Traveling Eastward: T-Shirts & Freemasonry's Origin

It’s amazing where the roads in Masonry can take you.  During my year as Worshipful Master, my Lodge had set up an endowment to fund scholarships which we had been awarding to local high school students.  For years the money came from our fund raising ventures, but now the Lodge felt that we were at a point where we could invest into a perpetual fund that could award these scholarships and exist on its own.  Endowments require quite a bit of money to begin to subsist in perpetuity, so our fund-raising transitioned toward meeting the financial goal of making our endowment vested. 

I had thought all year about some sort of project I could head to make some money for the endowment, and finally decided I would print up Masonic tee shirts to sell.  I needed something catchy that would be appealing to the Masons in the neighboring districts.  I wanted a message that presented to the profane the enduring monument that Freemasonry was.  I had always liked the advertising approach many older businesses used where the marquee would say “since 19xx”.  I thought that the tees could use a similar hook.  As Freemasonry’s message is influenced heavily by the building of King Solomon’s Temple, my reckoning was that the date for the beginning of The Craft should be the beginning of this great undertaking.  Albert Mackey places the date of the commencement of the Temple’s construction at 1012 B.C.[1]  Since, in my Grand Jurisdiction at least, Mackey is beatified as much as can be in a fraternal organization, this date was good enough for me.  I took this information to my print artist, and we (mostly she) came up with a design that said “Traveling Eastward since 1012 B.C.”

Sales were brisk, and the shirts seemed to be popular.  I did notice, however, that a Past District Deputy Grand Master of our Lodge had not purchased one, and he was generally known to be very supportive of our fund-raising ventures.  Curious, I asked him why he hadn’t bought a shirt.  “Well,” he said, “I just don’t understand it.”  I was a bit perplexed, so I asked him to clarify.  “I don’t understand the date, and what the message means.”  I explained to him my research and the conclusion I had come to.  He nodded and said, “Okay”. 

Okay.  If there was one thing I knew, it was when this man said, “okay”, it was never okay.  For someone who was never short on words, a two-syllable reply to my explanation meant that I needed to dig a bit deeper.  Thus, my adventure into this rabbit-hole which I still find myself in, began…

Freemasonry has an anniversary date.  During the Festival of St. John the Baptist in the year 1717, the four Lodges that met at the Goose & Gridiron Ale House, the Crown Ale House, the Apple Tree Tavern and Rummer & Grapes Tavern, convened at the Apple Tree Tavern and formed the Grand Lodge of England. [2]  This event is generally referred to as Freemasonry’s revival, but the Fraternity was functioning before the formation of the Grand Lodge.  The date of the Craft’s birth was what I was interested in.

A lecture given by Worshipful Brother Harry Carr, Past Junior Grand Deacon of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia & Yukon on May 7, 1976 titled “600 Years of Craft Ritual” was where I began my search.  “In 1356,” Carr explains, “12 skilled Master Masons, with some famous men among them, came before the mayor and aldermen of Guildhall in London and, with official permission, drew up a simple code of trade regulations.”[3]  This organization would become known as the London Masons Company within twenty years, and is one of the “direct ancestors of our Freemasons of today.”[4]  The operative guilds is where we are taught our speculative Craft is derived, so Carr’s assertion is worthy of consideration.  There are, however, other documents that purport even earlier dates.  For these, I turned to Albert Mackey.

In Mackey’s “The History of Freemasonry”, he presents the collection of manuscripts which constitute the body of Freemasonry’s earliest works.  These documents are commonly referred to as “The Old Charges” or “The Manuscript Constitutions”.  The earliest document in the collection is known as the Halliwell (or Regius) Manuscript (or Poem), dated around 1390.  The document gives us the earliest glimpse of “The Legend of the Craft”, but it also gives us “The York Legend”. 

The York Legend states that King Athelstan called a congregation of the Craft in the city of York in 926, and there the Assembly adopted a constitution.  The information contained in the Halliwell Manuscript has also been found in other, later manuscripts contained within the Old Charges.  While this tends to give the Halliwell Manuscript some legitimacy, it is far removed from being a first-hand account as the document is date four centuries later than the assembly in York.  It must also be stated that the date of the founding of the operative guilds may not necessarily coincide with the birth of what would become known as Freemasonry.  As the historical date of its founding is, for now, lost to antiquity, perhaps we should look toward the legendary beginnings of Freemasonry.

The Building of King Solomon’s Temple is alluded to in our ritual as being the beginning of the Craft as we know it today, with Hiram Abif at the center of the story.  The lessons taught to us during the journey through our Degrees present as a tradition which has been passed down since Freemasonry’s inception.  Research into the legendary beginnings of the Craft, however, tells us a different story.

The Legend of the Temple is presented to the Mason during his Third Degree.  Masonry, however, was not always a three degree system.  Masonic historians generally agree that Freemasonry operated under a two degree system for many years, and that the Third Degree is a fairly modern invention.  The earliest evidence of a Third Degree being conferred comes from the minutes of “Lodge Dumbarton Kilwinning, now #18 of the register of the Grand Lodge of Scotland.”[5]  In March of 1726, “Gabriel Porterfield, who appeared in January as a Fellow Craft was unanimously admitted and received a Master of the Fraternity and renewed his oath and gave his entry money.”[6] 

While it is not known what the format of the Degree Brother Porterfield received was, evidence from an expose published by Samuel Pritchard in 1730 “contains the earliest version of the Hiramic Legend.”[7]  It is “the universal sentiment of the Freemasons of the present day to confer upon Solomon, King of Israel, the honor of being their first Grand Master.”[8]  The Halliwell Poem, in its “Legend of the Craft”, gives another great builder from the Old Testament the title, if at least by inference.  Nimrod, the King of Babylon & Assyria, was given credit to the “first organization of the Fraternity”[9] where at “the building of the Tower of Babel, the Art & Mystery of Masonry was first (introduced).[10]

Other documents within the Old Charges have legends which go back even further than Nimrod.  The Graham Manuscript contains a “collection of legend.  One legend tells how three sons went to their father’s grave, to try if they could, find anything about him to lead them to the veritable secret which this famous preacher had.”  The sons attempted to raise their father from the grave, and “unsuccessfully attempted to retrieve (the secret) by raising the corpse, first by grips, and then by a ritual embrace.”[11]  “This is the earliest story of a raising in a Masonic context, apparently a fragment of the Hiramic Legend, but the old gentleman in the grave was Father Noah, not Hiram Abif.”[12]

Antediluvian Masonry, or Masonry before the flood, extends its reach into the modern ritual to at least the earliest part of the 18th century, as it is mentioned in Rev. James Anderson’s “The Constitutions of the Free-Masons” in 1723:  “The Great Ark, tho’ of wood, was certainly fabricated by Geometry, and according to the rules of Masonry.”[13]  The legend of Nimrod, according to Mackey, existed into the 18th century as well, where it “began to be repudiated…Masonry was no longer believed to have originated at the Tower of Babel; the Temple of Jerusalem was considered as the place of its birth and Solomon, and not Nimrod, was called the ‘first Grand Master”.[14]

It remains unclear why, but the fact is that the Legend of the Temple of King Solomon has become Freemasonry’s legendary origin.  Unfortunately, even the date of King Solomon’s Temple’s construction is up for debate.  While Mackey placed it at 1012 B.C., many biblical scholars place the construction closer to 832 B.C.[15]  There is even the debate whether the Temple was built at all.  No modern excavations have been made of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and there is currently no archeological evidence of the first Temple’s existence.[16]

The truth is that there isn’t any definitive proof of when, or even what was, the origin of our Fraternity.  Maybe it was ignorance, or perhaps hubris, that caused me to so easily assign 1012 B.C. as the origin of the Craft so I could sell a few tee shirts.  It just seemed odd to me that the date of the Craft’s beginnings was never mentioned.  We, as Masons, celebrate the beginning of the Age of Light as being four thousand years before the birth of Christ.  Regardless of one’s personal beliefs, it can be universally agreed upon that the exact date of God’s utterance of “Let There Be Light” probably was not on January First, six thousand eighteen years ago.  I just thought it would be clever marketing, to be honest.  In the end, the date of origin is irrelevant, Freemasonry is about the journey.  It’s the road that we travel toward enlightenment that teaches the lessons we seek.  Sometimes all it takes is one word to get started.       


[1] Albert Mackey – An Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and its Kindred Sciences:  Vol. 4, p. 218

[2] as quoted from Anderson’s Constitutions

[3] Harry Carr – 600 Years of Craft Ritual, May 7, 1976

[4] Carr

[5] Carr

[6] Carr

[7] Carr

[8] Albert Mackey – The History of Freemasonry, p. 63

[9] Mackey, p. 63

[10] Samuel Pritchard – Masonry Dissected

[11] Arturo de Hoyos – The Scottish Rite Ritual & Monitor

[12] Harry Carr – 600 Years of Craft Ritual

[13] de Hoyos


[14] Mackey, p. 60

[15] William G. Dever – Did God Have a Wife?  Archaeology & Folk Religion in Ancient Israel, pp. 96-97

[16] Science & Nature – Horizon,