While some trace Masonry back to Solomon, the Masonry of today had its beginnings in the Age of Enlightenment in England. It is an outgrowth of the old craft guilds or lodges of stone Masons that were in existence during the great cathedral building period of the middle ages.
Some such lodges were formed for just one building. Others, in the cities were permanent because members were at work most of the time. The lodge and the craft, as a whole, had a system for teaching young men the vocation. The first step as a mason was an apprenticeship of seven years. A man was then an entered apprentice. In another seven years he attained the status of fellow of craft. The man in charge of the building project was called a Master Mason. These are the same names as those applied to the three basic degrees in modern Masonry except the “of” is deleted in “fellow of craft.”
In the lodge or guild, rules were some of the guides from which Masonry today gets its moral teachings. There were, of course, secrets of the craft to make sure that only those in the guild did a certain kind of work, a sort of early-day patent or copyright.
With the Reformation, practicing masonry took a sharp decline. It appears that in this period, separate lodges were founded for (and perhaps by) men who were not Masons by trade. In Edinburgh, Scotland, for example, there are records of admission of honorary members as early as 1600. By 1670, the Aberdeen lodge was composed of four noblemen, three “gentlemen,” 15 tradesmen other than masons and only 10 working masons. Then a real landmark came with the formation in London of a parallel body called “the “Acception” in about 1619. The members were known as “accepted masons” or “gentleman masons,” and they did not belong to the company proper, though they paid double the regular initiation fee.
Secrecy inherent in the guild attracted some. Many thought they would learn ancient mysteries, since some attributed the beginnings of Masonry back to the days of King Solomon. Also, there was a growing interest in antiquity and architecture.
By 1717, Speculative Masonry, or the fraternity as it substantially is today, had begun. The first Grand Lodge of Masons was formed that year in London. It was during this time that the symbolism behind the working tools of stonemasons was developed.
The first or Entered Apprentice degree in Masonry thus came to be symbolic of rebirth. The candidate receives light while dressed in a simple uniform, divested of metal and blindfolded. The spotless uniform denotes the candidate’s innocence. Being divested of metal followed the rule of Solomon’s temple but also showed that all were born without worldly possessions, and that when we die we cannot take these things with us.
The first thing a man does on entering the lodge is to kneel at prayer. He is next asked in whom he places his trust, and he then takes an obligation. By having his blindfold removed, he symbolically receives light.
The first three symbols of the lodge are brought to his attention. These are the Holy Bible, square and compass. The altar in the center of the lodge signifies the emphasis on homage to God, the Great Architect of the Universe. Each officer wears a “jewel” representing his office. The lodge master wears the square.
The entered apprentice is presented with a white apron, the Mason symbol of innocence. He is also given the working tools of an entered apprentice, which are the 24-inch gauge and common gavel. The first is emblematic of the 24 hours of the day and also teaches division of the day for eight hours of usual vocations, eight hours for the service of God and eight hours for refreshment and sleep. The gavel also has symbolic lessons: divesting our minds and consciences of the vices and impurities of life.
The second degree, the Fellow Craft, has working tools of the plumb, square and level. The plumb teaches us to walk uprightly before God and man, squaring our actions by the square of virtue, ever remembering that we are traveling on the level of time and that all mortals are equal before God.
The last or Master Mason degree teaches the practical application of the first two. New symbols are the sprig of acacia, denoting immortality, the all-seeing eye of God and many others. The degree also dramatizes an important Masonic belief: immortality. This is explained by the death of Hiram, who died rather than give up the secrets of Masonry.
The first three degrees form the Blue Lodge, or the basis for Masonry. Attached are two rites (York and Scottish), which claim higher degrees, but in reality are but two appendage organizations. After attaining the highest degree in either of these rites, a man may go into the Shrine.
Masonry and organized religion have been at odds at times. Masonry is not a religion. It does not require any religious belief other than a belief in a supreme being.
Masonry in the United States had its beginning in the early 1700’s. Henry Prince in Boston organized the first lodge in 1733. Benjamin Franklin headed the movement in Pennsylvania and brought its lodges into uniformity with England. Growth has been steady, and there are more than four million Masons in the United States today.