History

The history of Freemasonry is an exciting, but highly debated field. Freemasonry is often described as having “emerged” in 1717, when four London lodges joined to form the Grand Lodge of England, but its traditions, symbols and lessons can be traced to pre-modern times. The two most prevalent Masonic origin theories among scholars are related to the Knights Templar, a medieval order established during the Crusades, and operative Masonic guilds of the Middle Ages.

The theory that the Freemasons are direct descendants of the Knights Templar, while highly controversial, has maintained a continuous presence in Masonic scholarship, in no small part due to the popularity of books representing this view at the bookstands. This theory holds that after their suppression by the King of France and the Catholic Church in 1307, the Knights Templar transferred their wealth and power base to Scotland, where the Church could not reach them, and with time and various developments evolved into what we know today as Freemasonry.

The theory that Speculative Freemasonry, as it is known, emerged from the operative Masonic guilds that built the cathedrals of the Middle Ages is the one currently accepted by the majority of scholars. According to this school of thought, the operative Masonic lodges began to accept members of the aristocracy during the Renaissance as accepted, and not operative, masons as civil society developed.

Many of this theory’s previously held assumptions are now being re-evaluated in light of a debate about the process of the so-called “acception” and whether this was an aspect of operative and not speculative Masonry and whether the emergence of Speculative Freemasonry was more a question of evolution or creation.

While it is possible that the truth may contain elements of both theories and others, what is important is that the individuals who were active in shaping Speculative Freemasonry perceived it as an initiatic institution through which men could develop their moral and philosophical potential. Closely investigating the lives of the founders reveals their extensive connections to older secret societies and traditions that no doubt influenced their perception of the role of the Masonic Order.

In general, there are many problems associated with studying the Order’s history, but the secrecy of the initiatic tradition and the difficulty of interpreting available evidence have likely played the largest role in keeping mainstream scholars largely unaware of, and often uninterested in, Freemasonry. Persecution of Freemasonry by totalitarian governments has also made Masonic organizations in many countries seek to maintain a private existence with a minimum amount of exposure.

What should be clear about Masonic origins, however, is that the individuals who were active in shaping Speculative Freemasonry perceived it as an institution in which men could develop their moral and philosophical potential. Closely investigating the lives of the founders reveals their extensive connections to older secret societies and traditions that no doubt influenced their perception of the role of the future Masonic Order.

Speculative Freemasonry has a foundation that consists of more than Protestant Christianity and the meaning and value of the deliberate presence of other traditions in the Craft needs to be taken into account. The courtly philosophical climate of sixteenth and seventeenth century Britain, even where it followed only Puritan or Anglican trends, was strongly influenced by the underground tradition sometimes referred to as Arcadia, which encompassed within its philosophy elements of Gnostic, Neo-Platonic, Hermetic, and Kabalistic thought.

Scottish historian Dr. David Stevenson, in his well-researched book, “The First Freemasons”, maintains that the evidence “indicates that the emergence of Freemasonry involved an act of creation, not just evolution.” By noting the key influence of William Schaw and his interest in Hermeticism and the Art of Memory, Stevenson paints a larger picture of how in the years “around 1600 the legacy of the Middle Ages was remodeled and combined with Renaissance themes and obsessions to create a new movement.”

A close study of the broad range of philosophical literary works produced during this period in Europe reveals a distinct current of symbolism embedded inside seemingly mainstream publications. To those well versed in Masonic symbolism the central themes of the initiatic tradition become quickly evident upon examination of this literature. It was precisely out of this philosophical climate, united through organizations such as the Royal Society, and through extensive correspondence that is now well documented, that the most well-known proponents of seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Freemasonry emerged.

Men like Sir Robert Moray, Elias Ashmole, Jean Desaguliers, James Anderson, and their numerous friends and counterparts from all across Europe. Even if some of their writings regarding the history of the Craft may appear more mythological than factual, in light of the evidence now available, it is clear that they viewed Speculative Masonry as a custodian of the initiatic traditions of the past, charged with their propagation and preservation.

While studying the history of Freemasonry may appear difficult and to require an extensive, in-depth knowledge of some of the most complex and least understood aspects of world history, it is a worthwhile and highly rewarding endeavor. Developing one’s knowledge and understanding of Masonry, even if one small step at a time, is actually developing one’s understanding of human history as a whole and its spiritual nature. The more one learns about the profound influence that Freemasonry has had on the development of world events, the more one begins to appreciate its presence and want to learn more. Every Freemason is a philosopher and student of life.