The Origins of Freemasonry
John Day, PM
Templestowe Lodge No. 791
The origins of freemasonry are shrouded in mystery and misinformation and little of the mystery, legend, myth or allegory does anything to provide us with serious clues as to our existence. From the outset I must say that we must be careful to avoid confusing the allegorical material found in the legends and myths surrounding our fraternity with evidence for some theory or another about our origins.
Over the last 250 or so years a whole series of theories have been proposed about our origins. These can generally be divided into four groups which I will, for convenience, call schools.
The four schools are:
- The ancient origin or Solomonic school.
- The "ex nihilo" or "out of nothing" school.
- The Chivalric origin school which includes the Knights Templar and the Knights of Malta theories.
- The operative school.
Each of these schools supports a number of often conflicting theories, particularly the ancient origin school which offers a number of theories involving early church clergy, the builders of King Solomon's Temple and the Essenes at the time of Christ as the potential source for our fraternity.
How do we define the schools? Before I can answer that question we must consider why we have so many theories, then we need to look at how the theories are collected together and then maybe we can understand the breadth of feeling and theory about our ancient Craft.
WHY SO MANY THEORIES?
In my own mind I must say that the answer is simple. Freemasonry has come to play such a siginificant part in the lives of men over the last 300 years or so that they have routinely tried to invest it with qualities and nobility of origin which is far beyond its simple truth. For a whole variety of reasons masons in different times andplaces have found themselves drawn to a series of romantic notions about our possible origins and have, without evidence, held them to be true.
These theories have tended to work together in bunches. When Andrew Michael Ramsay proposed that we were descended from the Knights of Malta in his Oration of 1737 it took only a matter of a few months before somebody proposed that we were in fact descended from the Knights Templar instead. Thus an entire school of theories tracing our origins to the mediaeval orders of chivalry sprang up almost overnight. In much the same way the other schools have often developed around one common inspiration which set the imaginations of many running into overdrive.
ANCIENT ORIGIN THEORIES
Into the ancient origin theory basket falls all manner of theories which generally try to link us to ancient bodies, mystery schools and philosophies by virtue of a similarity of philosophy and a commonality of symbolism. Whilst it is interesting, and very romantic, to ponder the possibility that we are related to such groups as the Pythagoreans, the Essenes and the Roman or Egyptian mystery schools their exists no evidence whatsoever to substantiate any claims of this type. I must point out that I do not discount that we have, over the last three hundred years or more, absorbed a great deal from other influences which have been important to masons generally or in smaller groups during that period.
We know that the earliest writings about a "mason craft" occur in England and elsewhere between the years 800 and 900AD. Although it is possible to theorise about a relationship between the Roman Collegia and the mediaeval stone masons of Europe and England we do not, at least not in my opinion, have any hard evidence to connect the two. So, the earliest mentions we have is in the ninth century. These writings are charges and regulations which are, in fact, very early versions of the charges that we read to our Master elect on the night of his installation in this jurisdiction today. But even before this we have the Jewish sect known as the Essenes. These people led a very tough existence in the desert not far from Jerusalem and it is theorised by Biblical historians today that Jesus the Nazarene was, in fact, an Essene. Because the Essenes had an initiatic tradition, in other words they initiated their members, and had a number of moral similarities with the Craft it has become popular in some circles to claim that we are Essene in origin and thus have some direct connection with Christ himself.
Of course, we know that the ancient mystery schools of the Egyptians were also initiatic, and they had a symbolism not unlike our own. For this reason others propose that we are descended from the mystery schools, rather than, as I believe, that we have subsequently borrowed much from not only the mysteries but also from a great many other influences which is what gives masonry its very 'cosmopolitan' character today.
Likewise it is speculated that because the Bible tells us something of the way Solomon and Hiram, or Huram perhaps more correctly as will be familiar to any of you who are Mark Master Masons, worked to build the Temple that we are somehow related directly to these great personages. For a variety of reason this is unlikely, but some still believe it!
But before we can offer any theory of our origin for serious consideration we must have some evidence linking us to that source from which we claim to be descended. In the case of the ancient origin theories no-one has ever been able to advance any evidence at all.
CHIVALRIC ORIGIN THEORIES
Still others try to establish a link between the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple at Jerusalem, better known as the Knight's Templar, or the Knights of Malta, the sworn enemies of the Templars as our forefathers. Interestingly these theories were never even contemplated by early masons until one Chevalier Michael Ramsay, a French Knight of Scottish birth, proposed that we were in fact descended from the Knights of Malta. But as the Knights of Malta still existed then, and in fact still do, they objected strenuously and subsequent proponents of a chivalric origin have generally adopted the long defunct Knights of the Temple as their preferred origin for the Craft.
For many years after the founding of our fraternity it was accepted that we were descended from stone masons who had plied their trade around all of Europe for centuries. But some twenty years after the establishment of the Grand Lodge at London one Michael Andrew Ramsay delivered an oration in St. Thomas Lodge in Paris on March 21, 1737. Herein it was proposed that our ancestors were "The Crusaders, gathered from all parts of Christendom in the Holy Land" and that they gathered and formed a fraternity which came to be the freemasonry we know today. It is speculated that the Crusaders established lodges throughout Europe upon their return form the Holy Land, but that they were neglected everywhere except for Scotland, and that it is from this Scotish masonry of old that we are all descended.
According to Ramsay the fraternity formed an alliance, or, in his own words, "intimate union", with the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (and of Rhodes and Malta) now known as the Knights of Malta. Interestingly the Knights of Malta have themselves, for many years, denied that their is any link between the two organisations and many respected scholars of mediaeval history, including one of the greatest masonic scholars of the modern era, Michael Segall, or Michel St. Gall if you prefer, have struggled valiantly to find a link but with no success whatsoever.
However the Chivalrists, as students of this branch refer to these men were not prone to let the truth stand in the way of a great story! In the period immediately following 1737 a veritable host of new Masonic degrees and orders erupted like a fireworks display, their ceremonies, rituals and their names straining every possible grain of the established nomenclature of the Old Testament and the orders of chivalry.
Of even more interst is the link between Ramsay and the start of the anti-masonic movement! In 1738, less than a year after Ramsays oration Pope Clement XII issued the bull "In Eminenti Apostolatus Specula", the first of a long series of papal bulls and encyclicals against freemasonry. Unfortunately this provided a new incentive for the zealots of the Holy Roman Inquisition and fremasons in Catholic countries, where the Inquisition had power, were persecuted, imprisoned and deported for being masons.
Whilst we know that a 'mason craft' existed in the ninth century it makes little sense to propose that the operative masons of old were descended from the Knights Templar, and whilst we know that Freemasonry has enduring qualities it is hard to support a theory that the Knights went underground from about 1307 until about 1640 when we believe that the first speculative masons were appearing on the scene.
THE "EX NIHILO" or OUT OF NOTHING SCHOOL
In recent time some English writers, John Hamill, the Grand Lodge librarian from London among them, that the Craft was born out of nothing, the idea of a few learned gentlemen at about the end of the sixteenth century, and that while we have absorbed all sorts of influences we are in fact related to nobody else at all. In fact their is a good political reason for this school to exist, but more of this aspect of the "ex-nihilo" or "out of nothing" school later.
Hamill maintains that masonry developed not out of the guild or journeyman lodges in London, but that we are descended from the 'dining clubs' which were a popular feature in London during the period. In some measure this may account for the fact that our founding fathers appeared out of the public houses of inner London rather than out of the Guild Halls. In fact it may be that Hamill is correct, at least so far as London is concerned. But he is quite wrong about other parts of England, Scotland and France.
But to attempt to apply these theories to areas where their is significant evidence to support a developed or evolutionary basis for the craft makes little sense.
Now we can perhaps start to see the politics of this school. Those who surround the United Grand Lodge of England have, for many years, tried to establish and aura of authority and credibility around that Grand Lodge as the fount of all Freemasonry. Guild masonry was suffering a rapid decline in the closing years of the seventeenth century in London, following the frenetic activity of the rebuilding of the town in the aftermath of the Great Fire. If we accept that the modern Craft evolved from another tradition then their is always the possibility that the Premier Grand Lodge will appear to lose lustre in the eyes of some masons. Thus it is that many English writers and historians have generally ignored the evidence of the strongest school of theories relating to masonic origins, largely to serve their own political purposes.
THE OPERATIVE SCHOOL
Finally we come to the theories of operative origin for our fraternity. Many researchers have found evidence that in Scotland and France that speculative masons were in fact to be found in the operative lodges of the mid to late seventeenth century. The records of the lodges around Edinburgh, particularly the Lodge of Journeymen Masons, now number eight on the register of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and a number of operative lodges working in France give us a great deal of information about the development of speculative masonry within their ranks at the time.
Many of us will also be familiar with the works of the Chivalrists who attempt to deny this evidence. John J. Robinson in "Born in Blood, The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry" goes so far as to say that whilst he went to France and looked he could find nothing which looked like evidence of an operative origin to him. But he also admitted that he was following leads given him by a few English masons and there is no record of him ever approaching any of the great French masonic students or the operative lodges still extant in France today.
The "Annals of the Lodge of Journeymen Masons No. 8" (Scottish Constitution) give us a great deal of information about the formation of that Lodge in Edinburgh and how it retained its distinctly operative character. In fact it is recorded that as late as 1840, when a non-operative was proposed as Master of the Lodge, he was initially rejected by the operative members of the lodge. He was taken to a masons yard and their prepared a sample of his work. He was then taken before an assemblage of the operative members of the lodge and, his work having been checked and approved, he was approved by them as a suitable man to be made Master over them.
In France we have more information which leads us to suspect that we are descended from the operative masons. Recently a friend and colleague of mine has inspected a copy of part of the ritual of the "Friends of Maitre Salomon", one of three groups of operative masons still practicing in France today. This ritual, dated 1580, contains almost the entire Hiramic legend as practised in our third degree ceremony today, it is over 100 years older than we are expected to believe by some others. Lodges in France, and other parts of the world working the Ancient and Accepted Rite in French or Spanish, have an observance which is considerably closer to the traditions of the operative masons. They still require the preparation of a 'master piece' which must be presented to the lodge before a mason can progress from one grade to another. They still observe many of the traditions which we can trace to the operative masons of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In fact it is the politics which surrounds the establishment of the United Grand Lodge of England itself in 1813 which caused the loss of so much of beauty and significance from our rituals and ceremonial.
But this study of politics is for another time. Hopefully my attempt to explain this evening some features about the present state of masonic research into out origins has been of some interest to you.