These quotations capture the essence of the issue surrounding the
origin of Freemasonry. For the most part, it is a subject that has lacked
intellectual interest to most non-Masonic scholars. From a historical and
sociological standpoint, the academic and scholarly communities have
generally ignored the Masonic movement. This attitude is slowly changing
as evidenced by research conducted and reported by non-Masonic scholars
during the last ten to twenty years.
Many Freemasons, including some respected scholars, have conducted
research into our origins. Many times, however, that research has been
called into question because of their Masonic membership while Masons have
been too quick to accept their findings when they presented Freemasonry in
flattering terms. Frances Yates has said, "The origin of Freemasonry is
one of the most debated, and debatable, subjects in the whole realm of
historical inquiry." This is true for the Mason and the non-Mason, as well
as the informed and the uninformed. It is a topic that kindles the
passions of anyone who has a passing interest in Freemasonry.
The following paragraph taken from a March 1991 article attributed to
the Masonic Relief Association demonstrates the issue.
On opening the
tomb of King Tutankhamen, Dr. O.J. Kinnamon, who has spent 20 years in
work on the tombs of ancient Egypt, said: "Masonry did not have its
beginning in Europe in the 17th century. I do not know where or when the
principles of Masonry had their beginnings, but years of archeological
study in Egypt show it came there in the days of the Pharaohs, maybe from
India. There are signs that it came into India from the lost continent of
Mu." Dr. Kinnamon then described the unwrapping of the king's mummy and
stated that after layers of fabric had been unwound from its midsection, a
Masonic Apron was found in its proper place.
It is absurd that someone is propagating a myth regarding some ancient
origin for Freemasonry. However, during the last 300 years numerous
theories have been proposed regarding the origin of Masonry. Many of these
theories have been offered to support some preconceived religious or
political ideal without substantiating historical evidence. Others have
been proposed in an effort to invest Freemasonry with qualities and
nobility far in excess of the simple truth.
For a variety of reasons, Masons have at various times and places been
drawn to a series of romantic notions about the origin of Freemasonry and
have, without evidence, held them to be true. According to Allen Roberts,
at least twenty-four basic theories concerning the origins of Freemasonry
have been proposed at some time. These theories tend to work around
several basic themes.
Variations on the basic premises of these theories have lead to a great
number of speculations regarding the origins of the Masonic fraternity.
These theories can be grouped into four basic categories: Ancient Origin,
Chivalric Origin, "Ex Nihilo" or Out of Nothing Origin, and Operative
Origin. Each of these categories supports a number of theories, some of
which are conflicting.
Ancient Origin Theories
category includes all sorts of theories, which attempt to create a link
between Freemasonry and some ancient period, ancient body, or ancient
philosophy. The link is attempted by pointing out similarities between
Freemasonry and the use of philosophy and symbolism by the ancient order.
While it is most interesting to consider the possibilities of being
related to ancient Egyptian mystery schools, the Essenes, the
Pythagoreans, the Roman Collegia, or the builders of King Solomon's
Temple, there is absolutely no evidence to support, much less
substantiate, any claims to an origin of antiquity.
The Bible records certain details of the building of the Jewish Temple
in Jerusalem and the roles played by King Solomon and Hiram. Since the
Masonic ritual includes portions of this Biblical event, many jump to the
erroneous conclusion that Freemasonry must be directly related to these
personages. In fact, the modern Masonic ritual borrows so heavily from
historical facts and events many, without proper Masonic education and
instruction, are led to believe the Masonic fraternity is descended from
Most of the ancient theories are based on arguments of this type. That
is, because modern Freemasonry has some similarity to an ancient
organization in mode of initiation, symbolism, or philosophy, it must be
directly related to that organization. It is much more likely that
Freemasonry has borrowed and absorbed a great deal from these ancient
orders as well as other social influences to create the Freemasonry of
today. No evidence has ever been advanced which specifically connects
Masonry to any ancient origin.
Chivalric Origin Theories
Chivalric theories on the origin of Freemasonry attempt to develop a link
to some medieval order of knights. This category includes theories linking
Freemasonry to religious cells or inner sancta that operated in secrecy.
The primary theories revolve around the Knights of Malta or the Poor
Knights of Christ and the Temple of Jerusalem. Most know this latter group
as the Knights Templar while the Knights of Malta were their enemies.
These theories did not begin to originate until twenty years after the
formation of the Grand Lodge of England. Then in March 1737 in Paris,
Michael Andrew Ramsay delivered what has become known as Ramsay's Oration.
Though there is speculation on whether this oration was actually
delivered, there is no doubt the Oration was written, as two versions
In the Oration, Ramsay traces the origin of Freemasonry to the time of
the Crusades in the Holy Lands where the crusaders formed a fraternity
that became Masonry. According Ramsay, these crusaders and their
fraternity formed an alliance with the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem,
now known as the Knights of Malta. The Knights of Malta existed then, and
now, and they have vehemently denied any connection between their order
and Freemasonry. Due to this fact, most theories center on Freemasonry's
descent from the Knights Templar who are long defunct and can offer no
The theories speculate that many of the crusaders, when they returned
to Europe from the Holy Wars, maintained their ties by forming small
groups or lodges. These organizations of Knights Templar went into hiding
or secrecy in 1307 when the Catholic Church began to persecute them into
extinction. These underground cells began to resurface around 1640 as
Freemasonry, according to these theories. However, there is no evidence
the Knights of Templar, or any other group, went into hiding, much less
stayed together as a secret society for three hundred years to emerge as
"Ex Nihilo" or Out of Nothing
Theories that belong to this category are just
beginning to emerge in the literature. They essentially assert Freemasonry
is descended from no other organization and early lodges spontaneously
sprang into being from the association of learned gentlemen at the end of
the sixteenth century.
John Hamill maintains Freemasonry developed from the dining clubs that
were popular in London during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth
century. How or why these clubs moved from social gatherings to a
fraternal organization with elaborate rituals, secret words and modes of
recognition is particularly intriguing.
While Hamill's theory has some interest, as London Freemasonry appears
to have grown out of the public houses and not the guild halls, it also
seems to ignore much of the evidence outside of London proper regarding
the development of Freemasonry in Scotland, England and France. It is in
the offhand dismissal of this evidence which make these theories suspect.
Operative Origin Theories
category of theories proposes that Freemasonry originated out of the
operative stonemasons of the Middle Ages. These theories are often
referred to as operative origin or transitional theories. That is, modern
Masonry developed or evolved from actual, operative groups of working
masons into lodges or groups of speculative Freemasons.
This has been the traditional view on the origins of Freemasonry ever
since Anderson's Constitutions of 1723. Anderson, however, implied that
Freemasonry somehow developed from the English stonemasons of the Middle
Ages, yet they hardly existed prior to 1717. However, many researchers
have evidence from Scotland, France, and England that supports the
transitional theory of Freemasonry descending from operative lodges of
The general opinion is that as the great building era began to come to
a close in the late seventeenth century, the guilds of working masons
began to experience a decline in membership. These members supported the
guilds through fees they paid. When new men joined the guild, they were
entered as apprentices to a master craftsman, which required that they pay
a fee, and, in many cases, furnish a banquet for the guild members. After
the apprentice had learned the trade and demonstrated his mastery of the
building arts, he was once again required to pay a fee and host a banquet
as his name was entered on the roles as a master craftsman. With declining
work and membership, the guilds began to wane. In an effort to stave off
extinction, they accepted non-working members who would pay fees for the
privilege of being a member. Slowly these non-working members, or
speculatives, took over the lodges and Freemasonry was born.
These theories generally have the best supporting documentation, though
there seems to be considerable disagreement on exactly where Freemasonry
began or why these non-working members wanted to associate with actual
masons or builders. While the operative origin of Freemasonry will
continue to come under attack from many sides and for many reasons, it is
still the best theory based on the historical evidence.
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