The Origins of Freemasonry

Myths persist and abound about the freemasons, but what are their origins? Margaret C. Jacob throws back the veil from a secret society that turns out not to have been very secret at all, revealing the truth about an organization that fascinated the eighteenth-century public in much the same way it fascinates us today.

The Origins of Freemasonry
Facts and Fictions

Margaret C. Jacob

2005 | 176 pages | Cloth $39.95 | Paper $24.95
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Table of Contents


1. Origins
2. Daily Lives Measured in Masonic Time
3. Schools of Government
4. Money, Equality, and Fraternity: Freemasons Negotiate the Market
5. Women in the Lodges


Further Reading

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In 2004 a best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown told readers that the freemasons were descended from the Knights Templar. It is a great story, and as the author makes clear, part of a work of fiction. Somehow these fictions pass into fact. In November of the same year, Disney Productions released a feature film, National Treasure, about how the founding fathers left behind secret buried treasure. They were prone to secrecy because they were freemasons. Another great story, this one partly true. Some of the founding fathers, like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were freemasons. Before 2004 was out, people would be asking why the freemasons liked to bury treasure. In the late 1990s a furor erupted in Britain with enemies of the freemasons claiming that masonic policemen released criminals if they belonged to the order. To counter this bad press, a devotee wrote a history of freemasonry in which he claimed that they were descended from a group of reformers in the seventeenth century who called themselves Rosicrucians. No evidence was offered for that fictive story, but the author did at least cast a cold eye on the story about the freemasons and the Knights Templar. Separating masonic facts from masonic fictions can be difficult.

As a historian who has written about eighteenth-century freemasonry, I get asked all the time—even by the company doing the film for Disney Productions—if the freemasons descended from the medieval Knights Templar, if the eye and triangle on the back of the American dollar bill was meant to be masonic, and not least, what are the secrets so guarded by the freemasons? This book attempts to answer some of those questions by looking at the first century of freemasonry, at its founding decades in eighteenth-century Europe. Reading about that history should dispel the notion about the Knights Templar as the origin of the masonic movement. But it should do more. Historical understanding asks readers to try to imagine what men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, General Lafayette, and Voltaire (admitted late in life), Mozart, and the German poet Goethe might have found appealing in their masonic lodges.

I want to remove the veil from a secret society that turns out not to be very secret at all. I want to read the original European books and archives from the eighteenth century and see what thousands of men—among them, in the colonies, our founding fathers—and a few thousand women saw, what ideals the lodges sought to impart, what activities they promoted. I want to get closer to actual lives, but also to larger questions about the political implications of masonic membership. How did a private society dedicated to equality and fraternity cope with the pressures coming from a deeply hierarchical society, that was also increasingly dominated by market transactions, by wealth as distinct from birth. Those pressures mirror the tensions inherent in modern democracies, between the ideals of equality and the messy reality of status, wealth, privilege, and day-to-day inequality.

Much of what this book reveals depends upon European sources. American freemasonry derived directly from its British counterpart (as imported by Benjamin Franklin), and going back to the source of it all makes the most sense. I am also trained as a European and not an American historian, and I have not walked the archival terrain in the American libraries of the East Coast, the way I have in Europe. For the American side of the story, a fuller account can be found in the superb book by Steven Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood.

Perhaps American readers of this book will also be drawn to it because civic life at present seems so relatively impoverished. We join fewer groups; the average rate of membership in civic organizations is about one-tenth as large today as it was thirty years ago. Voluntary associations that radically crossed class lines have largely disappeared, replaced by advocacy groups or professional associations. We may rightly marvel at a time when joining something like a lodge meant a commitment that could be life-long and that challenged assumptions about who could call himself a "brother," someone who met with others, "upon the level," to use the masonic phrase. The need for entertainment, stimulation, possibly an escape from rigidity in clan and chapel, led some eighteenth century men—and women—to seek the fellowship of freemasonry. This was true for American whites and blacks. For the latter, black lodges offered the possibility of self-governance. Documenting the history of masonic lodges in the old and new worlds of the eighteenth century can, however, be difficult. In some cases old world lodges felt that what they were doing was so important that historical records needed to be carefully preserved. But other lodges, especially those for—and then by—women left only traces.

Over the years I have visited just about every masonic library in western Europe. In the 1970s I started this search for the historical reality of freemasonry by asking for permission to begin where the original lodges began, in London in the 1690s. I wrote to the Library of the Grand Lodge of Great Britain, in Freemasons' Hall on Great Queen Street, right in the heart of Soho, and requested permission to visit and read in its manuscript archives. The answer was a flat "no." Why? Because at that time the records were closed to all nonmasons. In response I pointed out that, unlike many European Grand Lodges, the British one would not admit women as freemasons. Hence, with impeccable logic, I pleaded that the rule should not apply to me. They never answered that letter.

Times have changed, especially for British freemasons. Now all scholars have access to their library, everything is open. The early history of how English and Scottish guilds of stonemasons evolved into the freemasons of the eighteenth century is still incomplete, but in broad outline the story is now basically understood. The Scottish records as early as the 1650s show local guilds in need of cash admitting relatives, or prominent figures with philosophical interests who were non-masons. This process began as early as the sixteenth century, and one aspect of it must have been the intellectual interests of Scottish masons. The masters among them, like master masons elsewhere, knew geometry and acted in effect like architects. They were also steeped in the mysticism commonplace to the Renaissance, a tradition that imagined arts like architecture and alchemy provided clues to the underlying principles of nature. Among the earliest Scottish records—so brilliantly illuminated by David Stevenson—we see all of these traditions attracting learned gentlemen, some also drawn to the new science.

The most interesting question raised by the process of converting lodges of stonemasons into enclaves of literate gentlemen, educated professionals, and a few tradesmen concerns not the breakdown of the exclusivity of the guilds under the pressure of market forces, but rather why so many men who had never lifted a brick wanted to join. Why did freemasonry become so respectable, or controversial, and spread to every country where Westerners had colonies? What was it that made freemasonry so appealing that we reckon its membership in the tens of thousands by 1750—and that included perhaps a thousand women. By 1780 there was barely a French town that did not have a lodge, and prominent and well-educated men and some women flocked to them. The growth of the lodges happened even in Catholic countries like France, despite the 1738 decree from Rome that prohibited Catholics from being freemasons. Taking Europe and America as a whole by 1789—the year of the French Revolution—well over a hundred thousand men had taken the masonic oath to the Grand Architect of the universe. There were more than four hundred lodges in Britain alone. A set of values and practices must have appealed across geographic, religious, and class barriers.

Getting answers to the questions about the appeal of daily life as a freemason, as well as about their political and economic attitudes and values, meant visiting even more masonic libraries. In Europe I quickly discovered that other, far more sinister visitors, had preceded me. In 1940, when the Nazis invaded the Low Countries and France, within twenty four hours they burst into the libraries and archives of the freemasons and confiscated all their records. They believed in the existence of a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy that sought to rule in every country through secrecy and corruption. The confiscated records were sent back to Berlin, where Hitler had set up an entire institute to research the contours of the conspiracy and reveal it to the world. In the occupied countries elaborate exhibitions were opened in the confiscated masonic buildings. They were meant to show the nature of the enemy faced by the Germans, who put up pictures of Churchill, the king of England, and Roosevelt in masonic garb. Many now-aged Dutch and French freemasons whom I have met in these libraries joined the Resistance and the lodges so that they could be just like Churchill and Roosevelt (who were indeed freemasons). Getting at the eighteenth-century history of the lodges and their appeal meant cutting through a century or more of fictions about the freemasons as conspiratorial, or anti-Christian, or just corrupt and degenerate.

The story of Nazi confiscation and antimasonic propaganda has a bizarre ending. In 1945 the Russian army seized the contents of the Berlin institute and shipped it back to Moscow. There the records stayed hidden, until finally in the late 1990s the Putin government, burdened by debt to the European countries, agreed to return them.

Beginning in 2000, with more still to come, huge trucks journeyed from Moscow to Paris, Brussels, and The Hague, returning the lost masonic treasures. By far the largest shipment went to the French freemasons, and it is now possible to see new records about Franklin's masonic activities in Paris during the 1780s, or to trace the history of freemasonry in entire cities, like Bordeaux, long thought lost forever in 1940. Yet, make no mistake about it, the Jewish-masonic conspiracy theory lurks in far-right, often fascist ideologies still extant, although largely purged from European and American hate-mongering. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1897), the ground-zero text of twentieth-century anti-Semitism, devoted a chapter to the Jewish-masonic conspiracy and thousands of copies continue to circulate, largely in the Middle East.

In America, freemasonry has on the whole been far less controversial than in Europe. In Boston in the 1920s freemasons openly paraded, and many a small town's July 4 parade would be disappointing without the local lodge proudly atop their float. But in Europe during the eighteenth century powerful forces found freemasonry threatening. The lodges were a British import and often seen as instruments of British foreign policy. The Catholic Church spied in the lodges an alternative religion, and it disapproved of the lodge practice of holding frequent elections. That smacked of republicanism, not the absolute monarchies so beloved by the Church.

Making matters even more complicated, the freemasons themselves took in myths and fables and proclaimed them as true history. Freemasonry, they claimed, began at the building of Solomon's Temple. Late in the eighteenth century, freemasons looked back to the medieval Knights Templar and the shadowy Rosicrucians of the seventeenth century, assuming that if they had been secret then modern freemasons must be descended from them. The illogic persists among freemasons and their few remaining enemies—as well as untutored devotees—in the West. My task in the pages that follow is to separate out the myths and fictions, however charming, from what the historical records can tell us.

In chapter 1 I will take a general approach to the phenomenon of eighteenth-century freemasonry, to get its chronology straight and clear away some of the debris left from stories about the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, and other shadowy groups. Chapter 2 will try to get closer to what living as a freemason may have meant. Masonic almanacs and pocket diaries will be examined for what they can tell us about their users, or at the very least what the publishers of such items thought would please masonic brothers and sisters as consumers. In chapter 3 the extraordinary tendency of the lodges to become interested in how to govern will take center stage. All lodges claimed to admit according to merit, not birth or wealth. They focused on secret passwords, rituals, and a great deal of merrymaking. But willy-nilly, and oftentimes unselfconsciously, they proceeded to set up governments in microcosm, complete with elections, officers, and taxes.

However interested in new forms of governance, freemasons nonetheless had to live in the real world. Chapter 4 will explore how the masonic claim of being a fraternity that was a meritocracy worked in a market—and money-drive—society that was also deeply hierarchical. At the core of that chapter are plaintive letters of the 1780s from French brothers and sisters sent into the Grand Lodge of France, asking—sometimes demanding, other times begging—for charitable assistance. Who got charity from the lodges and under what circumstances brings us closer to knowing how people could live in a world where, in fact, merit counted for little, yet where people believed that it did, or at the least, that it should determine one's place or reward in society. Finally, chapter 5 turns to the volatile issue of what the lodges did about women, particularly in France, where their membership was significant and can be documented. We will see that the actual records from eighteenth-century lodges, as opposed to the inherited myths, can be quite revealing all by themselves.