This section is from the book "A Library Of Wonders And Curiosities Found In Nature And Art, Science And Literature", by I. Platt. Also available from Amazon: A library of wonders and curiosities.
This very ancient society is so called, either from some extraordinary knowledge of masonry, of which they are supposed to be masters, or because the first founders of the society were persons of this profession. They are now very considerable, both on account of their numbers, and the rank they hold in society, being found in every country in Europe, as well as North America; and they consist principally of persons of merit and consideration. They make no small pretensions to antiquity, for they claim a standing of some thousands of years. What the design of their institution is, seems still in some measure a secret: the members are said to be admitted into the fraternity by being put in possession of a great number of secrets, called the mason's word, which have been religiously kept from age to age. In a treatise on Masonry, published in 1792, by William Preston, master of the Lodge of Antiquity, the origin of masonry is traced from the creation. "Ever since symmetry began, and harmony displayed her charms, (says he,) our order has had a being." By other accounts the antiquity of masonry has only been traced as far back as the building of Solomon's temple.
In Dr. Henry's history of Great Britain, we find the origin of the Free Mason Society attributed to the difficulty found in former times to procure workmen to build the vast number of churches, monasteries, and other religious edifices, which either the pretended piety or the superstition of those ages prompted the people to raise. Hence the masons were greatly favoured by the popes, and many indulgences were granted, to augment their numbers. In those times, it may well be supposed, that such encouragement from the supreme pastors of the church must have been productive of the most beneficial results to the fraternity; and hence the society rapidly increased. An ancient author, who was well acquainted with their history and constitution, says, "The Italians, with some Greek refugees,and with them French, Germans, and Flemings, joined into a fraternity of architects, procuring papal bulls for their encouragement; they styled themselves Free Masons, and ranged from one nation to another, as they found churches to be built: their government was regular; and where they fixed near the building in hand, they made a camp of huts. A surveyor governed in chief; while every tenth man was called a warden, and superintended the other nine
Masonry had a very early introduction into Britain, but never attained to any degree of importance, until the year 557 of the Christian era; when St Austin, with forty monks, among whom the sciences had been preserved, came into England. By these Christianity was propagated; all the kings of the heptarchy were converted; masonry was patronized by St. Austin; and the Gothic style of building was introduced into England, by numerous foreigners, who resorted at this time to the kingdom. Austin appeared at the head of the fraternity in founding the old cathedral of Canterbury, in 600; that of Rochester, in 602; St. Paul's in London, in 604; St. Peter's in Westminster, in 605: to which may be added many others. The number of masons was thus greatly increased, as well as by other buildings, such as castles, etc. throughout the kingdom.
Masonry found a zealous protector in Alfred the Great, the liberal patron of all arts and manufactures. He appropriated a seventh part of his revenue for maintaining a number of masons, whom he employed in rebuilding the cities, castles, etc. ruined by the Danes. Under his successor, Edward, the masons continued to hold their lodges; they were patronized by Ethred, husband to the king's sister, and Ethelwald his brother, to whom the care of this fraternity was entrusted. The latter was a great architect, and founded the university of Cambridge. The complete re-establishment of masonry in England, however, is dated from the reign of king Athelstan: and the grand masons at York trace their existence from this period.
The Grand Lodge of York, the most ancient in England, was founded in 926, under the patronage of Edwin the king's brother, who obtained for them a charter from Athelstan, and became grand-master himself. By virtue of this charter all the masons in the kingdom were convened at a general assembly in that city, where they established a grand lodge for their government; and for many centuries afterwards, no general meetings were held in any other place. Hence the appellation of Ancient York Masons is well known both in Ireland and Scotland; and the general tradition is, that they originated at Auldby near York, which was a seat belonging to Edwin.
It was the glory and boast of the brethren, in almost every country where masonry was established, to be accounted descendants of the original York masons; and from the universality of the idea that masonry was first established at York by charter, the masons of England have received tribute from the first states in Europe. At present, however, this social intercourse is abolished. The duke of Buccleugh, who, in 1723, succeeded the duke of Wharton as grand-master, first proposed the scheme of raising a general fund for distressed masons. The duke's motion was supported by Lord Paisley, Colonel Houghton, and a few other brethren; and the grand lodge appointed a committee to consider of the most effectual means of carrying the scheme into execution. The disposal of the charity was first vested in seven brethren; but this number being found too small, nine more were added. It was afterwards resolved, that twelve masters of contributing lodges, in rotation with the grand officers, should form the committee; and by another regulation since made, it has been determined that all past and present grand officers, with the masters of all regular lodges, which shall have contributed within twelve months to the charity, shall be members of the committee. This committee meets four times in the year, by virtue of a summons from the grand-master or his deputy. The petitions of the distressed brethren are considered at these meetings; and if the petitioner be considered as a deserving object, he is immediately relieved with five pounds. If the circumstances of the case are of a peculiar nature, his petition is referred to the next communication, where he is relieved with any sum the committee may have specified, not exceeding twenty guineas at one time. Thus the distressed have always found ready relief from this general charity, which is supported by the voluntary contributions of different lodges out of their private funds, without being burdensome to any member in the society. Thus has the committee of charity for free masons been established; and so liberal have the contributions been, that though the sums annually expended, for the relief of the distressed brethren, have for several years past amounted to many thousand pounds, there still remains a considerable fund.
The most remarkable event which of late has taken place in the affairs of masonry, is the initiation of Omitul Omrah Bahau-der, eldest son of the nabob of the Carnatic, who was received by the lodge of Trinchinopoly, in the year 1779. The news being officially transmitted to England, the grand lodge determined to send a congratulatory letter to his highness on the occasion, accompanied with an apron elegantly decorated, and a copy of the book of Constitutions superbly bound. The execution of this commission was entrusted to Sir John Duy, advocate-general of Bengal; and in the beginning of 1780, an answer was received from his highness, acknowledging the receipt of the present, and expressing the warmest attachment and benevolence to his brethren in England. The letter was written in the Persian language, and inclosed in an elegant cover of cloth of gold, and addressed to the grand-master and grand lodge of England. A proper reply was made; and a translation of his highness's letter was ordered to be copied on vellum; and, with the original, elegantly framed and glazed, and hung up in the hall at every public meeting of the society.
It must be natural to inquire into the uses of the institution, and for what purpose it has been patronized by so many great and illustrious personages. The profound secrecy, however, in which every thing relating to masonry is involved, prevents us from being very particular on this head. The masons themselves say in general, that it promotes philanthropy, friendship, and morality; that in proportion as masonry has been cultivated, countries have become civilized, etc. How far this can be depended upon, the fraternity best know. Another advantage, however, seems less equivo cal, viz. that its signs serve as a kind of universal language, so that by means of them, people of the most distant nations may become acquainted, and enter into friendship with one another. This certainly must be accounted a very important circumstance; and considering the great numbers that have been, and daily are, admitted to the society, and their inviolable attachment to the art, we must certainly conclude, that if it contains nothing of great importance to mankind at large, it must at least be extremely agreeable, and even fascinating, to those who are once initiated.