The Origins of the Word "Freemason"
Richard W. Van Doren, Past Grand Orator
As with many facets of the Fraternity, the origin of the term "Freemason" has been lost over the centuries and modern scholars are left with theories and speculation. One thing that we do know, is that the term "Freemason" was not used to describe a brick mason.
One theory, proposed by George F. Fort, was that the term was taken from the French "frère maçon," meaning "brother mason," and which has been corrupted via English translation into Freemason. This theory has little support among current authorities.
A second, and more credible theory is that the term originated with the Scottish masons and that it meant that the mason in question had become free of the masons' guild or incorporation and had the freedom to practice throughout the burgh or countryside. This would be in keeping with a like practice to other guild artisans such as the free vintners, free fishermen, free linen weavers, free gardeners, free dredgers, etc. These terms were commonplace in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and persisted well into the eighteenth century when the Grand Lodge of England was formed in 1717. However, it should be noted that a guild of stone masons, as such, did not exist at that time in England. Therefore, it is doubtful that such a guild of builders was operating in Scotland. Indeed, there were builders in Scotland, but they also included members of other crafts or building trades and were not exclusive in association to those members who were stone masons.
Most authorities (i.e. Knoop and Jones in their Introduction to Freemasonry as well as Harold V. B. Voorhis, one of three editors of Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia) give the greatest credence and respect to a third theory. First of all, it is supportive of an origin from the operative era. It holds that the term came from the fact that the finest craftsmen of the gothic cathedral builders were those that carved and sculpted "free stone." Free stone was a limestone or fined grained sandstone which could be cut in any direction without splitting and which had been "cut free" of the mountain or quarry. It was then readily worked at the building site or the worker's shop (or perhaps the lodge) where it was sculpted to form arches for window and door frames, vaulting, capitals and other carved figures found in gothic stone structures and cathedrals.
The hewers of hard stone were ultimately called "hard hewers." The term "freemason" was reserved for the carving artisans to distinguish and separate them from the brick masons and their haulers, walling and setting crews, as well as the hard hewers of the stone masons.
The term first came into use around the middle of the 16th century. It appears in Charters granted by the King of England in 1604 and among the minutes of the Masons Company of London in the 1620. In Scotland, the usual form was for a "free man" or for a "free-man mason." However, the Lodge of Edinburgh's minutes of 1636 contains the term "frei masones" and in the Melrose version of the Ancient Charges, that term is repeatedly interchanged with the term "free-man mason." From the middle of the same century onward, the terms "mason" and "freemason" are used interchangeably. It is therefore of no surprise that Anderson used "Freemason" in the Constitutions of 1723 and 1738.
In summary, the term was, and hopefully still is used to distinguish those craftsmen who are true artisans, the most highly skilled and respected members of an ancient and honorable society.