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From Grand Lodge of Texas

The evidence relating to the emergence of modern freemasonry is complex, confusing, and often fragmentary. David Stevenson, 1988.

[Masonic history is] a department of history which is not only obscure and highly controversial, but by ill luck the happiest of all hunting grounds for the light-headed, the fanciful, the altogether unscholarly and the lunatic fringe of the British Museum Reading Room. Knoop and Jones, 1947.

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

This 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 these happenings.

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

The 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 exist.

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 objection.

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 Freemasonry.

"Ex Nihilo" or Out of Nothing Origin Theories

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

The last 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 stonemasons.

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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Last modified: March 22, 2014