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What is Freemasonry and when did it start?

Freemasonry is one of the oldest fraternal societies. Its members enjoy mutual association and friendship within the strict codes of principle and morality that are prescribed.

Freemasons support charitable needs at Grand Lodge and local Lodge levels. They strive to be loyal members of society and to contribute to their communities.

Its origins are uncertain. There are a number of theories that Freemasonry was in existence when King Solomon built the Temple at Jerusalem and that the stonemasons who built the Temple were organised into Lodges. Other speculative theories link Freemasonry with the builders of the Egyptian Pyramids, and also the Knights Templar who escaped to Scotland when the Knights were persecuted in Europe.

No firm evidence has been found to connect Freemasonry with these or any of the other theories which abound. It is a fact that we do not know how Freemasonry originated. The theory most favoured by serious students of Freemasonry is that it developed from mediaeval stonemasons, who built great castles and cathedrals. These ‘operative’ masons met in ‘lodges’ for rest and refreshment. Over a period of time, the ‘lodges’ represented groupings of ‘operative’ Masons who developed standards and practices to regulate their craft and skills. In common with other trades and guilds operating at that time ‘Lodges’ developed initiation ceremonies for new apprentices. This took place at a time when the only way to prove the authenticity of a stonemason, other than testing his skills over many hours, was by word of mouth, the discreet passing of private words, one to another.

In the early 17th Century, operative ‘Lodges’ started to accept men who were not operative masons (men who actually worked with stone). The reason for this is unknown but towards the end of the century some Lodges lost any connection with ‘operative’ stonemasons and became styled similarly to those which exist to-day: Lodges of ‘free and accepted or speculative’ Masons.

The first recorded Lodge of ‘free and accepted Masons’ is evidenced in the diary of Elias Ashmole, the renowned Lichfieldian, Antiquary and Founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He records being made a Freemason in 1646 at a Lodge held at his father-in-law’s house at Warrington. Ashmole listed those present and none had any connection with operative stonemasons.

Moving from the uncertainty of Freemasonry’s origins, it is possible to state with certainty when regularly organised Freemasonry was established. On 24th June 1717, four London Lodges formed a Grand Lodge and for a number of years held an annual feast and elected a Grand Master and two Wardens, the three senior ranking officers in a Lodge. By 1730, the Grand Lodge had over 100 Lodges within its control and had issued a Book of Constitutions, a form of guidance and regulations by which all Lodges should operate. This demonstrates the desire of Freemasonry from the earliest days of regular organisation, to enforce standards amongst members and to be publicly accountable for those standards. A Book of Constitutions to this day provides standards and guidelines by which all Lodges and members must operate.

In 1751, a rival Grand Lodge (the Moderns), consisting of those who were unable to join the London Lodges, was established. There followed a degree of conflict between the two Grand Lodges. The new Grand Lodge claimed to practice the ‘Old Institutions’ of Freemasonry, whilst alleging that the Grand Lodge, formed in 1717, had departed from the established customs of Freemasonry. This rivalry continued until 1813, when the Grand Master of the Premier Grand Lodge, His Royal Highness Augustus Frederick Duke of Sussex, and his brother, His Royal Highness Edward, Duke of Kent, the Grand Master of the Antients Grand Lodge, formulated Articles of Union between the two Grand Lodges. On 27th December 1813, the United Grand Lodge of England came into being at a special great ceremony.

From these beginnings, Freemasonry has spread around the World. Around 1725, the Grand Lodge of Ireland was formed and in 1736 the Grand Lodge of Scotland. It can be justifiably claimed that Freemasonry universally traces its origins back to the Grand Lodges established in the British Isles.

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