Vol. XXXI No. 2 — February 1953

The Word “Freemason”

Why are members of the Ancient and Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons called Freemasons?

The question has intrigued scholars, provoked discussion, been responsible for books, articles, chapters in learned tomes, caused debate, for many years.

The common answer — to which the after-dinner Masonic speaker is much addicted, speaking with an authority that is purely assumed and not actual — is that Masons are free because their ancestors were not slaves; the Masons are "free” because they were not subject to local laws in the Middle Ages and could travel and work where they willed.

Words change in meaning as the years go by; common Masonic examples are profane — with us, one who takes the name of God in vain; to our ancestors, merely “without the temple”; libertine — with us, a sexually promiscuous person; anciently, a freethinker only.

The word free (which has seventeen different and separate meanings according to the Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary) has meant different things at different times. The pseudo-Masonic scholar apparently believes that he must accept only one of the meanings, and from it, produce a logical reason why Masons were “free” in that one meaning of the word.

In all probability Masons were called “free” at different times, for different reasons, all of which have coalesced into our own interpretation; a Freemason being a man more than twenty-one years of age, duly initiated, passed and raised in a regularly constituted lodge under a recognized Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons.

Here are a few of many possible derivations of Freemasons as distinct from Free Mason — the two words and the one do not mean the same any more than freehold and free hold mean the same. Freehold is land or estate; a free hold is a hold not restricted in any way, no matter who holds or what is held.

  1. A Freemason has been thought to be a worker in freestone. Freestone is without grain, is equally hard or soft everywhere, will cut without chipping, take a flat surface, polish well. Such stone was largely used in the building of Cathedrals. Therefore those who used freestone were Freemasons.
  2. In the Middle Ages Masons were, by civil law and the law of their guilds, confined to their own localities either in their parishes or their townships. Masons engaged in Cathedral building were not so restricted but could travel from one Cathedral to another. This was an economic necessity. Such church and Cathedral building Masons were Freemasons.
  3. Apprentices were bonded to their masters; apprentices in the Middle Ages were “entered” on the books of the lodge and apprenticed to the King’s Master Mason for seven years, or until he could make his masters piece and become a fellow of the craft. When he became the latter he was “free” of his indenture; therefore, in that sense a Free Mason.
  4. In the Middle Ages practically everyone who did not live in a town was a serf, a villein (in Middle Ages a villein was a sort of semi-slave), virtually a slave to some lord, to the church, to someone in authority. When a town received a charter it became to some extent independent. Its citizens were not serfs, as were those who lived beyond the gates of the city. A serf who could enter a town and remain for a year and a day could become a citizen, a free man. If he happened to be a Mason, he thus became a Free Mason. Our own custom of presenting the “keys” and the “freedom of the city” to distinguished visitors throws back to this ancient custom of the citizen of the town being a free man.
  5. A popular theory was that the Popes gave freedom to Masons by means of a charter empowering them to travel at will. The strictest search of church history and documents fails to substantiate this theory of “Freemason.” But it is true that the cathedral- and church-building Masons were a separate band from the local recruits to a building project and in all probability had some sort of ecclesiastical authority back of this separateness. In other words, they were Masons free of certain churchly restrictions that applied to others.
  6. “Impressment” — the press gang — has been used not only to obtain sailors against their will on ships but to get workmen. Russia, if we are to believe present-day accounts, now has millions of workmen made to work against their will in places to which they have been herded against their desires. There are a few authenticated Middle Ages instances of Masons being “impressed” to work against their will on projects distant from their homes. Some have seen Freemason as a term descriptive of one not so “impressed.”
  7. Few scholars question that in one way or another the builders who constructed the great cathedrals of the old world became a race apart from other workmen and that the religious, the symbolical and the moral aspects of their labors raised them to a higher mental level than their fellows. They were, in this way, more free in thought, more free of ignorance, superstition, the slave and serf attitude towards life. Whether this can justly be considered a reason for the term “Freemason” is anyone’s guess, but it is no guess at all that Freemasons have always cherished this right, duty, privilege, responsibility and ability to be free in thought, in opinion and action.

In the cathedral-building times of the Middle Ages Masons were not of one kind and caliber anymore than they are today. The quarryman was a Mason; his work was rough and hard; it was at times dangerous. He used tools, ropes, tackle and knew enough about the stone he got out of the quarry to understand how it cleaved, where it would split easiest, etc.

The "rough ashlar” of modern Freemasonry is the stone from the quarry, which another Mason works upon “the better to fit it for the builder’s use.” This “other Mason” was a skilled stone cutter. He could square a rough ashlar to be a perfect ashlar. He could carve a molding, or a design, or make a joint. He could make a rough stone one of predetermined dimensions. He might work either in the quarry, or at the site of the cathedral. But always at the building itself was the Mason who mixed the mortar, laid the stone, built the wall, and followed the plans of the architect.

Here are three different classes of Masons. The first and third were usually regarded as inferior to the second, as we know from the rates of pay fixed by English law for different classes of Masons and certain old documents that differentiate between classes. In a Latin document of 1396 occurs the phrase “24 masons called free masons and 24 masons called layers or settlers.” In the same year was a license for the Archbishop of Canterbury to take “24 masons called freemasons and twenty-four masons called ligiers.” From this date onward “mason” and “freemason” were used more or less interchangeably. Bernard E. Jones in his Freemason’s Guide and Compendium quotes a reference in a document of 1435 which sets forth that “John Wode, masoun,” contracted for the labour of himself and servant in building the tower of the Abbey Church of St. Elmundsbury “in all mannere of thinges that longe to free masounry.”

Documents of 1610 attest that “a Freemason who can draw his plot, work and set accordingly, have charge over others” is worth twelve pence a day while a “rough Mason” was worth from eight to ten pence per day.

Among its many meanings, and its change in meaning in special instances through hundreds of years, free has never lost the one great meaning of a state opposed to that of the slave. The bond man and the free man, the slave and the freed-man, the serf and villein whose money, lives, property, labor, rewards were all in his lord’s hands, as opposed to the free citizen of a city who could work out his own destiny under laws made by the government (the king) rather than the Lord of the Manor, the feudal Baron — these all attest that “free” in its own greatest meaning meant what it said to the Negro in the South after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Slavery as an institution is only recently ended in most civilized countries; in some, which would protest that they are civilized, slavery continues — in parts of Africa and Asia and probably Russia. Legally, slavery ended in England in 1772 — actually about 1833. France abolished it in 1848; Russia, under the Czars, abolished it in 1861 (Stalin seems to have other ideas!) and in the United States it was not really ended until after the close of the Civil War, in 1865.

“Free born” meant much to our Masonic ancestors. The word survives in our ritual. But in Middle Ages to be "free born” meant what it said; not the child of a serf, a slave, a villein, whether of a Lord of the Manor or of the Church, which itself held many slaves.

When a serf escaped to a town and managed to live there for a year and a day and became a citizen, he would, if he were a Mason, become a Freemason. His children could become Freemasons. But the children he may have deserted, when he left the countryside, were not “free born” and could not become Freemasons.

Feudal serfdom, as respectable an institution in the Middle Ages as slavery was when George Washington depended upon Negro labor to work his plantation, is well reflected in the Old Charges, from which we moderns have taken our laws and some of our ritual. Bondage brought debasement. The bond man and his children were not fit — in our forefathers’ eyes — for anything as important, as necessary, as high in purpose or beliefs as Freemasonry.

But our forefathers did not mean “freeborn” to go back into history for untold generations. It takes but a small calculation with pencil on paper to know that we all have had a million ancestors in the twenty generations that are the last five hundred years, and that if we go back a thousand years we must have had more ancestors than ever lived upon the earth at anyone time! As a consequence it seems practically an impossibility for any human being at some tune or other in his family tree not to have at least the well developed opportunity of having a slave ancestor!

Our “freeborn” means now what it meant in Middle Ages — born of a freeman and woman, even if they had become “freed” men and women; not, as some have tried to argue, that any slave ancestry, no matter how distant, debarred a man from the trade or art of a Mason.

The slang expression “you pays your money and you takes your choice” may well be the attitude of those who study the origin of the word Freemason. But the question is really not quite as involved as these excursions into so many ideas, of so many years, so far from each other in time, may seem to indicate.

Free meant different things at different times. Freemasons meant different things at different times. As one caught up with another, the name continued, even while the, meanings interwove themselves, each with the other.

It is idle to say “this came first.” No one knows for a certainty although the weight of general opinion is the Freemason of the fourteen hundreds was a worker in freestone. Certainly there is every reason for agreeing that as the man who could carve and level and make moldings in freestone was a superior artisan to the man who got the stone from the quarry or he who laid it in mortar, he might easily be distinguished by being called a “Mason of freestone,” a “Freemason.”

The guilds of the Middle Ages were powerful. A man might as well not be a skilled workman as defy his guild. And many have insisted that to be “free” in the guild — that is, a member — was the beginning of "Freemason.” The objection to that is that under those circumstances we would have had a welter of crafts all beginning with “free” and there were but few (Free Carpenters, Free Vintners, Free Sewers, etc., all of which have disappeared!)

Per contra, others have argued that the man who was free from the guild was he who could travel and work where he would, and that therefore, the economic necessity that freed the Masonic worker from the restrictions of the guild that kept him in one place at one set of wages and under one rule of conditions, was the origin of “Freemason.”

Finally there is the argument of the slave and the free — that neither Church nor state would employ the slave because he had never had a chance to learn anything, had no education, was a debased person, ignorant and superstitious. Only a free man, in this view, was good enough to be a Mason, and work on and help build a great Cathedral to be erected to the glory of God or the fame of the King who was putting up the great castle or tower or other structure.

It is now the consensus of most Masonic students that Freemason meant, at different times, all of these; that it was first one, then two, and finally three classes, all denominated by the same word — free. So that the cutter of freestone, and the member free in or from his guild and the stone worker not a slave, were all, at some periods “Freemasons.”

The whole is largely speculative; one man’s theory is as good as his neighbor’s.

But whatever theory any may embrace, it is at least well worthy of thought that the world today does not speak of free carpenters or free steel workers or free tailors or free watchmakers. It is only those in the Fraternity that the world calls Freemasons.

Let him who holds another (and for all these pages knows, a better) theory of the origin of the word here set forth, find greater honor in any phrase than do those of the Ancient Craft, in Freemason!

The Masonic Service Association of North America