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A History of Freemasonry
Courtesy of
Magheramorne Masonic Lodge No. 514
Larne, Ireland

Today's Freemasonry is a direct descendent of the past operative guilds of masons -- men engaged in some branch of the building trade or in the art of architecture. Masonry is known to be the oldest fraternal organization in continuous existence in the world today.

The oldest existing written record of our Craft is the so-called Regius Manuscript written around the year 1390, when King Richard II reigned in England, six centuries ago and a century before Christopher Columbus discovered the new world. This manuscript consists of 794 lines of rhymed English verse and claims there was an introduction of Masonry into England during the reign of Athelstan, who ascended the throne in 925 A.D..

The English statues in 1350 (25 Edward III, Cap. III) regulated the wages of a "Master ...Mason at 4 pence per day." Also, the Fabric Role of the 12th century (1100's) Exeter Cathedral referred to "Freemasons." No one knows just how old Masonry is, but one only has to look at the building skills required to build the pyramids and King Solomon's Temple to recognize that organizations of masons probably were in place over two thousand years ago in order to transfer these very complex skills to each new generation.

Many Masonic historians believe that masonry originated in the East -- probably Egypt or China -- and made its way gradually through Asia Minor, Constantinople, Greece, and Cyprus to Rome. It is interesting to note that a Chinese philosopher, Mencius, three hundred years before Christ, wrote, "A man should abstain from doing unto others, what he would not they should do to him, this is called the principle of acting on the square." Mencius, also, wrote, "A Master Mason, in teaching his apprentices, makes use of the Square and Compasses. Ye who are engaged in the pursuit of Wisdom, must also use the Compasses and Square."

As the Romans spread out over the continents, they brought with them a full complement of craftsmen and artificers, among them the "Brotherhood of Masons." They had their own constitutions in both their religious and secular matters, and their organization was a close facsimile of a modern Masonic Lodge. They bound themselves together for various reasons -- for mutual aid and assistance in times of sickness and trouble; for the proper training of apprentices; to set and maintain a very high standard of craftsmanship, and to prevent unscrupulous people from entering the trade or craft. These Roman masons travelled in "colleges" or "lodges". There were many kinds of Masons. Regular Masons were local men, who during the Roman occupation, were regarded as bondsmen and were compelled by law to live and work in the same community year in and year out under local restrictions. Freemasons were of the Roman Collegiates, who were free to travel about the country at will.

The evidence indicates that Freemasons were the superior builders who designed, supervised, and erected the great cathedrals and other marvellous structures in the Gothic style of architecture. Freemasons were the best of the Masons. Freemasons could move from one community to another when their work was completed. As Freemasons moved from community to community, with many of them working together on a project over a period of years, they organized a temporary Lodge in the new community where they could meet and conduct their business. The Lodge might meet in a temporary building or in one of the rooms of the uncompleted structure they were working on. The Lodge was governed by a Magister (or Master) who was assisted by two Decurions (or Wardens). It had a Scribe (or Secretary), three Boxmasters (or Treasurers), and a Prelate (or Chaplain). Lodge funds were used to dispense relief to the members, and to widows and orphans of Master Masons. In the days before banks, money and other valuables had to be locked up in heavy iron-bound chests or boxes. For extra security, the Lodge funds were kept in such a chest with three strong locks, and each of the Boxmasters was entrusted with one key. Therefore, it was necessary for all three to be present at the opening and closing of the chest to avoid the possibility of anyone absconding with the funds. The Lodge met in regular communication, divided its membership into grades, and admitted members by invitation. In short, it was in its essentials what a Masonic Lodge is today. The work of masons was difficult, called for a high degree of skill and genius, and required much knowledge of mechanics and geometry as well as of stone-masonry.

The operative masons were the great artists and builders of the Middle Ages. Since most people could not read or write, and books were virtually unknown, these skills were passed down from generation to generation through apprenticeship training consisting of word of mouth and example. Training men for such work called for a long period of severe discipline. Boys, sound in body, with physical strength, keen in mind, and of good reputation, at the ages of ten to fifteen, were bound over or "indentured" to one of the more experienced Master Masons as an apprentice for a number of years, usually seven. As a rule, the apprentice lived with the Master Mason and day by day learned from him the methods and secrets of the trade. The apprentice toiled much and gave his master implicit obedience in all things with no pay except for his board, lodging, and clothing.

The Intender, as the Master Mason to whom the apprentice was indentured was called, was obligated by law to teach him the theory as well as the practice of operative Masonry. The apprentice was given moral instruction, had his conduct carefully scrutinized, and had rules laid down to control his manner of life. Operative Masons knew that the apprentice of today made the Master Mason of the future. As a beginner the youth was called an Apprentice. After he had served as such for a sufficient period of time to give evidence of his fitness, his name was officially entered in the Lodge's books, after which he was called an Entered Apprentice. At the end of his apprenticeship, he was required to submit to exacting tests of his proficiency before being accepted into full membership in the Craft. At the end of his seven years of apprenticeship, he was called into open Lodge, his conduct was reported, and he then had to prove his skill by producing what was called a "Master's Piece." Hitherto, he had been on probation. If he passed his test satisfactorily, he was made a full member of the Craft. Then he stood on an equality with all others, a Fellow of the Craft -- the word "Fellow" meaning full membership.

Because he had now mastered the theories, practices, rules, secrets, and tools of his trade, he was called a Master Mason. (Note that in the earliest days of Masonry, a Fellow of the Craft and a Master Mason were the same.) It made little sense to provide Master Masons with documents or certificates to show their proficiency since neither they nor most of their potential employers could read them, even if a scribe could be found to write them. In order that Master Masons could be recognized by anyone similarly qualified, they were given certain signs, tokens and words by which they could be recognized both by day and by night. Since Freemasons travelled far and wide building temples and, later, cathedrals, secret signs, tokens, words, and mason's marks were used to prove their bona fides so they could transfer from one lodge to another. The Masonic Fraternity flourished for generations in its Operative form.

Then came a great change in its fortunes. Euclid's geometry was rediscovered and published, thereby giving to the public many of the Mason's trade secrets. The Reformation came and the Gothic style of architecture began to die out. Social conditions underwent a revolution and laws changed. These and other factors brought about a decline in the Craft.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1500's and 1600's), operative Freemasons became so few in number that only a small Lodge here and there clung to a precarious existence. To recruit their numbers, Freemasons adopted a new practice. They began to accept non operative members. In the old days, only an Operative Mason could become a member, but during the two centuries of the transition period, gentlemen with no intention of becoming builders, and who out of curiosity, for social reasons, or from interest in the Craft's ancient customs, were received as Accepted Masons. At first there were few of these, but as time passed, their number increased until by the early part of the eighteenth century (1700's), there were more Accepted Masons than there were Operative Freemasons.

The Accepted Masons had become more influential. Note the origins of the terminology Ancient Free And Accepted Masons. Because building of cathedrals and churches became their specialty, Freemasons were on excellent terms with the clergy, and in order to pay a compliment to their patrons, high church dignitaries, Bishops and Canons, were admitted among the first Accepted or Speculative Masons. While some of these church officials were quite experienced in the art of ecclesiastical architecture -- and some good craftsman in their own right -- most were mainly interested in the traditional and social aspect of the Craft and their work of benevolence. Craft Guilds, including Masons, have always recognized and associated themselves with the Church. Each had its own Patron Saint, so it was natural that the symbolism of Operative Masonry, and later Speculative Masonry, would be based on Biblical characters.

The Craft then took a step destined to revolutionize it and to set it on a new path of power and magnitude. On St. John the Baptist's day, June 24, 1717, four or more old Lodges of London and Westminster met in London and organized a Grand Lodge -- the Grand Lodge of England -- and on the same day selected their first Grand Master of the Speculative Lodges, Most Worshipful Anthony Sayer. Sir Christopher Wren, the renowned architect of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, is regarded by many as the last Grand Master of the Operative Masons. He died in 1723. Dr. James Anderson, a Scotch Presbyterian minister, and Dr. John Theoplilus Desaguliers, an Episcopal clergyman, were two of the foremost Masons who guided and directed the development of the newly organized Grand Lodge of England in 1717. It is conceded that one or both of them changed the entire course of Masonic history by removing Christian belief as a requirement for membership, changing it to a belief in God only, thus establishing universality as a fundamental landmark of the Order.

Within a few years of 1717, the Craft had completed the transformation from being a body of Operative Freemasons to that of a Speculative Fraternity in which members were Masons in a moral and symbolic sense. The two old degrees were reorganized into the three degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason. All the old Masonic manuscripts were collected and collated to produce the first book of Constitutions. And, Lodges were being chartered in many countries, including our own, to take care of the Fraternity's membership, which began to rapidly increase shortly after the organization of the Mother Grand Lodge. Dr. Desaguliers has been called the Father of Modern Speculative Masonry, and we owe to him much of Masonry's development in the critical decade from 1720 to 1730 when major changes in the ritual took place. This was the beginning of organized Speculative Freemasonry as we know it.

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