Today there are thousands of Freemason lodges all over the world. Each country has its own customs and rituals and within them are variations and rites particular to each lodge. There are many stories about the beginnings of the society of Freemasons and its place in history. One reason for this is the myth the eighteenth-century masons created concerning the antiquity of their group and its traditions. Most of these are now considered to be nothing but invention.
The reason for both the myths the Masons created for themselves and the stories told about them is the same: it is a group that jealously guards its secrets, especially those of initiation. A nineteenth-century Mason wrote of this, “Among secret societies . . . a particular knowledge has been supposed always to be communicated to the initiate.... The place of Masonry among secret associations is notable in comparison with these exotics of hidden life and activity.”1
The connection between the Freemasons of today and the ancient trade of stonemasons is still not well understood. The custom of workers in a particular craft forming groups for mutual benefit existed as far back as the late Roman Empire. These groups had different names, but the most common was collegium.2 These collegia had both social and economic functions. The merchant’s college negotiated monopolies with the government, for instance. Colleges of trades vital to the state, such as wheat merchants, were given exemptions from some taxes and duties.3 The colleges also held group feasts on the days that honored their patron deity.
These colleges had members who were not workers but important citizens, patrons of the trade “who lent their influence in the state to the colleges in exchange for the social prestige of the title of patron.”4 This may give a clue as to the later development of Masonic lodges in which no one was a working mason.
By the time of Constantine the Great membership in many of the colleges, particularly that of the bakers, was hereditary and mandatory. They were no longer independent corporations but controlled by the state. Any benefits they might have received were canceled out by the services they had to supply to the government.
There is very little information as to whether the Roman colleges survived the time of the invasions by the Gothic and Germanic tribes. Most of the major cities of the empire were depopulated from the sixth through the ninth centuries and there were probably not enough workers in any community to form a trade organization. By the time they resurfaced, these groups now were called by a Germanic name, guild, probably from the same root as gelt, meaning money.5
In the Middle Ages, guilds were started by workers in the same occupation originally as burial societies. Weavers, coopers, leather-workers, even prostitutes wanted to assure that they not only received a Christian burial, but that prayers and Masses would be offered for the good of their souls. They grew into societies that also regulated the initiation into the craft. Stages of competence—apprentice, journey-man, and master—were created.
Each guild had its own patron saint and held a banquet on that saint’s feast day. The patron of the masons was Saint John the Evangelist, whose feast is December 27.6
Upon entry into a guild, the new apprentice swore an oath to guard the secrets of the craft. The masons may have added some form of secret code so that members of the guild could be known to each
Mason’s geometry, Vi leard de Honnecourt (c. 1225-1250).
(Foto Marburg/Art Resource, NY)
other. This is because the masons moved from place to place, working on the great cathedrals and castles. The master of works for each project didn’t want to hire someone not trained in the craft. A secret password could prevent that.7 While there is no record of this happening before the late sixteenth century, it seems probable that the password was created long before.
THE BEGINNING OF MODERN FREEMASONRY: HIGHLY “SPECULATIVE”
Modern Freemasonry seems to have borrowed a great deal from the rituals of the Scottish guilds of masons. They, like other masons, had formed groups in the towns but they also formed a tight unit in the temporary homes or “lodges” that were built for them to inhabit while they worked on a project. These lodges may have encouraged a closer bond than in other guilds in which the members spent only part of their time with fellow workers and the rest with family and friends from other occupations.8
During the Middle Ages the noble families of Europe constructed mythical genealogies for themselves. They traced their beginnings to Troy, or King Arthur, a patron saint, or even a demon. The guild of masons in Scotland seems to have done the same. They called this story the “Old Charges,” a history of the craft built from tales in the Bible, apocryphal books, and folk legend.
According to a Scottish version of the Old Charges, masonry, which goes hand in hand with geometry, was founded by the sons of Lamech, who wrote their craft secrets on stone pillars. After the flood of Noah one of his great-grandsons, Hermarius, found the secrets of masonry/geometry and the other sciences on the pillars. He taught it to the builders of the tower of Babel. Then Abraham, living in Egypt, taught the geometry to a student named Euclid, who presumably took the knowledge to Greece. Eventually, the masons came to Jerusalem, where they built Solomon’s Temple. After that was finished, the masons scattered to the nations of the world. One came to France, where he was hired by Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne. Another, Saint Alban, brought the craft to Britain. Eventually the masons were sponsored by a Prince Edwin, the otherwise unknown son of the Anglo-Saxon king, Athelstan. Edwin was so enamored of the craft that he was made a Mason. It was also Edwin who caused the Old Charges to be written down.9
A Masonic legend about the builders of Solomon’s Temple is that of Hiram of Tyre, master builder. According to the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon, Hiram supervised the construction of the Temple and personally made two brass pillars, called Jachim and Boaz.10Hiram was supposedly murdered by other masons who wanted him to reveal the secrets of the Mason Word. As late as 1851, a manual for Freemasons states that both Solomon and Hiram, now a “King of Tyre,” were the originators of the society.11
These legends were all part of what is called “operative” masonry, that is, guilds of those who actually had the skill to work in stone. Many of these legends became part of the traditions and symbols of “speculative” masonry, or lodges made up of people from other walks of life.12
But how did it happen that a traditional trade guild became the base for an organization that has included many artists, composers, noblemen, heads of corporations, and heads of state?
SCOTLAND, WILLIAM SCHAW, AND THE LORDS OF ROSLIN
Late-sixteenth-century Scotland was ruled by James VI, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who would soon become James I of England. One of the posts in his government was that of master of works, held by a well-born man who oversaw the finances and administration of all building projects. In 1583 the post went to one William Schaw.13
Schaw was a Catholic in a newly Protestant country but he seems to have been able to keep his beliefs from threatening anyone at court. It was Schaw who, in 1598, first wrote down a set of statutes to be followed by “all master masons of the realm.”14 These statutes, mostly regarding admission of apprentices and the chain of authority within the lodges, were agreed to by the master masons. Some of the individual mason marks were recorded and the first mention is made of the Mason Word, the system by which one mason might recognize another.
The following year Schaw expanded the statutes to include the duties of the master masons in training apprentices not only in the craft but in the “art of memory and the science thereof.”15 This indicates not only a rote lesson to be learned but a system of remembering to master.
The reason for Schaw’s insistence on these uniform statutes is not clear. He seems to have felt strongly that the independent lodges needed organization. He also felt that they needed a patron, much as the Roman guilds had had.16 For this position, he selected William Sinclair, the lord of Roslin. Again, this is puzzling. William was descended from the earl who had built Rosslyn Chapel and there might have been a residual fondness for the man who had given the masons such an elaborate commission. But this William was a dissolute Catholic who couldn’t tell the local Protestant authorities if his latest bastard had been baptized but had had at least one christened a Catholic. He also staunchly resisted attempts by the local authorities to destroy the artwork in the chapel. While he had employed masons to build his home, he doesn’t seem a good advocate for the lodges at court. However, in 1601, a charter was drawn up making William Sinclair patron of the masons.
A copy of this charter is preserved at Rosslyn Chapel, which is where I read it. It is clear that the masons are not following an established tradition of patronage from Rosslyn but asking for a totally new arrangement. There is no implication in the document that it is anything other than a normal request for a nobleman to advocate for a group that doesn’t have much political power.
It doesn’t appear that this William Sinclair was of much use to the masons. However, his son, also named William, took the charge more seriously. He issued another charter, giving himself legal jurisdiction over the masons. By 1697, the lords of Roslin were allowed to be taught the Mason Word.17
There is still a leap that must be made from lodges of operative masons to ritualized meetings of Enlightenment intellectuals.
The creation of Freemasonry from guilds of masons seems to have come about through a number of social and political forces that happened to converge. In Scotland throughout the seventeenth century upper-class men had been asking to join the mason lodges and been accepted. Perhaps they were allowed in because they could afford a good initiation banquet or because some of the masons were pleased to be able to rub shoulders with the nobility.
It seems to have been a fad for a time, but most of these men soon dropped out. Historian David Stevenson suggests that they might have joined thinking that they were going to learn some esoteric, magical lore and were disappointed.18
There have always been those who were obsessed with the uncovering of ancient secrets. It is a thread that runs through all societies. But the period from about 1580 to 1750 seems to have had a larger number of seekers than usual. It was a time of intellectual inquiry both in the matter of religious truth and about the natural world. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation had left many people in doubt about the truth of any one religion. The increased belief in the malevolence of witchcraft had a flip side in those who wished to seek enlightenment from divine sources, not necessarily Christian. If one could obtain power from Satan then there must be other ways to reveal the mysteries of the universe without going so far as to sell one’s soul.
This was also the time that the Rosicrucian books were circulating and people like Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle were experimenting with both chemistry and alchemy and making little distinction between the two. Even the Royal Society in England began with a group of friends meeting for clandestine discussions on alchemical subjects.19
It was in this atmosphere that the first English lodges arose at the beginning of the eighteenth century. While using many of the symbols and the basic myth of the origin of the masons guild, the English soon added rituals based on their research into alchemy, Neoplatonism, and Hermetic teaching. By 1720 Freemasonry had spread to France and then to Germany and the rest of Europe. “Rather than saying that Freemasonry was born out of the Guild of Masons, it might be more helpful to say that learned men who wished to work together and exchange ideas adopted the symbolism and structures used by working masons.”20
ENTER THE TEMPLARS
The reader may have noticed that I haven’t yet made a connection between the Masons and the Templars. I’m tempted to say that it’s because there isn’t any but that wouldn’t be fair. Actually, the use of the Templars as an example for the Masons can only be traced back to 1750, when Baron Karl von Hund invented the “Templar Strict Observance.” In order to legitimize his creation, he claimed that it was “by way of uninterrupted transmission, the successor of the Knight Templars [sic], whose existence had been carried on secretly up to that date.”21
Von Hund derived his ideas from the Scottish connection, although it’s not known where he got his information. “It is claimed that before his execution, the last Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, assigned Hugo von Salm, a canon, the mission of smuggling important Templar documents into Scotland.”22 Now, Hugo von Salm seems to have been a knight who came to the defense of the Templars in Poland.23 There is no indication that he was ever in France and certainly not at the time of the dissolution because he was defending Templars in Poland then. There is even less evidence that he ever went to Scotland.
Now the Templars were regaining popularity in newly Protestant eighteenth-century Europe. Instead of being seen as greedy bastards who may or may not have been heretics but good riddance all the same, they were seen as the persecuted keepers of lost esoteric information. After all, if the pope hated them, they must be okay. The idea caught on.
My feeling is that the image of the Knights of the Temple fit in well with the mystical secret societies that developed during the (self-named) Enlightenment. The best part of it was that so many of the Templar records had been lost or destroyed that there wasn’t any problem with hard facts getting in the way of the myth. It was rather like the secret societies that based their philosophy on their interpretation of hieroglyphics. When the Rosetta stone was discovered in Egypt and the hieroglyphics finally deciphered, it was a terrible setback for them.
Today no reputable historian of the Freemasons believes that the group was founded by Templars or by Solomon’s master mason. Furthermore, most Masonic lodges encourage serious inquiry into Masonic history. “The results may upset some masons, but it would be unthinkable for a Mason to be suspended or dropped from membership for investigating Masonic degrees and believing that they had relatively modern origins.”24
The problem is that there a large number of non-Masons who don’t know this. And they are busy writing pseudohistory.
The most universal symbol of the Freemasons is the compass and square, used by operative masons everywhere. Another, found in every lodge of Speculative Masons, is the pillars of the Temple. The names given to these two pillars are Boaz and Jachim, thought to have been the original Mason’s Word.25 In the American York Rite these pillars are thought to be hollow to hide archives and other documents.
Another symbol that seems to be common to all Speculative Masonic lodges is three pillars, signifying wisdom, strength, and beauty. The mason’s apron and gloves are also universal.
Many plants have symbolic meaning in Masonic lore, the acacia, rose, lily, and olive tree among them.26 The star and the pentangle are both used frequently. Indeed, it would be hard to find anything that couldn’t be read as a symbol by Masons. “The first degree initiation ritual, that of Entered Apprentice, states: ‘Here, all is symbol.’ ”27
On the other hand, the Templars had few symbols. The only one I am certain of is the image of two riders on one horse. Some of the Templars’ seals showed the dome of the Holy Sepulcher. Even the order’s banner was simply one white and one black square. They really weren’t symbol-minded. They just got on with their work.
Today Masons can be of almost any religion, including Catholic, despite the Catholic Church’s eighteenth-century ban on joining, or no religion at all. There are lodges that include both men and women and some that are single sex. The French, by the way, were the first to admit women into an auxiliary organization, called adoptive masonry, around 1740.28
Listing famous Masons would be a book in itself. It would include most American presidents; kings of England, Sweden, and other countries; and Winston Churchill, Tomás Garrigue Masaryk, Voltaire, Goethe, Kipling, Mark Twain, Davy Crockett, Duke Ellington, and Houdini, to name a few.29 Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is full of Masonic references.
Like the Templars, the Freemasons have been accused of subversive activities, including trying to control elections and exerting pressure to ruin personal enemies. In some times and places this may have been true. In Oregon in 1922, the Scottish Rite Masons joined in with the Ku Klux Klan to sponsor a bill to abolish private schools and insist that all children attend public schools.30 The target of the bill was the Catholic school system, where many immigrant children from Catholic countries were being educated. The governor, Walter Pierce, had agreed to support the bill in return for the support of the Masons and the Klan, who had many members in common.31
The law passed, but was challenged and went to the Supreme Court, where it was ruled unconstitutional.
In this case Masons who were also Klansmen spoke for the entire group and did indeed influence an election. Today, most Masons would be horrified at the association with the KKK. They would point out that this was not typical Masonic behavior. They might even deny that such a thing ever happened.
It’s difficult to confirm or deny such allegations because of the nature of the organization. Groups with private initiation rites and a cultivated aura of secrecy seem to bring out the worst suspicions in outsiders. The Freemasons are entitled to have secret ritual and rites, but instead of maintaining that they come from ancient Templar knowledge, they might pay more attention to what the Templars’ secrecy about their initiation ceremonies led to.
Arthur Edward Waite, A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (New York: Wings Books, 1996) p. 53.
Steven A. Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991) p. 11.
Ibid., p. 17.
Ibid., p. 18.
Ibid., p. 35.
David Stevenson, The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century 1590-1710. (Cambridge University Press, 1988) p. 43.
Ibid., p. 9.
Ibid., pp. 19-21.
Waite, p. 367.
K. J. Stewart, Freemason’s Manual (Philadelphia: E. H. Butler, A.L. 5851 A.D. 1851) p. 15.
Waite, p. 141.
Stevenson, p. 26. Unless otherwise stated, the following is a summery of Stevenson’s work.
Ibid., p. 34.
Ibid., p. 45.
Although it’s doubtful that Schaw was aware of the Roman custom.
Ibid., p. 60.
Ibid., pp. 77-85.
Daniel Béresniak, Symbols of Freemasonry, tr. Ian Monk (Barnes & Noble, 2003) p. 16.
Antoine Faivre, “The Notions of Concealment and Secrecy in Modern Esoteric Currents since the Renaissance (A Methodological Approach),” in Rending the Veil: Concealment and Secrecy in the History of Religion, ed. Elliot R. Wolfson (New York: Seven Bridges Press, 1999) p. 162.
Glenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001) p. 54.
www.templariusze.org/artykuly.php?id=27 “Moguncji zrobił to osobiście preceptor z Grumbach, Hugo von Salm wraz z dwudziestoma uzbrojonymi rycerzami.” Okay, my Polish is rough. He might have been the preceptor of Grumbach, but I think it says that Moguncji was preceptor. For more see chapter 35, The Trials outside of France.
Paul Rich and David Merchant, “Religion, Policy and Secrecy: The Latter-Day Saints and Masons,” in Policy Studies Journal Vol. 31, No. 4 (2003).
Stevenson, p. 143.
Robert Macoy, A Dictionary of Freemasonry (New York: Gramercy Books,) pp. 403, 579, 604-5; Waite, for Rose, pp. 369-71; Béresniak, pp. 75, 78-80.
Béresniak, p. 8.
Waite, p. 97.
Béresniak, p. 114.
Paula Abrahams, “The Little Red Schoolhouse: Pierce, State Monopoly of Education and the Politics of Intolerance,” in Constitutional Commentary Vol. 20, No. 1 (2003) p. 617.
Abrahams, p. 624. She adds, “Many Masons actually ended up opposing the bill.”