Early History of Freemasons

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Early History of Freemasonry

The early history of the Freemasons is clouded in some mystery. Although the activities of today’s Masons are widely documented, very little evidence is present as to the origins of the Masons. This has lead to much speculation.

The Masons themselves use an allegorical foundation myth to explain how Freemasonry came into being. They point to the fraternity of the builders of King Solomon’s Temple as the earliest Freemasons. Historians, however, think that there is very little physical evidence of Freemasonry early on because the organization grew only very gradually out of the lodges of working stonemasons of the Middle Ages. These historians claim that the earliest Freemasons were not a fraternal organization at all but rather working partnerships or working relationships between stonemasons. Eventually, stonemasons created more formal organizations and added some social or moral issues to their gatherings, so that over many generations something akin to the Masons emerged.

Many theories

Some historians, however, have attributed the origin of the Freemasons to the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem or to such famous historical minds as Euclid, Pythagoras, Baron Verulam, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Christopher Wren, Noah, Lord Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Alban, or Moses. Other historians think that the traditions of Freemasonry can be traced back to the Essenes, the Culdees, the Rosicrucians, the Druids, or even the Gypsies. Some think that Freemasonry owes its origins to the ancient mystery schools or even to the Knights Templar. Some believe that Freemasons are the descendants of other popular groups, such as the Priory of Sion, the Roman Collegia, the Comacine masters, the German Steinmetzen, or the French Compagnonage.

Origins of a name

There has been some speculation as to where the history of the term “Freemason” comes from. Historians have found that medieval stonemasons were sometimes called "Freemasons." The name may also come from the French word “Maçon,” which refers to a mason working in a Lodge allowed to work on Church property free from taxation or regulation by the King or the local government. The origins of the word may also stem from the French term "frere Macon" which translated literally into "brother Mason."

Other historians believe that the term Freemasons comes from the term “Free Men,” used to refer to men who were not serfs and not indentured, and so were free to move from one place to another. Some believe that the name comes from the word "freestone," which is a type of quarry stone.

Early foundations

The early foundations of Freemasonry are divided into two stages:

1) Operative. This part of Freemason history is associated with craft guilds. Evidence suggests that during this time, there was not much emphasis on philosophy and rituals were very simple. This stage lasted until the mid-16th century.

2) Until the 17th Century. By the late 16th century, records show that Scottish lodges moved from operative Freemasonry to what is often called Speculative Freemasonry. The organization was gentrified and notable gentlemen joined the lodges even if they did not work as masons. More rituals were used during this period and lectures brought some philosophy to the lodges. This stage lasted until the founding of the first Lodge in England in 1717.

Early Records of Freemasonry

The earliest records of Freemasonry date back to the 1600s. For example, there is a record that Sir Robert Moray was initiated on 20th May 1641 in a Scottish Lodge near Newcastle upon Tyne. This is the earliest record of an initiation. There is also an early record of an Elias Ashmole Becoming a Freemason in 1646. Records also show that the Grand Lodge of England was established on 24 June 1717. This was the first Grand Lodge, and many Grand Lodges sprang from it. Grand Lodges were established in Ireland in 1725 and in Scotland in 1736. All the regular Grand Lodges now in existence can trace their origins back to these three initial Lodges.

Two Theories of How Freemasonry Became a Fraternity

Most historians agree that Freemasonry began with actual masons, or artisans and builders who worked with stone. However, today Freemasonry is a fraternal and not a professional organization. There are two theories as to how the early history of Freemasonry allowed the organization to move from professional masonry to a fraternal order. Some historians believe that the earliest masons were those master masons who built castles and cathedrals. These masons organized lodges to discuss trade matters. Since there were no methods of certification or licensing, masons designed secret codes and signs so that other masons could identify them. This was a masons’ proof that he was a mason and had achieved a certain level of proficiency at his craft. This was an important consideration, as masons traveled from location to location for work, and needed a way to prove their expertise. By the 1600s, some historians claim, masons began to accept members who were not actual stone masons. These “gentlemen masons” gradually began to outnumber actual masons until lodges became “speculative” or “free and accepted” lodges rather than lodges of practicing masons.

Other historians, however, believe that Freemasonry stems from a movement in the 1500s and 1600s to promote political and religious tolerance. In the late 1500s and early 1600s, political and religious intolerance led to conflict and civil wars, so some individuals wanted to promote greater tolerance. To this end, these individuals formed Freemasonry to create a better society, and used symbolism and allegory from the Bible (especially the stories of King Solomon’s Temple) to teach their message.

Early Freemasonry in North America

Although Freemasonry was likely present in North America before 1750, there is very little record of it. There is a stone inscribed from 1606 in Nova Scotia, Canada that suggests but does not prove a presence of Freemasons. As well, Plymouth County records from 1654 suggest, but do not prove absolutely, Freemason activity in that area. The first proof of Freemasonry in North America is in the person of Bostonian Jonathan Belcher, who traveled to Europe in 1704 and became part of an “occasional lodge” there before returning to Boston. There is a tradition that the first lodge in North America was held in King’s Chapel, Boston, in 1720, but no records remain to prove this assertion.

By 1721, references to Freemasonry were being made in local newspapers in North America, suggesting that Masons were not only present in the colonies, but were also of interest. Freemasons from King's Chapel, Boston moved to Nova Scotia, and after 1713 may have met in lodges in Canada. The record of the first lodge in Boston shows that it was constituted in 1733 and early record books of that lodge date back to 1738. A lodge in Philadelphia left account books dating back to 1731. In Canada, there are traditions that lodges were existent before 1710, but Freemasonry in Canada was formally founded between 1737 and 1749 in the province of Nova Scotia. Records before this time are vague and uncertain.

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