Masonic history is a fascinating subject, but one that has received little academic attention by professional historians until recently. The fraternity has a lot of legendary history, traditions, and uses episodes from history symbolically, so it is sometimes hard to decipher what is true history from what is legendary. Records strongly suggest that modern speculative Freemasonry has an historical connection to operative stonemason's lodges or guilds of fourteenth century Scotland. It is commonly accepted that sometime in the 17th century men who were not by profession stonemasons began to be admitted to lodges. The records of the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) show lawyer and writer, John Boswell of Auchinleck, signing the minutes of a meeting held in 1600, although the first recorded admission of a non-operative doesn't occur until 1634. The oldest surviving minute book, that of the Lodge of Aitchison's Haven, is dated 9th January 1598.
Some Masonic historians have suggested that it was the mobility of stonemasons and builders, moving from city to city and staying for years away from their homes that caused this particular craft guild to develop a strong sense of fellowship. Because operative masons traveled seeking work, as the great cathedrals and monastic houses were built, they needed a system whereby a master mason or a fellow of the craft could identify himself and prove his standing in the craft. A culture of mutual support developed among masons, much as it did in the other craft guilds of the cities.
Additionally, it has been suggested that the destruction of the monasteries by King Henry VIII of England, and the cultural change toward Protestantism with its simpler forms of church architecture, brought about a major change in mason's lodges. At some point, it would seem, they began to see themselves as the guardians of the secrets of geometry that lay behind the marvelous architectural creations of the Gothic period. Whether operative and non-operative lodges existed at the same time, or whether operative lodges slowly accepted non-operative members into their ranks is still debatable. By the end of the seventeenth century Freemasonry had taken on a life of its own, quite distinct from the practice of the stonemason's arts. Yet the rituals which involved the tools of stonemasonry as symbols of virtues remained.
Tobias Churton, an eminent Masonic historian, has put forward the thesis in his book The Golden Builders, that Freemasonry adapted the symbols and forms of the lodges of stonemasons as a way to create a safe space wherein free-thinking men could safely discuss the new scientific discoveries and theories of the day. Men such as Alias Ashmole in England were Freemasons and also instrumental in the creation of the Royal Society, the first organization devoted to the free exchange of scientific ideas. The 17th and 18th centuries saw a great shift in the culture of Europe which is commonly called the Enlightenment. This cultural movement marks the beginning of the modern era's distinction between religious truth and scientific empirical truth. It was a breakthrough that led to the critical study of the Bible as literature and its reliability as a source of historical facts. It was an intellectual movement that led to many new religious movements as well, and was crucial in its influence on the minds of the founders of the United States of America. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were Freemasons and they were only two of the most famous among many. In Europe luminaries such as Mozart and King Fredrick the Great were Masons and brought the allegorical method of understanding the human condition to the forefront of culture.
The Grand Lodge of England was formed in 1717 and with that date comes an increased public awareness of Freemasonry. It was countered almost immediately by the first anti-Masonic tracts. Most attacks on the Craft have taken the position that any organization with a secret ritual must be up to no good. The Masonic teaching of equality, fraternity and liberty quickly put the Craft at odds with the established churches and absolute monarchs of the period.
Masonic writers over the years have tried to claim a more venerable lineage, associating the Craft with the Knights Templar, the Roman Colleges of Artificers, the Essenes, the Dionysian and Eleusinian mystery schools, Mithraic mystery schools, King Solomon and, even more fantastical, Noah and Adam. There are striking similarities between the rituals of Freemasonry and many ancient mystery schools, at least those few parts that have survived. The ritual can be interpreted, in part, as a reaffirmation of the immortality of the soul. Bring to the ritual what you may; a belief in reincarnation or a commitment to participation in the progress of human endeavor, there is a simple understanding that we are more than base clay -- that we do not stand alone. The history and philosophy of Freemasonry remains a topic of great study and much information is available in books and on the Internet.
However, not everything that has been written is of factual value. There are few Masons today who believe, for example, that Freemasonry has existed as an institution in its modern forms, or even as a fellowship since ancient Egypt or the building of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, claims of this sort are not founded on history but on the conflation of Freemasonry with the science of Geometry. If one accepts that Masonry grew out of the fellowship of those men who passed on the science and art of Geometry and the secrets of builders, such as those who build the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the great medieval cathedrals, then the Craft, so broadly defined, is of the greatest antiquity. For Geometry is one of the great achievements of human civilization, human reason, and the human imagination. It is knowledge that may well have been considered Divine before modern science and utilitarianism robbed it of its wonder.
In the nineteenth century some Masonic writers and ritualists were also involved in Theosophy, a movement to bring the wisdom of the East to the West. Men of this time were often fascinated with Eastern religions and the Western magical traditions, particularly the mystical writings and practices of the Cabbalists. Modern magical orders such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and many other such groups modeled themselves closely on Freemasonry but embraced other agendas – for example, the study of the Egyptian and Greek magical papyri that were discovered and translated in the nineteenth century. Freemasonry works its rituals as allegorical dramas intended to change hearts and minds through moral contemplation and growth and no particular interest in comparative religion is required or even necessary to grasp the power, wisdom, and beauty of Masonic ceremonies.
Your average Mason has no interest in Theosophy, occultism, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, or Hermeticism, much less world domination. Masons today mainly have an interest in helping others and in making their community a better place -- as a Scout leader, a block parent, a Heart Fund volunteer or just a good neighbor. And this vein of gold seems to have always run through Freemasonry -- that alchemy of brotherly love, relief, and truth. This said, however, one will find many allusions to other ancient mystery traditions and other major world religions in the "higher" degrees of the Scottish Rite and the writings of Albert Pike. The esoteric character of this Masonic body is not typical of the Craft as a whole but for some it proves very interesting and stretches our thinking beyond the range of everyday life.
Freemasonry in the nineteenth century was booming. It is in the post Civil War era right through until the Great Depression that we see the magnificent Masonic temples constructed throughout America. These are now architectural treasures and those open to the public, such as the Scottish Rite's House of the Temple in Washington, D.C. are well worth a visit even to the non-Mason. The boom in membership in that period and the consequent wealth of the fraternity enabled a proliferation of lodges and monuments. But the mid-twentieth century saw membership in the craft taper off. After World War II men turned away from fraternal organizations to other forms of recreation and to family life at home. Between 1950 and 1980 a whole generation of young men was virtually skipped so that lodges across America fell into decline and many closed their doors due to lack of membership. Those that survive are often composed of older men, many now inactive, and younger men between the ages of 20 and 50 who are just entering the fraternity.
It is almost ironic that in an age that has seen the boom of radio, television, movies, DVD's, CD's, the iPod and the Internet, the pendulum is starting to swing back again. Men are beginning to crave something else -- face-to-face friendships and conversation about serious things. As so many have turned away from organized religions, and embarked on a quest for something else, they have found themselves in the Masonic lodge. While Masonry has never presented itself as substitute for religion, if you are searching, its comfortable fellowship and privacy can be a safe harbor for the seeker. Without pressure and without having to make public professions of belief, or confessions of sins, the Masonic lodge offers simple manly virtue and camaraderie. You can philosophize all you want, or not as you wish.
Masonic history is a new area of interest for academic historians. The lodge records and the culture of the lodge are hard to access because of the private nature of the institution, but some very interesting books have been written in the past ten years that are sheding new light on the true history of the Craft, as distinct from its Legends.