Biographical / Historical
This is a collection of materials relating to Freemasonry, a fraternal organization that traces its origins to the stonemason's guilds of Europe. While lodges existed in Scotland and England in the 1600s, the founding of the first Grand Lodge in London in 1717 is considered the origin of organized Freemasonry.
The order quickly spread to the American colonies and by 1730 was established in New England. Benjamin Franklin became a Mason in 1731 and during the 18th century a great many prominent colonial citizens, including George Washington and Paul Revere joined as well. Nine of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons as well as numerous officers of the Continental Army. The construction of many public buildings, including the U.S. Capitol, began with a laying of the cornerstone in a Masonic ritual.
In the first quarter of the 19th century Freemasonry prospered. By 1830, however, suspicions regarding its secret rituals (including the unfounded charges that the rituals included non-Christian worship); as well as a belief that its members were hatching anti-democratic plots, engendered virulent attacks on the order. An Anti-Masonic political party was formed and the number of lodges fell dramatically.
Freemasonry regained its prominence during the next few decades by promoting its dedication to the ideals of self-improvement, personal morality, and the public good. A proliferation of new rituals requiring dramatic theatricality and elaborate costuming attracted new members. Social and business contacts were made at meetings and events that contributed to one's success and the opportunity to perform charitable works appealed to many.
In 1870 the order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine was founded as an adjunct to the Freemasons and dedicated to the pursuit of fun, recreation and general hilarity. The Shriners are well-known today for the numerous children's hospitals they have founded and supported.
Freemasonry continued to thrive well into the 20th century, building many impressive edifices and attracting the most influential citizens in most communities. As social attitudes changed in the 1960s, membership declined. Yet, grand Masonic lodges and temples still grace many American cities and towns to bear witness to the order's former glories and Freemasons continue to practice the rituals and enjoy the fellowship of their order.