A Short History of Freemasonry
In the book of human history, Freemasonry has a chapter of its own. When you become a member of a Lodge, it is a chapter you will wish to read, as much for its own fascination as for the light it will throw upon your path as a Mason. I shall tell you a very little bit about that story; not for the sake of history as such, but to enable you to understand better the three steps of initiation which lie before you.
Men in all ages and in all lands have had secret societies, have made use of ceremonies of Initiation, employed symbols, emblems, and means of recognition. When Freemasonry came into existence - nobody knows how many centuries ago - it inherited much from such societies, certain of their rites and a number of their symbols. Along your path of Initiation you will encounter them; their unspeakable antiquity makes them more holy in our eyes.
Among the oldest of existing written records of our Craft is a manuscript written by some unknown Brother in England, about 1390. The document itself shows that even then Freemasonry was already very old.
At the time this document was written all Freemasons were Operatives; that is, they were workers engaged on buildings. Such a builder was then called a "Mason'". There were many kinds of Masons, but the evidence indicates that those who were called "Freemasons" were those builders of a superior type who designed, supervised and erected the great cathedrals and other marvellous structures in the Gothic style of architecture throughout Europe.
Those Operative Freemasons, as I have just said, designed such buildings as a whole and in each detail; dressed the stone from the quarries; laid it in the walls; set up arches, pillars, columns and buttresses; laid the floor and built the roof; carved out the decorations, made and fitted the stained glass windows into place and produced the sculptures. Their work was difficult to execute; called for a high degree of skill and genius; and required of them a great deal of knowledge of mechanics and geometry as well as of Stone-Masonry. They were the great artists of the Middle Ages.
Training men for such work called for a long period of severe discipline. Boys sound in body, keen in mind, and of good reputation were taken at the age of ten or twelve and apprenticed to some Master Mason for a number of years, usually seven; this Master Mason was such a boy's father in Freemasonry, his tutor, his monitor, his guide, who taught him both the theories and the practices of the Craft. At the end of his apprenticeship the youth was required to submit to exacting tests of his proficiency before being accepted into full membership in the Craft.
Where a number of Freemasons worked together on a building over a period of years they organized a Lodge, which might meet in a temporary building or in one of the rooms of the uncompleted structure. Such a Lodge was governed by a Worshipful Master assisted by Wardens; it had a Secretary to keep its books, a Treasurer to keep and to disburse its funds, a charity chest from which to dispense relief to the members in accident, sickness or distress and to widows and orphans of Master Masons; it met in regular communication, divided its membership into grades, admitted members by Initiation - in short, it was in all essentials what a Masonic Lodge is today.
The young beginner in learning the builders' art was called an Apprentice; after he had served as such a sufficient time to give evidence of his fitness his name was entered in the Lodge's books, after which he was called an Entered Apprentice. At the end of his seven or so years of apprenticeship he was called into open Lodge, his conduct was reported, and he was then set to prove his skill by producing what was called a "Master's piece". Hitherto he had been on probation; if now he passed his test satisfactorily he was made a full member of the Craft. In the sense that he now stood on an equality of duty, rights, and privileges with all others he was called Fellow of the Craft - the word "fellow" meaning full membership; in the sense that he had now mastered the theories, practices, rules, secrets, and tools of his trade he was called a Master Mason.
Completing their work in one community these Freemasons would move to another, setting up their Lodges wherever they met. Other types of Masons were compelled by law to live and work in the same community year in and year out, and under local restrictions. A number of our historians believe it may have been because they were free of such restrictions that the Gothic builders were called "Freemasons".
Such was the Fraternity in its Operative period; and as such it flourished for generations. Then came a great change in its fortunes. Euclid's geometry was rediscovered and published, thereby giving to the public many of the Mason's old trade secrets. The Reformation came and with it the Gothic style of architecture began to die out. Social conditions underwent a revolution, laws were changed; all these, and other factors I have not time to describe, brought about a decline in the Craft. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Freemasons became so few in number that only a small Lodge here and there clung to a precarious existence.
Owing to these conditions the Freemasons, to recruit their numbers, adopted a new practice; they began to accept non-Operative members. In the old days only an Operative Mason in the literal sense could become a member; but during the two centuries I have just mentioned - our historians call them the "Transition Period" - gentlemen with no intention to become builders, and out of curiosity, for social reasons, or from interest in the Craft's ancient customs, were received. And because they were thus accepted they were called "Accepted Masons". At first there were few of these, but as time passed their number increased, until by the early part of the eighteenth century they out-topped the Operatives in both number and influence.
As a result of this the Craft took a step that was destined to revolutionize it and to set it on a new path of power and magnitude. On St. John the Baptist's Day, June 24, 1717, four or more old Lodges of London and Westminster met in London and organized a Grand Lodge, and on the same day selected as their first Grand Master, Anthony Sayer.
Within a few years of that date the Craft had transformed itself from an Operative Body into a Speculative Fraternity (by "Speculative" is meant Masonry in a moral, or symbolical, sense), reorganized the old two Degrees into three Degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason; collected and collated the old Masonic manuscripts, produced the Book of Constitutions, and was chartering Lodges in many countries, to take care of the Fraternity's membership, which began rapidly to increase shortly after the organization of the Grand Lodge. All this was the beginning of organized Speculative Freemasonry as we now know it.
In 1751 a second Grand Lodge was organized in England; prior to that Grand Lodges had been set up in Scotland, Ireland, and on the Continent. Early American Lodges, of which the earliest known was organized at Philadelphia in 1730, were placed under the charge of Provincial Grand Lodges, which were ruled by Provincial Grand Masters appointed by Grand Lodges in England or in Scotland and Ireland.
I have tried to make it clear that Speculative Freemasonry did not spring full-formed out of nothing in 1717, but came as a gradual development out of Operative Masonry. Through an unbroken line we can trace our lineage back to those builders of the early Middle Ages; we are Masons, too, except that:
where they erected buildings we try to build manhood;
their tools we have transformed into emblems of moral and spiritual laws and forces;
their practices and secrets we have embodied in the Noble Art of Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth;
their Rituals, mellowed, enriched, and made more beautiful with the passing of time, we employ in the Entering, Passing and Raising of our candidates;
all that was living and permanent in their Craft we have preserved and we use it in behalf of goodwill, kindliness, charity and Brotherhood among men.
Such is our heritage, and as you enter into it, you will discover an inexhaustible interesting and life-long in appeal.
What is Freemasonry?
Ask any of the 15,000 Freemasons in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory this question, and you’ll probably get 15,000 different answers!
Freemasonry means different things to each member.
Some would say it’s a personal development program which promotes family and community values.
Others would describe Freemasonry as a chance for both social interaction and "philosophical brainstorming".
Freemasonry also provides an opportunity for public service, and hands-on involvement in charitable or community issues.
The short answer to the question, "What is Freemasonry" is that it’s one of the world’s oldest and largest fraternal organisations.
Made up of 5 million Freemasons around the world, it has adopted the fundamental principles of integrity, goodwill, and charity as foundations for an individual’s life and character.
So, a Freemason strives to be moral and ethical.
He strives to show justice, act honourably, and be loyal.
A Freemason teaches and practices concern for people.
He cares for the less fortunate, and helps those in need.
And all this is done irrespective of cultural or ethnic background.
Irrespective of religious beliefs.
And irrespective of any differences in social standing or education.
Freemasonry and Symbolism
Freemasonry makes symbolic use of various practices and implements of those guilds from the Middle Ages.
The craftsmen of yesteryear adopted a series of exclusive signs and words to be able to demonstrate that they were trained masons, and to enable easy identification as they moved from site to site.
In that same way, the Masons of today use a series of signs and words to indicate their progress through the various stages of Freemasonry.
Stonemasons from centuries ago wore leather aprons to carry their working implements and to protect themselves from flying chips of stone.
Modern Masons wear an embroidered lambskin apron to distinguish rank. As the Mason’s proficiency increases, the design of his apron becomes more ornate.
Those skilled workers in times gone by used the square to test the accuracy of their stonework – to prove that it was square with the other sides and that angles were identical.
They also used compasses to mark out the ground from the scaled plans of their intended building.
Freemasonry uses the square and compasses to remind members of basic guidelines for their dealings with other men.
The square symbolises integrity, truthfulness, and honour, while the compasses symbolise the importance of self-control, or keeping emotion and prejudice within bounds.
There are a number of Masonic charities actively involved in the care of young people, orphans, the sick, the aged, and those affected by natural disaster.
Masonicare is one of the official Masonic charities in NSW and ACT. Through a range of different services Masonicare is able to make a difference in the community whilst spreading the good name of Freemasonry.
Masonicare’s services include Institutional Grants, Regional Grants, Youth Support, Benevolence and Disaster Relief. Visit the Masonicare website to find out more.
A Start in Life assists Australian youth overcome the barriers to their education, so they can enjoy the same learning opportunities as their peers.
The NSW Freemasons’ Orphans Society assists orphans from infancy, until they’re able to care for themselves.
The Whiddon Group is one of the largest non-sectarian providers of aged care in Australasia.
There are currently 16 facilities across the state, catering for more than 1500 people aged over 65 years. These homes are autonomous.
RFBI (Royal Freemasons’ Benevolent Institution) was founded in 1880 and provides assistance to people in need, as well as being a well-respected provide of aged care and retirement living services. RFBI cares for over 1,400 residents and clients across 21 residential care villages, 20 retirement villages and home care services across NSW and ACT.
There are now more than 1400 residents in 18 centres across New South Wales.
Masons usually gather once a month for a daytime or evening meeting lasting two to three hours.
Like any organisation there’s a business element, with minutes, accounts, and plans for upcoming events to be read and discussed among the members.
But a Lodge meeting is also ceremonial, involving a series of formalised and symbolic presentations which use drama to highlight the codes of conduct by which a Freemason strives to live.
During a Lodge meeting, instruction is also provided to assist in a Mason’s daily life and personal development.
This may be on a range of topics, including public speaking, communication skills, leadership skills, or business management.
The final part of the meeting involves all Lodge members dining together.
With Masons coming from all age groups and from all walks of life, the opportunity to sit down and enjoy a meal with each other provides the perfect chance to "catch up", and yet another forum for an exchange of ideas.
Apart from these meetings, most Lodges organise regular social activities for the entire family.
Theatre parties, sports days, picnics – the holding of these types of events helps develop closer bonds, not just between Masons, but among their families as well.