The origins of Freemasonry are veiled in mystery. Some feel it dates back to the Roman Empire. Others say it had its beginning in ancient Egypt. While another group takes the allegories literally and believe it began with the building of the First Temple by King Solomon. Others find that the Knights Templar were the backbone of Freemasonry after escaping from mainland Europe to Scotland and England.
There are almost as many theories as there are Freemasons, and we will probably never know the real origins of the world’s oldest and largest fraternity. We do know that the first Grand Lodge was formed in London in 1717. Its successor, the United Grand Lodge of England, survives today having sired other Grand Lodges throughout the world.
The name Freemason appeared as early as the thirteenth century when master builders traveled throughout Europe erecting the cathedrals which grace most cities. They were called Freemasons because they were not subject to servitude or taxes, and free to travel about when most Europeans were not allowed those privileges.
Freemasons organized lodges so their secrets might be taught and preserved. They were quite cautious in who they allowed into their lodges. An applicant had to be of good reputation, have no physical impairment, recommended by members of the craft, and be neither too old nor too young to learn and perform the tasks assigned.
The applicant was investigated and if found to be suitable for admission, he was elected as an apprentice. The new apprentice worked under the supervision of master masons for seven years which served to prove his worth. After his seven-year apprenticeship he submitted his “master’s piece” to the master and wardens of the lodge for their inspection and judgment. If the judgment was favorable, he became a fellow-of-the-craft learning more, theretofore unrevealed knowledge.
As Europe changed over the years, fewer cathedrals were built, and the lodges faced a drop in the number of applications for apprenticeship. Meanwhile, many men had become interested in the Freemasons, greatly admiring their moral rectitude and their steadiness of purpose. Eventually the lodges accepted others who were not operative Masons. It was this acceptance of non-operative Masons into the order that led to the present day title of Free and Accepted Masons, or Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons.
These new non-operative members were taught the same old rituals of conferring degrees and they were obligated in the same manner as were their operative brothers. The non operative members came to be known as speculative masons and their ranks grew steadily while those of the operative members continued to shrink. In time the membership of the Freemasons came to be almost totally speculative and remains so today.
Freemasonry continues to teach its members through the use of allegory and symbols. Freemasonry has changed over the centuries, yet it can be said that the more it changes, the more it remains the same.