Document TitleSTB-85-09 THE ORIGINS OF FREEMASONRY
Music by Brother J. L. F. Mendelssohn.
THE ORIGINS OF FREEMASONRY
by ALPHONSE CERZA, P.M.
This Short Talk Bulletin has been adapted from a
paper presented to the Illinois Lodge of Research by
Bronx Cerza. We thank him for sharing it with us.
When and where did Freemasonry
originate? It is a tantalizing question. It has
been a source of much misunderstanding and
has generated a great deal of pompous
nonsense by overly enthusiastic members with
lively imaginations. There arc many Masons
who look upon our rituals as a lesson in history
and will state with positive assurance that the
Craft originated with the building of King
Solomon's Temple. They fail to recognize that
our ritualistic work is not a presentation of
history but merely a vehicle to teach basic
moral truths in an effective manner with the use
of builders' tools as symbols.
At the outset we should recognize that we
do not know when or where Freemasonry
originated. The reason is that it did not start in
one place at one time, by one man or group of
men. We can assume that when one man walked the earth there was no Freemasonry because
there was no need for it. But when two men appeared on the scene and recognized the need for
associating with others and helping one
another, Freemasonry in its most elementary
form began. When we begin to consider the
origin of the present day organization which we
know as Freemasonry we have many serious
problems. There are a number of theories that
have been advanced on this subject and it is interesting to consider some of them.
Henry W. Coil, in his fine Freemasonry
Through Six Centuries, volume one, states that
there are twenty-four theories regarding the
origin of Freemasonry. No useful purpose
would be served in covering the list in detail one
by one. He states (p. 7):
"Evidently, most of these theories must be
false. An hypothesis, in order to ripen into
a valid conclusion must be supported not
merely by some fact, but by sufficient fact
to carry moral conviction and remove it
from the realm of conjecture, and,
moreover, it must with be consistent with
all other known facts."
In "The Craft in the East", written by
Christopher Haffner, there appears the following:
"In 1908, Bro. Charles Bernadin reported
on his study of over two hundred separate
volumes dealing with the origins of
Masonry. One affirmed that Masonry
existed before the creation, fifteen merely
that it went back as far as the Garden of
Eden. In this miasma of historical phantasy,
one book traced the origin of the Craft
to the Emperor of China, another to the
Orient generally. Such legends are of value
only as a study in the credulity of our
Most of the theories are based on taking
some similarities that exist between the Craft
and some ancient organization, or object, and
then concluding that the similarities prove that
there has been found the start of the present
day Craft. Too often there are a number of
dissimilarities that are conveniently overlooked
or ignored. The weakness of most of these
theories is that there are plenty of missing links
as one examines the matter down through the
ages and the ancient group cannot be clearly
and logically linked to the Craft step by step.
The reason for not being able to answer the
question is clearly set forth in the sixth edition
of Pick & Knight, The Pocket History of
Freemasonry as follows: (p. 13)
"In a system, fundamentally ethical, which
makes a wide use of symbolism in its
manner of imparting instruction, it would
be surprising if there were not many points
of contact with a variety of religions,
old and new, in addition to the classical
'Mysteries', and even ancient Chinese
philosophy, in which, for example, the
square is known to have been employed as
an illustration or emblem of morality."
And it is further stated in the same book:
"Many of the doctrines or tenets inculcated
in Freemasonry belong to the vast traditions of humanity of all ages and all parts
of the world. Nevertheless, not only has
no convincing evidence yet been brought
forth to prove the lineal descent of our
Craft from any ancient organization which
is known to have, or even suspected of
having, taught any similar system of
morality, but also, from what we know
of the Craft in the few centuries prior
to the formation of the first Grand Lodge
in 1717, it is excessively unlikely that there
was any such parentage."
And the following is stated in the same book
regarding the various theories:
"An immense amount of ingenuity has
been expended on the exploration of
possible origins of Freemasonry, a good
deal of which is now fairly generally
admitted to have been wasted."
It is the considered judgment of most
Masonic scholars who have examined the subject that the present day organization known as
Freemasonry evolved from the operative guilds
of the middle ages. The period of transition
covered several hundred years and was gradual,
but that can be traced with some degree of certainty. The Pick & Knight book, from which
the above quotations were taken, is a good one
to get the basic picture generally. For one who
wants more details of the various theories the
Coil book mentioned above is a good start.
Let us examine briefly a few of the attrac-
tive theories which have been advanced on this
George Oliver stated that Freemasonry
originated before the creation of the world. He
has been much misunderstood in this statement. What he probably meant was that the
system or order in the universe was originated
before the present world was created. We can
pass up this theory quickly.
The theory has been advanced that
Freemasonry originated in the Garden of Eden.
It is stated that since Adam was the first man
and he wore a fig leaf apron, and today Masons
wear aprons, that he must have been the one to
originate the Craft. How many of you are willing to accept this theory on such "evidence"?
And if you do, where are the connecting links
that bring the subject down through the ages to
the present day?
It is sometimes stated that in all primitive
societies there was a structure that was known
as the "Men's House" in which the leaders of
the community met in secret and had initiatory
ceremonies in admitting young men into the
select group when they arrived at maturity.
These new members were taught lessons on the
manual arts and sometimes symbols were used
to teach moral lessons. But here again we have
merely some similarities and the links are missing.
The large number of organizations that existed in the ancient world under the designation
of "Ancient Mysteries" are sometimes stated to
be the Craft. Select membership, secret
ceremonies, the use of symbols, a death and a
rising are some of the items pointed to as being
"proof" of the origin. Here again we are merely talking about similarities.
There is the theory of the Roman Collegia,
the stone Masons attached to each legion which
followed the army into conquered territory to
build roads and structures familiar to the
Romans. These groups were banded together in
a foreign area of mutual aid and assistance; the
chief executive officer was called the Master;
and his two assistants were called Wardens.
They used the tools of their operative trade as
symbols. They aided and assisted the widow
and orphans of the members. Here again we are
examining similarities and the links are missing.
Then we have the story of the Cathedral
Builders of the middle ages. To the limited extent that these organizations of operative
workmen were the foundation stones of the
Craft, in a general way the view can be accepted. But when a story is woven with such
embellishment that the operative workmen over
a period of five hundred years retreated to the
island of Como and there preserved the skills
and ideals of the group for transmission to
future generations, we must state that this is a
bit far-fetched. This theory was discarded many
What evidence is advanced to support the
theory that is accepted today by Masonic
scholars who have studied the matter in depth?
The oldest extant document associated with
Freemasonry is the Regius Poem which is
believed to have been written around the year
1390 and purports to be a copy of an older
book. It describes the moral duties of the
operative workman and has a remote connection with Freemasonry as that term is used today. But we must have a starting point and this
is as good as any. The next oldest document is
the Cooke Manuscript and is supposed to have
been prepared around the year 1410. There are
many similar manuscripts that have been
discovered over the years which related to this
subject and have points of similarities in their
language and general content. The oldest
minutebook extant relating to a lodge that had
non-operative members is the one belonging to
Mary's Chapel for the year 1598; and the next
oldest one is that of Kilwinning Lodge; both of
these Lodges existed in Scotland.
The first records of non-operative members
joining a lodge should be noted here. Elias
Ashmole, a famous antiquarian of his day,
recorded in his diary that on October 16, 1646,
he was made a Freemason at Warrington in
Lancashire; thirty six years later, in 1682, he
noted that he had visited a lodge in London. In
1686 there was published the Natural History of
Starfordshire, by Dr. Robert Plot. It contains a
brief description of the customs and workings
of a lodge. About this time Random Holme
described the existence of Masonic lodges in
England. In 1686 there was published The
Natural History of Wiltshire, by John Aubrey,
in which he mentions the Fraternity of FreeMasons .
During the period when there was extensive
activity in the construction of large buildings
and cathedrals in England, Scotland and parts
of Europe, it was common for the workmen to
travel from place to place in connection with
their work. As far as proving their operative
skills these workmen could demonstrate their
abilities by actually doing the work allotted to
them. But each workman was also bound by
certain ethical standards in the general conduct
of his life and as a workman. As a result, there
was developed a sign, or a word, or both which
enabled these traveling workmen to assure
their employers that they were, in fact, bound
by these ethical standards. This developed an
air of secrecy which enabled workmen to prove
themselves to a prospective employer. This was
probably the only element of secrecy in the
group except for some operative matters.
Possibly later this element of secrecy lent itself
to the development of future esoteric elements
in this group.
The transition from the operative to the
symbolic Craft was gradual and covered several
hundred years. During this period the lodges at
first consisted primarily of the operative
workmen with a few honorary or "accepted"
members. These non-operative members joined
the lodges for their social benefits as the
workmen did observe many feast days and
holidays with entertainments and other observances. With the decline of the building trade
resulting from many catastrophes such as the
Black Death, the Great Fire of London, and
other events, the needed number of workmen
declined and eventually these members left the
lodges as they sought other employment. Eventually the lodges had members who were entirely non-operative.
By the year 1716 most of the lodges had
only non-operative members. In December of
that year, 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 four lodges met in London on June
24, 1717, and formed the Grand Lodge. This
became one of the most important dates in
Masonic history because it marked in an
elementary way the start of the present day
organizational charters to groups that work as
lodges. This date is sometimes described as the
starting point of modern Freemasonry.
Wor. Bro. Cerza resides at 237 Riverside
Rd., Riverside, Il. 60546.
Henry W. Coil, Freemasonry Through Six Centuries.
Vol. 1, pp. 1-123 (1966)
Pick & Knight, The Pocket History of Freemasonry
Sixth ed., 1977.
W.J. Hughan, Connecting Links Between Ancient
and Modern Freemasonry from a Non-Masonic
Standpoint. I A.Q.C. 50 ( 1886).
Harry Carr, The Transition from Operative to
Speculative Masonry. 69 A.Q.C. (1956).
Simon Greenleaf, A Brief inquiry Into the Origin
and Principles of Freemasonry, ( 1820) .
Leader Scott, The Cathedral Builders (1899).
Douglas Knoop, The Connection Between Operative
and Speculative Masonry. 48 A.Q.C. 292 (1935).
Douglas Knoop, Herbert Poole, The Antiquity of the
Craft. 51 A.Q.C. 126 (1939).
Herbert Poole, The Substance of Pre-Grand Lodge
Freemasonry. 61 A.Q.C. 1 17 (1948).
Knoop & Jones, The London Mason in the 17th
Century. 48 A.Q.C. 5 (1935).
C.C. Howard, The Evidential Value of the Regius,
the Cooke, and the W. Watson Mss. 6 A.Q.C. 21
Lionel Vibert, Freemasonry Before the Existence of
Knoop and Jones, The Genesis of Freemasonry.
Knoop and Jones, A Short History of Freemasonry
Before 1730 ( 1940) .