About Freemasonry

This Nov. 19, 2007, photo shows a 1942 painting by John Melius of President George Washington laying the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 18, 1793, displayed at the headquarters of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Southern jurisdiction, USA in Washington, DC. George Washington wears a Masonic apron and sash and wields the Mason’s gavel during the laying of the cornerstone. The three men to Washington’s right hold corn for prosperity, wine for happiness and oil for peace. The headquarters in the nation’s capital has been the national headquarters of the Supreme Council since 1915. (Getty Images/Tim Sloan)

Who are the Masons?

Initially, they were the stonemasons who built the castles and cathedrals in Scotland and England. Because their work was inherently dangerous, these masons formed local organizations — called “guilds” or “lodges” — to care for sick and injured members as well as the widows and orphans of those who were killed on the job. These Masons also used these lodges to meet, socialize, receive their pay, plan their work and train new apprentices.

In order that these operative masons could identify themselves as masters of their trade as they traveled from town to town — and even through other countries — these craftsmen devised certain signs (handshakes, passwords, etc.) whereby one master Mason would know another. In this manner, they were best assured of obtaining work and receiving appropriate wages as master Masons.

These lodges of operative stonemasons evolved into the fraternal order that we know today as the Freemasons, although the historical series of events of how this occurred — including why certain esoteric elements entered these trade guilds — remains disputed in Freemasonic circles.

Freemasons are typically either categorized as Free and Accepted Masons (F.& A.M.) or Ancient Free and Accepted Masons (A.F.& A.M.) These two distinctions are typically different in name only, as the work is basically the same.

The symbols Identified with Freemasonry are based on the actual tools used by operative Masons — the most common being the square and compass. The trowel, plum and common gavel are also among the symbols of which members of our lodges become quite familiar throughout their work as speculative Masons. The best explanation to the non-Mason as to the significance of these symbols is to offer a comparison between the importance of laying a good foundation before erecting a building, and the importance of a solid understanding of good values before embarking upon any human undertaking.

An Interesting item to consider is the fact that these craftsmen throughout Europe were the first commoners to enter into collective meetings and, in this regard, most likely posed a threat to those in power — kings, the church, etc. Did the king really want his subjects meeting together as a group and discussing how things were going throughout the realm? Public opinion was not included in the vocabulary of these early societies, and there is extensive historical data pertaining to anti-Masonic views and approaches over the hundreds of years Masonic lodges have been in existence. 

After many years of local Masonic lodges forming in Scotland, England and France, the first Grand Lodge was established in London in 1717, and throughout the next 20 years, Freemasonry spread throughout Europe and eventually into the American colonies.

The first lodge organized on American soil was in Philadelphia around 1730. By 1733, a Grand Lodge formed in Boston, under the authority of the Grand Lodge of England. Unlike England where the United Grand Lodge of England has dominion over all regular Masons under its jurisdiction, the United States boasts a different organizational structure, whereby all 50 states have their own Grand Lodges, along with one in the District of Columbia. 

Among the first Masons in America were George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, Paul Revere, John Hancock and many other founding fathers. In fact, of the 39 men who signed the U.S. Constitution, 13 were Masons.

Among the many Masonic influences on the American revolutionary movement is that the “Indians” who dumped the cargo of tea from British Ships into the Boston Harbor on Dec. 16, 1773, had emerged from the building which housed St. Andrews Lodge — the leading Masonic body in Boston at the time.

In 1789, President George Washington and the U.S. Congress were determined to build a great capital city, and by 1792, the site was chosen. The cornerstone of the White House was laid with a small civic and Masonic ceremony on October 13, 1792. A similar ceremony was hosted at the future site of the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 18, 1793.

Although foundation work on the White House began in earnest, it was soon discovered that the young nation, while having an abundance of craftsmen, had few master stonemasons — and those who were available were working on the capitol building. After a thorough search in America and Europe, eight stone masons were recruited from Edinburgh, Scotland, and the White House walls were completed in 1798. During construction, these eight Scottish masons joined Federal Lodge No. 15, which had been chartered on Sept. 12, 1793, by the Grand Lodge of Maryland. The first worshipful master of that lodge was James Hoban, who had been personally selected by President George Washington as the architect of the White House.

In 1945, when President Harry Truman was the president of the United States, it became obvious that some major repairs were needed. During this complete overhaul process, a large number of foundation stones were discovered, engraved with the mason’s marks of the originally Scottish stonemasons. President Harry Truman had 48 of these stones delivered to the grand lodges in each of the states.

When thousands of settlers ventured west following the discovery of gold in California in 1849, those who were Masons brought their traditions with them and established some of California’s first masonic lodges in the mining towns of the Gold Country. In 1850 — the same year that California became a state — the Grand Lodge of California was established in Sacramento. The Grand Lodge later moved its headquarters to San Francisco, where it now boasts more than 50,000 members and about 330 lodges, making the Grand Lodge of California one of the largest in the world.

-Worshipful Jim Weyant, P.M.