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History of Freemasonry

To a great extent, much that is said and written about Freemasonry necessarily represents the personal opinion or thinking of an individual or a group of individuals. In this fact lies one of the great strengths of our Fraternity. As you progress and learn about Freemasonry, you will find that while the truths and principles of the Order are positive and fixed in character, much of their interpretation is left to you, the individual. It is this factor which affords you the opportunity for a lifetime of research and study.

One of the most interesting and romantic parts of Freemasonry is its history. You may have heard or read that Freemasonry is one of the world's oldest organizations. Where did it come from? How did it originate? Here again, conjecture and interpretation play their part. We can but give you the generally accepted views of many Masonic scholars. In general, the history may be divided into two distinct eras or parts. The first refers to the era which came before recorded or written history. The second refers to the era which runs back from the present day approximately 800 years and covers that period of which there is a definite record. There are those who believe that Freemasonry originated with the very beginning of civilization, indeed with the start of intelligent thinking man. However, there is no absolute basis for such a belief. We do know that as time and experience proved certain truths, these truths were taken and carried to the thinking people of the various tribes. We do know, also, that in several of the ancient civilizations there existed certain mystic societies; that these mystic societies had a Lodge form, with Lodge officers, all similar in character and all teaching moral living. Thus it might rightfully be supposed that the ideals and teachings of our Order have come to us from the learning and wisdom of the dim past. While we refer to ourselves as "Freemasons," the accepted term for hundreds of years was simply "Masons." Defined, Mason means "Builder." Starting some 800 years ago, and lasting nearly 400 years, was the era during which were built in Western Europe the hundreds of great Gothic cathedrals. Many of these immense structures still stand as a memorial of the past and as an inspiration to the people of today.

To us, it is almost incomprehensible that these magnificent cathedrals were built completely by hand, with only the simplest of tools. The credit goes to the Builders or Masons of that era. It was their ingenuity, imagination, resourcefulness and industry which produced these monuments. To accomplish what they did, these Masons banded themselves together in workman’s' Guilds. Each of the Guilds formed a Lodge, with regular Lodge officers and each with three levels of membership. The first, or lowest form of members, were apprentices or bearers of burdens. The second form were craftsmen or fellows, the skilled workmen on the Temples. The third and highest form were the masters, constituting those who were the overseers and superintendents on the building. Also, certain states of proficiency were required before a man could pass from one degree to the next. Furthermore, they all taught and required of their membership certain attributes of moral conduct. It was these Guild Lodges that actually gave birth to modern Masonic Lodges and to present-day Freemasonry.

We refer to these Guild Masons as "Operative" Masons, because they actually operated as and performed as working masons in the building of the cathedrals. However, during the sixteenth century there began the decline of the Gothic building and with it a decline in the strength of the Guild Lodges. For two hundred years these Lodges struggled and fought for their very existence. During this struggle some of the Lodges, to preserve themselves, began taking in other members -- that is, men of high moral character, but not necessarily followers of the builders' trade. These non-operative members were referred to as "Accepted" Masons and later as "Speculative" Masons. Eventually the Guild Lodges came to be known as "Speculative Lodges." This was particularly true in the British Isles, where a considerable number of men in all walks of life were admitted to membership in the Lodges of Freemasons.

The start of the eighteenth century saw the birth of modem architecture and with it the complete fade-out of Gothic building. It appeared that Freemasonry was doomed when, in 1717, four Lodges in London met together and probably for no other reason than to strengthen and preserve themselves, decided to form a Grand Lodge. In 1723 they adopted a constitution to govern themselves. Their success led to the establishment of other Grand Lodges in similar fashion. In 1725 some of the Lodges in Ireland formed a Grand Lodge for that island, and a similar body was instituted in Scotland in 1736. Moreover, the original Grand Lodge of England did not remain without rivals in its own country, and at one time in the eighteenth century there existed in England three Grand Lodges in addition to the one organized in 1717. Two of these died out without influencing the history of Masonry in general, but the third had a great part in the spread and popularizing of Masonry throughout the world. It styled itself the "Ancient" Grand Lodge, while the original body was known as the "Modern" Grand Lodge. The two were long and vigorous rivals, but they finally united in 1813 into the present Grand Lodge of England. Thus, from one of these two Grand bodies in England, or from that of Ireland or Scotland, are descended directly or otherwise all other Grand Lodges in the world today.

It was inevitable that Freemasonry should follow the colonists to America and play a most important part in the establishment of the thirteen colonies. Freemasonry was formally recognized for the first time in America with the appointment by the Grand Lodge of England of a Provincial Grand Master in Massachusetts in 1733. American Masons worked under foreign jurisdiction until 1781, when the first Grand Lodge was established in the State of New York.

One of the most enthralling and romantic portions of all Masonic history lies in the story of the part played by Freemasons in the formation of our country. We will never know just how great a part Freemasonry actually did play; but without exaggeration, we can say that Freemasonry and Masonic thinking contributed most significantly to the founding of this great democracy.

A significant number of the signers of the Declaration of Independence as well as the drafters of the Constitution were members of our Fraternity, many of them most active in the affairs of their Lodges. George Washington was a staunch Freemason, and it is said that before the close of the Revolution he placed no one but Freemasons in posts of importance. He was the first of thirteen Masonic Presidents and the only one to serve as Worshipful Master of a Lodge and President at one and the same time. The others after Washington are Jackson, Polk, Buchanan, Johnson, Garfield, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and Ford -- of whom Jackson and Truman served also as Grand Masters.

In the struggle for Independence such well-known patriots as Paul Revere, Joseph Warren, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, as well as Lafayette, Von Steuben and many others, were members of the Craft. No doubt Freemasonry was responsible for and shaped much of their thinking and opinions.

Volumes have been written about the participation of Freemasons in the Revolution and the founding of America. Time will not permit us to say more except that it was an episode in history of which we can all be most proud. Ever since that period Masonry has grown and flourished, following closely the growth and expansion of the United States.