History of Freemasonry


Since the commonly accepted theory today is that modern Freemasonry is directly linked with the masons who erected buildings on the Gothic style of architecture, we will begin with that period. Some say the Gothic period began around 900 AD. Others place it a bit later. Before the Gothic period, most large buildings had used the rounded arch and horizontal lintels. On the whole, they were simply squat structures with flat or with moderately pitched roofs. If any height was necessary, the building’s walls had to be extremely thick to support the structure’s weight. For the same reason, windows were little more than narrow slits because wider windows would weaken the structure. Then the Gothic arch was introduced, and buttresses were invented to strengthen the walls. Buildings could rise to great heights and have wide, graceful windows. European architecture changed radically and the effects can be seen in the beautiful Gothic cathedrals still standing. Thus with the introduction of Gothic architecture into Europe, and especially into England, there began a great era of building in the new style—a period that lasted, roughly, from around 1150 to 1550.

Magnificent cathedrals, abbeys, priories, and monasteries began to rise; the construction of some requiring centuries. These buildings were erected for the benefit of the Church. Remember, the Catholic faith was dominant in England during the cathedral building era and the masons who formed the operative Lodges during that time were of that faith. As each major building project was begun, the customary first step was the erection of a building nearly where the workmen could take shelter from bad weather, store their tools, eat their meals, and in some cases, even live during the progress of the job. (In fact, construction trailers are seen at nearly all larger sites to this day.) These buildings or Lodges were governed by a master, with the aid of officers corresponding to our modern wardens. The transition theory holds that such Lodges became the prototype for the speculative Lodges of later years.

Mackey explains that the word “Lodge” derives from the Anglo-Saxon word “logian,” meaning “to dwell,” and bases his reasoning for this assumption on the fact that it was the custom of operative masons when starting a major building project to erect, first, a small edifice as outlined above. Knoop and Jones mention that the word at various times had two additional 20 meanings: it might mean the complete group of masons employed in a particular building job, and also might mean all masons located in one city or district. The OED seems to support Mackey’s interpretation, tracing the word’s speculative Masonic usage to 1686, its operative Masonic usage to 1371, and its oldest usage to 1291 (in the Rolls of Parliament of that year).

Knowledge of the builder’s art was slow to develop in England, and prior to the year 1000 it was the custom to import skilled workmen from abroad, supplementing their services with those of local workmen. But in time, English and Scottish men of the mason’s trade grew in skill and numbers. Records show that by the fourteenth century some of them had begun to group themselves into organizations. Here we should consider the word “freemason.” The origin of the term is clouded in darkness, but the commonly accepted thought today is that it designated those who worked in free stone, which is a comparatively soft stone which could be readily carved. Another thought is that because of their skill and the nature of their work, were free to travel and accept work throughout the country, which was not necessarily the case for other workmen, who might be bound to the land, or to a particular lord. And still a third is that masons were free from the restrictive laws which a municipality might impose on workmen in other trades. Any one of these may be right, or a combination of them; no one knows for certain.

Men entered the mason’s trade in the usual way—as ordinary day-laborers doing the roughest kind of work and progressing as they  developed more skill; by a son following in the footsteps of his mason father; and by the apprentice system, which has been made so much of in modern speculative Masonry. While some modern authorities say that the number of mason apprentices was actually quite small, still the term “apprentice” has become so important in Masonry that we should consider here the usual version of the apprentice system. According to many of the older writers, it was the custom for the master mason in operative days to seek out suitable boys to train as skilled workmen. These were usually from ten to fifteen years old, from parents of good repute, and free from physical infirmity which would interfere with their ability to work. The boys were apprenticed to the master mason for varying periods, usually seven years, during which time the master was responsible for their training as masons, for their board and clothing, and for their moral training.

After a suitable interval to prove their worthiness, the apprentice’s name was enrolled in the records of the craft and he became an “Entered” Apprentice. After years of training, he presented actual evidence of his skill before the Lodge—his “master’s piece”—and if approved he became a Fellow of the Craft and was considered capable of contracting for work on his own as a master mason.

In connection with the development of operative Masonry in England we must remember “Into which Society when any are admitted, they call a meeting (or Lodge as they term it in some places) which must consist at least of 5 or 6 of the Ancients of the Order.” Practically this entire great program of building was for the Catholic Church, and the members of these operative Lodges were Roman Catholic by faith. Indeed, Catholicism was the religion of practically every Christian country at that time. Thus, modern speculative Freemasonry may be said to have stemmed from Catholic operative masons of the middle ages.

The story of how the dominance of the Catholic faith in England and many other countries came to an end is an interesting one. The transition is known as the Reformation. Before this religious revolution, which took up most of the sixteenth century, the Pope had complete domination over practically the whole Christian church. He also had great temporal power as well. A movement toward reformation was begun by John Wickliffe in the fourteenth century, although his efforts were premature. But a complete change was to come later, for the corruption of the Church and its abuses of power were so flagrant and so numerous that some sort of revolution was inevitable.

It was Martin Luther, an Augustine monk in Germany, who struck the spark which set off the explosion. To sum it up briefly, he received backing from prominent people when he accused the Church of going beyond the bounds of reason. And although he was excommunicated by the Church he refused to recant and continued his attacks against the corrupt clergy. Lutheran churches began to make their appearance and the movement spread rapidly.

By about 1600 the power of the Catholic Church was broken in England and Scotland and they had become Protestant countries. And this was one of the reasons why the large program of building came slowly to a halt. As the work slackened and the jobs became fewer and fewer, the number of operative masons began its decline. The number of their Lodges decreased as the members turned to other fields of employment. But oddly enough, the remaining Lodges began receiving occasional applications for membership from men who were not operative masons at all — they were men of the higher walks of life who both were academically interested in architecture and also curious about, geometry which the operative masons had used in their work for so long.

By the eighteenth century the custom of admitting non-operatives had become so common that it finally gave the speculative element a preponderance in numbers and influence over the operatives in the Lodges. These speculative members were known variously as gentlemen Masons, theoretical Masons, geometric Masons, and honorary members.  Finally they became known as speculative Masons, the term we use today. At length, after a long period of time, because of the increasing power and number of the speculatives, there came about a total and permanent break between the two groups. The time of this break must be placed around the beginning of the eighteenth century, but it had been a long time coming. The Regius MS, the oldest known Masonic document in the world, says of Prince Edward (tenth century), “Of speculative he was a master”—so speculative masons were apparently known at least as early as 1390, when the Regius MS was likely written.

Those who were admitted by consent of the operative masons became “Accepted Masons”. Membership was desired because of the spiritual, social and cultural advantages. During this time, our Craft grew rapidly in numbers. If we had not become Speculative Masons, our Craft would have been faced with extinction. Many of the institutions of that day did pass into oblivion; but by becoming Speculative, the Craft has grown to a point never envisioned by its founders. Much of this growth can be attributed to the formation of the premier Grand Lodge of England, when four old Lodges in London held a meeting at the Goose and Gridiron Tavern in June of 1717. At this meeting, a Brother by the name of Anthony Page Sayer was elected Grand Master. From there, Freemasonry quickly spread over much of the world, and other grand Lodges were established.


The frequent references to King Solomon’s Temple in this and other Degrees, has led to the false conclusion that the Fraternity was founded by him. Freemasonry became an organized craft many years after the reign of Solomon. However, our ritual is based upon Masonic legends connected with both Solomon and the Temple at Jerusalem, which has helped enrich the symbolism. The Biblical passages regarding the Temple can be found in the First Book of Kings, Chapters 5 to 8, and the First Book of Chronicles, beginning in the second chapter.


The origin of our ritual cannot be traced much beyond the years of the 18th century, or around 1700. The ritual of Freemasonry was a continuation of the practices and customs of the day-to-day work of the Operative Freemason. The emphasis gradually shifted from the practical to moral and spiritual virtues as the Accepted Masons began to outnumber the Operative Brethren in the Lodges. In early Speculative Masonry, there may have been but one degree and a Master’s part. After a few years, three Degrees were used.


By the first part of the 18th century, there were many Lodges in England. By the year 1716, most of the Lodges had only non-operative members. In December of 1716, on St. John’s Day, a number of members met in London and had an informal meeting. As a result of this meeting the members of the four Lodges met again in London on June 24, 1717 on St. John the Baptist’s Day and formed the first Grand Lodge. This became one of the most important dates in Masonic history, because it marked the start of modern Freemasonry as we know it today. With the exception of a few Lodges, every regular Masonic Lodge today was granted a charter or warrant from a Grand Lodge, and every one ultimately traces its origins back to Grand Lodges in England, Scotland, or Ireland. Every Grand Lodge has a certain territorial jurisdiction, or an area to represent. In the United States, every State, and the District of Columbia, is governed by a Grand Lodge.

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