WHY IS IT THAT OUR Fraternity bears the name “Freemasonry” instead of “Masonry”? Why the “free” in it? Far back in the Middle Ages a freemason was the name of a builder who could design buildings as well as construct them. He was what we should now call an architect.
Again – and to continue asking questions – why do about one-half of the 49 Grand Lodges in the United States style themselves as Ancient, Free & Accepted Masons, whereas the others, with only one or two exceptions, style themselves as Free & Accepted Masons, omitting “Ancient”?
Why do the members of our Fraternity call themselves Freemasons instead of Masons? It once again brings to the front the question as to what the “free” means. In his history of our Craft J. G. Findel states that he had found the name “Freemason” used as far back as 1212. G. W. Steinbrenner, who also wrote a book on the origins of our Fraternity, gave 1350 as the earliest date on which he had found the name. In his famous essay on “free” in Freemasonry R. F. Gould, the Craft’s premier historian, gave 1376 as the earliest use of the name known to himself; it was in a record belonging to the Mason Company of London. One of the very earliest uses of the name in British law occurred in a statute dated in 1459.
At the time of writing, the earliest known use of the word “Freemasonry” in a printed book is in a small work by William Boude, in the British Museum, published in 1526. It appeared in another printed book, a quaint volume entitled A Most Precious and Spiritual Pearl, published in 1550; and yet again in a small child’s book, Dives Pragmaticus, published in 1563. The name occurs more frequently in seventeenth century printed books. It must have been everywhere the recognized name for the Fraternity by the time the Mother Grand Lodge was organized in 1717, because it was used as a matter of course on the title page of the first edition of the Book of Constitutions published by that Grand Lodge in 1723, in the form of “Free-Masons.”
During many centuries throughout the Middle Ages builders of all kinds were called masons, but a special class of them was called freemasons. The question is, why that distinction? It is an exceptionally difficult question to answer – possibly it is the most difficult single question in all the fields of Masonic history, scholarship, and research. That question is complicated by the fact that among a number of other crafts the members of certain gilds, or associations, also called themselves “free.” (Unless I have been misinformed, there is in Germany, or was until the last War, a large society which called itself “The Free Carpenters.”) In the great treatise which he contributed to Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Vol. X, page 10, George William Speth gave a representative list of them. Among them were such as the following; Free Carmen, Free Fishermen, Free Dredgers, Free Watermen, Free Vintners, Free Butchers, Free Scriveners, Free Printers, Free Sawyers, Free Carpenters, Free Sewers (tailors). Did these gilds and craftsmen call themselves “free” for the same reason that the freemasons did? Speth did not believe so. (A branch of the German secret society called Freesmiths was set up in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1865.)
Difficult as the question is, however, the scholars of the Craft, and more especially the historians, have never ceased in their endeavours to solve it. I shall set down a representative list (though not an exhaustive one) of the theories to which their findings have led them. In doing so I shall make the paragraphs on each one as brief and as simple as possible, and not overload them with references to books.
1. The “liberal arts” theory. During the Renaissance, men in the fine arts often were called “free.” The word was used in the same sense as “liberal” in such phrases as “the liberal arts,” “a liberal education.” In the organized handicrafts men worked together in an organization, and according to fixed rules, but a man in the fine arts was a creator, who made use of himself to accomplish his tasks, therefore he had to be left free to follow his own ideas, inspiration, and skills. In a paper contributed to Ars Quatuor Coronntorurn, Vol. II, page 141, F. F. Schnitzger argued that freemasons were called “free” because architecture was a fine art.
2. The “freestone” theory. Freestone was a name given to a stone which was durable enough to stand in walls designed to last for centuries, and at the same time had so little grain in it that it could be carved and hewn without danger of chipping or splitting. A freestone mason therefore presumably was one employed on such monumental structures as cathedrals, churches, borough halls, and priories, and for that reason had a higher grade than the local masons who constructed cottages, barns, walls, and dikes. Since a statute of labourers of 1350 used the phrase “master mason of free stone” that usage must have been very old.
3. The “free of restraints” theory. During the Middle Ages the men and women who lived in a given community were hedged in by many restraints – this was especially true of travelling on the highways (if their trails and paths may be dignified by that name) because under the very best of circumstances highway travel was always dangerous, and like Chaucer’s pilgrims, everybody tried to go in a “company” if it was necessary for him to go at all. The larger number of those restrictions would be intolerable to us who go and come as we please across the whole of continental America. There were especially rigid restrictions to control the movement of workmen who might go about seeking work – even the Popes imposed many restrictions upon them. According to the theory here being described freemasons were called “free” because they were exempted from those restrictions. The New English Dictionary (also called The Oxford Dictionary) inclines to that theory; so did Leader Scott in her Cathedral Builders.
4. The “Free of the Craft” theory. In a version of the Old Charges owned by the Masons of Melrose, Scotland, dated 1581, the word “freemason” is used in a sense which appears to have the meaning of “free of his craft.” An apprentice was not free of his craft (according to the nomenclature then in use) because he earned no wages, could accept no work of his own, could have no apprentices, and had no voice or vote; nor was a rough mason, waller, tiler, plasterer, or cowan free of it because the laws did not permit him to engage in work monopolized by the mason craft. According to the theory being noted in the present paragraph a freemason called himself by that name because he was free of his craft.
5. The “freedom of the city” theory. By this theory is meant that a man from outside a town or city was granted freedom to work or to trade in it, and could therefore come and go through its gates without restraint. This “freedom” or “liberty” of a city was an exceptional privilege. The theory holds that Freemasons were architects who could design and construct monumental buildings, impossible for local masons to attempt, that they therefore had to be brought in from a distance, and that it was necessary to give them the “freedom of the city” else they could do no work; and for that reason they were called freemasons.
6. The “Speth” theory. No other theory has ever occasioned so much discussion as this because at the time he published it in the tenth volume of Ars Quatuor Coronatorum the members of that first of lodges of research were the giants of modern Masonic scholarship, and Speth was the secretary of the lodge itself. That his paper was a masterpiece was freely granted even by those who could not accept his theory. Speth argued (I reduce his theory to very few words, and therefore run the risk of robbing it of half its weight) that in the Middle Ages there had been two kinds of gilds of builders. On the one side there were the local, or stationary, gilds, composed of workmen who could construct simple buildings, the members of which were by law compelled to remain within their local boundaries and were not free to work elsewhere. On the other side were the builders of churches and cathedrals who were free to work anywhere, and who, once they began a structure, could set up their own lodges. They were free from the restrictions of local gilds, and for that reason were called freemasons. Speth summed up his own theory in a few words: “The fact remains that we, of today, are the sons of the freemasons and not of the gild masons.”
7. The “Gould” theory. The last theory to be mentioned – last, only because the limitations of space forbid a further multiplication – I have christened the Gould theory because the Craft’s “premier historian” set it forth as his own. In reality it is no theory at all, because it asserts that in our present state of knowledge no theory is possible. At the end of his famous treatise on the subject (published in his Essays) Gould answers the question, “Why ‘Free’ in Freemasonry?” by a quotation: “If you wish for the solution, be patient, and wait.” If this were translated into a more American way of speech, it would mean that a Mason must say: “We are called Freemasons, but up to now we have not been able to discover why we are.”
After much traveling about in the literature of which the above seven paragraphs give but the slenderest of indications, I find that in my own mind there remain three observations which, though they can settle nothing, may not be unworthy to be added to the discussion.
1. As far as the origins of the word “freemason” are concerned there are indications in the records in sufficient number to suggest a theory unlike any described in the paragraphs above. It could be named the “coincidence theory.” At some given time, in some given place, in a part of Scotland, say, or in one of the counties of England, craftsmen were called freemasons for one reason; at another time, perhaps a century afterwards, and possibly in France, they were called freemasons for reasons of a wholly different kind. That these different reasons resulted in the same word was a philological coincidence. The word “mystery” is one example of such a coincidence, because it had three different origins; the word “rank” is another, because it had two.
2. The theory to which I myself am most inclined, though without final conviction, could be described as “the convergence theory.” According to this theory early craftsmen were called “free” because they were men in the fine arts; because each one was free of the town or the city in which he worked; because as architects of monumental structures they stood apart from local, gild Masons; because they could move from city to city, or from country to country; because they worked in freestone; and by the end of the seventeenth century all these various meanings converged. This would mean that of the principal theories no one would contradict all the others, but that in some measure, and in some real sense, all of them would be true at one stroke.
3. As already stated, the literature on the question as to why “free” in Freemasonry is an extensive one, and is old; it is therefore all the more curious that nowhere in it does any author raise the question as to why the Fraternity calls itself Freemasonry nowadays. No law compels it to do so. It is interesting to discuss the origins of the name, centuries ago; it is even more interesting to ask why we now cherish the name, and why all of us feel it to be appropriate. There are many possible answers to that question (it is taken for granted that some of them are historical), but upon the testimony of many books published in the past 25 years, along with hundreds of magazine articles and Masonic speeches I should believe that Masons, as Masons, like to call themselves Freemasons because in every true sense they know themselves to be free men. They have, as Masons, a very large spiritual independence. Our Fraternity is not indentured to or tied down to any one country, any one government, any one race, one religion, one church, or one period of time, or one political party, or one social class. The fine old phrase, “free of the craft,” which members of the gilds like to use, we modern Freemasons could adopt, albeit with a wider connotation; we are “free of” the whole of mankind, and the whole of the world.