History of Freemasonry

The Story of Freemasonry

adapted from H.L. Haywood

Earliest Hints of Masonry in England

Hundreds of years ago the word “Mason” was used for a man who was engaged in some form of the art of building, whether it was to superintend a squad of craftsmen, to make designs, to work with his own hands in wood or stone, to toil in the quarries, or as sculptor, carver, or glazier, to make a building beautiful. Like men in all the other skilled trades these workmen were bound together in a form of organization called a guild. Such guilds for centuries had their own officers, kept records, regulated hours of labor, wages, and other conditions of work. They supervised the training of apprentices, were responsible to the king or other public authorities for their conduct, and acted as a court for disciplining its own members.

In the builders’ guild there were two classes of workmen. The larger of these was composed of Masons who were confined in their labors to a local community or jurisdiction. The other class was smaller in number but greatly superior in skill and standing. Its members were permitted by both guild and public laws to travel about from place to place or from country to country, wherever opportunity might arise for their own type of work. Because they were thus free of local restrictions they were called Freemasons. It was among these latter that the seeds of our fraternity probably sprouted.

These Freemasons were distinguished above all other workmen of their period by their creation of Gothic architecture, one of the greatest and most complex of all achievements in the arts of the Middle Ages. It is a style of building that remains a source of wonder and amazement for our modern world, ranked by historians as among the supreme masterpieces of human skill. The men who designed and built these famed structures were exemplars of intelligence and craftsmanship. Every modern Freemason may be justified in feeling a bit of pride in this distant lineage.

Masonic craftsmen had an organization of their own into which common masons or other types of workmen were not admitted. More than a craft and more than a guild, we may perhaps describe it as a fraternity, as they also seem to have had in their possession a set of rules (not quite a ritual) by means of which they instructed candidates entering into their group. Exactly how this set of moral rules and sciences developed there is no sure way of knowing, but the evidence suggests that it was already in use when the earliest still-existing Masonic text, known as the Regius Manuscript, was written around A.D.1400. That manuscript, written in rhyming couplet verse, gives a loose sense of the ideas, rules, sciences, legends, and practices from which Masonic ritual of today developed, and if we truly can tie our own practices in some way back to that text—and despite the distance and differences we certainly can—modern Masons are justified in saying that our ceremony is indeed very old. While the Regius Manuscriptwas written about six-hundred years ago, it probably reflects a tradition of even greater age.

Dozens of other manuscripts, obviously descendants of the Regiusbut written in prose rather than rhymed verse, were composed over the next two hundred years. While very similar to each other in many ways, each offers some other small piece of history, or increasingly-discernable hints at a ritual system more like what Freemasonry utilizes today.

Medieval Freemasonry: The Operative Period

We today describe those early traveling workmen as “Operative Masons” because they were builders in a literal sense and used their art as a means of livelihood. But it should not be forgotten that even so, they had in their organization many elements of what we should now describe as Speculative (that is, symbolical) Masonry. They used ceremonies and legends as just described, gave relief to unfortunate members, cared for Masons’ widows and orphans, taught and practiced a high type of morality, revered religion, observed their Saints’ Days, and used their tools and the processes of their art as symbols by which to teach their apprentices the arts of life as well as the art of building. Theirs was an Operative Fraternity with many Speculative elements in it. Ours—which has directly descended from it by an unbroken historical chain—is a Speculative Fraternity with many Operative references populating our symbolic discourse. The transition from Operative to Speculative Masonry was a shift of emphasis, from the practical and hands-on, to the more purely philosophical.

In those medieval times, when a group of Operative Masons gathered to begin construction of a structure, one of their first steps was to erect a lodge building (a reasonable shed as the headquarters for the construction) and a Lodge group (the connected assembly of the men themselves). When the building project was completed, the headquarters shed would be taken down, the Lodge group would be dissolved, and the Masons would go elsewhere for another project, carrying all of the secrets and skills of the Craft safely in the repository of their minds and hearts.

The membership was recruited by means of the apprenticeship system. Any Master Mason might propose some boy, twelve or thirteen years of age, and offer evidence of his qualifications. If the proposed apprentice and his potential as a stonemason were found favorable, he was “entered” into the fraternity, which is where modern Freemasonry gets the term for its first, initiatory level of “Entered Apprentice.”

In the first initiation, the Master (who presided over the work) gave him a history of the fraternity and a “charge,” or an admonishment to excellent, moral behavior. The new member took an obligation (what we would today call an oath), and was then left in the care of his immediate master, to be taught the methods and secrets of the work. It was his duty to labor faithfully for this master for seven years without wages, and the master in turn was to give him a home and food, and to train him. At the end of seven years he was again brought into Lodge and was assigned a task to do, called his master’s piece, to prove to the members that he had mastered the art. At this point he became an equal fellow in the craft, or as we term it today, a “Fellow Craft.”

An individual Freemason, traveling in foreign countries or among strangers, had to have modes of recognition in order to prove himself as trained. The early fraternity possessed a number of trade secrets which had to be understood by the Mason in order for him to be worthy of hire. Among these were theorems of geometry—or in today’s terms, engineering— which they monopolized in much the same way that an inventor now owns a patent. All these elements together comprised the “secrecy” of Freemasonry, and served as the historical foundation for that secrecy which is still so jealously guarded by us.

The Transition from Operative to Speculative Masonry

With the decline of feudalism, the rise of true nation-states, and the Protestant Reformation came many changes in society with deeply impacted Operative Masonry. The old styles of building were abandoned in favor of new styles, and construction programs began to be administered by government agencies, rather than being dominated by localized guild systems. The study of the sciences was reinvigorated at an institutional level, bringing the secrets of geometry and engineering which had been been closely held by the Operative Masons out into the open. Masonic Lodges went into decline, suddenly an artifact of a time which was passing away.

During that Period the Lodges took a step which was destined to have a profound influence on the future of the Craft. They began to admit into membership non-operatives, gentlemen and scholars who had no thought of practicing Masonry as a handicraft, but were attracted by its antiquity, by its strange symbolism and stranger ceremonies, and by its intimate social life. These were variously styled Gentlemen Masons, Accepted Masons, or Geomatic (we would now say “Symbolic”) Masons. Of these terms, “Accepted” came into widest use and is still employed by us in our title of “Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons.”

Freemasonry as the Secret University of Tolerance and Progress

From about 1640 on, these Accepted Masons entered membership in ever-increasing numbers, until by 1700 they often outnumbered the Operatives, and soon came to be dominant in the Lodges. The old Lodges of stonemasons had primarily focused on the actual craft of shaping and fitting stones in the great task of erecting architecture, and used metaphors of that labor to instruct their members in religious and moral truth. Now, work in the actual shaping of stone gave way entirely to philosophical discussion and the development of moral and ethical education, focused purely on those metaphors of traditional stone masonry.

Following on the heels of chaos and violence during the English Civil War (1642-1651), and with the ongoing repercussions of a suspicious society and deep fractures along political and religious lines, the new Lodges of Accepted Masons hid a new kind of secret from prying eyes.

“It offered safety in its secrecy, tolerance of other faiths and classes—it was a place where men of the time could train themselves in a morality not anchored in dogma or superstition, find mentors and become the great men of their time. The Masonic values of the Enlightenment had their foundation in humanism, […] the philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively over institutions, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence. We call it rationalism and empiricism over the acceptance of dogma and superstition.” (1) In the early years of the 1700s, it was decided by the Freemasons of London to establish a central organization, what would be called the Grand Lodge of London and Westminster, to unify and various groups in the area and facilitate social interaction. The old rituals, which had been very loose and based on the old manuscripts, would be brought together and made more uniform. It was also proclaimed that only Lodges which were awarded a warrant or charter from the Grand Lodge were to be considered legitimate. In a short time, the name (and concept) of the umbrella organization was changed to be The Grand Lodge of England. Unfortunately, as with any organization, it developed its own internal conflicts and problems.

Freemasonry (Temporarily) Divided: The Ancients and the Moderns

The Lodges which came into existence under the original Grand Lodge were for the most part composed of members drawn from the class of “gentlemen,” and its leaders came from the aristocracy or even from the nobility. This proved displeasing to many mechanics, tradesmen, and other Masons belonging to the laboring classes. It proved more than displeasing to a large number of Irish Masons who poured into London during the Irish Famine of 1740-41. At the same time other Masons were becoming frustrated at many changes which being made in old Craft customs which predated the new self-proclaimed authority.

These Masons decided in 1751 to form their own Grand Lodge. They referred to themselves as the Ancients, and disparagingly called their rivals the Moderns. The Grand Lodges which were arising in Ireland and Scotland (in 1725 and 1736, respectively) tended to align themselves with the Ancients. One important practice which these so-called Ancient Grand Lodges instituted was the issuing of traveling warrants, by authority of which a Lodge could be moved from place to place, rather than being tied to a regular meeting location. A great number of these warrants were issued to British military regiments, so that the whole British army became one vast Masonic travelling society. This reveals a principal explanation of the amazingly sudden expansion of the Fraternity during the latter half of the eighteenth century across every inhabited continent. Wherever the British Empire went, so too went a seed of Freemasonry.

In the meantime the “Modern” Grand Lodge had begun to establish Lodges in the American Colonies. There was one such Lodge at work in Philadelphia as early as 1730; Benjamin Franklin was initiated in it, and later became its Master. A second was erected at Boston in 1733. In a very short time other Lodges made their appearance in many of the more populous centers of the Thirteen Colonies. These American Lodges were governed by colonial Provincial Grand Lodges, local representatives of the central authority back in London, until the American Revolution split not only the colonies but also American Freemasons from the rule of England.

Freemasonry in the United States

In the Revolutionary period, the Provincial Grand Lodges in the colonies quickly established themselves as independent entities, and eventually divided up so that there was one Grand Lodge for each state of the new Union. Some believed that a General Grand Lodge for the whole nation would be preferable to this system, and many even hoped that Bro. George Washington, a Past Master of his own Masonic Lodge in Virginia and the hero of the Revolution, might be secured as first General Grand Master. The idea was deemed unworkable however, for both geographic and political reasons. And the American system of independent Grand Lodges, state by state, was firmly established.

The traditionally African-American Prince Hall Lodges which grew out of the first black Lodge, established during the Revolutionary War by a man named Prince Hall and his group of close friends, followed the same pattern of state-by-state Grand Lodges. In 1847 an experiment by the brethren of Prince Hall Masonry to establish a National Grand Lodge, referred to as the National Compact, ended in dissolution less than two years later. Prince Hall Affiliated (PHA) Lodges have since that time also retained their independent and sovereign Grand Lodges at the state level.

During the early years of the independent American Craft, the Square and Compasses followed the flag wherever it was carried. In countless new communities across the continent, a Lodge was opened as soon as a town was settled. One of the great early centers of this pioneer Masonry was St. Louis, the head of the great Santa Fe Trail. It therefore came about that the earliest successful Lodges to be set up in New Mexico were erected with warrants from the Grand Lodge of Missouri, set in motion by traveling Lodges from that state who arrived to fight in the Mexican-American War. From this beginning the Craft took gradual root in the Territory, and by 1877 the Brethren here were able to organize the Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of New Mexico.

If the reader is a member of one of the Lodges here in New Mexico, he may look out over a panorama of history as broad and as impressive as the land of our great state. Whether a member of the Grand Lodge of New Mexico, AF&AM, or of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge F&AM of New Mexico, the path he is taking represents the unbroken and most-forward footsteps, continuing the path taken by those millions of friends and Brothers who have charted and walked the same path before him.

  • Diamond, Eric. “The Call.” Address, February 9, 2018. As quoted in the “The Masonic Society is 10 Years Old,” Journal of the Masonic Society, Issue 40, Spring 2018.

This short history of Freemasonry is adapted from a booklet which was published in 1932 by the Grand Lodge of New Mexico under the leadership of Grand Master Wilbur L. Elser. The previous year, the Grand Lodge established a working relationship with a prominent Masonic author, H.L. Haywood, who was a member of a Lodge in New York but at the time resided in New Mexico. Haywood was contracted to write pamphlets (called “Service Letters”) on behalf the Grand Lodge of New Mexico. This was the first time that a concerted program of Masonic Education was undertaken statewide in the jurisdiction of New Mexico.

The pamphlet from which the history above was adapted was titled, “The Story of Freemasonry,” and was Service Letter No.7, published in January, 1932. Much of the original is retained here, with some information deleted, other information added, and some language edited to present a slightly more modern character.