The history of the Freemasons is steeped in mystery and intrigue. Not that the Masons are not forthcoming with facts; it is more that facts are not so forthcoming where the Masons are concerned. The early history is based on theory and myth. It is only after the early 1700’s that documents evidencing the existence of the Masons surface.
Before 1717 the existence of the Freemasons is all conjecture. Among Masonic Scholars it is an accepted theory that the freemasons derived from the stonemason’s guild during the middle ages; mostly because many of the symbols and rituals used by the Masons are from the Middle Ages. However, there is no documentation of the Masons until 1717.
Early Years of Masonry was Operative
Before 1717, masonry was considered operative. Members were associated with the craft guild and any ritual elements were simple. Again, there is no documentation of organized Freemasons, but there was a rudimentary philosophical outlook from the guild of the craft. There is however, mention of various craft guilds in the 1410 Cooke Manuscript and the 1495 Statutes of the Realm.
Early operative freemasons were not bound to the land where they were born; they were able to travel to find work. They stayed in temporary shelters that were either attached or near the main buildings. Apprentices were trained by instructors who instilled moral values to the trade which bound the apprentice to colleagues of the trade. This gave the apprentice the exclusive skills that were required to maintain the freedom of the craft.
Transition of Masonry to Speculative
In the early 17th centuries freemasonry began to see a transition from operative to speculative membership. This meant that more gentlemen who were not craftsman of the guild were allowed membership. This transition started in the Scottish lodges; the earliest record of a non-operative member in attendance at a meeting was in the Lodge of Edinburgh in 1600. In 1634 the first initiation of a non-operative member was recorded.
In 1717 four lodges met in London area taverns; most notably the Cheshire Cheese Tavern, the Crown Ale-House, the Apple-Tree Tavern, the Goose and Gridiron, and the Rummer and Grapes Tavern. In a meeting at the Goose and Gridiron, these four lodges formed the first Grand Lodge of London and it was then that the Freemasons shifted into the public eye. In 1723 James Anderson wrote the Constitution of the Freemasons to be used in London and Westminster lodges. This constitution was reprinted by Benjamin Franklin in 1734 when he became the Grand Master of the Masons in Pennsylvania.
Although the Grand Lodge of London had grouped several lodges together. Other lodges did not affiliate with the Grand Lodge; the members of the Grand Lodge of London tended to display aristocratic natures. In the 1730’s and 40’s animosity grew between the Grand Lodge of London and grand lodges of Ireland and Scotland. Scots and Irish visitors to London felt a stronger bond with the non-affiliated lodges because they believed the Grand Lodge of London had deviated too much from the ancient practices of the masonry craft.
In 1751, five lodges sent representatives to the Turk’s Head Tavern and they formed the Most Antient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons. They called their members “the Antients” and the members of the Grand Lodge of London, “the Moderns.” The Antients practiced more ancient and purer form of freemasonry. Laurence Dermott wrote a constitution called the Ahiman Rezon for the Antients. The Antients were often referred to as the “Irish faction” because the majority of the members were Irish.
The division between the Antients and the Moderns lasted for 62 years and was called “the Great Masonic Schism.” In 1813, the two grand lodges began to resolve their differences. They combined the lodges to form The United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE). The Lodge of Reconciliation was established after the union in order to establish the constitutional rituals the new lodge would abide. This lodge existed until 1816 by which time many of the Moderns’ rituals were revised into forms that were acceptable to both lodges.
Freemasonry in the United States
In 1733, Henry Price, the Provincial Grand Master over North America for the London Grand Lodge, granted a charter to a group of masons in Boston. This lodge was called the St. John’s Lodge and was the first in America. Many of the founding fathers and other men of historical significance were Freemasons. Members include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, John Hancock, John Paul Jones, Lafayette, and John Sullivan.
In 1826 the disappearance of William Morgan, a man who had threatened to expose the secrets of the Masons, created a widespread hostility toward the fraternity, especially in New York and neighboring states. His kidnappers were not punished severely enough in the eyes of the public and the negative outlook on the Masons lasted for over 25 years.
The history of Freemasons is rich and the air of mystery remains to this day. The Freemasons emphasize the social betterment, self-improvement and personal study through philanthropy and individual involvement of their members. The Freemasons were one of the first groups to support public schools in the United States. In the 1800’s and the 1900’s they funded orphanages and homes for widows and elderly people. Worldwide there are approximately four million Freemasons, and it is estimated that they give about 1.5 million dollars each day to various charities and organizations.