Freemasonry History And Origin
No one knows with 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. The oldest document that makes reference to Masons is the Regius Poem, printed about 1390, which was a copy of an earlier work. In 1717, four lodges in London formed the first Grand Lodge of England, and records from that point on are more complete. 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 and Joseph Warren in Massachusetts. Other well-known Masons involved with the founding of America included John Hancock, John Sullivan, Lafayette, Baron Fredrick von Stuben, Nathanael Greene, and John Paul Jones. Another Mason, Chief Justice John Marshall, shaped the Supreme Court into its present form. Over the centuries, Freemasonry has 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 choose, the formation of democratic governments, and the importance of public education. Masons supported the first public schools in both Europe and America. 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.
Source: Masonic Service Association
Contrary to popular opinion, the earliest masonic lodges originated in Scotland, not England. The architect of masonic lodges as we know them today was William Schaw, who was appointed Master of Works to King James VI of Scotland in 1583. As Master of Works, Schaw was effectively the primary employer of all stonemasons, wrights (carpenters) and other craftsmen in Scotland and he oversaw all construction on behalf of the king. On December 28, 1598, Schaw issued the first of two statutes that came to be known as the Schaw Statues, the first major expansion of the Old Charges which had guided earlier stonemasons. The First Schaw Statutes prescribed the organization and conduct of lodges, including election procedures, obedience to masters, wardens and deacons, and how apprentices were entered into lodges. The Second Schaw Statutes, which were issued exactly a year later, expanded on the first and individually addressed the various lodges in Scotland, to include their precedence and hierarchy. Although the Schaw Statutes are the first true attempt at regulating masons lodges, it is difficult “to distinguish innovations by Schaw from confirmations by him of existing practices.” Schaw had hoped to receive royal authority for his Statutes, but he died in 1602, two and a half years after the issue of the Second Schaw Statutes. A significant point about the Schaw Statutes and their prescribed organization and procedures for Scottish lodges is that they preceded comparable events in England. They also formed the foundation for the subsequent expansion of masons lodges and their procedures. Scottish lodges were the first to allow other trades to join masons lodges, notably wrights. Although a few non-operatives and gentry were admitted to early Scottish lodges, the lodges were very much the bastion of the stonemason craft. Also, as the 17th century unfolded, references to the Mason Word appeared, along with the five points of fellowship and other signs of recognition. Publication of catechisms in the 1690s described the ritual of entering apprentices and fellow crafts, much as we do today. Although these catechisms certainly predate their publication and probably existed in Schaw’s time, their publication precipitated the subsequent large increase of non-operative masons. By 1710, there are references to 25 lodges in Scotland. While masonic lodges originated in Scotland, English lodges soon followed and were noticeably different in three significant areas. First, their membership consisted primarily of non-operative masons. Secondly, a Grand Lodge was first established in England in 1717, which allowed for the oversight, uniformity, and expansion of lodges within its jurisdiction. Thirdly, Scottish lodges were more permanent and met on a regular basis, while English lodges until the 17th century only met when called. This point is brought home by the fact that twenty of the original Scottish lodges continue in operation today, while no English lodges predating 1717 exist. But it was English Freemasonry, with its emphasis on non-operative membership, which flourished in the 18th century and spread throughout the British Empire, the American Colonies, and the rest of the world.
Source: Written by Brother John Skillman for Masonic education at Hillsborough Lodge #25 F&AM on February 8, 2011. It was summarized from The Origins of Freemasonry by David Stevenson, Cambridge University Press, 1988.