The masonic connection

Medieval masons differed from workers in most other professions in that many of them travelled from place to place, from job to job, from working on a cathedral in one city to working on a cathedral in another city. Some, of course, stayed still - a magister or maitre might remain in charge of a major construction for most of his life - but many went where the work was. Understandably proud of their skills, if they heard of a beautiful new cathedral being built in some other city, with vacancies for skilled masons, they might well move on, lured by the opportunity. They might learn new skills there; and they could pass on some design feature, or some trick of the trade, which they had learned in their previous positions. So masons, and their knowledge, spread around Europe.

Masons worked together, and they usually slept together in dormitories near their work. Their lodge - sometimes little more than a lean-to against a cathedral wall - was where they kept their tools, ate, met to discuss problems, sheltered from the weather, and sometimes did work which didn't have to be performed in situ, such as stone carvings.

It was inevitable that they would become a close-knit fraternity. When new masons arrived from elsewhere they would be accepted into the group, but they would have to prove in one way or another that they were fit people to be accepted, perhaps by a letter of introduction and recommendation from their previous lodge, or perhaps by knowing the answers to questions asked and answered only within a lodge, or perhaps by a special grip of the hand.

It would, of course, be necessary for such questions and answers, and such recognition signals, to be kept secret.

The term 'Freemason' referred to the type of work and the type of stone; it is usually believed to be a contraction of 'freestone mason', freestone being a soft stone which could be carved. A Freemason, then, was a craftsman with stone, rather than just a hewer of stone. When the new speculative Freemasonry moved to France in the early eighteenth century, the name was translated as franc-macon, and the idea developed that they were in some way free.

John J. Robinson puts forward an inverse derivation of the name Freemason, which might or might not have any validity: French Masons would call their brother Masons 'freer macon' ('brother mason'), which was corrupted by English Masons into Freemason. This seems unlikely, if only because most educated Englishmen of the time would have understood at least basic French.

As mentioned in the previous chapter (p. 85), it is thought that handgrips and passwords developed in Scotland to distinguish true masons from 'cowans', unskilled labourers capable of only basic building work. In the initiation of an Entered Apprentice, the Junior Warden tells the Worshipful Master that the Tyler is outside the door of the Lodge, 'being armed with a drawn sword, to keep off all intruders and Cowans to Masonry'.35

Joseph Fort Newton quotes a delightful Masonic story of how the stonemasons used to deal with cowans:

Legend says that the old-time Masons punished such prying persons, who sought to learn their signs and secrets, by holding them under the eaves until the water ran in at the neck and out at the heels. What penalty was inflicted in dry weather, we are not informed. At any rate, they had contempt for a man who tried to make use of the signs of the craft without knowing its art and ethics.36

This treatment makes far more sense than the blood-curdling oaths which eighteenth-century Freemasons tried to ascribe to the early stonemasons.

Freemasonry abounds with symbolism, and much of it is architectural. For example, the three great types of Greek column, Doric, Ionian and Corinthian, have particular symbolic significance. The reason that Freemasons concentrate on the classic Greek columns rather than on the glories of Gothic architecture has little to do with aesthetic appreciation of different periods of architecture. It is much more likely that, while operative masons built in a wide variety of styles over the centuries, speculative Freemasonry took its architectural symbolism not from operative masons-stoneworkers - but from the seventeenth-century esoteric philosophers; and they took it, largely, from Vitruvius who, in the first century BCE, wrote about Classical Greek architecture rather than about a style which was not to come into existence for another twelve or thirteen centuries.

Where, then, lie the origins of Freemasonry? Although romantically tempting, the hidden Templar theory is probably the least likely. The Rosicrucian theory satisfies many questions, though not that of proven historicity. The most mundane theory, that of the medieval stonemasons, ought perhaps by Occam's Razor to be the most acceptable; but it is the least satisfying.

If there is indeed one origin, it may never be known. More likely, perhaps, is the suggestion that all three theories, in whatever variant forms, along with others not discussed here, have had some part in the formation and development of the Freemasons.


John J. Robinson asks why the Freemasons, assuming they already existed in secret, waited until 1717 before 'coming out'; his answer is that before that date there was still a chance of the Roman Catholic Church coming back to power in Britain, and that Freemasonry and Rome had always been opposed to each other, going right back to the days when the Church wiped out the Cathars and Templars. The Act of Settlement in 1701 ensured that from then on no Catholic could sit on England's throne; the Act of Union in 1707, in creating Great Britain, ensured that no Catholic could sit on Scotland's throne either. The Hanoverian (and hence Protestant) succession was confirmed when the German George I was crowned after Queen Anne's death in 1714. At the end of 1715 the Jacobite Rebellion met with very little support, emphasizing the fact that the days of a Catholic monarchy in Britain were gone for good. The establishment enemy of the Cathars/Templars/Freemasons was no more, in Britain at least; the Freemasons were now safe; they could announce themselves.37

It's an interesting theory, but it falls down on two counts. First, the Roman Catholic Church made no comment of any kind on Freemasonry until the Papal Bull in Eminenti Apostolatus Specula in 1738. Secondly, it fails to take into consideration the fact that Freemasonry spread rapidly - and openly - in France, which could hardly be called a Protestant country. (On the other hand it could be argued that France was building up to its Revolution, in which Freemasons were probably involved; and that their involvement in the Revolution was at least in part in order to reduce the power of the Roman Catholic Church.)

The same background, however, suggests two other possible reasons, the first for the London Freemasons becoming organized in 1717, and the second perhaps accounting for their growth at around this time. Both are suggestions rather than clear-cut fact, but they are offered for consideration.

Whatever its provenance, there is little doubt that Freemasonry was 'born' in Scotland rather than England.38 There were strong romantic links between Scotland, France, Freemasonry, pseudo-chivalry and the Jacobites. The creation of a London-based Grand Lodge with strong links to the Hanoverian establishment wrested Freemasonry away from these romantic (and revolutionary) links, and put it firmly under the control of the new royal and political hierarchy. 'In England, Freemasonry was propagated by the Grand Lodge in London and appears to have been for the most part devoutly Hanoverian,' says one scholarly writer.39 It was perhaps convenient that a number of Masonic historical records were apparently destroyed in a fire before Anderson's Constitutions, the first official Masonic history and rulebook from the London Grand Lodge, was published in 1723.

The second reason is to do with religion. Protestantism may have many things in its favour, but mystery is not one of them. The Church of England was originally simply the Catholic Church without the pope; but the further it removed itself from Rome, the more it divested itself of ritual and symbolism. The Presbyterians were essentially a dour bunch in their worship. Puritanism did not welcome glorious clerical vestments, candles, incense, paintings and statues; it roundly condemned 'idolatry'; it shrank in horror from what it saw as the barbaric heresy of transubstantiation in the mass. Evangelicalism, in contrast with Rome, was rational and straightforward.

All the mystery had gone out of religion. There was something almost magical about a service with a physical impossibility at its heart, conducted in a tongue few of the congregation understood, with robes and ritual and complex ceremonial. Even the most rational of people need mystery in their lives. It was not to be found in Protestant churches. But the semi-comprehensible rituals of Freemasonry could supply that need. To quote Waite, 'Greatest among all the Instituted Mysteries working in the open world are those of the Greek and Latin Rites; but there are Secret Orders which convey their Divine Message under less heavy veils.'40

The USA was settled by Protestants: Puritans of various persuasions, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and Unitarians. Americans took to Freemasonry more than did any other nation. There were Masons among its Founding Fathers, those who drew up the Declaration of Independence, and those who approved the design of the Great Seal.

But what of France, that great Catholic country? Why should Freemasonry take such strong hold there in its early years? One possible reason is that France, above all countries, was at the forefront of the eighteenth-century Age of Reason; those intellectuals who embraced Reason with the mind still needed mystery for their heart - and found it, in Freemasonry.

Even today, when hard-headed businessmen don their aprons and jewels and walk in prescribed steps around their tiled (and tyled) halls, calling out ritual challenges and making ritual responses, at its most basic level Freemasonry supplies an element of play-acting to their citified lives. It can supply much more besides, for those who want to look further.

Masons love their rituals; they love all the traditional aspects of Freemasonry. 

Some have objected to two fairly recent changes, which have been seen by outsiders as being at least in part a response to external criticism: the downplaying of the bloodthirsty oaths (since 1986 initiates have been told of 'the

danger which traditionally would have awaited you …. the physical penalty at one time associated with the obligation of a mason, that of having your throat cut across', etc.), and the dropping of the word Jahbulon. One of their arguments was simply this: what right do outsiders have to criticize the Masons' internal rituals? It's a good question. But also, there is something to be said for archaic, rolling phrases, as in the ringing splendour and the solemn but welcoming atmosphere of a traditional Church of England service of thirty-odd years ago; why change for the sake of change? (For example, the wording of the new Anglican Confessions might be simpler, but they lack the sonorous beauty of 'We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts... But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders',41 and are completely devoid of any sense of moment. Freemasons have good reason to want to keep to their old rituals, however archaic and (to outsiders) outlandish they may be.

To return to both influences on Freemasonry, and the influence of Freemasonry, Martin Short spends pages showing how much Freemasons had infiltrated nineteenth-century society; it was Masons, for example, who 'succeeded in erecting Cleopatra's Needle' on Victoria Embankment in London in 1878; when its twin was raised in New York in 1880, the celebration was 'a brazenly Masonic affair'; while the Washington monument 'was dedicated in another dose of fraternal self-congratulation.'42 It may well be that Freemasons had a particular interest in Egyptology at the time, and were involved in the erection of the monuments; but this was more likely because, first, they simply reflected one of the intellectual fascinations of their age and, second, at that time many men of importance were Freemasons - again, a societal reflection. Like many similar critics, however, Short is confusing cause and effect.

The words spoken in 1992 by Edgar Darling, Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, apply even more strongly to the Masons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: 'Masons are movers and shakers, dreamers and builders, and above all we are free-thinkers.'43

It is clearly the implications of these last words which upset so many Christian critics. There is certainly an overlap between the early Freemason ideology and the Deist beliefs of many intellectuals of the early eighteenth century. Deism is defined by David Christie-Murray thus:

Deism could be either a Christian heresy or a creed with nothing of Christianity in it... All Deists would agree that one God exists who created the universe and the natural laws which control it; that he does not capriciously interfere with human affairs by miracles; that religious observances are for the most part at best symbolic acts and at worst mumbo-jumbo; that man can by exercising his will choose good and reject evil, and that his choice in this life will determine his rewards and punishments in the next.44

Other 'free-thinking' religious philosophies strong in the eighteenth century included Unitarianism - related to Arianism - and Universalism, which also doubted the Trinitarian definition of God, and which believed, like the Brethren of the Free Spirit, that all men will be saved.

Whatever beliefs individual Freemasons today might hold, there is no doubting that from the start Deists and other free-thinkers had a major influence on Freemasonry in Britain, in France, and in North America; among the great luminaries of American history, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were all Deists, although of these three, only Franklin is known to have been a Freemason.

One further point should be made. The Craft is now open to men of all religions, so long as they believe in a Supreme Being. But almost certainly this was not the case in the beginning, according to Hamill.

I have a feeling, from the evidence that I have studied, that Freemasonry initially was a Christian organization - largely because when it was evolving you were either a Christian or you were a heathen. Deism had a part to play in it; the intellectual debates in the eighteenth century on Deism and Theism must have had some form of effect. Or it could be simply that they changed in the early Grand Lodge days, because of this business of wanting to bring people together; there was sufficient intolerance between the branches of Christianity, let alone when you start to look at relations with the Jewish community, and then with the Muslim community, and then as India started to be opened up, with Hinduism and the Sikhs and the Parsees... But it is a very difficult one to trace; it's the whole problem with the early period of Freemasonry, there just isn't sufficient information to work from.

Why should that be, when so much else from that period is fairly well documented? Hamill continues:

It doesn't surprise me, because if you look at the context of the times in which Freemasonry was developing, which the preponderance of Masonic scholars today think is the late 1500s to early 1600s, it was a time of enormous political and religious turmoil. Politics and religion were inextricably linked. If you've got a group of people who are looking to forget politics and religion and find out what people have in common, it's a fairly radical if not revolutionary idea, and certainly a rather dangerous one in the context of the times, so they're going to meet privately, they're not going to keep records of what they're doing; until 1717 there's no central governing body so there's nobody to report to - which is why, certainly for the English evidence, much of the evidence that we have for the pre-1717 period comes from private papers and diaries and odd diary references.

The origins of Freemasonry, then, are clouded in the murk of undocumented history. We can guess at some of the general influences on the early movement, but it is unwise to speculate on direct causative influences, because we simply don't know. One thing we can say is that if Freemasonry was a true child of its times, then it would have reflected the concerns and the fascinations of the intelligent and cultured men who were its early members.





Keith Hunt