The Masons have been a prominent force in Western public life for centuries now, but our history is hazy in some respects. Muddying the waters are legends and tales told by Masons themselves as part of the allegories we use to teach spiritual values—these tales are probably only partially true. Here are some facts about the history and legacy of the Lodge.
Why is the profession of stonemasonry used as a symbol to organize men who have much different professions today? The truth is that stonemasonry is a symbol of freedom. In the Middle Ages the vast majority of people were peasants who were tied to the land—they were not allowed to go very far, and the fruits of their labor were taken by their lords and masters. Of those who were neither peasant nor noble, most were artisans and small merchants who were obliged to join trade guilds which also limited their movements and freedom. Just about the only trade which boasted the freedom to move from place to place and set their own individual standards of production were stonemasons. This is why we are called FREEmasons, as it symbolizes the value we set on individual liberty and self-reliance.
When Did the Masons Begin?
There are those who believe the Masonic Lodge goes all the way back to the building of Solomon’s Temple, some 1000 years before the birth of Jesus. In all likelihood, however, the Lodge seems to have been first started sometime in the Middle Ages. The earliest Lodges date from about the Fifteenth Century in England, though there may have been at least a few Lodges before that in Scotland. The truth is nobody is quite certain when men first began gathering as Freemasons.
One popular theory is that the Lodge is the last surviving remnant of the Knights Templar. First founded in 1129, the Order was charged with protecting the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. They later became a powerful political force across Europe, ultimately introducing modern banking to the Continent, and building a number of unique architectural structures. With the failure of the Crusades, they became less popular and were violently suppressed in 1312 after a number of royals became heavily indebted to the Knights. Many believe the Knights went underground and ultimately founded the Lodge as a way of carrying on their work.
One problem with this legend is that it seems that Templar titles and symbols were only first incorporated into Masonic work sometime in the Eighteenth Century, about 400 years after the Order’s dissolution. Still, a major appendant body of the Lodge calls itself the Knights Templar, and even some mainstream historians believe the Lodge was influenced by former Templars left alive after the Order’s suppression. Very likely the legends of Templar foundations or ancient connections to Biblical days are all tall tales, and the Lodge simply grew out of guilds of operative stonemasons in the Middle Ages.
The current organization of Masons began on June 24, 1717 when four London area Lodges came together for dinner at a pub called the Goose and Gridiron to form the first Grand Lodge of England. While this body split in two for a while in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, its reunification gave birth to the United Grand Lodge of England, still the oldest body most regular Lodges draw their lineage from. Far from being some ancient spooky conspiracy, the Lodge as we know it today is about 300 years old, and for all this time has sought to use the legends of the ancient world to make good men better.