In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. The Earth was without form and void. And darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved across the waters and God said: “Let There Be Light”.
Freemasonry is one of the world’s oldest and largest fraternal organizations but where did it come from? Its history is most interesting and romantic.
The origins of the Craft are even today the subject of heated debate. It is generally accepted that a connection exists between Freemasonry and the operative stonemasons who built the cathedrals of the Middle Ages.
The word “Mason” means “Builder” and Freemasonry, as we know it today came into being some 800 years ago.
With the decline of cathedral building in the 17th Century, many guilds of craftsmen, called “Operative” Masons started to accept those who were not working members of the Masons’ crafts into their membership and they were called “Speculative” or “Accepted” Masons. These Speculative Masons were learned and well thinking men – men of integrity and goodwill. With their admission into membership in these groups which were called lodges, Freemasonry as we know it today had its beginning.
Many other theories have been promoted that focus on other potential antecedents of influences (i.e. Compagnions, Rosicrucian’s, Knights Templars, Pythagoreans, etc.). Each theory is convincing in some measure, and even today, Masonic scholars write numerous tracts on new theories and uncover new evidence that lends further credence to those theories. In terms of an absolute truth regarding the matter, our answers seem lost in the mists of time.
The first documented occurrence of the ‘making’ of a Freemason in England is that of Elias Ashmole, the antiquarian and herald. He recorded in his diary that a lodge met in his father-in-laws house in Warrington, Cheshire on October 16th, 1646 to make him a Mason. None of those present were operative masons. From this point forward there are additional recorded instances of the making of Freemasons and of groups meeting using Lodge structure.
Freemasonry was officially established on June 24th, 1717 when four London lodges came together at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House, to form into a Grand Lodge. They elected Anthony Sayer, Gentleman, as their Grand Master – of the first Grand Lodge in the world. Initially, the Grand Lodge was simply an annual feast for lodges in London. In 1721, after the election of John, Duke of Montague as Grand Master, the Grand Lodge met on a quarterly basis and began to take on a regulatory capacity by attracting to it lodges that met outside London.
In 1723, the first rulebook – the Constitution of Masonry was published and William Cowper, Clerk of the Parliaments was appointed Grand Secretary to the Grand Lodge to keep minutes of its meetings. By 1730 the Grand Lodge had over 100 lodges in England and Wales under its control and had begun to spread Freemasonry abroad, warranting lodges to meet in Madrid and Calcutta.
Separate Grand Lodges were formed in Ireland (1725) and Scotland (1736). Between them the ‘home’ Grand Lodges took Freemasonry around the globe. From the 1730’s lodges spread wherever the British Empire had interests; in Europe, the West Indies, North America and India.
In the 1740’s there was a growing number of Irishmen in London, many of whom had become Freemasons before leaving Ireland. They appeared to have difficulty in gaining entrance into Lodges in London, so in 1751 a group of them formed a rival Grand Lodge. They claimed that the premier Grand Lodge had made innovations and had departed from ‘the ancient landmarks’ whereas they claimed to be working according to the old institutions granted by Prince Edwin at York in AD926. For this reason they became known as the ‘Antient’ Grand Lodge and referred to their older rival as the ‘Moderns’.
Despite their differences the two Grand Lodges co-existed both at home and abroad for nearly 63 years, neither recognizing the other or considering each others’ members as ‘regular’ Freemasons. Even at the centre, however, there were those who were active in both Grand Lodges.
In 1809 the rival Grand Lodges appointed Commissioners to negotiate an equitable Union. The negotiations took four years to complete but on December 27, 1813, a great ceremonial was held at Freemasons’ Hall , London, at which the two combined to form the United Grand Lodge of Ancient Freemasons of England. The union was a time of consolidation and standardization setting the basic administration of Freemasonry – which continues to this very day.