No one knows with certainty how or when the Masonic Fraternity was formed. A widely accepted theory among Masonic scholars is that it arose from the stonemasons’ guilds during the Middle Ages. The language and symbols used in the fraternity’s rituals come from this era. The oldest document that makes reference to Masons is the Regius Poem, printed about 1390, which was a copy of an earlier work. In 1717, four lodges in London formed the first Grand Lodge of England, and records from that point on are more complete.
Within thirty years, the fraternity had spread throughout Europe and the American Colonies. Freemasonry became very popular in colonial America. George Washington was a Mason, Benjamin Franklin served as the head of the fraternity in Pennsylvania, as did Paul Revere and Joseph Warren in Massachusetts. Other well-known Masons involved with the founding of America included John Hancock, John Sullivan, Lafayette, Baron Fredrick von Stuben, Nathanael Greene, and John Paul Jones. Another Mason, Chief Justice John Marshall, shaped the Supreme Court into its present form.
Over the centuries, Freemasonry has developed into a worldwide fraternity emphasizing personal study, self-improvement, and social betterment via individual involvement and philanthropy. During the late 1700s it was one of the organizations most responsible for spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment: the dignity of man and the liberty of the individual, the right of all persons to worship as they choose, the formation of democratic governments, and the importance of public education. Masons supported the first public schools in both Europe and America.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, Freemasonry grew dramatically. At that time, the government had provided no social "safety net". The Masonic tradition of founding orphanages, homes for widows, and homes for the aged provided the only security many people knew.
Today in North America, the Masonic Fraternity continues this tradition by giving almost $1.5 million each day to causes that range from operating children’s hospitals, providing treatment for childhood language disorders, treating eye diseases, funding medical research, contributing to local community service, and providing care to Masons and their families at Masonic Homes.
The four million Masons worldwide continue to help men and women face the problems of the 21st century by building bridges of brotherhood and instilling in the hearts of men ideals for a better tomorrow.
Source: Masonic Service Association
Contrary to popular opinion, the earliest masonic lodges originated in Scotland, not England. The architect of masonic lodges as we know them today was William Schaw, who was appointed Master of Works to King James VI of Scotland in 1583. As Master of Works, Schaw was effectively the primary employer of all stonemasons, wrights (carpenters) and other craftsmen in Scotland and he oversaw all construction on behalf of the king. On December 28, 1598, Schaw issued the first of two statutes that came to be known as the Schaw Statues, the first major expansion of the Old Charges which had guided earlier stonemasons. The First Schaw Statutes prescribed the organization and conduct of lodges, including election procedures, obedience to masters, wardens and deacons, and how apprentices were entered into lodges. The Second Schaw Statutes, which were issued exactly a year later, expanded on the first and individually addressed the various lodges in Scotland, to include their precedence and hierarchy. Although the Schaw Statutes are the first true attempt at regulating masons lodges, it is difficult “to distinguish innovations by Schaw from confirmations by him of existing practices.” Schaw had hoped to receive royal authority for his Statutes, but he died in 1602, two and a half years after the issue of the Second Schaw Statutes.
A significant point about the Schaw Statutes and their prescribed organization and procedures for Scottish lodges is that they preceded comparable events in England. They also formed the foundation for the subsequent expansion of masons lodges and their procedures. Scottish lodges were the first to allow other trades to join masons lodges, notably wrights. Although a few non-operatives and gentry were admitted to early Scottish lodges, the lodges were very much the bastion of the stonemason craft. Also, as the 17th century unfolded, references to the Mason Word appeared, along with the five points of fellowship and other signs of recognition. Publication of catechisms in the 1690s described the ritual of entering apprentices and fellow crafts, much as we do today. Although these catechisms certainly predate their publication and probably existed in Schaw’s time, their publication precipitated the subsequent large increase of non-operative masons. By 1710, there are references to 25 lodges in Scotland.
While masonic lodges originated in Scotland, English lodges soon followed and were noticeably different in three significant areas. First, their membership consisted primarily of non-operative masons. Secondly, a Grand Lodge was first established in England in 1717, which allowed for the oversight, uniformity, and expansion of lodges within its jurisdiction. Thirdly, Scottish lodges were more permanent and met on a regular basis, while English lodges until the 17th century only met when called. This point is brought home by the fact that twenty of the original Scottish lodges continue in operation today, while no English lodges predating 1717 exist. But it was English Freemasonry, with its emphasis on non-operative membership, which flourished in the 18th century and spread throughout the British Empire, the American Colonies, and the rest of the world.
Source: Written by Brother John Skillman for Masonic education at Hillsborough Lodge #25 F&AM on February 8, 2011. It was summarized from The Origins of Freemasonry by David Stevenson, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Read more about Freemasonry at Masonic Education of Hillsborough Lodge.
Freemasonry has adopted Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist as its Patron Saints. The reasoning for this is that these Patron Saints belonged to a Lodge which is presumed to have been in the city of Jerusalem. By this tradition, all subsequent Lodges were born from this Lodge, and therefore all Masons came from such Lodge.
Ancient Saint John Lodges belonged to these Masons, who were a part of the fraternity prior to the organization of the first premier Grand Lodge of England. In the exposed rituals of 1723, emphasis was on Christian Doctrine; however, by 1830 the union of two English Grand Lodges eliminated Christianity from its ritual and changed the work to "the God we all Worship."
Nevertheless, the newly formed Grand Lodge of England still organized its annual assemblies and feasts on the birthdays of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. Thus, all current Lodges are now dedicated to these Patron Saints as opposed to King Solomon.
John the Baptist was born on June 24th, 6 B.C. He was the son of Zechariah, a Jewish Priest, and his wife Elizabeth, a daughter of Aaron. Elizabeth had lost hope of giving birth due to her age, but received a divine message in her sleep that she would conceive a child.
Saint John the Baptist lived a very simple life as a grown man. He wore clothes made of camel skin, carried a staff, and enjoyed simple meals of natural food found in the region, which sometimes included locusts. He was a practicing Jew who lived by Jewish laws. While preaching to obey the laws of God, he baptized members of the faith at the River Jordan, which included Jesus of Nazareth and his Apostles.
Herod the Great had John the Baptist imprisoned because he denounced Herod for marrying his brother's divorced wife, Herodias, which was against Jewish law. During John's imprisonment, Herodias conspired with her daughter Salome to dance before Herod. After the dance, Herod told Salome he would grant her any wish she requested. Salome asked for John's head on a platter. Herod complied, and John the Baptist was executed.
Saint John the Baptist was regarded as a Prophet by the famous Jewish historian Josephus in many books of faith, including Christian, Islam, Bahia, Aramaic Matthew, Qur'an', and the New Testament. However, Josephus gives a different account surrounding the reasons for the execution of John. As he accounts, John had acquired a large following of people by his preaching and baptisms. This following posed religious and political threats to Herod, as Herod considered the possibility of rebellion. Therefore, he ordered the execution of Saint John the Baptist in 36 C.E.
John the Evangelist was born on December 27th, 1 A.D. His father was the son of Zebedee, and his mother was Salome. He came from a family of fisherman, including his father and brother James the Great. John was one of the original twelve Apostles of Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus was brought before the Jewish priests for trial, John accompanied and remained with Jesus throughout the decisions of Pontius Pilate, the carrying of the cross, and the crucifixion. He was also among the first, together with Peter the Apostle, to see Jesus after his resurrection and ascension.
For approximately twelve years, John remained in the region and began a journey to Asia Minor, where he continued his work for many years following. He returned to Jerusalem in the year 51 A.D. to meet with the ministers of the new Christian faith.
John the Evangelist has been recognized as the author of the Three Epistles of John and the Book of Revelations. He is associated with the Masonic and Military Order of The Red Cross of Constantine.
Source: R∴W∴ C. Don Prosser, 33° Degree; Coils Masonic Encyclopedia; and Grand Lodge of Florida Mentor's Manual