The origins of Freemasonry are subject to scholarly debate. Organised Freemasonry, as we know it today, began with the founding of the first Grand Lodge on 24 June 1717 at the Goose and Gridiron Ale House in St Paul’s Churchyard.
It was formed by the agreement of four London Lodges, the oldest of which was thought to have existed in 1691. Evidence of the movement’s existence prior to 1691 is sparse, so the true origins remain a mystery.
Freemasonry neither originated nor existed in King Solomon’s time. Many historians have tried to prove Freemasonry descended from the mysteries of classical Greece or Rome or was derived from the religion of the Egyptian pyramid builders.
Other theories include that Freemasonry:
- sprang from bands of travelling stonemasons acting by Papal authority
- evolved from a band of Knights Templar who escaped to Scotland after the order was persecuted in Europe
- derived from the shadowy and mysterious Rosicrucian Brotherhood which may or may not have existed in Europe in the early 1600’s.
The honest answers to the questions when, where and why did Freemasonry originate, are that we simply do not know.
The stonemason theory
That said, there is general agreement amongst historians and researchers that Freemasonry developed, either directly or indirectly, from the medieval stonemasons – otherwise known as Operative Masons – who built the great cathedrals and castles.
Those who favour the theory say there were three stages to the evolution of Freemasonry:
- the stonemasons gathered in hut or Lodges to rest and eat
- these Lodges gradually became meetings for stonemasons to regulate their craft
- eventually, and in common with other trades, they developed primitive initiation ceremonies for new apprentices.
As stonemasons were accustomed to travelling all over the country and as there were no trade union cards or certificates of apprenticeship, they began to adopt a private word which they could use when arriving at a new site to prove they were properly skilled and had been a member of a hut or Lodge.
It was, after all, easier to communicate a secret word to prove who you were and that you were entitled to your wages, than it was to spend hours carving a block of stone to demonstrate your skills.
It is known that in the early 1600’s these operative Lodges began to admit non-stonemasons. They were Accepted or Gentlemen Masons. Why and what form the ceremony took is unknown.
As the 1600’s drew to a close, more gentlemen joined the Lodges, gradually taking them over and turning them into Lodges of free and accepted, or speculative Masons. The Lodges no longer had any connection with the stonemasons‘ craft.
This theory is based on information from Scotland where there is ample evidence of Scottish operative Lodges – geographically defined units with the backing of statute law to control what was termed The Mason Trade. There is also plenty of evidence that these Lodges began to admit gentlemen as accepted Masons.
There is no evidence, so far, that these accepted members were other than honorary masons, or that they in any way altered the nature of the operative Lodges.
Furthermore, no evidence has come to light, after a hundred years, for similar development in England.
Medieval building records have references to stonemason’s Lodges, but after 1400, apart from Masons‘ guilds in some towns, there is no evidence for operative Lodges.
A number of other theories exist and can be accessed through the web site of United Grand Lodge