By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
We are not certain when the term Freemason emerged, though it was certainly in use in the late 17th century. Bernard E Jones (Freemason’s Guide and Compendium, 1950, page 114) quotes a tract of 1698 which attacks “Freed Masons” as “anti-Christ” and a “devilish sect of men” who practise “Mischiefs and Evils in the Sight of GOD”. It warns, “Take care lest their Ceremonies and secret Swearings take hold of you; and be wary that none cause you to err from Godliness”. True, the correct term is Freemasons, but the author probably inserted the “d” quite deliberately to express his belief that the “devilish sect” were throwing off religious restraints.
Though we reject this argument, we are still not sure why Masons are called “free”. Some quote the German “frei”, free, since the operative Mason could go wherever he wished or was needed; others posit a link with the French “frère macon”, Brother Mason. But since Speculative Masonry probably came from the British Isles, the term is likely to derive from English, not German or French. One possibility is an Anglo-Saxon word (with links to other languages), “freo”, beloved, not so much because of a sense of collegiality but indicative of acting at one’s own pleasure. Many scholars, (e.g. G.W Steinbrenner, The Origin and Early History of Masonry, page 110) point out that the medieval mason worked in “free”, i.e. soft and not rough stone. Steinbrenner says, “The word Freemason evidently signifies a free-stone, as distinguished from the rough mason, who merely built walls of rough, unhewn stone”. In a statute of 1350 the wages of a master Freemason are higher than those of other masons. In an Ordinance of 1365, a plumber was denied the right to practise his trade “if he be not free of the City, and… he knows well and lawfully how to work” (Report of Royal Commission on the Livery Companies, 1884, vol. 3, page 673, cited in Frank Foden, Philip Magnus: Victorian Educational Pioneer, 1970, page 187). Were masons also required to be “free of the City”?
Whatever the history, the term appealed to the Speculative Masons of three hundred years ago. Preferring new possibilities to ancient precedents, they believed that man was able (i.e. free) to plan his own destiny, free to use his reason wherever it might lead, free to build a Utopia and figuratively to use free stone to shape his material without merely imitating the ideas of others.
The creativity of that age waned but the movement prospered, not without making changes along the way. It called itself “ancient” as well as “free” and introduced its own precedents and symbolism. It allied its respect for man’s mind with an insistence on a Mason having at least a nominal belief in God. It qualified its belief in reason by admitting that there were secrets which reason could not penetrate. It posited that a flash of light would one day pierce the “mysterious veil”. Milton, obsessed with his blindness, had written of “no light, but rather darkness visible”; Freemasonry more or less espoused a belief that eventually there would be no darkness, but rather light visible, and its ideology united reason and religion in dreaming of man’s eyes being opened to see the ultimate truth.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.
Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.