THE ORIGIN OF FREEMASONRY

Ex. Comp. HENRY WILSON COIL, SR.

Royal Arch Magazine Winter 1966


We are pleased to print the first chapter of a new two-volume
work entitled Freemasonry Through Six Centuries by Brother
Coil, a distinguished California attorney, Masonic student,
scholar and author. He has served as master, high priest,
and commander in the York Rite and is a 33d Scottish Rite
Mason. His interest in the history of Freemasonry began in
the late 1920's. Since then he has zealously explored every
Masonic mountain and valley, probing and sifting each word
and deed of alleged myth, legend or artifact for the evidence
necessary to sustain or reject them. His Outlines of
Freemasonry, A Comprehensive View of Freemasonry,
Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia, and now Freemasonry
Through Six Centuries are the end result of his mission.

The origins of Freemasonry, its early development and
character, are unknown, and are likely to remain so. As we
go backward in time, illiteracy increases until reading and
writing were almost wholly confined to the clergy. Laws were
promulgated orally; news traveled by rumor; and, even in the
retracement of such notorious and public matters as the
judicial system, the courts, the magistrates, and legal
procedure of medieval England, we are in great perplexity to
understand their nature or fix the time when one custom
succeeded another.

The mortality of manuscripts was deplorably great. Large
numbers of all kinds were deliberately destroyed and
sometimes even used for fuel. Documents were generally
kept in the monasteries or in state archives. The wonder is,
therefore, not that we have so few, but that we have so
many.

Until the latter half of the nineteenth century, it was the
almost invariable habit of Masonic writers to attribute great
antiquity to the Craft. Such it is true, was literally supported
by the legends contained in the Gothic Constitutions, but
their texts were vastly exceeded by many writers who
seemed to think that the honor or legitimacy of the Fraternity
depended upon great age. Obviously, that was not so, and
the inevitable result was to cast discredit where esteem was
sought, because improvisation and bold assertion were
carried beyond all reason. Thus, the Rev. James Anderson,
the first and, naturally, one of the most noted of Masonic
commentators, in the Constitutions of 1723, not only
attributed a knowledge of geometry or Masonry to Adam and
to virtually all of the Hebrew patriarchs, but gravely stated
that,

. . . "the Israelites, at their leaving Egypt, were a whole
Kingdom of Masons, well instructed, under the conduct of
their Grand Master Moses, who often marshall'd them into a
regular and general Lodge while in the Wilderness, . . . the
wise King Solomon was Grand Master of the Lodge at
Jerusalem, and the learned King Hiram was Grand Master of
the Lodge at Tyre .... the Kings, Princes and Potentates built
many glorious Piles and became the Grand Masters, each in
his own Territory, . . . the Grand Monarch Nebuchadnezzar .
. . became the Grand Master-Mason . . . Zerubbabel the
Prince and General Master-Mason of the Jews . . . .
Ptolomeus Philadelphus . . . became an excellent Architect
and General Master-Mason . . . the glorious Augustus
became the Grand Master of the Lodge at Rome."

In the second edition of the Constitutions issued fifteen years
later, Dr. Anderson exceeded his former effort; he conferred
Grand Masterships with even more liberal hand; he created
the ancient office of Provincial Grand Master, filling that, too,
with prominent figures; and he expanded the history of
Masonry until he seemed almost to be indulging in ridicule.
But he was in earnest, and he was taken quite seriously by
many, perhaps, a majority of the Craft.

His thesis formed the basis of Masonic writing for about a
century and a half. But, before that concept died out, a new
group of writers appeared, asserting that Freemasonry was
descended from the Ancient Pagan Mysteries practiced in
Egypt, Asia Minor, and, later, in Greece, a notion which has
had a following even to the present day. The Essenes, the
Culdees, the Druids, the Roman Collegia of Artificers, the
Comacine Masters, the Rosicrucians, the Crusades, the
Knights Templar, and various other sects, orders, and
individuals have all had their advocates as the progenitors of
Freemasonry. Another school saw in Freemasonry political
objectives, and gave credit for its beginning to the Jacobites
supporting the restoration of the House of Stuart. So,
Masonic writings multiplied until, for the most part, they
became a heterogeneous mixture of error, assumption, and
imagination. If the bulk of them be examined, no less than
twenty-five different theories of the origin of the Society will
be found as follows:

(1) King Solomon; (2) The Temple of King Solomon; (3)
Euclid; (4) Pythagoras;

(5) The Creation of the World; (6) The Patriarchal Religion;
(7) Moses;

(8) The Ancient Pagan Mysteries; (9) The Essenes; (10) the
Culdees; (11) The Druids; (12) The Gypsies; (13) The
Rosicrucians;

(14) The Crusades; (15) The Knights Templar;

(16) Oliver Cromwell; (17) The Pretender for the Restoration
of the House of Stuart;

(18) Lord Bacon; (19) Dr. Desaguliers and his associates in
1717;

(20) The Roman Collegia of Artificers; (21) The Comacine
Masters; (22) The Steinmetzen; (23) The French
Compagnons; (24) Sir Christopher Wren at the building of
St. Paul's Cathedral; and (25) The English and Scots
operative Freemasons of the Middle Ages.

Evidently, most of these theories must be false. An
hypothesis, in order to ripen into a valid conclusion must be
supported not merely by some fact, but by sufficient fact to
carry moral conviction and remove it from the realm of
conjecture, and, moreover, it must be consistent with all
other known facts. Truth is an entire fabric; anything that is
true will conform to every other thing that is true; what is
false will not match what is true.

The twenty-five theories listed fall into seven general
classes:

The first group, items (1) to (4), inclusive, are suggested by
the Gothic Legends as explained in a subsequent chapter.
But legends are only legends and, when they are not only
unsupported by proof, but contain within themselves
anachronisms and inconsistencies, they cease to be
persuasive or even plausible.

The second group, items (5) to (7), inclusive, purports to give
Freemasonry Scriptural authority and identify it more or less
with the religion of the ancient Hebrews.

The third group, items (8) to (13), inclusive, contains the
mystical theories based upon the supposed resemblances
between the symbols and ceremonies of Freemasonry and
those of ancient and medieval cults. This kind of treatment
was carried to such extreme that it became discredited,
because it made Freemasonry a type of sun worship, sex
worship, and cabalistic mysticism designed to obscure rather
than to elucidate, to conceal rather than to reveal.

The fourth group, items (14) and (15), presents the chivalric
or military theories, which are detected to be quite fanciful
when we consider that there was never the slightest
evidence of any such element in Freemasonry until it was
added during the multiplication of degrees in the eighteenth
century.

The fifth group, items (16) and (17) makes Freemasonry a
political tool, first, of Cromwell against the Stuart Kings,
secondly, of the Jacobites to restore the House of Stuart,
and, lastly, of the House of Hanover, which succeeded the
Stuarts. All of these simmer down to the triviality that some
of the French degrees of the eighteenth century contained
references or language indicating that the author or authors
were partisans of the Pretender to the Throne of England,
then a refugee in France.

The sixth group, items (18) and (19), suggest personal
action, influence, or motives. The claim that Dr. John T.
Desaguliers and his associates created the Society in 1717
is an oversimplification of the revival or modification which
took place in that year, but has the advantage of casting the
burden of proof upon one asserting an earlier origin. It is
based on the scarcity of English lodge records prior to the
Grand Lodge era, but, obviously, must fall if any records at
all of that kind exist, as they do.

The seventh group, items (20) to (25), inclusive, may be
called the operative theories, and, as these finally developed
into the conclusion generally accepted at the present day, it
is appropriate to treat this group at some length.

The realization that Freemasonry had its origin in the
fraternities of operative stonemasons of the Middle Ages
arose as if by accident. The Abbe Grandidier, while writing
an essay about the Strassburg Cathedral in 1779,
discovered old records concerning practices and customs of
the Steinmetzen of medieval Germany which were so similar
to those of the symbolic Freemasonry which had come from
England and had spread over most of Europe that he
expressed the view in a private letter that Freemasonry had
sprung from the Strassburg Steinmetzen. Upon the
publication of that letter, the theory promptly found favor in
Germany, and, in 1785, Paul Vogel issued the first work
appearing anywhere attempting to trace the true origin of the
Society. He concluded that the Steinmetzen were the
progenitors of the modern Order. Between that time and
1875, this theory was supported by Heldmann, Kloss, Fallou,
and Findel in Germany and by Steinbrenner in America. The
obvious defect of this presentation was that all of the lodges
on the Continent of Europe were of British parentage, and
those lodges, upon their introduction into Germany, France,
and elsewhere in Europe, had encountered nothing which
bore any relation to them.

Meanwhile, the Ancient Pagan Mystery theory had sprung
up in Germany and spread to France, in both of which, it
soon languished, but it was avidly absorbed in England and
America.

At the same time, the Andersonian fables, popularized by
William Preston, William Hutchinson, and George Oliver
were current and widely accepted as late as 1858 when
J.W.S. Mitchell published his History of Freemasonry in
which he vouched for the origin of Freemasonry at the
Building of King Solomon's Temple, but derided the idea of
its development at any earlier time.

Then came a new school of realism that completely
revolutionized the whole course of Masonic historiography
between 1860 and 1885. In 1861, Mathew Cooke
transcribed into modern English the manuscript (MSS) which
bears his name. W.J. Hughan, in quick succession (1869-
1872) published his Constitutions of the Freemasons,
Masonic Sketches, and Old Charges of the British
Freemasons. In 1870, W. P. Buchan opposed the theory that
the Grand Lodge of 1717 was the revival of an earlier,
similar body. In 1873, D. M. Lyon's History of the Lodge of
Edinburgh appeared. In 1876, an American, George F. Fort,
placed himself in the forefront of Masonic historians by the
publication of his Early History and Antiquities of
Freemasonry. By 1885, additional contributions had come
from Hughan and W.H. Rylands.

Another member of this school, Robert Freke Gould, had
published The Athol Lodges and The Four Old Lodges, but
the culmination of the whole movement was his History of
Freemasonry which appeared in 1885. This was at once
recognized as epochal, and has, since, for over half a
century, remained the standard work upon the subject. Later
investigations have introduced some qualifications of, and
additions to Gould's findings, but the main stem of his
argument and the validity of his principal conclusions have
not been seriously questioned.

Accordingly, it is generally accepted at the present day that
Freemasonry originated in the Fraternity of operative
Masons, the cathedral builders of medieval England and
Scotland. This conclusion is supported by all known records.
Based upon written. records, it carries the lodges in Scotland
back to A.D. 1598 and the English Craft (without lodge
records) back to about A.D. 1400, the approximate date of
the Regius manuscript, the oldest written document of the
Fraternity. It carries the Mason's Company of London, a
guild, not precisely the same as the Fraternity, back to
A.D.1356.

The period of Gothic architecture extended from about A.D.
1150 to 1550, and, unless we are prepared to believe that
those remarkable Gothic edifices were erected by
stonemasons and architects who sprang to the work without
prior experience or any long period of developing art, we
must presume some organization prior to the twelfth century.

Obviously, the door is opened to such theories as that the
Freemasons antedated the Gothic era and developed out of
the Roman Collegia of Artificers or a remnant thereof, called
the Comacine Masters, who are said to have settled on an
island in Lake Como in Lombardy and to have flourished
about A.D. 800 - 1000. One or the other of these theories
was accepted credulously and without proof by numerous
writers, but the latter was very ably supported and widely
adopted following its rather scholarly presentation by Leader
Scott (Mrs. Webster) in 1899. Her argument was based on
the assumption that the Comacine Masters (Magistri
Comacini) were Master Masons who conducted a school
(schola) at Lake Como and there founded Freemasonry,
which they transmitted into western Europe. Her theory was
demolished, however, when it was brought to light that
Comacine was not derived from Como but from the Low
Latin co-maciones, meaning guild masons and used in
various Italian cities far removed from Lake Como for about
four centuries before the Lake Como settlement is supposed
to have been made. In like manner, schola meant guild and
not school. Furthermore, French, German, and British
Freemasons of the Middle Ages worked almost exclusively
in Gothic, which had little vogue in Italy.

Those who have sought to trace Freemasonry back of its
own written records have been too easily persuaded. In a
sense, all crafts of the present day are development of
similar arts of older times. The construction of buildings has
been a common occupation of man through several
thousand years. It no more follows, however, that
Freemasonry is descended from ancient sources than it
follows that our government was founded in Greece or Rome
because it contains principles or institutions formerly current
in those countries. The possession of old themes by younger
institutions does not justify our antedating the birth certificate
of the modern holder. But that has often been attempted,
and such themes have been the tenuous threads by which
the modern Order has presumptively been bound to others
of distant lands and ages.

We indulge here in no such gossamer thesis. By the origin of
Freemasonry, we mean that arising in an earlier body or
order which as a permanent sodality having the same
general laws, customs, and doctrines has existed by a
continuously replenished membership from the earlier times
to the present. It is not necessary that each or any unit of the
society show a continuous life throughout but only that the
same system and kind of lodges, chapters or other meetings
were held, ceremonies practiced or doctrine inculcated with
continuity of purpose so as to constitute a recognizable
whole without substantial break or disconnection, indicating
an abandonment or destruction of the movement.


 

 

         

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