The origin of the fraternity has been debated for centuries both by Masonic and profane historians. We are unlikely to establish a definite answer,
but I can sum up what I’ve discovered through my own research, which began before I became a Mason.
The oldest known Masonic documents are known as the York (or “Gothic”) Constitutions, and are dated from the beginning of the High Middle Ages. The
oldest of these, called the Regius Poem, alludes to a Masonic Convention held in York, England circa 880 A.D., presided over by King Athelstan who,
according to the document, “loov’d well masones an’ masonery.” Whether this meeting actually occured or is a product of the unknown author’s
imagination is up for debate, but we know that the York Constitutions were adopted by the official stonemason guild in the early 1300’s.
We also know that in the 17th century, the Lodges in England began “accepting” members who were not professional stonemasons. Included in this group
was the antiquarian, Oxford scholar, and possible Rosicrucian Elias Ashmole. We know from his library collection that Ashmole was interested in
alchemy, Hermeticism, and the occult in general, but whether or not he had a major hand in transforming the Fraternity to what it is today is also up
for debate. His diaries only mention his attending Masonic functions twice, although he of course could have been more active and just didn’t write
It would seem that the major transformation in Freemasonry occured in the 18th century, and this is why the Fraternity became the beacon for the Age
of Enlightenment. Europe was waking up from the slumber of the dark ages, and men of intellect who no longer trusted the Church and traditional
religion began to seek a place to congregate with others of like minds, where they could discuss the new philosophies and sciences that were emerging.
At this time, Masonic Lodges boomed in membership, and practically all the great thinkers, scientists, and artists of the day became Freemasons. It is
almost certain that at this time the rituals of the fraternity were re-written. Originally, they consisted only of instruction in stonemasonry, but
the new rituals instructed initiates into the ideals of the Enlightenment. For example, the Working Tools were (and are) still presented to the
Candidate during his initiation, but they began to take on the characteristics of symbols of enlightenment thought. The Level, a tool used by the
stonemason to make sure his blocks are even, became a symbol of the equality of men. The trowel, used to spread mortar by the stonemason, was given to
the Freemason for the purpose of “spreading brotherly love throughout the entire Brotherhood of Man”, and so on.
In 1717, four London Lodges met together and formed the first Grand Lodge, electing Most Worshipful Brother Anthony Sayer, a London lawyer, the first
Grand Master. This Grand Lodge began chartering Lodges in France and in the American colonies, and the Fraternity spread throughout the western
After the Revolution, each individual state in the USA established its own Grand Lodge. Today in the US, there are 51 Grand Lodges, including one for
the District of Columbia. Eventually, additional degrees were composed in France, which adopted Hermetic, alchemical, and Kabbalistic symbolism. It is
possible that these were added to the various continental Masonic system by Brethren who had been Rosicrucians. Today, the Masonic Rosicrucian Society
is a group of Brethren dedicated to researching Masonic history, philosophy, and symbolism. Our website is www.yorkrite.com...