The Origins of Modern Freemasonry

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard B. Spence Ph.D., University of Idaho

Modern Freemasonry started with the Grand Lodge of England in 1717, London. There were already four lodges, out of which the Grand Lodge of England grew, and gave rise to more lodges. By 1800, over 300 affiliated lodges had appeared in England alone. In Ireland and Scotland, independent grand lodges were born.

A picture showing the Freemason symbol.
Modern Freemasonry became known to the public in 1717, in London.
(Image: Mariusz Matuszewski/Shutterstock)

What is Freemasonry about?

Freemasonry has been described as a way of improving morality, building character, or the course of self-improvement. This is also the purpose of other societies like the Illuminati secret society. According to the American esoteric scholar—and 33rd degree Mason—Manly P. Hall, Freemasonry is a splendid camaraderie of ‘free and accepted’ men enjoined to devote themselves to ethical, educational, fraternal, patriotic, and humanitarian concerns. The invisible society is a secret and most august fraternity whose members are dedicated to the service of a mysterious arcanum—the ‘secret of secrets’.

According to another Masonic scholar, Albert Pike, Masonry is a search for the light. It is reminiscent of the occult mysteries of Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish tradition.

Learn more about Secret societies: the underworld of history.

The Two Factions of the Grand Lodge of England

In the 1730s, the Grand Lodge of England was fractioned due to a dispute among the members. There were two factions called the Ancients and the Moderns. The argument was about the importance of rituals and traditions. Influenced by the Enlightenment’s rationalism, the Moderns wanted to discard rituals, while the Ancients wanted to stick to them. Also, the Moderns wanted politics to be incorporated into the order, but the Ancients regarded the order as a mystical and religious one.

In 1799, under the new Unlawful Societies Act passed by the British Parliament, the two factions were forced to work together so that the order wouldn’t be banned. The British government banned all societies that required a secret oath because they feared secret societies would be used to promote ideas related to the French Revolution.

A lot of societies like the London Corresponding Society and the United Irishmen were banned, but the Freemasons were exempted under the condition of keeping records of their members. That shows they had a lot of influence and prestige, which was partly due to the presence of members of the royal family among the initiates. Most of the members of the high middle class and aristocrats preferred Freemasonry because the membership costs were high, which kept common men out of society.

Finally, in 1813, the two factions agreed on a common ground: the Moderns accepted the rituals, and the Ancients grew tolerant of politics.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Freemasons and the Knights Templar

The origins of many features of Freemasonry have been lost in time. So, there have been numerous speculations about the relationship between Masonry and other secret societies. One of such secret societies is the Knights Templar of the Crusaders era. It is a widely-accepted fact that the Freemasons and Templars are connected, but there is no solid evidence to support it. The only documentation available is a piece of tapestry from the 15th century Kirkwall Scroll from Scotland with Templar and Gnostic symbols on it. Although it might be a forgery, American Masons did not doubt these connections and named their youth auxiliary the DeMolays. It was in honor of Jacques de Molay, the last grandmaster of the Templars.

A painting depicting the Freemasons' Hall, London, c. 1809.
Freemasonry and Knights Templar were connected although there is no solid evidence to prove this link. (Image: Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) (after) John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819), Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl. 1780–1812), Thomas Sutherland (1785–1838), J. Hill, and Harraden (aquatint engravers)[1]/Public domain)

In his 1989 book titled Born in Blood, the historian John Robinson shows a real connection between Templars and Freemasons. He believes that a shady great society was behind the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in England. He argues that this secret society hatched a conspiracy by clandestine Templars to take revenge against the church and the crown. As fascinating as his argument is, it is not well-documented. However, he does make some interesting points. For example, he suggests that medieval mason guilds were not a kind of trade union as we have come to believe. Rather, they were employer associations with master masons as their heads treating their lesser brethren as common workers and servants. So, he guesses that instead of taking over the real guilds, the crypto-Templars formed their pseudo-masonic guilds as a cover. This is why contrary to regular masons, they are always obsessed with secrecy. Despite all these points, the link between Freemasons and Templars is still not supported by facts.

Learn more about The Knights Templar.

Common Questions about The Origins of Modern Freemasonry

Q: What is the purpose of Freemasons?

The purpose of Freemasonry is to improve morality, build character, and provide a course of self-improvement. They want to make better men out of good men.

Q: What is the difference between Modern and Ancient Masons?

Modern and Ancient Masons were two factions of the Grand Lodge of England. The Modern Masons believed that politics should be integrated into Masonry, and rituals must be discarded, while the Ancient Masons believed rituals must be preserved.

Q: Was Manly P Hall a Freemason?

Yes. Manly P. Hall was an esoteric scholar and a 33rd degree Mason. He defined Masonry as a society in which the members devote themselves to ethical, educational, fraternal, patriotic, and humanitarian concerns.

Q: Were Knights Templar and Freemasons connected?

Although there have been many suggestions that Knights Templar and Freemasons were connected, there is no substantial evidence to prove that.

Keep Reading
Secret Societies: On the Road to Revival?
Secret Societies, or Societies with Secrets?
Heresy in the High Middle Ages