Many of the characters mentioned in the books of Kings and Chronicles in the Hebrew Scriptures are encountered in the context of various degrees of Masonry; they include King Solomon himself, Hiram (King of Tyre, who supplied many of the materials, especially cedar wood, used to construct the temple), Adoniram, and others.
Some of the degrees of the Scottish Rite and other now-defunct degrees date to even earlier periods and other cultures, such as the times of the Israelites' wanderings in the wilderness (Book of Numbers) and the mythologies of the Ancient Egyptians, as well as the immediate postdiluvian period of the sons of Noah.
Although some Masonic brothers may take the ritual to be historical truth, there are no true Masonic authorities who give any credence to an actual organization of Masons in ancient times.
What is known is that there were fraternal organizations of the ancient world, both among the pagans and among the Hebrews. In the former case, the organizations were generally connected with the so-called mysteries, of which the Eleusinian Mysteries were among the best known. The most prominent example of the latter is the group known as the Pharisees.
The Mysteries had rites of initiation, division into lesser and greater mysteries, with trials to be passed before receiving knowledge, and secrets to be concealed. The secrets of these Mysteries were kept well enough that later ages can only guess at what some of them were. It is possible that knowledge of the nature of the Mysteries was in the hands of the founders of the Masonic order and gave form to some of the present-day structure of Masonry.
The Pharisees did not have concealed knowledge, but they did have limitations on membership and addressed one another as "chaver" (kha VER), analogous to the usage of Brother or Companion in today's Freemasonry. New members were also required to take an oath to obey the Commandments and the Law in the presence of three members. The Pharisees are viewed quite differently by adherents to Judaism than by Christians; to the latter the term "Pharisee" is given an extremely negative connotation, nearly synonymous with hypocrite. To the Jew, the Pharisaic structure is essentially that which constitutes Judaism of the past 2000 years; the Pharisees were seen as the group that prevented the religion from becoming extinct with the final destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. A full exploration of the historical circumstances for this divergence of opinion is beyond the scope of this document.
However, some knowledge of Pharisaic practices may have been available to the founders of Masonry; it is also possible that there is only one really effective way to organize a fraternity, and that that way has been persistently and independently discovered repeatedly.
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The Mediaeval Period
The generally accepted origin of Freemasonry, until recently, has been in
the stonemason's guilds of the Middle Ages. The term "free" in Freemason
indicated that the Mason was not bound to the land as a serf, or otherwise
restricted as in villeinage or socage, but was free to travel about the
country, as was necessary for one whose trade might require construction
in many different locations. This was remarkable in an age when almost no
one traveled more than twenty miles from his home during his entire
Masons in the Middle Ages constructed many edifices, but particular attention has always focussed on the great cathedrals built during that period. In order to construct such marvels, it was necessary to have considerable education in the principles of geometry, arithmetic, and engineering, and the guild of stonemasons, including the architects, became one of the few repositories of learning outside the clergy.
As the wave of cathedral building ebbed and the Renaissance began, it is supposed that the Freemasons of the time sought to maintain their organizations by accepting into membership for discussion of the philosophical and other knowledge of the Lodge, certain gentlemen and members of the upper classes who were not actual workers in stone. It is this process of acceptance, along with the original freedom, that the term "Free and Accepted Masons" comes from. These lodges are then supposed to have evolved into the modern, purely philosophical (or "speculative," as the Masonic term has it) Lodges.
However, two other theories of the mediaeval origin of Freemasonry have recently been advanced. One, whose best known advocate was the late John Robinson (author of Born in Blood), suggests that the Masons were descendants of the Knights Templar. The Templars were a powerful and wealthy order of knights during the Crusades who were suppressed by the King of France and the Pope during the early 14th century. Many Templars were put to death, but some survived. Some of the Masonic degrees and orders deal with these events. It is hypothesized that the former Templars preserved their fraternity by disguising it in the form of Freemasonry.
An even more recent theory traces the origin of Masonry not to the stonemason guilds, most of which appear to have simply ceased to exist, rather than converting into speculative lodges, but to persecuted Catholics of the conflict that raged in England during much of the 17th century. Cyril Batham, of the famous Quatuor Coronati Research Lodge in England, suggests that these individuals founded Lodges as a way to preserve their contacts while hiding from the Anglicans during the various Jacobite upheavals. The lengthy hostility of the Catholic Church to Freemasonry would appear to cast doubt upon this thesis, but Batham's reputation is so prodigious that his work deserves serious consideration.
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The Modern Period
The time was ripe for an institution of free-thinkers such as Masonry to spread in the Western world. The Enlightenment was beginning on the Continent, while England itself was still in transition to a more liberal state, having cast off the "divine-right" concept of monarchy with James II only a few years previously; the insurrection of "The 15" was just past, with that of "the 45" yet to come. The organizations of Masonry spread rapidly from England to the Continent, particularly to France, Austria-Hungary, and the Germanic states. Shortly, lodges would be organized in the New World as well.
Masonry in America experienced a considerable setback during the 1820's, when a period of Anti-Masonic sentiment reached such a level as to have a candidate run for President on a platform of opposition to the Lodge. During that period, many Masonic bodies turned in their charters and ceased to exist. The uproar stemmed from a fraudulent claim that Masons had executed a turncoat brother in New York for exposing the secrets of the Lodge. Like the Know-nothings and anti-Catholic fever of a few years later, the fanaticism passed from the scene, but it was some time before Masonic bodies returned to their former prominence.
During the American Civil War, Masons fought on both sides, but there are many tales of battlefield kindness rendered to a Brother found wearing a uniform of the other color, as well as stories of prisoners of war allowed to attend Lodge on parole, or Masonic funerals conducted for a fallen enemy soldier.
Masonry played an important role in the social life of a significant number of Americans throughout the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Most prominent members of society were also members of the Lodge, and often, Lodge events were the lion's share of what constituted entertainment in many small towns. Other fraternal organizations arose to compete with the Masons, such as the Grange, the Elks, the Moose, and the Odd Fellows. Masonic charity supported many through hard times, long before the invention of the social safety net in the 1930s.
Membership in the Masonic fraternity reached a peak in the late 1950s and has been declining since that time. Similar phenomena have affected other fraternal organizations, as well as business clubs, churches, and the like. There are a number of explanations advanced for this decline, such as the rise of mass forms of entertainment available in the home, the greater demands of the work and commuting environment, and so on. No one has a certain answer of how the decline may be reversed, but it seems that the prominent role that the Lodge played in the social structure of many towns and urban areas is not likely to be seen again until the overall social structure of the United States changes back to a more outward orientation. Surveys currently show that many American men are simply unaware of the existence of the Masonic fraternity but might be interested in joining an organization of its description; fifty or more years ago, there was virtually no one unaware of the nature of the Lodge.
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Author: Roger M. Firestone