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.
Freemasonry is full of claims of ancient origins. It relates stories about Biblical personages going back to Adam and Noah being founders of the craft. All very picturesque, but unfortunately the stories are full of problems. They do not hang together: we would have expected a Masonic redactor to have made the material consistent. They mispronounce the Hebrew names and words. They often embellish the Biblical text with ideas and interpretations whose sources are not easy to identify.
However, the real problem is deeper. Is Masonry really as ancient as all that? In either its operative or its speculative dimension, can it really be traced back to the earliest period of human history? Countless historians or quasi-historians, in search of a story that never happened, think they can find hints of Freemasonry in Scriptural texts (in another article I might have committed the same misdemeanour when I analysed Hebraic references to building in both a literal and a metaphorical sense). Others try to link the craft to the many esoteric groups, gnostics and others, which delved into the secrets of creation and the world, and denied their findings to the uninitiated outsider. No-one, as far as I can see, has succeeded in producing a totally convincing argument. There are so many gaps in the story that one wonders whether there are not several stories, all fascinating and attractive, but separate and unconnected, and often the product of pious imagination.
A major difficulty is why some Masonic historians tend to use tunnel vision, implying that only an insider can know the story and that “outsiders” cannot possibly understand, especially when the latter use the acknowledged tools of credible historical research work which by definition see a story within a wider frame of reference. The “outsiders” soon see that the movement developed its own legend, its own romantic self-image. There are Masonic scholars who are prepared to admit that the traditional myth is full of holes and gaps and fails to explain all the stages, factors and links. But it does not stop the ritual continuing to purvey a picture that is more fable than fact.
Yet we are in a position to draw the likely story in broad outline. It acknowledges theories of ancient and medieval links but views them not as proven origins but as a story put together after the event to make the movement sound more credible, like the polite fiction that ascribes British legal institutions to the time of William the Conqueror. In other words, it is not that first came the origins and then grew the movement, but first came the movement and then came the story. The real forces that moulded Freemasonry were not Adam and Eve but a complex of political, social and ideational factors at the beginning of the modern age of European history.
What may have happened is the following:
1. Medieval guilds included teams of masons working on European castles and cathedrals (possibly also in England). Because the building projects took years, they got to know each other well. Their work was far away from home and they lodged on site. They worked from dawn to dusk and after hours shared stories and experiences. They were not highly educated but had ideas and ethics which they took very seriously. Their camaraderie was a closed shop which carefully guarded its membership and secrets. But by early modernity the guilds were weakening. The vast building projects were coming to an end, commercial and industrial changes were on the way, they needed an inflow of money and personnel, and they were prepared to admit honorary members who were not active or operative craftsmen but thinkers interested in the symbolism of the masons’ work.
2. In Scotland and later England, the Enlightenment was producing gentlemen’s groups that met for civilised conversation and covert scientific experiment. Their clubs needed a principle of organisation which would allow them to control their membership and maintain their secrecy. The guilds seemed a suitable model.
3. Some club members infiltrated the masons’ groups and in time dominated them, turning them into what we call today philosophers’ cafes.
4. Their models were building guilds because architecture was a highly popular study (another chapter asks why they did not become, say, speculative surgeons).
5. This did not happen in isolation, but we are not sure about the links with labour history and the history of the Enlightenment. Research is needed into the links with other fraternities and secret societies and the question of how and why Freemasonry was so durable.
6. The operative masons were, by definition, Christian believers (Jews were excluded), but in the Enlightenment non-denominational Christianity and later a generalised form of religion could allow the speculative movement to be religious without being a religion and to admit, though not everywhere, Jewish members.
7. Some Freemasons were high-minded thinkers to whom the new movement had an intellectual, spiritual and ethical appeal; others could well have had personal ambitions to follow and/or thought Freemasonry would enable them to re-shape political structures. As a result the movement developed a convention that (denominational) religion and politics were excluded from Lodge meetings.
8. As a general principle, women were excluded. Courageous though many Masons were, they were not yet ready to challenge the gender mores of society. Separate Masonic institutions were created for women in some places and there was eventually an attempt at co-Masonry. These aspects add a further theme for research, i.e. the links between Freemasonry and social and gender history.
9. The movement first spread in Scotland, spread southwards into England and before long infiltrated the Continent, though it took a somewhat different form in each place, suggesting the need to research the link between the craft and the political and cultural history of each country.
Though this sequence of events needs much more examination, it clearly dismisses the legend of ancient Biblical origins, which was probably deliberately constructed to endow the movement with status and self-respect and, in an age when the study of history was becoming more sophisticated, to anchor it in pre-history and tradition.
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.