Freemasonry can trace its origins in Europe as far back as medieval times. Since then it has evolved into what we know today. Throughout these hundreds of years Freemasons have been sure of being able to find and identify a group of men, wherever they might be in the world, who live their lives according to the three basic tenets of the Craft – Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth.
By following these three principles a Freemason seeks to show tolerance and understanding of the views and opinions of others, to help others in the community through charitable giving and voluntary help and to live their lives to the highest moral and ethical standards.
In the eyes of the man and woman in the street, Freemasonry as a whole has been surrounded in mystery and intrigue, and even now, in Central and Eastern Europe especially, there is a considerable misunderstanding of who we are and what we do. Since WWII both State and Church have added to this misunderstanding and rumour and innuendo have created suspicion and mistrust.
Freemasonry is not a secret society. Our aims, principles, constitutions and rules are in the public domain and we are totally at liberty to acknowledge our membership. The big secret is that there are no secrets other than our traditional methods of recognition.
Because Freemasons include mythological stories and anecdotes in their ritual work, a great amount of speculation exists as to the Craft’s origins, and thousands of publications in the form of books, pamphlets and articles, of widely varying quality have been written to attempt to uncover the truth about the ancient roots of our Fraternity.
Freemasonry’s first chronicler was Dr. James Anderson who composed, or at least compiled the first Book of Constitutions in 1723. Included as a preface was a history of Freemasonry—a gloss of all the manuscript Charges then available. A rather fantastic interpretation by Anderson, it was not reprinted in the next edition in 1734. It claimed as fact the lineal descent of modern Freemasonry through King Athelstan, King Solomon, and Adam. Thus was our first myth born. To varying degrees, over the following almost two hundred years many freemasons accepted that history and many non-masons assumed that this was in fact Freemasonry’s teachings.
Today most freemasons are unsure who Athelstan was and recognize that the Solomon link is legendary. But we’ve created another myth: our Templar heritage. I hesitate to broach the subject, as it is controversial with many freemasons convinced that the Templars took refuge in Scotland and either created or entered Freemasonry to hide their own practices and beliefs. John Robinson’s Born in Blood was one of the first to popularize this notion to a modern audience.
Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, who brought us The Hiram Key, and others, have demonstrated themselves to be excellent hucksters but woefully deficient as historians and I shan’t refer to them again, but Michael Baigent, who co-authored The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, among others, is noteworthy in having drawn back from his earlier promotion of the Templar myth.
I will only say that Robert Cooper, current curator of the museum of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, who has spent many years researching the subject—studying primary source documents, roaming forgotten graveyards and the like— wrote what I believe to be the definitive debunking of this myth in the 2002 edition of Ars Quatuor Coronatorum. He has also published a book on the topic. It’s not as exciting as Holy Blood but it’s much better history.
More recently, the adoption of the blue forget-me-not by Nazi-era freemasons is another myth. The Grand Lodge zur Sonne (Bayreuth) used to have a pin made for delegates to wear to their annual meetings. One particular pin, in 1926, depicted a forget-me-not. Later, in 1934, the Nazis instituted the Winterhilfswerk, which involved youths collecting money on the streets for rearmament. To encourage donations, different pins and badges were given to contributors for them to wear during that collection period. The badge used by the Nazis for the collection made in March 1938 coincidently was the same forget-me-not pin chosen by the freemasons in 1926. There is absolutely no record of the pin, or the flower, ever having been worn during the war anywhere in Germany much less in concentration camps, as the legend would have it.
The Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of Germany, Dr. Theodor Vogel distributed the same pin as tokens of friendship whenever he made official visits abroad after 1948; most notably at a Conference of Grand Masters in Washington, DC in February 1953, where he recounted the 1938 history.
This explains how the blue forget-me-not became a German masonic emblem after the war and why, when American freemasons later founded military lodges in Germany, at least one chose that flower as the lodge name. Many lodges in Germany, at least up until recently, present a forget-me-not to newly raised brethren or Master Masons.
We also encourage the myth that we belong to some universal, monolithic secular fraternity. But in fact, we are very much each the products of our time and place. We recognize the Grand Lodge of Sweden but they restrict their membership to professing Christians and there are members of our jurisdiction who would be decidedly uncomfortable attending their meetings and certainly wouldn’t be allowed to affiliate. We recognize the Grand Lodge of Arkansas, but there are members of our jurisdiction who would not be allowed to enter their lodge halls because of the colour of their skin.
THE FIRST GRAND LODGE
On 24 June 1717 four London Lodges, which had existed for some time, came together at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in St Paul’s Churchyard, London and declared themselves a Grand Lodge and elected Anthony Sayer as their Grand Master. This was the first Grand Lodge in the world.
The formation of the Grand Lodge of England on St. John’s Day (June 24) in 1717 is essentially the beginning of what is known as the “historical period of Freemasonry.” However we do know that the term “Freemason” and “Freemason’s Lodges” was in use during the mid 1600s. The formation of Grand Lodge itself established rules for running Lodges the same way, so as to make them “Regular.” Before the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, there were no standard rules for recording membership, or meeting proceedings. Thus, the events leading up to the formation of Grand Lodge are difficult to verify.
While the word “Free Mason” appears in the Halliwell poem, one of the earliest references to being a “Freemason” prior to the formation of Grand Lodge in 1717, appears a generation before during the height of the English Civil War. Elias Ashmole wrote in his diary entry for 16 October, 1646; it reads in part: “I was made a Free Mason at Warrington in Lancashire, with Col Henry Mainwaring of Karincham [Kermincham] in Cheshire.”
Many scholars believe that Freemasonry was one of many social clubs that arose during the English Civil War.
Elias was a English polymath, part of a circle known at that time as the Invisible College, which was a network of intellectuals who maintained correspondence with each other on natural philosophy (i.e., what we now call “science”).
Another notable member of the Invisible College, believed to be a Freemason, was Christopher Wren, who built St. Paul’s Cathedral and many other buildings after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Scholars disagree as to the level of Wren’s involvement in the Fraternity. Some say that he was even the Grand Master of Freemasons, a title that is disputed because it is difficult to have a Grand Master, without a Grand Lodge, unless the title is entirely ceremonial.
From the evidence we do have, we know that Lodges existed before 1646 and operated with some regularity between themselves, before a governing body was formed to govern over them all. The exact members of each Lodge, where they met, what rituals they practiced, and the methods of recognition allowing members to visit or join other Lodges was never written down, and thus impossible to document with certainty.
The First Grand Lodge in London was used primarily to provide legitimacy to Freemasonry in general, as well as a public awareness campaign to promote the growth of the Fraternity. Shortly after the formation of Grand Lodge, Private Lodges were chartered in dozens of cities across England. It should be noted that many of those Lodges “formed” after the formation of Grand Lodge, may have already been operating as Freemasons long before Grand Lodge, and their “chartering” would have been an annexation of the Lodges under the Grand Lodge of England as part of a consolidation. There is considerable controversy about what motivated the formation of the Grand Lodge of England. It seems possible that the Hanoverians wanted to know who the Masons were — because they tended to favor the House of Stuart — and thus wanted Freemasonry more “out in the open.” Many Lodges beyond London are said to have destroyed their records in response to the formation of the Grand Lodge – a fact that adds some credence to the Hanoverian theory.
With the influx of so many Lodges under Grand Lodge, Dr. James Anderson, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, was commissioned to record the history of Freemasonry up to that point. The Book of Constitutions includes many of myths, rumors and legends that are now common misconceptions about Freemasonry.
After the publication of Anderson’s Book of Constitutions, the minutes of every meeting of every Lodge were recorded. It is for this reason that after this point, Freemasonry entered its historical period.
ANCIENTS VS MODERNS
After the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, several lodges chose to remain independent by not merging with the larger superstructure. By not adopting the constitutions of the Grand Lodge of England, the rituals of many of these Lodges had variations that often were loved and held in high regard by their members. In an effort to preserve what they felt were older and more authentic rituals than the Grand Lodge of England, they formed their own Grand Lodge, which they called “The Most Ancient and Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons” according to the Old Constitutions, now simply known as the “Ancients” (then, often written as “Antients”).
EVOLUTION OF THE LODGES
As Grand Lodges formed in the United Kingdom to solidify the organization of pre-existing Lodges of Masons, and Charter new ones as well, so too they sprang up across Europe and the world. During the Colonial American period, Grand Lodges often planted or influenced the formation of new Grand Lodges in the United States. These likewise cross pollinated, forming different styles of Freemasonry in what eventually would become the various states of the newly formed United States of America. Thus, to this day, each state, under its own sovereign Grand Lodge, often exhibits a combination of different traditions in their rituals and constitutions, resulting in slight, but usually insignificant discrepancies in ceremonial order, ritual wording, terminology, and nuances of their respective Grand Lodge organizations.
Most of the Grand Lodges of the United States were formed during the age of expansion from the original 13 colonies to the creation of new Lodges as new States were brought into the union. Oftentimes, Grand Lodges would be formed over territories, and then subsequently broken up as territories were then divided into states, thus forming new Grand Lodges whose Jurisdictions corresponded to state borders. The same is true in Canada, and in most parts of the Commonwealth.
The 20th century saw two large phases of growth of Freemasonry, followed by a steady decline. The cause of these trends has been a topic of debate by our membership over the last twenty years.
Due in part to the institutionalized nature of Freemasonry, it was made popular as a networking organization for male community leaders after the turn of the last century. It was a place where men of every class could speak to each other as equals with the understanding of common values and commitments to themselves, their country, and their neighbor.
After World War II, there was a second surge in Lodge membership, because it helped maintain the types of brotherly relationships they had built during the war. While this was the largest boom for the Fraternity, it also carried with it the seeds of its steady decline in popularity over the next several decades.
The Freemasons who were WWII veterans tended to be single-minded during the post-war boom, particularly during the 1950s, which meant that it increasingly came to be viewed as being in alignment with the “establishment,” (if not “the Establishment” itself) and as an organization of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males. In retrospect, it appears that the collective euphoria of enjoying massive numbers of members had the unintended consequence of watering down the depth and importance of Masonic ritual. At the same time, the lesser importance of ritual resulted in a lack of depth in relationships, a desire for study and commitment to the Enlightenment values which had nourished the evolution and spread of modern Freemasonry.
This reacted with the culture of the 1960s very poorly, when anti-establishment was the trend, and Freemasonry was on the wrong side of youth. The perceptions that most young people (of draft age) held regarding traditional institutions of all kinds were at odds with those held by their parents – a situation that was dubbed the “generation gap.” Young people at that time saw Freemasonry — and Freemasons (often their fathers and uncles, of course) as part, if not often even the cause, of the countries conflicts which they sought to address, whether by peaceful civil disobedience or violent protest. Whereas normally the Fraternity had been passed on from Father to son, laden with values that actually had many roots in the rebellions of the 18th century that led to the American and French revolutions, an entire generation of Americans opted out of Freemasonry for what they saw as more effective, if not more progressive movements.
Due to the Baby Boomers’ lack of interest in Freemasonry, the numbers greatly diminished across the country in the period of 1970-2000 as the WWII veterans slowly died off. The initial lack of popularity of Freemasonry grew into lack of familiarity and eventually, many young people did not even know that Freemasonry existed. Ironically, this vacuum proved to be fertile ground for the Renaissance of Freemasonry in the late 1990s – a trend that is continuing as we approach the third decade of the 21st century.
The last two decades have witnessed an amazing, organic surge in the interest that (now!) young Millennials have in Freemasonry. Many of them attribute popular culture for their interest, but most find the Craft as a way to connect more deeply with themselves and others by exploring the ancient Craft. Many Masons of all ages see this trend as the rebirth of the Fraternity because, in a very significant way, whereas in the past, young men are not simply picking up where their fathers left off — by going where their fathers lead them — but instead, most are walking into Lodges on their own.
Freemasonry is particularly growing in urban areas where Millennials are attracted by technology jobs in major urban centers. The ironic bit is that it’s the authenticity, the bonding of ritual and genuineness of relationships that attract them most. What is not ironic is that this trend “rhymes” with the way Freemasonry expanded in the colonial period, when it found fertile ground for growth in thriving seaboard cities that attracted young tradesmen and other professional and educated men to the burgeoning mercantilism of international commerce and eventually the industrial revolution.
The idea of self, is something that many Millennials find themselves in constant flux about. A Millennials’ brain is so shaped by technology that identity is something that is always in flux; as such, everyone is on a constant journey of self discovery. Essentially, this is the idea of Freemasonry, that we are all on a journey of self-becoming, and that the friendships we make help determine who we become. Thus, in a very real way, the growth seen in the past two decades is a result of Freemasonry being able, because of the changes in society — which emerge from changes in technology — to return to its true purpose, building relationships between men who share values, allowing them to live and work in brotherhood, and live more enriched lives. As ever, but in ways that are new, Freemasonry brings men together who might otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance.