A Brief Sketch of the
History of Freemasonry

Bruce Nevin

Freemasonry is claimed to be the oldest and most widespread fraternal organization in the world. An impressive array of illustrious and worthy men are recorded among its members.

What documentary history there may have been of the origins of the Masonic Fraternity has been lost or destroyed by “the lapse of time, the ruthless hand of ignorance, and the devastations of war.” One widely accepted theory is that it arose from the stonemason guilds during the Middle Ages, and such evidence as there is of the origin of the the language and symbols used in the fraternity’s rituals comes almost entirely from this era.

In the Concilium Avenionense, circa 1326, the Church inveighed against secret societies, identifying them with fraternal assistance, signs, tokens, obligations and the election of Masters. This was during the period that the Papacy was located in Avignon, and the Knights Templar had not long since been brought down and scattered. John J. Robinson in his book Born in Blood advanced the theory that Masonry originated in remnant and refugee Templars going underground in England and Scotland in the early 14th century. The Royal Order of Scotland, according to their traditions and work, was founded (or restored) by King Robert Bruce after the Battle of Bannockburn (June 24, 1314), to honor 63 knights who, with no prior notice, appeared as a mounted unit on a slope overlooking the battle and on account of their Templar garb panicked the English, who fled the field.

Documentary evidence in this early period is scant. About one hundred old manuscripts located in various places are known as the “Gothic Constitutions” or  “Old Charges”.  The oldest and most prized, from around 1390, is the “Regius Manuscript” which takes its name from the fact that King George II presented it to the British Museum in 1757. It is written in verse, almost certainly as an aid to memorization. The “Cooke Manuscript”, circa 1400-1410 A.D., appears to have been copied from earlier works. Consistent with Masonic practice, it begins by invoking the blessing of Deity and ends with the familiar “Amen, so mote it be.” It contains a legendary history of the craft and the guild's regulations or charges. These Ancient Charges form the basis of our present day rituals and include the following directions:

The initiate was instructed to take his oath while his hand was “under the holy booke” or “upon the booke.” It was his duty to keep the counsel of his fellows truly, not to commit adultery with a fellow's wife, daughter or servant, not to supplant a master or fellow in any of their work. He was not to take an apprentice unless he be freeborn, come of good kindred, and whole of limb and to slander no Mason behind his back. He was to come to Assembly if it is within fifty miles if he have warning.

These Charges were to be read at each assembly of Masons and were often accompanied by lectures on the history of the craft or some appropriate Masonic subject. These requirements persist in every well governed Lodge.

According to a legend preserved in the lectures of the York Rite College, the first meetings of Freemasons in England took place in the city of York. The first record of a Masonic initiation on English soil is that of Sir Robert Moray on May 24 1641 in the town of Newcastle (near the eastern border with Scotland). On October 16, 1646, Elias Ashmole recorded in his diary "I was made a Free Mason at Warrington in Lancashire, with Coll: Henry Mainwaring of Karincham in Cheshire." Moray, Ashmole, Christopher Wren, and others formed the Royal Society, with a charter from Charles II just a few months after his return to England and restoration to the throne. It is remarkable that men allied with both sides of the brutal civil war which preceded that event had been meeting together in comity if not in amity for the furtherance of "natural philosophy." Robert Lomas has proposed in Freemasonry and the Birth of Modern Science and The Invisible College that this was made possible by Masonic scruples against discussion of religion or politics in meetings. It seems certain that it was Moray, a trusted confidant of King Charles and his mentor in natural philosophy, who obtained from him the royal charter for the Society. This was the first, and for a very long time indeed afterward the only organization in the Western world with the legal right to publish the writings of its members without first obtaining the permission of the King for each publication. The importance of this for the founding of modern science and for the dissemination of knowledge in this exciting age of Bacon, Hooke, Newton, and Wren is difficult to overstate.

On June 24, 1717, four of the lodges operating in London met together to form the first Grand Lodge of England. According to Joseph Newton, in The Builders, “the initiative came from the heart of the order itself&rquo; as a revival of older and well-established practices of quarterly and annual assembly, &lquo;and was in no sense imposed upon it from without”. James Anderson, who in 1721 was directed by the Grand Lodge (then but four years established) to “digest the old Gothic Constitutions in a new and better method”, wrote that the Grand Lodge “… ‘it should meet Quarterly according to ancient Usage’, tradition having by this time become authoritative in such matters.”

It must be born in mind, however, that this was in the midst of the Jacobite risings (1688-1746) aimed at restoring the House of Stuart to the throne, and that Masonry was longest and most strongly established in regions (Scotland, Ireland, and the north of England) where Jacobite sympathies were most entrenched, and most suspected in London. However that may or may not be related, it is clear that the Grand Lodge of England was taken over by English nobility, progressively to the exclusion of common Masons, resulting in the schism of the Antients and the Moderns. During this time the traditions and rituals were recast to remove what was termed "rubbish". Documents disappeared. For example, a history of Masonry by Elias Ashmole, which Lomas reports to have been in the collection of the Royal Society, cannot be found today.

The ritual as it is know today was formulated in Illustrations of Masonry by the Scot William Preston, first published in 1772. In 1777 the Lodge of Antiquity, under Preston's guidance, had a dispute with the "Moderns" over public use of Masonic regalia, which resulted in his being briefly suspended from the Order. Other differences arose, with the result that the Lodge of Antiquity formed itself into a rival grand lodge, under the title of "Grand Lodge of England, South of the River Trent." For this, Preston was again expelled by the "Moderns." He was reinstated again in 1789. Through the successive editions of Illustrations of Masonry and in other writings and lectures, Preston employed his extensive studies of Masonic lore to reformulate the ritual and lectures in a form that met with the approval of the leading members at that time, including in his reformed texts an overlay of eighteenth century philosopical and educational notions.

Prior to these steps to standardize ritual and lectures in written form, they had been in great measure preserved as an oral transmission “from mouth to ear”. In such a tradition, divergences inevitably occur. Adequately to reconstruct the earliest form would require documentary resources, tools of scholarship, and perhaps motivations which were beyond Anderson's and Preston's capacities. In recent years, Robert Lomas has collected a remarkable trove of early Masonic documents In a digital repository at the University of Bradford. The veracity of the attempted reconstruction in Part 2 of The Book of Hiram may be debated, but the value of the collection from which it was concocted is indisputable.

Continuing the tangled tale of Jacobite-Hanoverian intrigues, John Noorthouk wrote in the 1784 Book of Constitutions of the Premier Grand Lodge of London that Charles II was made a Freemason in the Netherlands before the Restoration. The lack of documentary evidence of lodges of Freemasons anywhere on the continent is either convincing or not that the allegation is baseless, depending evidently upon the sympathies of the writer. The conventional view is that Noorthouk made that statement to flatter the fraternity by claiming membership for a previous monarch. In any case, the story was embellished further in a 1797 anti-Masonic work by John Robison, a professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh; then in the 1820s by a German bookseller and Freemason, living in Paris, who wrote under the pseudonym C. Lenning a manuscript Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (later revised and published by another German Freemason named Friedrich Mossdorf). Lenning stated that King James II of England, after his flight to France in 1688, resided at the Jesuit College of Clermont, where his followers fabricated certain degrees for the purpose of carrying out their political ends. This is said to have been a confusion of the name of the Jesuit college with that of a short-lived Masonic body called the Chapter of Cleremont, which conferred “higher degrees”.

With many further elaborations, this Jacobite claim gave rise to a great proliferation of organizations claiming to confer "higher degrees" in Freemasonry, in many cases also claiming the conferral therby of esoteric, theosophical, and alchemical advancement for the initiate. Out of this developed the Scottish Rite, which arrived in the New World from France by way of Haiti and New Orleans, and was established as such in 1801 in Charleston, South Carolina.

Freemasonry had already become well established in Colonial America, with lodges, particularly military lodges, warrented from the Grand Lodge of Ireland and of Scotland as well as that of England. George Washington was a Mason, Benjamin Franklin served as the head of the fraternity in Pennsylvania, as did Paul Revere and Joseph Warren in Massachusetts. Other well-known Masons involved with the founding of America included John Hancock, John Sullivan, Lafayette, Baron Fredrick von Steuben, Nathaniel Greene, and John Paul Jones.

The more organized establishment of the Fraternity across the new North American continent was greatly facilitated by Thomas Webb, who distilled Preston's Illustrations of Masonry into more compact form as The Freemason's Monitor, or, Illustrations of Masonry. He toured the country lecturing to lodges and promoting the system of concordant or appendant bodies, in particular the American Chapter and Encampment system.

Over the centuries, Freemasonry has developed into a worldwide fraternity emphasizing personal study, self-improvement, and philanthropy reforming society one man at a time. Because of the inherently egalitarian character of the Lodge, Freemasonry has been a vital factor in the establishment of democratic institutions and in spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment. These ideals include the dignity of man and the liberty of the individual, the right of all persons to worship as they choose, the formation of democratic governments, and the importance of public education. Masons supported the first public schools in both Europe and America. Until the mid 20th century, the US government provided no social security or welfare benefits, and the Masonic tradition of founding orphanages, homes for widows, and homes for the aged provided the only means of security many people knew.

Today our rituals stand as some of the greatest material in literature, conveying a noble conception of human potential and teaching standards of excellence to live by. So long as men aspire to make their mark in the improvement of the world, and to secure in old age the contentment of a life well lived and confidence in what will befall thereafter, the teachings, ideals and philosophy of Masonry will serve as they have for centuries past. It is given to every Mason to preserve the ancient Usages and Charges of the Craft inviolate, and pass them to new generations with due humility and honor.

CopyleftCopyLeft Symbol 2008 Bruce E. Nevin.