Since the middle of the 19th century, Masonic historians have sought the movement's origins in a series of ancient documents known as the Old Charges, dating from the Regius Poem in 1425 to the beginning of the 18th century. The Old Charges include rules and regulations for training operative stonemasons in the guilds of Medieval times.
Over time, men who were not operative masons began entering the lodge communities. These men became known as "accepted" or "speculative" Masons, while the craftsmen adopted the moniker of "free" Masons. Together they became known as the "Free and Accepted" Masons from which modern Freemasonry has descended.
The earliest rituals and passwords from operative lodges stem from the turn of the 17th–18th centuries. They show continuity with the traditions developed in the later 18th century by accepted or speculative Masons, as those members who did not practice the physical Craft came to be known. The minutes of the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) No. 1 in Scotland show a continuity from an operative lodge in 1598 to a modern speculative Lodge. It is reputed to be the oldest Masonic Lodge in the world.
The Rise of Speculative Masonry
The Old Charges documents relate a mythologized history of the craft, the duties of its grades, and how oaths of fidelity are taken upon joining. Operative Masons; the expert builders of old who worked with stone, used craftsmen's rules, tools, and science to build literal, physical structures. Speculative Freemasonry applies these principles, derived from ancient stonemasonry, for moral and intellectual development. Freemasons employ the rules and tools of Operative Masonry, such as the square and compasses and the Masonic apron, as metaphors for building their character as men.
Today, the Stonemasons' tools are synonymous with the fraternity. Every level within the stonemason's guild – Apprentice, Journeyman, Master Mason – mirrors a Freemason's journey of self-improvement. In modern Freemasonry, members complete a series of three degrees to confirm they are ready to move up through the lodge.
An alternative theory for the rise of Freemasonry came from Thomas De Quincey in his work titled Rosicrucians and Freemasonry. He put forward the idea which suggested that Freemasonry was an outgrowth of Rosicrucianism. The theory had also been postulated in 1803 by German professor J. G. Buhle.
Freemasonry comes to America
Freemasonry spread from the British Isles during the Colonial Era and has been on American soil since the first colonies. The earliest known American lodges were in Pennsylvania. John Moore, the Collector for the port of Pennsylvania, wrote of attending lodges there in 1715, two years before the formation of the first Grand Lodge in London.
In Massachusetts during the early 18th century, Masons were eager to receive a dispensation to form lodges around Boston. Brothers in the settlement urged Henry Price to visit London and petition the Grand Lodge for a warrant to establish lodges in America. After a journey to England, Price returned with permission to charter individual lodges in North America. Starting in 1730, The Grand Lodge of England (Moderns) appointed a Provincial Grand Master for North America based out of Pennsylvania who began to issue Warrants for Provincial Grand Lodges in the colonies.
Other lodges in the colony obtained authorizations from the later Ancient Grand Lodge of England, the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and the Grand Lodge of Ireland, which was particularly well represented in the traveling lodges of the British Army. Many came into existence with no warrant from any Grand Lodge, applying and paying for their authorization only after they were confident in their own survival.
Many founding fathers were Freemasons, and countless brethren fought in the American Revolution. As time passed, the Craft grew in popularity, and Masons expertly passed down Masonic teachings and rituals, ensuring the values that first bound us together lived on.
After the American Revolution, independent U.S. Grand Lodges developed within each state. Some thought was briefly given to organizing an overarching "Grand Lodge of the United States," with George Washington (a member of a Virginian lodge) as the first Grand Master, but the idea was short-lived. The various state Grand Lodges did not wish to diminish their own authority by agreeing to such a body.
Prince Hall Freemasonry
Prince Hall Freemasonry exists because of the refusal of early American lodges to admit African Americans. In 1775, an African American man named Prince Hall and 14 other African American men were initiated into a British military lodge with a warrant from the Grand Lodge of Ireland, having failed to obtain admission from the other lodges in Boston.
When the British military Lodge left North America after the end of the Revolution, those 15 men were given the authority to meet as a lodge but not to initiate Masons. In 1784, these individuals obtained a warrant from the Premier Grand Lodge of England (GLE) and formed African Lodge No. 459. When the UGLE was formed in 1813, all U.S.-based Lodges were stricken from their rolls – due primarily to the War of 1812. Thus, separated from both UGLE and any concordantly recognized U.S. Grand Lodge, African Lodge No. 459 re-titled itself as the African Lodge No. 1 – and became a de facto "Grand Lodge" (this Lodge is not to be confused with the various Grand Lodges on the Continent of Africa). As with the rest of U.S. Freemasonry, Prince Hall Freemasonry soon grew and organized a Grand Lodge system for each state.
Widespread racial segregation in 19th- and early 20th-century North America made it difficult for African Americans to join Lodges outside of Prince Hall jurisdictions and impossible for inter-jurisdiction recognition between the parallel U.S. Masonic authorities. By the 1980s, such discrimination was a thing of the past. Today most U.S. Grand Lodges recognize their Prince Hall counterparts, and the heads of both organizations are working towards full Masonic recognition, including mutual visitation, if they still need to be implemented. The United Grand Lodge of England recognizes Prince Hall Grand Lodges. While celebrating their heritage as Masonic lodges of African Americans, the Prince Hall jurisdictions are open to all men regardless of race or religion.