The history of Freemasonry
The most widely accepted history of Freemasonry has its origins in guilds of stone masons in 1700s Medieval England. Eventually, members who did not actually work with stone were admitted. This group of “speculative Masons” developed into modern day Freemasonry.
Much myth, legend and speculation surrounds the origins of Freemasonry. Also, due to the scarcity of written records, there are multiple origin stories on how Freemasonry was founded. These theories go as far back as King Solomon and even Ancient Egypt.
In this article we’ll discuss the history from the Medieval period onward. We’ll write a separate article for ancient origin theories.
1600s: The Cathedral builders
Freemasonry began its roots in actual Masonry; Masonry meaning working with stone. These stonemasons built great buildings and cathedrals throughout Europe. These expert builders formed guilds or groups.
Back then, expert building skills were like software programmers are today – they were highly skilled. They guarded their secrets within the guild, and identified each other with secret handshakes, passwords and symbols.
Their trade was their livelihood, and so intricate building techniques and secrets were highly guarded.
1640 – 1670: The speculative Masons
These guilds of stonemasons, known as “operative Masons”, began to accept a group of people who did not actually work with stone or building. These “speculative Masons” instead focused on philosophical matters and deeper issues. It is from there Speculative Masons that Freemasonry arises.
Eventually stonemasons were replaced by speculative Masons, but keeping the symbols of the trade as analogies for philosophical meanings. Instead of building grand cathedrals, Masonry would now seek build on man itself.
1717: The first Grand Lodge is established
At this point, the guilds of Masons, known as Lodges, met locally in pubs and alehouses. It was more like a loosely knit coalition. Seeking some proper rules and regulation, the Masons moved towards forming a Grand Lodge, that would oversee the individual Lodges, providing some leadership and order.
In a pub called the Goose and Gridiron, on June 24th 1717, the Grand Lodge of England was formed and a member called Anthony Sayer was elected as its leader, the Grand Master.
Freemasonry was now firmly established as an organized order.
1717 onward: Freemasonry spreads through Europe
The 1700s was Europe’s age of Enlightenment. The forward thinking and modern ideas of the Freemasons began to attract enlightened individuals across Europe.
Freemasonry quickly spread to Ireland and Scotland, each of which eventually started their own Grand Lodge to oversee Masonic Lodges in their respective countries.
Mainland Europe was also enticed by Masonry, and spread through what is now Germany and France. The genius composer, Mozart, joined the Order as well as numerous members of European Royal families.
Freemasonry was now a powerhouse of intellect, art and philosophy throughout Europe, attracting the highest echelons of society. It wouldn’t be long before Masonry breached the shores of the New World, America.
1730s: Freemasonry in the New World, America
The United States of America began through the efforts of colonists and colonies. Due to Masonry’s popularity in Europe, Masonic Lodges started appearing in the Colonies. Masonic Lodges were established under the English, Irish and Scottish Grand Lodges.
Freemasonry began to become popular within the British Army stationed there, including soldiers, officers and generals. Military Masonic Lodges were even formed. Now we enter a phase in America’s history where we really see the presence of Freemasonry; the American Revolution.
The Colonies now sought independence from the British Empire and wanted their own state and so ensued the Revolutionary Wars, ending with the Declaration of Independence.
Freemasonry in the modern era
Freemasonry continued to thrive, even through and after the Great Wars, with many Freemasons fighting in those wars and even leading countries. Winston Churchill and US Presidents Roosevelt and Truman were all Freemasons and instrumental in World War 2.
Freemasonry has a long history of not only adapting with the times, but pushing them forward. However, since the 1960s, Freemasonry has seen a global decline in membership. There are a variety of reasons, but essentially we stopped being the pioneers and didn’t move with the times.
That’s starting to change.
Masons were once expert stone workers (Mason means someone skilled in stone craft). These highly skilled workers organized into guilds, using various techniques to protect their trade secrets and recognize one another. As Speculative Masons were admitted, the focus towards the metaphorical building and craft of mankind.