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THE ORIGIN OF FREEMASONRY

by Ex. Comp. Henry Wilson Coil, Sr.
Royal Arch Magazine ľ Winter 1966


We are pleased to print the first chapter of a new two-volume work entitled Freemasonry Through Six Centuries by Brother Coil, a distinguished California attorney, Masonic student, scholar and author. He has served as master, high priest, and commander in the York Rite and is a 33d Scottish Rite Mason. His interest in the history of Freemasonry began in the late 1920's. Since then he has zealously explored every Masonic mountain and valley, probing and sifting each word and deed of alleged myth, legend or artifact for the evidence necessary to sustain or reject them. His Outlines of Freemasonry, A Comprehensive View of Freemasonry, Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia, and now Freemasonry Through Six Centuries are the end result of his mission.  

The origins of Freemasonry, its early development and character, are unknown, and are likely to remain so. As we go backward in time, illiteracy increases until reading and writing were almost wholly confined to the clergy. Laws were promulgated orally; news traveled by rumor; and, even in the retracement of such notorious and public matters as the judicial system, the courts, the magistrates, and legal procedure of medieval England, we are in great perplexity to understand their nature or fix the time when one custom succeeded another.  

The mortality of manuscripts was deplorably great. Large numbers of all kinds were deliberately destroyed and sometimes even used for fuel. Documents were generally kept in the monasteries or in state archives. The wonder is, therefore, not that we have so few, but that we have so many.  

Until the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was the almost invariable habit of Masonic writers to attribute great antiquity to the Craft. Such it is true, was literally supported by the legends contained in the Gothic Constitutions, but their texts were vastly exceeded by many writers who seemed to think that the honor or legitimacy of the Fraternity depended upon great age. Obviously, that was not so, and the inevitable result was to cast discredit where esteem was sought, because improvisation and bold assertion were carried beyond all reason. Thus, the Rev. James Anderson, the first and, naturally, one of the most noted of Masonic commentators, in the Constitutions of 1723, not only attributed a knowledge of geometry or Masonry to Adam and to virtually all of the Hebrew patriarchs, but gravely stated that,  

. . . "the Israelites, at their leaving Egypt, were a whole Kingdom of Masons, well instructed, under the conduct of their Grand Master Moses, who often marshall'd them into a regular and general Lodge while in the Wilderness, . . . the wise King Solomon was Grand Master of the Lodge at Jerusalem, and the learned King Hiram was Grand Master of the Lodge at Tyre .... the Kings, Princes and Potentates built many glorious Piles and became the Grand Masters, each in his own Territory, . . . the Grand Monarch Nebuchadnezzar . . . became the Grand Master-Mason . . . Zerubbabel the Prince and General Master-Mason of the Jews . . . . Ptolomeus Philadelphus . . . became an excellent Architect and General Master-Mason . . . the glorious Augustus became the Grand Master of the Lodge at Rome."  

In the second edition of the Constitutions issued fifteen years later, Dr. Anderson exceeded his former effort; he conferred Grand Masterships with even more liberal hand; he created the ancient office of Provincial Grand Master, filling that, too, with prominent figures; and he expanded the history of Masonry until he seemed almost to be indulging in ridicule. But he was in earnest, and he was taken quite seriously by many, perhaps, a majority of the Craft.  

His thesis formed the basis of Masonic writing for about a century and a half. But, before that concept died out, a new group of writers appeared, asserting that Freemasonry was descended from the Ancient Pagan Mysteries practiced in Egypt, Asia Minor, and, later, in Greece, a notion which has had a following even to the present day. The Essenes, the Culdees, the Druids, the Roman Collegia of Artificers, the Comacine Masters, the Rosicrucians, the Crusades, the Knights Templar, and various other sects, orders, and individuals have all had their advocates as the progenitors of Freemasonry. Another school saw in Freemasonry political objectives, and gave credit for its beginning to the Jacobites supporting the restoration of the House of Stuart. So, Masonic writings multiplied until, for the most part, they became a heterogeneous mixture of error, assumption, and imagination. If the bulk of them be examined, no less than twenty-five different theories of the origin of the Society will be found as follows:  

(1) King Solomon;
(2) The Temple of King Solomon;
(3) Euclid;
(4) Pythagoras;
(5) The Creation of the World;
(6) The Patriarchal Religion;
(7) Moses;
(8) The Ancient Pagan Mysteries;
(9) The Essenes;
(10) the Culdees;
(11) The Druids;
(12) The Gypsies;
(13) The Rosicrucians;
(14) The Crusades;
(15) The Knights Templar;
(16) Oliver Cromwell;
(17) The Pretender for the Restoration of the House of Stuart;
(18) Lord Bacon;
(19) Dr. Desaguliers and his associates in 1717;
(20) The Roman Collegia of Artificers;
(21) The Comacine Masters;
(22) The Steinmetzen;
(23) The French Compagnons;
(24) Sir Christopher Wren at the building of St. Paul's Cathedral; and
(25) The English and Scots operative Freemasons of the Middle Ages.  

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 be consistent with all other known facts. Truth is an entire fabric; anything that is true will conform to every other thing that is true; what is false will not match what is true.  

The twenty-five theories listed fall into seven general classes:  

The first group, items (1) to (4), inclusive, are suggested by the Gothic Legends as explained in a subsequent chapter. But legends are only legends and, when they are not only unsupported by proof, but contain within themselves anachronisms and inconsistencies, they cease to be persuasive or even plausible.  

The second group, items (5) to (7), inclusive, purports to give Freemasonry Scriptural authority and identify it more or less with the religion of the ancient Hebrews.  

The third group, items (8) to (13), inclusive, contains the mystical theories based upon the supposed resemblances between the symbols and ceremonies of Freemasonry and those of ancient and medieval cults. This kind of treatment was carried to such extreme that it became discredited, because it made Freemasonry a type of sun worship, sex worship, and cabalistic mysticism designed to obscure rather than to elucidate, to conceal rather than to reveal.  

The fourth group, items (14) and (15), presents the chivalric or military theories, which are detected to be quite fanciful when we consider that there was never the slightest evidence of any such element in Freemasonry until it was added during the multiplication of degrees in the eighteenth century.  

The fifth group, items (16) and (17) makes Freemasonry a political tool, first, of Cromwell against the Stuart Kings, secondly, of the Jacobites to restore the House of Stuart, and, lastly, of the House of Hanover, which succeeded the Stuarts. All of these simmer down to the triviality that some of the French degrees of the eighteenth century contained references or language indicating that the author or authors were partisans of the Pretender to the Throne of England, then a refugee in France.  

The sixth group, items (18) and (19), suggest personal action, influence, or motives. The claim that Dr. John T. Desaguliers and his associates created the Society in 1717 is an oversimplification of the revival or modification which took place in that year, but has the advantage of casting the burden of proof upon one asserting an earlier origin. It is based on the scarcity of English lodge records prior to the Grand Lodge era, but, obviously, must fall if any records at all of that kind exist, as they do.  

The seventh group, items (20) to (25), inclusive, may be called the operative theories, and, as these finally developed into the conclusion generally accepted at the present day, it is appropriate to treat this group at some length.  

The realization that Freemasonry had its origin in the fraternities of operative stonemasons of the Middle Ages arose as if by accident. The Abbe Grandidier, while writing an essay about the Strassburg Cathedral in 1779, discovered old records concerning practices and customs of the Steinmetzen of medieval Germany which were so similar to those of the symbolic Freemasonry which had come from England and had spread over most of Europe that he expressed the view in a private letter that Freemasonry had sprung from the Strassburg Steinmetzen. Upon the publication of that letter, the theory promptly found favor in Germany, and, in 1785, Paul Vogel issued the first work appearing anywhere attempting to trace the true origin of the Society. He concluded that the Steinmetzen were the progenitors of the modern Order. Between that time and 1875, this theory was supported by Heldmann, Kloss, Fallou, and Findel in Germany and by Steinbrenner in America. The obvious defect of this presentation was that all of the lodges on the Continent of Europe were of British parentage, and those lodges, upon their introduction into Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe, had encountered nothing which bore any relation to them.  

Meanwhile, the Ancient Pagan Mystery theory had sprung up in Germany and spread to France, in both of which, it soon languished, but it was avidly absorbed in England and America.  

At the same time, the Andersonian fables, popularized by William Preston, William Hutchinson, and George Oliver were current and widely accepted as late as 1858 when J.W.S. Mitchell published his History of Freemasonry in which he vouched for the origin of Freemasonry at the Building of King Solomon's Temple, but derided the idea of its development at any earlier time.  

Then came a new school of realism that completely revolutionized the whole course of Masonic historiography between 1860 and 1885. In 1861, Mathew Cooke transcribed into modern English the manuscript (MSS) which bears his name. W. J. Hughan, in quick succession (1869- 1872) published his Constitutions of the Freemasons, Masonic Sketches, and Old Charges of the British Freemasons. In 1870, W. P. Buchan opposed the theory that the Grand Lodge of 1717 was the revival of an earlier, similar body. In 1873, D. M. Lyon's History of the Lodge of Edinburgh appeared. In 1876, an American, George F. Fort, placed himself in the forefront of Masonic historians by the publication of his Early History and Antiquities of Freemasonry. By 1885, additional contributions had come from Hughan and W.H. Rylands.  

Another member of this school, Robert Freke Gould, had published The Athol Lodges and The Four Old Lodges, but the culmination of the whole movement was his History of Freemasonry which appeared in 1885. This was at once recognized as epochal, and has, since, for over half a century, remained the standard work upon the subject. Later investigations have introduced some qualifications of, and additions to Gould's findings, but the main stem of his argument and the validity of his principal conclusions have not been seriously questioned.  

Accordingly, it is generally accepted at the present day that Freemasonry originated in the Fraternity of operative Masons, the cathedral builders of medieval England and Scotland. This conclusion is supported by all known records. Based upon written. records, it carries the lodges in Scotland back to A.D. 1598 and the English Craft (without lodge records) back to about A.D. 1400, the approximate date of the Regius manuscript, the oldest written document of the Fraternity. It carries the Mason's Company of London, a guild, not precisely the same as the Fraternity, back to A.D.1356.  

The period of Gothic architecture extended from about A.D. 1150 to 1550, and, unless we are prepared to believe that those remarkable Gothic edifices were erected by stonemasons and architects who sprang to the work without prior experience or any long period of developing art, we must presume some organization prior to the twelfth century.  

Obviously, the door is opened to such theories as that the Freemasons antedated the Gothic era and developed out of the Roman Collegia of Artificers or a remnant thereof, called the Comacine Masters, who are said to have settled on an island in Lake Como in Lombardy and to have flourished about A.D. 800 - 1000. One or the other of these theories was accepted credulously and without proof by numerous writers, but the latter was very ably supported and widely adopted following its rather scholarly presentation by Leader Scott (Mrs. Webster) in 1899. Her argument was based on the assumption that the Comacine Masters (Magistri Comacini) were Master Masons who conducted a school (schola) at Lake Como and there founded Freemasonry, which they transmitted into western Europe. Her theory was demolished, however, when it was brought to light that Comacine was not derived from Como but from the Low Latin co-maciones, meaning guild masons and used in various Italian cities far removed from Lake Como for about four centuries before the Lake Como settlement is supposed to have been made. In like manner, schola meant guild and not school. Furthermore, French, German, and British Freemasons of the Middle Ages worked almost exclusively in Gothic, which had little vogue in Italy.  

Those who have sought to trace Freemasonry back of its own written records have been too easily persuaded. In a sense, all crafts of the present day are development of similar arts of older times. The construction of buildings has been a common occupation of man through several thousand years. It no more follows, however, that Freemasonry is descended from ancient sources than it follows that our government was founded in Greece or Rome because it contains principles or institutions formerly current in those countries. The possession of old themes by younger institutions does not justify our antedating the birth certificate of the modern holder. But that has often been attempted, and such themes have been the tenuous threads by which the modern Order has presumptively been bound to others of distant lands and ages.  

We indulge here in no such gossamer thesis. By the origin of Freemasonry, we mean that arising in an earlier body or order which as a permanent sodality having the same general laws, customs, and doctrines has existed by a continuously replenished membership from the earlier times to the present. It is not necessary that each or any unit of the society show a continuous life throughout but only that the same system and kind of lodges, chapters or other meetings were held, ceremonies practiced or doctrine inculcated with continuity of purpose so as to constitute a recognizable whole without substantial break or disconnection, indicating an abandonment or destruction of the movement.

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