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    What is free about the Freemasons?

    Address by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory, to the Montefiore Lodge, Tel Aviv, Israel, on 9 October, 2012.

    g freemasonryWe all know what masons are. They are tradesmen involved in building in stone. We are not so certain, however, about Freemasons.

    To say they are Masons who are free is not much help. We need to ascertain what is free about them. That’s the question which this evening’s lecture will attempt to address.

    Our concern will not be with masonry in the sense of stonework, nor with the etymological derivation of the word mason (it is probably from a root that means to hew or cut), but with Masonry/Freemasonry as a fraternal movement.

    We begin by asking when the term Freemason was first used. It was certainly current in the 17th century, because an anti-Masonic leaflet of 1698 mocks it. As reported in Bernard E Jones’ Freemason’s Guide and Compendium (1950), the 1698 pamphleteer called the Freemasons a “devilish sect of men” who were “anti-Christ”.

    Pontificating about “Mischiefs and Evils practised in the sight of GOD by those Freed Masons” (note the inaccurate term), he declared, “I say take care lest their Ceremonies and secret Swearings take hold of you, and be wary that none cause you to err from Godliness”.

    Masons of course called themselves “free”, not “freed”, but the parody appealed to a detractor who feared that the “devilish sect” were throwing off religious restraints.

    We will come in due course to the religious views of the Freemasons, but note for the moment that the term Freemason was known and used at least as early as 1698.

    But 1698 is far from being the first instance of the name. For an earlier instance we can go back a further century and a half to a publication of 1550, Werdmuller’s A Spiritual and Most Precious Perle (sic), quoted in Robert Cawdray’s Treasurie of Similies (sic), which was published in 1609. Werdmuller says, “As the Free-mason heweth the hard stones… even so God the Heavenly Free-Mason buildeth a Christian Church”.

    Even 1550 is by no means the beginning of the term Freemason. Two centuries earlier than this, there is a 1350 proclamation by the Council of London after the Black Death, quoted in GW Steinbrenner’s Origin and Early History of Masonry (1864), page 110. The statute fixes the wages of a master Freemason at four pence and of other masons at three pence, presumably per annum.

    “Here,” says Steinbrenner, “the word Freemason evidently signifies a free-stone, as distinguished from the rough mason, who mainly built walls of rough, unhewn stone.”

    It seems that the name Free-mason differentiated a free from a rough-mason. This is evidenced by the fact that certain English parish registers – e.g. Astbury in 1685 – recorded that such-and-such a person, “Freemason”, which is evidently an occupational category, had died.

    Note that the person’s occupation is not “mason” but “Freemason”. There must be a difference, and it seems to lie in their respective social status.

    “Freemason” was superior to “mason”. As a trained and skilled craftsman he was not tied down or obligated to any one parish but socially mobile, able and allowed to move about from site to site and take his skills wherever he wished. He was an independent worker, autonomous and free. Unlike the carpenters and plasterers, he belonged to an emancipated trade – a “francmet(t)ier” in French, hence the French term francmacon, denoting a craftsman who was free from taxes and not bound to one site but free to move about.

    I know that some people believe in the romantic theory that quotes the Anglo-Saxon freo, “beloved”, and/or a similar Sanskrit word, priya, that means “dear” – both apparently linked with the word “friend”. The result is a (hopefully accurate) notion that the free mason was brotherly, friendly, generous and helpful. On this basis the movement might have been titled Friendmasonry. A lovely idea, but with little historical validity.

    The truth is undeniably that in Operative history the word “free” in Freemasonry has to do with the occupational status of the fully-qualified and “accepted” medieval masons. But now we have to move into the Speculative period, and that’s where the story becomes complicated.

    By way of preface, we need to explain how and why Operative Masonry turned into a Speculative movement. The scholars are far from unanimous on the subject, largely because of the lack of definite evidence one way or the other.

    According to the so-called Transition Theory, men from outside the mason’s trade moved into Operative lodges from about the middle of the 17th century and eventually took them over. The Operative trade was declining (the major Continental castles and cathedrals were mostly built by about 1540 and a new economic system was emerging) and the lodges needed new members in order to survive.

    On the other hand, the new cadre of scientists and intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment were attracted to the practical application of their scientific experimentation and mental intellectualising, and were intrigued by geometry, architecture and artisanship. For various reasons they also needed a structure into which they could integrate. It suited both the artisans and the intellectuals to link together, despite the socio-economic-educational gaps between them.

    How did the transition work? It’s hard to be certain, because we have hardly any written evidence to go on – probably because neither of the two groups seems to have kept detailed records, though the archives of the Royal Society might need new attention in this respect.

    We can understand that the Operative masons had a principle of privacy, and they did not write minutes or protocols. It’s not that they lacked men who could read and write, but they had a conscious policy of keeping their business to themselves. This policy of privacy did in fact bring opprobrium upon the movement in that the Roman Catholic Church believed that since the Freemasons were keeping things secret, they had to be up to mischief.

    However, there is an important clue in the fact that Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), who was not an occupational, i.e. an Operative mason, notes in his diary that on 16 October, 1646, he and Colonel Henry Mainwaring (a cousin of his first wife) were initiated into a Freemasons’ lodge at Warrington in Lancashire. There must have been other outsiders who did likewise, as Ashmole notes in 1682 that he attended a “noble dinner” in London at a tavern in Cheapside at the expense of “the New-accepted Masons”.

    Other sources claim that Robert Moray became a non-operative Mason a few years before Ashmole. Who decided that outsiders, even in small numbers, could be allowed into the companies of masons? There was no overall governing body of lodges, so no formal enrolment policy was possible. We have to conclude that there was probably a patchwork process of individual lodges deciding for themselves to accept non-Operative members, resulting in the movement going through a sort of creeping process of change and re-invention.

    A crucial question is why Ashmole and others were attracted to Freemasonry. We can only surmise, but the answer seems to lie in the life story and interests of this polymath. He was known at various times as an antiquary, politician, military officer, mathematician, astrologer, chemist, student of nature and a Royalist in the English Civil War – in all, as someone has described him, a “virtuoso and curioso”.

    His enquiring mind would have made him wonder what the Freemasons did in their lodges, but more than this, he may have thought that the movement could assist his interest in scientific truth and his work to restore the monarchy, perhaps as a cloak behind which to promote the Royalist cause. In this context it is possible that the Hiram Abiff story was developed by people with such sympathies and views as these, as an allegory of the royal personage whom they hoped to restore to the throne.

    All this happened in England, where institutions have an acknowledged habit of evolving over time, often in patchwork fashion. It is possible that the story in Scotland was somewhat different and more decisive, and that some Scottish Operative lodges deliberately decided to change their nature and become non-Operative, whilst retaining the masons’ terminology they were used to.

    In both places it is may be that for some time there were parallel Operative and Speculative lodges working more or less side-by-side, with the Operatives finally dying out or merging with the Speculatives. The evidence is not yet sufficient for us to be certain about this theory. Nor are we sure how this development fitted in with the new intellectual movements in France and elsewhere on the Continent.

    Now comes our question as to the relevance of the term “free” in the new situation.

    17th century secular thinking and science believed in the free use of reason in the search for truth. (The Fellows of the Royal Society had specifically committed themselves to “increase the powers of all mankind and to free them from the bondage of errors”). They sought an intellectual home outside the conventional Church. The masons’ lodges were already there, with their long tradition of philosophising – at first about one’s own craft, and by extension about ethical principles and the meaning of life. But the lodges – if not consciously Christian – were not non-Christian. Being officially non-Christian would have created major problems for the secularists.

    However, Rev. Dr James Anderson and his colleagues who formulated the 18th century Constitutions of the craft made a major concession when they removed any element of Christian denominationalism from the movement and required from Freemasons only a general belief in God and an acceptance of an undefined – somewhat vague – level of religious belief, leaving detailed theological opinions to an individual’s own conscience. As a result, Freemasonry was religious but not a religion; in most respects it was not even Christian, though constantly using Old Testament imagery and idiom.

    Certain levels of the movement retain a specific Christian commitment, but the three craft degrees are open to Jews and other non-Christians, and the association of Jews with Freemasonry has played a significant role in the history of both.

    One of the major questions that has never been decisively answered is why what Ashmole calls “the New-accepted Masons” showed such an interest in stones, squares, compasses and corners.

    My answer is that the Speculatives who joined the craft were attracted by and accepted the allegorical use of building-trade terminology because they not only questioned conventional structures but sought to build a new society. They were free because they exemplified the latitude to let their minds roam. Like the medieval Freemasons, they were not pinned down to one place or one mindset.

    This is the story as I for one see it, though I admit that others may think differently. I believe that there were two stages. First applying the term “free” to their mental searching for truth, the Speculatives now moved to an ethical and philosophical emphasis on freedom in terms of human free will.

    I find this evinced in the First Degree ritual which – though the wording sometimes differs from one tradition to another – says, “No man can be made a Mason unless he is free”, and avers, “Masonry is free, and requires a perfect freedom of inclination and action from every candidate for its mysteries”.

    Put bluntly, in the craft as we have it today, we are Freemasons because we freely choose our own goals and principles, and because we believe that the task of freely building the future is placed in our own hands. Modern-day Freemasonry does not go in for much philosophical analysis but it certainly believes in the use of one’s free will.


    I appreciate the help and insights of my Australian friend and Masonic colleague, Rt. Wor. Bro. Joseph V Haffner.


    Apple, Raymond, Freemasonry: Studies, Speeches and Sensibilities, Sydney, 2010.
    Apple, Raymond, Education by Degrees: Masonic Notes, Bloomington, Indiana/Milton Keynes, 2012.
    Carr, Harry, The Freemason at Work, London, 1977.
    Hertzberg, Arthur, The French Enlightenment and the Jews, New York/London, 1968.
    Jacob, Margaret C, Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth Century Europe, Oxford, 1991.
    Josten, CH, Elias Ashmole (1617-1692)…, Oxford, 1966.
    Katz, Jacob, Jews and Freemasons in Europe, 1723-1939, Cambridge, Mass., 1970.
    Trevelyan, GM, English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries – Chaucer to Queen Victoria, London, 1948 ed.

    For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.


    Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.

    Order the paperback or Kindle edition from Amazon or the paperback from The Book Depository to receive free shipping. Selections from the book can be previewed on Google Books.

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