Freemasonry is the largest fraternal organisation in the world. It has about three million members in the USA, seven hundred thousands in Britain, and one more million all over the world. Since its official birth in 1717, fifty thousand books, pamphlets, and articles have dealt with this subject. Men of all religions are admitted if they believe in a Supreme Being whoever he is. Moral behaviour, constant self-improvement, and a dedication to charity are expected from the members. However it has more enemies than any other secular organisation in the history of the world. The Catholic Church constantly attacks it, the Mormon Church forbid its members to join and even the Salvation Army and the Methodist Church in England have advised their members not to join. It is, and has been, outlawed in many countries, especially in the dictatorships (of the left and of the right). Freemasonry does not like to be branded as an alternate religion, the Antichrist, and the forces behind the plots to overthrow governments. There has also been allegation of preferment and cover-up in the British police and civil service. Freemasonry very rarely answers accusations made against it.
Freemasons were present in the American Revolution and in many others. Many kings, presidents, and members of the aristocracy have joined the Craft at one time or the other as well as political and military leaders, scientists, musicians, painters, writers, etc. of all over the world. Some Freemasons have claimed that Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, Solomon, Ptolemy, Julius Caesar and Pythagoras were members of the Craft. Others have claimed that Freemasonry originated in ancient Egypt. Still others traced its origin to the Essenes, Zoroastrians, Chaldeans, or Phoenicians. More recently these legends have been taken for what they are: the product of the imagination of their authors. Nowadays it is generally accepted that there are only three possible origins for Freemasonry: it started during the building of King Solomon’s Temple; they are the heirs of the medieval British Guilds of stonemasons; the Masons are the heirs of the Knights Templar. Historians now agree that there is no evidence to link Freemasonry with Solomon’s Temple. The other two hypotheses cannot be proved, or totally disproved, mainly due to the fact that before 1717 the Masonic order was a true secret society and, as a result, they are no records of its existence previous to that date. Nobody knows the reason of that secrecy, or even why that society existed at all.
Freemasonry’s history began when four London lodges met at the Apple-Tree Tavern in Covent Garden in London in 1717 to form a “Grand Lodge”. The Grand Lodge became officially created on St. John the Baptist’s day, 24 June 1717, and a Grand Master and other Officers were elected. This had a big effect on all the English Freemasons who were used to their secret society and did not understand why the Londoners had changed all this. Nevertheless other lodges around London revealed themselves and joined the Grand lodge, but many others were not happy at all and refused to have anything to do with it. Rather that giving their records as requested by the Grand Lodge to be considered in drafting the Grand Lodge’s Constitution, they burned them to keep the secrecy.
In 1725 the Masonic Lodge at York objected formally to the Grand Lodge insisting that they had more antiquity than the London Lodges. The Masons in York stated that their organisation was as old as their cathedral, which was erected in the seventh century, and that King Edwin of Northumbria was their first Grand Master. They organised their own Grand Lodge that they called “THE GRAND Lodge of All England”. Irish Masonry came out in 1725 too and declared a Grand Lodge of Ireland based in Dublin. Finally Scotland created her own Grand Lodge in 1737. In the same year Freemasonry became very popular in France under the stewardship of Andrew Michael Ramsay. Ramsay, without proof for it, stated that the origin of Freemasonry was not to be found in the British medieval stonemasons, but in the kings, princes, barons and knights of the Crusades. This organisation attracted many Frenchmen who soon created many additional degrees in addition to the three fundamental ones. These new degrees and rites were exported to other countries that added embellishments of their own. At one time there was about fourteen hundred documented degrees, although the French limited themselves to thirty-three. This system was exported to the USA where it is still used (with some modifications) as the Ancient and accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.
Pope Clement XII issued the first of a long series of bulls against Freemasonry in 1738. As a result Freemasons in catholic countries were sent to prison, deported, and even tortured by the Holy Roman Inquisition where they had the power to do it. In Germany, Karl Gotthelf created the system known as “Strict Observance” that believed that Freemasons were the heirs to the Templars who escaped to Scotland. These knights kept the order alive there by joining a guild of working masons. They elected Grand Masters but kept their names secret for obvious reasons of security. This new chivalric order was very popular in Germany and spread to most of continental Europe before slowing disappearing.
In Britain Freemasonry became known as a tavern-oriented, eating and drinking society. The leadership tried to change it by introducing the concept of charity towards needy brothers, their widows and children, as well as non-masons. Constant self-improvement through the practise of moral behaviour was also introduced in the lodges using the symbols of the stonemason trade. Charity and morality brought the British Masonry out of the taverns into specially built halls. The knowledge of the history of the medieval stonemasons was encouraged in the lodges, and used as examples to improve the brothers’ behaviour. However, although they tried hard, no historical evidence has been found to link Freemasonry with the medieval stonemasons. All that was left was the Knights Templar’s hypothesis, but until now there was no evidence for this link either.
More or less everybody -Freemasons and not- accept the idea that Freemasonry originated in England in the medieval guilds of stonemasons. According to this theory, the Roman Catholic trade guilds, with a few thousand building workers in Britain, were taken over by the aristocracy, the gentry, and members of mainly non-productive profession who changed it into a non-Christian secret society. Some historians have modified slightly this hypothesis stating that Freemasonry evolved from the guilds of stonemasons and the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages. Some others believe that it is also possible that the Masonic membership of the guilds of stonemasons, and the use of their day-to-day vocabulary was a cover story for a secret society. This practise was not limited to Freemasonry, but has been used by many other secret organisations.
These guilds of the Middle Ages were not associations of workers, but more precisely associations of entrepreneurial owners. They operated under a charter that gave each association a franchise, a monopoly on a Craft or service over a specified area, generally a town. The guilds were free of competition; they could set their prices at such a level that a profit was certain; they were able to adjust the level of production to fit the demand; they controlled the number of new members permitted to enter that trade or service; they were able to guaranty the quality of their work. On the other hand, the Lord granting the charter was able to collect tolls and taxes easily. The motivation of the guilds was profit through monopoly as well as to adjust the supply to the demand by controlling the number of enterprises (run by Masters Craftsmen allowed to own tools and sells the finished products or services) allowed to enter the business. The Masters, or owner-operators, were the only full members of the guilds; they also ran it. Masters were allowed to take apprentices who were not paid, and who were bound by contract to their Master for seven years. If they tried to escape, they were arrested and punished. The Masters agreed to provide the training level required to take the entrance examination to the guild; this was the only way for an apprentice to become finally a Master too. The candidate had generally to present a finished product known as his “Master piece”. Room and board were provided by the Master who was even entitled to receive a fee from the apprentice. Completion of the apprenticeship and success at the examination did not guaranty entrance into the guild which membership was limited. Those people who had finished their training, but who had not yet been admitted to the guild, could offer their services to a Master who paid them by the day. They were known as “journeyman”. They could also open a shop outside the zone of competence of the guild. As labour became more specialised, the guilds became interdependent as they reacted on each other: the saddlers had to buy leather from the tanners, steel and brass from the metalworkers, and they also needed the services of the painters and stainers. The members of the merchant guilds controlled the sources of raw materials, the shipping and the export market; they made huge profit and they became wealthy. They created some kind of corporations, which leased entire towns from their lords, and even from the crown. The Craft guilds became important in the running of their own towns and, even to day, they are still powerful in some places. In London, for instance, the so-called Livery Companies elect the Lord Mayor of London among themselves.
The charters gave the guilds a high degree of self-government. They were the supreme authority to judge the complaints against their members, who could be punished if found guilty. Medieval guilds gave strong support to the established religion and they financed the church. They also taught religion to the common people through play and spectacles, using their day-to-day language. And one of these guilds, the stonemason guild, is supposed to be the predecessor of religious tolerant Freemasonry!
The authority and influence of the Craft guilds was local, very often limited to a town, and these were small at that time, whereas Freemasonry was found in cells all over Britain. The guilds needed a charter. As this came from the local Lord, and not from the central government, it is difficult to imagine that they could have even a loose association between them, especially between guilds in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The Master builders of big structures are generally known. Many of them were monks of the religious order for which the structures were built. These monks were not members of any guild.
One theory states that the need for secret recognition signs -grips and signs- was justified by the fact that stonemasons were itinerant workers, moving from building site to building site as work became available. They would identify themselves in this way to maintain their “closed shop” monopoly. They would also meet in lodges to discuss their business. This theory is not very believable. Most big constructions took many years to be completed and it is probable that the workers would settle near them with their family. Moreover, at that time, it was forbidden for anybody to move from his or her village or town without authorisation, and be authorised the reason for the travel had to be given. The membership of the guild would then been known, and the secret without object. The manual workers hired to help the stonemasons were lodged in barracks, but the Master builders did not use them to eat or sleep, and even less as meeting places. The “Old Charges of Masonry” set the guilds’ rules of conduct and responsibility. In particular, they state that no member is to reveal a brother’s secret that may cost him his life and property (this meant treason and heresy). Moreover no visiting brother should go into a town without a local brother to “witness” for him (this would be useful only if the visitor had not been authorised to visit the town). Some Charges also say that a visiting brother should be given employment for two weeks, and then sent on his way with some money. This can only be explained in relation to brothers on the run, and not with brothers seeking long time employment. Another Old Charge says that no mason should have sexual relationship with the wife, daughter, mother, or sister of a brother Mason. This again can only be understood if the brotherhood was a secret organisation helping traitors and heretics. This kind of personal relationship could induce some masons to forget their oath and to betray their brothers.
The medieval guilds of stonemasons had the Church, the Roman Catholic Church, as their main customer, and they behaved accordingly by showing a devout front. Freemasonry, on the opposite, admits any believer in a monotheistic God, and not only the Catholics. Freemasonry, in other words, was above all a mutual protection society of men at odd with the church, or the state, or both, and a building society. The London Livery Companies give another example in this direction. There is among them a Company of Masons, but it was formed too late to have had a role in Masonic origin. Moreover it ranks only twenty-ninth in precedence among the Livery Companies. If it had had a role in Secret Masonry it would be treated with more reverence that it is now. It is also a fact that in many towns and cities like Oxford and Lincoln, where many churches and other religious constructions were built during the Medieval Ages, there is no trace of any guild of masons. In fact it can be stated with near certainty that there was no guild of stonemasons in Britain in Medieval Ages. As a direct consequence, it can be deduced that Freemasonry is not the heir of any medieval guild of stonemasons.