Vol. XXXIV No. 7 — July 1956

Some Birthplaces of Freemasonry

(Abstract of the lavishly illustrated Digest of The Masonic Service Association of the same title.)

And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

Christianity was born in a stable; what would the world not give for a picture of that humble home of cattle that became the first shelter of the baby who was to be the Man of Galilee?

Freemasonry was born in cathedrals. It is not possible to say of any great cathedral that it was begun in such and such a year and finished at this or that date or that any one Freemason was the only architect of any one of them. Many, if not most, cathedrals have been built, added to, partly destroyed, rebuilt, sometimes over a period of more than two hundred years. Some cathedrals have been casualties of wars, of storms, of wanton destruction, and have risen from their rubble under the impetus of faith and new workmen. To this day some cathedrals raise partly destroyed towers to heaven, revered for what they were, not what they are. Many cathedrals have been partially rebuilt, additions made, as expanding was required.

Hundreds of enthusiasts have propounded as many theories of the origin of Freemasonry. It began in the patriarchal religion; it was born of the ancient mysteries; the Essenes formed it; it commenced in Solomon’s Temple; the Crusaders thought it up; the Knights Templars dreamed it; the Roman College of Artificers began it; the Rosicrucians created it; Oliver Cromwell made it for the advancement of his political schemes; the Pretender thought such an organization could restore the House of Stuart to the throne; it was the result of plans made by Adam, Noah, Pythagoras, Athestane, Charlemagne, Francis Bacon, Ignatius Loyola. It has come from India and Egypt, Mexico and England, Ireland and Scotland, France and Germany.

The syllogistic approach to some of these theories has satisfied many of their correctness; the square was a symbol of right living in China four thousand years ago; the square is a symbol of right living in Freemasonry; therefore, Freemasonry originated in China four thousand years ago. The point within a circle was in use as a symbol in India for uncounted ages; the point within a circle has always been a symbol in Freemasonry, therefore, Freemasonry originated in India uncounted ages ago, etc.

Such theories ignore the fact that the cross, Christianity’s greatest symbol, was a symbol in Egypt thousands of years before Christ; that spires of churches and pointed elliptical windows in church edifices are descendents of the old phallic religions, that Freemasonry, like many another philosophy, has made its own the teachings and the symbols of other beliefs. Perhaps the great seal of the nation carries as good an example as any of this “crossbreeding” of symbols and thoughts. The Great Seal of the United States has upon it an all-seeing eye and a pyramid; as the all-seeing eye and the triangle are Masonic symbols, therefore, says the theorist, the great seal must be Masonic and designed by Masons. (See any dollar bill.)

But history shows Masons had nothing to do with the design of the great seal; both all-seeing eye and triangle were symbols of Deity long before Christianity, Freemasonry, or the United States came into being.

A hundred or more theories ask the world to believe that Freemasonry never was itself, but always something else!

Search all Masonic documents from the beginning — the Regius Poem, date of approximately 1390, is the oldest — and there will be found no references to nature religions, mystery or fertility cults, magic, charms, spells, horoscopes, the zodiac, demonology, satanism, theologies, political government, monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, capitalism. Nor are these in the ritual of Freemasonry.

Instead Freemasonry brings to the attention of its members and its initiates matters connected with building; rough and perfect ashlars, a trestleboard, rule, square, level, plumb, compasses, trowel, setting maul, gavel, pillars, columns, pilasters, orders of architecture, the wisdom, strength and beauty necessary for both a successful building and a successful organization, aprons, the dignity of labor, the story of the building of a great temple.

Freemasonry was born of Freemasons.

The Cathedral-Building Age — the vital part of the Medieval years — sprang from Gothic architecture, and a pietism, a reverence, a desire to bring the greatest and best in art and the poetry of architecture to the service of God.

In these tasks — there are at least fifteen hundred cathedral abbeys, cloisters and other ecclesiastical structures in Europe — workmen of many kinds were engaged. Looking at the marvels they constructed, it is difficult to believe that their building materials were only wood and stone, and that they had no resources of power except their own bodies, the strength of beasts and the multiplication of effort afforded by the pulley and the rope. No electricity, no steam, no gas or oil engine hoisted the stones to the towers of Westminster. No stone cutting machines sawed the rock and no compressed air pumps powered stone carving tools for the delicate lacery of the reredos of Winchester. It was all hard work.

Today workers engaged in building are classified according to their skills; in the erection of an office building, for instance, there are iron workers, electricians, carpenters, glaziers, tile layers, plasterers roofers, tin workers, engineers, plumbers — but all are, in one sense, builders.

In the Middle Ages there were many classifications of masons; quarrymen, layers, scapplers (who roughshaped and polished), hewers, rough masons, carvers.

These workmen were cutters and layers of stone smoothers of ashlars, layers, mortar mixers. There were carpenters and stone carvers, stained glass experts and tilers for the roof. Humble workmen fetched and carried and skilled tool makers made and sharpened tools. Records indicate that many masons working on a cathedral were paid different rates, which, in those days as in this, show that many different skills were required.

At the building of one structure in 1304, fifty-three masons were employed at thirteen different rates of pay; ten years later, twenty-four masons received twelve differing rates of pay. At Ely (England) in 1360 nine Masons received seven different rates of pay; ten years later at York twenty-nine masons received five different rates of pay.

And over all were the Freemasons.

These were as distinct from other masons as is the architect today from the bricklayer or the quarrymen who work with dynamite, drills, and wedges to quarry the rock the builder puts in place.

So important was the Freemason of the Middle Ages — the Cathedral-Building Age — that he was often known as “The Kings Master Mason” and history records his name and work in connection with many a “Bible in Stone” as great cathedrals have been so aptly called.

A long fine of important craftsmen held the regular appointment of King’s Master Mason. One of the earliest was Henry, known also as Master Henry or Henry of Reyns, who was King’s Master Mason from 1243 to 1253. He served Henry III at the building of Westminster Abbey, of which he is regarded as the architect. He was followed by John of Gloucester, who was Henry III’s Master Mason until 1261, and responsible for work at Woodstock, Gloucester, and Westminster. Then came Robert of Beverly, under Henry III and Edward I, who worked at Westminster and on the Tower of London. Roger Alomaly was King’s Master Mason from 1324 to 1327, chiefly at the Palace of Westminster.

The King’s Master Masons had the rank and standing of a first-class architect of today, as is made clear from the dignities offered them. Henry III gave Master Henry a gown of office; John of Gloucester was granted the annual provision for life of two robes with furs of good squirrels, of the quality issued to the Knights of the Household. Robert of Beverly received the royal gift of a tun of wine, etc. At Bury St. Edmunds the master of masons received “board for himself in the Convent Hall as a gentleman and for his servant as a Yeoman, the gentleman’s livery for himself and the yeoman’s for his servant.” It was usual to provide the Master Mason with house and clothes.

A great cathedral may have needed but one architect and one Master Mason and one builder at any one time, but no man could keep all the details of so great a structure in his mind. He would need assistants, just as today foremen and other experts oversee the construction of many parts of any great whole, whether it is the building of an automobile, an airplane, a railroad, a dam, or a Cathedral.

These assistants would be of the same mental class and education, knowledge and skill as the Master Mason.

These assistants were also Freemasons.

Of the origin of the word Freemason are many theories; a man was a Freemason because his ancestors were not slaves nor was he a slave; a Freemason was so called because he was free within his Guild or free from his Guild’s laws and could thus “travel in foreign countries” and work where he would; he was a Freemason because he worked in freestone, which is any rock that can be cut, smoothed, carved in any direction; was “free” when he had passed his apprenticeship and became a Fellow; free when he had left the status of serf, of villein and, legally, became “free.” Probably at one time or another Masons were called Freemasons for any of these reasons or all of them.

But the consensus leans to the theory that the Freemason was such because of his skill, his knowledge, his abilities, which set him free from those conditions, laws, rules and customs that circumscribed masons of lesser abilities.

It is from these, then, that Freemasonry came, and it was in the great cathedrals that their skills were born and brought to fruition.

From the cathedrals of Europe in general, and England in particular, came the Freemason, the King’s Master Mason, the architect, the builder, the designer, the spirits behind the stones.

Every cathedral had its lodge, a building nearby, often built against the wall of the cathedral. This was, at different times and near different cathedrals, a place in which stone work could be done, a workshop where tools were kept and sharpened, a room in which plans could be discussed, a refectory, a refuge during rest periods. Inevitably, in it were discussions and formulations of the necessary laws and rules for the government of the builders and doubtless it was where the masons were paid their wages.

Gradually the lodge became also the place in which the moral, ethical, and spiritual ideas, inescapably connected with the erection of a great “prayer of stone” became manifest in organization, procedure and ritual.

Men engaged in the tremendous task of cathedral building could not avoid the implications of their work. It was reflected in their characters as their characters are shown in the principles set forth in the Old Charges and the Legend of the Craft, as told in some hundred and fifty ancient manuscripts.

The square was the foundation of the building; what more natural than that men must also be “square” if he was to stand erect among his fellows? By the plumb spires were flung towards heaven to the glory of God; by the plumb man measured his worth in terms of both God and man.

Men would be injured, their families have illnesses, hardships would be suffered — could men engaged on a common task, living a common life, living, loving in a common worship leave such as these to suffer and to die? Mutual aid was inevitable; relief was inevitable; charity was inevitable.

It can easily be imagined that the lad who passed his tests and became an “entered” apprentice did so in a ceremony; that one who successfully made his “master’s piece” and became a “fellow of the craft” also enjoyed a ritual, a pledging, a making. A Fellow was responsible for his tools; sometimes he made them, sometimes they were given to him. Our presentation of the working tools of any degree may be the vestigial remains of a ceremony in which the tools were actually those with which the recipient would in the future cut and carve and build.

The lodge was especially for the Freemasons; not for the common workmen, the layers, the quarrymen, the hewers and polishers of stone, but for the architects, builders, artists, sculptors who were the brains of cathedral building.

When the Cathedral-Building Age came to an end some lodges continued; thoughtful men refused to give up the symbolism and the teaching, the philosophies and the principles that had become a part of their lives in the work in which they had been engaged.

From these old operative lodges gradually emerged the speculative Freemasonry we know, and the practice of “acception” in which men, not themselves builders, but of such a character as would add to the value of the association, desired to join for the mental and spiritual benefits they would receive.

The Freemasons who erected their breathtaking hymns of praise to the Most High at the same time, and in the same places, began that group that later became our Free and Accepted Freemasons — the ancient and gentle Craft. The cathedrals they built are the birthplaces of Freemasonry.

Question Box

This column will attempt to answer questions about Freemasonry

Masonry is a secret society. What can be told and what cannot?

Masonry is not “a secret society” but “a society with secrets.” A secret society is one of which the membership, aims, and ideals are unknown. There is no secret about who is, and who is not, a Freemason. Lodges publish their rosters. Many grand lodges publish the names of their members in annual Proceedings. The world at large knows that the aims and ideals of Freemasonry are religious, charitable, friendly, fraternal.

What is secret in Freemasonry is well-phrased in the Ninth Landmark as adopted by the Grand Lodge of New Jersey:

The legend of the third degree; the means of recognition; the methods of conferring degrees: the obligations of those degrees and the ballot of every brother are, and must continue to be, inviolably secret.

Why are candidates hoodwinked?

Blindfolding a candidate is symbolical of that state in which he has “long been in darkness and now prays for light.”

It is not to keep him from seeing the lodge room, or the officers, or the brethren, but to make a deep and lasting impression on his mind, that Masonically, he has no, or but partial, light, and that only by the consummation of the ceremonies for which he has asked and which the lodge has granted, may he receive that Masonic fight that will enable him to “travel in foreign countries and receive master’s wages.”

That the conclusion of Masonic degrees be accompanied by unexpected sight and sound is a very old and very effective way of making an event memorable.

The Masonic Service Association of North America