On official visits I have been speaking about Masonic-things -to-live-by. On other occasions, such as ladies' nights where non-Masons have been present, I have talked about some features of Masonry which, I believe, should be more widely known. This has frequently involved some reference to the roots from which our present organization sprang. Tonight I propose to take a brief look at some of our roots from the standpoint that these can and should contribute to our lives and actions.
The founding event of the present Masonic system was, of course, the establishment at the Goose and Gridiron Alehouse of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717- The preparation for this had started the previous year when four Lodges at London decided to form a joint organization. These Lodges were those which met
There are three important things to note about this,- our first Grand Lodge was based on pre-existing lodgesj it was a voluntary union based on a mutual desire to form a fraternal organization; and the establishment meeting, at which Mr. Anthony Sayer, Gentleman, was elected Grand Master, was held on St. John Baptist's Day (June designated as the assembly and feast of free and accepted Masons.
The pre-existence of guilds and lodges of operative inason builders goes back many hundreds of years. In England manuscripts with charges to members of mason guilds go back to the ca. 1390 Regius MS now in the British Museum. John of Gloucester was called a Master Mason at the erection of Westminster Hall started in 1254. It appears that over five thousand churches were built in England in the 11th century immediately after the Norman conquest in 1066. Their architecture was remarkably similar and different from the earlier Saxon architecture. This is strong evidence of an organized body of artisans trained in a common tradition.
Similar guilds functioned on the continent. There was in the 18th century in France, a Compagnonnage with three divisions, les Fils de Solomon, les Fils de Maître Jacques, and les Fils de Soubisse. According to their legend Maître Jacques was a colleague of Hiram and was also murdered. There are some records of codes of other guilds going back to the 13th century. In Germany there were the Steinmetzen with some records extant to the 15th century. The story gets nebulous as we go to still earlier dates. There may or may not have been a group of "Comacine Masters" operating from near Lake Como in the Italian Alps in the early middle ages. There appear to have been "Collegia" devoted to the craft of building in the times of expansion of the Roman empire. What the story was in still earlier days., e.g. at the time of the building of King Solomon's temple, or of earlier structures in other lands we simply do not know.
That skilled artisans laboured on all the great structures in all lands in the ancient world is obvious. This is a universal matter. It is only reasonable to assume on the basis of their accomplishments that these men had codes of ethics (which from the common nature of their work had much in common), protected knowledge of their skills and were, properly, proud of the results of their labours. The point is abundantly clear that our roots as builders are very ancient.
The value to us of this tradition is, I believe, not primarily because of its antiquity but because of a universality primarily associated with religious activity and because of its emphasis on the importance of the individual and of individual freedom.
Our ancient brethren in the middle ages were not just masons -they were freemasons. In an age of serfdom they were not bound to the land. They were free to move from place to place and valued this freedom with a legitimate pride. They held that if a man had been brought up as a slave he was permanently conditioned to a degree of servility which was wholly unacceptable in a freemason. So every freemason was required to be free-born before being admitted to an apprenticeship which frequently lasted seven years. This is why today we ask every candidate to declare that he is free by birth, I think we make a great mistake in not explaining the reason for this to each of our newly initiatedfe 049 brethren. Without such an explanation the bald question is today at best meaningless and at worst insulting. With an explanation,, it is pregnant and challenging.
If you want a specific example of this independence and freedom among our ancient brethren look carefully at the main entrance of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The carvings depict the last judgment and one of the condemned going down to hell is a bishop in full panoply of mitre, cope and staff. What a magnificent lesson and what nerve to so display it in the middle ages.
There is an even more striking example of freedom and independence in the structure of this great Roman Catholic cathedral. Look at its form with two great towers on either side of the entrance and the single spire over the cross of the transepts and the nave, proclaiming to those who have eyes to see, that the divine creativity embraces both the female and male elements.
Our term "accepted" Mason stems, in its origin, from the same independence and sense of brotherhood. The guilds "accepted" members who were not operative craftsmen. These men were often royalty or nobility or prominent churchmen. As our ancient brethren were as human as we are, they naturally gave especial consideration to the powerful and wealthy and influential who could advance and assist their work. But they did not bring these men in as "patrons" or as "honorary members". They accepted them, quite literally, to their own brotherhood with all that that implies.
Today we are all speculative rather than operative Masons. We are all accepted Masons. We should remember the meaning of this acceptance by our brethren and,while taking a legitimate pride in our title, each of us should accept the obligation which it imposes.
And so tonight as a Masonic-thing-to-live-by I give you one of our most precious assets - our heritage of freedom:-a freedom as builders to build, a freedom as individuals to be individuals, a freedom as worshippers to worship the Supreme Being, in whom we each have expressed a belief, according to the dictates of our own conscience and with respect for all who do so according to their conscience, a freedom as members of the human race to associate with each other as brothers, a freedom, please God, to proclaim and demonstrate to all men in all times the founding principles of a Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons.