A SHORT HISTORY OF FREEMASONRY
The story of Freemasonry begins about eight hundred years ago during the period in history known as the Middle Ages. At this time few men were free. Most of them were serfs who lived on lands owned by duke, bishop or other feudal lord. Many who lived in towns were bound as apprentices to merchants and craftsmen.
In those days industry and commerce were carried on by associations called guilds. There were guilds of the various crafts such as masons, tailors, weavers; there were professional guilds, burial guilds, merchant guilds and numerous others. To the guild of masons belonged all those engaged in the building trade. But there was a special class of guild masons known as Freemasons. They were engaged in the construction of great cathedrals and other buildings, as a whole and in each detail; dressed the stone from the quarries; laid it in the walls; set up arches, pillars, columns and buttresses; laid the floor and built the roof; carved out the decorations, made and fitted the stained glass windows into place and produced the sculptures. Their work was difficult to execute; called for a high degree of skill and genius; and required of them a great deal of knowledge of mechanics and geometry as well as of stonemasonry. They were the great artists of the Middle Ages.
Training men for such work called for a long period of severe discipline. Boys sound in body, keen in mind, and of good reputation were taken at the age of ten or twelve and apprenticed to some Master Mason for a number of years, usually seven; this Master Mason was the boy's father in Freemasonry, his tutor who taught him both the theories and the practices of the Craft. At the end of his apprenticeship the youth was required to submit to exacting tests of his proficiency before being accepted into full membership in the Craft.
Where a number of Freemasons worked together on a building over a period of years they organized a Lodge, which might meet in a temporary building or in one of the rooms of the uncompleted structure. Such a Lodge was governed by a Worshipful Master assisted by Wardens; it had a Secretary to keep its books, a Treasurer to keep and to disburse its funds, a charity chest from which to dispense relief to the members in accident, sickness or distress and to widows and orphans of Master Masons; it met in regular communication, divided its membership into grades, admitted members by initiation — in short, it was in all essentials what a Masonic Lodge is today.
The young beginner in learning the builders' art was called an Apprentice; after he had served as such a sufficient time to give evidence of his fitness his name was entered into the Lodge's books, after which he was called an Entered Apprentice. When his apprenticeship was completed the Apprentice was called into the Lodge where his Master reported on his conduct and skill. If found satisfactory, he was made a Fellow of the Craft. As such he could work for wages and had a voice in guild management. A Fellow could become a Master by taking a contract and hiring other Fellows to help him perform it. There was no other distinction between a Master Mason and a Fellow and both stood on an equal footing in guild life.
Completing their work in one community these Freemasons would move to another, setting up their Lodges wherever they met. Other types of Masons were compelled by law to live and work in the same community year in and year out, and under local restrictions. A number of our historians believe it may have been because they were free of such restrictions that the Gothic builders were called "Freemasons".
Such was the Fraternity in its Operative period, and as such it flourished for generations. Then came a great change in its fortunes. Euclid's geometry was rediscovered and published, thereby giving to the public many of the masons' old trade secrets. The Reformation came and with it the Gothic style of architecture began to die out. Social conditions underwent a revolution, laws were changed; all these, and other factors which played an important part, brought about a decline in the Craft. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Freemasons became so few in number that only a small Lodge here and there clung to a precarious existence.
Owing to these conditions the Freemasons, to recruit their numbers, adopted a new practice; they began to accept non- Operative members. In the old days only an Operative Mason in the literal sense could become a member; but during the two centuries just mentioned above -- our historians call them the "Transition Period" — gentlemen with no intention to become builders, and out of curiosity, for social reasons, or from interest in the Craft's ancient customs, were received. And because they were thus accepted they were called "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 they out-topped the Operatives in both number and influence.
Freemasonry was as yet not an organized society, it was indeed old but its machinery was out-of-date and some change seemed necessary if it was to continue to attract a mixed company of mechanics and gentlemen masons. Such a change came on Saint John the Baptist's Day, June 24, 1717, when representatives of four or more of the old Lodges of London, met at the "Goose and Gridiron Alehouse" in London. They decided to constitute a Grand Lodge and within a few years this organization became known as the Grand Lodge of England. It was then that Operative Masonry began to be changed into its present form called Speculative Masonry. (By "Speculative" is meant Masonry in a moral or symbolical sense). This was the beginning of the Masonic Fraternity.
In the course of time a Grand Lodge was formed in Ireland, another in Scotland. Later a Grand Lodge, called the Antients, came into existence in England. This was a rival of the first one which became known as the Moderns. Under these four Grand Lodges Speculative Masonry spread over the face of the globe.
From what has been said it is clear the Speculative Freemasonry did not spring full-formed out of nothing in 1717, but came as a gradual development out of Operative Masonry. Through an unbroken line we can trace out lineage back to those builders of the early Middle Ages; we are Masons, too, except that where they erected buildings we try to build manhood; their tools we have transformed into emblems of moral and spiritual laws and forces; their practices and secrets we have embodies in the Royal Art of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth; their rituals, mellowed, enriched, and made more beautiful with the passing of time, we employ in the entering, passing and raising of our candidates; all that was living and permanent in their Craft we have preserved and we use it in behalf of goodwill, kindliness, charity and brotherhood among men. Such is our heritage, and as you enter into it you will discover it inexhaustible in interest, life-long in its appeal, a power in your life to enrich, to ennoble and to inspire.
This paper was prepared by the Board of Masonic Education in Oct 1953. It was donated to this Board in May 1990 by R.W. Wilfred Young.