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A History of Freemasonry

A History of Freemasonry

The history of Freemasonry begins with uncertainty and ambiguity. The minutiae of the origins are unexplained. However, historiographical consensus from Masonic and Academic scholars alike allude to the creation of the stone masons’ guilds as the genesis of Freemasonry. The earliest source-based evidence, the Halliwell Manuscript, has been dated between 1390-1425. This it can be argued is the era of Freemasonry’s birth as a shared social experience.

The Dark Ages – The Birth of Freemasonry

During an era of immense poverty, changing political settlements and protectionist attitudes to skills and employment. The Dark Ages and thereafter the Early Modern period heralded the genesis for social change. It was during this period that Guilds were formed to help protect skills and to provide functional processes for generational shifts of knowledge. This was the foundational landscape that helped foster the birth of Freemasonry.

However, according to the United Grand Lodge for England, the history of Freemasonry begins with the organisation of operative stone masons. These skilled craftsmen who traversed the UK from building site to building site used secretive means to help protect their knowledge and to help protect their value as craftsmen. It was their craft and their skill that built the great castles, cathedrals and monuments that litter the towns and cities of Great Britain today.

One of the first mentions, and a defining period of our constitutional development in England, was in 1646 when Elias Ashmole recorded in his diaries his initiation into Freemasonry:

“’October 16, 4.30pm – I was made a freemason at Warrington in Lancashire with Colonel Henry Mainwaring [a Roundhead parliamentarian friend related to his father-in-law] of Karincham in Cheshire. The names of those that were then at the Lodge, Mr Richard Penket Worden, Mr James Collier, Mr Richard Sankey, Henry Littler, John Ellam, Richard Ellam and Hugh Brewer.’”

This was the first textual evidence of an English masonic initiation. The seventeenth century proved to be a catalyst for growth in Freemasonry. It was during this period that more and more diaries and memories noted Masonic membership.

The Long Eighteenth Century – The Rise of Freemasonry Popularity

As the United Kingdom came together after the Act of Union 1707. The Kingdom of Great Britain came into being and it was a period of immense social, technological and cultural change as nationhood gave way to innovation and change.

In the early Eighteenth century, four of London’s biggest lodges assembled on St John’s Day on the 24th of June 1717 to declare themselves a Grand Lodge and therein elected Anthony Sayer as their Grand Master. This was the first time a Grand Lodge was ever convened.

By 1723 the new Grand Lodge also published its first rule book in the guise of The Book of Constitutions of Masonry. The Grand Lodge met quarterly and made purposeful recordings of all its meetings. Furthermore, the Grand Lodge extended beyond the four original Lodges to incorporate Lodges outside of London. This nationalistic expansion also saw the creation of The Grand Lodge of Ireland in 1725 and the Grand Lodge of Scotland by 1736.

However, rivalry existed, and it was during the Long Eighteenth Century that a rival Grand Lodge in London was founded. The original Grand Lodge saw competition from an Irish-led Masons Lodge that had issues with the modernity direction of the Grand Lodge and as such called themselves the Ancients and dubbed the original Grand Lodge the Moderns. This rivalry existed for nearly half a century with both lodges neither recognising each other’s existence or domain.

The Ninetieth Century – The Birth of The United Grand Lodge of England

During an era of extreme change, when the Napoleonic Wars rumbled on and as slavery was abolished and the first discussions on a ‘Great Reform’ of British politics and society at large occurred, similar drastic change was happening to Freemasonry in the United Kingdom.

On the 27th of December 1813, after four years of negotiation, the two main Grand Lodges in England joined up and formed The United Grand Lodge of England. This merger heralded the birth of the modern Freemasonry experience that Freemasons today practise. The standardisation of rituals, procedures and regalia allowed lodges and Freemasons to pursue their craft with collectivist intent.

The Twentieth Century – A Changing World

The Twentieth Century was a period of immense change. After the First World War and the Second World War between 1914 and 1945, nearly half a century had been dedicated to war. This had massive social implications with unemployment, poverty and economic uncertainty. However, Freemasonry saw an increase in membership during this period as many servicemen came back from war and found the calmness and camaraderie of Freemasonry a tonic for an ever-changing world.

The Twentieth-Century also saw the creation of the Grand Patron in 1967. During the celebration of the 250thAnniversary of the Grand Lodge being formed, the Grand Master appointed High Royal Highness The Duke of Kent as Grand Patron and he remains in that office today.

However, decline settled into the second part of the Twentieth Century, as technology changed the way people worked and as society’s moral attributes changed and furthermore as social security created an even greater security blanket for a society, the valued of Freemasonry was questioned and a decline in membership set-in.

The New Millennium – The Future for Freemasonry

In 2017, the United Grand Lodge for England celebrated its 300-year tercentenary. It has seen and experienced great social change as have the hundreds of thousands of Freemasons who are members of lodges up and down the country.

The New Millennium has seen Freemasonry begin to stem the tide of decline by focusing on new members – Millennial’s – and how a changing attitude can provide a new emphasis for recruiting new members. The United Grand Lodge of England decided to create a new way of experiencing Freemasonry.

As less than 2% of the total membership of UGLE are in the 21-30 age-group, new efforts to attract new members – time-poor and financially challenged Millennial’s – in new ways as initiated. One example is the Lodge of Brevity in Southampton which meets in a Novotel. The meetings are shorter as key traditional parts are dispensed (like reading of the minutes which are accessed online). The creation of University Lodges and social media engagement.

These steps have helped the United Grand Lodge of England to help stem the tide and to help re-focus peoples’ attention to Freemasonry as a purposeful and useful vocation for those looking for fellowship, charity or a hobby in an ever-changing world. The future of Freemasonry lies with fellow members continuing to talk publicly about the positives of Masonic membership and helping to grow Freemasonry by helping the next generation embark upon their own Freemasonry experiences.