than its traceable 300 year plus history. While its origins are lost in the past there are a number of theories of how it began. Theories which when brought together could well be the basis. However there are certainly strong links back to the mediaeval stone masons guilds But it is not for this website to go into it in depth save as it affects these general theories.
Throughout the world there are many independent Grand Lodges which all Freemasons acknowledge. But the one which governs Freemasonry in England and Wales, and was the first United Grand Lodge, is the United Grand Lodge in Great Queen Street, in London.
While there are also pseudo Grand Lodges in other countries, some of which English Freemasonry does not recognise, as they do not act to the expected high standards.
Organised Freemasonry as it is recognised today, began on the 24th of June 1717 when 4 London Lodges came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House in St Paul’s churchyard and formed what they called The Grand Lodge of England.
But previous to that there had, of course, been Lodges throughout the British Isles with one of the earliest recorded initiations in England being that of Elias Ashmole, founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, into a Lodge meeting at his father – laws house in Warrington Cheshire. In his diary in 1646 he recorded that “This day I was made Freemason”. Therefore, as a speculative Freemason, Freemasonry must have been in operation before that date!
Then 17 July 1751, representatives of five Lodges gathered at the Turk’s Head Tavern, in Greek Street, Soho, London and formed a rival Grand Lodge called The Most Antient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons.
This rift lasted for sixty two years until both came together in 1717 to the form the Grand Lodge of England since when the development of Freemasonry, and its spread worldwide, has been extremely well documented.
While there are many theories there is no concrete evidence of where Freemasonry originated. Nevertheless it is generally agreed that freemasonry developed from the medieval stonemasons. These were the operative masons who built the cathedrals and castles.
For security they met and lived in buildings or Lodges. To enable the Master in charge to ascertain the range of skills of the travelling stonemasons, who came to offer their services, the stonemasons guilds, like other crafts or guilds, developed basic ceremonies for passing their skills onto new apprentices. Therefore, like all Guilds, when the apprentice stonemason had achieved a certain skill level he was informed of certain recognition signs, tokens and passwords.
This was necessary as there were no trade union cards, nationally recognised examination bodies or certificates of apprenticeship. But, these recognition signs were used to regulate the craft. Communication of these signs, tokens and words enabled the Master Mason in charge of a project to know a man’s ability.
Communication of these signs, tokens and pass words were closely guarded and, to ensure that the young apprentice understood their importance to the craft, there were many blood curdling oaths placed on him should he divulge them. These pass words have no place in today’s society but the initiate is informed that these were once traditional to becoming a freemason.
The signs in the ovals, in the picture opposite, are the recognition marks of stonemasons who worked on Egyptian temples over 3,000 years ago. It is reference to these signs, tokens and words which Freemasons today observe and are related to the signs to know a Mason by.
No one knows why, but in the early 1600s, these operative Lodges began to admit non stonemasons. They were “accepted” or “gentlemen” masons. Gradually they took over and became Lodges of free and accepted or speculative masons, no longer having any ‘practical’ connection with the stonemasons’ craft.
As, at this time, only ‘learned’ people could read and write most documentation which has survived tended to be ‘official’ documents. Added to this was the fact that all ritual had to be committed to memory and none actually written down.. So it was no wonder that the first written documentation was in the diary of Elias Ashmole, in 1646. Masonic Ritual was not published in book form until the late 1800’s the Antiquary and Founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, records in his diary that he was made a Free Mason at his father-in-law’s house in Warrington. None of those present, had any connection with operative masonry. Therefore, as speculative Freemasonry, it must have been in operation before that date!
Another theory, which could run alongside, is that freemasonry was started because the late 1500s or early 1600s was a period of religious and political turmoil and intolerance. It was difficult to express differences of political and religious opinion. Opposing views often split families and resulted in the English Civil War of 1642 to 1646.
Supporters of this theory state 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.
They borrowed their central allegory from the Bible; in which the only building described in any detail is King Solomon’s Temple. They then used the stonemasons’ tools as the emblems to practically illustrate the principles they were putting forward. This being based on the square and compass. Then they used the stonemasons recognition signs to ensure that their assemblies were not infiltrated by anyone who would report them or cause a problem.
The link with the strong charitable ethic of Freemasonry dates back to the 1600s when there was no welfare state, so becoming disabled or falling ill meant relying on friends or the Poor Law for help. Many trades had “box clubs” which grew out of members putting money into a communal box, so that if they fell on hard times they could apply for relief from the box.
These box clubs had many characteristics of early Masonic Lodges; meeting in taverns, simple initiation ceremonies and passwords. Premier Grand Lodge was established in 1717 and Freemasonry grew in popularity, becoming world wide and attracting many famous and notable personalities. In 1721 Grand Lodge began to be a regulatory body and in 1723, as the membership grew, a ‘Book of Constitutions’ was published which outlined the rules and regulations governing freemasonry. In 1730, with more than 100 Lodges under its jurisdiction, it had begun to operate a central charity fund.
In 1751, a rival Grand Lodge, the Antients, was formed as it was claimed that the original Grand Lodge, the Moderns, had departed from the established customs of the Craft. When the Duke of Sussex became the Grand Master of the Moderns and his brother the Duke of Kent became Grand Master of the Ancients the two rival Grand Lodges came together on 27 December 1813, under the Grand Mastership of HRH Prince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the sixth son of King George III. The Book of Constitutions, which ‘governs’ the craft has been reprinted and gone through many editions since its initial publication, but the fundamental rules laid down in 1723 still apply today.
How Many Freemasons Worldwide
Worldwide there are over six million Freemasons. Today there are approaching 9,000 lodges based on approximately 950 Masonic Halls in England and Wales attended by over 330,000 brethren.