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THE BEGINNINGS OF FREEMASONRY
From Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania
Freemasonry may be traced by history and tradition back through the centuries to the remotest ages of the World. At one time or other through the years, many theories have been advanced to explain the beginning of the Craft. Some of the early historians of our Fraternity have cited numerous fanciful stories and weird legends in an attempt to reveal a source of Freemasonry almost as far back as the beginning of time.
Somewhat later, Masonic historians seemed to go to the other extreme and were inclined to accept nothing, which could not be undeniably proven. In more recent years, a third group of investigators is willing to suggest that some of the gaps in the irrefutable written testimony might be filled satisfactorily by the proper use of theories based on definite circumstantial evidence.
Man is by nature a social creature, and has a very definite tendency toward mysticism in his make-up. These and other traits doubtless had their influence in the formation of secret and mystical societies at a very early date. The oldest association of men of which we have any knowledge, was the so-called "Men's House" that, in one form or other, existed in practically all tribes of early civilizations. It is still present among most primitive peoples. The building used for this purpose by a tribal group was the largest in the village and was the center of activities. The leaders of the tribe met here, held court, meted out punishments, enacted laws, governed the people and made such decisions as were required for the welfare of the tribe.
Here, sooner or later, each boy became a man and a full member of the tribe by being initiated in the Men's House. Here, he was taught the secret traditions, the religion, and the legends of his people and his duties upon coming to man's estate. Some of the tests were severe and included physical torture and frightening experiences. Almost invariably, the death and subsequent resurrection of the candidate were depicted to impress upon him the necessity of forsaking a life of irresponsible living and assuming a more meaningful one.
Possibly as early as 2,000 B.C., the rites of the Men's House evolved into the Solar Mysteries of the Egyptians. Composed of some of the finest minds of the time, the organization known as the "Greater Mysteries" in Egypt became the repository of the knowledge of the ages.
Plato wrote: "The Mysteries were established by men of great genius who, in the early days, strove to teach purity, to ameliorate the cruelty of the race, to refine its morals and manners, and to restrain society by stronger bonds than those which human laws impose. "
Joseph Fort Newton, renowned Masonic scholar, described the Mysteries as being tolerant of all faiths, forming an all-embracing moral and spiritual fellowship which rose above barriers of nation, race and creed, and satisfying the craving of men for unity, while evoking in them a sense of that eternal mysticism out of which all religions are born.
Many members of the Egyptian Mysteries were natives of other countries who took back to their homelands the knowledge that they had gained in the land of the Pharaohs. In several instances upon their return, they established similar secret societies, such as the Phythagorean Mysteries of Greece, the Mithraic of Persia, the Adoniac of Syria and the Dyonisian Artificers of Phoenicia. These organizations were similar to the Egyptian Mysteries in most respects, except that in the dramas that they portrayed, local or national characters were used instead of those of the Egyptians.
Through evolutionary processes and the passing of time, the Roman Collegia emerged. These were small local groups, not nation-wide as were the, Mysteries, composed of men engaged in a particular trade, craft, art or profession within a specific community. Plutarch mentions nine collegia, such as goldsmiths, dyers, builders, potters and others. No doubt many others were organized as the need arose. The builders, Collegium Faborum or Collegium Artificum, doubtless included members of a number of separate crafts necessary in the erection of permanent structures. The Collegia:
acted on petitions for membership;
Some were quite religious in nature, while others were more socially inclined. Some concentrated on their business activities. Some became politically minded and this, eventually, led to the proscription of the entire collegia system by Emperor Diocletian. However, the Collegia had traveled with the Roman legions in their conquest of most of the then-known world; and in many parts of the Empire the Collegia continued to operate as theretofore.
About the third century, there began a series of incursions of warlike tribes from east of Europe, which finally overran the Roman Empire and destroyed the then-existing civilization. Schools, culture, the fine arts, religion and craftsmanship of all kinds suffered and, to a large extent, disappeared under these onslaughts.
For more than seven hundred years the Dark Ages, as this period is called, continued. Then gradually Europe began to rebuild its civilization. One of the first features of this rebuilding process was the development and training of craftsmen of all kinds. Later, in order to assist in developing the skills of various craftsmen, men in a particular locality, who performed a definite and specific type of work or service, formed organizations called guilds.
There were guilds, which consisted of merchants and tradesmen of various kinds as well as those, which were composed of various types of artisans. It is this latter sort of guild with which we are concerned. Their usual purpose was to regulate the prices and hours of labor, to govern the conduct of their members, collect funds for the relief of the unfortunates among them and especially, to improve the standard of technical skill. Most of the crafts of that period had carefully guarded trade secrets, which members were bound by oath not to reveal to those who did not belong to the guild.
The membership consisted of apprentices, fellows and masters. The apprentices were lads in their teens that were indentured to skilled workmen to be trained in the arts and secrets of the trade.
After a period of years, more commonly seven, if they showed sufficient aptitude and skill in their work and had conducted themselves properly, they were advanced to full membership in the guild and were designated as "fellows." If they later exhibited exceptional ability and skill and possessed administrative ability and qualities of leadership, they became "masters, " which qualified them to superintend the work of other members of the craft or guild.
The guilds were usually organized under the authority of the municipality and were composed of local artisans, most of whom seldom, if ever, went more than a day's journey from home. In the stone building crafts, however, a different condition prevailed. Most of their work consisted of the erection of cathedrals, castles and other more or less public buildings. These were huge structures requiring many years to complete. Local guilds were not equipped in numbers or in skill to perform this type of work. Therefore, the workers in stone, of necessity, became migratory.
The employer, usually the Church or the Crown, would select a Master of the Work who would arrange for the traveling of one or more groups of workmen from a previous job to the site of the new work. There, after making provisions for their homes or barracks, they would construct a workshop, which would be used also for rest, refreshment and relaxation. This building, often a lean-to on the side of the main structure, was called a lodge and the word "Lodge" was also used to designate the body of workmen who used this building.
During these early days, any type of builder was designated as a mason and the craft as a whole was called masonry, which included quarrymen, wallers, hewers, slaters, tilers, rough masons, cutters, plasterers and all others who contributed their share to the erection of the structure upon which they worked.
At the head of the project were those who nowadays would be called architects or engineers. They were often designated as freemasons, although frequently the terms "mason" and "freemason" were used to mean exactly the same thing. These men understood engineering and geometry as the result of long and arduous training. They were proficient in a number of the arts connected with the building trade, such as carving and sculpturing, design and construction, manufacture of stained glass windows, mosaic work and other highly specialized activities.
The origin of the word
"freemason" is uncertain. There are a number of theories, such as:
The migratory character of the masons' activities precluded, to a large extent, they're being members of local guilds. The outstanding exception was the Masons' Company of London founded in 1376 as a regular city guild. A few other cities may have had similar guilds, but presumably, for the most part, control of members of the building industry rested almost exclusively in the lodges, which were established where work was progressing. Some of these existed during the operations and were then abandoned, while other lodges continued after the actual work had ceased.
During the period immediately following the Reformation, the economic situation in England changed. Work on a large scale, such as huge cathedrals and castles, diminished while the building of less pretentious structures increased somewhat. Likewise, the use of the direct-labor system under which the great cathedrals had been reared was gradually supplanted by operations conducted under contract. These altered circumstances had the effect of reducing the membership of lodges and of increasing the number of lodges due to the scattering of masons over more territory. As the years passed many of the small lodges gradually became weaker and inactive, and, by the 1600's, the number of active, more or less permanent lodges, had been greatly reduced.
During the same period, a significant change was taking place in the type of membership in the lodges. During the cathedra I- building era, practically all lodge members were operative masons, engaged in some phase of the construction industry. Beginning about 1600, non-operatives were admitted as members of lodges previously composed entirely of working or trade masons. The earliest of these references to non-operative masons pertains to John Boswell, of the famous Boswell family of Auchinleck, who is recorded as having been present at a meeting of the Lodge of Edinburgh, Mary's Chapel, on June 8, 1600. This marked the beginning of a trend, which eventually led to our present Lodges of "Free and Accepted Masons."
The most noteworthy and significant connecting link of a written nature between present-day Freemasonry and the Operative Masonry of some centuries ago is unquestionably what are called "The Old Charges, sometimes named "Gothic Constitutions." These are handwritten manuscripts differing in age, size, shape and material. They all follow a similar pattern in context. About one hundred of these old manuscripts have been found. No two of them are identical, but all obviously came from a common source. A few others have come to light from time to time and, after being printed or copied, were lost.
These ancient Masonic writings vary in age from an estimated 600 years to about two centuries. The oldest, the Regius Poem, dating from about 1390, is a small manuscript book about 5 inches by 4 inches written on vellum and bound in Russian leather. The next oldest, the Cooke Manuscript of the first half of the fifteenth century, is even smaller. On the other hand, the Lansdowne Manuscript, of the sixteenth century, is written on stout sheets of paper 11 inches by 15 inches in size, while the so-called Grand Lodge Manuscript, of about 1583, is a roll of parchment 9 feet long and 5 inches wide.
A number of theories have been advanced concerning the reasons for these Old Charges having been copied. In 1388 the English Parliament enacted "The Writ of Returns" which provided that every organized society, fraternity, guild or club was compelled to submit a written statement indicating its origin, purpose, rules, regulations, names of officers and other pertinent data. It is possible that The Old Charges came into existence as the result of the requirements laid down in this law. It is also quite possible that The Old Charges were the combined constitution, by-laws and ritual of the oldest Masonic operative organizations and continued to be used as such until, and even after, the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. It is known, for example, that two copies, the Alnwich of 1701 and the Thistle of 1756, are included in the minute books of their respective Lodges. Both of these copies were signed by the Lodge Members, thereby signifying their acquiescence to their contents.
The supposition is that
The Old Charges were somewhat equivalent to the present-day Book of
Constitutions, called the "Ahiman Rezon" in Pennsylvania.
The oldest of The Old Charges, the Regius Poem mentioned above, is different from all the others in that it is written in a sort of rude verse or doggerel. It probably had a common ancestor with the other copies that are extant. It is quite possible that in making a copy five or six centuries ago, some poetically- inclined monk used his talents in transcribing the thoughts in rhyme rather than in the prose of the original. The Regius version has less of the traditional or legendary background of Masonry than the others, and refers to a somewhat greater extent to trade usages and customs. It also includes some rules of etiquette and conduct with the usual Masonic injunctions.
Except for the Regius Poem, all the Gothic Constitutions follow an almost identical pattern. The minor differences are probably the result of errors in copying or occasionally an intentional change which the copyist felt would improve the document. By means of these changes, whether due to carelessness, ignorance, whim or deliberate design, all known copies of The Old Charges, about 100 in number, have been classified to show the process by which they have reached their present form from an unknown original.
Of the approximately 100 existing copies of The Old Charges only three are located in the United States. Two are in Boston and one in Philadelphia. The latter is the so-called Carmick Manuscript of 1727 and is owned by the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
Originally, this manuscript was thought to be the Constitution of St. John's Lodge of Philadelphia, the earliest known Lodge in America of which any records are extant. It was published as such, but the manuscript could have been used for any St. John's Lodge of which there were many in the early days of the Fraternity. The identity of Thomas Carmick is unknown and there is nothing to associate him with Philadelphia or Pennsylvania.
The Carmick Manuscript is typical of all of "The Old Charges, " and since it is the prized possession of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania it will be outlined to indicate the contents of all of these interesting old manuscripts.
The Carmick Manuscript, in common with the others, starts with a Trinitarian invocation as follows: "Draw near unto me, ye unlearned and dwell in the house of Learning and the Almighty God of heaven, with wisdom of his Glorious Son through The Grace and goodness of the Holly Ghost, that be Three Persons and one God, be with us at our Beginning and he Will Give us Grace here hopeing wee may Come to his Etternal Kingdom that shall never have an End: Amen."
The imaginary history begins by citing and defining the seven liberal sciences - Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy - with the statement that all are founded upon Geometry. Lamech's four children are then named Jabal, Jubal, Tubal Cain and Namah, who first developed all crafts and sciences.
It was believed that the world would be swept by fire or flood. Hence to preserve all knowledge for future generations it was written on two pillars, one which could not burn, the other which would not be damaged by water. Hermes discovered one of these pillars after the flood.
The first Craft of Masonry was founded at the building of the Tower of Babylon. Then through the teaching of Euclid, knowledge of Geometry (Masonry) came to the Egyptians and afterwards to Judea where Solomon built his Temple with aid of the Tyrians. Each of these leaders gave Masons a charge indicating that they must be loyal and faithful, loving and true.
Eventually, Masonry came to France under Charles Martel, thence to England through St. Alban. Later King Athelstan became the patron of Masonry and granted a charter to Prince Edwin with a commission to hold an assembly of Masons once a year, the first being convened at York in 926.
Prince Edwin ordered all the charges of his predecessors to be brought together and examined. Prince Edwin then confirmed the previous charges and ordered that a book be made which would tell how the sciences were found, and in which all the charges would be recorded. It was ordained that, at the making of a Mason, the book should be read to him. He would then take an oath with his hand on the book, promising to comply with the charges and never divulge any of the secrets entrusted to him.
The following is a summary of The Old Charges with the wording and spelling changed to comply with modern practice:
1. You shall be true
to man, to God and to Holy Church, and to countenance no heresy in the
Then follows the "Apprentice's Charge" which is quite similar in its obligations to the terms of indenture used in the early days, whereby persons were bound to learn -any trade or occupation. The Apprentice's Charge does not appear in the majority of The Old Charges.
As in all the other manuscripts, the Carmick Manuscript closes with an admonition to keep the charges prescribed by Prince Edwin, ending with a quotation from Corinthians 1:10. To this Thomas Carmick added: "Whatsomever Meason or fellow Craft that shall meet with this books I Charge him upon the tenor of his Oath to take great Care of it and Retturn it to me."
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Last modified: March 22, 2014