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How Old is Freemasonry?

The modern incarnation of Freemasonry dates to around 1717, but, was that truly the beginning of the “ancient” and honorable fraternity?

The history of modern Freemasonry is fairly understood, going back to roughly the 1700’s. Beyond that point in time, information starts to become less available. Their are some documents and notable figures prior to that point in time, such as the Regius/Halliwell poem, and notables like Elias Ashmole, but no certifiable records exist to demonstrate organized activity as we have today.

One of the virtues of Freemasonry is that its study and practice allow members to explore this topic, and at times travel outside the bounds of connections typically explored in mainstream history. Some Masonic historians have attempted to draw connections to the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucian’s, Jewish Kabbalah traditions, Hermetica, Alchemy, Christian Mysticism, and to much further back to the precursor Essenes at the time of Jesus. These explorations have been considered in both the past and present Masonic scholarship to varying degrees of acceptance, but many points of contention remain.

In present day, Freemasonry has little changed in the preced-ing 200 years since the founding of the United Grand Lodge of England, and is modeled in a system that was likely little changed for the 150 years prior to that. It is believed that the working aspects of Freemasonry, the form and function of the lodge, comes from the stone working guilds of the European Renaissance and middle ages which, over time as that trade profession became less specialized, attracted new members of non practicing “speculative masons.”

From that shift, the present day fraternity moved from an “operative” guild to a “speculative” one in that the function of the lodge turned to the allegorical and symbolic meanings of the stone masons and less about the physical operation. These changes have evolved to shape the look and feel of modern lodge operation today.

More in the series:

What is Freemasonry? – Part 1: What is a Freemason?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 2: How Old is Freemasonry?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 3: Why are Freemason’s Secretive?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 4: Is Freemasonry a Patriotic Body?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 5: Why Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 6: Why is Freemasonry a Ritual Practice?
What is Freemasonry? – Part 7: Why Does Freemasonry Use Odd Symbols?

From the ebook: What is Freemasonry?

 

Greg Stewart: A devoted student of the Western Mystery Traditions, Greg is a firm believer in the Masonic connections to the Hermetic traditions of antiquity, its evolution through the ages and into its present configuration as the antecedent to all contemporary esoteric and occult traditions. He is a self-called searcher for that which was lost, a Hermetic Hermit and a believer in “that which is above is so too below.” Read more about Greg Stewart.

View Comments (3)

  • Nowaday the genesis of modern freemasonry is NOT that of a slowly transition from operative to speculative. To my opinion that opinion of Knoop, Hamer & Jones has long been abandoned bij modern scolars. See e.g. John Hamill's introduction in his (and R.A. Gilberts) "World Freemasonry, an illustrated history"!

  • Not a mistery that it saw the light at Salomon Temple's time. Masonry its the core of Jewish teachings and Tradition. The fact that that there is not a known historical lineage of it .doesn't mean inexistence.
    Pharisees play their part in the continuation and records speak of Roman legion leaders bringing the craft to England.

  • Everyone seems to completely forget and dismiss the London Company of Freemasons which had its genesis about 1356, and continues still to this day.

    When I mention the Accepted Masons of the 1600s, I am often dismissed by others who say, "But that wasn't 'organized' Freemasonry." My response is, "So what? Who said that Freemasonry had to be 'organized' to be considered 'Freemasonry'?" In fact, Freemasonry prior to about 1721 WAS organized, or at least it was as organized as its members wanted it to be. It was not as organized as it is today, and perhaps that is a pity.

    The London craft guild, with its beginnings about 1356, always had an esoteric spiritual tradition within it, mainly due to the close association the Masons of that era had with the monasteries, who were their principle employers. But, after the beginning of the Reformation, the Protestant Reformers objected to the old spirituality of the Masons, as well as the highly decorative religious stonework of the Masons. With the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII about 1535, this esoteric, spiritual tradition continued secretly within the guild until the end of the Tudor dynasty in 1603 and later into the rest of the 17th century.

    The organized center of this tradition was known as "The Acception," which recruited into its membership learned men who were knowledgeable about the proportions of ecclesiastical architecture and its relationship to other liberal arts and sciences like music, astronomy, and of course, geometry. These men were typically of the old Roman Catholic faith, and were not supportive of the austere and puritanical attitudes of the Protestant majority. They helped to keep the flame alive during the Masonic "dark ages" of the latter half of the 1500s. With the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, and the accession of King James VI of Scotland as King James I of England, the fortunes of the Masons and the London guild began to change for the better.

    Surviving records that show the practice of "accepting" Masons, including men who were non-operatives and men who were highly-skilled Freemasons, can be found in one of the old account books of the London Company of Masons, which begins in July 1619. Older account books have been lost, along with the earlier minutes of the Company. The practice of accepting worthy men into "The Acception," the exclusive and secretive cell held closely within the Masons' guild of the 16th century, was practiced all over the English countryside during the 17th century, and records of that are found in writings of men like Dr. Robert Plot in his "Natural History of Warwickshire." Elias Ashmole was one of these Accepted Masons of the mid-1600s.

    In 1682, Ashmole recorded a visit to The Acception at Masons' Hall in London, where a half dozen men were initiated into The Acception, and most of them were highly-skilled Freemasons, men of prominence, who held fairly high positions within the London guild. It was during the short reign of King James II, that it was thought best for The Acception to stop meeting at Masons' Hall, the headquarters of the London Guild. James II did not favor secret societies. And so, members of The Acception started meeting in smaller cells around the city, usually in taverns and alehouses. A meeting of Accepted Masons was called a "lodge." We know that there was a group of Masons holding a lodge at the Goose & Gridiron Alehouse as early as 1691, just a few years after the reign of James II.

    This was the Freemasonry of the 17th century. It was just as real and legitimate as the Freemasonry after the Grand Lodge Era. In fact, I would argue that it was more legitimate than the Freemasonry created by Desaguliers, Payne and others around the year 1721.

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