Masonic authors ascribe to the society an antiquity which varies more or less with the writer's credulity and ignorance. It is common, if not general, to date its origin from the period of the old Roman Empire; but there are masonic writers who, unsatisfied with such a moderate degree of antiquity, trace the foundation of their system back to the days of the Pharaohs, to the building of Solomon's Temple, of the Tower of Babel, even to the days of the construction of the ark by Noah; while at least one author states that the founder of the brotherhood was Lamech, the sixth in direct descent from Adam, and that from his time the institution has been preserved inviolate and continuous down to the present day.
That the institution of the system now known as freemasonry is in any true sense ancient seems to be negatied on the ground that, were it so, an uninterrupted stream of architectural tradition, communicated to and understood by all the fraternity in every age, must have flowed onward through masonic societies down to the period when the invention of printing rendered tradition a superfluous method of transmitting information. But this was not the case, for we find that the technical secrets of the great builders of old died with them, and that even in comparatively modem times, after the age of ecclesiasticism had passed away, the Gothic architecture which in an earlier day it had called into being had vanished as a mode of architectural expression, and its principles, which by the theory of freemasonry should have been preserved and transmitted by tradition, were no longer known. The truth seems to be, that the masonic craft or guild, like the other crafts, sprang up after the Western nations had been taught to appreciate the luxuries of the East, and their growing wealth enabled them to gratify an improved taste. With the age of revival or renaissance crowds of artificers or craftsmen appeared, and guilds, crafts, or trade societies were formed everywhere.
There were special reasons why masons should form themselves into one great society. They were under the necessity of travelling from place to place in search of employment, and as it was desirable that a master mason should be recognised as such whereever he went without being under the necessity of giving a fresh proof of his skill by way of testimonial in every new locality to which the necessity of finding employment led him, it was found to be convenient to establish a set of signs, words, &c., which, as the knowledge of them was intrusted to master-masons exclusively, had only to be communicated to prove membership of the craft. English F. profess to trace the existence of their craft as far back as the convention of masons held at York in 926, but there is not a shadow of evidence for such antiquity. The full title of the craft is the 'United Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of England,' under the protection of which there are over two thousand lodges. The Scottish F. are content to trace their descent from the builders of the abbeys of Holyrood, Kelso, Melrose, Kilwinning, the Cathedral of Glasgow, and other buildings of the 12th and 13th centuries; but the date of the institution of the first masonic lodge is really unknown.
The Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel), however, has minutes of its transactions dating back into the 16th c., and in this distinction it has an advantage over the most ancient lodges in England and Ireland. The records of the lodge are in six volumes, still in good preservation, and the first of which contains the earliest lodge MSS. extant. The first minute is that of a meeting in 1599. Modern or 'speculative' freemasonry dates from 1646—the earliest date at which non-professional masons are known to have been admitted into an English lodge. It is an invention of Elias Ashmole and some antiquarian friends, and all its quaint symbols—sun, moon, compasses, square, triangle, &c.—owe their symbolic meaning to the same learned source. The initiation of Frederick, Prince of Wales (father of George III.), by Dr. Desaguliers, the learned brother who in 1721 instructed the Lodge of Edinburgh in the secret ceremonial of English masonry, is the first undoubted instance of the admission to lodge membership of a prince of the royal blood. The evidence of this is the diary of one of the persons so admitted. In Scotland, however as early as the latter part of the 16th c. the membership of lodges was not exclusively operative. In 1874 the Prince of Wales was installed Grand Master, and since then numerous fresh lodges have been established throughout the kingdom. Among these may be mentioned the Quatuor Coronati, Eccentric, and Savage Club (for literary men and artists of different kinds), the Gallery (for newspaper writers and reporters), La France (for Frenchmen), Pilgrim (for Germans), Chancery Bar, and many others for members of certain professions, countries, trades, &c., and even for past members of certain schools. There are also two or more lodges in most of our colonies, and in fact Freemasonry is as widespread among the British people as the system of the Secret Society pervades the Chinese, with, however, this great distinction, that the latter is usually a weapon of extortion and social tyranny. There are several organs of English F., viz., the Freemason and the Freemason's Chronicle ; besides the Craftsman of Wales, the Masonic Visitor of Dublin, and the Scottish Freemason of Glasgow, and others.
The Oracle Encyclopaedia, Profusely Illustrated. Containing the most accurate information in the most readable form. Edited by R. W. Egerton Eastwick, B.A. of the Middle Temple. In five volumes, Vol. III. London : George Newnes, Limited, 8, 9, 10, 11, Southampton Street, and Exeter Street, Strand, 1895. Printed by J. S. Virtue and Co., Limited, City Road, London. p. 12.
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