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Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. Ed. J. Gordon Melton. Vol. 1. 5th ed. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2001. p604-607.
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An occult movement of the seventeenth century. Freemasonry emerged as the British form of revived gnosticism analogous to the Rosicrucian movement in Germany. While having its roots in the architectural and construction guilds of the Middle Ages, modern masonry is rooted in the post-Reformation revival of Gnostic thought and occult practice. The mythical history of masonry served to protect it in the religiously intolerant atmosphere operative in Great Britain at the time of its founding.

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History and Mythic Origin

Although it would not be exactly correct to say that the history of Freemasonry was lost in the mists of antiquity, it is possible to say that although to a certain degree traceable, its records are of a scanty nature, and so crossed by the trails of other mystical brotherhoods that disentanglement is an extremely difficult process.

The ancient legend of its foundation at the time of the building of the Temple at Jerusalem is manifestly mythical. If one might hazard an opinion, it would seem that at a very early epoch in the history of civilization, a caste arose of builders in stone, who jealously guarded the secret of their craft. Where such a caste of operative masons might have arisen is altogether a separate question, but it must obviously have been in a country where working in stone was one of the principal arts. It is Page 605  |  Top of Article also almost certain that this early brotherhood must have been hierophantic with a leadership adept in the ancient mysteries. Its principal work to begin with would undoubtedly consist in the raising of temples and similar structures, and as such it would come into very close contact with the priesthood, if indeed it was not wholly directed by it.

In early civilization only two classes of dwelling received the attention of the architect—the temple and the palace. For example, among the ruins of Egypt and Babylon, remains of private houses are rare, but the temple and the royal residence are conspicuous everywhere, and we know that among the ruins of Central America temples and palaces alone remain, the huts of the surrounding dwellers having long ago disappeared. The temple was the nucleus of the early city. Commerce, agriculture, and all the affairs of life revolved around the worship of the gods.

A medieval cathedral took more than one generation to erect, and in that time many masons came and went. The lodge was invariably founded near the rising cathedral or abbey, and apprentices and others started work as opportunity offered. Indeed, a man might serve his apprenticeship and labor all through his life on one building, without ever seeing any work elsewhere.

The evidence as to whether the master-masons were also architects is very conflicting, and it has been held that the priests were the architects of the British cathedrals, the master-masons and operatives merely carrying out their designs. There is good evidence, however, that this is not wholly true. Of all arts, architecture is by far the most intricate. It is undoubtedly one that requires a long and specific training. Questions arise of stress and strain of the most difficult description, and it is obvious that ecclesiastics, who had not undergone any special training, would not be qualified to compose plans of the cathedrals.

Professional architects existed at a very early period, though instances are on record where the priests of a certain locality have taken upon themselves the credit of planning the cathedral of the diocese. Be this as it may, the "mystery" of building was sufficiently deep to require extensive knowledge and experience and to a great extent this justifies the jealousy with which the early masons regarded its secrets. Again, the jealousy with which it was kept from the vulgar gaze may have been racial in its origin, and may have arisen from such considerations as the following: "Let no stranger understand this craft of ours. Why should we make it free to the heathen and the foreigner?"

Masonry in Great Britain

In Great Britain, prior to the founding of the Grand Lodge, York and the north of England in general were regarded as the most ancient seat of the fraternity. Indeed, without stretching probabilities too far, the line of evolution so far as York is concerned is quite remarkable. In the early days of that city a temple of Serapis existed there, which was afterward a monastery of the Begging Friars, and the mysteries of this god existed beside the Roman Collegia or Craftsmen's Society.

Some have argued that the crypt of York Minster affords evidence of the progress of masonry from Roman to Saxon times. It is stated that it has a mosaic pavement of blue and white tiles laid in the form employed in the first degree of masonry. Undoubted is the fact that the craft occasionally met in this crypt during the eighteenth century.

Masonic tradition goes to show that even in the beginning of the fourteenth century, masonry in Britain was regarded as a thing of great antiquity. Lodge records for the most part only date back to the sixteenth century in the oldest instances, but ancient manuscripts are extant which undoubtedly relate to masonry.

Thus the old charges embodied in the Regius manuscript, which was unearthed in 1839 by Halliwell Phillips, are dated at 1390 and contain a curious legend of the craft that tells how the necessity of finding work of some description drove men to consult Euclid, who recommended masonry as a craft to them.It goes on to tell how masonry was founded in Egypt, and how it entered England in the time of King Athelstan (d. 940). The necessity for keeping close counsel as regards the secrets of the craft is insisted upon in rude verse.

The Cooke manuscript from the early fifteenth century likewise contains versions of the old charges. Egypt was regarded here as the motherland of masonry, and King Athelstan the medium for the introduction of the craft into the island of Britain. But that this manuscript was used among masons at a later date was proved by the 1890 discovery of a more modern version dated about 1687 and known as the William Watson manuscript. In all, about 70 of these old charges and pseudo-histories have been discovered since 1860. They all have much in common and are of English origin.

The Birth of Speculative Masonry

Whatever the ancient and medieval roots of masonry, in the seventeenth century it was given a new direction by the widespread acceptance into the lodges of non-masons who used the lodges as a home for their pursuit of spiritual wisdom apart from the theology of the established church, often while keeping a nominal membership in the Church of England. (By 1723, for example, all specific references to Christianity were removed from the movement's constitution; members had only to acknowledge God, the Great Architect of the Universe.) The first prominent speculative Freemason was astrologer Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), an officer in the court of Charles II. Ash-mole, and his contemporaries such as Robert Fludd (1574-1637), helped spread the revived gnosticism represented on the continent by Rosicrucianism. Through the century, speculative lodges consisting primarily if not exclusively of accepted masons spread throughout England and Scotland where they existed as a condoned (and somewhat unrecognized) form of religious dissent.

The coming of age of speculative masonry was signaled by the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, inaugurated on St. John the Baptist's Day 1717 by four of the old London lodges. Rev. John Theophilus Desguliers, who became Grand Master in 1719, was the chaplain to the Prince of Wales, and used his considerable influence to spread the movement both in England and France. The Grand Lodge provided the fraternity with its first central governing body, as prior to this time each lodge was self-governing. Many lodges speedily came under its aegis, and Ireland formed a Grand Lodge of her own in 1725, but Scotland did not follow until 1736, and even then many lodges held aloof from the central body, only 33 out of 100 falling into line.

From one or other of these three governing bodies all the regular lodges and variant rites throughout the world have arisen, so that modern masonry may truthfully be said to be of British origin. To say that Continental masonry is the offspring of the British lodges is not to say that no masonic lodges existed in France and Germany before the formation of the English Grand Lodge, but underscores the break between the masonry of the builders of the medieval architectual wonders and the speculative masonry of the seventeenth century. All of the modern speculative lodges in Europe date from the inception of the English central body. However, the Continental masonry possesses many rites that differ entirely from those found in the British craft.

In Germany, which existed at this time as a number of independent states, it was said that the Steinmetzin approximated very strongly in medieval times to the British masons, if they were not originally one and the same, but again, the modern lodges in Germany all dated from the speculative lodge founded in 1733.

We find the beginnings of modern French masonry in the labors of Martine de Pasqually, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, and perhaps to a some extent Cagliostro who toiled greatly to found his Egyptian rite in France. It is noticeable, however, that Cagliostro had become a member of a London Page 606  |  Top of Article lodge before attempting work on the Continent. In France, masonry had a more political complexion, being a source of the democratic thought underlying the French (and later the Italian) Revolution. Because of the political alignment of continental Freemasonry, an extreme enmity developed between Free-masonry and the Roman Catholic Church, which had aligned itself to the royal families of Europe. Masonry in England, a country that broke with Rome during the Reformation of the sixteenth century, had a much more apolitical stance.

Official opposition to Freemasonry by the Roman Catholic Church dates back to Papal bulls of 1738 and 1751 and is a tangled story of suspicion and intrigue relating to masonic secrecy and to complex political developments of the time. Much antagonism has been deliberately fostered by mischief makers. For example, during the nineteenth century, the French journalist Gabriel Jogand-Pagés, writing under the name Leo Taxil, perpetrated an extraordinary and prolonged hoax in which he claimed to have exposed a Satanist activity within Freemasonry. The motive appears to have been to embarrass the Roman Catholic Church, but it also added to traditional Church prejudices against Freemasonry and caused much trouble for masons.

The plot involved the claim that a certain Diana Vaughan, claimed to have been a High Priestess of Satanic Freemasonry and dedicated to overthrowing Christianity and winning the world for Satanism, had been converted to the Roman Catholic faith. The memoirs of "Diana Vaughan," written by Jogand, were read by Pope Leo XIII, and Jogand himself was received in private audience by the pope, and an anti-masonic congress was summoned in 1887 at Trent.

On Easter Monday 1897, at a press conference to present Diana Vaughan, Jogand confessed to his conspiracy and the details of his complex hoax are now generally known. But, great damage had already been done to relations between Roman Catholics and Freemasons. In 1917 the church declared that anyone who joined a masonic lodge was automatically excommunicated.

The Masonic Worldview

The Freemasons instituted an initiatory degree system by which members were step-by-step brought into the inner working of the lodge. Initially there were three degrees, but these could never satisfy the true gnostics. Various elaborate systems of degrees were developed to picture the levels leading from this world to God and to symbolize the journey of the knowing soul back home. The most famous, due to its success and longevity, was the 30° system placed upon the original three degrees that emerged as the 33° system of the Ancient and Accepted Rite, the system operative in the United Grand Lodge. This system became integral to the dominant American masonic body, the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, and its teachings as illustrated in the writings of Albert Pike, its dominant intellectual leader.

As speculative masonry emerged, it espoused the idea that masonry was a restatement of the ancient religion of human-kind. At one time, the masons suggested, there were two religions, one for the educated and enlightened and one for the masses. The one religion of the enlightened became the base upon which the various historic faiths emerged. Through the centuries, however, adepts (masters) kept the original teachings intact, and they were eventually passed in their purity to the masonic leadership. In the modern age, due to the evolution of the race, more people are now capable of receiving and safely handling that secret wisdom that is now being disseminated by the masonic lodges. That secret wisdom came from the ancient East and Middle East, and both Eastern religions (especially Hinduism) and Western mystical systems such as Kabalism assist the process of describing it.

The ancient wisdom myth of Freemasonry found an origin in the Bible, a significantly more acceptable source to a Christian establishment than Arabia and the Muslim countries of Rosicrucianism. In 1 Kings 7:13-45, the masons found the story of Hiram. Hiram was employed by King Solomon to work on the temple in Jerusalem. After his work, he disappeared from both the pages of the Bible and from history. Freemasons, however, developed his biography that included a murder by his artisan colleagues. Hiram, in working on the temple, became aware of the "Word of God" inscribed in the secret parts of the temple. He would not reveal what he had learned and his non-collegial reticence cost him his life. His death then became integral to the ritual initiation of members who symbolically die and are reborn into the craft.

The masonic worldview begins with three fundamental realities. First, there is a omnipresent, eternal, boundless, and immutable principle that is ineffable, beyond any limiting descriptors of human language, the end-point of all metaphysical speculation, the rootless root and the uncaused cause. Natural law is a representation of the permanency of the absolute. Second, there exists what we term space in the abstract. Space is a symbol of divinity as it is basic to all experience; it is fathomless but at the same time integral to all human concepts. Third, there exists motion, another abstract notion, representing unconditioned consciousness that manifests as spirit and matter. Spirit and matter are two facets of the absolute.

The universe is seen as a boundless plane, a playground upon which numerous universes come and go. There is an eternal flex in which new universes begin to develop and are absorbed back into the boundless space out of which they were formed. Creation of a universe begins as space becomes turgid and produces a first or potential matter called the akasa. Operating on this matter is absolute abstract motion, latent potential energy, consciousness, and cosmic ideation.

Thus at the beginning is the universal energy (fofat) and the universal substance (akasa) behind which stands consciousness and ultimately the absolute. As creation proceeds, it will occur in steps of seven. Seven plans of creation will be formed from the purely spiritual to physical substance. These seven planes of existence are reflected throughout the universe. Each human also possesses these seven levels. The seven levels are: atma, buddhi, manas, kama, astral, life principle, and physical. The operation of these seven planes in the universe and in the individual provide much room for speculative elaboration and would later provide material upon which Theosophy would build.

Masonry in America

Through the eighteenth century, Freemasonry had aligned itself with the Enlightenment and with the anti-monarchial ideals of the late-century revolutionaries. Masonic and Rosicrucian ideals flowed through the salons of France and supplied vital ideological components of the new revolutionary ethos that allowed the complete overthrow of an obsolete government system and the institution of a new democratic system. The Marquis de Lafayette, who joined in the American Revolution, was a mason. In the United States James Madison; James Monroe; Benjamin Franklin, who financed much of the revolution; and George Washington, who led its armies, were Free-masons. The input of Freemasonry in the founding of the republic can now be found on the dollar bill, which hails the coming of the "ordo nuevo seculorum," the "new order of the ages" and the pyramid topped with the all-seeing eye.

But masonry had established itself in America long before the revolution. The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts dates from 1733 and that of South Carolina was founded just four years later. The General Grand Chapter of the Royal Arch Masons of the U.S.A. was founded in Boston in 1797 by representatives from Massachusetts and New York. The Supreme Council 33 of Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States of America was formed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1801. Albert Pike, the most noteworthy of nineteenth century masons, was the leader of this latter organization for many years (1859-1891). The Page 607  |  Top of Article Order of the Eastern Star, an auxiliary for female relatives of masons, was founded in 1876. The masonic movement now encompasses millions of members primarily in lodges affiliated to its larger organizations, but also in a variety of smaller masonic groups that follow various patterns of different speculative rites.

Understanding the origins of speculative masonry as an occult movement, and the essentially gnostic nature of its thought, does much to explain why many prominent occultists such as Manly Palmer Hall trumpeted their masonic connections. It also shows how masonic thought served as a basis for Theosophy, and the manner in which masonic organizations provided the substructure upon which modern Rosicrucianism emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. Masonry supplied the organizational model not only for Rosicrucianism, but for ceremonial magic groups such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo Templi Orientis.


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Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"Freemasonry." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, edited by J. Gordon Melton, 5th ed., vol. 1, Gale, 2001, pp. 604-607. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 26 June 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3403801810

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  • Taxil, Leo,
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