No one knows with certainty how or when the Masonic fraternity was formed. A widely-accepted theory among Masonic scholars is that it arose from stonemason’s guilds during the Middle Ages.
The language and symbols used in the fraternity’s rituals come from this era. The oldest document that makes reference to Masons is the Regius Poam, printed about 1390, which was a copy of an earlier work. In 1717, four lodges in London, England formed the first Grand Lodge of England, and records from that point in time are more complete.
Within thirty years, the Masonic fraternity had spread throughout Europe and the American Colonies. Freemasonry became very popular in colonial America: George Washington was a Mason; Benjamin Franklin served as the head of the fraternity in Pennsylvania as did Paul Revere and Joseph Warren in Massachusetts. Other well known Masons involved with founding of America included John Hancock, John Sullivan, General Lafayette, Baron Fredrick von Steuben, Nathaniel Greene, and John Paul Jones.
Another Freemason, Chief Justice John Marshall, shaped the United States Supreme Court into its present form.
Over the centuries, Freemasonry has developed into a worldwide fraternity emphasizing personal study, self-improvement, and social betterment via individual involvement and philanthropy. During the lat 1700s, it was one of the organizations most responsible for spreading the ideals of the Enlightenment. The dignity of man and the liberty of the individual, the right of all persons to worship as they choose, the formation of democratic governments, and the importance of public education are all ideas encouraged by Masonic ideals. Freemasons supported the first public schools in both Europe and America.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, Freemasonry grew dramatically. At that time, no social “safety net” had been provided by the government and the Masonic tradition of founding orphanages, homes for widows, and homes for the aged provided some of the only security many people knew.
Today in North America, the Masonic fraternity continues this tradition by giving in excess of $2 million each day to causes that range from learning centers, providing children’s hospitals, providing treatment for childhood language disorders, treating eye diseases, funding medical research, contributing to local community service, and providing care to Freemasons and their families at Masonic homes, nursing homes, and visiting nursing services.
The four million Masons worldwide continue to help men and women face the problems of the 21st century by building bridges of brotherhood and instilling in the hearts of men ideals for a better tomorrow.