Freemasonry is often misunderstood, as our regular readers are well aware; conspiracy theories abound with respect to Freemasonry. However, there is one strange misunderstanding which is misunderstood even by our own Brethren, as well as the non Freemasons and, of course, quasi masons (from clandestine lodges) alike! This involves the origin of Freemasonry and I hope that this article will bring a better understanding of this issue.
The main misunderstanding is the country or region where Freemasonry first evolved and this is often confused with our legendary, allegorical rituals. So I’ll state right at the start that Freemasonry originated in Britain in the 16th/17th centuries, coming to full Speculative Freemasonry in England on St John’s Day, June 24th, 1717.
It cannot be denied that men were working in stone as far back as the stone age, as no one can deny that a tool hewn from flint is not stonemasonry, although that’s hardly the great buildings our Medieval stonemasons achieved. But then, of course, there are the Pyramids for all to see, stone blocks quarried and hewn were used as the ‘brick’ to complete the structure. The earliest of these pyramids, smooth and not stepped, was the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, according to history.com1 this was built built for the first king of the first dynasty (2613-2589 BCE). However, this is not the oldest, according to a website oldest.org2, this lists one in the Orkney Isles (Scotland) some 3600 BCE. So immediately we can see that stonemasonry belongs in the mists of time.
Let’s take shorter trip in time to around 1100 AD (CE) and in the part of Europe we know today as Germany, called Germania by the Romans and in the heart of the holy Roman Empire. It was here that could be found the Steinmetzen – a class of simple workmen, bound together by strong ties of brotherhood, but containing in their midst Master Builders whose minds were stored with mathematical knowledge;3 but this was not Freemasonry. It is well known that many magnificent structures, including the magnificent Notre Dame in Paris, France (the foundation stone was laid in 1163), the Duomo di Milano in Italy (begun in 1386), Salisbury Cathedral in England (the original cathedral was completed in 1092, the current cathedral began in 1220) and many, many more wondrous buildings constructed by stonemasons over the years. Still there’s no Freemasonry.
So we have established that stonemasonry has been around for well over 6000 years, evolving from simple structures, then the pyramids and on to magnificent Cathedrals by the 13th century. However, this is stonemasonry and has absolutely nothing to do with Speculative Freemasonry of today. So when did Freemasonry really begin?
As we can see, fraternities or brotherhoods of stonemasons began many hundreds of years ago, maybe even earlier, and these groups took care of one another, especially as these buildings took more than a lifetime to complete, so many of the workers were together for their entire lifetime. From the 12th century (CE) and through the 13th century groups of stonemasons came together to complete these structures and it must be readily accepted that many must have travelled from afar to assist in the work; they needed lodgings, of course. They formed communities, companies (The London Company of Masons, formally constituted in 1356) and later guilds and, over time evolved into societies which offered training, support and charity to the poor and distressed of their members. As the centuries passed, non stonemasons, usually rich and influential, were admitted into lodges/guilds of operative stonemasons, this began towards the end of the 16th century. Records in Scottish Lodges purport to support this synopsis, whilst records in England were not so well preserved this early, but is it known that a General Sir Robert Moray (General in the Artillery in the Scottish Army) was the first recorded non stonemason to be initiated into a stonemasons society in England, this was recorded as being in 16414, followed by Elias Ashmole in 1646 (along with a Col. Henry Mainwaring) at a lodge/guild/company of stonemasons in Warrington, England. None of these are thought to be the very first, just the first recorded in England. These tend to be referred to as the first ‘Speculative Masons.’
It is believed that, as the work began to wane, more non operatives began to join these guilds or lodges in England and Scotland (and possible Ireland – but I have not sought any record of this) and, as funds fell, it was probably natural that additional members would be attracted by the society of these stonemasons, and some were wealthy merchants who probably had employed these stonemasons in building their own grand houses, and as such that the social barriers between these groups would have broken down.4 This was happening across all of Britain at this time.
It is recorded that, being a highly religious period in Britain, ceremonies, which had some religious content, would have been already in use for the “initiation’ of new apprentices and their ‘passing’ (or graduating) into fellows of the craft and it made sense to continue this practice for the non stonemasons as they joined. It will never be certain if two ceremonies were practised or just the ‘passing’ ceremony, or whether the two may have been combined, so when full blown Freemasonry began it is still not certain whether one, or both, or a combination of the two were in practice. But it can be certain that the third degree was definitely not practised at this time.
So we reach 1717 and four London Lodges came together in to form the very first Grand Lodge, and it is at this time, and in England, that full blown Speculative and organised Freemasonry began.
With this established without any doubt, where does the the misconception that Freemasonry began in the Middle East come from? Well, it is a plain historical fact that the pyramids of Egypt, being very impressive structures, were built about 4500 years ago, but these were not built by Freemasons, but by stonemasons. Also, the very first known manuscript, known as the Halliwell Manuscript (MS), believed to have been written in 1390, contains the phrase “from Egypt came,,,.” However, this manuscript disappeared and was not actually recovered and associated with Freemasonry until 1829 by James Halliwell (and he was not a Freemason). This document contained a history and a set of ‘Old Charges’ (rules) pertaining to stonemasonry. Whilst much of this ‘history’ was very speculative, there still were no ‘non operative’ stonemasons at this time. This document was rewritten and modified many times (Cooke MS, Dowland MS, etc.) over the years and the ‘Old Charges,’ having been accepted, are now incorporated into the rituals of Freemasonry. Also, some of the history, very much modified, also forms part of the Masonic legend. In particular, our modern pure Freemasonry rituals centre around the building of King Solomon’s Temple as written in the Bible, where Hiram, King of Tyre assisted King Solomon, as his people had the skills to build such a magnificent Temple, and King Solomon’s people had no such skills. This magnificent temple, as I am sure you are well aware, was situated in Jerusalem. Tyre (Tyr), of course, is in Lebanon.
So it becomes quite easy to understand why some people, including some Freemasons, believe that Freemasonry has existed since ‘time immemorial, and began in the Middle East, as purported in our rituals,’ but this is just the ‘legend’ of Freemasonry, used allegorically to teach us how to become better understanding people. It is not sure why some believe it began in France, as even the Grand Orient de France clearly states England as the origin. Freemasonry, officially beginning as a Grand Lodge in England (but evolving previously in Scotland, England and Ireland), spread throughout the world, across to Europe (the first Lodges in France were warranted by the the 1717 Grand Lodge, thought to be no earlier than 1725) and then on via the colonists and armies to North America, India and wherever these early Freemasons colonised or traded.
But is is an historical fact that the first Grand Lodge of Free, Accepted and Speculative Freemasons was formed in London, on June 24th, 1717
3 Gould’s History of Freemasonry Throughout the World
These articles are written by W Bro Steve Froggatt PPJGD, former Chaplain of Neptune Lodge No 5150 EC. Steve was initiated into Freemasonry in 1986.They do not represent the view of any Grand/Provincial Grand Lodge.
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