Origins of Freemasonry

Masonic stone

Like no one has ever written on this topic before. But, as it happens, I’m re-reading Freemasonry and Its Ancient Mystic Rites, by C. W. Leadbeater (1986, 1998). The Old Perv. So now I’m thinking about a familiar subject.

Freemasonry has its colorful origin myths. Those are fun, but the modern sensibility is pretty tame. The Illinois Grand Lodge is typical:

Since the middle of the 19th century, Masonic historians have sought the origins of the movement in a series of similar documents known as the Old Charges, dating from the Regius Poem in about 1425 to the beginning of the 18th century. Alluding to the membership of a lodge of operative masons, they relate a mythologized history of the craft, the duties of its grades, and the manner in which oaths of fidelity are to be taken on joining. The 15th century also sees the first evidence of ceremonial regalia.

There is no clear mechanism by which these local trade organizations became today’s Masonic Lodges, but the earliest rituals and passwords known, from operative lodges around the turn of the 17th–18th centuries, show continuity with the rituals developed in the later 18th century by accepted or speculative Masons, as those members who did not practice the physical craft came to be known. The minutes of the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) No. 1 in Scotland show a continuity from an operative lodge in 1598 to a modern speculative Lodge. It is reputed to be the oldest Masonic Lodge in the world.” (Freemasonry Origins, The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of A.F & A.M of the State of Illinois, visited Feb. 11, 2019. One of the reasons I chose this one is because my dad was a Freemason from Illinois.)

Somewhere in the froth, everyone seems to forget that medieval craft guilds were like this. The guilds were organized in a typically medieval way around corporate identity. They had patron saints, feast days, processions, craft myths and secrets, and of course elected officers and elaborate ceremonial.

With very little effort, you could sit in a modern Masonic lodge and picture what it would look like if Western esotericism had been poured into a guild of, say candlemakers.

The patron would be St. Ambrose. The major feast would be on December 7. There would be a story about Adam making the first candle, no doubt shown by bees. And another about King Solomon and candles as a metaphor for his wisdom. And no doubt some others built around various Bible verses with themes of light and enlightenment. Scholars would find intriguing parallels to authentic medieval usages, and it would all seem very mysterious.

Certainly, as they say, “There is no clear mechanism by which these local trade organizations became today’s Masonic Lodges”, but I think that misses the larger mystery—How did we end up in a modern world where masons were the only craft guild to make the transition from “operative” to “speculative”? There should be dozens.

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