Wisdom Strength Beauty

Origins of Modern Freemasonry

by Brother Guy Alwine (2017)


I was raised here at State College Lodge on March 16, 2016. So far, Freemasonry has provided me a sense of belonging and fellowship that I haven't been able to find anywhere else in life. Of fellowship, 19th Century English author William Morris wrote that: "Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell; fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death; and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship's sake that ye do them." (1953, p. 10)

With the help of Bill Rinninger from Old Fort Lodge No. 537, I have put together a presentation with the goal of explaining how Freemasonry developed into its present day form. We've all wondered about where Freemasonry in it's modern form originated. Freemasonry is a much researched topic. More books have been written about Freemasonry than any other single topic except for religion and the history of nations (Tresner, "Basic Freemasonry", 2007, p. 4)

I will begin by describing the "Old Charges," manuscripts that set up an early system of expectations for the behavior of masons. I will then illustrate how the first Grand Lodge was founded in England. Finally, I will detail how masonry spread to the New World and the form that those American Masonic organizations took.

The Old Charges

You may have asked yourself what basis we have as a fraternity in terms of laws. Our legalistic basis as a fraternity dates back to the earliest existing records of Freemasonry, documents which are known as the "Old Charges". These are manuscripts dating from the time period between the end of the fourteenth century and the 1600s. They outlined a series of regulations, or Charges, for the social behavior of Masons both within masonry and in society.

The Old Charges established a history of Freemasonry that was the basis for the official, or "traditional" history of Freemasonry which was promoted in the printed Constitutions of the eighteenth century. This theory argued that modern Freemasonry descended from the working, or operative stonemasons of the Middle Ages, with even more remote roots in ancient history. It was argued that the ancient roots of Freemasonry lie with biblical Patriarchs such as Noah and Moses, and then King Solomon, architect of the Temple of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar, and classical Greece and Rome.

The Halliwell Manuscript, or Regius Poem, is the earliest of the Old Charges. It is a 64 page poem which traces the history of Masonry back to remote antiquity. Modern analysis has concluded that it was written around 1525 in Shropshire, England. It describes how Euclid renamed geometry as "Masonry" and designed it for the employment of the children of nobility in Ancient Egypt. It then explains that the craft of Masonry was brought to England during the reign of King Athelstan (924-939).

According to the Regius Poem, all the masons of England came to the King for direction as to how to govern themselves. Athlestan then worked with the nobility and landed gentry to create fifteen articles for masters to use to govern the moral behavior and work site conduct of the masons in their lodges. The moral articles are rules such as "Do not harbor thieves, do not take bribes, attend church regularly, etc." and the occupational articles laid out rules such as "Do not make your masons labor at night, teach apprentices properly, do not take on jobs that you cannot do, etc." The poem warned of punishment for those breaking the ordinances and called for annual assemblies of masons to be held. The phrase "So mote it be," by which we end our masonic prayers has been traced back to the Regius Poem. (Wikipedia.org, 2017)

Matthew Cooke Manuscript

The Matthew Cooke Manuscript, also written in the Shropshire region of England around 1450, is the second oldest of the Old Charges of Freemasonry and is the oldest known set of charges that is written in prose. It is notable for expanding on the historical basis of Freemasonry with the use of biblical references.

According to the Matthew Cooke Manuscript, the history of Freemasonry from biblical times to medieval England proceeded in the following manner: There follows the tale of the children of Lamech, expanded from the Book of Genesis. Jabal discovered geometry, and became Cain's Master Mason. Jubal discovered music, Tubal Cain discovered metallurgy and the art of the smith, while Lamech's daughter Naamah invented weaving. Discovering that the earth would be destroyed either by fire or by flood, they inscribed all their knowledge on two pillars of stone, one that would be impervious to fire, and one that would not sink. Generations after the flood both pillars were discovered, one by Pythagoras, the other by the philosopher Hermes. The seven sciences were then passed down through Nimrod, the architect of the Tower of Babel, to Abraham, who taught them to the Egyptians, including Euclid, who in turn taught masonry to the children of the nobility as an instructive discipline. The craft is then taught to the children of Israel, and from the Temple of Solomon finds its way to France, and thence to Saint Alban's England. Athelstan now became one of a line of kings actively supporting masonry. His youngest son, unnamed here, is introduced for the first time as leader and mentor of masons. (Wikipedia.org, 2017)

Founding of the Grand Lodge of England

Organized Freemasonry was born with the founding of the first Grand Lodge in London, England, on June 24, 1717. Four existing lodges met at the Goose and Gridiron ale house in St. Paul's Churchyard and elected Anthony Sayer as the first Grand Master. Those in attendance agreed to hold a Grand Feast once a year. Also, the Masters and Wardens of Lodges were commanded to meet every quarter in communication. For the first 3 years of its' existence,Grand Lodge simply provided an opportunity for an annual social gathering of the London lodges. There is no evidence of any attempt to exercise control over provincial lodges during these 3 early years. (Rite, 1993, p. 27)

The control structure of Grand Lodge became much more formal beginning in 1720, with the codification of Grand Lodge regulations by the second Grand Master, George Payne. A Grand Secretary was elected in 1723 and the practice of keeping official Minutes was established. The first official "Constitutions of the Freemason" was compiled and published by the reverend Dr. James Anderson in 1723, setting out those Grand Lodge regulations along with a history of the craft which was partially derived from the "Old Charges". This history was expanded and embellished by and Anderson in order to promote the idea of Freemasonry to the public. (Rite, 1993, p. 27)

Masonry in the New World

Can anybody name the tavern in Philadelphia where the first masonic lodge meetings were held in America? In 1732, Tun Tavern hosted the first meetings of St. John's Lodge Number 1. The Masonic Temple of Philadelphia recognizes Tun Tavern as the birthplace of Masonic teachings in America.

Masonry in America can be traced back to a definite beginning in 1730, when Daniel Coxe was appointed as Provincial Grand Master for New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania had a provincial lodge at this point, meaning that it was governed by the Grand Lodge of England. As a provincial lodge, Pennsylvania followed the constitution and bylaws of the Grand Lodge of England. During this time , Pennsylvania Freemasonry fell under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of England instead of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania like we do today.

The oldest known lodge in the New World is St. John's in Philadelphia, which was active by 1731, the year in which Benjamin Franklin is first recorded as a member. In 1734, Franklin printed an American edition of a Masonic constitution.

The Craft was divided during the American Revolution, with prominent Masons on both sides. Support for, or opposition to, the fight for independence was treated as a matter of individual conscience, which Freemasonry never interferes with. The signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were not overwhelmingly Masons. Only 9 of the 55 signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, with only 13 of the signers of the Constitution being Masons at the time or later becoming Masons. Many prominent heroes of the Revolution were Masons, however, men such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, John Hancock, and the Marquis de Lafayette. (Rite, 1993, p. 43) George Washington is quoted as saying "The grand object of Masonry is to promote the happiness of the human race."

In the early years of American independence, there was a failed attempt to establish a National Grand Lodge, leaving each State of the Union to be governed masonically by its own State Grand Lodge, a system that is still in place today.


I have explained how the Old Charges played a key role in setting up an early system of expectations for the behavior of masons. I then went on to illustrate how the first Grand Lodge was established in England.

Lastly, I explained how masonry spread to the new world and outlined the structural form that American Masonic organizations took.

While it is often argued that the sources of Masonry date back to remote antiquity, Masonry in its modern form has a solid basis in the Old Charges of the middle ages. The Old Charges were instrumental in influencing the creation of the Constitutions that solidified the Grand Lodge of England as an institution of masonic leadership. Organized Masonry in America began in the decades leading up to the American Revolution. In the early years of American Independence, the system of Grand Lodges at the state level was created. This system continues to govern American Freemasonry today.


  • "Dress up your speech!": quotations from many sources for Masonic speakers. (1953). Washington, D.C.: Masonic Service Association. (1953, p. 10)
  • Masonic manuscripts. (2017, August 12). Retrieved September 06, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masonic_manuscripts#Edinburgh_Register_House_MS (Wikipedia.org, 2017)
  • Miller, J. S. (2013). Origins of Masonry: The Scottish View [Pamphlet]. Silver Spring, MD: Masonic Service Association of North America.
  • Rite, Y. (1993). Freemasonry: a celebration of the craft. New York: JG Press. (Rite, 1993, p. 27)
  • Robinson, J. J. (1993). A Pilgrims path: freemasonry and the religious right. New York, NY: Evans. (Robinson, 1993)
  • Tresner, J. (2007). Basic Freemasonry [Pamphlet]. Silver Spring, MD : Masonic Service Association of North America. (Tresner, "Basic Freemasonry", 2007, p. 4)