History of Freemasonry

History of Freemasonry

Written By: RW Michael Neuberger, 2017 Grand Historian

What is the History of Freemasonry? What are our origins? Does it matter? The beginnings of our ancient fraternity are shrouded in mystery. Myths abound but hard facts are few and far between.

Facts

We do know that on June 24, 1717, the Grand Lodge of England, the first Grand Lodge was formed, when four existing London Lodges met at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in St. Paul’s Churchyard, and elected Anthony Sayer as Grand Master. Soon thereafter, The Grand Lodge of Ireland is believed to have been formed in June 1725 and The Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1736.
Elias Ashmole recorded “October 16, 1646 at 4:30pm, I was made a freemason at Warrington in Lancaster with Colonel Henry Mainwaring. The names of those that were then at the Lodge, Mr Richard Penket Worden, Mr James Collier, Mr Richard Sankey, Henry Little, John Ellam, Richard Ellam, and Hugh Brewer.”

The oldest known minutes of a Lodge (and yes, I’m sure they were read at the next meeting) are of The Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) No 1 under the grand jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, dated July 1599.
The Halliwell Manuscript or Regius Poem, dated 1425, describes how masonry began in Ancient Egypt and was ultimately brought to England during the reign of King Athelstan in 926.

Mythology

The myths of course, are much more fun. Each of the following groups have throughout history been connected with Freemasonry or deemed part of the origins of Freemasonry.

Ancient Egypt

As mentioned, the Regius Poem suggests that masonry began in Ancient Egypt, where the mystery schools began. Under these mystery schools, initiates underwent ancient rituals as they advanced through multiple degrees of knowledge. Degrees were held in temples, with secret passwords and codes. Many of these degrees deal with the death and resurrection of Osiris, and in some of the sculptures left by the Egyptians to illustrate the rites of the Egyptian Mysteries the candidate is shown lying on a couch shaped like a lion from which he is being raised from the dead level to a living perpendicular. The bas-reliefs at Denderah make this very plain, though they represent the god Osiris being raised instead of a human candidate (sound familiar?). Similarly, other ancient societies, such as Mysteries of Eleusis, Mystery of Dionysus, or the Mystery of Mithras all deal with the death of a great man, followed by his resurrection and redemption.

Essenes

The Essenes were a messianic sect existing during the time of the Second Temple. Newly joining members would take an oath that included the commitment to practice piety towards Deity and righteousness towards humanity, to maintain a pure lifestyle, to abstain from criminal and immoral activities, to transmit their rules uncorrupted and to preserve the books of the Essenes and the names of the Angels. Their theology included belief in the immortality of the soul.

Templar Knights

The Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, a crusading order formed by Hugues de Payens in 1119 to protect pilgrimages from Europe to Jerusalem. These knights originally began with nine members and were based at the Temple Mount, at the ruins of Solomon’s Temple. Mythology suggests that these knights, after digging near the Temple Mount, found a great treasure. Was that treasure riches, such as gold, or a great secret, no one knows. However, shortly thereafter, the group gains in esteem and wealth, and spreads throughout Europe. Long after the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, the Templar Knights continue to grow in stature and wealth, creating one of the first worldwide banking systems. Jealous of their wealth, King Philip IV of France with the help of Pope Clement V, hatches a plan to arrest the knights for heresy and blasphemy. The order is issued for their arrest on Friday, October 13, 1307. The myth suggests that many knights escaped to Scotland, and hid under the guise of a church building trade union known as the Freemasons (more about them later), bringing with them the secret knowledge they learned while in Jerusalem.

The President, Council, and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge commonly known as the Royal Society
The Royal Society was formed in November 1660 by royal charter granted by King Charles II in London. The Royal Society included physicians and natural philosophers influenced by Francis Bacon and his work the New Atlantis. The New Atlantis, written by Bacon, is about a society devoted to human discovery and knowledge. As quoted from the book “Ye shall understand that amongst the excellent acts of that king, one above all hath the pre-eminence. It was the erection and institution of an Order or Society, which we call Salomon’s House; the noblest foundation that ever was upon the earth; and the lanthorn of this kingdom. It is dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.” And before I forget, who was a key founding member of the Royal Society? None other than our fellow brother, Elias Ashmole.

Freemason, a Trade Guild

Operative Freemasons, skilled in geometry and other construction skills, travel freely building the great cathedrals of Europe. They were divided among classes, the Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. As they travelled through Europe, to protect their trade secrets they had secret handshakes, passwords, and other modes of recognition. At some point in history, enlightened gentleman, such as John T. Desaguliers and John Anderson began to join the guild (1719) as speculative Freemasons. From this point begins the transformation of a trade guild into a society of enlightened men of reason, devoted to God and Science.

Conclusion

We will never truly know the origins of Freemasonry. All we do know factually, is that prior to 1717, there were lodges in England, Scotland, Ireland, and probably elsewhere too. That in 1717, four of these lodges decided to form a Grand Lodge. We also know that the one common thread across all of these different groups, whether it be the Ancient Mystery Schools of Egypt, the Essenes, Templar Knights, Royal Society, or Freemason Guilds, is a passion and a love for humanity. An understanding and appreciation for the belief in God and an enlightened view of Science. Most importantly, a belief in religious toleration. But more than that, it was not just a simple toleration for another person’s faith, but an understanding that in the end, we all pray at the feet of the same Divine Architect, we just use different names and rituals to achieve his Divine Grace.

Suggested Readings

Foundations: new light on the formation and early years of
The Grand Lodge of England The 2016 Prestonian Lecture by Ric Berman
The Magus of Freemasonry: The Mysterious Life of Elias Ashmole
Scientist, Alchemist, and Founder of the Royal Society by Tobias Churton
The Regius Poem or Halliwell Manuscript
by James O. Halliwell (Author), Carl E. Weaver (Editor)
The Symbolism of Freemasonry Illustrating and Explaining Its Science
and Philosophy, Its Legends, Myths and Symbols by Albert Gallatin Mackey
Freemasonry and its Relation to the Essenes:
Foundations of Freemasonry Series by William Wynn Westcott
The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon
John Theophilus Desaguliers: A Natural Philosopher, Engineer
and Freemason in Newtonian England by Audrey T. Carpenter