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    How Freemasonry began

    Lecture delivered to the Gardens of Netanya Lodge, Israel, on 24 June 2020, 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.

    My subject is How Freemasonry began.

    First let me be personal and tell you how Freemasonry began for me, how I began as a Freemason.

    It was London in the 1960s. I was minister of the Bayswater Synagogue and then the Hampstead Synagogue. Members of one of the synagogues, I forget which, told me how much they enjoyed being Freemasons. Before long I was being interviewed for membership of the Lodge of Israel. I was duly accepted and after I moved to Sydney I went through the ranks and eventually became Worshipful Master of Lodge Mark Owen, was an official lecturer, was awarded Grand Lodge rank and am now Past Deputy Grand Master.

    Along the way I researched and wrote extensively about Freemasonry. I now belong to Lodges in Australia and Israel.

    What sparked my interest was both social and ideological. Going to Lodge became one of my great habits, even when I was busy from morning to night. I found Masonry a source of friendship and fellowship and still do, though Israeli Freemasonry lacks some of the vibrancy I am used to.

    I also see the movement in ideological as well as social terms. At a time when the whole world is suffering from the pain of a pandemic, and we all fear the future; at a time when we can least afford it, foolishness and fanaticism are undermining our common humanity.

    Please God most of us will see the return to normality – not a “normality” plagued by mischief and mayhem, but something better: the values that will build good men and a good world. That’s the ideological component that moves my Masonic life.

    How many people are Freemasons is not certain. The numbers fluctuate. These days we seem to be going through one of the “down” periods when statistics are not what they were. But irrespective of the membership figures, we know that Freemasonry is good and we ought to talk about it – amongst ourselves and to outsiders.

    But it has a great paradox. The movement is hundreds if not thousands of years old, but there is no definitive answer as to how it began. The little evidence we have is patchy and inconclusive and has been worked on so often that it is almost impossible to strip away the mythical accretions.

    The result is little certainty and a great deal of conjecture. There are several leading theories, but all have their major difficulties.

    Rev James Anderson

    Rev. James Anderson, who was one of the leading pioneers of modern Freemasonry, promoted a view that the craft grew up with Biblical man. He took the early Biblical material and re-worked and romanticised it.

    Whether Anderson believed his own stories we cannot be sure; he was ill-equipped with historical technique and was roundly attacked in his own lifetime, and later generations of historians attach little credence to what he wrote.

    What motivated Anderson and explained the emphasis on the Old Testament probably has to do with Anderson’s Scottish Presbyterianism. He was a believer, not an atheist. For him the Bible was fact and he thought that people who rejected the Bible were stupid. He was a Christian but not an Anglican. In London where he occupied a non-conformist pulpit, the Church of England was the establishment and nonconformists like Anderson were suspected of breaking the law.

    Hence Anderson had to justify an Old Testament-based religion with which all reasonable people could agree without inter-denominational squabbles.

    The fact that this was tantamount to a doctrine of religious tolerance that made it possible for Jews to enter Freemasonry was not Anderson’s major purpose but his concept brought benefits to Jews and enabled them to enter and rise high in basic Masonry, though they had problems with some of the other forms in which the movement maintained Christian traces.

    Because of James Anderson, the strange thing is that there are eminent Freemasons who still think that the craft genuinely goes back to Adam and Eve, or at least to Noah and Nimrod. For them the unlikelihood of the movement being sourced in the Creation story has never got in the way of myths and legends. Yes, some of the ancient characters of the Bible play a part in Freemasonry, but they are metaphor and not to be taken literally.

    There is an alternative view that Freemasonry began in the days when King Solomon and his supporters built the Temple in Jerusalem, but this is more allegorical than accurate. Since the craft focused on the art of building, it was thought that there had to be an ancient prototype.

    It is not impossible that the men who worked on the Temple had a trade association, but we can’t be certain. It is unlikely that Solomon, though the sponsor of the project, would have lowered himself to be the Grand Master of a workers’ group. Solomon, like Noah and Nimrod, is in Freemasonry as a metaphor.

    Another theory focusses on the medieval stonemasons’ guilds, which could have died out once the great building projects were completed by about 1540, had they not accepted “honorary” or “gentleman” Masons who were fascinated by the masons’ craft and eventually took over the movement.

    Possibly the transition followed the Great Fire of London in 1666. To rebuild the city, large numbers of masons were suddenly needed, but then the masons’ trade would have disappeared unless it changed its nature.

    Some scholars deny that the medieval stonemasons were organised in guilds, though it would be strange if they weren’t, since they worked, lived and moved in distinctive groups, as did other artisans such as carpenters. I believe there were craft guilds, but whether they were Lodges in the later sense of the word is problematical.

    Maybe the best theory is seen when we look at Enlightenment man’s interest in social change.

    To avoid public attention the modernist intellectuals (many of them living in the sophisticated rationalist environs of Edinburgh) adopted the masonic system as a facade to give an innocent appearance. They removed the conventional church and religious symbolism from Freemasonry, though here and there they left traces of Christianity. They were impressed by the political and social patterns of the Hebrew Bible, though they had little interest in priests and sacraments. Some of them were politically minded activists who wanted to restore the Stuarts to the throne; their Freemasonry was a cover for political plots.

    But both theories are rather too tidy, implying that each group was all of one mind and made united policy decisions.

    We know of some but not many “gentleman” Freemasons, yet sporadic Speculatives must have given way to a veritable flood at some point. Maybe there was a period of parallel existence, in which Operative and Speculative Freemasonry lived side by side before finally merging.

    There are actually two questions that ought to be asked concerning Freemasonry. The first is where it all began, and that is what I have tried to address in this lecture up until now.

    The second is where the movement is going, and the answer is twofold – the technical answer and the aspirational answer.

    The technical answer involves men, membership and methods, the three Ms of modern Freemasonry.

    Men – individuals who feel moved to join the craft and to support its ideology and activities. Men – and for my part, women too. I am not convinced that sexist Freemasonry has much to commend it. I cannot see why 50% (or more) or the human race are excluded from Freemasonry. If we have to adjust some of the ritual and the rhetoric to accommodate women members, it is a price worth paying.

    The second M is membership. We have to intensify our commitment and keep all our members involved in all we do, and not let our members slumber and our activities nod off.

    Methods – we have to move the craft into the technological age and not stick with the methods of an age that is gone.

    What is the aspirational aspect of Freemasonry?

    Simply put, it is the recognition that the world needs our values and we have to find ways of saying so and injecting Masonic ideas into the market place of human thinking. What that means is that whenever there are issues and debates about national and global issues, we ought to feel impelled to have our say as citizens with minds moulded by Masonry.

    Where did Freemasonry begin, and when? That’s only the first question. Answering it is probably a question for the scholars. Its companion question is where we are going. That’s up to every one of us.

    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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