Where does Freemasonry come from?

The beginnings of Freemasonry are somewhat obscure, and there are a number of theories as to its origin. OrganisedFreemasonry began in 1717, when four lodges meeting in London combined to form the first Grand Lodge. When, and under what circumstances, these four original lodges were founded is unknown. The most prevalent theory is that Masonic lodges as we known them today emerged during the Middle Ages, and that they are somehow descended from the operative lodges of stonemasons.

During the Middle Ages, there were a number of trade professions in existence, with members of each usually grouped together in guilds (what today we would call trade unions). One of these was that of the stonemason, whose guilds were known as ‘lodges’. However, unlike town-based guilds (as most were), the stonemason profession was itinerant. Clearly, when one building site was finished, the stonemasons had to physically move to another location (often to another locality) to continue in employment. They were often housed under one roof at the building site—the probable origin of the word ‘lodge’.

Apprentices to the stonemason trade were usually indentured at about twelve years of age. Typically, an apprenticeship lasted seven years. Not only were apprentices trained in building in stone, but the lodges also acted as more general educative institutions, teaching religion and morality. The key document that regulated the operative lodges was known as theOld Charges. These were a set of written regulations setting out not only building practices, but more particularly a moral code of ‘do’s and don’ts’. There are many extant versions of theOld Charges(also known as theAntient Charges) dating back several centuries. Many of them are similar in wording. The oldest is the Regius Poem, dating to 1389, but most versions date to the 1600s, and 1700s.

An updated version of theOld Chargesis to be found as a preface to the Book of Constitutionsof the United Grand Lodge of England, and that of many other Grand Lodges. These charges are commonly read annually in each lodge to a new Master on his Night of Installation. See Section Two for the wording of these Charges.

Over a transitional period (17th and 18th centuries), the stonemasons’ craft declined as a result of changing technologies. Simply put, people ceased building castles and cathedrals. A slightly more modern analogy is the blacksmith’s trade. A century ago there were blacksmiths ‘on every corner’. Very few exist today—they have been replaced ‘on every corner’ by motor mechanics. In another century spacecraft technicians may well supersede them!

As a result of the decline in stonemasonry as a craft, lodges dwindled in numbers. During the transitional period, according to the theory, non-stonemasons (non-operatives) were invited in increasing numbers to join. Thus, by the 18th century, most members were not stonemasons, but what we now call ‘speculative’ or ‘symbolic’ masons.

HOW DID MASONRY EXPAND?

Subsequent to the formation of the first Grand Lodge in 1717, the Craft grew and spread across the world. One main impetus was the expansion of the British Empire. That said, it quickly found root in Europe as well. Grand Lodges were formed in Ireland (1725), Scotland (1736), France (1736), Germany (1740), Netherlands (1756), and Sweden (1760). Many others followed.

Today, every State of America, every State of Australia, and every Province of Canada has its own Grand Lodge, with many constituent lodges owing them allegiance. So does every country of South America, most in Europe, and many in Africa and Asia. In countries without a Grand Lodge as yet, or even on ‘remote’ islands, Lodges will be found—usually coming under the Grand Lodges of England, Ireland, Scotland or France.