A HISTORY OF FREEMASONRY
Freemasons are members of the oldest and largest fraternity in the world. It has existed as a purely fraternal organization since at least the early 1700’s. The Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania was founded in 1731. Freemasonry grew out of the earlier traditions of working masons. Therefore, Masonry has existed in some form for a VERY long time. For example, obelisks were found in Egypt dating to 1400 BC which some bear masonic symbols, in their appropriate positions, that modern Freemasons would recognize. One of these now resides in Central Park, New York City, NY.
THE ANCIENT BUILDERS
When the practice of agriculture was developed food became more available. Food surpluses required centralized storage and protection and enabled cities to exist. Among the first professions to emerge was that of the builders. Only one material was available that offered lasting permanence - stone. The builder’s skills grew to include planning and managing projects. Thus we have the architects and master builders of the ancient world.
To preserve their livelihood knowledge of the builder's art was "secret". It became important to determine the level of skill a worker possessed if quality was to be maintained. The practice of classifying workers by skill - apprentices, journeymen and master craftsmen evolved and are continued in the building trades even to this day. There also had to be a way to determine who had reached these levels of skill. Hence the use of various “secret” means of recognition.
THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD
The practices developed by the ancient builders survived the dark ages into medieval times and the renaissance. The builders of the great castles and cathedrals were Masons. It was the practice of these Masons to build a shelter for the workers adjacent to the project. The ancient equivalent of the construction trailer. It was here that plans were drawn for upcoming work on a “trestle board” or drafting table. This construction shelter, or LODGE, also served as the place where ceremonies were conducted, where visiting workmen were received and examined as to their credentials, and other business was conducted. The term “Freemason” came into use, likely as the building stone of choice was ungrained sandstone, referred to as “free stone.” Also, unlike peasants who were bound to a particular fiefdom many masons were “free” to travel from one project to another.
“SPECULATIVE” MASONRY IS BORN
It is reasonable to assume that influential patrons and benefactors of working or “operative” Masonic lodges began to be invited into those lodges to share in their fellowship. These non-working or “speculative” masons recognized the symbolic significance of the practices and tools of the working brothers. Exactly when working masons invented much of this symbolism is lost to history. It is clear however, by virtue of a very few preserved writings dating to the late 1300s through the late 1500s that these practices existed and that they are carried on in Masonic lodges to this day. By the late 1600s there were lodges consisting solely of the non-working “speculative” masons. In 1717 the Grand Lodge of England was constituted, based on the consensus of four speculative lodges - WHICH ALL READY EXISTED - in London, England. Explosive growth followed.