History of Freemasonry

By R.W.Bro. Bharat V. Epur

The early history of the Freemasons is clouded in some mystery. This is, I suppose, to be expected, as Freemasonry and Freemasons seem to be cloaked in an aura of mystery, willingly or not! Although the activities of today’s Masons are widely documented, there is very little irrefutable evidence as to the origins of the Masons. This has lead to much speculation.
No one knows with absolute certainty how or when the Masonic Fraternity was formed. A widely accepted theory among Masonic scholars is that it arose from the stonemasons’ guilds during the Middle Ages. The language and symbols used in the fraternity’s rituals come from this era. Some occidental historians, however, have attributed the origin of Freemasons to the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem by King Solomon or to such famous historical minds as Noah (Fig.1), Moses (Fig.2), Euclid (Fig.3), Pythagoras (Fig.4), Baron Verulam also known as Lord Francis Bacon (Fig.5), Lord Oliver Cromwell (Fig.6), Sir Christopher Wren (Fig.7) and so on. Other historians think that the traditions of Freemasonry can be traced back to the Essenes, the Chaldeans, the Rosicrucians, the Druids, or even the Gypsies. Some think that Freemasonry owes its origins to the ancient ‘mystery schools’ or even to the Knights Templar. Some believe that Freemasons are the descendants of other popular groups, such as the Priory of Sion, the Roman Collegia, the Comacine Masters, the German Steinmetzen, or the French Compagnonnage.

There are yet others who suggest that Freemasonry can be traced even further back in time – to the East, in fact – Egypt, China and India too! It is an undeniable fact that extraordinary knowledge and engineering skills were harnessed in a systematic manner to build not only the Great Pyramids of Egypt but also the awesome Temples of ancient India. Masons’ marks are to be found in each and every one of these structures. To stretch it even further, think about the Vedic, Sangam, Aztec, Incan and Mayan empires! One cannot escape the fact that such monumental achievements would not have been possible had it not been for some over-arching guiding force! I have written a Paper in which I have presented my theory, buttressed by arguments and some evidence that ancient India was where Freemasonry got its start. I presented this paper in London some years ago at The Masonic Study Society, probably the oldest such body in the world. It was accepted and published in their Transactions. The Masons themselves use an allegorical foundation myth to explain how Freemasonry came into being. They point to the fraternity of the builders of King Solomon’s Temple as the earliest Freemasons. Historians, however, think that there is very little physical evidence of Freemasonry early on because the organization grew only very gradually out of the lodges of working stonemasons of the Middle Ages. These historians claim that the earliest Freemasons were not a fraternal organization at all but rather working partnerships or working relationships between stonemasons. Eventually, stonemasons created more formal organizations and added some social or moral issues to their gatherings, so that over many generations something akin to the Masons emerged.

Whatever may be the ‘truth’, there have been several plausible interpretations offered by well-meaning and erudite researchers to support each of the above theories. The subject is vast and it would be audacious to try and cover it in its entirety in this Paper. I shall confine myself to making some general observations and shall add some details with respect to specific geographies and timelines, starting from its verifiable, recorded facts pertaining to Freemasonry as now practiced worldwide.

The fundamental unit in Freemasonry is the Lodge, which is comprised of its members. These members have to be initiated in to Masonry through a peculiar ceremony, known as the First Degree. After suitable time has elapsed and they prove themselves worthy of further advancement, they are progressed to their Second and, later, the Third Degree. These three basic Degrees comprise what if known as the Craft and form the foundation of all Masonry. Beyond this, there exist several hundred other Degrees and Orders within the ambit of Masonry that are being, or, at one point or the other in history, have been practiced somewhere in the world. For the purpose of this Paper, I shall confine myself to the Craft – its possible origins and history.


Origins of the Name and the Order   

There has been some speculation as to where the term “Freemason” comes from. Historians have found that medieval stonemasons were sometimes called “Freemasons.” The name may also come from the French word “Maçon,” which refers to a Mason, working in a Lodge, who is allowed to work on Church property free from taxation or regulation by the King or the local government. The origins of the word may also stem from the French term “frère Maçon” which translated literally into “Brother Mason.”

Other historians believe that the term Freemasons comes from the term “Free Men,” used to refer to men who were not serfs and not indentured, and so were free to move from one place to another. Some believe that the name comes from the word “freestone,” which is a type of quarry stone.

Yet others refer to the incident of the candidate in the Cryptic Degrees being divested of his chains and thus ‘freed’ as the actual origin of the word ‘free’ as in ‘Freemason’.

King Athelstan (Fig.8), who was the first to be crowned King of “All-England” in 925 AD at the All Saints Church (Fig.9) in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey ruled from his capital at York. It was during his reign that a set of rules and regulations were formulated to govern the behavior and activities of the Guild of Masons. These rules have been adopted, albeit with some modifications, as the basic duties of the modern Masons.

Most historians agree that Freemasonry began with actual Masons, or artisans and builders who worked with stone. However, today Freemasonry is a fraternal and not a professional organization. There are two theories as to how the early history of Freemasonry allowed the organization to move from professional masonry to a fraternal order.

Some historians believe that the earliest Masons were those Master Masons who built castles and cathedrals. These Masons organized themselves into groups, called “Lodges” to discuss trade matters. Since there were no methods of certification or licensing, Masons designed secret codes and signs so that other Masons could identify them. This was a Masons’ proof that he was a Mason and had achieved a certain level of proficiency at his Craft. This was an important consideration, as Masons traveled from location to location for work, and needed a way to prove their expertise. By the 1600s, some historians claim, Masons began to accept members who were not actual stone masons. These “gentlemen Masons” gradually began to outnumber actual Masons until Lodges became “speculative” or “free and accepted” Lodges rather than Lodges of practicing Masons.

Other historians, however, believe that Freemasonry stems from a movement in the 1500s and 1600s to promote political and religious tolerance. In the late 1500s and early 1600s, political and religious intolerance led to conflict and civil wars, so some individuals wanted to promote greater tolerance. To this end, these individuals formed Freemasonry to create a better society, and used symbolism and allegory from the Bible (especially the stories of King Solomon’s Temple) to teach their message. The ‘Renaissance’, the “Reformation’ and other great upheavals took place. There was great ferment in society. Established idioms were being questioned. Newer and conflicting standards were becoming increasingly accepted. The venality of the existing religious dispensations was driving the more educated and the more perceptive people into the realm of ‘reason’ and ‘science’.

Seminal events like the publication of the famous tract, “The Chemical Wedding” (Fig.10) by someone calling himself Christian Rosencrantz sparked the founding of the Rosicrucian Order. Intellectual giants spanning a vast array of fields of interest, including nature and science, as well as the recently re-discovered field of alchemy began to challenge the hegemony of the Church. All these various strains were to cross-pollinate and flourish for some time, ultimately leading to an intellectual ferment and then the founding of the Royal Society in England. The founding of the Grand Lodge of England came not too later thereafter, with both these bodies sharing a large number of founding members. Over centuries, Freemasonry developed into a worldwide fraternity emphasizing personal study, self-improvement, and social betterment via individual involvement and philanthropy. During the late 1700s it was one of the organizations most responsible for spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment: the dignity of man and the liberty of the individual, the right of all persons to worship as they chose, the formation of democratic governments, and the importance of public education. Masons supported the first public schools in both Europe and America. These concepts were transformed into reality with the founding of the United States of America!

Early Records of Freemasonry 

The oldest available document that makes reference to Masons is the Regius Poem. The earliest records of Freemasonry date back to the 1600s. For example, there is a record that Sir Robert Moray (Fig.12) was initiated on 20th May 1641 in a Scottish Lodge near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This is the earliest record of an initiation. Early Masonic records show that a Masonic Company of Craft Masons, not a secret society, was founded by King James VI of Scotland. There is a Masonic Lodge at Kilwinning whose records go back to 1642, the date of the Battle of Naseby and Oliver Cromwell against the troops of Charles I.

There is also an early record of an Elias Ashmole becoming a Freemason in 1646. Elias Ashmole, founder of the world’s oldest museum – the Ashmolean at Oxford University – was a polyglot of formidable intellectual rigor. Under date 6th October 1646 at 4.30 PM, he wrote: “I was made a Free mason at Warrington.” This short and, at that date, cryptic sentence, revealed nothing to the eye of the initiated. Maybe this was due to the need for reticence during that period in history: remember, this was the time of the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, and the various intrigues and plots of the Royalist forces to return the monarchy to England! But, thirty-five years later, Ashmole, wrote in his diary, under date of March 1681: “Received a Summons to appear before a Lodge at Masons’ Hall, London, and was admitted into the Fellowship of Freemasons.” This entry shows that Freemasons professed themselves openly, without fear, in the year 1682: Charles II had been crowned twenty years earlier.

[In fact, I had the privilege of holding in my hands Elias Ashmole’s original handwritten diary in which he recorded that he had been initiated into Freemasonry on that day. For those who are interested, this historic manuscript is available in the Library of the High Council of the S.R.I.A. – Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, at Hampstead, London.]

From the death of Charles II in 1685 until the accession of George I of the Hanoverian House in 1714, Freemasonry in England appears to have again been under a cloud. James II who succeeded Charles II, fled to Paris after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and took Freemasonry with him as a means of communicating secretly with his adherents at home especially Scotland. At his death in 1701, his son James was proclaimed King of England by Louis XIV of France. This James III known to history as “The Pretender” was one of the founders of French Freemasonry. He was no more successful in re-establishing his reign and the sun began to set on the thenreigning House of Stuart. Under the royal patronage of the new ruling dynasty, more especially, that of Frederick, Prince of Wales and the House of Hanover, Freemasonry once again came before the world publicly and constituted itself into a legal association.

Officially, the Grand Lodge of England was founded in London on St. John the Baptist’s Day, 24 June 1717, when four existing Lodges gathered at the Goose and Gridiron Alehouse in St. Paul’s Church-yard in London and constituted themselves a Grand Lodge. The four lodges had previously met together in 1716 at the Apple-Tree Tavern, “and having put into the Chair the oldest Master Mason (now the Master of a Lodge), they constituted themselves a Grand Lodge pro Tempore in due form.” It was at that meeting in 1716 that they resolved to hold the Annual Assembly and Feast and then choose a Grand Master from among themselves, which they did the following year. All four lodges were simply named after the public houses where they were accustomed to meet, at the Goose and Gridiron Ale-house in St. Paul’s Church-yard (Lodge now called Lodge of Antiquity No. 2); the Crown Ale-house in Parker’s Lane off Drury Lane; the Apple-Tree Tavern in Charles Street, Covent Garden (Lodge now called Lodge of Fortitude and Old Cumberland No. 12); and the Rummer and Grapes Tavern in Channel

Row, Westminster (Lodge now called Royal Somerset House and Inverness Lodge No. IV). The first Grand Master to be so chosen was Anthony Sayers.

Thus was established the very first Grand Lodge in the world! Almost all other Grand Lodges sprang from it, thus earning it the nickname of “Mother Grand Lodge!” Grand Lodges were thereafter established in Ireland in 1725 and in Scotland in 1736. All the regular Grand Lodges now in existence can trace their origins back to these three initial Lodges.

Within thirty years, the fraternity had spread throughout Europe and the American Colonies. Freemasonry became very popular in colonial America. George Washington was a Mason; Benjamin Franklin served as the head of the fraternity in Pennsylvania, as did Paul Revere in Massachusetts. Other well-known Masons involved with the founding of America included John Hancock, Marquis de Lafayette and Baron Fredrick von Steuben. Another Mason, Chief Justice John Marshall, shaped the Supreme Court into its present form.

During the 1800s and early 1900s, Freemasonry grew dramatically. At that time, the government had provided no social “safety net”. The Masonic tradition of founding orphanages, homes for widows, and homes for the aged provided the only security many people knew. Today in North America, the Masonic Fraternity continues this tradition by giving almost $1.5 million each day to causes that range from operating children’s hospitals, providing treatment for childhood language disorders, treating eye diseases, funding medical research, contributing to local community service, and providing care to Masons and their families at Masonic Homes. The four million Masons worldwide continue to help men and women face the problems of the 21st century by building bridges of brotherhood and instilling in the hearts of men ideals for a better tomorrow.

The nineteenth century witnessed the tumultuous French Revolution as well the Civil War in the U.S. – both of which had many Freemasons actively involved espousing the very same ideals. In more recent times, Freemasons and Freemasonic ideals lent themselves to other social and political transformations, including the foundation of the Indian National Congress, the various Freedom movements in South and Central America inspired by Simon Bolivar.

Freemasonry in India 

The honour of receiving Freemasonry in India goes to Calcutta. In 1730 officers of the East Indian Company held their meetings in Fort William, Calcutta. The number given to the Lodge was 72. On 27th December 1728, a Deputation was granted by the Grand Lodge of England to George Pomfret, authorizing him to “open a new Lodge in Bengal.” Thus, says Preston, “he first introduced Masonry into the English settlements in India” and Pomfret figures in the Masonic Year Book as the first Provincial Grand Master for East India, The Grand Lodge issued a letter “to Empower and Authorize our well beloved Brother Pomfret….that he do, in our place and stead, constitute a regular Lodge, in due form at Fort William in Bengal in the East Indies….” This was signed and sealed “the 6th day of February 1728/9 and in the year of Masonry 5732” (which shows that Grand Lodge used Usher’s Chronology in dating the Masonic era – as the Grand Lodge of Scotland still does!) The Lodge at Fort William — that is, Calcutta — appears in the Engraved List of 1730, as No.72. It was to meet at Fort William in Calcutta. The Coat of Arms was adopted from the East India Company a Golden Lion, Rampant Guardant, supporting between the Forepaws a Regal Crown. Nothing further, however, is known of this individual and even the voluminous Calcutta records are silent concerning him. He was succeeded in 1729 by Captain Ralph Farwinter as Provincial Grand Master “for East India in Bengal” and, under his direction, a Lodge was duly established in 1730, known as Lodge East India Arms, which, in the Engraved Lists, is distinguished by the Arms of the Company and is described as No.7 at Bengal in the East Indies. The records of the Grand Lodge of England contain an entry to the effect that, on December 3, 1731, Captain Farwinter attended a Communication as the Provincial Grand Master for India and that, on his return to India, he sent “from his Lodge of Bengal a chest of the best arrack for the use of the Grand Lodge and ten guineas for the Masonic Charity.” At the Communication held on December 13, 1733, the thanks of the Grand Lodge of England were voted to him for his gift.

The following letter of thanks, which was sent by the Grand Lodge of England to the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bengal, is taken from a copy which appears in the Rawlinson Collection in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. (Rawl. Ms., c. 136).