Until a few years ago, most Masons accepted the direct descend theory from Medieval Masonry to the modern Craft through three stages: operative, transitional and speculative. The first lodges regulated the trade of stonemasons working on the construction of castles, abbeys, and cathedrals. From the beginning of the seventeenth century these operative lodges started to accept non-stonemasons. Those Accepted Masons, as they were known, became the majority, and they transformed gradually the operative lodges in speculative lodges that were the forerunners of the present Masonic lodges.
This seems a reasonable theory that is moreover corroborated by history. Medieval operative masons were grouped in regional lodges as described in the Scottish Schaw Statutes of 1598-99. William Schaw was the Master of Work, and General Warden, of the Masons in Scotland under King James VI. These lodges did some ritual work in addition to managing and controlling the trade. Their statutes, and the other documentation that survived, show that the number of Accepted Masons increased, and that they led the organisation from the early eighteenth century transforming the operative lodges in speculative lodges. The same process took place in England.
There are still some doubts, however, about this Three Stages Theory. It has been widely accepted that Freemasonry before 1717 existed only in Scotland, but this opinion does not take enough into consideration the distinction between operative and speculative Masonry, as it does not consider the differences -social, cultural, political, religious and legal- that existed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries between England and Scotland. Both nations had different kings until 1603, and they remained politically distinct until the Act of Union of 1707. There is also a complete lack of evidence of operative lodges in England after 1500, and there is none either for similar lodges in Scotland before the end of the sixteenth century. The use of the Old Charges to show the development of speculative lodges out of the operative ones is not clear either, as the Scottish versions date from the end of the seventeenth century, and are obviously derivations of the English ones!
It is true that non-operative masons were admitted into the Scottish lodges, but we do not know if they followed the same initiation ceremonies than the operative masons or what their rights and duties were inside these lodges. These non-operative masons could have been accepted as honorary members who did not participate in the working of the operative lodges. In England operative lodges had been unknown for more than a century, but they finally accepted non-stonemasons too.
It is not yet clear why non-stonemasons were admitted into Masonic lodges, and why they wanted to be admitted. Also why did Freemasonry appears when it did and in that way? The Three Stages Theory of a direct descend from the medieval builders does not give a satisfying answer to these questions.
The two oldest Charges, dating from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, are different from those published after. Many of the latter ones were copied, or written, after the founding of the Great Lodge of England in 1717. The two oldest Charges were obviously written for operative, or working stonemasons. All the others contain elements that are irrelevant to operative Masonry, but are more adapted to Freemasonry. Colin Dyer offered an explanation that took into consideration the religious and political turbulent situation of the seventeenth century. During that time intolerance grew in both the political and religious fields until the British society was torn apart by the Civil War of 1642. There were however men who believed in tolerance and in free exchange of view, and they founded an organisation where men of different opinions could meet in harmony and promote tolerance in all ways of life. This fraternal order accepted people from all religions and with different political views, but who believed in God and in the three great principles of Love, Relief, and Truth. They expressed their philosophical and moral ideas through allegory and symbolism, and they chose the building of King Solomon’s Temple to promote the building of a better man in a better world. They took the working tools of the stonemasons as the symbols of brotherhood’s moral aspirations. In this way, the outward form of the old operative Masonic lodges were used for a new purpose. This allowed the Freemasons to divulge their ideas under a respectable cloak, as these ideas were not well accepted by the authorities of that time. According to this theory, Freemasonry would descend indirectly from the old operative lodges. The Craft was able to go public after the defeat, in 1715, of the Jacobean revolution that tried to replace the parliamentary government by an autocratic monarchy. This defeat allowed open political debate and freedom of conscience and, finally, Freemasonry could come out of hiding and create the Grand lodge of England in 1717.
This is, of course, a theory that explains many things but not all of them. It does not exclude the direct descend theory from operative to speculative lodges, and the truth could be something in between. The medieval lodge system had more or less disappeared, but it was brought to life at the beginning of the seventeenth century by artisans who needed a self-help organisation for their Craft. This type of “social” lodge could more easily “accept” outsiders non-operative Masons, who could also contribute to the social fund. The use of secret signs of recognition could ensure that the system was not abused, and that the money was going to the right persons. This would mean that seventeenth century Freemasonry was a “trade-club”, the “Society of Freemasons”, in which speculative Masons were accepted in ever increasing numbers. There is, of course, no conflict between a charitable, trade oriented body, and Freemasonry as an organisation promoting religious and political tolerance. Secrecy, allegory, and symbolism were appropriate to both functions making this the most probable and acceptable theory of Masonic origin. (9)
- Would you want to be a Freemason? (bbc.co.uk)