Freemasonry is ancient, having existed in some form for so long that many serious students have differed as to the time and place of its origin. There is evidence of a basic type of craft association which antedates the Christian era. It survived various transitions which took place during the Middle Ages. It was during this period that the word "Free" was prefixed to the word Mason, because these builders were one of the very few classes of persons allowed to travel from country to country and to practice the builder's art wheresoever they went. It was these companies of Masons who constructed the beautiful cathedrals and other stately structures which dot the plains of Europe and the English countryside.
These men differed in the main from others of the working-trades class because they, possessing knowledge and skills not found elsewhere, were free men rather than bond servants.
Until about the Sixteenth Century Masons were strictly an operative craft, bound together by the close ties found in the constructive craft guilds of the day. Early in the Seventeenth Century, men of prominence were admitted, not as craftsmen, for they were not skilled in the builder's art, but rather, as patrons. Gradually these men came to be known as "accepted" Masons. Thus, by the time the Seventh Century came to its end the accepted or speculative Masons were predominant in many of the older Lodges of Freemasons.
Today the Masonic Lodge is termed speculative because its emphasis is on the moral philosophy which is its foundation, rather than on the operative art of the Sixteenth and earlier centuries. The tools of the stonemason are used to symbolize moral virtues rather than to build cathedrals.
On June 24, 1717, this being St. John the Baptist Day, the members of four old Lodges in London, England, met together in Grand Assembly to form the Grand Lodge of England. That this was a speculative Lodge is evidenced by the election of one styled "Anthony Sayer, gentleman," as Grand Master. All modern Freemasonry traces its beginning under the Grand Lodge system of government to this Grand Lodge.
One of the most interesting and romantic parts of Freemasonry is its history. You may have heard or read that Freemasonry is one of the world's oldest organizations. Where did it come from? How did it originate? Here again, conjecture and interpretation play their part. We can but give you the generally accepted views of many Masonic scholars.
To a great extent, much that is said and written about Freemasonry necessarily represents the personal opinion or thinking of an individual or a group of individuals. In this fact lies one of the great strengths of our Fraternity. As you progress and learn about Freemasonry, you will find that while the truths and principles of the Order are positive and fixed in character, much of their interpretation is left to you, the individual. It is this factor which affords you the opportunity for a lifetime of research and study.
In general, the history may be divided into two distinct eras or parts. The first refers to the era which came before recorded or written history. The second refers to the era which runs back from the present day approximately 800 years and covers that period of which there is a definite record.